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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
“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 »