Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

Somme Wisdom: Best After-Work Drinking

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Aldo Zaninotto, Osteria Langue

Aldo Zaninotto, Osteria Langhe

Where do sommeliers, bartenders and other booze experts go for a nightcap after serving drinks to people all evening?

To get an answer to that question, we asked sommes and others at several major watering holes/chow zones about where they go and what they drink after work.

Alexander Smith (Eno Wine Bar): Sable Kitchen & Bar (505 North State)
“I typically taste many wines throughout the week, so beer or liquor usually sound better! Sable has an expansive liquor selection and thoughtful cocktail list. You can try new things all the time. Sable also has a nice selection of unique gin and tonics and a better tequila selection than most.” Read the rest of this entry »

Somme Wisdom: Best Before-Dinner Drinks

Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They? No Comments »
Rachel Lowe/Photo: Huge Galdones

Rachael Lowe/Photo: Huge Galdones

By David Hammond

The first drink before dinner sets up the meal to come and stimulates the palate, preparing it for good tastes. Seeking the drinking wisdom of Chicago sommeliers, bartenders and other beverage professionals, we asked a simple question, “What’s the best before-dinner drink?”

Bubbles Are Classic

“To me Champagne represents the perfect beverage to fit within the aperitif category (though certainly it works wonderfully with food!). Not only do the bubbles and acidity start one’s appetite, but they are refreshing and palate cleansing.”—Rachael Lowe, beverage director and sommelier, Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia Read the rest of this entry »

Be a Mixologist (Kind of): DIY Cocktails Trending

The Fine Art of Mixology No Comments »
Would you have the nerve to mix these on your own/Photo: Adam Seger

Would you have the nerve to mix these on your own?/Photo: Adam Seger

By Lauren Knight

More than just the traditional bartender, the mixologist is a crafter of recipes, a purveyor of liquefied bliss who mixes up sometimes arcane ingredients to please us with innovative flavor combinations. The craft of mixology remains a mystery for most, an enigma stirred into a paradox, served in a double Old Fashioned glass.

The rising trend of DIY cocktails makes mixology more accessible.

“It is about letting people be their own mixologist,” says Adam Seger, a veteran of the craft who has spent his career developing cocktails that challenge standards. From working directly with chefs and involving the kitchen in the bar program, to sourcing unusual ingredients for his recipes, Seger is a pioneer in the craft cocktail revolution.

It was through that latter endeavor that Rare Botanical Bitters came about. Seger partnered with Rodrick Markus, whose Rare Tea Cellar is highly regarded throughout the food community as a source for hard-to-find ingredients and unique tea blends. Markus and Seger, his customer of twelve years, decided to work together to create syrups, shrubs and other beverage components using the highest-quality teas, sweeteners, and botanicals. Read the rest of this entry »

New Sip in Town: Egan’s Irish Whiskey

Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They?, Whiskey No Comments »
Egan's Irish Whiskey/Photo: David Hammond

Egan’s Irish Whiskey/Photo: David Hammond

Chicago Gourmet, the Bon Appétit-sponsored food/beverage extravaganza hosted in Millennium Park for the past seven years, has been a stage for mega-chefs, many from Chicago. This year, CG showcased local heroes like Rick Bayless, Tony Mantuano and Gale Gand, all names familiar to anyone who’s had a bite or drink in this city over the past decade  or so.

Chicago Gourmet is, however, also a launching pad for new products from everywhere.

“It’s our first week in Chicago,” beamed Jonathan Egan, standing proudly next to a neat row of Egan’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey bottles.

According to a recent issue of Food & Beverage magazine, “Irish whiskey is currently the fastest growing premium liquor category in the world.”

But Egan’s Irish Whiskey is not your grandfather’s Old Bushmills, though it may actually be Egan’s grandfather’s: Egan’s have been working in the Irish whiskey business for over a century and a half, some at Bushmills. Read the rest of this entry »

Bonding over Bourbon: Chicago’s Best Bars Keep Kentucky Close

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Bourbon rickhouse/ Photo: Monica Kass Rogers

Bourbon rickhouse/Photo: Monica Kass Rogers

By Monica Kass Rogers

It’s 2:32pm on a sweltering Kentucky afternoon. I’m perched on a retaining wall in front of a hot metal rickhouse, head thrown back so I can see to the top. Vertigo, plus the buzzy sweetness of the bourbon-scented air, makes me sway a little. I have a flashback. In it, I’m seventeen, standing in front of the nation’s capital really grasping for the first time that government isn’t a cosmic machine run by gods: it’s just people.

