Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a bar with old-school charm and new-school spunk.
NAME: Sportsman’s Club
ON THE JUKEBOX: Buck Owens, Steppenwolf, Loretta Lynn
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): One of the four cocktails of the day
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Low Life special: a bottle of Miller High Life and either a shot of bourbon or a shot of chilled amaro
WHY WE LOVE IT: At Sportsman’s Club bar in Chicago, restriction is freedom. Instead of having a long cocktail list, it only offers four drinks that change every day and are rarely repeated. “There’s something really cool and liberating about doing it this way,” general manager Graham Heubach says, “instead of laboring over a drink that has to stick on a menu for a full season. For us, not every drink has to be a home run. Not every drink has to appeal to the majority.”
Sportsman’s Club, a tavern that straddles the line between Chicago’s Humboldt Park and Ukrainian Village neighborhoods, dates back at least 60 years. The original bar served as a local hangout for Eastern European immigrants to the area. But the bar eventually fell into disarray. “It got a little bit more into the creepy old man side of the spectrum than the charming, cozy dive bar side,” Heubach says. “There were never more than a half dozen people in there, and half of them were passed out drunk.”
The new owners—Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner of Heisler Hospitality—bought the space a few years ago and added more windows and seating and cleaned out the backyard, which had turned into a garbage dump. “The place had beautiful bones and a great, art deco bar,” Heubach says. “When we took over, the idea was definitely to respect the history but bring it back from a state of near death.”
Many of the other historic taverns in this part of town are unfortunately lifeless. Yet at one time they acted as the neighborhoods’ anchors and de facto bodegas. They served booze, but also held carry-out liquor licenses, which Sportsman’s Club still possesses. So the bar today also acts as a package store, selling both alcohol for people to drink on-site and sealed bottles for people to carry out. “If you’re popping by on your way from work, you can grab a fifth of whiskey or a six pack of PBR to take home,” Heubach says. “Sometimes people pick up a bottle of something that was used in a cocktail they drank, to go.”
On the package side, the bar mostly sells bottles of American bonded bourbon like Heaven Hill or locally distilled bësk, a rival to Jeppson’s Malört. It also sells bar tools like mixing glasses and jiggers and Midwestern-made bitters. But mostly Sportsman’s Club sells cheap beer and shots; the bar has one of the biggest Miller High Life accounts in Illinois.
Sportsman’s Club’s other huge draw is its tiny cocktail list. The four daily offerings don’t have names (which prevents people from trying to reorder them days or years later), but their ingredient lists are posted on a board in the bar. For example, earlier this week there was a cocktail that contained apple brandy, Madeira wine and vermouth. The bar doesn’t have stemware—just an ever growing collection of thrift store finds—so every drink is served in a sturdy, functional Collins, rocks or pint glass.
Bartenders come up with the drinks mere hours before service based on what they find at the farmers market that day, what the weather is like, or even, from a business standpoint, what spirits are clogging up the backbar and need to be sold. “In the early part of the week we weird out and do really niche things, and then on the weekends we try to make drinks that might require a little bit less explanation, may be a little bit more accessible,” Heubach says.
The bar keeps a record of all its drinks (possibly for a future book?) and occasionally riffs off of past successes, but for the most part has an original cocktail menu each and every evening. It often posts the menu on its Instagram account, @drinkandgather. The bar also offers four kinds of wine (one red, one white, one rosé and one sparkling), eight beers on tap, eight beers in cans, a bottled Miller High Life, and blended amaro served from a chilled dispenser.
Like the solera process used to age sherry, the amaro dispenser is constantly refilled with new bitters such as Averna, Cynar and Fernet, but never emptied. The batch is just constantly circulated, combining the flavors of the old with that of of the new—much like how Sportsman’s Club has evolved. “Hopefully we still feel like an old, worn-in bar,” Heubach says. “We’re just more accessible and comfortable to a wider variety of people.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep