At 6’6″, Benjamin Schiller commands attention whether he’s behind a bar or hosting a party. But it’s more because of his skills than his height that people listen when he tells them what to drink—even when it comes to having cocktails and wine in the same evening.
Schiller, an award-winning mixologist and partner with Chicago’s Fifty/50 Group, earned his reputation working with the Boka Restaurant Group, which led to his current partnership. He co-opened the refined River North art deco-inspired cocktail lounge, The Berkshire Room, and aims to open the forthcoming The Sixth late this summer in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. While he’s known for cocktails, he got his start in wine service at nightclubs, and always returns to his first love. Sometimes, however, he likes to enjoy both—and knows you do, too.
Wine should always be at the dinner table.
“Following the same rules to build wine from lightest to heaviest applies to cocktails as well. Don’t start with a heavy, smoky single malt Scotch and work your way to a Pisco or floral sake. I try to keep cocktails off the dinner table. If you’re thinking of a Manhattan or martini with high alcohol, it doesn’t pair well with food regardless of what else is out there in the media. Wine firmly belongs on the dinner table and cocktails belong on the outskirts, either before or after.”
Wine or cocktails at a party? Do both.
“When you throw your party you should have at least one of each: One cocktail that you batch out and create a station for that everyone will like—light, clean, acidic. With wine, what has always benefited me is picking a region and really learning it well. When you do that, you can really pick out the best producers and values. You know what pairs well and what doesn’t with what you’re serving, and it’s more interesting for your guests.”
Set up a cocktail station.
“I’ve been to parties where they’ve had Post-It notes on glasses, base spirits, and instructions to then put an ounce of this flavoring agent, a dash of bitters, etc. You get three to four steps broken down and your guests can do each step. As long as you keep the ice fresh and your glasses clean, you should be fine.”
Make wine-based cocktails.
“The most obvious and common application is to use a sparkling element like Cava or Prosecco. In the past, I’ve taken still wine and reduced it down for a richer flavor and used it as a syrup in a cocktail. It offers more flavor in a concentrated package. I’ve always found that the heavier wines with more body and structure, like Malbec, hold up better in cocktails. A lot of classic cocktails that call for wine use Bordeaux, which I’ve used.”
Rosé pairs with everything.
“The most pair-able wines are generally rosés, which you can do almost anything with. My favorite region is Sancerre. You can pair Sancerre rosé (made from Pinot Noir) with vegetables, fish and meat. That’s my secret weapon that I use at every party I throw.”