We Asked Chicago Bartenders to Decide Illinois’s State Drink

They were divided, to say the least

October 3, 2023 6:29 am
Three cocktails in a collage — an old fashioned, bloody mary and Malört bottle
What side are you on?

Illinois does not have an official beverage, unlike 32 other states and Washington, D.C. Twenty-one states have milk as their official beverage because this country loves milk. Rhode Island’s is coffee milk, which sort of counts. But some states have adult offerings as their official beverages: Alabama’s is Conecuh Ridge Whiskey, Virginia’s is George Washington’s rye whiskey (as well as milk — a few states have two official beverages), Louisiana’s is Sazerac (and milk) and D.C.’s is the Rickey. 

Continuing in that cocktail-centric tradition, we thought some Chicago bartenders, beverage directors and bar owners might have suggestions for the official Illinois state beverage. One response came up over and over, even if the underlying rationale was not exactly universal. But some we asked didn’t recommend the popular combo, including James Couty, the food and beverage manager of Château Carbide and Pendry Chicago.

“Even though Illinois has a rich history when it comes to beer and spirits, we were also the birthplace of the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as the infamous bootlegging days of Al Capone,” Couty says. “Breweries were and still are some of the most prevalent makers of some of our favorite alcoholic beverages, but considering what I have seen ordered and enjoyed the most, all signs point to the Old Fashioned as the state’s favorite cocktail. This delicious cocktail, now most commonly mixed with rye whiskey, Angostura bitters and demerara simple syrup, has become a mainstay in cocktail and even local dive bars. Since its creation in the late 1800s, we have also seen iterations of this drink that change out the whiskey for tequila, mezcal and even gin. It’s versatile and diverse, just like the people of Illinois. With a litany of new bitters types coming on the market and the proliferation of new styles of gin and whiskey, the Old Fashioned has been made new again and is here to stay as Illinois’s favorite cocktail.”

That’s some well thought out reasoning for an official state beverage. 

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Another interesting suggestion comes from Alex Barbatsis, beverage director of The Whistler. “The Bloody Mary because celery was added to the drink in Chicago and possibly named after a server, Mary, at a saloon called Bucket of Blood.”

The Old Fashioned and Bloody Mary are both great suggestions, but these were the outliers. Barbatsis also was one of many who offered the combo mentioned above that’s become popular in the last decade. “The Chicago Handshake of Malört and a cheap beer should be Illinois’s official beverage,” he says. “Definitely a Chicago-biased take and [Malört] is now distributed nationally more, but it’s still the drink people come to Chicago to try and what locals reach for after a long day of work.”

He’s not exactly wrong, but the Chicago Handshake isn’t exactly good. Most people aren’t drinking Malört for the taste. There’s a reason “Malört face” is a thing and why one of the top Google results for the liqueur is “Why do people in Chicago drink Malört?” Hell, one of its biggest proponents, the guy who wrote the book on it, admits that it “tastes incredibly bitter.” 

That said, it is popular. It took 90 years for Malört to become a success, but its expansion and popularity cannot be denied. So maybe the Chicago Handshake should be the official beverage of Illinois. At least it’s probably preferable to a shot of Malört on its own because even if you hate the shot, you can still enjoy a cheap beer. 

Some people we asked, however, have negative feelings towards Malört. “I’m sure every dipshit and their mom is saying Malört,” says Liar’s Club owner Herb Rosen. “I would say anything but Malört!”

Half the people suggested Malört. Half sided with Rosen. But almost everyone at least mentioned it, and no one suggested milk. Old Fashioned it is!


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