By David Witter
The best way to understand the history of Chicago is to go to a saloon. Much of Chicago’s history, and especially its politics, revolved on a barstool. The city’s first civil uprising, the Lager Beer Riot of 1855, began the intersection between booze and politics. This union was firmly established by the 1890s, when “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin created and ran the city’s first political machine from Kenna’s saloon.
It then continued with the early brewing empire of civic leader Charles Wacker, through stockyard workers at corner taverns, prohibition-era bootleggers to today’s diversified drinkers. Yet while a true museum will never be commissioned, several establishments still serve as de facto galleries showcasing the social, economic and political link between alcohol and Chicago’s storied past.
In no place is this more evident than the House of Glunz. Located at 1206 North Wells, the liquor sales/distributorship was in business almost a decade before the soon-to-be-closing Berghoff bar and restaurant, making it the oldest liquor establishment in the city.
“My great grandfather started the business in 1888,” Chris Donovan says. “Before that he worked at a downtown-area brewery owned by Charles Wacker. His friend and neighbor, Oscar Mayer, had already established his meatpacking business, so with the urging and help of Wacker and Mayer, he began selling beer in what was then the far North Side.”
Like the undisturbed attic of an old mansion, the House of Glunz is cluttered with remnants of its past. Oaken beer barrels and a ten-cent luncheon menu rest undisturbed next to shelves filled with bottles and yellowed labels with names like Old Decanter Bourbon, Glunz Sloe Gin, and Osborne Brandy. Many of the ancient bottles, however, are more than mere relics. Today, the House of Glunz retails some of the rarest spirits in the world. Many of them command prices that could be used to pay down a home.
“Some of our more rare products that we sell include Joseph Etournaud Brandy from 1895, a Spey Royal single malt Scotch whiskey with a tax stamp from 1934, a pre-Castro rum, and Empress Josephine Brandy from 1811 that sells for $8,000 a bottle,” Donovan says. “Most of these have been in our inventory the whole time, and collectors come from all over the world to study and taste, as well as buy these products.”
Glunz also offers customers the option of buying more moderately priced, hard-to-find spirits like Old Overholt Rye and a large selection of fine wines.
“We believe that everybody should be able to afford a good wine, so we offer a selection of fine, but carefully selected wines from around the world for as low as ten dollars,” Donovan says.
While the stock at the House of Glunz has evolved with the economic changes in the Near North/Old Town neighborhood, Schaller’s Pump still retains its links with Bridgeport’s working-class past. Run by Jack Schaller and his daughter Kim, they represent the third and fourth generations of Schaller’s serving fine food and alcohol on the same premises.
“The building has been a bar/restaurant since the late 1880s, and you can see from the peek-hole on the back door that it was speakeasy during the 1920s and early thirties,” Kim Schaller says.
The Schaller family bought the building just after Prohibition. At that time Martin Kennelly was the first in a line of many Chicago mayors to hail from Bridgeport. The Ambrosia Brewery, one of dozens of neighborhood beer makers of the era, was located in what is now the parking lot next door. Beer was supposedly pumped in straight from the brewer’s giant casks, giving the room its moniker, “Schaller’s Pump.”
“This has always been an ethnic bar,” says Jack Schaller, now 82 years old. “I’ve seen the neighborhood change. First we had Jews along Halsted, and a lot of Lithuanians who came to work in the stockyards, which were only about two blocks south. Then the Irish and a few Italians came. Now the neighborhood is predominantly Irish, but there are a lot of Mexicans moving in as well.”
During this time behind the bar, Schaller has also witnessed the changes in social customs, especially those involving alcohol consumption and drinking etiquette.
“As a kid growing up here, I used to notice that the women mostly drank highballs, almost never beer. But now they drink beer,” says Schaller, whose father was also a law partner of Mayor Richard J. Daley. “As for the men, the best sellers used to be strong whiskeys like 100 proof Old Grand Dad or Old Fitzgerald. They drank beers like Schlitz, Hamm’s, and local breweries like Ambrosia, Nectar and Canadian Ace. It was also rare to see a woman smoking, but now they smoke more than the men.”
The House of Glunz and Schaller’s Pump represent two of the eldest statesmen on the Chicago bar and alcohol circuit. But look around Chicago’s neighborhoods and you will find many more examples of Chicago’s alcohol-drenched history.
