Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Dick Move

Chicago Reader has this kinda-weekly feature called "Cocktail Challenge," in which 'one bartender challenges another to make a drink based on a chosen ingredient.' It's been a fun series to keep my eye on, as there have been some pretty ridiculous ingredients chosen--everything from garlic mustard to honey bee resin. Last go-around, my pal Stephen Cole challenged me to make a cocktail incorporating beef stock.

Photo by Andrea Bauer

From the Reader:

The Whistler's Paul McGee named his concoction "A Dick Move" after Stephen Cole of the forthcoming Lincoln Park bar the Barrelhouse Flat challenged him with beef stock. "He knows I'm vegan and thought it would be funny," McGee says. "I took it a bit further and decided to make a jellied cocktail using gelatin (more animal parts) and serve it in a cow femur. It should be 'enjoyed' by eating it like bone marrow. The cocktail turned out to be boozy, slightly sweet, savory, and had a bitter finish."

Yes, he tried a bit, as did our photographer, Andrea Bauer, a vegetarian. "This is sick," she said. McGee agreed.

A Dick Move
1 oz Wild Turkey rye
.5 oz Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal
.5 oz Punt e Mes sweet vermouth
.5 oz Zucca Rabarbaro (or a bittersweet Italian amaro such as Cynar)
5 drops Bittercube orange bitters
10 drops beef stock
Place ingredients in a mixing glass along with one bar spoon of powdered gelatin. Add one ounce boiling water and stir until the gelatin is dissolved. Pour contents into the cow femur and refrigerate for two hours or until gelatin is set.

Who's Next: McGee has challenged Sterling Field of Sable Kitchen & Bar with nutritional yeast.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Esquire's Handbook For Hosts, 1949

Tomorrow night is the first Wednesday of the month, which means it's once again time for 'Book Club' here at The Whistler. This month, I've chosen the 1949 edition of Esquire's Handbook For Hosts. The book came to me on the same day that I scored that amazing vintage banquet bar at a suburban auction--you may remember seeing it featured in Chicago Reader's Space column. There was a whole bounty of vintage cocktail stuff tucked in the drawers, including a stash of 48-star American flag cocktail picks and an unopened package of paper napkins from Bar St Germain in France. However, my favorite treasure found within was the very edition of Esquire's Handbook For Hosts being used for this month's Book Club selection.

The book is much more than cocktail recipes; it includes directions for Boeuf Bourguignon, party tricks, and clever ways to let your inebriated guests know it's time to head home. One of the neatest features is the Bartender's Box Score: a handy chart perfect for keeping track of your guests' favorite (and least favorite) libations:

While preparing for Book Club, I spend a few weeks going through the book and studying the recipes, trying to come away with 20 or 30 to test out.

I then go through those recipes, tasting and tweaking them until I settle on 10 or so of the book's best.

Sometimes there are too many good drinks to fit on one menu, as is the case with the East India Cocktail. So even though you won't be able to order this particular concoction tomorrow evening, you can take Dale DeGroff's modern version of the recipe and make it at home:

See you at Book Club tomorrow night!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Our Home Bar.

This great little story about setting up a home bar ran in the Chicago Reader today, and happens to feature a set up that's very close to my own heart! Thanks to Dean Fisher for the kind words and beautiful photos.

If you're hoping to elevate the mood in your home, a well-tended bar will do the trick. And who better to share tips on how to style and stock your bar than Paul McGee, head bartender and partner at Logan Square's The Whistler?

When McGee and his wife Shelby Allison relocated from Las Vegas in 2008, Allison immediately began scouring thrift stores and estate sales for items to round out her mid-century-meets-Americana aesthetic. The couple scored this stunning stainless steel rolling banquet bar at an auction in the suburbs for $275. It was produced in the 1940s by Brunswick in a building that now houses Columbia College and came complete with forgotten treasures tucked in the drawers, including cocktail flags dotted with just 48 stars.

Flanking the bar is an industrial lamp found at an antique store for $150 and a fiberglass bar stool Allison picked up at Andersonville's Scout for $40. The print that hangs over the bar might look like an investment piece, but it's actually an iPhone photo of Lake Michigan that Allison blew up and stuck in IKEA's Ribba frame—an easy DIY that cost under $30.

If you keep an open mind at thrift stores, most anything can be turned into a home bar: a bookshelf, tea cart, baker's rack, or just a decorative tray atop some spare counter space. McGee and Allison's bar cart is every drinker's dream, topped with curious elixirs and tools. The cart features everything from clay cups for sipping mezcal, a crystal mixing glass which is the benchmark of Japanese mixology and has recently become a fixture in high-end cocktail bars stateside, vintage bartending books found at various thrift shops and on eBay, copper Moscow Mule mugs (purchased from Cocktail Kingdom in New York for $13 each), and a wide variety of bitters, including the full line of Bittercube bitters, which are produced in Wisconsin.

