Why Chef Grant Achatz Gave Cocktails A Shot

Acclaimed Chicago chef Grant Achatz is one of the featured keynote speakers at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, the world's premier cocktail festival, taking place July 19-24, 2016, in New Orleans. 

When Grant Achatz and his team huddled up a few years ago to open the Aviary, Chicago's groundbreaking drinking destination, food was never far from his mind.

"I began thinking about all of the technology, wherewithal and skill sets that we were putting into gastronomy, and I was like, 'Why aren't we doing this for cocktails, and why has nobody done this for cocktails?'" says Achatz. "If we're consuming it, it needs to be within a certain flavor profile. So why wouldn't we use those same parameters in the cocktail world?"

Achatz and his team at Alinea, his decade-old culinary tour de force, had been flooring diners with whimsy-driven dishes for years. (Think green-apple helium balloons and a tabletop tapestry of marigolds and toffee.) The food was always first and foremost at Alinea; drinks were a close second. But at times both elements would collide in interesting ways. There were edible takes on classic cocktails, for instance, like a riff on the martini made with crème fraîche, melon and cucumber.

The transition from restaurant to bar, then — at least for Achatz et al — was a natural one. So natural, in fact, that the man often credited for those liquid courses at Alinea, former chef de cuisine Micah Melton, is now helming the Aviary's beverage program.

And they aren't the only ones making the jump from chef to bar chef. "Now it's kind of common," notes Achatz, who points to noted Spanish chef and mixologist Albert Adrià as an example.

Next week, Achatz joins Adrià on stage — alongside Achatz's business partner, Nick Kokonas, and Adrià's bar manager, Marc Alvarez Safont — as the keynote speakers for Tales of the Cocktail 2016 in New Orleans, which Achatz describes as "the most important cocktail convention in the world." To hear him tell it, the selection of such gastronomic-minded headliners says a lot about the level of sophistication in contemporary cocktail culture. "We're chefs and restaurateurs, which tells me that the cocktail world is able and willing to shift to the chef's palate — and that's super cool," he says.

For Achatz and his team, it's the kitchen that continues to serve as the perfect training grounds for cocktail pursuits. "The beautiful thing with the Aviary is that we have this opportunity to showcase some of the techniques we've implemented at Alinea, but with booze," Achatz says. Just one example is an aroma-packed pillow that imparts an olfactory experience for the guest while eating — and now while drinking. At Alinea, it was one filled with lavender that made its debut in 2005, buoying a plate of English peas, tofu and ham. At the Aviary, it might take on a variety of forms, including that of a scotch cocktail held within a smoke-filled bag that, once cut open, releases pre-sip aromas of sandalwood. "We're looking at how to enhance the beverage experience," says Achatz. "To us, that's the main thing."

Efficiency played a big role in the bar's opening, too. Put off by the typical wait time of a well-traipsed bar, Achatz and Kokonas began to reconsider how this drinking concept of theirs would actually function. Reservations would be required via Kokonas's now widely used Tock ticketing system, and instead of a bar to saddle up to, it would be all about the table service (complete with dim sum–style carts of fancy bites). Though it might seem a little daunting or over-the-top to some, Achatz argues that it's all in the name of practicality. "It seemed incredibly inefficient to me to have a hopping bar and have everyone going up to one bartender to order their drinks," he says. "But wouldn't it be awesome if you could have a specialized drink maker doing just four drinks and making them within three minutes?"

And while those cocktails are bound to taste darn good (at upwards of $20 a pop, we think they will), visiting the Aviary for the cocktails alone isn't the point. At least, not according to Achatz. "Of course we're going to make delicious cocktails because if we didn't do that it would be a failure, but it's the experience that we prioritize," he says. Achatz is especially keen on flavors and aromas that evoke a sense of nostalgia, things that make you wonder about when you were 10 years old or that hayride you enjoyed when you were 12. In other words, the time-warping experiences that have become expectations for those entering Alinea's doors — and now those of the Aviary. "We all know we can go to any bar in New York or Chicago and get a really solid and balanced drink, but where's the magic?" he says. "I feel like that's where we come in — to take that solid drink and transport it to a new level. That's our job."