Drink Spirits Walks into a Bar: La Sirena Clandestina in Chicago

La Sirena Clandestina Chicago
La Sirena Clandestina Chicago

While Drink Spirits is mainly focused on spirits, the epicenter for spirits is the local bar. In our travels we get to go to a lot of bars and drink a lot of drinks, some good and some bad. Recently we were at the new La Sirena Clandestina in Chicago, located across the street from the famed The Aviary in one of Chicago’s re-gentrifying neighborhoods. The neighborhood, once quite industrial, has become a key location of innovative food and drink.

La Sirena Clandestina, from noted Chicago restauranteur John Manion, offers heavily Latin-inspired fare with a drink menu that features both classics like the daiquiri and pisco sour, and original cocktails heavy on tequila and mezcal. Bars are as much about their atmosphere as they are about the drinks, and La Sirena Clandestina captures the small, intimate feel plus lively bar and restaurant combo. The prime seats are, of course, at the bar, which offers around ten seats. In a bar/restaurant the food is also an integral part of the equation, and again La Sirena Clandestina is superb, with empanadas that you will order round after round.

The bar program at La Sirena Clandestina, however, typifies some of what’s wrong with the craft cocktail craze. We always find it a bold move to put a classic hand shaken daiquiri on a cocktail menu, and La Sirena Clandestina puts the drink front and center on their drink menu. A classic daiquiri is a deceptively simple drink with only three ingredients: rum, lime juice, and sugar (often as simple syrup). The drink’s simplicity is also what makes it so difficult. Limes vary greatly in their tartness depending on type and season, and rum can also vary from bottle to bottle. With only three ingredients, it’s impossible to hide any mistakes in balance. Done right, a classic daiquiri is a thing of beauty and elegance, as sexy and sophisticated as a well-made stirred martini.

La Sirena Clandestina, like so many other craft bars, falls into the trap of needing to change up or modify a classic drink. It’s a move of insecurity, the thought that somehow a great classic drink is not enough. The result is a trainwreck. Instead of serving their daiquiri “up” in a cocktail glass,  La Sirena Clandestina puts it in a tumbler filled with crushed ice, which was awkwardly piled in glass by  hand from a bartender who assured us that he “washes his hands all the time”. While a tumbler full of ice is a perfect presentation for a julep or frappe, a daiquiri doesn’t drink well through gradual dilution and the lime skin served on top came off more like a dead caterpillar than a garnish. The La Sirena Clandestina pisco sour is also a ‘riff,’ on the classic adding mint and a grind of spices to the top. Again, they’re messing with something that just doesn’t need to be messed with. Both the daiquiri and the pisco sour were off balance, emphasizing the importance of executing a simple drink well rather than trying to jazz it up.

La Sirena Clandestina’s original cocktails don’t fare much better. The originals read as a craft bartender’s mix tape, with Fernet Branca, Green Chartreuse, and St. Germain (often refered to as bartender’s ketchup) in many of their drinks. On the stirred side, the Conquista Doró with blanco tequila, amontillado sherry, herbal liqueur, blood orange liqueur, and bitters comes off as an overpowering fruit bomb, and the Papí Chulo with reposado tequila, Chartreuse, fresh citrus, agave, and house orange bitters comes off as a hipster’s margarita.

While we’re not trying to make a sacrificial lamb out of La Sirena Clandestina, we do feel that the drink program is emblematic of a larger problem in the cocktail industry. With so many new bars and restaurants popping up, the landscape continues to become more and more competitive. We can empathize with bar program director Justin Anderson about the intense pressure there is to be innovative (especially since they live directly in the shadow of The Aviary), but they should have followed their instincts to lead with simple, classic drinks. A great classic daiquiri, pisco sour, and classic margarita are all drinks that, when done to perfection, are amazing. They don’t need any modification or variation. La Sirena Clandestina certainly isn’t a bad bar, but they are a great example of how so many bars with good people make major missteps in their cocktail program.