As for the stocking part, McGee recommends these ten bottles to get your personal speakeasy started: rye whiskey, bourbon whiskey, London dry gin, silver tequila, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, white rum, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, Combier orange liqueur, Peychaud's bitters, and Angostura bitters.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Aviary.

On Sunday evening I finally had the chance to visit The Aviary. It seems silly to say 'finally,' as it has barely been open for business a full week, but I've been anxious to tour the menu ever since the Absolut Sensory Evaluation seminar I attended in November.

I had a great group of drinkers with me: Ira Koplowitz and Nick Kosevich of Bittercube Bitters, Sterling Field of Sable Kitchen & Bar, plus Eric Henry and Shelby Allison of The Whistler. Between the six of us, we were able to taste every drink on the menu, plus a few more.

The Menu:
Listed from sweet to dry, with birds in flight representing levels of complexity.
Screen shot 2011-05-03 at 3.01.55 AM

Craig Schoettler started us off with a little bit of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Bourbon (in one of the most beautiful tasting glasses I've ever seen), served alongside a Miller High Life tallboy.

The next 'course' was a shot of Heaven Hill's Virgin Bourbon with a pickle back (complete with a seriously delicious house-made pickle). So good that it disappeared before we could snap a photo.

The Amuse: Beefeater 24, Cocchi Americano, rhubarb juice, Peychaud's Bitters, lemon balm garnish, and a straw that seemed to be crafted from some sort of floral stem.

Round One:
Shelby ordered Pineapple, served in a conical glass with ice frozen to its interior surface. Reminiscent of the Chartreuse Swizzle and with a slight bitter component from San Pellegrino's Sanbitter soda, this may have been my favorite of the evening. I had Tiki, also a terrific drink. It had little cinnamon-flavored ice pebbles stuck to a metal straw that slowly melted and allowed the cocktail to become spicier.
Screen shot 2011-05-03 at 2.58.17 AM

Eric chose Hot Chocolate, which had a smokey flavor from the El Tesoro tequila, though none of us were able to detect the flavor of Fernet. Topped with a tobacco-infused foam.
Screen shot 2011-05-03 at 2.46.30 AM

Ira went with In The Rocks. As he said it, "Someone had to do it." Overall, a solid Old Fashioned made with Eagle Rare bourbon.

Not pictured: Nick's Sassafrass (very cool; a completely colorless cocktail with sassafrass-vanilla-licorice root flavored ice cubes) and Sterling's Banana.

Next came a few off-menu cocktails, courtesy of Greg Buttera. A classic Brooklyn with Amer Picon, and a Havana Club 3 Year Daiquiri; both were excellent.

Round Two:
Sterling ponied up for the $28 Truffle. The photo on the left is the full pour, which felt a little short compared to the other cocktails we had. Despite earlier reports I heard, the truffle was not terribly overwhelming.
Screen shot 2011-05-03 at 4.14.38 AM

Shelby's Martini, presented as a flight of three: a la minute (far right), one aged two months in a Tuthilltown barrel, and another aged three months in a Tuthilltown barrel (far left).

Nick's Blueberry, which changed with every sip as it infused in the canteen-like vessel.

I chose Rooibus, which had a pretty show-stopping presentation.

Ira chose Popcorn.

Eric's Martinez went un-photographed, as it arrived just as Snack Time began. Every bite was delicious, and the kitchen was kind and patient enough to do a couple of amazing vegan items for Shelby and me.

Round Three:
I had a well-executed Rittenhouse Sazerac (not pictured), and Shelby chose Ginger, which is a Moscow Mule variation swizzled by the drinker. Also, perhaps the most interesting glassware of the evening.

Sterling's Scots Pine.

Eric's Cranberry, which is their take on a classic New Orleans cocktail, The Hurricane. This was one of my favorite cocktails of the night, though I was a little confused as to why it was called Cranberry. It had three types of rum, one of which was a funky Batavia Arrack, and had a great balance between sweet and tart.
Screen shot 2011-05-03 at 4.45.12 AM

Nick went with El Diablo; Ira's Lemon came in a paper bag-wrapped brown bottle and was a tongue-in-cheek preparation of a classic Tom Collins.

To share: Sidecar and Coffee (pictured, with milk frozen to one side of the glass; their rum-based interpretation of a White Russian).

A Bourbon Flip mignardise and a bit of El Tesoro 70th Aniversario finished the evening.

In Conclusion...
My recommended 'must order' cocktails: Pineapple, Cranberry, Ginger, Rooibus, and Blueberry. If you're looking for wild, Alina-style presentation, go with Rooibus, Ginger, Blueberry, or In The Rocks. The classics were, for the most part, presented just that way: classically.

