Chicago’s Story Slinger

Meet Henry and Violette. They’ve been together for an indeterminate amount of time, but long enough to give each other balance.  Henry’s a straight-laced Chicago lawyer that likes his whiskey. Violette is a French expatriate with a thirst for the whimsical. He keeps her grounded, and she prevents his necktie from becoming a noose. They live on the bottom floor of a tall Chicago building; one whose tropically-adorned rooftop evokes South American samba notes without any instruments. They just came back from vacationing in Cuba, and are ready to indulge in The Windy City’s embrace once more.

There’s only one caveat to this story. Henry and Violette don’t exist. They’re fictional muses conjured up by Jess Lambert, the dynamic head bartender behind the old-school, brown spirit-focused law library bar Vol. 39 and the Argentinian-inspired rooftop bar and lounge Boleo. Both are located within Chicago’s Kimpton Gray Hotel; an elegant modern hotel in the Financial District framed by a structure dating back to 1894. According to Lambert, the hotel’s 19th century skeleton inspired her duo. “I created Henry and Violette because they reminded me of people who would have stopped in for a drink at a place like Vol. 39 back in the day,” she said. “They give the concept an extra level of identity. It isn’t just a bar. It represents the journey that these two take, which is also the journey our guests take.”

Jess Lambert, Head Bartender of Vol. 39 and Boleo (PHOTO CREDIT: Shin Photography)

Henry and Violette’s saga is just one aspect of Lambert’s master storytelling. Her cocktails are liquid characters that set time, space, and mood, elements that change with the shifts of the seasons and the call of adventure. As her recently unveiled fall menu shows, some characters stand out with rather unique traits. At Vol. 39, her Aurora Kiruna is a Scandinavian-themed cocktail built on aquavit, Absolut Elyx, scratch-made cranberry syrup, and candied rosemary – a concoction inspired by her own travels through Sweden and Amsterdam. Upstairs at Boleo, her First Response libation is a pisco passed through brown butter several times before being paired with lemon juice and fresh radish. This process yields a full-bodied, rich-but-not-too-rich concoction that draws a line between Peruvian drinks and French crudité. These and other singularly crafted potent potables share autumn menu space with playful spins on classic stock characters like the Old Fashioned and the Martini. Thanks to Lambert’s foresight and a little assist from the Gray’s culinary team – “they’re a great source of inspiration when it comes to working with new ingredients,” she states – the stories these drinkable characters produce come from two very distinctive publishing houses. “Vol. 39 and Boleo are two totally different concepts, designed to create totally different experiences,” she states. “One gives you the sense of Chicago’s hometown luxury through bourbon and whiskey, while the other provides a sense of escape and relaxation through the flavors of South America. Both are built appeal to Chicago sensibilities.”

It’s rather appropriate Lambert takes a storytelling approach to crafting cocktails. Her road to being one of Chicago’s most respected barkeeps almost feels like a work of fiction. She was a cardiac nurse in her native Arizona in a previous life; a profession she chose because she loved science and wanted to work with people. She soon discovered she wanted something more. “I found myself drawn to creativity, which is lacking if you’re going to be a cardiac nurse,” she confesses. “I also found out I have no emotional capacity to be working in a hospital.” When she left the medical field and got behind the bar, she initially did so to pick up fast cash. She loved the pace of the gig and human engagement it offered, but she didn’t realize it could be a bona fide profession. This all changed with a trip to San Diego. “I landed at a [craft cocktail] spot called Craft & Commerce, and it became a life-changing experience,” she states. “I was mesmerized by everything they were doing. It was absolutely incredible. After that, a friend of mine suggested I make bartending a career.”

The frozen drink Sweater Weather, currently offered at Boleo. (PHOTO CREDIT: Michelle Banovic)

She took the advice to heart and never looked back. She got hired on by the Kimpton Group, where she honed her skills at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix before receiving the invitation to head to the Windy City. “They gave me the chance to do a limited run for Kimpton at their bar Sable in Chicago,” she recalls. “After I showed up, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I needed to be part of the scene. I went back to Phoenix, but I moved to Chicago eight months later.”

She’s settled in rather well in Chicago, and has the acclaim to prove it – Food & Wine proclaimed Vol. 39’s Chicago’s Best New Bar earlier this year. Perhaps more importantly, she’s made an indelible mark as a star bartender in a big-city market still dominated by men. While her talent is greatly – and rightfully – appreciated by an eclectic slew of clientele, she states she still deals with an occasional misogynistic mindset. “Unfortunately, reminders that we haven’t reached equality is something I encounter on a daily basis,” she states. “It usually comes from somebody that doesn’t think I’m educated trying to challenge me.” Because of this element, Lambert feels compelled to strive for equality through education. “I feel more of a responsibility to teach everyone that men and women are equal behind the bar,” she states. “I also feel I have a responsibility to assure young women getting into the industry that they belong. I didn’t have a lot of those kinds of teachers when I started out. I want to make sure others aren’t in that same position.”

Anyone within earshot of Lambert’s lessons should pay attention. She’s dialed into Chicago’s vibrant cocktail culture like a life-long native. This intuition couples with her skill set to design two distinct bar programs that take Chicago’s pulse with exceptional precision. It’s why she and her team can get away with offering the occasional drink that may not make sense to a non-Chicagoan like the Boleo cocktail Sweater Weather; a frozen concoction made with aged apple brandy, spicy amaro, and the grappa-esque aguardiente. “People will drink frozen or blended drinks in Chicago no matter the weather,” she says. “If you’re not from Chicago, it may look like it’s bending some kind of rule, and that’s fine. I like to bend the rules every now and again.”

Somewhere, at some time, Henry and Violette would undoubtedly approve.

(Lead Photo: Cocktails at Vol. 39. PHOTO CREDIT: David Syzmanski)