This is the mantra of Julia Momose, the 26-year-old Head Bartender at GreenRiver, one of Chicago’s leading bar programs. It’s a philosophy she has used to become one of the most sought-after young bartenders in the country. She applies it not only to the ingredients and spirits she combines with care in her cocktails at GreenRiver, but also to the ways in which she works, trains, studies, and lives her life.
When asked what inspired her as a child, Julia talks about growing up in Japan, where she was first introduced to the craft of hospitality by her mother, an avid baker and entertainer. “Baking, especially, was a big influence, because of how precise everything was,” she said. “The small pieces. The tablespoons and the cup measurements. The order in which things are added to the bowl. And then, of course, bringing it all together and baking it into this beautiful thing that comes out at the end. Cocktails are sort of the liquid form of that.”
Julia came to United States to attend Cornell, initially studying interior architecture and design. During her time in Ithaca, she began working in the bar and restaurant industry as an employee of her university’s catering department and Rulloff’s Bar and Grill. At the latter, she worked her way through several positions before eventually getting the OK to serve drinks—a promotion that would ultimately prove to be pivotal for her career.
Around this time, she made a trip home to Japan where a chance encounter would change her professional trajectory, and begin a lifelong obsession with making drinks. She describes it today, still immersed in the beauty of the place. “I just happened to come across a small bar in an alley. We go in, and there’s a single person behind the bar in a tuxedo. We talked to him and found out that he’s the owner, that he designed the entire space. It’s a really, really small space, but the amount of attention to detail, from the stools, to the bar, to the space he had behind it to work… He actually hand-chipped ice for Rum & Cokes and Gin & Tonics—not even things that people would technically define as cocktails.”
The experience began to shape how she viewed her work in the bar, and exemplified the commitment she saw in the culture of her home country. “What I would say is true for every profession in Japan, is that people become a bartender to be a bartender—it’s not a halfway mark. It’s not, ‘One day my job is going to be XYZ.’ I’m a bartender.”
After returning from Japan, Julia left Cornell for Baltimore, and threw herself into the restaurant industry. She was soon working not only as a bartender, but also as a cook, experientially building her knowledge of flavors and technique. She applied this perspective to the lessons she had gleaned from her trip home, and was soon excelling in her new position as bartender at Rye, a Baltimore venue specializing in craft cocktails.
When Rye’s owners decided to open a new location, Willow, they asked Julia to make the menu and become the venue’s head bartender. It was while working there that another chance encounter, this time with a customer (who was impressed by her skill at infusing a drink with smoke from tea leaves), would inspire her move to one of the best bars in Chicago—The Aviary.
From The Aviary to GreenRiver
The Aviary, Grant Achatz’s cutting-edge bar, is known for impressing the senses with drinks that are served in everything from spheres of ice to vacuum bags filled with gas. Not necessarily interested in the world of molecular mixology, Julia was drawn instead to the Aviary’s smaller, on-site sister bar, The Office, a super-secretive speakeasy that once required guests receive an invite to join the fun.
There, she worked relentlessly. She was known for delivering memorable, custom drink experiences to guests based on a brief conversation about their tastes, and was soon helming the ship. Her presence and the creations she made helped shape The Office’s reputation, and contributed to The Aviary winning the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Bar Program.
Her talent, newfound recognition on the national scene, and a general desire to have more control led to her latest position at GreenRiver. The restaurant was opened as a collaboration between the Best Bar in The World Group and Union Square Hospitality as their first foray into Chicago’s dense, star-studded cocktail scene. In order to develop the menu, Julia spent time with Jack McGarry of The Dead Rabbit in New York City, winner of World’s Best Bar and World’s Best Cocktail Menu at the 2015 Spirited Awards.
