The Elixir, our first drink of the night in Morso’s intimate upstairs lounge
There are only two barstools in the upstairs lounge at the two-week-old Lincoln Park restaurant Morso, where the mixologist Matthew Lipsky—known to all as Choo—holds court nightly in a bow tie, rolled-up shirtsleeves, a dapper vest, and quarter-size gauge earrings.
Last night, my sister Liv and I wanted those barstools. Yes, there are 22 other seats in the intimate lounge and, yes, we could have claimed a table amid the other drinkers. But our objective was to chat up the mysterious Choo, a bartender formerly of The Southern who’s relatively new to Chicago but seems poised to make a splash at Morso, which is helmed by the chef Matt Maroni of the popular food truck Gaztro-Wagon.
We needed front-row access. Fortunately, the man sitting alone at one of the stools offered up his spot after only a few bats of an eyelash. Thank you, gentleman drinker.
And so we perched. Choo slid menus our way in between jiggles of the cocktail shaker (a lot of diners downstairs were ordering drinks, it seemed). Presented with his compact but tempting list of options, we couldn’t decide, so we asked him to surprise us. As Choo whipped up our first drink, we got to know the cocktail whiz from Fort Worth, Texas.
Choo at work
Drink Number 1: The Elixir (pisco, pineapple, clove, lime, prosecco; $14)
My sister and I sipped this frothy yellow concoction while Choo lit candles to illuminate shelves lined with specialty liquors. There wasn’t a Maker’s or a Smirnoff bottle in sight. “Ooh, I love how you get a hit of clove when you lift the glass toward your nose,” Liv said. “It smells like fall, but the drink itself is almost tropical.”
The Chaser: Good assessment, Liv. So, Choo, what is this cocktail list about?
Choo: I just want people to enjoy the drinks. Try something they wouldn’t normally try. The mixology scene—not to bash anyone—but some people try so hard to be fancy, to use as many complex ingredients as they possibly can, that they forget the customer is supposed to like how it tastes. I’m not making these drinks for me. I’m making them for the customers.
The Chaser: If you were making a drink for you, what would it be?
Choo: A beer and a shot of whiskey. I love craft cocktails, but I have a hard time sipping them slowly.
The same is true for Liv and me, and The Elixir soon disappeared. We asked Choo to hit us again.
Drink Number 2: Monkshood (bourbon, walnut, apple, molasses; $10)
The Chaser: So, I’m not that big on molasses. Could you just make me a half, so I can see if I like it?
Choo: Nah, you’ll want the full drink once you taste it. The molasses is just a few drops from this dropper, see?
The Chaser: OK. How do you come up with your recipes?
Choo: I always write down flavor combinations first. Not recipes—just ideas about flavors that work together. Then I decide which form the combinations will take. Will I use fresh ginger or candy ginger? Or ginger liqueur? The flavors come first. Then I find ways to make them work.
The Chaser: I feel like I’m drinking a cold hot toddy. And I can’t stop.
We were really thirsty, it seemed, and we were gushing like Valley girls over our cocktails. Choo nodded humbly and asked what we wanted next.
Drink Number 3: Althea’s Nostrum (gin, mastiha, lemon, plum; $10)
The Chaser: How do you come up with names for your cocktails?
Choo: Well, “Althea” is a Greek name that means “healer.” And “nostrum” means a cure that will never work. So I thought that was appropriate for this one. It’s like this: People think liquor can drown their sorrows, but they don’t know that sorrows can swim.
The Chaser: Ah, very insightful. How did you end up in Chicago?
Choo: There’s not much of a craft cocktail scene in Fort Worth. I knew some people here. It’s been a year and a half, and I’m loving Chicago so far. How about a dessert drink?
Drink Number 4: Daphne (dark rum, amaretto, cream, fig, cinnamon; $12)
“Holy smokes,” Liv said after her first sip. The Daphne was luscious, it was sinful, and we felt guilty. After all, we’d just downed a plate of fried pork-belly nuggets ($13). Oh, fine—and some gooey dough, too (buttery biscuits filled with melted mozzarella; $7).
The Chaser: I’m sure it’s healthy. Let’s change the subject. So, Choo, do you always dress like this?
Choo: Yes. This is how a bartender should dress. People forget that, historically, bartenders were really important in people’s lives. People came to them for advice and wisdom. Today, some bartenders don’t understand the responsibility they have. You get to know your customers. Listening is the most important thing. And, anyway, if you’re going to do something, do it right.
The Chaser: Free therapy, drinks, and no need to walk away with a bad haircut? I like it.