Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

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 »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2013: Drinking

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Top 5 Gin & Tonics
Little Market Brasserie
CH Distillery
—Amber Gibson

Top 5 New Cocktails
Pappy Van Winkle barrel-aged Negroni at The Berkshire Room
Cease and Desist at CH Distillery
Tendron & Lime at Embeya
Cat’s Pajamas at Sepia
Rum River Mystic at Three Dots and a Dash
—Amber Gibson

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 »

411: Just Poggle It

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Fueled by the phenomenon of Groupon, deal-of-the-day marketing is changing the way people live. Every morning tens of thousands of Chicagoans wake up to an email offering an outrageous bargain for anything from a boot-camp exercise class to parachuting out of a plane. Even the lazy acrophobic is persuaded to purchase these deals because of the enormous price reductions. While the discounts are remarkable, those who prefer to maintain a steady lifestyle of drinking with friends are more interested in saving money on things they already do regularly. is a nightlife destination site that focuses on drink, food and event specials in Chicago bars and restaurants. Unlike web-based deal-of-the-day competitors, Poggled offers “real deals in real time” with its new iPhone application, explains the company’s co-founder Joe Matthews. Because “people don’t like to make decisions until they are walking out the door,” says Matthews, a deal can be discovered, purchased and instantly redeemed while already sitting comfortably in your local neighborhood tavern. For the more adventurous social drinker, registered users can search for deals by day of the week as well as GPS location using the Poggled iPhone app to scout out a new bar scene adding a splash of spontaneity and savings to their recreational routine. Read the rest of this entry »

Unconventional Drinking: “Working” the floor at The New York Bar and Wine Show

Brandy/Cognac, News and Dish, Tequila/Mezcal, Tips and Trends, Vodka, Whiskey No Comments »

Photo: Renata Baluk

By Ernest Barteldes

The New York Bar and Wine Show, an annual two-day convention that takes place at Midtown Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, showcases what’s new in the beverage industry, from special registers wirelessly attached to bottles (to better control the drinks sold) to novelties like a Russian roulette-style game wherein a plastic revolver has a chamber that releases a shot of liquor to the lucky ‘winner’—if the ‘loaded’ chamber ends up in his or her hand (think bachelor parties and dorm rooms, if you’re wondering who would do this).

But the greatest attraction is, of course, the booze, and this year’s event had plenty, ranging from new liquor brands, international beers and wines to the latest ideas in mixology presented by different bartenders from all over the world. Read the rest of this entry »

411: The New Brew

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Logan Square is host to a food co-op, plenty of dive bars, at least one moderately classy tavern and, now, a brand new brewery. Revolution Brewing Company, a new restaurant and brewery ten years in the making, has opened its doors on Milwaukee Avenue just west of California. Josh Deth, managing partner, has a history with Chicago and beer. He’s logged hours at Goose Island and the now-defunct Golden Prairie Brewing Company (not to mention he had a large hand in starting Handlebar). Brew man Jim Cibak is no novice either. He’s worked alongside Deth at Goose Island as well as other breweries such as Three Floyds. Obviously, beer is the big draw with such homebrews as the Workingman Mild and Eugene, however, Revolution has a full food menu ranging from bacon-fat popcorn to Hampshire-Duroc Pork Chop. “It’s a very warm and comforting place,” Deth, assures. “You’ll immediately feel that when you come in.” Revolution Brewing works on a first come, first serve basis. So regardless of when you get there, you’re bound to see some familiar faces. As Deth points out, the place has been packed with “lots of neighborhood folks” since its opening. (Peter Cavanaugh)

Taste of Brazil: Brazil’s cachaça is no longer a poor man’s drink

Cachaca, Spirits Just Sound Happy, Don't They?, Tips and Trends 3 Comments »

101_2072By Ernest Barteldes

While I was living in Brazil as an adult in the 1990s, the liquor known as cachaça was regarded as a poor man’s drink found only in corner botecos (dive bars) where a shot could be purchased for as little as fifty cents. Broke youngsters and college students would buy a cheap bottle in order to make homemade caipirinhas in spite of the horrible hangovers that would follow.

