Going 10 Rounds With Top Bartender Sophie Burton
The beverage director of Chicago’s new Bar Politan and Perle tackles our speed round of questions.
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “Hands down it’s “Cowboy Song” by Thin Lizzy. The slow start, guitars building, and then the explosion into the first verse. It makes you want to jump up from your seat, grab a friend, and shout along to the guitar solos.”
After all these years bartending and creating drinks, do you still enjoy going out to bars? “I love bars. I love all bars. I’ve wanted to be in bars since I was 10-years-old. Before I turned 21, I had a shirt custom made that said: ‘Take me to the bar.’ I like the communal energy, I like the expressiveness and creativity, and how there are a lot of different ways for a bar to be good.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “Probably a Margarita my Mom made. She and her friends would get together obsess over how to make a perfect Margarita and compete with different tequilas, different juices, different orange liqueurs. 100-percent agave tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and Cointreau in just the right balance is what usually came out winning.”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “The Jones Bar Guide. It’s from the dark ages of the ’70s and ’80s, and this masterful barman created an entire spirits guide and catalogued cocktail recipes, not only alphabetically but also cross-referenced by spirit. He included cocktails that had been long out of favor, like a proper Old-Fashioned. It also has all of these amazing recipes, calling for Galliano and Crème de Menthe, that you just don’t see in our era of cocktail making. Those types of drinks are now out of favor, but they were super formative to a lot of the palates that I serve regularly. Other than that, the EUVS digital collection of vintage cocktail books. It’s a remarkable, free resource. Vintage cocktail books are rare and price-prohibitive, and the EUVS catalog democratizes those resources.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “For me, it’s more of the concept of courses rather than specific food and drink. I love pairing a Spritz or an aperitif with passed hors d’oeuvres, and the idea of welcoming people into a space. Do you know the concept of “naasto”? The snacks you eat when you drink chai? My favorite pairings are the cocktails you’d drink with the snacks you’d eat when you drink chai.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “Not so much one drink but more so the series of Spritzes from the Market Supper Club series at the Auction House Market. With Manish Patel, I did a curried white port and tonic to pair with his chevdo snack mix or naasto. With Sue Zemanick, I did a spin on a Kitty cocktail: a spiced red wine Spritz with thyme, ancho chiles, and orange oleo to go with her grilled pork satay with peanut sambal and pickled vegetables. With Charly Pierre, I made a cucumber, dill, and white pepper shrub with Cava and gentian liqueur to go with his skinless grape plate with burnt sugar, lemon zest, and cucumber pop rocks. With Cara Peterson, I did a Royal Baharat Cobbler with sparkling white wine, apertivo, baharat-spiced oleo cardamom, clove, coriander to go with her tasting board of Mediterranean eats like hummus, grilled artichokes, and taramasalata with salmon roe.”
Is there one person (dead or alive) you’d like to make a cocktail for? “I want to make a bunch of Manhattans for my Mom because she’s obsessed and it’s hilarious. She makes herself a Manhattan before she calls me, and tells me all about what she’s got going on in it. Most recently, she got really into vermouth when she was in Spain, so I just want to make her a bunch of Manhattans with different vermouths. She’s the person who taught me to love Wild Turkey Bourbon and 100-percent agave tequila.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “Oh, hell yeah. It’s a Bohemia —she’s got a little bit of hops and a bit of malt, nice, medium-sized bubbles—and a slightly higher-proof shot of tequila, like Siembra Valles.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “I have a cool bottle opener on a necklace. Not only is it harkening back to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but it’s also super functional. Cause Paul Newman is a hottie and a genius.”
Sophie Burton is beverage director of Chicago’s new Bar Politan & Perle in the food and drink hall, Politan Row
Interview has been condensed and edited.