In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark they’re making on the drinks scene.
Chicago has no shortage of hardworking, talented beverage professionals, whether they’re behind the stick at dive bars or high-end cocktail lounges, working with cutting-edge ingredients at breweries and distilleries, or stocking shelves with innovative products at retail shops. The Chicago beverage community gets the job done with award-winning style and aplomb. From a young bar owner making inclusion a top priority to a brewer turning the industry on its head, here are five talented women and men working to move Chicago’s drink scene forward.
The Inclusivity Expert
Rising Star: Sophia de Oliveira, coproprietor, Good Measure
Nominated by: Charles Joly, cofounder Crafthouse Cocktails; recipient in 2013 of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program at the Aviary
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Charles Joly first worked with de Oliveira, then 17, in 2010 when she worked a couple of shifts in the kitchen at the Drawing Room in Chicago’s tony Gold Coast neighborhood. He was struck by her drive at the time and continues to be impressed today. With the opening of de Oliveira’s bar Good Measure in River North, Joly took note of the “real front-of-mind importance [to her of] fair hiring practices.” Referring to the bar’s diverse staff—people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, older industry veterans—he says that for de Oliveira it was “just as important as the drink program.” De Oliveira’s team focuses on hospitality while providing guests with top-quality drinks that don’t seem as if they’re trying too hard. “She puts forth a quality, focused product,” Joly says, “and the experience is sincere as well.”
Just 26 now, de Oliveira has filled a career’s worth of hospitality roles, from floor manager to opening bartender, at a number of Chicago restaurants, including Benny’s Chop House, Osteria Langhe, Cold Storage, and Devereaux at the Viceroy. She almost left the industry before her latest opportunity, to open Good Measure in August of 2018, presented itself. At the punk rock–vibed bar, which offers an eclectic mix of amped-up American pub grub and riffs on classic cocktails, de Oliveira decided she wanted to lead in a different way. “The most important thing in building Good Measure was to have a place that’s great to work and that’s diverse,” she says. “That’s what we strove to build.” That sentiment is important to the experience she hopes to provide at Good Measure and beyond. “The world we live in is so hard,” she says, “and I like to think that in this industry we’re really predisposed to making the world a little brighter. Now, especially, it’s so important to show compassion. It’s the greatest thing you can do today.”
The Quiet Force
After a five-year stint working at Intelligentsia Coffee, in 2015 Moody found himself soaking up wine knowledge working as a sales associate alongside respected wine merchant Craig Perman. It was here, at Perman’s original namesake wine shop in the West Loop (it has since moved to the Near North Side), that Moody started down a path toward greater discovery. “In this business it’s very easy to taste something, like it, and go with it,” Perman says. “Then there’s wanting to know everything about a region and taste everything from the best—that’s the dedication it takes to be really good in this business, and Collin does that.” Moody translates his knowledge into an ever-evolving beverage program that he enjoys sharing with his guests. “He won’t spend an hour talking about his million different philosophies,” Perman adds. “He simply finds wine that tastes good and is made the right way, then assists his customers in finding the right wines for their palate.”
Moody’s wealth of knowledge extends to beer, cocktails, and coffee as well, which get equal attention from Income Tax Bar’s expertly curated beverage program. The selection ranges from esoteric surprises to affordable cult favorites, with a focus on vermouth cocktails and sherries—there’s even a Manzanilla on tap—and a manageable yet hardly stingy spirits collection. “Our list,” says Moody, “while eccentric, is hospitality minded, and we try to have something for everyone, even if it pushes their comfort zone a bit.” For that reason, Moody maintains a limited regular by-the-glass selection, but he’ll sell any wine on the bar’s list as a half bottle—the remainders are sold by the glass as specials—with the intent to introduce guests to new options. “We often ask people to make a much smaller commitment than other restaurants,” Moody says. “It allows for discovery and has created this cool feeling that gets customers to trust us.”
South Side Visionary
The well-documented segregation of Chicago’s South and North Sides extends into the food and beverage arena as well. Alexis Brown is working to change that. “She’s creating visibility for herself and other bartenders on the South Side so people can remember there’s a larger part of our city and that the people there want the same opportunities as the people on the North Side,” Shelby Allison says. The organization Causing a Stir, which Brown cofounded with Ariel E. Neal in late 2016, offers educational opportunities to women of color, with the goal of encouraging racial equality in the beverage industry. It now has well over 1,000 members. Says Allison, “Alexis [sees] people who are not being cared for and looks to fix that.”
