Meet Your Mixologist: Charles Joly of The Drawing Room
"Guests are more educated than ever and we’re slowly watching the expectation of what is in your glass grow. It’s truly a fantastic time to be behind the bar."
When it comes to master mixologists, you can always tag Charles Joly's name to that elite group. It seems there isn't an award he hasn't won for his delicious creations that have had Chicago and cities all around the US lining in droves for a taste. The winner of LXTV's On The Rocks bartending competition reality TV show in search for "America's Best Bartender" for Season Three, Joly has even been nominated for a James Beard Award. To list the international awards he has won would simply take up too much space and take too much time to read. Besides, we'd rather learn about the hotshot level of mixology from the man himself, Executive GM of Three Headed Productions, Principal of Angel Share Mixology, and Chief Mixologist at The Drawing Room in Chicago, Charles Joly.
You had quite the career path change with your plan to become a veterinarian to becoming one of the country’s top mixologists, how did this change spurt and do you ever look back?
Charles Joly: I think it’s all too common for people to end up miles from their original goals in college. I have always loved hands on science and excelled at laboratory work, but fell short with advanced mathematics on paper. I’ve always learned by doing. I also really love animals.I’ve been fascinated with them my entire life and basically had a zoo at my home while growing up. I fell backwards into the bar business, like so many others, picking up barback shifts for extra cash. It was good money while I was playing music and trying to make that work. The next thing you know….
How have you seen the industry change since you crossed over into the world of mixology to the present day?
I’ve been in the business for over 15 years now, really focusing on the mixology aspect for the past seven or so. When we opened the Drawing Room, there were only really two cocktail focused bars in the city. The movement is growing rapidly, guests are more educated than ever and we’re slowly watching the expectation of what is in your glass grow. It’s truly a fantastic time to be behind the bar.
Where do you see the future trends veering?
People will continue to push the bar. Creativity is reaching amazing levels. In the end, it all comes down to balance. It still needs to taste great and speak to the guest. Customer service and guest experience also needs to be a focus. Bottom line, no one ever came back to a bar because of a cocktail- they come back because of the way they felt at that establishment.
How much does latitude and longitude affect what you create…in other words would you create the same cocktail for Chicagoans as you would for Parisians?
The Chicago style of craft cocktails is very interesting. We have a very short growing season for produce, but it extraordinarily rich and diverse while it’s here. The Chicago style is well versed in classics, works seasonally and is creative. The cocktail I would create for a particular guest has less to do with geography and more to do with my interaction with that person. I think we specialize in getting to the heart of what someone wants. We communicate to create cocktails tailored to each person.
Walk us through your process of experimentalism…in other words, how does Charles Joly concoct the perfect cocktail? The process depends on many factors. Often, the flow can be based on the root of inspiration. Is it a seasonal ingredient I taste and want to incorporate? Was chef working on a component in the kitchen that caught my eye? Did I hear a song on the radio that made me nostalgic? Once I have an idea of components, I look to create layers, depth and ultimately balance. I need to know what role this cocktail will play- whom will it satisfy and in what situation. I also make sure everything in the cocktail is contributing an important element. If I decide it is not, away it goes. Otherwise, flavors can become muddy.
It seems like you found the best job on earth, what do you love most about what you do?
The best job on Earth is the one that you are happy doing. So few people can truly say that they love their work. I’m very lucky to be part of an industry I am excited about. It fuels my creative side, challenges me and definitely keeps me on my toes. There are many things I love about the industry. The “aha” moment when a guest tries something wonderful for the first time, the camaraderie amongst professionals that have dedicated their life to this movement, self discovery and constant creative drive….. If there was only one thing, I probably wouldn’t have lasted this long. The service industry attracts a certain type of individual. We find reward in making others happy. It results in a really fantastic family.
You’ve made a splash in the competitive world…any competitions coming up or titles you have your sights set on?
Competitions have been very good to me. I’ve always been a very competitive person and enjoy them as they drive me to refine my style, push creativity and give me the opportunity to spend time with like-minded folks. I’m currently a finalist for “Best American Bartender” at Tales of the Cocktail. That one is out of my hands. I’m in a group of incredible bartenders- I’d love to win, but would be happy to lose to any of them.
I think the James Beard award is definitely one of the pinnacles. I was beyond honored to be nominated a couple years ago. In the end, you cannot judge a person’s skill by competitions. Yes, you need to create thoughtful, balanced cocktails and be able to execute smoothly to win. The proof of a great bartender happens behind the bar and on the floor of your venue. Beyond the glass, if you cannot provide a great guest experience than the point has been missed.
Any parting words to fans of mixology ‘round the world?
Don’t forget to have fun. In the end, we’re drinking cocktails. I promise, it was never intended to be too serious.