By Michael Nagrant
“Second floor retail is murder, ” says Kyle McHugh, aka “The Boozehound” and owner of boutique wine, beer and spirits retailer Drinks Over Dearborn (DOD). Though McHugh learned this truism in business school, he opened DOD on the second floor of an old office building called The Raleigh on Dearborn between Erie and Ontario anyway.
It wasn’t that he was the Evil Knievel of liquor retailers interested in spitting on MBA textbook theories. Rather, a greater truism trumped all: rent prices in the Gold Coast (an area he preferred for its affluent traffic) were a straight-up serial killing. McHugh figured he could better avoid the death of his business by executing his business plan the right way: get a bigger space to conduct classes, tastings and host a wide variety of interesting stock instead of compromising and blowing his life’s savings and small-business loan on a dinky little box on the first floor.
And in a business climate where faux anonymity and cloak and dagger is the new version of the Vegas-style blinking neon sign, who could discount McHugh’s decision? After all, the Lincoln Park restaurant Alinea doesn’t even have a sign and the popular Wicker Park cocktail lounge The Violet Hour looks like a graffiti-covered abandoned building.
If you build it, they will come, right?
Unfortunately, City Hall doesn’t quite grant liquor licenses with the same alacrity that they sell off parking meters or bulldoze lakefront airports. Because of zoning restrictions, McHugh had to fill out plenty of forms and go through an almost year-long permit-and-appeals process while already holding down a five-year lease on the empty store. As a result, DOD opened last October on the fringes of our current demi-depression.
In addition to the poor timing, finding DOD is a bit tough. However, it’s a wild ride possessing the romance of sussing out a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Step up to the column-clad stoop at 650 North Dearborn and walk through a set of double doors into a foyer where you have to call up to the store and get buzzed in. Once you do, you have to ford your way up a metal staircase stamped with four-leaf clover punch-outs and walls lined with marble. Twirl around the corner on to the second floor and you’ll finally find a shop filled with a glinting kaleidoscope of glass bottles filled with plenty of amber, burgundy and crystalline elixirs.
And so while DOD is a liquor-filled “Field of Dreams,” outside of drinks nerds and curious intrepid neighborhood denizens, not as many folks as expected have been stopping by. In order to stop DOD from going down like that other Kevin Costner classic, “Waterworld,” and to ensure it lasts until 2010, McHugh just launched a biblically inspired forty-days-and-nights campaign to “Save DOD.” In addition to offering in-store tastings, sales and mucho giveaways, McHugh plans on hosting some cool blow-outs with “Check, Please!” wine maven Alpana Singh and one of Chicago’s top mixologists, Peter Vestinos.
McHugh’s definitely that countless-hour-working, sleep-skipping entrepreneur with a passion, intelligence and keen hospitality for teaching folks about the finer drinks in life. That alone is why you should visit DOD. But, on the most objective level, he’s just got great stuff, like organic lavender-infused Cap Rock organic gin and Death’s Door Spirits’ white whiskey, that’s hard to find anywhere else.
Likewise, almost all the wines here are topnotch. McHugh’s not muddling his wine cases with thousands of bottles of value-priced swill featuring coed-naked-hockey playing-sunglass-wearing kangaroos on the label. He tastes what he buys, and so even if you grab a bottle without knowing anything about it, it’ll likely be good.
Some of my favorite values here are Domaine des Lauriers sparkling Vouvray ($13.99) and Two Princes—nothing to do with the early nineties group the Spin Doctors—a great acid-balanced sweet Riesling with peach and mineral notes made by thirty-first- and thirty-second-generation winemakers, priced at $14.99.
You don’t have to play the wine-roulette game at DOD anyway. McHugh’s a certified wine pro, has a long professional history of tending bar and he’s ready to serve. Because prices at DOD are in line with the big-box guys, the intimacy and focus of the store means that you basically get your own personal sommelier in McHugh for free. I know the dudes wearing Hawaiian print shirts in the checkout line at the grocery story you’re buying your wine at now are arty, cool and gregarious, but experience tells me, most of them don’t know much about wine. Shift the occasional purchase over to Drinks Over Dearborn and you might just stop another senseless retail homicide.
Drinks Over Dearborn, 650 N Dearborn St, 2nd Floor, (312)337-9463, drinksoverdearborn.com