On the night of the midterm elections, Paul McGee is behind the bar at Milk Room serving a special menu with five drinks, all of which feature Canadian whisky. “Because if things don’t go well tonight, that’s where I’m heading,” he says to a patron, who has just taken a seat. She, like McGee, is wearing an “I Voted” wristband, the only accessory the bartender is displaying. Unless you count his translucent circular frames or the beard by which Chicagoans know him best—a hard-earned dark brown and gray cascade that rides its way down to his collarbone.
Two seats over sit two men in their late 20s. Working off of the bar’s only light—a series of tall glass jar candles—they are signing their check. They tell McGee, one after the other, that it was their favorite bar experience of all time, that they’ve never seen anything like it.
“Incredible, man,” one says. “You were absolutely on point.” McGee looks up from the cocktail he’s making to acknowledge the two friends, one hand still stirring the medley of brown spirits before him.
“It’s hard to fake it in here,” he says smiling.
And it is. With just eight bar seats and 350 square feet, Milk Room is as intimate as they come. Housed within the Chicago Athletic Association, a hotel that functioned as a prestigious men’s club from 1893 to 2007, the bar formerly served as a clandestine watering hole for members looking for a “glass of milk.” They would enter its unmarked doors, stay for a few minutes and exit with an opaque milk glass, curiously filled to the brim.
It’s those kinds of drinks, post-Prohibition classics, that McGee and his team hope to recreate within these walls, through the help of history in its best form: vintage spirits. Campari from the 1970s, Bénédictine from the ’60s and Fernet from the ’50s are just a few examples of the 150-plus-bottle inventory, which grows by 10 or 12 additions on a weekly basis. For the bar team, it’s a product list that makes for a particularly trying training process, even for McGee, an industry veteran with close to 30 years of experience.
“The challenging thing about working in this room is that, a lot of times, no two bottles are the same,” he says. “If I get a bottle of Campari from the ’60s and one from the ’70s, they’re totally different, and it’s not going to be the same cocktail recipe because of that. There’s definitely a learning curve to bartending here.”
With that rare hard-to-source supply comes costs to match. The bar’s cheapest cocktails start in the $20 to $30 range, with the highest being closer to $150 (an Old Fashioned variation with 1970s Old Grand-Dad bourbon). The prices for neat pours, on the other hand, can grow much steeper, and fast. British Royal Navy Jamaican rum from the 1940s runs at $300 for a two-ounce pour, while the same amount of 1950s Old Fitzgerald is listed at $400. And then there’s the bar’s most prized offering: a 1909 bottle of Old Overholt rye that was aged for 14 years under the purview of the Mellon family, who owned the Pennsylvania distillery at the time.
There are vintages ranging from 1903 to 1915. And about four years ago, some of these bottles became available for purchase via an online auction with Christie’s. The starting price was $3,000 for a case of 12 quarts, and McGee jumped on it.
“I got really excited, opened an account with Christie’s and woke up early to be on the live feed,” says McGee, who notes that his offers were quickly outbid, with the cheapest bottle selling for $14,000. “I remember thinking, Dang, that was a really cool one that slipped through my fingers.”
All hope was not lost. A year later, McGee received a call from a friend in New York City who was looking to sell one of the bottles he himself had acquired in the auction. McGee flew to the East Coast to personally retrieve the 1909 bottle for Milk Room, where they used it to celebrate the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory. “1909 was the same year the Cubs’ curse started, so when they won, we started telling people who came in that they needed to try it.” With, of course, the disclaimer of its price: $900 per two-ounce pour.
It’s these kinds of ranges in numbers that has led McGee to seek out a team that’s especially proficient at reading its clientele and their wants and having the conversations that will result in a guest’s ultimate cocktail choice, whether it’s a gussied-up tequila and tonic or a $100 Sazerac with 1930s Pernod.
“People who visit are often like, ‘Wow, I’ve never had a $100 drink before, but that’s something I want to try,’” says McGee. “It’s my hope that we deliver something really special.”