Justin Anderson takes pride not just in pouring and making quality drinks, but also in running a bar and making his customers feel welcome. The SoCal native can be found tending bar at a Chicago swank neighborhood watering hole. Here he is on his favorite part of the job, naming his drinks, and the perfect setting to enjoy a cocktail. Also, see below for his top ten Chicago hot spots.
How did get started with bartending and mixology?
In college I started doing bartending part-time, and I’ve kind of just been doing it ever since. And then about a year and a half ago—this was in San Diego, I grew up in Southern California—I decided that a move to Chicago might put me in a good market. I just kind of hooked up with a big group of people and restaurant groups.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is finding satisfaction on people’s faces, if it’s from a cocktail or just from their experience in my restaurant or bar. When I go to a restaurant or bar, the food might not be that great, the ambiance fantastic, but then, the service is kind of paramount. Just seeing the gratitude on some people’s faces, or someone coming in and asking specifically for me, or something that we’ve made them in the past. I think the other part of it is, when I first started bartending, you make a ton of vodka tonics, and you get taught a ton of drinks that are just really—you don’t really put a lot of appreciation into the cocktails, or know how they’re made or how they’re distilled, things of that nature. You get to a level where you really want to know what it is that you’re doing, and how things are produced, and how to make a quality product. And I think the longer you do this, you probably gain an appreciation for the things you’re actually doing. I think that it’s about using quality products, but also at the same time, providing a service to somebody.
How do you go about naming the drinks that you make?
For a lot of people, it seems like the most difficult thing, and the majority of people will tell you that it has to be clever. It’s funny because each one I use, you’re always working off of something clever. Today, for example, someone on their Facebook page said something about gin, and I actually took what they said, and just put it in my iPhone. So instead of writing things out on my notepad, I put it in my notepad on my iPhone, and I have a list of like 60 cocktails names. If I see something funny on a billboard, and it seems like a name that could be used for a cocktail, I’ll use it. I also try to reference things from my past that I think are relevant.
What was your inspiration for the drink you created for Stoli®?
It’s summertime, and I try to use simple ingredients, fresh produce. I like to go to a chef because they tend to know flavors better than anybody. I’ve been working with the chef since I first got here, and he used a lot of farm-to-table for his cooking, so I figured why not use that in the cocktail. So I used fresh blueberries with Stoli Blueberi®, which seemed kind of natural. So as far as the cocktail goes, what I did was I took fresh blueberries, and then I made house syrup, and made a tea out of rosemary. I incorporated that into the Stoli Blueberi® and used higher end tonic water based out of California.
What is the perfect setting for you to enjoy a cocktail?
I’m a big fan of a dark room, lots of candles, and some music that I’d say fits that kind of ambience. I’m a big fan of rock and roll, but I’m also a big fan of some Latin jazz, some bossa nova, something that makes sense for the atmosphere. And if you’re at a gritty dive bar, then you like gritty, fun good music. If you’re at something sexy and dark and candlelit, then you don’t want crazy dive bar music.
What do you like most about the Chicago nightlife scene?
In California, the bar scene is done at 1:30 or quarter to 2. But in Chicago, they have bars that are open pretty much until 4 or 5 in the morning. There is an opportunity to always get your taste of it no matter what time of night. The other cool aspect of it is the community; I’ve never seen anything like it. I know people that bartend in New York, and it doesn’t have that same camaraderie. I think everybody is closer here. Chicago is a big city, but everyone knows each other in the bar and restaurant industry here. And they take it very seriously, there’s a level of respect, where in other cities, it’s more or less a means to an end. Here it’s a career, and you don’t get looked down upon for being a bartender or a server. In California, I kind of felt like people were like, I’m just doing this to get through college.
Are there any nightlife trends that rub you the wrong way?
I think there’s a huge gap between a bartender and a mixologist. There’s a huge gap and there’s also a thin line. There are plenty of people now that are taking classes and they can make drinks at the bar. You might know how to make a drink, but you can’t tend a bar. That’s part of the gig. Mixology is an old-time term, but I think that people that are labeled true mixologists these days might have forgotten about what it is to actually tend a bar.
What makes your approach to mixing drinks different from everybody else’s?
I try to use the least amount of ingredients as possible, and I use things that are approachable and identifiable for the general public. And if they can’t, I try to educate people and just know as much as I can about certain products. To really tie it all together, it’s a matter of making a cocktail that’s approachable, that someone can identify with—you know, having something that’s made with bourbon, but not having something that has five or six things with that bourbon. What I try to do is that whatever the base is, I make sure that you can identify that.
Anderson’s Top Ten Chicago Hot Spots
- The Whistler
- Bar DeVille
- Big Star
- Rainbo Club
- The Bar on Buena
- Bangers & Lace
- Rite Liquors
Meet more Midnight Mixologists here.