Behind the Bar Snap Shot

One House-Made Cola Is Not Enough at Chicago’s Boleo

Image: Sarah Joyce

Head bartender Jess Lambert fell hard for the culinary wonders of Peru on a recent trip. “Never in my life had I tasted so many unique and strange things from the Amazon,” she says about dining in Lima. A culinary approach and passion for modernizing the classics drive her bar program at Chicago’s Boleo, opened in August.

The drink menu delves deep into what she calls the cocktail pillars of Peruvian and Argentinean cocktails. A trio of chilcanos (fruit- and herb-infused piscos) and fernet-and-cola drinks headline the menu. Lambert says that every bar she visited had at least five different macerations of fruits, herbs and spices in their piscos, and some as many as 40-plus variations. She calls it the Peruvian version of the Moscow Mule, and her spin on it combines traditional South American ingredients paired with seasonal local produce in the infusions.

Boleo’s Pisco Sour, left, and Seven Fires. Colin Beckett

The pisco-based drinks aren’t the only way she likes to blend cultures and update the classics. Argentines drink more Fernet-Branca than anyone in the world, usually mixed with cola. At Boleo, the three versions of the Porteño classic, made with regular and cherry cola, are selling out every week.

Lambert geeks out by making the two colas in-house. “Our house-made cola and cherry cola is made by combining a variety of extracts such as lime oil, orange oil, grapefruit oil, nutmeg, etc.,” she says. “We use a micro pipette to measure microliters to build a cola extract blend and stretch those concentrated flavors with simple syrup. It’s all balanced with citric acid or acid phosphate. We use a refractometer to measure the brix level of the syrup before adding citric acid or acid phosphate.”

Jess Lambert and Boleo’s bar. Colin Beckett / Sarah Joye

Another Argentine-inspired drink is the Seven Fires, made with Diplomático añejo rum, roasted peach, filbert, lemon Angostura bitters and peach bitters. It’s an ode to iconic Argentine chef Francis Mallmann’s Seven Fires open-fire cooking method, which combines cooking techniques from Patagonia, Buenos Aires and rural Uruguay.

If making her own cola weren’t enough, she has taken the cocktail game with fernet a step further by creating drinks such as the Fernet Flip. The drink combines “three amazing things that you would typically enjoy after dinner: digestíf of fernet, coffee and a flip cocktail,” says Lambert. Another Midwestern–South American mix uses a locally produced fernet from CH Distillery, as well as local roasted Dark Matter Coffee.

Boleo’s Fernet & Cola, left, and Fernet Flip.

The vast range of citrus available in Peru also drove her to test the pH levels of citrus back in the U.S. She then blended a variety of juices together to replicate the flavor to those of South America. To do so, the bar uses a “variety of molecular techniques in our program such as clarification, fat-washing, using refractometers, etc.,” says Lambert.

Almost everything she does with the cocktail program is generally inspired by the base ingredients. “Whether it’s a syrup, infusion or fat-washing, our menu is built around fresh ingredients and using culinary techniques,” she says. “The end results are stabilized foams, gels and creams. There’s really no separation between the kitchen and the bar for me. Our plate is just a cut crystal coupe.”