I remember that quite well—as a perennially broke student in my college years, I often found myself with an empty pocket. But only a few bucks were enough for the cheapest of poisons.

Today, however, cachaça is reaching a more refined audience thanks to the efforts of a handful of dedicated companies that have done a lot to bring the spirit to a higher level. “Cachaça is today in the same position that vodka, chianti and tequila were about fifteen years ago,” explains Steve Luttman, producer of Leblon, one of the more recent brands specially created for the international market. Read the rest of this entry »

Passing the Bar

News and Dish, Tips and Trends No Comments » is a new Chicago-based Web site that invites participants to rate their local taps. Bar-goers are requested to log onto their mobile Web to evaluate their hangout, while still inside. The quick, five-question quiz asks participants to rate the pub on the basic criteria of: crowd size, gender ratio, average age, entertainment and drink value. This information is instantly processed and then averaged based on all users’ responses. “Some people may want a quiet bar and others may be looking for a crowded bar. Either way, users will get the information that they need to make the decision of where to go,” says Randy Rantz, the site’s founder. Rantz, who has been legally bar-hopping for the past sixteen years, came up with the idea for his site after having spent countless weekends on the phone with his friends. They would text back and forth, updating each other on their current destinations. He thought, “Why not get more people involved in communicating this information?” (Andrea Giampoli)

The Green Party: Eco-cocktailing comes to life

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Green: it’s the color of money, the characterization of envy and, in today’s world, a double-edged status symbol that’s “changing the world”—for those who can afford it. Eco-culture is transforming grocery stores, clothing boutiques, car dealerships and now your local neighborhood tap. It’s a phenomenon I discovered on a recent pub crawl to three “green” establishments offering organic bar specials that included locally grown, pesticide-free and naturally cultivated wines, ales, vodkas, gins and house-infused flavors.

The first destination was the vegan-friendly Heartland Café in Rogers Park (7000 North Glenwood). Billing itself as “The Enterprise,” this commercial commune could have its own zip code, as it’s comprised of the café, a general store, studio theater, live radio show and our current stomping ground, The Buffalo Bar. The first thing my sidekick and I noticed, besides the not-so-environmentally conscious buffalo head giving us the evil eye, was the organic wine-tasting (Fridays from 7pm-9pm) and the absence of people enjoying it. Taking a seat at the bar, it became even more clear that we were the only ones ordering organic—and the taste test of Samuel Smith’s organic ale and an eco-friendly Cabernet Sauvignon proved why. The beer was so watered-down, it could have been from a Canadian spring. And, after the bartender mistakenly gave us the regular wine first, the comparison easily awarded the original the winner.

Our impression of organic ale and wine polluted, the green started growing on us once we arrived at our next stop, Wrigleyville’s Uncommon Ground (3800 North Clark), whose motto, “Live it Green,” was matched by a forest-friendly interior of rich earth tones and leafy paper lanterns. The cocktails served here are clean and sulfite-free (a bonus for my allergic cohort) thanks to Uncommon Ground’s almost exclusive use of Rain Vodka distilled from organic white corn grown on local Illinois farms.

Not only are the drinks palatable but—in the nature of green ideology—they pay it forward, too. The “Tree-tini” is a seasonally variable concoction that plants a tree each time it’s ordered—to date, over 2,000 trees have been committed to be planted in monsoon-devastated Tamil Nadu, India. And the “Rescue Me grilled pineapple greyhound” is a sweet citrus number that makes a donation to P.A.W.S. Chicago each time it’s ordered. So even with your hangover, you’ll at least feel good about yourself.

Although the do-good nature left a sweet taste in my mouth, it had me wondering—is this latest drinking trend a short-lived fad the way of Carrie Bradshaw’s cosmo, or do people consciously drink green in a bid to “save the earth”?

