Bourbon king, whiskey king, beer king, dive bar king.
To call Delilah’s a whiskey bar is the worst kind of fact, something that is true but also sort of misses the point entirely. The role Delilah’s and owner Mike Miller has played in the resurgence of bourbon and whiskey drinking in the United States is a matter of factual accuracy, but to draw the line at whiskey misses some of the point of the Chicago Lincoln Park dive bar. This is a spot that yes, loves its whiskey and keeps over 800 on hand, but doesn’t draw the line there and certainly doesn’t shun the rest of the world of spirits, nor its drinkers.
Delilah’s is a bar that always knew what it wanted to be. Every aspect of the vibe fits together, a reflection of the mind of Miller and his oft-stated explanation for the bar’s aesthetic as simply the kind of place he always wanted to go to. The result is a swirling mix of alcoholic options, modern art, punk rock, beer tastings, black paint and an homage to Snow White all wrapped into one intriguing Chicago wrapper. An extensive and impressive whiskey collection is complemented by a few hundred beers and almost every conceivable deviation of liquor, creating not just a whiskey oasis but a tribute to drinkers of all types (and musical tastes).
First impressions of Delilah’s are shaped by two things, the towering, all-black, must-be-a-house building Delilah’s inhabits and the dual-faced sign that hangs over the door, one side the Evil Queen from Snow White, the other a depiction of the titular Delilah of Samson & Delilah fame. The red neon Maker’s Mark sign in the window is among the first such signs hung in Chicago, a siren song for an industry that was largely dormant in the United States when Delilah’s first opened in 1993. Since then, things have obviously changed and Miller can take credit for at least a portion of the tide that turned bourbon’s fortunes. From inception, Delilah’s has been an outpost for whiskey varieties, popular or not, giving the dive bar a credible claim as ground zero for the brown liquor renaissance.
And just as it may be reductive to label Delilah’s a whiskey bar, it’s probably unfair to classify it as a dive bar as the space is used more as hub to a rotating set of related interests, rotating DJ’s cycling through punk rock, metal and more underneath fresh art pieces available for sale. A cursory glance at the Delilah’s web site or Facebook page provides hint to the varied nature of events held within the space, from annual beer tasting celebrations to $1 beer and free pool Mondays. That one place can serve so many different purposes is a testament to the approach of Delilah’s as more no-frills, all-are-welcome entertainment hub rather than the more limiting label of Chicago dive bar.
The history of the building itself stretches back as far as 1894 with evidence suggesting that it operated as a pub back then, persisting through Prohibition as a speakeasy. Over the years, the name above the door has changed, from Lincoln Inn to an unnamed club with key card access to Clarks, the incarnation of the space purchased by Miller and his associates to be renamed Delilah’s. Since its purchase, taking out the required shutdown brought about by the global pandemic, Delilah’s has been and is today open everyday, stretching thousands of days together before COVID stepped in.
Black façade outside gives way to a deep black interior, heightening the punk rock, heavy metal vibe that plays off the liquor selection behind the bar. Christmas lights hang from the HVAC pipes along the ceiling, lights behind the bar’s liquor selections illuminating a fraction of the available options. The stamped black ceiling completes the look, a dive bar vibe that is dark but not decrepit, a disco ball capping things off true to type. On select evenings, live music takes over the seating that runs along the bar and in the absence of a live band, a rotating set of DJ’s commands the a booth nearly every night, using varied, eclectic genres to create a new environment every night.
Because Delilah’s commands the entire building, a second floor is available to create a bit of a different vibe, more a friend’s apartment than a DJ-infused party taking place a floor below. A pool table, a few stools and windows looking out onto the street below offer a different option in a space already alive with plenty of variety throughout any given week.
To be sure, Delilah’s is a historical icon in the Chicago bar scene, ground zero in many ways for the growth of whiskey in the United States and certainly the city. But the story extends from there, back into time with roots as an 1894 tavern and across the spectrum of alcoholic delights, 800 whiskeys complemented by another 300 beers and ciders. Delilah’s is not any one thing, not a dive bar, not a members-only club, instead the reflection of an owner with varied interests and a hub for all walks of life to experience a little variety and maybe a glass or two of brown liquor.