Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mixologist Lynn House

From the beginning, Lynn House struck me as a great bartender and avid cocktail historian. She has a true passion for sharing the history and preparation of great cocktails. When we met, I was at the Drawing Room with some friends, and Lynn made drinks for our group (most of whom were not then as nerdy about cocktails as me). My friends were completely enraptured with Lynn’s presentation, in a way I had never seen before. In fact, I still hear stories about that night from time to time, she made such an impression.

I knew immediately that I wanted to write about Lynn here, but didn’t get around to asking her or actually setting up an interview for entirely too long. A few things have changed for Lynn since that first encounter. She’s now running the drink program at Graham Elliot, a truly innovative restaurant here in Chicago, and she just won a prestigious cocktail competition. She also just recently started living on her own again, after her daughter got her own apartment nearby.

Life on the Stage, a Little Work on the Side
Lynn grew up in Columbus, OH (I still like her, even though she’s a die-hard Buckeye). She studied theatre in college, and studied at the British American Drama Academy after graduating from Miami University of Ohio with a BFA in Theatre.

She spent many years as a professional actor and writer, primarily in live theater. She won acclaim for many roles, including a 2000 Best Actress award for her portrayal of Ruth in The Gift Horse at the Goodman Theater. She worked with many accomplished directors, writers and performers, including one of her mentors, Regina Taylor. I wish I could have seen her on stage – I am sure she'd be fantastic, and it comes through in her work now.

Like many of us, Lynn worked at a restaurant during college. She continued working in the restaurant business after college as well, to supplement her pursuit of acting. She mostly waited tables, and became a head trainer at Spring. She became more interested in beverages there, and started researching wines, beers and spirits, and teaching classes to the staff about them.

A Fork in the Road
About three years ago, Lynn found herself at a crossroads. A seven-year relationship was ending, and she enrolled in Bridget Albert’s
Academy of Spirits and Fine Service (the same class that has been so influential for others in Chicago). She was so inspired by Bridget, and by the class, that she dug much deeper into cocktails and beverages. She was waiting tables at Chalkboard at the time, and created her first original cocktail – the Chalkboard 75, which is reportedly still on the menu.

Dreams, Cooking, Music
It’s been 2½ years since she stepped behind the bar full-time, and she hasn’t looked back. After leaving Chalkboard, Lynn honed her skills at the Drawing Room, which is where we first met. She later joined the opening team at Graham Elliot, which just celebrated its first anniversary. Lynn runs the beverage program at GE, and these days finds her greatest inspiration in her dreams, in cooking and in music. Those seem like natural inspirations, especially at Graham Elliot. One of Lynn’s favorite cocktails, London Calling, was inspired by the song and became enduringly popular – it will be included in Gary Regan’s upcoming book, The Bartender's Gin Compendium.

In Lynn’s cocktails, you won’t find a ton of extravagant, unusual ingredients – she favors balance first, and a rationale and purpose for each ingredient in the drink. She takes influence from classic cocktails, but aims to put her own distinctive spin on them. One of her other favorites was the Blueberry Hill, a gin-based variation on the classic frappe with crushed ice, but served in a cocktail glass.

Creating Her Own Work
Regina Taylor gave Lynn a pivotal piece of advice – to “create your own work.” In the theater, it meant writing and collaborating with others to create meaningful roles and characters, and Lynn pursued those paths in the theater. She continues to write now, when she has time and inspiration. She finds that the advice is even more meaningful to her at GE, though - she is creating her own work in a different medium, and she is loving the opportunity to create great cocktails and share them.

Cocktail Champion
Although she doesn’t live for competition, Lynn has entered a couple of cocktail competitions recently. In her latest outing, she won the Illinois round of the GQ/Bombay Sapphire competition last month, and will soon be going to Las Vegas for the national competition! Here’s her winning cocktail:

Summer Siesta
1½ oz Bombay Sapphire
¾ oz Thatcher's Cucumber liqueur
¼ oz fresh lemon juice
¼ oz simple syrup
2 diced strawberries

Muddle the berries and syrup, add other ingredients and stir. Serve over crushed ice and garnish with strawberries and cucumber.

Fast Facts
  • Find her: at Graham Elliot on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday – guaranteed to be there between 5 and 8 pm, and often there later, but she might be behind the scenes
  • What to order at her bar: Rites of Spring was a recent favorite, it’s one of her most creative drinks to date. However, she’ll likely have some fantastic summer drinks on the menu now, so I recommend going over to check it out.
  • Hobbies: When she’s not at GE, she can often be found in her home garden. She is an avid gardener, growing tomatoes, herbs, asparagus, onions, and more – some of it for use at the restaurant in her cocktails. She’s an avid cook as well, and sometimes puts her homemade ingredients into beverages as well- such as the homemade apple butter she used in the London Calling.
  • Test Drink: If she has confidence in the bartender, she might order a Mojito or Manhattan. If not, a beer. Her favorite cocktail, when made well, is the Margarita.
  • On a Deserted Island: she’d want pictures of her family, guacamole, and chilled Champagne (preferably Egly-Oruriet)
  • Personal Life: Lynn is single.
  • Something you probably don't know: She definitely doesn’t look it, but Lynn is a grandmother! Her beautiful daughter Lexi (short for Alexia) was named after Alexander the Great, and Lexi has two beautiful daughters of her own– Leilani and Aaliyah. Lynn dotes on her granddaughters, and loves spending as much time with them as possible.
Photo credits: first photo is by Jim Columbo, second photo is mine, third is by Carlos Cuarta.

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