“I didn’t want to work at a steakhouse,” says Eric Simmons, who oversees the bar program at Maple & Ash, one of Chicago’s most opulent steakhouses. To him, steakhouse bar programs were categorically uncool, known for serving “Chocolate Martinis with chocolate-covered strawberries.” After initially rejecting a job offer from Maple & Ash, Simmons reconsidered. Rather than write them off entirely, he saw an opportunity to rethink what a steakhouse cocktail could be. In 2018, he signed on as beverage director.
Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Simmons began bartending in Nashville in 2013 at a now-closed cocktail bar called Music City Tippler. With no prior bartending experience, it was trial by fire, but within a few months he had mastered the classics and successfully worked his way up to head bartender. He continued bartending in Nashville for five years, gaining experience at Pinewood Social, Amari and Sinema, to name a few. “I didn’t see a lot of diversity there,” recalls Simmons of his tenure working in Nashville’s bar scene; he notes he never encountered a Black bar manager there. He moved to Chicago “on a whim” in 2016. “I was seeing bartenders that looked like me, but they ran their own programs, and I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s a lot of opportunity here.’”
Today, he oversees four beverage programs for What If Syndicate, a national restaurant group headquartered in Chicago, responsible for Maple & Ash and Etta in Chicago and Monarch and Kessaku in Dallas. Working across varied concepts—casual Italian to upscale sushi—has taught Simmons to partner closely with the kitchen to produce cocktails cohesive to each concept: the Kyoto Fashioned, made from Japanese whisky and sake at Kessaku, for example, or a goat cheese fat-washed gin sour at Etta, a neighborhood Italian eatery.
Though inspired by the kitchen, Simmons’ drinks do not readily fit the traditional “culinary cocktail” label. There is no sous vide required, no gastronomic reductions or foraged ingredients. Instead, he draws on herbal infusions or syrups to create what might be termed culinary-friendly cocktails—that is, drinks designed to complement food. His Cognac Queen, for example, builds off of a Cognac base with lemon juice, rhubarb liqueur and a syrup flavored with dried strawberries and lavender seeds. While still spirit-forward, it lacks the palate-busting propensity that has long defined the steakhouse cocktail. “When people consume my drinks, I want [them] to feel like they’ve learned something and tasted something they’ve never had before,” says Simmons, “in a sense, like [I’m] teaching you about something that you didn’t know that you needed.”
Here, get to know Eric Simmons in three cocktails.
The BIR Questionnaire
Your approach to cocktails in one word:
Best (and worst) drink you’ve ever had:
Best: clarified Piña Colada, and the worst was an accidental sparkling Sazerac.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Honestly, there is no way to choose.
Your favorite classic cocktail, and why:
The Vesper because it’s clean, simple, elegant and sophisticated.
Worst drink you’ve ever made:
Ha! Trick question?
Your go-to dive bar drink order:
Beer and a shot of Cognac or tequila.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: