Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

The Drinker’s Tip Sheet: Please Meet Mezcal

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La Mez Agave Lounge/ Photo: La Mez Agave Lounge

La Mez Agave Lounge/Photo: La Mez Agave Lounge

Not long ago, mezcal was a rather exotic and rarely seen booze this far north. Now distilled agave juice is hot at restaurant/bars including Masa Azul and two new establishments that opened in the past few months: Mezcaleria las Flores in Logan Square and La Mez Agave Lounge, downstairs at Mercadito (108 West Kinzie).

I am sitting at La Mez enjoying some of Dylan Stewart’s mezcal cocktails with Lou Bank, self-professed evangelist of agave. As Stewart makes us drinks, I ask him how he goes about educating people in the mysteries of mezcal.

“Sometimes,” says Stewart, “people have already read books and been on trips to Oaxaca and other times you have people coming in for happy hour that are pleasantly surprised by the earthy, smoky flavor and want to know more. I try not to be too professorial; rather I present it like something I’m really excited about that I brought to show-and-tell. My own enthusiasm is one of the best ways to generate interest.” Read the rest of this entry »

Japanese Whisky: GreenRiver’s Julia Momose Explains

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Julia Momose/photo: Anthony Thalier

Julia Momose/Photo: Anthony Thalier

Julia Momose, who mixes and pours drinks at GreenRiver and the adjoining Annex, has developed several cocktails that incorporate Japanese whisky. Her Jack Knife, for instance, is a gorgeous combination of Suntory Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky, Oloroso sherry, Cocchi Americano Rosa, chicory, Cubeb pepper and rose—that sounds like a lot, but all the flavors work together remarkably well.

We had some basic questions for Momose about the whisky of her homeland. Read the rest of this entry »

Somme Wisdom: Dimension and Danger in the Savory Cocktail

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Spirit Guide Nandini Khaund/Photo: Neil Burger

Spirit Guide Nandini Khaund/Photo: Neil Burger

By David Hammond

The Bloody Mary. Dirty Martini. These are the savory cocktails everyone knows. Trust us, though: there are many more savory cocktails out there.

“A lot of specialty cocktails at restaurants and bars tend to steer too much toward the sweeter side,” says beverage manager Mitchell Malnati at Fig & Olive. “Sweet cocktails are not my favorite, so when a cocktail with a savory element is featured, it always makes me want to taste it.”

From FIG & OLIVE, The Fig & Olive, organic cucumber vodka, blood orange olive oil, egg white, celery, lime juice, and blood orange puree

From FIG & OLIVE, The Fig & Olive, organic cucumber vodka, blood orange olive oil, egg white, celery, lime juice and blood orange puree

Nandini Khaund, spirit guide at Cindy’s, is inspired to analogize, saying “To me, savory cocktails are the magical gum that Violet Beauregarde chews in “Willy Wonka”; unexpected and wonderful. Savory hints in traditionally sweeter drinks add a level of complexity that elevates the drink, the way that adding salt to caramel enhances the flavor.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Malört and Muhammad: The Wormwood Connection

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Artemisia pontica,      romersk malört/Photo: By Sodla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (],      via Wikimedia Commons

Artemisia pontica, romersk malört/Photo: HelenaH/Wikimedia Commons

By M. Sophia Newman

The Chicago Tribune has called it “sweaty socks wrapped in spoiled grapefruit after marinating in a trash can.” It’s like “Jägermeister heavily diluted in pond water, but less piney,” says the A.V. Club Taste Test blog. It’s “fox poison,” even to its Scandinavian enthusiasts. It’s malört: liquor so nasty even Carl Jeppson, the company that makes it, calls it “punishment.”

It’s also probably Chicago’s dearest liquor. A local blogger who calls herself “Chicago Quirk” has written, “Oh dear lord I wish I could un-taste that”–but she also called a shot of this beverage “a Chicago rite of passage.” No joke. The city is home to the sole US producer and some ninety percent of their sales are made in Cook County. And business is good: in the past couple years, bars that used to give the stuff away as a prank have begun mixing it into cocktails. Read the rest of this entry »

Hotel Havana: Rum’s Time Has Arrived, Again at the Sparrow

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Sparrow sign,      photo Nick Fochtman

Sparrow sign/Photo: Nick Fochtman

For years, local boy Ernest Hemingway held court at the corner bar stool in Havana’s famed El Floridita. He’d order what became his namesake drink: a daiquiri with grapefruit juice and maraschino cherry liqueur. Cozy up to a stool at Sparrow, a new rum-focused bar in the Gold Coast, and you, too, can get a taste of Hemingway’s favorite drink. It’s called El Floridita No. 3. Read the rest of this entry »

Better With Age: Make Homemade Herbal Cordials for the Holidays

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Illustration: Abi Knopp

Illustration: Abi Knopp

Some people write family newsletters for the holidays, some people make playlists. I make herbal cordial. It’s a sweet liqueur that can be made in the space of two days, as simply as brewing a pot of tea.

You can pick your flavors by visiting the bulk herbs section at a natural food store. In a pinch, snip a few tea bags open—voila, a balanced blend of flavors. This year I’m using Lapsang Souchong, tea smoked over bundles of pine needles. It tastes like a campfire, and warms you right up. Read the rest of this entry »

Somme Wisdom: Best Before-Dinner Drinks

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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 »

New Sip in Town: Egan’s Irish Whiskey

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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.”


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 »