Where to Drink: Big Star, Chicago’s Taco-Slinging Honky Tonk

The shelves at Big Star in Chicago. Courtesy Big Star.
The shelves at Big Star in Chicago. Courtesy Big Star.

Think of a spirit that you’re most likely to drink with tacos; it’s unlikely that “whiskey” is the first thing that comes to mind. But Big Star, with two locations in the Chicago neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Wrigleyville, calls itself a “bourbon and beer-focused, taco-slinging, late-night honky-tonk,” with a robust list of single-barrel bourbons and a menu of Mexican street food. What’s not to like?

The Wicker Park location, in particular, housed in a former gas station from the 1940s, has been something of a Chicago institution since it opened in 2009. The cheffy tacos are part of the appeal, as are pitchers of spicy margaritas.

But the whiskey list, with around 130 American whiskeys, deserves special attention. As Big Star’s menu notes, buying whiskey in bottles is a somewhat recent phenomenon—until the end of the 19th century, bars would buy by the barrel—and, they believe, private barrelings are firmly in that tradition. Currently, Big Star sells thirteen private barrel selections exclusive to their bars, according to Laurent Lebec, Bar Director of the Big Star brand.

Of course, their list goes far beyond those private barrels. “I’m really enjoying the Old Fitzgerald bonded decanter releases,” Lebec, a fan of wheat-rich bourbons, says. “The 11-year and 9-year were both beautiful to display and remarkable additions to the Old Fitzgerald legacy. I am incredibly excited to try the new one, which is a 13-year bourbon.”

Another notable lineup: six bottles of Willett 5- and 6-year bourbon, each single barrel and cask strength. “The nuances so far are staggering, and the way all the bottles fit together reflects how great the bourbon maturing at Willett really is.”

Why has Big Star remained so enduringly popular? “We train our staff, we make whiskey approachable, and we don’t overprice. We have some tremendous values, all the way from the cheaper year-round bonded bourbons to the Pappy line, Antique Collection and higher-end allocated items,” says Lebec.

“We don’t stock everything out there. But what we do have, we cherish.”

Carey Jones is a San Francisco-based food, spirits, and travel writer. She is the co-author, with her husband John D. McCarthy, of Be Your Own Bartender, to be released in November 2018. She frequently contributes to Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Saveur, and many others, and formerly served as managing editor at the James Beard Award-winning food site Serious Eats.