Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

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 »

Driven to Drink: Motor Row Brewing Revs Up in Historic District

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Photo: Kelly Kuritar

Photo: Kelly Kuritar

By Ben Kramer

In recent months, the Near South side has been dominated by sports headlines like “Sox Land Melky Cabrera” and “Jay Cutler Benched. Will He Be Traded?”

In the midst of these triumphs and tragedies, Motor Row Brewing (2337 South Michigan) has been quietly working its way toward January 14th, its opening day.

Owner/brewer Frank Lassandrello has been involved in the industry for more than a decade. Graduating from Seibel Institute of Technology, America’s oldest brewing school, Lassandrello worked at Goose Island before moving to Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery to become their Quality Control Manager. As Lassandrello explains, “You can’t make good beer if your tank’s not clean.” Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2014: Drinking

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Top 5 Local Chicago Craft Distilleries
Koval Distillery
Next Star Vodka
CH Distillery
Rhine Hall Distillery
Few Spirits Distillery
—Michael Workman

Top 5 Local Beers
Half Acre’s Pony Pilsner
Metropolitan’s Krankshaft
Goose Island’s The Illinois
Revolution’s Cross of Gold
Ale Syndicate’s Levee Belgo American Ale
—John Wawrzaszek

Drinking. On Christmas Eve. Alone.

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Drinks for one/Photo: David Hammond

Drinks for one/Photo: David Hammond

By Dennis Lee

The Christmas season starts as a disaster, ends as a disaster, and in-between, it’s… a disaster.

Black Friday is the stupidest event ever (if you’ve ever felt the need to tackle a rabid mother for a discounted talking stuffed animal, please go away), Christmas music gives me instantaneous diarrhea, and on a related topic, at this point of the year, I’m not sure how much more green-bean casserole I can stomach.

Since I write for a living, traveling to some tropical hideout for the winter is out of my financial reach. Oh, and by the way, if you have any actual dreams, don’t be a writer. Your future self will thank your present self.

Like any self-respecting adult, the best way to deal with Christmas (or anything) is to drink alone, because you spend the majority of the year avoiding your relatives and others anyway. As most writers will understand, most of my life—such as it is—is spent inside my own head, because that’s where I’m most comfortable.

I hear what you’re thinking, and yes, I realize that a solo booze session isn’t likely to be in the Top 5 Healthiest Habits on BuzzFeed. I further realize that such behavior may, believe it or not, be a symptom of alcoholism. During Christmas, however, everyone gets a pass, and I plan to get that pass stamped regularly.

So here’s my recommendation: Find a tavern that’s open on Christmas Eve (not as hard as you might think: others may have the same idea as me). When you get there, grab a stool on the corner of the bar. Put away your cell phone. (You don’t want some pain-in-the-ass friend/relation/Good Samaritan locating you and staging a useless intervention.) Order a drink. I prefer any kind of straight bourbon on the rocks. The rocks are there only to make your drink last for a few sips longer before you order your second one. Because you will. Read the rest of this entry »

Agrodolce Vita: Mixing Up Old-Fashioned Shrub for Cocktails and Cures

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Yolanda Raker, Ozark Folk Center/Photo: David Hammond

Yolanda Raker, Ozark Folk Center/Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

Shrub. Over the past few years, you’ve probably seen this drink of fruit juice, sugar and vinegar listed on many Chicago cocktail menus. I recently happened upon shrub at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas. The beverage was being prepared by Yolanda Raker, who works at a little herb shop devoted, like many shops in this state park, to the preservation of Ozark folkways.

Shrub—fruit juice, sugar and vinegar in 1:1:1 ratios—came to the Ozarks courtesy of the same folks who created the music of the Ozarks: mostly Irish, Scottish and English immigrants who used a fiddle and banjo to plant British ballads on new soil.

But shrub didn’t originate in the British Isles; it originated in the Moorish empire. “Sharab” is Arabic, translated as “syrup” and “drink” The Moors brought shrub with them when they expanded into Italy and Spain in the tenth century. The Europeans brought shrub with them when they expanded into the New World during the sixteenth century.

Mixing fruit with sugar and vinegar was a way to preserve the fruit (or at least its juice) before commercial ice or refrigeration. The hardest, messiest part of most shrub recipes is the preparation of the juice, which sometimes calls for macerating the fruit in sugar, straining it all through cheese cloth, etc.

But we’re lazy. We simplified the traditional recipe by putting the fruit through a juicer: this may not be an orthodox technique, but it’s fast and simple and so it worked for us. We juiced farmers-market blueberries that were frozen last summer; once we determined how much juice we had, we added equal portions of organic, unbleached sugar and Bragg’s apple cider vinegar. Read the rest of this entry »

Untraditional: Shake Up Thanksgiving Drinking with Oddball White Wines

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Photo: Tim Parkinson

Photo: Tim Parkinson

By Wendy Aeschlimann

Thanksgiving is maybe not the best time to go against tradition. Changing out your great aunt’s green-bean casserole or your mother’s sweet-potato-marshmallow dish could get you fired from the family. Still, Thanksgiving can be predictable and boring, comprised of discordant sweet, tart and savory flavors that are not easy to match with one type of wine. You just know the meal will be heavy with fat, butter and cream. Turkey, the star protein, is frequently bland and dry. And, alas, the dinner lasts for hours; if you drink too heavily, you’ll be snoozing on the couch by four.

