Why Chicago Lightning has never struck me before… but Joe’s creation is a Sterling effort

Chicago fleetingly came to mind at the launch of Sterling, a new cocktail bar from the Schofield brothers in the basement of Manchester’s Stock Exchange Hotel. All dark wood and sepulchral lighting with illuminated ranks of bottles the backdrop for some serious bartending. 

It’s the kind of joint you might slip into as dusk falls on The Loop, the Windy City’s old commercial quarter where Route 66 starts, the rumble of the CTA elevated railway a constant overhead. Easy to conjure up the ghosts of Al Capone and the speakeasy roisterers of the Twenties.

Chicago has it place in cocktail history for two different creations. One, The Old Fashioned, has conquered the world. Here’s my homage. The other has an altogether less salubrious back story. As in slipping  customers a Mickey Finn, in order to rob and pitch them into the street. This ‘special’ of raw alcohol, snuff-soaked water and a white liquid supplied by a voodoo doctor was invented over a century ago by Mickey Finn of the Lone Star Saloon in what is now the South Loop.

Unsurprisingly, there isn’t an example on the list at Sterling. Like the Bull & Bear restaurant upstairs the name is financial reference to the Norfolk Street building’s past as the city’s Stock Exchange. As soon as I am through its doors separate from the main hotel’s Joe Schofield presses on me his version of my favourite cocktail, the Negroni. It’s the best in town. He knows what I like. With his history of bartending in hotel, including the American Bar in some place called The Savoy Joe is steering The Sterling, while his brother Daniel looks after the shop at their eponymous bar off Deansgate, which picked up Bar of the Year in the Class Bar Awards 2022 and has just been named in the World’s Top 50 Cocktail Bar List. The brothers also run Atomeca at Deansgate Square.

Joe with his slicked back hair and white staff uniform looks the part. His globetrotting CV includes being named International Bar Tender of the Year in 2018 while working in Singapore and he remains creative director of bespoke botanicals specialists Asterley Bros in London. Both his mixology skills and Asterley’s Estate Vermouth were to the fore in my next drink – a Chicago Lightning (£13.75). The rest of the blend? Rabbit Hole Bourbon, Cacao Nib, Campari and Orange Curaçao,

I was convinced it was a stone cold classic and with that Chicago connection I sought its origins online and across my small but perfectly mixed cocktail book collection – Wondrich, Morgenthaler Jerry Thomas,. In vain. Not a mention.

The reason. “It’s my own creation inspired by interest in Chicago of the Roaring Twenties,” Joe tells me. “Lightning was the Chicago gangsters’ nickname for gunfire.”

Explosive stuff then? All guns blazing? Actually pure mellow magic from a great cocktail list that also includes further Schofield Brothers’ own creations, including Aguila (Herradura Blanco Tequila, pineapple, lime, avocado, coriander, red chilli, black pepper) and Butterscotch (butterscotch, butter, Singleton 12 scotch, lemon, egg white) an classics such as Artist’s Special (Highland Park 12 scotch, redcurrant, sherry lemon) and the Martinez (Roku Gin, Asterley Bros. Estate Vermouth, dry cherry, orange Bitters.

Equally impressive is the wine offering from Sterling and Atomeca co-founder James Brandwood (pictured above with Joe in the wine tasting vault). Originally from south Manchester, James began his 20-year hospitality career at university in Leeds, developing a passion for wine after moving to Australia in 2007. He managed venues across Sydney including the prestigious Rockpool Bar & Grill. General manager is Paola Mariotti, whose 5-star hotel CV includes the Beaufort Bar at the Savoy and The Blue Bar at The Berkeley in London. 

The bar snack menu is courtesy of Lush by Tom Kerridge, the two-Michelin starred chef responsible for Bull & Bear restaurant located on the former trading floor. Expect truffle cheese gougeres, whipped taramasalata, squid ink tapioca cracker, pickled red onion and crispy potato bites, creme fraiche and caviar.

Sterling, with a guest capacity of just over 100, is now open for bookings and walk-ins – Tuesday-Friday 5:30-12:30pm and Saturday 2pm-12:30pm. Bookings are available via this link. Stock Exchange Hotel, 4 Norfolk Street, Manchester, M2 1DW.