At midnight this Saturday, November 20th (Sunday morning, technically speaking), River North’s craft-cocktail den The Drawing Room hosts a no-cover viewing party to showcase one of its own: Charles Joly, a finalist on the third season of On the Rocks: The Search for America’s Next Top Bartender, which airs its finale that night. While The Chaser usually isn’t home during OTR:TSFANTB’s time slot—just after SNL on NBC—we don’t need a reality show to convince us of Joly’s status. Since his first gig at Crobar in 1999, the 34-year-old South Side native has held court at hot spots citywide and helped launch The Drawing Room—one of Chicago’s 100 best bars—in 2007. We e-mailed him a few questions about mixing cocktails with (a certain measure of late-late-night) reality-TV fame. [NOTE: Interview has been edited and condensed.]
How’d you get into the biz?
I’ve been in the bar industry nearly all of my adult life. I worked my way up the ladder from the bottom: bussing, security, bar backing, managing—literally every position in the room. My first bar job at [the now-shuttered] Crobar was during the height of club culture. It prepared me for anything.
Were you a fan of On the Rocks before you auditioned?
Last year Chicago’s Todd Appel was the runner-up, which is an amazing showing. I watched all of those episodes to see how our hometown crew was faring. [As for auditioning,] what do you have to lose by trying?
When did the craft-cocktail trend really take hold in Chicago—and why is it still going strong?
Craft cocktails really started to gain notoriety about three or four years ago. Before that, Adam Seger [of Nacional 27] was doing amazing things for years. He’s a Chicago original when it comes to the movement. The opening of The Drawing Room and Violet Hour within a month or so of one another definitely raised the bar in Chicago. I would be missing a huge factor not to mention Bridget [Albert] and her work at the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service. Nearly every reputable bartender in the city has either spent time in the program or [been] involved in some way. Chicago is a unique scene because, regardless of the venue, everyone is really supportive of one another. The cattiness is at a minimum here. We all work together for the most part and want to see the overall scene evolve.
Where do you drink on your night off?
I tend to haunt neighborhood joints: places where the room is comfortable, the staff is great, and I can hear my friends talk. The Orbit Room is a standby. There’s a good chance you’ll find me there on my night off. I don’t get there nearly enough, but I really love Weegee’s. I sneak into The Whistler, Revolution, and Drinks Over Dearborn—wherever there’s a good jukebox and good friends. I don’t even want to start the punch list of talent in this city. I’m sure to leave someone off.
What’s your low-end guilty pleasure drink?
I don’t feel guilty about anything I drink. There’s nothing wrong with a High Life and a bit of Old Overholt. Time and a place for everything.
If readers were to visit The Drawing Room and order the signature Charles Joly drink, what would it be?
There’s no one drink for everyone. If I could answer this question simply, I wouldn’t need a drink menu. Everyone would get the same cocktail. That’s the fun of the job: talking with guests—finding out their tastes, their mood, preferences—and dialing in a cocktail to fit them. You can learn a ton about what someone will like from spending a few moments chatting with them.
I’m sure you’re not allowed to say, but if you were the show’s winner, how would you spend the $100,000 prize?
Naturally, the money is a big part of the show. You can’t help but think about it—but not too much. [I think about] finishing rehab on my house that’s been under construction for two years, getting my grandmother a hearing aid that actually works, saving, travel. Either way, I’ll get all these things done at some point.