Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cocktailing Chicago: The Drawing Room

Chicago cocktail bars are hard to find.

Although none of them are rocking the speakeasy feel quite as hard as PDT, the NY cocktail den with an entrance in the back of a phone booth, all the places we went felt a little bit...tucked away. Secret. Special. Like you were cool and in-the-know just for getting in the door.

Sarah, Rebekah and I started off our very first evening in Chicago at the (relatively conspicuous) Drawing Room, a basement hideaway with an entrance tucked between a club and a little French restaurant. We got there around 7 PM on Saturday night, just in time to stake out some prime spots at the bar. From there, we could watch our cocktails being crafted by some of the world's best bartenders (head bartender Charles Joly won a James Beard award in 2011, which is kind of a big deal), and also check out the scene.


From the photos I found online, I was a little concerned that the decor would be a bit high-dollar Holiday Inn, but I couldn't have been more wrong. The Drawing Room feels loungey, intimate and wonderfully grown-up, like the kind of place you always imagined adults hanging out when you were little and couldn't wait to grow up. The space is a long, low room filled with plush furniture - it's modern but warm, fancy but not fussy. The perfect backdrop for for a night on the town with some good friends, and some very good drinks.

Let's talk about the drinks.

Normally, I feel pretty in my element when perusing a cocktail menu. Strange spirits, like cachaça, Fernet Branca? These do not phase me. I even know what a shrub is. But the menu at the Drawing Room threw even me for a loop, and that's a good thing. Cocktail experimentation with wild and wonderful ingredients? I love. And, it turned out, a lot of the things on the menu I didn't recognize because they were local spirits made in and around Chicago. This, I love even more.

Right off, Sarah asked me - what is Malört? Maybe a kind of whiskey? - I told her, totally flubbing. And then I remembered - Malört is that liqueur. Famous for tasting like tires, and for, well, being absolutely repulsive. People who taste Malört for the first time are usually so disgusted that they make what is called a Malört face, an expression of total disgust that is often captured by their friends and cataloged on this flickr site. Looking at it will give you a pretty good idea of what Malört tastes like to the first-timer.

This strange liqueur tastes like wormwood (also present in the extremely potent and supposedly hallucinogenic Absinthe), is freakishly bitter, and, I was told by Billy Helmkamp, one of the co-owners of the Whistler, is sort of the national spirit of Chicago. Seriously. There's even a Chicago flag on the bottle. Malört is to Chicago what Fernet Branca is to San Francisco. People in Chicago really, really love it. And, sure enough, ever bar I visited after the Drawing Room had a bottle of this stuff hanging around. Having seen all the faces on the internet, I was, of course, anxious to taste it for myself. Our bartender Sergio, whose service was impeccable, offered to pour me a bit so I could try it. I wanted to like it so badly. A taste for Malört is like the ultimate badge of cocktail snobbery; it's loved by hardcore cocktail enthusiasts and hated by everyone else. I...didn't like it. At all. In fact, I thought it was one of the foulest things I've ever tasted. Like rubbing alcohol, with a lingering aftertaste of pure hate.

Sergio plying his craft. Witness the Malört to the left.

Billy also told me that it takes until your thirties for the tastebuds that detect bitterness to fully develop, so you may not like bitter things until then. I am 27, so maybe my love for Malört is just waiting for my 32nd birthday to fully blossom. Rebekah, who is, for the record, younger than I am, thought the Malört "wasn't so bad". Perhaps she has a more advanced palate than I do? I am deeply ashamed. (Sarah can't actually taste anything at all, so to her the Malört just tasted like booze.)

I ended up ordering a Cake or Death, because how could you not order a drink with such a fantastic name? (And kudos to our man Sergio for pointing me to this Lego Version.) I'm afraid I can't do it justice in words - it tasted a a little bit like coffee, a little bit bitter, and mostly unlike any other drink I've had before. This, Sergio said, was exactly what they were going for, and they certainly achieved it. I drink a lot, and I am always looking for the strange. This was certainly strange. I'm not sure I liked it (like as in, I would readily order another one), but it was definitely interesting. Rebekah, of the advanced palate, fell in love with the Cake or Death, and agreed to trade me the last of my drink for the remains of her Nooner. People who have drunk with me might be aware of my love affair with bourbon, and the Nooner was near perfect - a wonderful little bourbon cocktail, with maple syrup for just the right amount of depth.

The Cake or Death. Nooner in background.

Sarah has a condition called anosmia, which means that she cannot smell at all: all of her taste sensations come from her tongue. (Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, if you believe in that kind of thing.) This makes her the perfect barometer for balance in cocktails - Sarah is never swayed by taste associations. She only tastes the most vital things. Sarah bravely ventured off the menu and asked for a cocktail that was "light and refreshing". Sergio delivered, with a drink made from gin, lemon, cherry heering, and creme de violette. For the gin, he chose North Shore distillery's No. 6, a (locally produced!) gin that is very lavender and citrus-forward, to compliment the floral flavors in the drink. Sarah liked it, and so did we.

We decided to linger for another round, drawn in by the drinks and the atmosphere. Sarah's Floradora was definitely the best drink this round, but we all left happy - a wonderful start to our adventures in Chicago.

Monday, June 20, 2011

MxMo LVIII: Carmen Sandiego.

