Jacyara de Oliveira is the beverage director at El Che Bar in Chicago.
Better Bartending: What was your first job in bartending?
Jacyara de Oliveira: My first actual bartending shifts were at Folklore, an Argentine steakhouse in [Chicago’s] Wicker Park. But I started as a barback at the Drawing Room where I learned a great deal about cocktails and bartending from the incredible staff.
BB: You recently launched your debut cocktail menu as beverage director at Chicago’s El Che Bar. Was it challenging to develop drinks that would go with the Argentine-inspired restaurant/bar?
JD: It’s always a bit challenging to create something new. That being said, I’ve developed techniques to streamline the process while much of my work went into the definition of the program identity.
BB: How did you go about the process?
JD: I spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to be. We are a big, beautiful restaurant with an incredible wine program, and I didn’t want to lose that idea with a cookie-cutter cocktail program.
Once I made the decision to lean into the heavy Italian influence on Argentine food culture, it was simple to create an outline of low-proof cocktails highlighting various Latin spirits. I then took that outline and was able to work out specific flavor combinations to create the menu we have now.
BB: Are there any cocktail pairings you could recommend with the food menu?
JD: I love starting a meal with something sparkling. We have a few options in the Jets to Brazil cocktail (aged cachaça, lemon, rabarbaro, sparkling wine), the Empress of Mars (mezcal, white vermouth, lime, rosemary, lavender, tonic), and of course, the El Che Aperitivo (Gancia Americano, vermouth, Campari, soda). Steaks call for Manhattans, and our rum-based spin, the Buenos Aires Airs with its combination of aged Jamaican rums, Punt E Mes vermouth and Fernet Branca, is a perfect pairing.
BB: The bar is known for its signature use of live fire—can you elaborate on that?
JD: There is a large open fire on which the vast majority of our dishes are cooked. I am trying to incorporate that into the bar program through fire-treated ingredients like the roasted pineapple syrup in the Hunter’s Harvest cocktail (with vodka, German amaro and lime).
BB: Have you ever had a problem or safety issue lighting sugars or bitters on fire to carmelize? Any advice for other on how to stay safe when working with fire behind the bar?
JD: Due to the volume and nature of our bar, we don’t work with a ton of live fire behind the bar. When we do, my only advice is to not let anything burn for very long. And keep your eyelashes at a healthy distance from the fire.
BB: The restaurant/cocktail scene in Chicago has always been competitive, but seems like it’s becoming even more so. How does a bar stand out in in the crowded field?
JD: Unique programming and well-defined identity are crucial to creating a standout bar. The most important aspect of a successful program has to be radically empathic service. A bartender that is able to understand what I need as a guest—sometimes even before I do—is one I want to see again and again.
BB: Would you share one of your cocktail favorite recipes from El Che Bar?
JD: Certainly! I love the Queen Me cocktail. This is somewhere between a 50/50 Martini and classic Manhattan. We highlight the Yerba Máté gin from CH distillery with a Spanish black vermouth and amontillado sherry for a savory, light, stirred cocktail.
1 ½ oz. CH Yerba Máté gin
¾ oz. Casa Mariol black vermouth
¾ oz. Lustau Amontillado sherry
Dash Angostura bitters
Barspoon Demerara syrup
Add all ingredients to mixing glass with ice and stir until well diluted and chilled. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with rosemary and grapefruit peel expression.