I think the way we approached the menu was perfect: as a group of six, everyone sharing with one another. Our table was perfect for our crew, and though we (and the few other tables nearby) started off the night a little on the quiet/nervous side, by the end of the evening the entire place had a festive energy.

A fun time was had by all, which, in the end, is the most important thing about drinking with friends.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Pago Pago Cocktail

I came across the Pago Pago Cocktail while preparing for February's Book Club, which featured modern tiki-guru Jeff "Beachbum" Berry's books Intoxica! and Grog Log. A combination of fresh pineapple, gold Puerto Rican rum, green Chartreuse, crème de cacao and lime juice, it's an especially interesting tiki drink because of the use of green Chartreuse. Though he doesn't have much to say about the cocktail's origins, he does note that the first time the recipe appeared in print was all the way back in 1940, in a book called The How and When (a guide to origin, use and classification of 'the world's choicest vintages and spirits').

The original instructions call for muddling pineapple, but on a busy night at The Whistler, unfortunately muddling is simply too messy and time-consuming. So, we infused Flor de Caña 4 Year (a dry, Nicaraguan rum) with tons of fresh pineapple in order to achieve a similar flavor profile to the original.

At first sip, you meet the tartness of the lime juice, quickly followed by the herbaceousness of the green Chartreuse. The cocktail finishes with the slight chocolate flavors of crème de cacao, which play very nicely with the vanillar notes of the pineapple-infused rum.

Pairing chocolate and green Chartreuse is definitely on-trend right now; Jennifer Colliau (Small Hands Foods and the Slanted Door in San Francisco), has an amazing recipe for tequila hot chocolate with green Chartreuse-flavored marshmallows on her blog. Finding that flavor-pairing in a drink from the 1940s is exciting--and goes to show that there are very few things being done behind bars today that haven't been done before, and highlights the fact that there are so many forgotten vintage recipes just waiting to be rediscovered.

The Pago Pago Cocktail will be on The Whistler's cocktail menu in May ($8).

Illustration via Beachbum Berry's blog.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Every now and then I hear stories about negative experiences at cocktail bars in Chicago or around the country, and I feel the need to remind my staff and myself why it is we do what we do.

There are so many people working each and every day to earn respect for the bar profession -- rude bartenders that belittle their customers' tastes or try to bully guests into respecting their craft through pretension are setting us all back. Those bartenders can give (and are giving) cocktail bars a bad reputation.

Last year I went to San Francisco with a long list of bars I was dying to visit, with one of the country's most lauded cocktail spots at the very top of that list. We made reservations for early in the evening, planning on spending a good portion of the night there. We got great seats at the bar and looked over the menu -- there were so many great drinks that I couldn't wait to try. Sadly, we only ended up having one round before leaving, our early departure having nothing to do with the quality of our cocktails. The bartender was cold and dismissive, and when he did answer a question, it was with condescension. Ultimately, the bars with the most gracious bartenders and welcoming service staff made the best and most lasting impressions on me -- and those are the bars I recommend to friends and customers visiting San Francisco. I'd never send one of my guests to a bar where the service was poor, no matter how good the drinks are.


Some of the best service we received in San Francisco, courtesy of Erik Adkins at Heaven's Dog.

Of course, I understand that it may have been an off night for that bartender -- I've certainly had those. I also understand what it is like to be busy. However, trying to be as polite as possible is of the utmost importance; most people will see that you are busy and will likely understand that you can't have a lengthy conversation about cocktails at that exact moment. But it is never too busy to be courteous, and if you are the type of person that can have such an 'off night' that you are outwardly rude to the people in your bar, you are probably in the wrong business.

Ignoring people that order a product or cocktail that isn't carried at a particular establishment is another trend that seems to be popping up, and, strangely, seems to be a policy that the staff members at these bars proudly brag about. I've heard stories of bartenders simply turning their backs on customers attempting to order a drink with cranberry juice or requesting that their martini be made dirty. I'm not suggesting that bars carry every product available or make every drink that is ordered, however, I do believe it is a bartender's responsibility to be friendly and offer an alternative. Practicing poor customer service is not only a disservice to your bar, it is harmful to all of the other bartenders that share your profession.

This is the hospitality industry. Many of our guests are able to make cocktails at home, but they chose to come to our bars instead -- to be social with friends, or to try something new. I view the bartender's role as the host of the party: my goal is to make sure the people at my party have a good time and want to return soon. To be the most skilled drink-maker simply isn't enough.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Barrel Aged Martinez Cocktail

I found out about barrel aging cocktails while reading Jeffrey Morgenthaler's blog. He had the experience visiting 69 Colebrooke Row in London, where he met Tony Conigliaro. Conigliaro had been aging all-spirit cocktails in glass containers without the aid of wood barrels to see if the flavors melded better over time, and if the slight oxidation of the vermouth or fortified wines improved the cocktail's flavor.