Different scene, same awareness: The bourbon industry may be a multi-billion dollar behemoth, but underneath it’s an approachable old thing, held together with barrel hoops, rickhouses and relationships.

Apart from Lincoln lore and a shared border, the key connection between Kentucky and Illinois is bourbon. Whiskey is huge right now, up forty percent in domestic sales over the last five years. So there’s a shortage of the good stuff. Getting the best bourbon expressions in your glass at Chicago bars comes down to cultivated liaisons.  Laurent Lebec knows this. Reaching, mixing and reaching again, he’s finishing a busy lunch shift at the Big Star bar, the red ink on his tattooed arms reflecting the sun. “Relationships do matter,” says Lebec, who directs the beverage program. That’s why he takes his team to Kentucky to visit key distillers three or four times a year. “Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace…We’ve picked sixteen or more of our own barrels over the last five years,” he explains.

Longman & Eagle’s bar team also often goes to Kentucky, and they have handpicked barrels of twenty-one-year-old bourbon from Willett, plus private selections from Heaven Hill and Jim Beam. “Getting to know the families producing the bourbon,” says bar-program director Phil Olson, “goes hand in hand with knowing the farmers that supply our food.”

Barrel tasting at Heaven Hill/Photo: Monica Kass Rogers

Barrel tasting at Heaven Hill/Photo: Monica Kass Rogers

For Delilah’s owner Mike Miller, the whiskey boom is new gilt on a long-traveled path of relationships. Miller’s “friends list” includes bourbon VIPs such as Drew Kulsveen from Willett, Fred Noe at Jim Beam, Craig and Parker Beam at Heaven Hill, Jimmy Russell from Wild Turkey, and Jim Rutledge from Four Roses. “The whiskey business is still about sharing and having fun,” says Miller. “Meeting these people, having a few whiskeys, here or down in Kentucky, we do great business together because we have a great time together.” Delilah’s private barrel selection is impressively deep, with thirteen custom whiskeys—some designed by Miller.

Boozy connections between Chicago and Kentucky go back a lot farther than Delilah’s twenty-two years. Historically, Chicago money figured in the establishment of Kentucky distilleries before and after prohibition.

During prohibition, Chicago’s mob and status as the biggest city beyond the Bourbon Belt kept the limousines rolling with trunks full of bourbon. Afterward, Chicagoans Harry Blum, Harry Homel and Oliver Jacobson helped get Jim Beam flowing again.

Today, “there’s plenty of bourbon out there, just maybe not the better bourbon that has been aged six years or more,” says Michael Veach, bourbon historian and author of “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage” (University Press of Kentucky). “Bourbon producers were caught with their pants down a decade ago,” says Veach. “They never expected this boom, so they’re playing a lot of catch-up.”

Max L. Shapira, President of Heaven Hill Brands (makers of Elijah Craig, Evan Williams and Henry McKenna whiskeys, among others), met me in his office, hung with pictures of forbears. Shapira still marvels at the current scenario.  “This bourbon explosion is really unprecedented. I don’t believe anyone in the industry thought this comeback was possible—certainly not at the levels we have seen.”

There are only so many barrels/Photo: Monica Kass Rogers

There are only so many barrels/Photo: Monica Kass Rogers

With only a few barrels to allocate, Shapira says relationships between bars and producers matter, “hugely.”

What does that mean for you? Bars that have taken the time to cultivate relationships with makers have more private barrel selections and more specifically allocated whiskeys like Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage collection, and, Buffalo Trace’s Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Van Winkle and Antique collections.

In addition to Big Star, Longman & Eagle and Delilah’s, some other good Chicago bourbon sources include the Twisted Spoke, Berkshire Room, The Fountainhead and Sable.

It’s hard to predict when supplies will even out. But bourbon’s American roots and four-years-or-longer production realities appeal to a younger, hipper demographic, which should continue to stoke demand.