The Menu at GreenRiver is an homage to the Irish immigrants who helped mold Chicago’s history. The menu is broken down by which grain or fruit produced the base spirit of each drink, its character described in terms of the personas who best embody its essence. Although the inspiration comes from the past, Julia’s uniquely modern perspective on drinks is evident. Known for her creative use and extensive knowledge of Japanese whisky, Julia takes the spirit to new heights in her satisfyingly spirit-driven Gray Wolf, a cocktail that combines Yamazaki 12 Year single malt with Bénédictine, Demerara syrup, plum vinegar, and Angostura bitters.
New for this summer is The Terrace, a sprawling patio space that overlooks Chicago’s Magnificent Mile from above. The Terrace has two menus: one for dining guests, which features many favorites from the main bar, and one for patrons standing and milling around the veranda. Its outdoor concept is tailored to the summer drinking that all Chicagoans covet, and the menu is a testament to Julia’s skill at matching drinks to their settings. Outdoor drinks “focus on lower-proof cocktails,” but with “lots of flavor.”
Making sure everything operates smoothly and feels effortless, especially in a bit of a novel environment, is important to Julia. Outside, the drinks are generally simpler than their indoor counterparts, and there are a lot of recipes that can be built rather than shaken. “The menu outside was meant to please a wide, broadening group of people. Because at the end of the day, when the weather is gorgeous out, pretty much everyone is going to want to be outside, which is really kind of exciting.”
Back indoors, beside the main bar, there is The Annex. It’s a speakeasy-style bar that caters to a different palate (spirit-forward and classic), and features many drinks with sherry, a new love of Julia’s. “They’re fun, you know, because with sherry you can have Generoso, Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado, Moscatel, and so many brands that are so different. It’s such a beautiful ingredient to add some salinity to all of these different flavor combinations. And it’s lower proof, which is something that I truly love. I like looking for something that’s lower proof and pairing it with things that make the night last longer.”
Teaching, Mastering, and Looking Ahead
In addition to her job as Head Bartender, Julia has taken up the duties of training the staff, many of whom have been with her since the opening. “I think a lot of the bartenders came here because they want to learn. I can remember—for me, it was even before I first started bartending—every single day I go into work I want to learn something. And the fact that these other fantastic professionals next to me are in the same mindset, wanting to learn as well, makes it my absolute pleasure to hopefully teach them something.”
Julia hopes to help her bartenders see the value of their time behind the bar. “It’s not always about getting those glamorous Friday night shifts, the Saturday night shifts. It takes a lot of time to study everything on the cocktail menu, and then everything on the back bar, and then getting into the deeper study of things.”
Another quality she values is consistency. For her, it all boils down to mastering an art form, and she never stops studying to get there. “I see a lot of people going and hopping around from one place to another, but at the end of the day, how can you truly master anything if you’re hopping around constantly?”
Lately, Julia has found herself a bit obsessed with ice. “Ice is so temperamental. It’s temperature-based, but humidity also becomes a huge factor. So, as the seasons are changing here on the 18th floor, depending on the day when we pull a block of ice and set it out to temper, before breaking it down with a chainsaw and then breaking it down with a bandsaw, the rate at which the ice starts to temper is completely different. People talk about this beautiful, dense, clear ice, but if the temperature is zero all the way through it’s not going to actually make the drink any colder.”
As she looks forward, Julia can see herself owning her own bar someday, eventually. When asked what a Julia Momose-owned joint would look like, she describes an oasis. “My dream would be kind of like a bed and breakfast in Japan with a heavy focus on really, really delicious cocktails,” she told us.
“Smaller bar. Lots of candles. Lots of French and Italian and European things and lots of spirit pours. A place where people can go and have the best Gin & Tonic, the best Martini, the best Old-Fashioned of their life. Or, if they want to explore a little bit, I will always have rotating fun, savory ingredients inside a cocktail. But something smaller. I don’t want to do anything too huge.” But, if her success so far is any indicator, whether or not it’ll be huge will have little to do with the size of the bar.
Photos: GreenRiver, unless otherwise attributed