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Mastering the Modern Cocktail

A look behind the avant-garde bar at The Aviary in Chicago, where chef-mixologists work to perfect presentation and flavor through the science of sous vide.


The Aviary just might be the only cocktail lounge in the world that truly operates like a fine-dining restaurant. Instead of slinging drinks behind a bar, the culinary team deftly works in an open space for guests to observe from a coveted chef’s table for two or bistro-style seating located just beyond a birdcage-like partition.

Those chopping and prepping ingredients are the line cooks. The men and women quietly shaking, stirring, and putting the finishing touches on the cocktails are the sous chefs. The Aviary also boasts an ice chef, a chef de cuisine, and, yes, the executive chef (or beverage director), who oversees it all. You’ll frequently hear him being addressed with, “Yes, Chef” or “No, Chef.”

This is Grant Achatz’s bar, so all of this should not come as a surprise. The superstar chef—he works alongside business partner Nick Kokonas—catapulted the Chicago-based Alinea restaurant into an international sensation and became the modern face for molecular gastronomy. The Aviary and its slick speakeasy, the invite-only underbar The Office, are the liquid follow-ups of Alinea and are located just a few miles away.

Like Alinea, the Aviary has taken home several high-profile awards, most notably a James Beard Award for outstanding bar program. Sure, the hot spot boasts flashy, innovative cocktails that arrive in custom-made serving vessels or curiously shaped glassware such as a “lightbulb” glass. But it’s the behind-the- scenes culinary action—that’s where all the flavor is created—that truly deserves much fanfare.

The Aviary’s beverage director Micah Melton says his secret weapon is sous vide, a technique he mastered during his tenure at Alinea. Melton and his team have found it to be valuable when making tinctures (concentrated alcohol infusions made with herbs, spices, fruits, flowers, or vegetables); unique, booze-infused syrups; and full-on cocktails. “Sous viding keeps all the flavors and punctuates them,” says Melton. “The purpose of sous viding the cocktails is that they’re perfect every time, when the recipe is used accordingly.”

Another bonus? The method allows the Aviary to quickly create flavorful concoctions that would usually take several hours—or in some cases, weeks or months.

“There’s not much of a guidebook for sous vide cocktails, so we must learn as we go along to figure out which spirit cooks well under certain temperatures,” explains Melton. What’s certain to help is an oversized sink that’s been insulated with a circular bath. Hidden from public view, it’s large enough to accommodate several firmly sealed sous vide bags filled with various ingredients. Melton says that if the temperature isn’t reduced too much they may cook in unison, but he is very strict about following the exact recipes.

“It’s like being a baker,” Melton explains as Chef de Cuisine Ingi Sigurdsson carefully measures out several ingredients for a cocktail. “[You] can easily follow a baking recipe, but coming up with the baking recipe is very hard. It takes years of practice to do that.” Coming up with these sous vide recipes, he says, “is similar in that they are very scientific, but they’re also scientific in a way that it’s without fault. If you can read the recipe that’s been given to you, then 99.9 percent of the time it will turn out great.”

The Aviary specializes in bringing out robust, memorable flavors in its creations, which is why you’ll find all the basics of a well-stocked chef’s kitchen behind the bar. Think allspice, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, fresh ginger, roasted bananas, and hot curry for a decadent drink like A Sour in the Key of Raffi. These and other ingredients like Giffard Banane du Brésil Liqueur are used to concoct the sous vide banana-curry syrup used in the gin-based cocktail.

When served, the drink looks altogether appealing, though deceivingly simple—not at all appearing as though it endured meticulous hours of prepping and sous viding prior to arriving at the table. The cocktail goes down as smooth as a tropical island shake, and is topped off by a thick, silky egg foam and nutmeg garnish.

Inside the Aviary’s main lounge, a minimalist 80 to 90-seat room often filled with fashionable movers-and- shakers, flashy serving vessels and glassware are part of the bar’s appeal, Melton says. And, he adds, the barware, by design, is meant to democratize sous vide for those unfamiliar with the science and precise methodology. “We try to take out some of the technical parts of the process because those can be a little intimidating,” he explains. “If we bombard you with all the technical information, like how many spices are in it, how long we cooked it, et cetera, we’re kind of beating you over the head and it will become less enjoyable. But we have people who inquire and we take them on tours and if they want to ‘geek out’ and see how the process is done, we’re more than willing to do it.”