Julia McKinley’s Drinks Are On-Trend, But Not Trendy

The beverage director at Chicago’s forthcoming Young American uses of-the-moment ingredients to fashion drinks with serious staying power.

Each month, as part of an ongoing portrait of rising talent in the bartending community, PUNCH hosts a resident bartender who has demonstrated a strong sense of personal style. In this installment, Julia McKinley of Chicago’s forthcoming Young American is taking over our bar, and debuting a custom menu of four original cocktails that we’ll serve throughout her month-long residency.

Restrained isn’t a description you’d expect to accompany the drinks of a bartender who cut her teeth at two of the country’s top tiki bars. But as she prepares to launch her own beverage program at Chicago’s Young American, Julia McKinley—an alum of Three Dots and a Dash and Lost Lake—demonstrates a tight focus in her original cocktails.

“What drives me nuts about some people’s style is that there are so many ingredients in the drink,” says McKinley. “I’m always trying to make every ingredient serve more than one purpose.”

Key to this approach is a reliance on hardworking components—in particular, fortified wine. “Part of the reason why I love Madeira and sherry so much—specifically Madeira—is because it’s balanced in itself,” explains McKinley, “it’s sweet and then it has its own dryness.” It’s a natural preference for a bartender who spends much of her spare time studying wine (this past summer she received her sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers). “I think a lot of people find wine to be unapproachable because it’s such a vast world of information,” says McKinley, “I really wanted to do something that people can approach and not be intimidated by.”

This often means squaring less familiar ingredients—like rancio sec or Pineau de Charentes—with well-known spirits or templates. While her penchant for low-proof cocktails and an interest in the of-the-moment cure-all, CBD, might read as trendy, the thoughtful construction of McKinley’s drinks gives them true staying power. “I try to incorporate these things without doing too much,” she says. “When I make a build, I really have to look at it and think ‘Am I getting too ethereal here?’,” she says, “There have to be ingredients that people can hold on to.”

Here, get to know McKinley in four drinks.

chicago bartender Julia McKinley

Space Face
“Pineapple and mint is always such a great combination,” says McKinley of the key flavors in her contemporary take on a sour. “That’s definitely a tiki influence,” she notes, citing similarities to the Missionary’s Downfall. In place of a rum base, however, McKinley opts for a split between tequila and a particularly floral blanco vermouth that’s meant to compliment the grassy notes of the agave spirit while lowering the overall ABV. For the sweetener, McKinley relies on a honey-créme de menthe mixture bolstered by pineapple gum syrup. “Pineapple can just be such an emulsifier of flavors,” she says. “It links things together in a really beautiful way.”

Fort Nite
An equal-parts combination of rye, Jamaican rum, Madeira and rancio sec, Fort Nite re-casts the Old-Fashioned at a lower octane without losing the integrity of the original—something McKinley does particularly well. “The Old-Fashioned is like the new vodka-soda—everyone calls for it,” says McKinley, “I wanted to do something that obviously incorporated lower ABV ingredients, but still had enough of a punch.” Rye provides the traditional Old-Fashioned backbone, while Madeira and rancio sec add both sweet and dry complexity. “And, of course, rum,” says McKinley, “because I love rum.”

Hey High Hello
In this Collins-style cocktail, McKinley builds on a base of Pineau des Charentes and fino sherry, supplemented by a small measure of Japanese gin, all topped with lemon tonic. Like Madeira, Pineau des Charentes offers both sweetness and an inherent drying effect, while Nikka Coffey gin adds a brightening effect. “You can use a very small amount of it and it adds really beautiful lift,” says McKinley of her gin of choice, “and then if you pair it with any kind of citrus it just explodes.” The end result is, in McKinley’s words, “super crushable, but it has enough complexity to make it something interesting.”

No New Friends
“I wanted to make it something that felt like a cocktail, not something that was juicy and has club soda,” says McKinley of her approach to non-alcoholic drinks. Rather than working from an existing cocktail template and simply removing the alcohol, McKinley starts from scratch to build something that feels complete unto itself. Here, turmeric tonic and hibiscus teas form the base of No New Friends, while lime and CBD-infused agave add sweet and sour components and aquafaba lends texture. The result is “something that has a little bitterness, a little spice and beautiful texture.”

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