After a protracted battle spearheaded by the Cocktails for Hope initiative this spring, premixed to-go cocktails were finally legalized in Chicago in June, bringing a much-needed revenue boost to struggling restaurants.
Yet the work didn’t end there. Bottling a pitch-perfect, ready-to-drink daiquiri or margarita isn’t as straightforward as shaking, pouring and sliding it across the bar.
“There are a lot of variables that go into making cocktails delicious, so making sure they taste the same out of the bottle as when you’re in the restaurant can be a challenge,” says Kevin Murphy, bar director at Daisies, the Midwestern-styled pasta restaurant and market. “For us, the biggest thing is dilution. Since we’re not shaking or stirring bottled cocktails with ice, we want to make sure we incorporate the proper amount of water so they taste right.”
Over the past few months, the restaurant has also tackled everything from finding caps that seal properly to getting carbonation just right in its housemade soda toppers, and workshopping shelf-stable acids. (For instance, fresh citrus juices degrade fairly quickly.) In that sense, Daisies’s ingrained dedication to hyper-seasonality has offered a surprising leg up. “We tend to avoid citrus anyway, so we’re inherently built around using other things,” Murphy says.
In staple cocktails like the dry, savory Pretty Rad, Murphy instead leans on locally procured verjus, the high-acid pressed juice of unripe grapes both to preserve and lend a tart edge to the drink, which blends smoky mezcal, cocchi americano, local celery root liqueur and several dashes of radish tincture. Its puckering edge appears again in the fizzy Physician’s Friend, a gin and tonic riff featuring housemade herb-stem soda, gin and quinine gentian liqueur.
All of Daisies’s bottled cocktails will last up to three months in the fridge, sealed inside their mini champagne-style bottles with sloping necks. As summer gives way to chillier months, an already-limited supply of small bottles (Daisies procures them from a local home-brewing shop) will no doubt shrink further as restaurants brace for an uncertain winter in the virus’s grip.
In the meantime, more experimentation: kombucha-based vermouth in collaboration with the nonprofit Pilot Project, cocktails that incorporate drinking vinegars and shrubs, which are made in house.
“It is all about trying to plan for an unpredictable future,” Murphy says. “While maybe in the short term it’s hard to see the benefits of all the labor that goes into trying to figure all this out, if people start to associate us with more than dining in, in the long term it could be beneficial.”
As we all ponder an unpredictable future, let’s raise a hardwon bottle to premixed carryout cocktails from 11 of our favorite spots — available around the city.