Opened in 2007 by Jason Cott and head mixologist Toby Maloney, The Violet Hour was one of the first bars in Chicago to truly celebrate the art and culture of craft cocktails. Located in the city’s Wicker Park neighborhood, this is still one of the most exciting cocktail spots you will ever experience. Visitors are transported to a focused, brilliant backdrop of velvet curtains, high backed chairs, and tea lights. The seasonally rotating, staff-curated menu is consistently one of the most original and extensive out there, garnering this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program. The subtle, inspired flavor combinations are remarkable, and display a level of skill that is exceptional even among seasoned professionals.
A Violet Hour Experience
The exterior of the Violet Hour is unadorned with the usual window dressings of many high-end cocktail establishments. No internally radiating marquees or valet lines to mention, just a large graffitied mural covering an otherwise unmarked wall. If you don’t know it’s there, you may wonder where all of these well-dressed people keep disappearing to. After entering through the exceptionally substantial door, you are fed into a dark, vacuous hallway and eventually a display of beautiful, high-hanging curtains.
The restive feeling this can conjure up for first time visitors is quickly dispelled by the welcoming staff; in my experience, the hosts and hostesses have been inarguably the nicest people I’ve met all day. The music is soft and eclectic, but not wholly unfamiliar, and a perfect accompaniment to the bouquet of fresh citrus and herbs that fill your nostrils. The signature high-backed chairs are comfortable and enveloping, adding to the insular atmosphere. Additionally, a strict prohibition on cell phone use (as well as a number of other faux pas, outlined in the house rules below) provides an air of intimate exclusivity and distraction-free enjoyment.
Seasonal Cocktail Menu
The menu is extensive, but only three drinks have stuck around since its inception: the Juliet and Romeo (a gin concoction with mint, cucumber, and rose water), the Dark and Stormy (a dark rum and ginger beer classic), and the Violet Hour Old-Fashioned (made with rye whiskey and demerara syrup—this is a personal favorite). There are robust sections for gin, whiskey, brandy, tequila, vodka, and rum cocktails, as well as a number that are driven by potable bitters. Currently for spring there are some very interesting and rustic natural flavors on display, like coffee-chicory syrup and a beautifully delicate carrot syrup. Of course, there are also some can’t-miss warm weather cocktails, featuring ingredients like raspberry, plum brandy, and orange marmalade.
These adventurous recipes are the product of an ambitious, creative staff, each of whom is asked to submit new drink ideas seasonally. This process not only produces some amazing drinks, but also promotes a bit of healthy competition among the accomplished mixologists. It’s all in good fun, though—as manager Benjamin Smith puts it, “we’re all a family here.” He notes that the staff, most of whom have stuck around the Violet Hour for quite some time, tend to help each other develop drinks, recommending small tweaks and additions whenever inspiration strikes.
This spirit of collaborative iconoclasm is something that permeates the entire establishment, right down to the aforementioned mural out front. While all of the designs feature phenomenal work from local artists (the current piece is credited to an art collective simply referred to as “Anonymous”), you can never get too attached. Just like the menu, it is frequently discarded and replaced by something fresh, a tradition that will continue to make the Violet Hour one of the most influential bars in the world of craft cocktails.