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 2 Comments »
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

Drinking. On Christmas Eve. Alone.

Tales of Drunken Woe No Comments »
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

Wine is Poetry in a Bottle No Comments »
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 »