Congratulations to Monica Casillas-Rios of Elske, the 2023 MICHELIN Guide Chicago, Exceptional Cocktail Award Winner, presented by Basil Hayden!
First introduced to the world of cocktails in 2015, Casillas-Rios quickly made her way through the classics and learned what she did like and didn't like (Sazerac, yay; Cosmo, nay). Since then, the award winner's approach to crafting cocktails has become simple—less is more. And by utilizing simple ingredients and things commonly found in the kitchen, she's done exactly that.
In celebration of her achievement, the award winner spills the tea on her favorite non-alcoholic drink, the biggest misconception about mixology, and ideal meal parings. Enjoy!
How were you introduced to the world of cocktails?
I was introduced to the world of cocktails in 2015, when I started working at Wright & Co, a restaurant in Detroit, MI. The restaurant was a part of a hospitality group, which also owned a bar called Sugar House, Detroit’s first cocktail bar. Through working at Wright (and many nights at Sugar House), I drank my way through classics, and found things I liked and didn’t like. Sazerac, yes please. Cosmo, maybe not for me.
How has your relationship with cocktails changed?
It has been about 8 years since I’ve been a part of the cocktail community. Now, my approach is less is more. These days, I am using simpler ingredients—usually things that the kitchen at Elske is also incorporating into the menu—and most days, try to use less than 5 ingredients for the cocktails that I create.
What are you drinking these days?
I try to drink non-alcoholic beverages whenever possible—I take a ton of alcohol breaks (currently on day 50 of my yearly attempt at 100 days in a row off of booze). I think the cocktail community has done a fantastic job of giving people the option of non-alcoholic products that aren’t the typical sodas/juices.
When I am imbibing, I love drinking Island wines. Corsica and the Canary Islands have been some of my favorite places to drink wine from. Volcanic soil? Even better!
As far as cocktails go, it's usually something agave based with some bitterness to it. Estereo in Logan Square, Chicago, has a drink that’s Raicilla based, and has both a gentian Liquer, and a pineapple amaro. It’s one of my favorites in the city.
Favorite non-alcoholic drink?
I love Casamara Club sodas, especially their Sera product. They are great if you like Amaro and soda.
How have your cocktail tastes changed over the years?
Over the years, my cocktail tastes have changed for the simpler. I tend to drink more highball style drinks and cocktails that lean to be a little lower in alcohol. The amount of Lillet and sodas I’ve drank this year is ridiculous. I think that Natasha David’s book Drinking Lightly, perfectly depicts the way I like to drink now.
What’s the biggest misconception about mixology or cocktails in general?
I think the biggest misconception about mixology or cocktails is that you always need to use fresh juice. Kevin Kos has a great website that has recipes for Super Juice, which minimizes food waste and gives you more “juice”, leading to ultimately needing less citrus. I have also been using vinegars and verjus in a ton of my cocktails as well to add acidity to drinks.
What’s your ideal meal and pairing?
My ideal meal and pairing, especially for the colder months, has to be Mapo Tofu paired with a Mosel riesling from Selbach-Oster. It has enough residual sugar to combat that mouth numbing heat!