Growing up in various neighborhoods on the South Side, including Bronzeville, Woodlawn, and South Shore, Brown has seen how easily people can become discouraged. Always looking to advance her skills, whether working day jobs as an office manager, honing her craft at places like the Aviary and the Dearborn, or entering bartending competitions, Brown wants to ensure that other women of color have access to the same opportunities she has had. “I think a lot of people need confidence, and that comes with knowledge, education, and experience,” Brown says. “I try to educate people to try new things, to have more people get into the hospitality industry, and to restore dignity to the South Side.” An avid historian, Brown has extensively researched the once-thriving black-owned restaurants and jazz clubs of Chicago’s “Black Belt” to remind people that what once was can exist again. “I’m compiling a manifesto to preserve history and give a manual to the generations to come,” she says, “so people who want to get into hospitality can learn from the past and bring it to the future.”
The Beer Innovator
As evidenced in recent headlines, Chicago has more breweries than any other U.S. metro area. But no brewery, with the exception of Eris, produces both beer and cider under one roof. That distinction was achieved after years of persistence and hard work by co-owner Michelle Foik, but credit for production is owed to head brewer Hayley Shine, who, Valentine says, is “reinventing the wheel.” Armed with years of brewing experience, Shine teamed with Foik to tackle the challenge of producing cider. She’s now “turning a lot of heads,” Valentine says, not only with her hazy IPAs and oak-aged ciders but also by producing hopped ciders and even blending beer with cider to create category-crossing beverages. Says Valentine, “[Eris is] innovating and doing something no one has ever done in the city before.”
When Shine began her earlier, 12-year career with Rock Bottom Brewery, she was the only female brewer on a 50-member team. Today, Shine is part of a female-led brewery and cidery and is gaining steam as one of Chicago’s top producers. “My hope is to be known as a great brewer, period,” Shine says. A background in bioengineering has allowed her to get creatively geeky in the brewery but also to stay grounded, focused, and humble. “I’m always looking to optimize ways to do things,” Shine says. “It’s nice to get creative and cute, but you have to have a solid foundation of skills and quality-based products to build from.”
The Lion Tamer
In the year and a half since he moved to Chicago from New York City, Jamel Freeman has established himself as one of the city’s freshest and most focused wine talents, a view supported by his recent nomination for a 2019 Jean Banchet Award for Culinary Excellence as the city’s best sommelier. Freeman came up in the competitive New York restaurant world, first cooking on kitchen lines before focusing on wine at venues like Temple Court, The Breslin, and City Winery. Following his fiancée to Chicago, Freeman started working as a sommelier at Bellemore, a New American restaurant in the West Loop, when it opened in November 2017. When the position of wine director opened up at the Boka Restaurant Group concept less than a year later, Freeman was the obvious choice. “Instead of wondering why I moved up quickly,” Freeman says modestly but with confidence, “many of my colleagues and staff said it was about time.” The team collectively pulled in seven figures in wine sales at Bellemore in 2018 and is continuing that trend with Freeman at the helm, selling between $2,000 and $4,000 in wine daily.
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“Jamel goes out of his way to learn how to be the best at what he’s doing,” says Rachel Driver Speckan, Maverick Wine’s director of marketing, who worked with Freeman in New York. “He naturally tries to get in front of the curve in learning to be an expert in his field.” Under Freeman’s direction, Bellemore’s list is evolving to focus mainly on classically made wines from the Old World and the U.S., he says, with the supporting themes of grower Champagne, unknown and unusual varieties from Burgundy, and Italian varieties in California. Freeman looks at the challenge with care but also excitement. “I’m intimidated by wine,” he admits, though with pride. “It’s like [being] a lion tamer. When you put your guard down is when you get mauled.”
Ari Bendersky is a lifestyle journalist who specializes in food, wine, spirits, and travel. The founding editor of Eater Chicago, Bendersky has been writing for 20-plus years; his work has appeared in the New York Times, WSJ Magazine, Associated Press, Men’s Journal, Wine Enthusiast, Departures, RollingStone.com, Crain’s Chicago Business, Liquor.com, and many other publications. A lover of discovering new food and cultures, Bendersky travels whenever possible; he recently visited Finland, Argentina, Portugal, and Mexico.