Ben Schiller's Smoking Gun

The DIY ethos of Chicago's top mixologist


When Ben Schiller, head bartender for Chicago's BOKA, wanted applewood-smoked bourbon, he broke out the big guns. "I have a hand held culinary smoker," he said, recounting the steps in one of his signature cocktails, the Smoking Jack. "I smoke the bourbon with applewood, cherrywood, and hickory."

A master mixologist with a background in wine, Schiller has developed a following for precisely this meticulous, exploratory approach to cocktails: "As I’ve turned my focus from wine to spirits, I’ve been exposed to a wider variety of styles and flavors in each spirit category.  I’ve been able to find the expressions of each spirit that I truly love."

TS: What was your epiphany cocktail, and where / win did you have it?

The time and location of the epiphany are lost on me, but I clearly recall the cocktail.  It was a gimlet with fresh lime juice.  I can remember thinking how the 3 simple ingredients combined to create a greater flavor than the sum of their parts.  From then on, I’ve only used fresh juices.

What’s your favorite ‘secret’ ingredient?

Egg whites.  I love the meringue that develops on top of a cocktail with a fresh egg white in it.  The frothy top layer serves as a wonderful platform for aromatics and garnishes.

What is your go-to food & spirit pairing?

Beef and Bourbon.  I admit that I’m not exactly reinventing the wheel with that one.  My favorite food and wine pairing is Champagne and fried chicken.

What is the trend in the industry that you’d like to see die?

This will be a rant.  Sorry.  I can do without dress-up “mixologists”, and Manhattan riffs.  Far too many bars are infested with pompous, vested gentlemen adorned with curly mustaches, ridiculous headware, and perhaps an arm garter or two.  Invariably, whenever I encounter one of these creatures, be it in print or physical form, they are hocking their own latest and greatest “riff on a Manhattan.”  In our circles, no other cocktail is so uninspiring and overdone, yet has received so much unwarranted attention from the press.  Personally, I don’t care about your Manhattan you slopped Aguardente and cactus bitters in.  Shave your mustache and do something original, you hack.

Then is there a trend you have faith in, that you’d like to see develop?

The continued trend against “bar wallpaper”.  Why should the back-bars in Chicago be the same as those in NY, London, Tokyo, Glasgow, or any small town you like?  We don’t expect every restaurant to have the same food offerings, so why can’t we extend that to bar world?

When you’re just looking to have a drink – do you prefer the classics, or do you go for something new and inventive?

I love to visit bartenders that are executing original and creative concepts, not merely remaking classics, or even worse, declining into the world of cocktails that offer one a glimpse of what Jamba Juice would look like if they carried vodka.

When I’m at home, I keep it simple.  The use of a glass is about as complicated as I tend to get.

How have your tastes changed since becoming a mixologist?

I would say they’ve developed more than they’ve changed.  As I’ve turned my focus from wine to spirits, I’ve been exposed to a wider variety of styles and flavors in each spirit category.  I’ve been able to find the expressions of each spirit that I truly love.

What is your favorite cocktail today?

Hard to say for sure, perhaps a rye old fashioned over 1 large cube, with demerara syrup, and nothing muddled.

What’s the worst request you’ve received by a patron (and are there any drinks you refuse to serve?)

My worst request is actually a frequent request, bleu cheese olives, or as I like to think of them, physical embodiments of evil.  Why someone would dive bomb an innocent cocktail with these harbingers of oral stench and personal decline, is beyond me.

You’re on your deathbed and you get one last drink – what’ll it be?

A bottle of Bruichladdich.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Vroom
    499964 2

    Haha - an entire bottle. That's a great last drink!

    Jun 11, 2010 at 12:59 PM

  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,324

    Would love to try that Applewood smoked bourbon.

    Jun 11, 2010 at 1:05 PM

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