Jacyara de Oliveira describes her drink-making style as “no frills” and “direct and to the point.” In many ways, that is an apt description for the bartender herself, who recently stepped into the Beverage Director role at Chicago’s newly opened El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina.
The Windy City native entered the hospitality business at the age of 19; taking time off after school, she moved to Brazil, where her family is from, and worked in a number of restaurants. After returning to Chicago, she started as the opening hostess at (now-closed) Blokes & Birds, then moved on to The Drawing Room, where she learned about cocktails under Charles Joly, who went on to become the head bartender The Aviary.
“It was a good first bar family,” de Oliveira recalls. “That gave me an incredible base of knowledge, and I knew I wanted to keep bartending.”
Over the next several years she worked at a number of bars, each, she says, playing a role in the development of her style and point of view. At the Argentinean steakhouse Folklore, where orders for Mojitos and Caipirinhas would flood the bar, “I learned a ton about speed and volume”—skills that would later come in handy to help her win multiple finalist titles at Speed Rack bartending competitions. Meanwhile, at Perennial Virant, a restaurant focused on seasonal ingredients, she learned how to incorporate that ethos in a bar program.
A subsequent stint at bellyQ, chef Bill Kim’s Asian barbecue restaurant, taught her about sake and shochu, while at Southern Italian-focused Nico Osteria she received an education in wine, amari and vermouths—and fell in love with low-ABV cocktails, a category that would become an ongoing passion. “The low-proof cocktail is my jam, and it should be everybody’s jam,” she says.
More recent positions included helming the bar at the high-volume Sportsman’s Club—“It was very pared down; I got good at working with four-ingredient cocktails”—a turn in Seattle making drinks at Rob Roy and a bar manager role at Beatnik.
In her new role, she looks forward to continuing to work with straightforward, sessionable cocktails, with a low-key attitude that will extend even to her garnishes. As she says, “I like to present and drink as a thing that’s not too precious.”
So, what does de Oliveira do when she’s not drink-making? Here, she takes our Lookbook Questionnaire to share the best meal she’s ever had, the weirdest cocktail experiment she’s ever attempted and tips on how to drink like the French, plus the recipe for her aperitif cocktail, Drink Your Veggies.
Current occupation: Beverage Director for El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina.
What do want to be when you grow up? A farmer.
What does “drinking French fluently” mean to you? I’ve always looked at the French style of drinking as one that automatically incorporates a good time. It’s communal and focused on a gathering and/or togetherness.
Tell us about your drink and why it’s a good aperitif. Drink Your Veggies is full of unexpected flavors and combinations. Fresh lemon and carrot juices bring brightness and earthiness to the fresh green grassy notes of the cachaça and the light floral [notes] of St-Germain.
Jacyara de Oliveira Makes the Drink Your Veggies Cocktail
How do you define the aperitif? The aperitif, to me, is the beginning. It is bright and light and exciting, like the beginning of a new relationship or moving into a new apartment.
How do you approach creating an aperitif-style drink? I typically start with something flavorful and low proof: vermouth, sherry, amaro or another liqueur. From there I decide in which direction I want to take the cocktail: herbaceous, savory or fruit-forward.
What do you most like about French culture? I love the timeliness, or should I say lack there of, of French culture. It encourages quality over quantity when it comes to social interaction.
Best thing you ever drank: A glass of ice water. I was at the beginning of a cross-country bicycle tour, peddling through the hills of Pennsylvania. We hadn’t prepared adequately and were out of water and food long before our next scheduled stop. In the middle of farm country, there was a small auto shop that waved us down, chatted us up and, most importantly, offered us some much-needed water on that 100-degree day.
Worst thing you ever drank: Coffee with salted water by mistake. It was terrible.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: A while ago, my friends at Trick Dog had a cocktail on their menu with “umami” vermouth. I had no idea what that meant, but I loved the idea. I started infusing seaweed, mushrooms, black sesame and yuzu peel into a base wine. While I still think the idea is clever, every iteration came out tasting awful. Maybe next year…
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Bicycling. I ride year-round and all over.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be? Right now? HEAVN by Jamila Woods. But that might change tomorrow.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I don’t know how weird it is, but I’m experimenting with a lot of tiny home living concepts. I really like small home projects and am working on some modular furniture ideas to make my space more livable.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? That saying “no” is just as important as saying, “Absolutely, shit yeah.”
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: Vodka-Cranberry with three olives.
Your favorite bar, and why: Favorites fluctuate, but as far as standby’s go, the Matchbox on Milwaukee [Avenue] is one of the most golden bars I’ve ever been to. It’s visually interesting, tiny and the bartenders are just swell.
Best meal you’ve ever had: I was staying with some friends on a farm on the coast of Bahia. They had a big open kitchen with a huge wood-burning brick oven they’d made themselves. We cooked several meals there, but the most memorable was a moqueca [Brazilian fish stew] made with jackfruit we harvested on the farm. I dream of that savory, spicy and nurturing stew with frequency.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? If I’m feelin’ spicy, a Daiquiri. If I’m feeling like taking it easy, an Americano. But usually, I ask the bartender for something on their menu that’s in the Martini range—light, bright and stirred.
Wine bar? Riesling.
Dive bar? Campari-Soda.
The last text message you sent: Cool.