In Chicago, a homesick homage to the working man's bourbon
By Allen Helm
Chicago Editor / BourbonStory.com
CHICAGO – The 140th Kentucky Derby has come and gone, and already attention has turned beyond Louisville and onto Madison Square Garden, where the NFL had its draft last weekend, and onto next Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. Soon, they’ll be running the fast cars at Indianapolis, and bourbon drinkers will just have to get used to the idea that it’ll be another long year before the return of the annual festival to their favorite drink – which is one way, and a pretty good one, to think of the Derby.
That means, for me, it’ll be another year before I drink the drink of the Derby, the muddled-mint-and-sugar that turns Kentucky brown into a mint julep. The mixture ought to be an abomination – and it is at any other time of year. But I readily grant a dispensation on Derby Day. Not only will I drink them but I will enjoy them. Timothy Leary described psychotropic experiences being about “set and setting.” I’ll say the same thing about mint juleps, and the Derby (or a Derby party) is THE set and setting.
With the Derby gone, it also means it’ll be at least another year before I am welcomed into a special kind of Derby party, held annually at a bar in Chicago that you’ve probably never heard of but, but ought to get to know. It’s a bar that stands out against a backdrop of cult-cocktails, premium pours and handcrafted drinks.
Home Tavern in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood is none of those things, and every bit your father’s (and grandfather’s) bourbon bar. That’s not much in fashion these days, when a 750 ml bottle of bourbon aged in a boat for a year can be sold for $80. It is a place worth celebrating, especially at Derby. It reminds bourbon drinkers that the industry – and the beverage – was here long before bartenders had to measure it out one ounce at a time.
Once, I would have endearingly called it “a dive,” but that term seems to have been re-appropriated recently. People now often refer to any establishment that lacks either a velvet rope in front, a live band, or a bank of plasma screens as “a dive.” I reject that. This place is a tavern…where people from the area congregate to celebrate, lament or just shake off a tough day. There was a time when places like this were the anchors of the community, and in some cases they still are. Their histories should be respected and exalted. Chicago is described as a “city of neighborhoods”, and the Home Tavern is a neighborhood joint from an era where each neighborhood had many joints.
It opened in 1938, and Michael and Kathie Ziwei bought it in 1966, eight years after they arrived from Germany. They’ve passed on, but their son Michael continues to run the bar and he prides himself on his Derby parties. Years ago the Home Tavern served food. There are stories of workers from this then-industrial stretch of Lincoln Avenue waiting in long lines for Kathie’s schnitzel and a beer or two (and maybe a shot) for lunch. Now, the factories are condos and Starbucks and the Home Tavern only serves food when Mike feels like it, and when he does he gives it away. Fortunately, Derby Day is one of those days.
There is an outstanding selection of good German beers on tap and a reasonable selection of liquors (including quite a few bottles of German schnapps). But joints like this don’t mess with super premium brands, and I’d be disappointed if they did. There are plenty of places in town to order high-end bourbon for sipping and that’s great, but this is a place where you come to knock back a few.
I had reviewed the horses for most of the races the night before and made all my wagers early Saturday afternoon online. It was now time to go to the Derby - Chicago style. Ziwei is a horse enthusiast and knows his way around a racing form as well as anyone I know, so it’s not uncommon to come in and see a horse race on the TV. It is less common to walk in and smell ham cooking and see Ziwei prepping a large bunch of mint for juleps. It is just before the sixth race of the day and I enter with racing form in hand and an official Churchill Downs 140th Derby glass that my mom sent me as part of a Derby care package. Mint juleps always taste better in these glasses!
This year, Ziwei made his simple syrup a day in advance and boiled it with fresh mint in it to extract the flavors. He must not have heated it too long because there is no hint of bitterness that can accompany overly steeped mint. He fills my glass with ice, fills it about ¾ with Maker’s Mark and tops it off with the syrup and a sprig of mint. Fantastic. Maker’s wouldn’t be my first choice in a mint julep because I find the bourbon’s sweetness a bit much with the syrup and mint. But Ziwei’s heavy hand on the whiskey increased the punch, decreased the sweetness, and the flavors blended really well. As I walk in, the crowd is still fairly sparse. A couple regulars are sitting at the still-subdued bar. There is a salesman who has been coming to the Home Tavern since he moved from New England years ago and the other is a pedicab driver who is still deciding the best time to go out and pick up those in want of an open air “cab “ ride on this sunny spring day that Chicagoans have been dreaming about since October. The salesman made his bets last night and is relaxing with his first julep of the day. A former Bostonian, it’s not surprising that Wicked Strong is his pick of the day. The pedicab driver is not drinking yet (he still has work to do) but anticipates coming back as the place gets more crowded and the food is served. The place itself reminds me of the basement bar that my great-aunt Honey used to have back in Louisville when I was a kid. Even before I could drink, it was a fun place to hang out, with all the trinkets behind the bar and on the wall, the dirty joke ashtrays, and drink-mixing paraphernalia. The only difference is the Home Tavern hasn’t had ashtrays since Illinois banned smoking and Aunt Honey never had Cubs gear hanging up everywhere.
