A new vision of a rum bar – how The Bamboo Room is North America’s hottest hostelry

Emma Janzen - 05/07/2022

Chicago’s The Bamboo Room was named the Campari One To Watch at the inaugural listing of North America’s 50 Best Bars. Emma Janzen meets mastermind Kevin Beary – who launched the diminutive space to give airtime to some of the world’s unique distillates and cane spirits – to understand how he keeps the good times flowing, while showcasing the serious side to evolved rum cocktails

Like moths to a flame, rum fans and tourists have flocked to Chicago bar Three Dots and a Dash in droves since it first opened in 2013. When beverage director Kevin Beary took the helm a few years later, he set the stage for the programme to evolve in a novel direction when he subsequently opened The Bamboo Room, a tiny oasis tucked away in a languishing private events space, which launched in 2019. Since then, the intimate cocktail bar has put a spotlight on the global rum diaspora in a way that's inventive and razor sharp but also friendly and approachable — one of the many reasons why the bar is this year’s Campari One To Watch for North America’s 50 Best Bars 2022. It’s an award given to a bar that current sits outside the 50 Best list, one which the team believes has the potential to break into the ranking in future years.

Striking a pitch-perfect balance between subtle elegance and breezy tropical fun, The Bamboo Room grew out of Beary’s desire to look beyond the occasionally pilloried tiki model and find ways to celebrate the growing number of rums available in the city in a way that would be tailored for a smaller and more attentive audience — initiatives that simply didn’t make sense at the high-volume tourist hub Three Dots, which often churns out 1,500-2,000 drinks on any given Saturday night. “Sometimes we’d have one six-bottle case of fresh cane spirit from Grenada or similar — these incredible spirits that we didn’t have enough of, or would be too expensive to put on the menu in the main room,” Beary says. “So from a technique and presentation standpoint we wanted to take more liberties with the rum cocktails we were producing, and felt like they were better served in their own menu in their own space.”
The Bamboo Room is a bar-within-a-bar, found inside Chicago's popular Three Dots and a Dash

The back bar at The Bamboo Room features a treasure trove of bottles from well-known Caribbean production hubs such as Jamaica, Barbados and Martinique, to lesser-known regions like Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala. Beary travels to the source often to keep his finger on the pulse of what is new and notable, and to learn more about the history and traditions of each distillate. When possible, he brings the rest of the bar staff along for the ride. Through these adventures, he has curated relationships with importers and distributors who keep the bar well stocked with new-to-market offerings.

With only 22 seats, the room is so small that the bartender behind the stick is also the only one serving drinks to guests. “We engineered the room specifically so that it's an intimate, quiet, somewhat buttoned-up experience,” Beary says. The one-on-one time allows for friendly interactions and casual moments of education, offered in a way that’s never showy or off-putting. The team offers a fair number of rum tastings and regular classes; when foreign distillers are visiting Chicago they will often host seminars or meet and greets; and the flights section of the menu is organized in a way that allows visitors to explore a certain category or style of rum in an approachable way. “Rum is still a category that people are familiarizing themselves with, and our menu can be a little nerdy or esoteric, so now we also focus largely on our dealer’s choice program — it gives us the creativity to do spur of the moment creations tailored to someone’s specific palate,” Beary says. 
The signature Growers Ti Punch, with a Martiniquan rhum agricole, white port, champagne and lime

Rummaging for originality 

The overarching principle for the cocktail menu is to showcase the vibrancy of global rum styles in a way that keeps the spotlight on the unique characteristics of each distillate, instead of obscuring the rum with too many other flavours. “If you're using funky Jamaican rum, the idea is to not tone that down or make it palatable for everybody. It is to create a balanced cocktail around these interesting spirits,” Beary says. 

Some drinks are classic tiki recipes presented in new ways, like the stirred Jet Pilot, or the shaved ice Pago Pago. “The flavour layers of tiki drinks are super deep and interesting but the style can be overwhelming for many, with so much strong rum and a whole lot of citrus, so we’ve reimagined some of those combos,” Beary explains. Other drinks are classic and vintage rum cocktails with non-tiki personalities, like the ‘Ti Punch or Caipirinha, rejiggered for the high-end cocktail bar environment. “With the classics, we’ve taken some and turned up the volume, so with the Caipirinha for example, we use a special aged cachaça, add blanche armagnac, a rich pandan syrup for a vanilla and hazelnut profile, and lime.”  
Beverage director Kevin Beary spearheads the bar's menu development with his search for single-barrel rums

Behind the scenes, Beary and team use high-level techniques and technologies to make each cocktail the best version of itself. All of the juices are cold-pressed, and every syrup made in-house, with kakigori ice machines and centrifuges shaving and whirring on the regular. “We’re aiming for perfection and there are times when conventional bar methods won't get us there in a way that I am satisfied with,” Beary says. “Getting real banana flavour into a drink is super challenging, for example, and we’ve found the best way to do that is in a centrifuge. Our goal was to nail ‘banana flavour’ and the road to get there was via clarification.”
The Bamboo Room team received the Campari One To Watch Award at the North America's 50 Best Bars 2022 awards ceremony in New York

All of this wizardry happens in the back-of-house, so guests don’t get distracted by flashy descriptions on the menu — a touchpoint of humility and hospitality for Beary. “So many times you go to a cocktail bar and read a description relying on a crazy technique and, ok, you get it, and yes the concept is cool, but then the cocktail just sucks. Or it's too novel and just appearing to be cool,” he explains. “I look at it from the other perspective, where, whatever you are going to do, at the end of the day you have to have a balanced and delicious cocktail in the glass. We chose to employ more forward-thinking techniques to get there, but the most important piece is achieving a great end drink.” 

As the programme matures, Beary says the focus will stay small, intimate, and fixed on creating an outlet for the things he and his team think are innovative and exciting. “The point is for it to evolve as new and interesting things come up, as we master new techniques, and are introduced to new things,” he says. “The category of rum is ever expanding and so we’ll continue to evolve with it.” 

The first edition of North America’s 50 Best Bars, sponsored by Perrier, was announced at a live awards ceremony in New York on Tuesday 7th June 2022. Browse the website to discover the ranking and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to stay up to date with all the news and announcements.