Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

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 »

Is Vodka Good for Anything? Chicago Booze Pros Ponder the Big Questions

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Krissy Schutte/Photo: Arnold Klein

Krissy Schutte/Photo: Arnold Klein

By David Hammond

“Vodkas, a lot of times when I smell them, it brings me back to cutting up a frog in high school.” That’s what I was told during a recent conversation with Chicago uber-mixologist and beverage maker Adam Seger, who uses vodka in Balsam, his American amaro, which he infuses with a number of herbs to give this otherwise neutral spirit a lot of flavor.

“Vodka is a sponge with anything you put toward it,” says Seger. “The spirit doesn’t get in the way.”

Is that all vodka is good for? Being a sponge and not getting in the way? I sought the opinion of some Chicago bartenders. Read the rest of this entry »

Agave Adoration: The Mezcal Gospel According to Lou Bank

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Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

“My interest in mezcal is as close as I come to religion,” says Lou Bank, a passionate apostle of the distilled agave spirit. We are sitting at Masa Azul (2901 West Diversey), communing over several bottles of mezcal that Bank brought back from Oaxaca and to dinner that night. Bank was eager to share, but his impulse in doing so was more than simple charity: he wanted to set me straight.

You see, I’d previously believed that mezcal, like tequila, was improved by aging in wood to become “reposado” (rested, aged two-to-twelve months) or “anejo” (aged up to two years or more).

Aging tints and mellows the mezcal. For Bank, that’s a desecration. Read the rest of this entry »

Game Changer: Adam Seger and Rodrick Markus’ Balsam Amaro Wakes Up Vermouth

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Adam Seger and Rod Markus/Photo: David Hammond

Adam Seger and Rodrick Markus/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Balsam Amaro hits Chicago later this month, which could be the best thing to happen to vermouth in a long time. “We’re waking up a vermouth industry that’s been napping since the eighteenth century,” says Adam Seger, an acclaimed mixer of fine cocktails, sommelier, and alumnus of places like Tru and The French Laundry. Seger is also the man behind Hum botanical spirits, another amaro in the Italian tradition.

Balsam Amaro is a “spirit of Vermouth” that Seger is at this moment bottling with Rodrick Markus of Rare Tea Cellar. It could be a game changer, not only for mixed drinks but for those of us who actually drink vermouth straight or on ice. If that sounds hyperbolic, consider your own perceptions of vermouth. Read the rest of this entry »

The Week of Living Tiki: Eight Faux-Polynesian Establishments in Seven Days

News and Dish, Pub Crawls, Rum 2 Comments »
Vintage postcard of The Hawaiian Isle Hotel

Vintage postcard of The Hawaiian Isle Hotel

By John Greenfield

You might say that Mai Tais run in my blood. When I was a kid in the 1970s, my family used to hang out at a tiki hotel called the Hawaiian Isle, owned by my dad’s cousin Leo Frank. It was located at 17601 Collins Avenue in the Sunny Isles section of North Miami Beach. Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore.

Images of Polynesian deities were plentiful at the inn, including a twelve-foot-tall, backlit mask by the front door, with eyes that alternately glowed green and pink. A talking parrot greeted guests in the lobby, and there was a floorshow featuring hula and other South Seas dance forms. The place was frequented by everyone from French-Canadian snowbirds to Jewish Mafia figures.

Those early days at the Hawaiian Isle must be a factor in why tiki culture resonates with me so much nowadays. Along with strolling through the steamy Garfield Park Conservatory and soaking in the hot tubs of King Spa in Niles, visiting faux-Polynesian lounges and restaurants is one of my favorite ways to take a brief vacation from the grim realities of a Chicago winter. Read the rest of this entry »

Little Absinthe Bar on the Prairie: Chasing the Green Fairy Down the Road

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Steve Frano at Polo Room/Photo: David Hammond

Steve Frano at Polo Room/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Absinthe is a legendary beverage. The green liquor achieved global celebrity before it was banned in many countries, including the United States and much of Europe. Absinthe became legal again in the U.S. in 2007, and now it’s turning up in the most unexpected places.

In Polo, Illinois, several miles north of Dixon, there’s the Polo Room (712 North Division). Owner Steve Frano is way into absinthe, but he’s attracted a coterie of local absinthe enthusiasts. When I visited his little absinthe bar on the prairie around Christmas time, I was surprised to see young farmer dudes bellying up to the bar with their DeKalb hats on, ordering glasses of the once-forbidden green liquor.

Frano has an absinthe menu of about fifteen selections, but there are more behind the bar. When you order one, Frano performs the ritual of drizzling water from a huge ice-filled glass reservoir over a sugar cube, perched on a special slotted spoon, into the liquor, which then acquires a somewhat yellowish, cloudy aspect. Read the rest of this entry »

That’s Amaro: A Sweet Spot for Bitters

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Matt Amann, Cere's Table/Photo: Huge Galdones

Matt Amann, Cere’s Table/Photo: Huge Galdones

By David Hammond

“Bitters” is a term applied to three different types of beverages.

Cocktail bitters come in little bottles, herbal concoctions you drip into a Manhattan or a Singapore Sling. The most popular cocktail bitters are Angostura, though serious cocktailians must have more; at Binny’s, we counted more than twenty different types of cocktail bitters

Bitters in Britain are basically types of pale ale. The history is unclear, but to transport British ale to India, hops (naturally bitter) or sugar (which converts to alcohol) were added to help the brew travel without spoilage.

Amari (the singular is “amaro”) are frequently produced in Italy or Germany and usually sold in wine-type bottles. Amari are almost always made from highly secret recipes of herbs, barks and other ingredients. These bitters are typically intended as digestifs, beverages consumed after a meal to help digestion.

Matt Amann, the head bartender at Ceres’ Table (3124 North Broadway), tells us that even though after-dinner bitters are increasing in popularity, many of his “guests are still unaware of their place in Italian tradition” and that they may shy away from them because “ordering unfamiliar foreign liqueurs can be disconcerting.” Read the rest of this entry »