Chicago bar Best Intentions, now two years old, has all the hallmarks of a great dive bar: a long, comfortable bar and an outdoor space that feels like you’re hanging out in a friend’s backyard. Memorabilia and posters dot the dark-paneled wall, punctuated by a large yellow neon sign that reads “Fancy Cocktail Bar” on the beer fridge holding PBR and other decidedly non-fancy drinks.
Yet “fancy” drinks are indeed on offer, though you don’t dare call them that. Think drinks like the AB Negative, made with Bärenjäger honey liqueur, dragon well green tea and Angostura bitters pulled from a tap, and the Wondermint Malted, a frozen delight made with Death’s Door Wondermint schnapps liqueur and Death’s Door gin, dispensed in a flash from a slushy machine.
Proprietors/brothers Calvin and Christopher Marty bantered with us about building a bar for comfort and speed.
Tell us about your background.
Calvin: We were bartending in the River North area. We bartended in Chicago, my brother in Madison, Wisc. We grew up in the old-school land of bartending pre-cocktail renaissance—Jack Daniel’s, shots of tequila, beers, whatever. The advantage is we grew up in a time when it wasn’t your cocktail that people come back to your bar. It was you—your service, the way you managed the bar, the timing of everything. We come from that style of bartending.
Then we got into the cocktail stuff when that started happening; we worked at some fancy cocktail bars—those places where you wear the jacket and tie and shave every day. Eventually, we wanted to get back to the old-school style of bartending but with our newfound knowledge.
Best Intentions is built in the space that previously housed Marble. How did you transform it into its current incarnation?
Chris: Marble was one of the strangest places that any of us have ever been to. It was themed around the marbles you play with as a kid. There were tens of thousands of marbles everywhere. They did free Sloppy Joes on Thursdays. It was a neighborhood joint that was well loved by a lot of people but didn’t do high volume. The best compliment we get is when people come in and tell us how lucky we are to have found a beautiful old bar that has been there forever. But in fact we tore it down to the walls and replaced almost everything in there.
It feels like an old place, not a new place. How did you do that?
Chris: There’s a magic in that building that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s from the ground up. The feeling that happens in there is from the walls and the floorboards. It’s in there in a way that you can’t design into a room.
But the drinks are a lot better than your average dive.
Calvin: Where we were coming from, we’d both been bartenders for many many years, and we found our way into the cocktail world. We felt like we went someplace for a fancy cocktail it just didn’t feel comfortable; it felt pretentious and unfriendly. We felt like what was missing in our city was a place where you could get a fancy cocktail and feel at home. That was our main goal.
In the end, it’s about good and earnest service. That still ends up being the most important thing. People come to our bar not because of the Angostura shots but because we know their name and what they drink.
Let’s talk about those Angostura shots.
Calvin: It came from the fact that me and my brother and some other bartenders in the city had been doing shots of Angostura from the dasher bottle. Forty-two dashes into a one-ounce shot glass. It’s 90 proof. I used to do shots of it at work.
Chris: As you travel around the world, it’s a shot you can usually get for free. There’s no established price for a shot of Angostura. Most bartenders will look at you crooked if you ask for it.
Calvin: But you see more potable bitters on tap—fernet, Malört. I said, “Let’s put Angostura on draft and maybe we can get it cheaper.” It seemed like the right time. We held it close to the vest until we contacted Angostura to see if we could do it.
Chris: We now buy it 20 gallons at a time. We do over 340 gallons since we’ve opened. You buy it a different way, and it comes strapped to a truck in the hazmat delivery. We were fortunate that no one had asked for it, so we’re the first and only bar to have it, which is pretty cool.
What’s the deal with the Mules served in tin cans?
Chris: It’s not art like some hipster trend of serving drinks in stupid vessels. We’ve been doing it since day one.
Calvin: It was not a mistake. I had been working on something else for some competition, something I had used peaches in. I was looking for something to put it in and just used the peach can itself. When we opened, we went back and forth about whether to put a Moscow Mule on the menu. We decided we’re not too good for anything, and the Moscow Mule is good and people love it, but we didn’t want to do the copper cup. It’s kind of boring now. So we used the can. We mound up the crushed ice and put Angostura on top. For better or worse, people see it, ask what it is and want one, because it looks fun.
You sure do seem to sell a lot of them.
Chris: Calvin did the research and put together a recipe to make house-made ginger beer. We make our own ginger beer and then pour on draft from off the soda gun so it doesn’t look like we’re being too serious about the ginger beer, but in fact we are.
Calvin: We get really busy and fill the room and the patio in the back. Making craft cocktails really fast is not easy. You have to set yourself up for it. Sticking ginger beer on the soda gun is more efficient.
Chris: It’s the Midwest DIY mentality. Elegance and ease come from hard work in the background beforehand. I think a lot of bars do that. But our goal is to be a little more Midwestern throwback than to expose all that hard work all the time.
Calvin: It should be hard work for us and easy for whoever comes in.