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“My favorite part of making drinks is that it reminds me of art,” says Mony Bunni, the illustrator-turned-bartender who has quickly made a name for herself on the Chicago drink scene with her creative, ingredient-driven spins on classics.
Indeed, an eye for composition informs much of Bunni’s approach, which typically incorporates unexpected ingredients, like mango puree or pu’er fermented tea, into tried and tested formulas. “A majority of classics can be broken down into a handful of builds,” explains Bunni, “I try to stick to [these] but vamp them up a little.” Oftentimes, this comes in the form of flavors drawn from her Arabic heritage (her family is Iraqi and Egyptian), like the tahini syrup in her Stone’s Throw, a rich, dessert-like mixture of Scotch and cream.
As the midwest brand ambassador for Lustau, a position she’s held since 2015, Bunni’s drinks naturally demonstrate the versatility of sherry, too. This is evident in her manzanilla-based Wait for It, a low-proof stirred drink that reads like the playful younger sibling of the Bamboo, and the oloroso-inflected Poetic Justice, an equal parts mixture of rye, Bonal and sherry, sweetened with a measure of tea syrup.
A natural understanding of flavor components, structure and balance has enabled Bunni to make waves in the industry over a short period of time. She got her start only five years ago at Sable Kitchen & Bar, where she took bartending shifts alongside her freelance illustration work, and quickly transitioned to bartending full time.
“I realized… that I loved bartending more than illustrating, and I wanted to see where it took me,” she says. Shortly after, in 2015, she opened the Queen Mary Tavern and then the Kimpton Gray Hotel while also bartending at Boleo and Vol. 39. Just last year, she won the Speedrack national championship—a testament to her consummate skill behind the stick—before taking up her current position at the just-opened Prairie School; she’s also involved in May’s Chicago Style, a new industry conference with a focus on diversity and intersectionality.
Here, get to know Bunni in four drinks.
Take Your Time
“My challenge… was to create a refreshing crusher that could go on the menu at Sportsman’s Club,” says Bunni of the prompt given to her as part of the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year regionals that lead to the creation of this spin on a buck. Built on a bourbon base, Take Your Time gets its spicy kick from Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, while mango syrup acts as the sweetener and Topo Chico provides a sparkling finish.
Named for the song by Kendrick Lamar, this cocktail was created for a frequent guest at the Kimpton Gray Hotel. “We had a regular that stayed in the hotel for about two weeks a month,” explains Bunni. “Since he’d come hang out at the bars, he made his way through the menu fairly quickly.” This blend of spicy rye, bitter Bonal and nutty oloroso gets an unexpected boost from a caramel pu-erh tea syrup, and was a dealer’s choice creation that later became a fixture of the menu.
Wait For It
Created at the Speed Rack Season 6 National Finals, where she took first place, Bunni’s Wait For It answered judge Alba Huerta’s call for a low-proof stirred drink with St-Germain. “I immediately thought of the floral sweetness of St-Germain and knew it would work well with a dry sherry,” she says. Keeping in mind not only the taste but the appearance, Bunni added a measure of Salers: “I wanted to add a bitterness, but keep the beautiful pale yellow color.” Finished with an expressed lemon peel, Wait For It makes for a bright aperitif cocktail and a welcome addition to category of session cocktails.
The Last Petal
Imbue Petal & Thorn vermouth acts as the driving force behind this sparkling cocktail. “It’s a really beautiful floral vermouth that has a lot of baking spice notes to it,” says Bunni, who pairs these qualities with the earthy notes of rhum agricole and the acidity of fino sherry, then tops the whole thing with dry sparkling wine.