Don't call them mixologists. Don't even call them bartenders. "We're decidedly amateurs," they say.
Seth Putnam and Blake Royer are men of many talents. Writing, cooking, photography — these two are highbrow renaissance men. But when it came to crafting a respectable cocktail, it was humble beginnings.
It began when I made Blake arguably the worst gin gimlet ever mixed. The ratios were all wrong, and worse, I squirted liquid out of a plastic lime into the drink instead of using Rose's lime juice. Blake didn't hesitate to let me know what kind of a drink it was, and with that an unspoken competition began.
Just a few months later, that friendly jibe turned into one of the best amateur hours in Chicago known as The Overserved Society.
Each month, Blake and Seth set out on a mission to perfect a classic recipe, sometimes bringing one back from the brink of extinction, and other times adding a contemporary edge, but always, like the gentlemen they are, with respect for the genesis and intent of the original. That's how a couple of young guys with some booze, and Internet connection, and winning palates have found their own craft in cocktails, and fashioned a new social concept.
I stirred up an old-fashioned that Blake became smitten with. And quickly we agreed that we should rediscover this lost art by building a repertoire of drinks to draw upon while entertaining friends. We just didn't think it would do to have a well-stocked bar and only be able to serve a feeble spirit + soda. We started exploring classics, and then realized we needed people to sip them as we practiced. With a little luck, it grew from 15 people in my apartment to more than 100 revelers at a Gaslight Coffee Roasters in Logan Square. There's something unbelievably satisfying about getting talented people in a room together and facilitating an atmosphere of mirth. And that's how the party was born.
About a week before Gaslight's official opening, these two poured, swirled and poured uncountable Manhattans for a stellar crowd. Operated as an invite-only gathering, most members of the society are old friends or new acquaintances that share a passion for craft in their food and drink. The Gaslight party was their biggest yet, and also marked the first time they had a liquor sponsor in Knob Creek.
Like any great craft, I wanted to see more. The logical thing to do was go behind the scenes with these guys to see how they hone their craft and practice the art of the cocktail in preparation for these events. We met up at Seth's apartment where he works freelance as a writer for many of Chicago's culture magazines, as well as his own projects, including the wildly popular The Midwest Style. The place is sparse, not uncommon for a young man making his way in the world, but also highly curated for a lifestyle befitting a man that enjoys his cocktails and entertaining. He has priorities. This time it was the classic, and almost unknown recipe, the Martinez, that was up for debate.
This cousin of the Manhattan was made with Old Tom Gin, a style of gin from 18th century England that's slight sweeter than London Dry, but drier than others, and is sometimes called "the missing link." Recently back in its original form under the Hayman's distillery, a number of recipes once calling for the gin are now in play, but largely out of practice. Which essentially makes everyone in this game an amateur, so our boys are in good company.
Not a lot of time is wasted when these two get together to dissect and rebuild their chosen recipe. Plenty of back and forth happens online during the day, chats over coffee and the like. So when jackets get tossed aside, and the bottles come out, the pouring begins. The recipe itself is only part of the craft, the rest in is the method.
Stirring, icing, tasting, adjusting — and then the test. Which ratios and method work best? A little hot? Lemon or orange? Flame or no flame? After a few rounds it was getting dialed in, and that's when the girls arrived to do their part.
As collaborators in OSS events, Emily Fiffer of Daily Candy and Heather Sperling of Tasting Table put their own palates to the test, helping confirm competing suspicions on the cocktail recipe and set out to pair food to serve alongside. At Gaslight they served a 50s style small-bites menu of olive finger sandwiches, macaroons and other tasty treats made from surprisingly low-brow ingredients that our grandparents used to whip up for casual living room elegance. It all fit into the theme. This time, however, they planned to deliver on some bigger flavors to accompany the Martinez, so they were here to start from scratch. And just to keep everyone on their toes, Blake threw us a curveball and swapped the lemon and orange, surprising us all with a balance between the clarity of the citrus and the sweetness of the gin. Just when we thought we had it all figured out.
Now, this might seem like a lot of fuss for a cocktail, but for Seth and Blake, the perfection of the drink, and the friendly competition, proides the fun. And the sharing is what drives them. So in true OSS fashion, they gathered everyone again and put on a party at Red and White in Bucktown, fitting about 100 of their devoted followers into a cozy wine shop to share their latest.
But this one was extra special. Not only did it mark their second major event under the concept, but also the departure of Blake as he leaves for Toronto at the end of the year. Is it the end of the OSS in Chicago? Hardly. It's all upwards and onwards.
The response to the party has been so surprising and encouraging, which makes us nothing but excited to see how it grows from here. With Blake moving to a new city, there's an even greater opportunity to share well-made drinks with new friends. We're planning to ramp up our online presence (since we've mostly focused on the here-and-now of enjoying the party itself.) The idea is that more digital content will go a long way in building the kind of community we love being a part of.
So look for the OSS site to be offering more recipes and methodology as these two continue their journey through craft cocktails. And maybe you'll just be inspired to practice toward your own kind of perfect.