Ever since I spent all that time making a balsamic syrup for that one cocktail, I swore that some way, some how, I was going to use that stuff again. It was, understandably, a bit tricky; you can't put a syrup made from balsamic vinegar in just any drink. Enter, propitiously, this month's Mixology Monday, whose theme is "Niche Spirits" (with your host Filip at Adventures in Cocktails). I'd long been wanting to do a cocktail with a pear-balsamic pairing, so this seemed like the perfect time to bust out the Poire William. Poire William is a brandy distilled from pears (translation: a hard liquor, that tastes like a pear) that is a bit underloved in the spirit world, but for some reason crops up quite a bit in this blog. (You'll also see it called Poire William eau-de-vie (a French phrase meaning "water of life", applied to many liquors distilled from fruits), or just plain old "pear brandy".)

To this I added cachaça (another off-the-beaten path liquor, so my entry doubly qualifies), a bit of lime, Cointreau, and a dash of orange bitters, for good measure. (I borrowed a little bit from my original balsamic vinegar drink, and also from this delicious pear sour by Vincenzo Marianella, the man behind the Santa Monica cocktail bar Copa d'Oro.) I put it all over ice and added a little soda, because it's hot as hell here in Houston. (Average daily temperature: about 102 degrees. And I'm only exaggerating a little.)

Then there was the difficulty of what to call my creation. I always run into this problem - interesting drinks, with no idea what to name them. I settled on "Carmen Sandiego", since this cocktail contains ingredients pilfered from all over the globe - Poire William from Germany, cachaça from Brazil, balsamic vinegar from Italy, Cointreau from France, bitters from oranges harvested in the West Indes. And can't you just see Carmen enjoying a cocktail after making away with Machu Pichu?

I know I can.

Carmen Sandiego
1 oz Poire William eau-de-vie
1 oz cachaça
1/2 oz balsamic syrup (recipe here)
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
dash of orange bitters
club soda

Combine all ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice. Shake and strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Top with club soda (about 1-1.5 oz).

Verdict: It's well-rounded, it's interesting, it's...zippy. Definitely zippy. No less than what you would expect from that sassy, bridge-stealing broad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Accidental Deliciousness: Courtyard Bar at Brennan's

About a month ago, I strode confidently into the Courtyard Bar at Brennan's. I'm here to try the Brugal Anejo Rum drinks, I told them. My people talked to the bar manager. It's all worked out.

The bartender looked at me like I was crazy.

A few minutes later, along came the manager himself. He gently informed me that he knew of no such arrangement. Perhaps I meant to go to Brenner's? Imagine me going from confident to deeply embarrassed in about 3.5 seconds.

But I was already there, at the bar, with my schmancy camera, and the afternoon sunlight was slanting through the windows just so, and the bottles behind the bar looked oh-so-alluring. I had dinner plans a couple blocks away in 45 minutes. What was I supposed to do, wait in the car? And everyone had been so nice. So I did what any reasonable person in my position would have done: I ordered a few drinks.

I spotted a bottle of Fernet Branca behind the bar, which intrigued me because I have my own bottle of Fernet Branca, sitting unopened, waiting for the proper inspiration. So I asked the Bartender, Adam (who, despite the initial mix-up, was courtesy itself) to make me a cocktail with Fernet Branca that was "not too bitter". He presented me with something called the Problem Solver - not too sweet, not too bitter, just the perfect little whiskey cocktail. If you would like your problems solved as well, you're in luck, because Adam was kind enough to give me the recipe. (See, I told you they were nice.)

The Problem Solver
2 oz rye whiskey
1/2 oz cherry heering
1/4 oz Benedictine
Fernet Branca

Stir the rye, cherry heering, and Benedictine together in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a Fernet-rinsed cocktail glass.

For my second drink, Adam made me a yellow plum daiquiri. Believe me, it tasted as light and beautiful as it looks. Unfortunately, I don't have the recipe for this one - you may just have to go to Brennan's and order one yourself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Love Drama.

I do not watch much TV. But when I do watch TV, I like to watch TV that is, as Rachel says, "the TV-est of TV". I.e: reality dating shows. Yes, I watch the Bachelor, and I am not ashamed. In fact, I am so unashamed that I write a snarkerific blog recapping the Bachelor (and the Bachelorette). Maybe you should read it. I've been told it's quite funny.

Since last season I created a Bachelor cocktail to celebrate Brad Womack's return (and the launch of my snarkity blog), it hardly seemed fair not to honor this season's Bachelorette, dental student Ashley Hebert, with some kind of libation. (And after having taken a (emotional, not literal) beating at the hands of troll-faced bachelor Bentley last week, Ashley seems like she could really use a drink.)

Of course it had to be a champagne cocktail - champagne is all over every episode of the Bachelorette, and it suits Ashley's bubbly personality. I started with a classic champagne cocktail, the French 75 (especially appropriate since Ashley is french) and added mint, the flavor that most reminds me of going to the dentist. (Of course, my dentist also had bubble-gum flavored toothpaste, but there was no way in hell I was putting that in a cocktail.)

The Ashley
8 mint leaves
1.5 oz gin
1.0 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice (did you read the part where I said fresh squeezed? make it fresh.)
.5 oz simple syrup (don't be lazy. this stuff is super easy to make.)
Brut champagne

To make: Add the mint and simple syrup to the bottom of a shaker and muddle lightly (or smoosh with the back of a spoon). Add the lemon juice and gin and fill the shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a cocktail flute. Fill with champagne.

Verdict: Sweet, bubbly and delicious - the perfect accompaniment to a night of guilty-pleasure TV.