Freddie Sarkis is no stranger to the world of creative cocktails. He has led the bar program at some of the most inventive bars throughout Chicago, mixing up drinks at Sable Kitchen, the Chicago outpost of Broken Shaker, and Celeste, among others.
He recently took on a new challenge with Chicago’s art-focused The Gwen, A Luxury Collection Hotel, to create a collection of cocktails for the hotel’s bar and restaurant, Upstairs at the Gwen, that reflects a variety of artistic genres, from classical and Renaissance to pop and street art.
Drinks include DaVinci’s Umbrella, as well as JC’s Bear Champ, named for modern mural artist JC Riviera, whose murals often feature a bear in boxing gloves (called Bear Champ), which is served in a container that resembles a honey bear.
We went through a phase when people were pushing the envelope hard and into innovating ... much more about what it looked like instead of what it tasted like.
Of course, Sarkis also concocted a cocktail called Gwen Lux, named for the hotel’s namesake, the renowned Chicago sculptor whose work is found throughout the city, including on the facade of the McGraw-Hill Building where the hotel resides.
Marriott TRAVELER sat down with Sarkis to talk about art and cocktails, the next era of hotel bars and where he finds inspiration.
Gwen Lux was so creative and innovative as a sculptor — how did you go about crafting cocktails that play homage to her and artists of similar caliber?
It was a combination of making sure they taste delicious, provoke conversation and are visually appealing. That’s a lot like good art — it needs to be both visually appealing and provoke conversation.
The menu is divided into three categories, Classic & Renaissance, Minimalist & Contemporary, and Pop & Street. Classic & Renaissance includes time-tested cocktails like Old-Fashioneds and the Sazerac, so for these cocktails I chose Renaissance artists our guests will be familiar with.
The Minimalist & Contemporary cocktails are inspired by presentation of artwork and artists, like the Velvet Night, which features an activated charcoal ice shard. When the ice melts, the clear liquid darkens.
Houston has an amazing cocktail scene. Fort Wayne, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota. There are some amazing cocktail bars there.
The Pop & Street art section of the menu are large-format drinks, including local artists like JC Rivera and his Bear Champ brand. My inspiration for the cocktail was the art piece of the same name. With the idea of the bear came the honey and tea, and it being a public piece of art, I thought it would be best served in a format for sharing.
I also wanted something that was a little different than what was immediately available in the area. It was a challenge; I had to make it approachable enough for business travelers and hotel guests but also interesting and different.
How have you seen hotel bars change over the years?
It’s cyclical. Right now we are seeing a kickback to classic-oriented stuff. We went through a phase when people were pushing the envelope hard and into innovating — much more about what it looked like instead of what it tasted like.
The interesting thing about hotels in big cities — New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago — you get more local clients that are used to seeing high-end cocktails. When you go to other cities that are less accustomed to that, you find places run before they can walk. They want to start doing really exciting, innovative things before they learn how to make basic cocktails like a gimlet.
What’s most exciting to you about the current cocktail landscape?
The secondary markets are doing really amazing stuff! Houston has an amazing cocktail scene. Fort Wayne, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota — there are some amazing cocktail bars there.
The restaurant renaissance is here to stay; it’s not going anywhere. The cocktail renaissance is heading in the same direction; it’s not just a fad. You are stuck with people who are passionate about the craft.
If I had to pick one drink, it would be a Manhattan.
Any recent places that you draw inspiration from lately?
I spend a lot of time in Europe and Asia. Japan specifically is dynamite — so much great stuff going on. Service is mind-blowing. Houston has been a great source of inspiration. They are doing amazing things without reinventing the wheel. I love Jupiter Disco in Brooklyn.
I think what’s inspiring is a combination of creativity, ambience and flavor. Service is an intangible that can make a good cocktail great. If the bar or server staff can take the time to talk about the drinks and inspiration, it will make the guests’ experience more enjoyable.
What are you drinking?
It depends on my mood with what’s going on. I am a big whiskey fan, in general. I am a big cocktail fan; I know it sounds silly, but many bartenders don’t drink cocktails because they work with them all day. I draw inspiration from food and drink, so I want to try things where I can.
If I had to pick one drink, it would be a Manhattan, but it depends on where I am, what the place is known for, etc.
What changes do you expect to see in cocktails five to ten years down the line?
It’ll continue to cycle. It’ll ebb and flow. People will get more creative and innovative and then go back again to the classic cocktails.