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Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

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

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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 »

That’s Amaro: A Sweet Spot for Bitters

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

Beer Rhymes With Cheer No Comments »
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