As the races continued, and my worthless wager tickets became tiny paper airplanes, I talked to Ziwei about bourbon while he concocted more juleps. Mike says his favorite bourbon in a julep is Woodford Reserve, but he adds that it is too expensive for many of his regulars who come in for the races. He’s not shy about his views on much of anything, bourbon included, even the relatively newly fashionable brands like Pappy Van Winkel, Pappy might age its bourbon for 15, 20 and 23 years – but he’s not having any. When asked why not, Ziwei says he’s too old for that. “Old people don’t drink new things. I wear old pants. Hell, I’m 10 years away from wearing polyester pants.” In his mid-50s I wouldn’t say he’s old – but he is set in his ways. Normally a beer drinker, he told me that when he drank more bourbon he enjoyed Cabin Still (from Heaven Hill) and Walker’s DeLuxe, which Hiram Walker and Sons made until its Peoria distillery closed in 1981, several years after the bottom had fallen out of the bourbon market. I hate to break it to him.
His take on higher-proofed bourbons is equally direct: “All bourbon should be 86 proof. When you go higher your customers get fucked up and you end up with a bunch of drunks on your hands.” When I remind him that sometimes it’s OK to just have one or two he smirked, shook his head, and asked if I was nuts.
The man behind the bar at Home Tavern isn’t a bourbon connoisseur—and neither are many of his customers. There was a time when most bourbon drinkers weren’t. Derby Day is as good a day as any to remember the role they played in keeping the industry alive when it was down.
In the 1960s, as attitudes among young people changed, appetite for bourbon fell steeply. Distilleries closed and brands died. The crisis deepened throughout the 1970s as bourbon was cheap, overstocked and not especially respected. Mike Veach, the Louisville-based bourbon historian and author of Kentucky Bourbon History, told Bourbon Story in March that it wasn’t until the rise of premium single-malt scotch in 1980s that a brighter path appeared ahead for the bourbon industry. That path was all about changing the image of bourbon to a drink fit for finer company, and that’s exactly what distillers have succeeded in doing over the past 25 years.
But Veach also noted that before the bust in the late 1960s, there was a boom. He calls the 1950s “the golden age of the Kentucky bourbon industry” – a time when a bust seemed as unlikely as one does today. When it came, many distilleries closed – but many remained, and those that did owed a large debt of gratitude to hard-core loyalists like Mike Ziwei and his parents, and their clientele. They kept the market going, sluggish as it was, and they were doing so in places like Home Tavern all over the country. Sometimes, with the headlines full of shortages and buzz over hard-to-find 23-year-old bottles of Pappy, it’s easy to forget that.
Last year, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey supplies took in $2.4 billion in revenue, about the same as rum suppliers and more than any other kind of whiskey. Most of those sales, though, came from the high-end juice. Value brands accounted for just $172 million in sales, and shipped just 3 million cases, about one sixth of the bourbon and Tennessee whiskey total.
That Mike and his clientele are out of fashion is easy to see. According to numbers supplied by Frank Coleman, top spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, some 18 million cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold last year. That’s 5 million more cases than were sold in 2002. The good news for the distilleries is that all of that growth happened in the premium, high-end premium and super-premium categories. Value bourbon? It sold just about exactly the same number of cases in 2013 as it did a decade before.
The loyalists who like their Old Fo’ or Old Crow are still at it, plugging and chugging (and enjoying) while the Super Premiums often bask in the glory.
This brings me back to the Home Tavern. While Ziwei’s bourbon selection is not shabby, you’ll not see any Willett’s Single Barrel, Michter’s or Blanton’s. What you will see are the workhorses of Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey 81 – all of which you can pick up at your corner liquor store for $15 to $20, give or take a few bucks. And you’ll see them continuously emptied, replaced, and emptied again…day-after-day…Bourbon boom or not.
As they call the horses to the post for the 11th race of the day (the Kentucky Derby) they start playing “My Old Kentucky Home” and the goose bumps rise. The smell of the ham really starts to permeate the place and I go for another julep. The race goes off, California Chrome rides to the finish, and once again my picks are left in the dust. The place has started to fill up with regulars and non-regulars alike.
Following the race, Ziwei sets up the buffet with his ham, a pork shoulder that he slow-roasted the day before, some German-style coleslaw and assorted other sides. I brought over some Benedictine spread that I made the night before (I had no idea it was basically glorified artificially-colored cream cheese). Even though I was over 300 miles away from Churchill Downs I was enjoying some pork products with friends, noshing on a Benedictine sandwich, and sipping on a mint julep with a pocketful of worthless betting slips. It doesn’t get more Derby than that, no matter where you are.
Dr. Allen Helm (@bourbonstoryAl) is Chicago editor for Bourbon Story Magazine. Email him with suggestions at email@example.com.