Today, drinking establishments label themselves as a speakeasy by turning down the lights and serving up cocktails disguised with old-timey sounding names. The Drifter, located in one of Chicago's historic neighborhoods, can back up the label. This establishment operated as an actual speakeasy during prohibition and has managed to revive the best of the style and vibe of the time while providing innovative cocktails for today's drinker.
OUR ARTICLEBY: Christopher Blatner Contributing writer
In a subterranean room beneath the city streets, a unique and historic cocktail experience awaits you. To get there, you’ll first have to enter through the appropriately named Green Door Tavern, an eclectic neighborhood public house.
During prohibition, if a restaurant or business had a painted green door, it signified an illicit speakeasy was probably tucked away somewhere inside. It’s worth a stop here to take in the scene. Maybe even start your adventure with an Old Forester old fashioned that they keep on draft. Locals and out-of-towners mix together under antique porcelain advertising signs, vintage sports pennants, and every other sort of Americana jammed into any available space on the walls and ceiling. Mingle a bit, enjoy your drink and find your way to the basement.
As you enter the dimly lit room, you’ll be handed a deck of custom printed tarot cards. Those will serve as your cocktail menu.
As you descend the stairs, you’ll come upon a wall of shallow shelves decked out with items you might find in your nanna’s china cabinet: a brass teapot, ceramic mugs, and figurines. Give a knock, the shelves swing open, and you’ll be welcomed inside by the host. As you enter the dimly lit room, you’ll be handed a deck of custom printed tarot cards. Those will serve as your cocktail menu. The Drifter has an ever-rotating selection of dozens of cocktails, and each night the staff selects a handful for that evening’s offering. The drinks are cleverly named at the top of each card, and the ingredients are listed below the tarot illustration. The cocktails are some of the most superbly crafted in the city, on a recent visit we sampled: The Spruce Jenner (Aviation Gin, Rosemary tonic, Chareau, Spruce tincture), Bye, Felicia! (Pistachio-infused Absolut, Lemon, Pineapple gomme, Earl grey soda) and the Essential Monsters (Malört [it’s a Chicago thing], Combier, Pamplemousse, Giffard Madagascar vanilla, Lemon).
You came for the drinks, but you’re getting a whole lot more. Once inside The Drifter, you are transported back in time. Vintage circus artwork and ads for sideshow attractions and peep shows drape the exposed brick walls. Old glory hangs from the ceiling, a portrait of FDR watches over the room from a perch behind the bar, and a Mobil Oil Pegasus riddled with bullet holes hangs on the wall opposite the bar. A long leather banquette with small tables spread out along it makes up one side of the room. With accommodation for only about 40 patrons at a time, they still managed to squeeze a small stage into the space.
Each evening, performers of all types drift on and off the stage every hour on the hour to put on a 5-10 minute show. Acts range from burlesque dancers to magicians to acrobats to lounge singers to jugglers. Between performers, old silent films and vaudeville movie clips play on a sheet drawn across the stage. There is always something to keep you entertained.
In a city populated with citizens known to enjoy an alcoholic beverage and with deep roots into the underground affairs of bootleggers, The Drifter exists to serve the townsfolk a stiff drink and to preserve the best parts of the past.
The building housing The Drifter was constructed in 1872. Shortly after it was completed, the building settled and now has a slight lean to it (known as racking in the construction/architecture world)
We suggest laying down a base with dinner at Pacific Standard Time before hitting the cocktails at The Drifter
CYTIES cocktail recommendation: Any cocktail made with Malört