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Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

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 »

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 »

Straight and Strange: Talking Bourbon with Chuck Cowdery

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

The Few, the Proud: A Distillery Turns Evanston’s Temperance History on its Head

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

Paul Hletko

By Charlie Puckett

The alley air outside of a whitewashed, re-appropriated chop-shop is swollen with the warm blunt smell of grains and botanicals turned into award-winning gins and whiskeys. Inside, Paul Hletko, founder and master distiller at Few Spirits, boils the waters, more than a thousand casks after his first distillation in 2011, to make some of Chicago’s most notable artisanal spirits.

As a resident of Evanston, once the incubator for America’s infamous Woman’s Christian Temperance movement, Hletko especially understands the high threshold for success a nascent craft distiller faces no matter which city they call home. It’s as if the weather of the temperance movement, decades since past, still alters the national dew point in the way that start-up distilleries are still few in number and face high infant mortality rates. According to a survey conducted by the American Distilling Institute, approximately 208 craft distilleries currently operate nationwide as of mid-2012, a featherweight comparison to the hundreds of thousands of stills operating prior to Prohibition. “The greatest success so far is that we still have our lights on,” Hletko says. “In our business world, the first two years are the toughest, and we just hit our second year.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Gay Spirit: Halsted Vodka Channels and Gives Back to the GLBT Community

Vodka 1 Comment »

Vodka just got a little gayer. Halsted Vodka, which launched last month, gives fifteen percent of its profits to local GLBT charities in Chicago. Now after three years of development, it’s spreading from the gay bars to the rest of Chicago and beyond. Jennifer Schulze, one of Halsted Vodka’s five founders, explains how they got started and where the brand is headed.

What came first, the idea for vodka or the idea to give back to the LGBT community?
We were looking for a way to give back to the LGBT community. We did a lot of research and a lot of focus groups to come up with the product that has the most impact, and that led us to vodka. The gay community drinks more vodka than anybody else. It’s a huge part of the social fabric in a very positive, celebratory way. It is the spirit of choice in the community, so that’s how we ended up vodka. Read the rest of this entry »

Back to the Roots: Angel’s Envy Brings Back Bourbon History

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

Lincoln Henderson

“It’s nice being the prettiest girl at the dance,” laughs Wes Henderson. The day is excruciatingly hot, but we’re secreted underground in the new River North speakeasy-style bar and restaurant Untitled—as safe from the heat as we would have been from the cops almost a hundred years ago. Henderson isn’t talking about a new dress, but Angel’s Envy, the craft bourbon he produces with his father, master distiller Lincoln Henderson, and his son Kyle.

“We wanted to do something different,” explains Lincoln. The elder Henderson spent four decades at the distilling giant Brown-Forman, which produces Jack Daniel’s, among other brands. As Lincoln knows well, the industry standard for bourbon has always held that “a bourbon had to be very robust. When I say robust, that means it had to have a lot of wood in it.” Read the rest of this entry »

Cachaça Wins: No More “Brazilian Rum”

Cachaca, Drinking Events (yes, redundant, we know) No Comments »

Over a year ago, Booze Muse published an article about the uphill battle that cachaça was fighting with The United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau over the commercial name of their national spirit. The liquor was labeled “Brazilian Rum,” to the detriment and embarrassment  of fans, connoisseurs and producers, who argued that although cachaça bore some resemblance to the Caribbean favorite, the denomination was, as Leblon’s Steve Luttmann, stated then, misleading to say the least. “The issue is when consumers read ‘Brazilian rum’ on the label, they expect it to taste like rum,” he said. “Consumers taste it and find out that it really isn’t rum, and this creates a lot of consumer confusion.” Both liquors originate from sugar cane, but rum is distilled from molasses, whereas cachaça is distilled from fresh sugarcane.  Read the rest of this entry »

Amazon.Cocktail: Cedilla puts Açaí into Cachaça for an extra-trendy Brazilian liqueur

Liqueur, Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They?, The Fine Art of Mixology, Tips and Trends No Comments »

By Ernest Barteldes

A decade or so ago, the açaí berry was starting to get a lot of attention in Brazil, where many began consuming its pulp in a bowl mixed with granola or other ingredients to benefit from its antioxidant and energetic properties.

Word spread quickly, and soon the fruit—which is taken from palm trees that grow natively in the Amazon region—made its way to the United States market. The first company to exploit it stateside was Sambazon, an American company that specializes in exotic tropical fruit. Açaí has come to be regarded as a “super fruit” that is now featured in dozens of products, going from fruit smoothies to dietary supplements, conditioners and açaí-infused vodkas by Absolut and VeeV—the latter of which is used to make the “Veev a Loca” martini at the Signature Room on Michigan Avenue. Read the rest of this entry »