“There’s been a cultural shift to be more interested in the roots of our music, food and now spirits,” says Lebec. “A lot of people who started with craft beers now ask, ‘What else can I drink that has those roots?’  Bourbon is that drink.”


The Real Thing: Milwaukee’s Bryant’s May be the Best Cocktail Bar in the Midwest

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The Bar/Photo: Bryant's Cocktail Lounge

The Bar/Photo: Dan Bishop

By Anthony Todd

Seems like these days, every mediocre bar pretends to be something it’s not. You know the places: a modern-day speakeasy with no sign, a forties lounge with swing music or a sixties spot with highballs. Even when it’s done right, there’s something vaguely fake about the whole endeavor, like an Irish pub in a mall filled with manufactured antiques. You get the feeling about what it’s trying to be, but it’s not the real thing.

That’s why Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge (1579 South 9th), open since 1938 and hiding in a quiet Milwaukee neighborhood, is both a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air. It is exactly what it seems to be—a classic, local bar making high-end cocktails pretty much the way they’ve made them since the days when men wore hats and manual cash registers were functional and not simply cool antiques. It’s a bar where the classic cocktails never went out of style. Read the rest of this entry »

Cocktail and A Movie: The Music Box Theatre Gets Festive at Eighty-Six

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The Music Box Theater/Photo: Rosemary Lane

The Music Box Theater/Photo: Rosemary Lane

For eighty-six years this month, The Music Box Theatre (3733 North Southport) has been known for showing critically acclaimed independent and foreign films. As a kind of birthday exercise in renewal, the storied Lakeview movie palace has debuted a lounge and garden space that seeks to add some oomph to the movie-going experience.

Its cappuccino-and-cocktail-serving lounge opened in February, and the garden opened in July, part of a three-million-dollar addition to and renovation of the theater. Both have flown under-the-radar but are slowly growing into gathering spaces for young filmmakers, movie critics, moviegoers and neighbors. Read the rest of this entry »

Feni: Booze That’s News to You

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Cashew apple

Cashew apple

By David Hammond

Feni. Ever tasted it? If you have, it’s likely thanks to Chicagoans Drew Whited and Brian McCaslin.

Feni is a liquor produced in Goa, India, from either coconut or cashew fruit. Whited and McCaslin make theirs of cashew fruit, which is the outer shell that encloses the “nut.” Once the cashew fruit is ripe, it falls off the tree, is collected and then smashed to extract the juice, which is put through a triple distillation process. The result is cashew “Feni,” an 85 proof clear spirit. Everything is one-hundred-percent natural and crafted by hand—exclusively by women—without the use of electricity. Read the rest of this entry »

Saddle Up: Grab the Reins at Pilsen’s Newest Bar, Tack Room

Bars of Summer No Comments »
Tack Room bar/Photo: Steve Scap

Tack Room bar/Photo: Steve Scap

By Anthony Todd

When you hear a new bar described as a “punk rock-inspired piano saloon,” even jaded cynics perk up to wonder, “What the…?”

Tack Room, the latest addition to Pilsen’s Thalia Hall development, has everything to make a Derby fan go wild—hand-picked bourbon, leather saddles and mint juleps—and enough Southern charm to appease anyone north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But the Derby is just a once-a-year party, and Tack Room intends to keep the energy going year round. Read the rest of this entry »

High Dive: Old Town Ale House’s Doormen Include a Pulitzer Prize Winner and Bad Bad Leroy Brown’s Trader Son

The Nighthawk No Comments »
Bill Currie, Hawkeye/Photo: Rosemary Lane

Bill Currie, Hawkeye/Photo: Rosemary Lane

By Rosemary Lane

Old Town Ale House (219 West North) has no bouncers. According to owner Tobin Mitchell, the iconic late-night bar—known for lewd political paintings and Second City patrons—has “doormen.” And not just any doormen.

Walk into the dimly lit bar Sunday through Wednesday, from 8am to 4am, and you’ll spot a seventy-four-year-old guy at the door by the name of Bill Currie, but everyone calls him Hawkeye. Currie sits on a stool by the door, a plaid bag full of New York Times newspapers right next to him. He does four crosswords every day. An institution at the Ale House and beloved by Second City students, Currie tells stories, makes winking wisecracks and, if he finds you interesting, he’ll try to suss out the Gaelic roots of your name. Read the rest of this entry »