Interview with the Violet Hour’s Toby MaloneyElena North-Kelly
April 21, 2014
The Violet Hour beckons discerning clientele with many luxuries: a romantic, serene space with floor-to-ceiling curtains, high-backed blue leather chairs, flickering candles and chandeliers; fine-tuned volume levels and elbow room; and an eclectic selection of artisanal cocktails made with painstaking precision. Below, partner/mixologist Toby Maloney tell us how the 2014 Outstanding Bar Program nominee is influenced by its Chicago environs, the poetic inspiration behind its name, and his favorite spring cocktail.
JBF: How would you describe the Violet Hour’s mixology style?
Toby Maloney: We’ve been described as minimalist, traditionalist, and culinary-focused. I think we are an amalgamation of all of them.
JBF: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the name, The Violet Hour?
TM: The name came from a poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922):
“At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting . . .
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea”
And also from “The Hour” by Bernard Devoto:
"This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn."
The Violet Hour is the time when work is done and it's time for a cocktail. It has the feeling of relaxation.
JBF: What’s your favorite cocktail on the current Violet Hour menu, and why?
TM: We have a drink on the menu right now called “When in Rio." It’s Encanto Pisco with St. George Raspberry Brandy, lemon, honey, and egg white. I am particularly fond of it because it just screams spring. The floral notes of the pisco and the lusciousness of the raspberry brandy are grounded by the honey.
JBF: Can you tell us about one surprising ingredient that you use in cocktails, and why you love it?
TM: I wouldn't say that we use surprising ingredients. We do, however, use surprising combinations. When thinking about cocktails we often use textures or flavors that work in counterpoint. A summery aroma with deep holiday flavors on the palate, for instance. We refer to this as "mirroring."
JBF: How does the city of Chicago influence your menu?
TM: Chicago is a great eating and drinking city, with a long tradition of pushing the envelope. I find that patrons are very willing to go out on a limb and try new things.
JBF: You offer various types of ice in different shapes, sizes, and temperatures, and even twice-filtered ice cubes. Can you tell us about the importance of ice?
TM: Ice is to a bartender, like heat is to a cook. Ice is how we achieve proper dilution, correct temperature, and the right texture.
JBF: What role does food play in your cocktail menu? Is there a drink and snack pairing that you particularly like? What goes best with your poutine, for example?
TM: I’m not actually a fan of cocktail and food pairings. Cocktails are too cold and too high in proof to work well with food. Nuts, olives, and cheese are great with cocktails, but I stick with wine, fortified wine, beer, and Champagne when pairing with food. I think a Palo Cortado sherry would go perfectly with the poutine.
JBF: We read in Esquire magazine that the Violet Hour has “resurrected the art of conversation” with its décor, music, and capacity. Were these conscious decisions to improve conversation, or is this a happy coincidence?
TM: It was a very conscious decision to create a place where you could enjoy the people that you bring to the Violet Hour. We wanted to have a bar that you could bring your parents to—or a third date.
JBF: What drink order makes you cringe?
TM: Anyone who drinks something to “be cool” that they don’t like, or something that is only informed by the marketing of a huge corporation.
JBF: What’s your dream culinary or mixology travel destination, and why?
TM: For sheer diversity and clarity of flavor, I would say Mexico. Mezcal, tacos, and mole are three seemingly simple things with infinite variety.
JBF: What’s your current favorite place to eat or drink out in Chicago? And what’s your favorite dish or cocktail there?
JBF: If you could make a cocktail for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?
TM: I would make a Daiquiri and a few Old-Fashioneds for Julia Child. She seems like she would be a hoot when well into her cups.
The 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program is presented by Tanqueray No. TEN®.