By any measure, Jef Tate’s rise in the cocktail world has been fast. In the span of only a few years, the Chicago native went from selling his original cocktails at house parties for $5 a pop, using Home Depot buckets as rinse sinks, to working as the beverage director of Billy Sunday, one of the city’s most notable cocktail bars.
“When I finally had my footing [as a bartender],” says Tate, who joined the classics-focused bar Moneygun as a barback after a party guest invited him to apply, “I told myself I wanted to own my own space within three years. I was able to knock it down to two.” He’s referring to Janitor’s Closet, a compact space in a former janitorial storage room within the FieldHouse Jones Hotel that Tate transformed into his own concept. Not long after opening in April 2019, Chicago Magazine named it one of the best new bars in the city. Then the pandemic hit. Tate redirected energy to other pursuits that could carry on despite the closures. But as the city started opening back up, he found himself drawn back to bars, at least on the guest side.
“I’m at Billy Sunday one evening and the bar director at the time asked me, ‘What are you doing right now?’ He was like, ‘We could use some help, if you were interested,’” recalls Tate. “I just looked at the backbar and realized that at least 60 percent of the bottles in here I’ve never seen, so to me it was an opportunity to learn and grow.” Tate joined as a bartender in June 2021, graduating to beverage director in November of that year. Ever since, he’s imbued the cocktail program with subtle nods to the flavors of his Caribbean background.
“I draw pretty heavily on flavors from Jamaican cooking,” says Tate. At Billy Sunday, his Permanently Closed stirs together brown butter–washed mezcal, elote liqueur and Gran Classico bitter liqueur mixed with small measures of aquavit, Ancho Reyes Verde and Angostura Cocoa Bitters. The finishing touch comes in the form of an asham rim, a pulverized combination of dehydrated corn, sugar and salt that is a common Caribbean dessert. As Tate explains, “It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever put on a menu.” But, it’s also one of the most popular—after the house Old-Fashioned, Permanently Closed is Billy Sunday’s most-ordered drink.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
You don’t have to swerve to avoid every pothole. Sometimes just slowing down is enough.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Rye whiskey with olives and olive brine.
Best drink you’ve ever had:
Tie: Fresh-squeezed orange juice in Marrakesh and fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice with lime.
Your favorite classic cocktail:
Daiquiri. I’m Jamaican—we drink rum. And it’s perfect for when it’s hot outside. And when it’s cold outside, it makes you feel like it could be warm again someday.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Permanently Closed, lol.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Bourbon. It is the least interesting member of the whisk(e)y family and it almost always tastes the same across the board.