Shinnick’s Pub, 3758 South Union Avenue
Located almost kitty-corner from Schaller’s Pump, Shinnick’s has also been a bar since the late 1890s. Owned by the Shinnick family since 1938, Celine Shinnick is the third generation to work behind the bar.
“I suppose it is too late to get in trouble for this, but during Prohibition it was a speakeasy, ” Shinnick says. “People used to come in through the front entrance for the apartment upstairs, then go through the hallway and have somebody ring them in. My father took over in 1938 and it has been in the family since then.”
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of this longtime Bridgeport hangout is the antique back bar. Made out of oak, it features Roman-style pillars, ornate wooden-knurled designs, a turn-of-the-century wooden, saloon-style cash register, and rich wooden cabinets and shelves that stock dozens of fine bourbons, Scotches, beer and liquors. Like Schaller’s with its brewery relationship, it was the first distribution spot for the now-closed Canadian Ace Brewery located at 3900 South Union. Famous politicos like Richard J. Daley and Morgan Finley also hung their hats at Shinnick’s. But unlike their neighbors, Shinnick’s also saw some important out-of-state visitors.
“During the 1950s my brother-in-law was an official with the Teamsters, and he used to come in here with Jimmy Hoffa and hold unofficial union meetings in the back room,” Shinnick says.
John Barleycorn, 658 West Belden
The building dates back to the 1890s and still contains the original tin ceiling, wooden columns and two-foot-thick firewalls. During Prohibition, the area that is now the rear dining room was a Chinese laundry. This served as a front for bootleggers who rolled carts of booze through the laundry into the basement. Legend has it that John Dillinger frequented the saloon and often bought the house a round. The Biograph Theater, where he was shot by Melvin Purvis, is just two blocks north on Lincoln Avenue.
During the 1960s, Barleycorn became something of an artists’ hangout, noted for its slide projections of paintings and handmade replicas of ships, some dating back to the 1800s. It was also one of the first Chicago bars to become noted for giant inexpensive hamburgers, which no doubt attracted its then-core crowd of hippies and young artists. Today, the Barleycorn name has outlived many of the older Lincoln Avenue bars including the Oxford Pub.
Touché, 6412 North Clark
With the recent closing of Charmers, which had been a gay bar since the end of Prohibition, Touché now stands as the city’s oldest continuously operating gay/leather bar. Originally opened in 1977 in a blue-collar neighborhood at 2825 North Lincoln, longtime owner Chuck Rodocker has seen times change from the disco era, through the onslaught of AIDS, and into an era of “healthy moderation. Today people come in to drink Perrier water, which is something that you couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago,” Rodocker says. Now located in the Rogers Park area, Touché is known as a co-sponsor of the Chicago Leather Contest.
Webster Wine Bar 1480 West Webster
The city’s oldest wine bar is another testimonial to the continuing changes in Chicago’s socio-economic and drinking history. Opened in 1994, former litigation consultants Tom MacDonald and Janan Asfour were part of the wave that changed the West Lincoln Park/Sheffield area from one of factories and warehouses to condominiums and restaurants. Dark and intimate, this candlelit room offers more than thirty wines by the glass as well as a series of two-ounce flights for tasting. Their selection also includes 400 different bottles wines, beer, single malt Scotches, cognacs and light food specialties. Ironically, it is located less than a block from the 100-year-old Gutmann Leather Tanneries, one of the city’s last links to its stockyard past. A representative from the business said that the tanners do occasionally stroll in for a chablis or cabernet after work, “but not too often.”
The Berghoff Restaurant 17 West Adams
The outcry of nostalgia centering around the upcoming closing of The Berghoff has rivaled that of Marshall Field’s, and highlights the relationship between bars and Chicago’s history. Opened in 1898, the bar served free sandwiches to lure men to drink five-cent steins of Berghoff’s own beer, which was made in nearby Indiana. Like Glunz, the company also expanded, making their own lines of bourbons and spirits. During prohibition, the Berghoffs went into the pop business, and continued to expand their full line of German-style food, which included schnitzels, sausages and strudels. After Prohibition the restaurant received the city’s first liquor license, which is still displayed proudly in the restaurant’s entrance. The bar also made history when, as the last all-male bastion in 1969, a group from the National Organization of Women demanded to be served. Part of the building will remain open as a catering business run by Herman Berghoff’s daughter, but the experience of drinking a dark, rich beer in the thickly paneled room will never occur again.
“We share the sadness that many feel about the closing of our restaurant,” Herman Berghoff said. “It has been an honor to be part of the fabric of Chicago.”