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Meet World Champion Bartender Charles Joly

The cocktail connoisseur has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

In his element: World champion bartender Charles Joly

World-recognized bartender and cocktail entrepreneur Charles Joly remembers the first real drink he ever had: a simple whiskey sour—bourbon, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, bitters on top.

“It was the best drink I’d ever had up to that point,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What the hell have I been drinking for the past however many years? This is what a cocktail tastes like. I want to do this.’”

At the time, around 2006, he was bartending in his native Chicago, but the cocktail scene didn’t exist there yet—people were into clubs and ultra lounges, he says, and “martini” was a generic word for any drink in a V-shaped glass. Whispers of a craft cocktail renaissance were beginning to emerge in trendsetting cities like New York and London, and Charles used his whiskey sour aha moment to begin ushering the movement into Chicago. His star quickly rose within the hospitality industry as he checked off milestone after milestone: opening several innovative cocktail bars, becoming a world champion bartender, co-founding a line of bottled craft cocktails, and developing his own barware line with tableware manufacturer Fortessa (where he ultimately crossed paths with Drew and Jonathan, fellow Fortessa collaborators!).

While the most high-profile bar Charles opened is the James Beard Award–winning The Aviary, it’s one of the first bars he opened that fully immersed him in the beverage world. At the now-closed Drawing Room, he gave its cocktail program the same amount of attention as the chef gave its food program—unheard of at the time in the area—and tackled everything from bartending to management to operations.

“I really found my happy place there,” he says. “It was the first time I fully combined what I loved about working in bars and hospitality and energy and newness every day with the creative outlet and the stage.”

Learn more about Charles’s impressive résumé below, and stay tuned for his cocktail recipes, insider tips, and more!

You were named the Diageo Reserve world champion bartender in 2014. How did you get into the competitive bartending world?

Early on, I had very limited access to learn about craft cocktails. I was training a staff, and I was learning myself at the time. I was reading every book I could, tasting everything I could, basically absorbing all I could because the resources were so limited. Liquor companies started to do cocktail competitions to promote their brand and get people to use their products. For me, the competitions were a way to learn, to find like-minded people, and to challenge myself.

What were the stakes like for the world competition, which is hosted by a different international city every year?

I had retired from competitions until the Diageo global bartending competition came to the U.S. There had been nothing like it here. It’s not a cocktail competition but a bartending competition. You don’t just make a drink, hand it to the judges, and have them test your skills as a bartender on one glass full of liquid—that’s not a good assessment of anyone’s bartending skills. This competition really embraces all aspects of what it is to be a bartender: spirits knowledge, hospitality, speed, thinking on your feet, food pairing. You don’t just make one drink, it’s multiple challenges over the course of several days. I competed in Scotland and London over five days and won. To date, I’m the only American who has won this competition.

What were some of the perks of winning?

I had the opportunity to go all over the world and do events and trainings with other bartenders, guest bartend, and judge other countries’ competitions. My travels also led me to create official cocktails for the Academy Awards, the Emmys, the Grammys, and the Kentucky Derby.

Do you think the competitive scene improved your own bartending skills?

It improved my network. It allowed me to showcase myself. I think so much about any industry is about connections and getting to know people—someone who is your barback or server one day might own a restaurant down the street the next. Things can happen quickly. And the competitions definitely helped with visibility. It’s good free advertising for the bar.

What can you tell us about your bottled cocktail line, Crafthouse Cocktails?

We’ve reached a point where people want to be on a plane, at a Broadway show, or at a basketball game and have a cocktail. And that’s where Crafthouse comes in. We offer a pour-and-go option in a place where bartenders are never going to be able to squeeze fresh lime juice, nor do they have the time to build you a cocktail ingredient by ingredient.

We have four cocktails—Gold Rush, Moscow Mule, Paloma, and Southside—that are available in 11 states. We even had the Mule on United Airlines for a couple years. We’re in Broadway theaters (including the one that’s doing Harry Potter) and a handful of sporting venues, and Whole Foods is our biggest retail partner.

What’s the difference between Crafthouse and other bottled alcoholic beverages?

I feel like we started a new category. We never refer to ourselves as an RTD (ready to drink). Those companies try to make a liquid taste like a cocktail, in the cheapest way possible. They’re not using real spirits, they’re using flavored malt beverages and flavorings to simulate a cocktail. Crafthouse makes a big cocktail in a huge container, puts it into small bottles, and sells it that way. That’s the right approach as opposed to just making it cheaper and cutting corners.

How did you start working with Fortessa and ultimately develop your barware collection, Crafthouse by Fortessa?

About three years ago, Fortessa approached me to do a one-off event and asked if I’d ever thought about doing barware. Well, you don’t do something for 20 years and not have strong opinions about how it could be improved! But I had no interest in just slapping my name on something. I wanted to be involved in every step of the design process. Crafthouse by Fortessa is professionally informed bar tools and glassware that function perfectly and also have style and look beautiful. Everything out there before it only had one or the other.

What do you wish people knew about making cocktails that often gets overlooked?

It’s not as hard as it looks once you get the basics down. You need to start slow, like you would if you were learning a new language or instrument. I think people rush through that part—they want to pick up a guitar and immediately want to be Hendrix. They don’t realize the time it takes to get to that point. (Read more about Charles’ cocktail basics here.)

What’s one of your favorite things about bartending?

Bartenders know instantly whether someone likes or doesn’t like the drink, and if it’s the latter, we can fix it. A bartender can endlessly tweak and customize a drink to a person’s taste if they hand it back to you. Compare that to when you open a can of beer or bottle of wine. You pour it in a glass—that’s it.

What do you do when you’re not behind the bar?

I’ve always collected vintage barware; I’m a huge flea-market hunter and antiquer. I’m also a musician and played in a band for many years. I do a little bit of woodworking, too. When I was starting out in the bar scene, I actually bought a lathe and learned how to make my own muddler.  

Why are you excited to share your recipes and stories with D&J readers?

It’s easier than cooking—you get more instant gratification out of it. It’s not like you’re sweating away all day in the kitchen preparing a meal, and then you pull something out of the oven and it’s burnt and you have to order pizza. It’s much less painful of a process and the rewards are more instantaneous.

Oh, and it’s fun. If you’re not having fun while making drinks, something’s gone horribly wrong.

In addition to his regular contributions to D&J, you can follow Charles Joly’s spirited adventures via Instagram, Crafthouse Cocktails, and Crafthouse by Fortessa.

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