Bartender Feature: Laurent Lebec, Big Star Chicago

Meet Laurent Lebec, one of our friends from Chicago’s Big Star.

Housed in a defunct 1940’s gas station, Big Star is a Bourbon and beer-focused restaurant featuring an authentic Mexican street food inspired menu in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

We took some time to sit down with Laurent, over Bourbon of course, and got to know a little bit more about his job.

How long have you worked at Big Star?

I started at Big Star a mere two weeks after they opened. I have worked just about every position there—juicer, bus boy, bar back, bar prep, etc. In my current position, I am the bar manager, which encompasses managing the program for spirits and beer, as well as training the staff.

Where or when did you find your passion to work behind a bar?

My main drive in life was always music. It still is. I was on the road with my band, Pelican, at the time and we had a short break. A great friend of mine asked me if I’d help work the door at a new bar he had started to work at. This was eight years ago. To showcase all Bourbon, country music on vinyl and cheap and delicious tacos in the same room—believe me, it wasn’t commonplace.

I instantly fell in love with what I felt was the only substitute for being on stage. Big Star was electric. I have always equated those two environments and believe bar service, as a musical performance, can be an extension of feeding off a room, building community and creating a memorable atmosphere. I do love the spirits we focus on, and it’s been such a blessing to marry excitement for Bourbon’s evolution with working as a bartender in a busy bar.

And what aspect of the job keeps you coming back each day? 

People and the space, the chance to every day set the stage and provide a memorable experience for regulars, but also people that are new to us. We’re fortunate to have an amazing staff that really buys into our culture of hospitality that is genuine, of access to great Bourbon without any pretension, and of course, being able to bask in music throughout the shift. We play a lot of records at work, which we get to curate. Certainly, I also really enjoy crafting cocktails for the bar, teaching service and bar mechanics—it really could go on and on. I feel very fortunate I landed where I did.

What advice would you give someone who enjoys handcrafting cocktails for family and friends at home?

A great cocktail starts with outstanding ingredients. A great drink doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does turn out all the better if you’re aware of the recipe you’re taking a stab at—How the citrus, sugar and alcohol will interact. Use fresh juice, choose a wonderful spirit and craft classics before you move on the playing with ratios and proportions. I am always surprised by how welcomed a classic cocktail is by a patron. Also, all of this is fun! But it worked wonders for me to spend time with my teachers, a few books, learning the cocktails that have served us well for so long, like the old fashioned, Sazerac, gimlet, sour, etc.

What are some in-home bar essentials?

I rarely have more than the following on hand, and they have always served me well.

  • The proper tools, such as a shaker, spoon, mixing glass, citrus squeezer, peeler for garnish, muddler.
  • A great Bourbon and rye. Don’t skimp on your base spirit!
  • Fresh citrus
  • Seasonal fruit can add magic to just about any drink. Think peaches, raspberries, etc.
  • Herbs for garnish and aromatics, like mint and basil, especially.

What’s your favorite way to drink Four Roses Bourbon?

At Four Roses Distillery. I’ve been lucky to visit a few times, and truly believe there is no other way to experience the magic of that Distillery than out of a barrel, at cask strength, next to Al Young gifting you story after story of true Bourbon ambassadorship.

If I had to pick a favorite, I’d give it up for the Single Barrel—no ice, but I’ll throw my glass into the fridge for a little bit to get an easy chill on it. Of course, all the allocated extensions of the brand are superlative as well, and I have to give a special nod to my favorite Four Roses Bourbon ever, the 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel.

What is one of your favorite go-to cocktails to create for customers?

For anyone, anywhere, the old fashioned is the greatest gateway. You can taste Bourbon, you get just enough sugar to please, the citrus oil provides a wonderful other layer of exploration, and it just has that X factor that keeps us thinking and talking as we enjoy it.

What are you making for us today?

The “Tulsa Queen Sour” was named for the Emmy Lou Harris song. It’s a play on the lemon to sugar to Bourbon experience, providing layers of mint, maple and elderflower fragrance to elevate the experience of the basic sour. It has certainly won over folks who weren’t sure they were ready for nearly 2 ounces of Bourbon in a single drink, but it’s also complex for folks who are seeking a tipple with layers. Mint, maple and St. Germain make great friends with Four Roses and fresh lemon juice.

Tulsa Queen Sour

  • 1.5 oz Four Roses Bourbon
  • .5 oz Cocchi Rosa Aperitif, or any lighter fortified wine or vermouth
  • .75 oz maple syrup blend*
  • .75 oz lemon juice
  • 1 dash Regan’s or Angostura orange bitters
  • 4-5 leaves of mint

*Maple Syrup Blend: Batched measure includes roughly .5 oz maple syrup and .25 oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

Muddle mint and lemon juice. Add Bourbon, maple syrup blend and orange bitters. Shake vigorously and fine strain onto fresh ice in a rocks glass. Do not include the muddled mint into the drink. Garnish with fresh mint.