“Sometimes, I really don’t think people understand what organic is,” says Andre, former ecology-club president, and currently our bartender at the most popular of eco-bars, Butterfly Social Club (722 West Grand). “They just think it’s special.”

The newly revamped space is blatantly more modern with clean, white walls that leave room for the colorful drinks he serves up from a back wall littered with organic labels of every variety. Our favorites: the excellent Ginger Mojito (made of organic fair-trade Papagayo spiced rum) and Juniper Green Gin ‘n’ Juice, which goes down smooth, more like the latter part of the equation.

As Andre pointed out, it may be due to talking heads like Oprah that the green thing is sweeping the country—but for those honestly concerned with their health and that of the planet, a night of organic drinking is the perfect way to say cheers to Mother Nature. (Selena Fragassi)

Get Lit: An inquiry into the current state of writing and drinking in Chicago

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By Jamie Murnane

Virginia Woolf famously said that all one needed to write is a room of one’s own. For some people, this may be true, but for others, all they need is a drink and a seat in a quiet pub, like Wilde Bar. At the new Lakeview bar and restaurant, there are two full-sized Victorian bars and numerous hefty wooden tables throughout, but the focal point is undeniably its massive library.

A raised open area complete with fireplace and an elaborate stained-glass dome, the library features towering authentic wooden bookshelves—not the IKEA-style wood we’ve grown so accustomed to, but real old-fashioned, no-Allen-wrenches-involved wood—packed with old hardcover classics.

On a quiet night, a patron can sit here, near the snap-crackling fireplace (with the flat-screen TVs out of view), and pen the beginning (or several failed beginnings) to the next Great American Novel. For inspiration, look no further than a book to your left, filled with prose that is best accompanied with a Hot Toddy on a cold Chicago night or the illuminated painting above the fireplace of the bar’s namesake: great Irish writer Oscar Wilde.

Looking back at Wilde and other great writers of the twentieth century, one would think that a bottle of beer goes hand in hand with a pen, a glass of scotch with a typewriter. Many other literary heavyweights—like Hemingway, Bukowski, Kerouac, Burroughs and Chicago’s own Nelson Algren—were known for their drinking almost as much as for their writing, which helped to solidify the romanticized vision of the drinker-writer.

“I see all these kids who want to be writers walking around with dog-eared copies of ‘Naked Lunch’ crammed in their back pockets,” says novelist and playwright Joe Meno, who also teaches fiction writing at Columbia College. “There’s this old, romantic idea that to be a writer you have to get drunk, swagger and pass out in alleys, but you can’t get drunk and have a career. It doesn’t work; you just can’t produce.”

And while it’s true that downing a bottle of tequila, shot-by-lime-and-salt-infused shot, will not an instant novelist make, the relationship between liquor and literature is nonetheless a huge part of Chicago’s lit scene, whether it’s in the form of writing or reading, or in the form of a beer or a Scotch. Writers like Meno (author of “The Boy Detective Fails” and “Hairstyles of the Damned”) have taken new approaches to sharing their work in bars as opposed to the typical bookstore route, and it has paid off—readings paired with drinks have become a new favorite pastime that gives writers, readers, listeners and perhaps just neighborhood drinkers a new way to get lit.

“The Hideout is perfect for literature events,” Meno says. On most nights, the Wabansia Street venue plays host to local and touring musical acts, but the owners are also very supportive of the literature scene and host regular readings. Author Jonathan Messinger’s popular lit series, The Dollar Store, ran monthly at the Hideout until this past November. Based on items purchased at a dollar store, a rotating roster of writers were invited to wax poetic on their cheap muses. Combined with cheap drinks, the night had been a notable success and will likely continue sporadically (Messinger keeps a busy schedule as co-publisher of indie publishing company Featherproof Books).

