Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

Terroir o’ Land o’ Lincoln: Tasting the Wines of Our State

Wine is Poetry in a Bottle No Comments »
Illinois vineyard in winter/Photo: David Hammond

Illinois vineyard in winter/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Illinois is not generally recognized for its wine. Napa, Willamette Valley, parts of New York and Virginia, sure. But our state? No, not really.

Having tasted wines in regions as disparate as sunny Havana and cool Quebec, it’s clear that wine can, indeed, be made anywhere. Even here.

Wine has been “made” in Illinois for some time, but a lot of the juice has come from other regions like, say, California. It’s way more difficult to grow good wine grapes on the Great Plains than it is in sunnier states, but if you want a taste of the state, you want to drink wine made of grapes grown here.

At Galena’s Wine Lovers’ Weekend, we were more than a little surprised to taste a lot of wine made from Illinois-grown grapes. Read the rest of this entry »

This Bud’s for Who? The Enduring Appeal of Macrobrews

Beer Rhymes With Cheer No Comments »
Andy Ashby of Memphis Made/Photo: David Hammond

Andy Ashby of Memphis Made/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

On a mid-May Monday at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, beer makers from all over the world represented at the Glunz Global Beer Expo. There were many, many small, craft brewers, whose numbers are clearly growing. There was also a booth pouring Schlitz, Stroh’s and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

We are living in a golden age of beer. Perhaps at no time in world history have there been so many brewers, professional and home-grown.

When you go out for a beer, or crack one at home, we’re guessing it’s usually a small producer’s brand that you select. But you’re special, because craft beer accounts for only a little over ten percent of the market and America’s most popular beer is Bud Light.

Sipping some quality suds with the boys from Memphis Made (768 South Cooper, Memphis, Tennessee) which, like many microbreweries, distributes only in its region, Drew Barton, president/head brewer/co-founder said something that surprised me by saying, “Mega-breweries have some of the best brewers in the world.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, encouraging him to say more. Read the rest of this entry »

Sort of the College of Cardinals Conclave for the Wine Industry: Spending a Night at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour

Drinking Events (yes, redundant, we know), Wine is Poetry in a Bottle No Comments »
Wine Spectator Grand Tour/Photo: Camilla Sjodin

Wine Spectator Grand Tour/Photo: Camilla Sjodin

By Harris Meyer

Corina Alfaro and Carissa Emery, who only recently turned legal drinking age, stand holding sparkling wine in their expensive Riedel wine glasses, looking excited and a little tipsy.

The two young women had won free tickets from the B96 radio station—which otherwise would have cost $225 each—to attend the Wine Spectator Grand Tour 2015 at Navy Pier’s Grand Ballroom. They obviously are enjoying the three-hour event, featuring sips of 228 of the best and most expensive wines from sixteen countries and four American states, with retail prices up to nearly $500 a bottle for top-of-the-line Bordeaux. It’s Alfaro’s and Emery’s first-ever serious wine tasting.

They both say they prefer sweeter white wines and sparklers to the drier, more tannic reds. “We used to drink boxed wine, whatever, give us the cheapest thing,” Emery says with a giggle. “Now this has opened our eyes to a lot of different wines.” Read the rest of this entry »

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

Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They? No Comments »
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

Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They? No Comments »
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 »

A Sonnet, Spoiled: Chicago Bartenders Reveal Five Easy Ways to Ruin a Martini

The Fine Art of Mixology 1 Comment »
Owen Worley, TETE Charcuterie

Owen Worley, TETE Charcuterie

By David Hammond

H.L. Mencken called the martini “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” The martini is an elegantly simple drink, following classic three-ingredient structure: gin or vodka, dry vermouth and a garnish (usually olive or a lemon twist).

What could go wrong? Lots. We chatted with several Chicago bartenders to get their take on how such a simple thing as a martini can go totally FUBAR. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They?, Tastes of What's to Come No Comments »
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 1 Comment »
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 »

House of Tiki: Lost Lake is Still Finding Itself, but Thank You is Welcome

New bars and clubs No Comments »
Welcome to Lost Lake/Photo: David Hammond

Welcome to Lost Lake/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

When Paul McGee, one of Chicago’s premier designers of adult beverages, launched Three Dots and a Dash (435 North Clark), he reignited our enduring fascination with tiki bar culture. The tiki spirit had never flamed out, of course, and it’s been throbbing for decades in all its over-the-top weirdness at places like the caught-in-amber Hala Kahiki Lounge (2834 River Road, River Grove) and the wiggly floorshows—featuring Polynesian Elvis—at The Tiki Terrace (1591 Lee, Des Plaines).

At Lost Lake (3154 West Diversey), McGee captains his sophomore foray into the hallucinogenic world of South Seas décor and drinks bearing tantalizingly creepy names like Zombie, Captain’s Blood and Suffering Bastard.

Three Dots and a Dash rests under the big umbrella of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, and it’s cast in that undeniably successful mold. Just as Mon Ami Gabi emulates the best qualities of a French bistro and Shaw’s evokes the vibe of an old timey urban crab house, Three Dots and a Dash seemed to us perhaps a tad self-consciously designed, perhaps even over-capitalized, but with better drinks—and a better-looking crowd—than just about any other tiki bar we’d ever been to. And it’s the only tiki bar we’d ever seen with a velvet rope to channel throngs of nouveau tiki enthusiasts. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They?, The Nighthawk No Comments »
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 »