Paul Leddy isn’t the first sales manager for somebody or other to find himself at a bar, to watch a cocktail being made, and to start quizzing the bartender about it. But most of them don’t get inspired enough to start a video blog about the cocktail scene in Chicago. The difference, perhaps, is that Leddy has a culinary background (he worked at Zealous for a few years) and, it seems, has long had the itch to contribute his two cents as an observer. His new blog, Chicago Cocktail Chronicles, will pay tribute to local mixologists talking about why they make certain signature drinks the way they do (and showing them at work); as he puts it, "Bartenders are usually the first face you see when you walk into a bar or restaurant. They can help to set the stage for your meal later or they supply the libations for just a great evening out with friends." The first video, which is below, features Mike Ryan of Sable making a cocktail called "The Power of Love"; we spoke with Leddy about how he got into the foodie/drink video racket, why cocktails, and what’s next on his agenda.
So what got you interested in doing this? Why cocktails?
My love (ok, we can call it an obsession) began when I had the Odin’s Smoke cocktail by Josh Pearson at Sepia. Up to that point, I had a cocktail here and there, but nothing like that. That cocktail was a revelation to me because it was so complex in flavor yet everything came together in a completely balanced and harmonious way. It was like a smack in the face about how great a cocktail could be. Josh was really accommodating; he answered my questions about what went into the cocktail and even gave me the recipe without batting an eye. I didn’t really have any bottles of liquor at home so I thought I would buy all the bottles for that cocktail and then explore other cocktails that use those same ingredients.
$175 later (really wished I had my epiphany with a cheaper cocktail), I was hooked. From there, I made classic cocktails at home and went out to a bunch of places in the city that specialized in hand-crafted cocktails. I even took a Cocktails 101 class with Paul McGee at The Whistler. With all of this exploration, I was struck at how incredibly open and helpful these bartenders were with what they were doing. That’s the thing about all the Chicago bartenders I have met over the years: they are incredibly open and are willing to take the time to explain what is in a cocktail or explain a certain technique (provided, of course, that they aren’t slammed with orders).
In the cocktail world, there seems to be so much focus on the New York, LA, or Portland cocktail scene, I wanted to start a site that could celebrate the men and women in Chicago who make great cocktails and also profile the places they work at.
I think cocktail making is a great topic to cover because it is great to see how a few ingredients and some ice can be transformed into something sublime. Making a great cocktail takes practice and skill to find the right combination and balance. But, a great thing about cocktails is that anyone can pick up these ingredients from Binnys and make the same cocktails tonight. It is a bit tougher to re-create what is coming out of restaurant kitchens because those kitchens are working with (mostly) ingredients that are completely inaccessible to the common cook and they are cooking on equipment that very few of us can afford at home.
What/when’s the next one?
I was anxious to get my first video out with Mike that when I went to schedule my next interview, I realized it was right in the middle of the NRA show so availability was a little tough. However, I have gotten confirmations from Debbi Peek (Balena), Michael Simon (Acadia), Greg Buttera (Barrelhouse Flat), and Josh that they want to do it. If there are any bartenders out there that would like to be profiled, I would love for them to contact me. [Update: he shot with Buttera yesterday.]
What’s your background, and how did it lead to this?
I have a culinary background. I went to CHIC (before it became Le Cordon Bleu) and worked under Michael Taus at Zealous for 2.5 years (working all the stations and was eventually made Sous Chef). I have always been drawn to restaurants and cooking so there is definitely an interest in the creative process for making dishes/drinks. However, after spending my time in bars around Chicago (that sounds bad, doesn’t it?) I would have definitely pursued cocktail-making as a career. There is something about the whole process that I have just immediately responded to. Alas, hand-crafted cocktails were pretty much non-existent in Chicago in 2000 and I pursued cooking (which I really don’t regret at all).