THERE’S A LOT going on behind The Whistler’s unassuming entrance. The Chicago cocktail bar also serves as a dance club, restaurant, gallery, live music venue, and record label. “Something’s going on every night,” says head bartender Alex Barbatsis. And drink orders shift as the mood of the room changes. “The first half of the night is generally cocktail focused. Lots of regulars, lots of dates, nice and chill,” he says. “And then towards 9 p.m. it starts picking up and it’s a dance bar with cocktails. Midnight comes around and it’s vodka sodas and Malört shots.”
It starts with two kinds of rum chosen to complement each other as well as the cocktail’s tropical flavors — ginger, lime, and coconut.
Barbatsis is currently preparing The Whistler’s latest cocktails for Princemas, their winter celebration of His Royal Badness. The three-time James Beard Award nominee blends serious cocktails with playful on-theme names. There’s a raspberry and tequila riff on a Clover Club cocktail, but the references don’t end there: “We’ve got plenty of them,” he says. “I Would Die 4 U is coming. Computer Blue is coming. Purple Rain is coming.”
Barbatsis’ menu rotates almost every night, but The Spice Is Right makes regular appearances. It starts with two kinds of rum chosen to complement each other as well as the cocktail’s tropical flavors — ginger, lime, and coconut. Barbatsis blends together coconut milk and pumpkin puree to give the drink a seasonal element. He uses Denizen white rum to enhance the cocktail’s floral, tropical notes. And to further intensify the flavor, he adds an overproof Jamaican rum from Smith & Cross. “It has that dunder, muck deliciousness to it,” he says.
In traditional Jamaican rums, dunder is the leftovers from the distillation process, which is added back to the next rum distillation. Some dunder is left out to age and accumulate yeasts, bacteria, and acids. This is called muck, and it is funky. “That’s where we decided to add the Smith & Cross into it — to give it a little extra funkiness to balance it out.”
The cocktail is served over crushed ice to dilute the drink’s intensity. The bar serves it in a hurricane glass, and a cinnamon stick is planted at the center of the cocktail to make it look like a pumpkin. Barbatsis recommends The Spice Is Right to fans of both tropical drinks and pumpkin spice lattes, which, after all, share many of the same flavors. “Everyone gives pumpkin spice a bad rap, but it’s pretty good!” he says. “Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger. Those are all good flavors. So, more for us.”
The Spice Is Right
- 1 oz white rum (The Whistler uses Denizen)
- ½ oz overproof Jamaican rum (the bar uses Smith & Cross)
- 1 ¼ oz pumpkin coconut syrup*
- ½ oz ginger liqueur (The Whistler’s is house made, but Domaine de Canton’s is a good substitute)
- ¾ oz fresh lime juice
- *To prepare the pumpkin coconut syrup, blend until smooth: 400 ml pumpkin puree, 400 ml coconut milk, 800 ml white sugar.
- Swizzle all ingredients in a footed hurricane or Collins glass with ice.
- Garnish with a mint sprig and cinnamon stick (so it looks like a pumpkin!).
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Jessica Suarez Writer
Jessica Suarez is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.
Grant Cornett Photographer
Grant Cornett is a photographer and director based in upstate New York. He likes to take pictures of pristine detritus and austere moments.