Similarly, Reading Under the Influence has the best of both worlds, but with a certain edge—participants and patrons are encouraged to drink shots before reading from published classics or their own written works. After the reading, more shots are consumed and a trivia contest based on the reading is held. RUI takes place on the first Wednesday of every month in the back room of Sheffield’s in Lincoln Park.

“I think reading series at bars provide literate folks with a more interesting thing to do than watching sports while getting tanked,” says past RUI participant Kathie Bergquist. Bergquist is the author of “The Gay and Lesbian Guide to Chicago” and also the manager of Women and Children First Bookstore in Andersonville. She names Danny’s Tavern in Bucktown and the Hungry Brain as other great bars that host frequent readings, but acknowledges that they do pose somewhat of a threat to typical readings that don’t generally provide attendees with alcohol.

“I think that readings out at bars have an aura of being ‘sexier’ than bookstore readings, because there is liquor involved and the perception is that the content will be raunchier,” she says. “I think it’s a shame, in a sense, as there are so many great free readings going on at bookstores throughout the city at any given time that are not getting as much hype.”

But she notes that W&CF has had to up the alcoholic ante to entice people into the generally dry readings from touring authors.

“One way we are trying to compete with what we call ‘off-site’ reading events is by picking one or two funkier, sexier readings a month off of our schedule and offering wine, and often food, at them. An example of this is when we had free mojitos and Cuban food for the release of Achy Obejas’ new anthology, ‘Havana Noir.’ Or, if we are having a group reading with a bunch of local writers, it’s a nice way to add a celebratory flavor to the reading, as well as an additional audience draw.”

She continues, “I realize that the lighting at Women & Children First is not as ambient as a bar setting, but at least when we offer booze, we offer it for free and you can buy your books there, too.”

The social aspect of bars and even bookstores that have accommodated writers and readers has allowed locals in the lit scene to sell and excel. Getting people to see a newly published writer at Borders is a little more difficult than getting a regular at Sheffield’s to pay attention to the man or woman reading their own short story at the front of the bar.

Brian Costello, author of “The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs,” says these kind of events are putting a new, entertaining twist on readings. “Typically, someone who might read at Borders just reads a little and might answer some questions at the end,” he says. “Then you might wait to have your book signed or shake their hand and say, ‘Oh wow, that was great.’ A lot of us who’ve been doing these kind of readings for a long time have always tried to react to these stuffy, stereotypical readings where the person just reads from their book and the audience is very serious. These new twists, with the help of a bar situation, remind people that these are stories for everyone, not just lit critics.”

At first, it might have seemed unorthodox, but when Drinking and Writing Brewery was founded in 2003, co-creator Sean Benjamin knew he had to offer a way for the two historically linked pastimes to connect. A figurative brewery, Drinking and Writing Brewery is a production company that started with a group of Neo-Futurists (famous for “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”) who wanted to do a show on Bukowski.

“First, we were focusing on Bukowski,” says Benjamin. “Then when we thought of him, we thought of Kerouac and more and more writers who fit that personality of the loner writer drinking in solitude.”

Though Benjamin shares Meno’s notion that it’s not as common these days for a writer to be both successful and a drunk, the connection between liquor and literature is omnipresent. “The more we say writers aren’t big drinkers as much, the more we see ones who are,” he continues. “A lot of writers drink to release inhibitions and [twentieth-century] writers drank so they had those experiences to write about, like Jack Kerouac drinking and going on road trips and writing about them.”

He continues, “Today, there aren’t too many writing jobs where drinking is as acceptable. But it’s harder to think of a twentieth-century writer who didn’t drink than one who did.”

What is still acceptable, though, are the events and readings that take place nearly every week in various bars throughout the city that celebrate and sustain the drinker-writer parallel. Brewing these kinds of events is something the Drinking and Writing Brewery has done for the last four years.

