Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cocktailing Chicago: The Violet Hour

Just a few El stops away from the Whistler is the Violet Hour, known as THE Chicago cocktail bar. The Whistler and the Violet Hour were my two very favorite bars in Chicago, and Sarah and I hit them up in the same night, which, of course, begs a comparison, The Whistler was delightfully chill, probably the most relaxed atmosphere I've ever found at a dedicated cocktail bar. The whole vibe was very laid-back, very under-the-radar. In the very best way, the Violet Hour is the Whistler's exact opposite; they are both hard to find, both have amazing cocktails, and that's where the similarities end. The Violet Hour is dramatic, from the velvet curtains at the entrance to the Alice-in-wonderland decor to the painstaking presentation of the cocktails. Does it feel like a neighborhood bar? Absolutely not. Does it feel like an experience? Oh, hell yes.

A copy of the Violet Hour's 'House Rules'. Don't ask for a Bud Light.

In keeping with other Chicago cocktail bars, the Violet Hour is a bit..obscure. You'll definitely notice it if you walk by, but you might not know it's a bar. The exterior of the bar is covered with a lovely textured wood paneling (architect Nancy approves), and the lower part is painted with a mural which changes with the seasons. Concealed within the mural is the front door; find the handle, give it a tug, and you will be greeted by the hostess, who will usher you into the depths of the bar.

image: Metromix

Entering the Violet Hour is like passing into another world. Push your way past not one, but two sets of velvet curtains, and you will find yourself in a dimly lit, indigo-hued space that's a bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, if Alice's wonderland was a craft bar filled with mixologists ready to satisfy your every boozing whim.

Our bartender was not actually headless.

Sarah and I were seated at the bar, where our bartender, Rob (I'm not quite sure his name was Rob, but we'll go with that), was ready to assist us. You know how older folks are always talking about how air travel used to be so wonderful, back when flight attendants were so gracious and flying on an airplane felt special? (Well, I've actually never had this conversation with an old person, but I've imagined one, based on my readings about the golden age of flight. Yes, I'm a huge nerd.) That's how the service at the Violet Hour compares to the service at any old bar; it's very personal. After we had a chance to look over the menu, Rob asked us what sort of alcohol we liked. Sarah wanted something light and refreshing, so for her he recommended the Juliet & Romeo, a combo of gin, mint, cucumber, and rose water that's one of the bar's most popular drinks. It came in a cocktail glass, with mint leaves and drops of bitters artfully scattered across the surface. At the Violet Hour, no detail goes ignored.

Juliet & Romeo.

I scoured the menu and decided to order a Old One, a combination of pisco, lime, Cocchi Americano (an Italian aperitif that's a cousin to Lillet Blanc), and Peychaud's bitters. My drink was a perfect, delicate mountain of crushed ice, surmounted by just a few drops of bitters. So how did these perfectly presented drinks taste? The Juliet & Romeo was delicious, delicate and subtly floral, and the Old One started out sweet, owing to the pisco, and finished with an elegant, lingering bitterness, like a particularly poignant Russian novel.

The Old One.

The drinks were very good. You can't have a cocktail bar without good drinks. But really, I think what sets the Violet Hour apart is more than just the drinks - it's a feeling. Deep in the dark, past the velvet curtains, sipping your perfectly constructed cocktail in the flickering candlelight, you're far away from the noise of the street, far away from mundane, everyday things. You're a part of the drama, too; you're you, but for a little while, you're starring in a more sophisticated, more glamorous version of your life. I didn't want it to end.

Cocktailing Chicago: The Whistler

One of Chicago's best cocktail bars almost wasn't a bar at all.

Most bar owners decide that they want to open a bar, and then search for an appropriate space. The owners of Chicago's Whistler did it the other way around - they found the space, and then figured out what to do with it. They decided they wanted to open a live music venue - one that would sell wine, and beer, and maybe a few mixed drinks. Well, on the night of the very first concert, the cocktails were a smash hit. A star was born.

Like other Chicago cocktail bars, the Whistler is a little hard to spot. Look for the changing art installation in the store window in front.

Sarah and I showed up at the Whistler at 6 PM on a Monday night, right when the place opened. Not exactly prime time for any bar - in fact, we were the only customers there. "Could you print out a few menus?" Billy Helmkamp, one of the co-owners (I later discovered), yelled to the only other employee in the bar. Print the menus?, I asked. You have a different menu every day? Yes, Billy told me - a new menu is printed every day the bar is open, reflecting the availability of the different kinds of local produce they use in their drinks. Right away, I knew this was my kind of place.

The Whistler is really serious about local ingredients. They get a lot of their produce from a Chicago-area nonprofit that teachers inner-city kids how to garden, and like The Drawing Room, they're always looking for locally made spirits. One of their sources, Billy told me, is a Chicago-area attorney who makes cocktail bitters in his spare time. He distributes them to local bars, free of charge, apparently. He's in it for the love of the game.

But the Whistler, at its heart, is a live music venue. That's what the owners intended when they opened it, and they have live music every single night (although Sarah and I had to jet after about an hour and unfortunately did not witness this). This makes it a sort of hipster's paradise - laid-back location, delicious cocktails made with local ingredients, live music. Although I'm unable to confirm or deny the reports from Yelp that the Whistler is always full of painfully trendy, bearded types, I can report that, when Sarah and I were there, 100% of the other clientele (consisting of...1 guy) had beards.

Southern Exposure (l) and the Pago Pago.

While staying true to its roots as a live music venue, the Whistler is also an excellent place to get a drink. I had a Pago Pago, a classic tiki cocktail with...chartreuse?, which was as delicious as it was unexpected, and Sarah had a Southern Exposure (pisco, mezcal, lime, raspberry syrup, and allspice dram), whose pink hue and delicious smoky flavor made me exceedingly jealous. After only a single round of drinks and about 45 minutes of chatting with Billy about beer, booze blogs, and bitters, I was very sad to leave. If you live in Chicago (or are just visiting), do yourself a favor and soak up some live music (and some very good drinks) at one of my new favorite bars, the Whistler.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cocktail University: All About Sloe Gin.

Sloe gin, the liqueur that is the base for the lovely Hermione Granger, is a bit of a mystery to even my most booze-educated friends. "Um...what's that?", I always get asked, when I tell them that delicious tartness comes from sloe gin. Like a lot of forgotten cocktail ingredients resuscitated in recent years, sloe gin has a pretty interesting history. Read all about it at the Kitchn, where I'll be guest-writing a cocktail column for the next three weeks.