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Gin slinger: Popular bar creating buzz

Andy Gould, Mandy Tandy, Kris Nagy and Danny Shapiro like gin. They like it a lot. And they want you to like it too.

So run into one of them at Scofflaw, the Logan Square gin-centric bar they opened last year, and he or she will happily answer whatever you ask:

Why do many people think they don't like the taste of gin? (They're confusing it with the taste of tonic water.)

How many varieties of the spirit does the bar carry? (About 80.)

What differentiates the style of gin known as Old Tom? (Among other things, it's sweeter.)

Just don't ask about their new project — at least, not yet.

Though it has been more than three months since the foursome announced plans to open a sister establishment in the neighborhood, they have yet to reveal much in the way of details — not the menu, not the name, not even the projected opening date. "Before Chicago sees snow again" is about all their faux-censored press release reads.

In the meantime, Scofflaw continues the wildly successful run it has enjoyed since debuting in March 2012. The bar has become intensely popular, not only as a craft-cocktail haven, but also as a friendly, comfortable neighborhood place to toss a few back.

However you care to characterize it, its cocktails cost all of $8 each, and despite the owners' dedication to gin, Scofflaw's bartenders are as happy to mix up a tequila sunrise as they are a gin and tonic.

"We have some young-buck bartenders who might not know what a Melon Ball is," Gould, 28, admitted. "But if someone wants an appletini, we'll make one."

About half of the rotating craft-cocktail menu is devoted to gin-based libations, such as the Basil Bramble, a tall, rosy concoction of gin, blackberry liqueur and lemon juice, garnished with a basil leaf and served over crushed ice; and the Ford Cocktail, an unassuming but smooth combination of gin, dry vermouth, benedictine and orange bitters.

The gleaming bar top, French-provincial couches and swirling burgundy-and-metallic wallpaper evoke a genteel days-gone-by vibe, while bar stools in the shape of tractor seats hint at a pleasantly gritty edge.

That juxtaposition carries over to the food. Created by chef Mickey Neely, formerly of Longman and Eagle, the menu subscribes to the fancy-pants one-word school of description ("Wedge," "Bisque," etc.), but the dishes themselves, such as the open-faced brisket sandwich, go down warm and easy.

Though the crowds that pack Scofflaw nearly every night might suggest otherwise, the bar was conceived solely as a neighborhood joint, not as a destination for mixology fans.

Gould, Tandy and Nagy began tossing around the idea of a gin-focused establishment a few years ago; at the time, Gould and Tandy were managing the Boiler Room in Logan Square, and Nagy managed a sister establishment, Simone's, in Pilsen.

When the three met Shapiro, one of Chicago's most prominent up-and-coming bartenders, the fit seemed perfect.

With no money from investors — "four voices are plenty," Gould said — the quartet bought Logan Square's Streetside Bar and Grill, ran it for a month, then shut it down for a complete transformation.

After word got out, what was supposed to be a friends-and-family soft opening turned into what Gould calls "kind of a hysterical event," with a couple hundred patrons overwhelming a staff prepared for 30 or 40.

"That first night of service was scarring, for sure," Shapiro remembered. "The side of the bar where I made drinks that night, I have never returned to since. Never ever. And I've worked hundreds of shifts. I just don't think I can return to it. It was traumatizing."

The crowds only expanded in February, when Chicago Magazine named Scofflaw the best bar in Chicago. Suddenly the line outside got even longer, the tables even fuller, the buzz even buzzier.

Much of the buzz has centered on Shapiro, who had never so much as wiped down a bar top when he moved to Chicago as a hopeful comedy writer in July 2009.

It took him a year to finish Second City's writing program, by which point he had snagged a barback job at pre-Perennial Virant — "I may have told them that I had previous experience, but that was certainly not the case," he said — and became enamored of the business.

By summer 2010, Shapiro had learned enough to head Perennial's cocktail program; that fall, he moved to Logan Square bar The Whistler to work with Paul McGee, one of Chicago's most well-regarded bartenders.

Now 27, Shapiro has since been dubbed one of Zagat's "Chicago's 30 Under 30" and earned mentions in Bon Appetit's blog and (along with Gould) The New York Times. Do Shapiro's partners mind that he seems to get most of the media attention? Nah. "I'm just not very good at stuff like that, and he's great at it," Tandy said.

And anyway, with four personalities in play, it's best to keep egos as much out of the equation as possible. That's not a problem, they say.

"We're all pretty self-aware and patient," Shapiro said. "And we're very complementary; there's just the right amount of overlap. Everyone carries their weight in a different way."

He, of course, oversees the cocktails; 33-year-old Nagy handles the craft-beer program; 32-year-old Tandy deals with payroll and scheduling; and Gould is the maintenance and general-operations guru.

Now their new project will be keeping Scofflaw's owners even busier. Among the few specifics they'll reveal: The new place, a dance bar at 2357 N. Milwaukee, will be a replacement of sorts for Logan Square's previous late-night dance spot, Bonny's.

The focus will be on shots and beer. As for decor, it will be what Nagy calls "a little dive-y and seedy by design."

In the meantime, Scofflaw will continue to court gin hounds and gin skeptics alike. Its owners sometimes suggest the latter try a cocktail made with the bar's proprietary gin: "It converts people who don't realize that they're gin drinkers," Gould says.

Scofflaw by the numbers:

Kinds of gin Scofflaw offers

Average age of the owners

Dollars for a cocktail

Number of owners

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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