As Meno says, it’s events like these that allow modern writers to let loose. “The readings are the fun part, after you do all the work,” he says. “During my early formation as a writer, I lived in Rogers Park and went to the Green Mill a lot. Now, I spend a lot of hours at the computer by myself—sober. I know a lot of writers—the same for a lot of artists I know—who drink because alcohol is actually a depressant so it can subdue you when you’re getting excited about what you’re writing. So, you drink not because you’re hiding or you’re a tormented artist, but because you walk around all day with your head in the clouds.”

Perhaps what Chicago is missing, according to Bergquist, is a true “writer’s” bar. Besides the newspaper-famed Billy Goat Tavern, there isn’t one hangout that has been synonymous with writing.

“I was just in New York, at the KGB Bar there, which is truly a ‘writers’ bar, with nightly readings, and I lamented that there really weren’t any bars in Chicago that cultivated the writer crowd in as meaningful a way as they do,” she says. “Too bad, because we’re drinkers—big time.”

Wilde Bar could become the new spot, if it lives up to its namesake, but the location might make it more of a relaxing hangout that is an alternative to the otherwise hopping Boystown nightlife. On early weeknights (before the place gets too crowded, as new bars tend to do), patrons can get cozy near the fireplace of the library-like area, the most Wilde-esque part of the place, and scribble in their journals.

Bars like Danny’s Tavern and the Hopleaf, on the other hand, have long been revered among literary folks throughout the city. For many drinkers who happen to be writers (or writers who happen to be drinkers), Danny’s is a step-above a dive art-house establishment, complete with many dark (candlelit only) nooks and crannies to truly get into the loner drinker-writer persona. Plus, the tavern hosts the increasingly popular Danny’s Reading Series, featuring local authors and poets on the third Wednesday of every month. hosts a monthly reading series at Andersonville’s Hopleaf, which is also where the Drinking and Writing Brewery first began and holds it annual Drinking and Writing Festival. The bar’s owner Mike Roper attributes the big literary draw to the fact that his is one of the few watering holes in the city that doesn’t have a single television set. They also don’t play loud music and keep a good number of highbrow publications on hand, such as The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly.

“We’d like to think all these things, as well as carrying better beers and wines and better, more interesting food than typical bar food, makes us draw a more cerebral audience,” Roper says. “So the kind of people who are attracted to book readings are all already our clientele. Plus, we have our separate upstairs space where Bookslut has its readings that is quieter—a real ideal venue.”

At Hopleaf, it’s not an anomaly to see a regular sitting by him or herself, reading a book at the bar on a quiet evening. But this would be at almost any bar in Wrigleyville, Roper says. “It’d be like, ‘Look at that creepy guy at the bar reading a book. Don’t serve him anymore.’”

“We like to introduce people to the fact that it’s possible to have an experience in a bar that’s not a loud place with people chugging Miller Lite and screaming for their sports team,” Roper continues. “I feel we’ve carved out a niche. Most bar owners think the thing to do to draw the most people is to be a little of everything, like an Irish sports bar with pizza and burritos, karaoke and darts. It’s just a train wreck. A train wreck that happens on almost every corner of the city. But I think you really just become too generic by doing that.”

It usually is the smaller, off-the-beaten-path bars that allure writers. The drinks are cheaper, so more can be consumed for less, and it’s less likely to deal with overcrowding, meaning there’s plenty of elbow room for damp napkin haikus and stained Moleskin prose.

“I have a strong visceral link with old-man bars as writer places, mostly for the Nelson Algren connection, but also because they are cheap,” Bergquist says. Algren, author of “Chicago: City on the Make,” famously frequented West Town bars such as Lottie’s in Bucktown.

It could be a testament to Chicago’s community—supportive venues champion writers all over the city, rather than in one place all of the time. With several publishing companies, small presses and lit magazines based here, the bar owners take notice, and offer their space as a supportive environment to share drinks and words amongst veterans and newbies alike.

As Bergquist says, “One thing is certain: Writers, and fans of writers, are big boozers.”

And our town is a writer’s town.