Whiskey bar Oskar opens, showcasing local liquors


Cole Reynolds/The Daily Northwestern

Danny Rogers writes on a pole at Oskar. The new whiskey bar opened Wednesday

Cole Reynolds, Print Managing Editor

A chipped, red pole juts upward out of the counter at newly-opened whiskey bar Oskar. Bearing the weight of the bar’s roof, the pole is unremovable and bisects the counter. 

But in the days since the bar’s opening on Wednesday, it’s become something of a quirk. Customers stand up on bar chairs and scribble messages in Sharpie up and down the pole.

“Cheers to life, cheers to love, cheers to Oskar,” one customer wrote. “T + A were here,” another message will remind future customers.

Oskar sits in what was once the back room of La Principal, the Mexican restaurant on Custer Ave and Main Street. Eric Young, who owns both establishments, said that the bar is opening just as whiskey is having a resurgence.

“I think whiskey is hot right now. It’s a classic American spirit, its roots dating back centuries,” he said. “I think it’s just kind of having its heyday right now. And I wanted to feature it.”

He’s right. American whiskey sales grew 11% in 2021-2022, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, making it the third highest-grossing spirit in the nation. And between 2010 and 2022, the amount of whiskey sold more than doubled. 

That popularity is, in part, driven by local craft distilleries like Evanston’s FEW Spirits, one of Oskar’s main suppliers. Along with Chicago distillery KOVAL, Young credits it for pioneering the Chicagoland whiskey scene — one he says is not as name-recognizable as Tennessee whiskey but just as high quality.

“To me, a Chicago style is … like Chicago,” said Paul Hletko, FEW Spirits’ founder. “Chicago doesn’t really care too much about who you know or who your daddy is. Chicago really cares about ‘buckle up and do the work, man.’” 

While Young estimates that 90% of what he sells is readily available to the home drinker, a couple of Oskar’s bottles show off the variety of local whiskey. 

Alice in Chains, one of FEW Spirits’ upcoming releases, is what Young recommends for a unique drinking experience. It’s aged in tequila barrels instead of whiskey’s classic oak barrels, giving it the flavor of “freshly mowed lawns,” he said.

“That’s just a really fun, kind of rock and roll whiskey,” Hletko said. “You kind of get that desert-y aggression, and sweetness … some really nice flavors from that tequila and kind of roll it all up into one.”

And while the whiskey may be unique and artisanal, Young said he was careful to avoid creating a bar that was too “posh or high society.” He said he envisions Oskar as a place where people come to share stories with each other.

The striped, warm wood behind the bar lends a “masculine” sense to the space, as Young describes it. And the bar’s name — inspired by Young’s great-grandfather — is meant to evoke strength, he said.

“We’re not trying to make it like a good ol’ boys club or anything like that,” Young said. “But …I bet that if you looked in there on a typical night, there’ll probably be more males in there than there will be females.”

Oskar opens as the whiskey industry is starting to shed some of its masculine overtones. Thirty-six percent of whiskey drinkers in the United States and United Kingdom are female, according to a 2020 report by Distill Ventures, more than doubling since the 1990s. And Hletko said that FEW Spirits is a founding member of the STEPUP Foundation, which works to bring women and underrepresented people into craft distilleries.

Lakeisha Rogers went with her husband Danny to Oskar’s second night on Thursday. They described themselves as “whiskey people,” with Rogers saying that the smoothness of the drink brought her to it.

Rogers said they’ve been watching the bar be built, excited for it to open. And on their first time there, Danny stood up and wrote “congrats” on the red pole

“It’s cool to see it grow from a seed into this,” Lakeisha Rogers said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charcole27

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