There is a rare spirits bar across the street from Wrigley Field.
That is the central absurdist reality you have to begin with if you’re to wrap your head around Mordecai, a new bar inside the Hotel Zachary. The boutique hotel is part of a mushrooming of new development surrounding the beloved old baseball stadium that has occurred over the last couple years, following the 2016 World Series victory that ended a century-long drought for the team.
It’s not just proximity that renders Mordecai inseparable from the ballpark. The bar is named after Mordecai “Three Finger” Peter Centennial Brown, a Cubs pitcher from the early part of the 20th century, who, as the name would suggest, only had three fingers on his throwing hand, which helped produce a wicked curve ball. The hotel it’s in is named after architect Zachary Taylor Davis, who designed the park. And, most critically, the hotel is owned by the Ricketts family, who also own the Cubs and have bought a good deal of the land adjacent to the ballpark.
You could say, then, that the Cubs own Mordecai, and that Mordecai is a Cubs bar. And yet, Mordecai is unlike anything you would imagine a Cubs bar to be, much less a bar in Wrigleyville. It has as much in common with the Cubby Bear and Sluggers down the street as a beer koozie has with a Champagne bucket. Yes, there are televisions, sometimes hidden behind large, oval mesh panels that one manager called “James Bond doors.” And the stadium fills up the large glass storefront like King Kong peeking into an Empire State window. But the décor and vibe are cool and clean. There are no Kris Bryant jersey-clad fans braying at the screens. There are, instead, well-appointed couples and professionals sitting down to grilled octopus, beet tartare and arugula pappardelle. No peanuts and Crackerjacks here.
Then again, maybe Ricketts & Co. are on to something. Admission to the parks that play host to America’s favorite pastime can run you in the hundreds these days. It may be that a goodly portion of those flush fans would now rather frame their game with a fine meal and chic cocktail.
When conceiving the place, the Ricketts reached out to chef Matthias Merges, proprietor of the Folkart Restaurant Management group, and Alex Bachman, a former bartender at Folkart’s Billy Sunday, which is known for its collection of old amari. Bachman is also founder of Sole Agent, which supplies the growing thirst for ancient spirits, providing rare “dusties” for the likes of Canon in Seattle and Milk Room in Chicago. The Ricketts gave Merges and Bachman a virtual blank check. Bachman responded by giving Mordecai what is one of the most impressive collections of vintage spirits in the country, numbering around 300 bottles, with an emphasis on American whiskey.
“There is such a great history and depth of stories with Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs,” says Merges, “and a similarly rich history of bourbon and whiskey in America. I thought Mordecai could be the perfect melding of the two.”
The Pappy Van Winkle collection, the nation’s largest, has gotten most of the attention so far—and rare bourbon does dominate the menu. But there is also old rabarbaro, carciofo and aperitivo bitters. Prices range from $25 to $650 for a two-ounce pour.
The vintage spirits trend has been going strong for about a decade now, and can be divided into two phases. It began in aching sincerity, with knowledge-thirsty bartenders eager to sample what their forefathers drank, and build wishing-thinking approximations of old cocktails. But bars quickly learned that such juice attracted big spenders, and the practice transformed into soulless golden carrot-dangling, which is where we are now. Some bars, like Chicago’s own The Milk Room, still retain that old air of educational passion. Most, like Mordecai, feel like booze equivalents of Hammacher Schlemmer.
There are cocktails at Mordecai, which are also the work of Bachman. The best of them was the Four Leaf Clover, made with Irish whiskey, Amaro Braulio, crème de menthe and green Chartreuse. The whiskey anchors the drink, which, bracing and herbal, manages to evoke alpine flavors of both winter and summer. The Champagne Cup and Penguin Suit were both enjoyable enough, the former sporting a slight bitter edge from the addition of Tempus Fugit Kina d’Avignon, and a hint of apple from a dose of Laird’s bonded applejack. But mainly it tasted of its primary ingredient: Cremant d’Jura. Ultimately, many of the drinks are one note.
Cocktails, however, aren’t what this place is about. So on each of three recent visits, I sampled from the library. I began with something familiar: a 1970s Campari, which I had tried in the past. The bartender scrambled atop the back bar and fetched the bottle from a high shelf. It was served neat, and I requested ice on the side. It was as I recalled: broader in flavor than modern Campari, with deep cherry and rhubarb notes, and less viscous than the modern sort. An experience certainly worth the $35.
I had good reason for playing it safe. The spirits catalogue lists only the brand, place of origin, alcohol level, era and price. There are no tasting notes to give you an idea of what you’re getting. And it soon became clear that the bar staff knew no more than I did. They had not tasted any of the rare spirits I asked about, and could offer little guidance beyond hearsay. You’re basically taking a shot in the dark when you order—which is fine if you have a bottomless wallet, but not if you don’t.
And so, I continued to keep the stakes low. A 1981 Ancient Age Straight Whiskey import from Japan was an intriguing curiosity, and the price, $25, was right. I got the last of the bottle, and my bet paid off. It was mellow, gentle, light-bodied, oily and entirely pleasant. I let my bartender have a taste, because they’ve got to learn somehow.
The whiskey section probably inspires the most goggle-eyed stares, but the booze geek in me couldn’t help but be sweaty-palmed around the list of old carciofi—Italian artichoke liqueurs—tucked in the back of the menu. I recognized only one brand: Cynar. I was anxious to try one of the other mystery bottles, but, again, intel was hard to come by. I finally settled on Coop’s Aperitivo, from Turin of the 1970s. (Coop is an Italian supermarket chain that apparently bottled a carciofo once upon a time).
This time, instead of getting the last drop, I was the first to have ordered it; the decades-old bottle was cracked open in front of me. The liquid was fascinating: Like many Italian bitters and amari from that time, it was less syrupy, subtler in flavor and lighter in body. The bartender didn’t agree. “Very sweet,” he said, which made me wonder if he’s ever tasted modern Cynar.
Then again, that I was weighing the depth of my bartender’s amari knowledge while spitting distance from the home of the Cubs made me wonder more. Mordecai is a strange beast. Would Harry Caray drink here, or would he head to the Bud Brickhouse Tavern across the street, the one under the big Jim Beam billboard? (I spotted some old Beam on the Mordecai menu. It was $65 a pour.) Positioned in another neighborhood, I might appreciate its elite offerings and sophisticated air. But it’s in Wrigleyville, where it registers not just as an incongruity, but something of a provocation.
Perhaps Mordecai represents the future of the once low-slung, blue-collar neighborhood, which is fast gentrifying, as well as the future of baseball itself. But, at present, the place is like a horse with two heads, pulling in opposite directions. Like our current government, Mordecai wants to cozy up with the one percent while retaining a patina of populism.
Currently, it’s not coming though convincingly on either end, but its rewards are greater for the well-heeled, slumming skybox crowd, which will likely end up being its clientele. For the bleacher bums, meanwhile, there’s still the Cubby Bear and Wrigleyville Dogs. Baseball may be big business now, but to the majority of its fans it’s still just a game.