Beaujolais nouveau arrives in stores about a week before Thanksgiving. (Funny how that works, right?) Bottles of this popular red usually find their way to the table. Instead of going with that lightweight red, we suggest serving an oddball white wine. Or two.

White wines have a pronounced acidity and citrusy, mineral notes that cut through fatty foods and accent a variety of flavors. White wine is also lighter on the palate so you can drink plenty without blowing out your taste buds. In addition, whites are usually more reasonably priced than reds. You don’t have to default to routine California Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay tends to be over-oaked and so can make turkey taste like wood. Sauvignon Blanc is too often horrifyingly tart. Both varietals—especially in less expensive price ranges—can be dull and one-dimensional.

By branching out to oddball whites, you’re likely to get lucky in even the under-$15-a-bottle range. Shebnem Ince of Perman Wine Selections (802 West Washington) is a sommelier who knows a lot about unusual wines. I asked her to pick a weirdo white wine in three price categories. After we get her suggestions in each category, I’ll suggest a few of my own. Read the rest of this entry »

Straight and Strange: Talking Bourbon with Chuck Cowdery

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Chuck Cowdery/Photo: F Minnick

Chuck Cowdery/Photo: F Minnick

By David Hammond

Chuck Cowdery is a world-renowned, Chicago-based whiskey writer and the author of several books, including his recent: “Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey.” He is a Kentucky Colonel and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.

We met up with Cowdery last spring in Louisville, where we both attended a series of events related to the Bourbon Classic, a celebration of America’s native spirit. As the snow starts to fly in Chicago, we sought Cowdery’s advice as to what bourbon we should be considering as we nestle into winter.

Let’s say I’m a bourbon beginner. What three bourbons do I really need to have—and why do I need to have them?
Maker’s Mark is a good place to start. The mild, wheated bourbon recipe, which contains no rye, makes this bourbon easy to drink. If you find Maker’s Mark too harsh, you’ll probably never like bourbon. Buffalo Trace is a more traditional rye-recipe bourbon but very well-balanced. If you like both of those, try Bulleit Bourbon. It contains twice as much rye as most rye-recipe bourbons. If you like all three, then you’re ready to try everything else. Read the rest of this entry »

Pairing Charcuterie: A Conversation with Joe Fiely of Francesca’s Restaurant Group

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By David Hammond

Charcuterie is our favorite part of the meal. That’s because we’re always hungriest at the start, but also because charcuterie offers such a wide spectrum of flavors. Though these flavors perk the palate, it’s challenging to find one wine that pairs well with, for instance, fresh and ripe cheeses, cured meat and condiments.

Joe Fiely is corporate wine ambassador for Francesca’s Restaurant Group. We ran into him at Davanti Enoteca with some questions about how to pair wines with charcuterie.

Generally, what pairs best with charcuterie—white or red wine?
I love white wines with cheese, in part because they work with a much wider range of cheeses. My favorites are crisp, young whites paired with goat cheese; slightly sweet, off-dry whites with blue cheese; aged and oxidized whites with aged cheeses. With white wines, it’s hard to go wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Bar-side Manner: Talking with Gemini Bistro’s Pauly Graves

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Pauly Graves of Gemini Bistro, courtesy Neil Burger

Pauly Graves of Gemini Bistro, courtesy Neil Burger

By Dennis Lee

Gemini Bistro in Lincoln Park recently celebrated its fifth year in business. I stopped by just after their anniversary to chat with head bartender Pauly Graves, who’s been with Gemini Bistro since opening day. Pauly has an easygoing demeanor, but one that also speaks to his seventeen-year experience behind the bar. He greets his customers like family, but also maintains his professional posture, making sure their experience is as comforting as the food and drinks he serves. I watched him serve drinks with a deft hand and a generous pour as he reflected on his five years at Gemini Bistro.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in terms of what you do now?
Reading people and giving them what they need, other than booze in a glass. The guy who wants to sit here, read his book, and not be bothered? I’m great at that. He doesn’t even know I’m there. The woman who just lost her husband and wants to talk; I got that in my wheelhouse too, no problem. I like to give more of a… bedside manner. I’m used to the Chicago drinker now. I know what they want. Everyone’s first words when they look at this menu, “Is it sweet, is it sweet, is it sweet?” Read the rest of this entry »

Fierce Ale: Three Local Beers for Halloween and Beyond

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Usually, white wine is for warmer weather and red wine for cooler. Beer, on the other hand, is year-round. Still, there are somewhat heavier-weight beers that are brewed for autumn-winter. With fierce weather predicted for Chicago in the coming months, you might want to lay in a few cases of these three local ales to see you through the colder season (you don’t want to get snowed in without liquid bread on hand).

The following brews—good for Halloween and beyond—are listed in order of increasing heaviness.

Scylla's Grasp

Scylla’s Grasp (Urban Legend)
Pulling through the scary theme of the season, Scylla’s Grasp from Urban Legend is a crisp pale ale made with a “mosaic” (i.e., collection) of hops that make for a lot of dimension in each sip. There’s pronounced hoppiness, but also some light citrus, a pleasing combination that would be welcome on an autumn evening. The first sip tickles the buds with light astringency, and the backend pays off with layers of taste, some bitter, others floral. The different angles of light flavor in this brew make this a good food beer: it’s likely that any dish set before you will contain flavors that will complement the many, though uncluttered, tastes in Scylla’s Grasp. If you like hops but recoil from the current trend toward over-hopped beers, this is a good one for you. Read the rest of this entry »