Cocktails

Richard Beltzer Has a Vision

May 01, 2020

Story: Chloe Frechette

Photo: Rebecca Peplinski

Cocktails

Richard Beltzer Has a Vision

May 01, 2020

Story: Chloe Frechette

Art: Rebecca Peplinski

The Alaska native takes an unconventional approach at one of Chicago’s most forward-thinking bars. Get to know him in four drinks.

For Richard Beltzer, the best cocktails are often born from self-imposed boundaries.

At Chicago’s Bad Hunter, where Beltzer worked as head bartender before COVID-19 mandated its closure, this meant creating drinks that fit within the restaurant’s vision of “functional sustainability.” That is, using otherwise-wasted ingredients—citrus hulls, strawberry tops, kitchen scraps—without generating more waste in the process, a cycle that often plagues even the most well-intentioned establishments.

Before moving to Chicago just four years ago, Beltzer worked as a bartender in his native Anchorage, Alaska. When the coffee shop he worked at closed, he described it as a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to pivot to bartending, a career path that appealed to him not only for the higher pay but the greater sociability. With no cocktail experience, he was drawn to the educational opportunity the local TGI Fridays offered. Though their program is perhaps best known for its highly theatrical style of flair bartending, it also has a strong in-house training program. “Even outside of flair, the foundation [of their program] was classic cocktails,” explains Beltzer. “There were not any cocktail bars really providing mentorship or education,” he says of the limited opportunities in Anchorage.

Beginning as a lunch server, Beltzer eventually worked his way up to the coveted position of evening bartender. In a city of just 290,000 people, one that Beltzer describes as “a little behind the times” and “more focused on the outdoors,” TGI Fridays represented one of the more popular nightlife destinations. “It was always busy,” recalls Beltzer.

After three years at TGI Fridays, where he mastered the art of the free pour (he still challenges his coworkers to free-pouring accuracy contests), he joined the team at Ginger, an Asian-inspired restaurant with one of the city’s only craft cocktail programs. Around the same time, he participated in the renowned Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP) at Tales of the Cocktail, while taking time to visit some of the country’s top drinking destinations, like Rumba in Seattle, Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland and Normandie Club in Los Angeles with his mentor and fellow Ginger bartender, Justin Duffin. “We tried to bring what we saw back to Alaska,” says Beltzer.

What stuck with him most was the deliberate incongruity between serious cocktails and a laid-back atmosphere, something that was hard to achieve back in Anchorage, a city that the cocktail renaissance had yet to reach. “If I had made a Daiquiri or a Bee’s Knees, that was a little too far,” he recalls, noting that the few extant cocktail bars in the city had just begun to experiment with fresh juices and ingredients. At the behest of Laura Kelton, a Chicago-based friend and fellow bartender whom he met through CAP, in 2016 he picked up moved to the city to assist with the opening of Bad Hunter, where Kelton had been hired as head bartender.

At Bad Hunter, the bar often works in tandem with the kitchen to create closed-loop cocktails. For the West Loop restaurant, that means trying to find more than one purpose for every ingredient used: Green strawberry tops, for example, go back to the kitchen to be used in dressings after the fruit is juiced in the bar; pasta water is redeployed as a form of dilution in This Cocktail Contains Gluten, a Japanese whisky and vermouth cocktail that is pre-batched and pulled directly from the freezer when ordered. “There were so many failures in that process of being, like, ‘Let’s try and use that again,’” says Beltzer, “but you have to try.”

Having spent much of his formative bartending years focused on the classics, Beltzer shows an equal deftness in creating original, conceptual cocktails. His Sun City, for example, works from the structure of an Old Pal—one of his favorite classic cocktails—splitting the aperitivo component between Ramazzotti Rosato and Cap Corse blanc quinquina, with the addition of a barspoon of yellow Chartreuse for greater texture. His Spice Up Your Life cocktail, meanwhile, defies easy categorization. A base of mezcal is supported by an arsenal of low-proof modifiers—yuzu liqueur, pamplemousse, fortified wine infused with hyssop leftover from the kitchen, falernum—all topped with bright, crisp saison beer.

With its adventurous structure and reliance on ingredients drawn from the kitchen, it’s a drink that aptly captures Beltzer’s personal style: “Overall”, he notes, “I’m just trying to find the fun on top of all the function.”

Here, get to know Richard Beltzer in four signature cocktails.

PSG&T

Perhaps no one cocktail captures Beltzer’s style as aptly as his PSG&T, or Pumpkin Spice Gin & Tonic, a seasonal spin that calls on squash syrup and cinnamon-infused gin. It marries the familiar highball template with a sustainable bent (the syrup extends the life of the squash), while cheekily nodding to the ubiquity—and yes, deliciousness—of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. “I want the people who look at the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks and want it, to order this drink,” explains Beltzer—“but without the insecurity.”

“I want the people who look at the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks and want it, to order this drink,” explains Richard Beltzer. [Recipe]
Sun City

“In general, I lean toward stirred cocktails,” says Beltzer, citing the Old Pal as a particular favorite. (“As I get older,” he jokes, “too many citrus drinks… It hurts.”) To the expected rye and dry vermouth components, he adds both Ramazzotti Rosato and Cap Corse blanc quinquina as a substitute for the expected Campari. It lends a lighter, less cloying quality to the drink, while a barspoon of yellow Chartreuse adds both complexity and body.

Ramazzotti Rosato and Cap Corse blanc quinquina stand in for the expected Campari in this Old Pal variation. [Recipe]
Spice Up Your Life!

Named for the Spice Girls lyric, this mezcal-based cocktail gets a burst of heat from a house-made Fresno pepper tincture that also includes thyme and star anise. “I wanted to try and find a way to incorporate all of these low-ABV ingredients,” recalls Beltzer, who started with yuzu and pamplemousse liqueurs before taking it to the Bad Hunter team for input. It ultimately became a nine-ingredient drink, including falernum, fortified wine and saison beer, defying traditional structures. “I remember it needed a couple extra layers,” says Beltzer. “It ended up being a collaborative cocktail.”

A base of mezcal is supported by an arsenal of low-proof modifiers. [Recipe]
Perá Fortuna

Created for a local cocktail competition, the Perá Fortuna builds from a classic Gimlet structure, adding spiced pear liqueur, absinthe and celery bitters. “A drink I used to make all the time was a gin, lime, absinthe Collins,” recalls Beltzer of the inspiration. Turning the drink into a shorter format allowed the flavors to stand out in stronger concentration, but the finishing touch came from introducing absinthe back into the equation. “I realized the drink needed more body,” explains Beltzer, “and absinthe is like a cheat code.”

The Perá Fortuna builds from a classic Gimlet structure, adding spiced pear liqueur, absinthe and celery bitters. [Recipe]

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