Morgenthaler took that idea and ran with it: he aged his own all-spirit cocktails in oak barrels, with the hopes of being able to round out their flavors and impart some of the wood's characteristics on spirits that typically aren't barrel aged (like gin, vodka, or aquavit).

I chose to use oak spirals in glass containers after reading Jamie Boudreau's blog about using wood chips (in lieu of a barrel) to infuse spirits. I immediately saw the upside to his technique; once you throw a cocktail in a barrel, that barrel is forever seasoned with those specific spirits. If I wanted to make more barrel-aged cocktails , I wouldn't want them all to taste like the barrel's previous occupant. Using glass containers with disposable oak spirals seemed like the perfect (not to mention most economical) compromise.

Now, the difficult part: choosing which cocktail to age.

One of my favorite stirred, spirit-forward gin cocktails is the Martinez. I thought this would make a good foray into barrel aging because, while the Old Tom Gin I'm using is already barrel aged, I specifically wanted to see how the vermouth would react to a few weeks' worth of oxidization. I also wanted to see how each spirit's flavors would react to one another after spending time sealed in a glass jar together. Adding the oak spirals would give the entire spirit another level of complexity, and I wanted to see if the cocktail as a whole was capable of picking up even more of the wood's characteristics.

I used a traditional Martinez recipe, which calls for Old Tom Gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters (though I subbed Angostura bitters). I combined all ingredients (save bitters) in a large glass container with an 8" heavy-char new American oak wooden spiral and aged the cocktail for about six weeks.

Overall, I think that this first experiment was relatively successful. The flavors seemed well integrated in a way I hadn't experienced by stirring alone. After an initial citrusy-orange nose (from the expressed orange peel garnish), the Martinez begins sweetly with the Maraschino liqueur. The midpalate has a malty spiciness thanks to the Old Tom Gin, and the cocktail is rounded out with a bitter cinnamon flavor from the Angostura Bitters.

As far as the oak spirals go, I'm looking forward to experimenting further with them -- though not right away. I have a few ideas that I'm saving for summer cocktails using spirits that haven't been barrel-aged at all.

The Barrel Aged Martinez is on The Whistler's current cocktail menu for $10.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rogue Cocktails

We have a pretty new monthly series at The Whistler that we're calling Book Club: once a month I choose one of my favorite cocktail books and create a menu of borrowed recipes.

The first was in December, where I somehow pulled off an overly-ambitious menu of 30 cocktails from Jigger, Beaker, & Glass by Charles Baker, Jr. The next was in February (the night before the blizzard) and featured 15 recipes from Intoxica! and Grog Log by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. (My pal Ronnie Suburban over at LTH Forum took some great pictures that evening; you can view them here.)

Last night, we featured Rogue Cocktails by Maks Pazuniak and Kirk Estopinal. It was a particularly fun book to feature because so many of the recipes within are by guys that bartend right here in Chicago and were able to make it out that night.


One of Kirk's drinks, the Gunshop Fizz (2 ounces of Peychaud's Bitters, strawberries, lemon juice, Sanbitter, cucumber, orange and grapefruit swaths), was so popular that we ran out by 11 o'clock. My personal favorite was Maks's Moment of Silence (rye whiskey, a full ounce of apricot liqueur, Averna, Laird's Apple Brandy, and a half ounce of Angostura Bitters).

Embury Cocktails Presents: The Gunshop Fizz from Embury Cocktails on Vimeo.

When it was all said and done, we had used 5 liters of Cynar, 3 liters of Peychaud's Bitters and 2 liters of Angostura Bitters. I mean, that's just insane.

A big, big 'thank you' to the featured Chicago bartenders who let me share their awesome, forward-thinking cocktails with The Whistler's guests: Stephen Cole of The Violet Hour, Mike Ryan of Sable Kitchen & Bar, Ira Koplowitz of Bittercube Bitters, Kyle Davidson of The Publican, and Brad Bolt of Bar Deville. Thanks also goes to Maks and Kirk for compiling such a wonderful modern cocktail book. I can't wait for volume two to come out this summer!

Photos by Charles Dastodd.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Mother-In-Law Cocktail

I came across this recipe in Ted Haigh’s book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Haigh describes it as a bona fide forgotten cocktail, the recipe having been found unnamed and crammed into Mr. Brooks Baldwin’s grandmother’s recipe box. Mr. Baldwin explains:

“My grandmother (born in New Orleans in 1895) inherited the recipe from her mother-in-law shortly before the beginning of the First World War. As specified by the original recipe, my grandmother concocted this libation by the quart and stored it in an antique lead crystal decanter. Informed that science had linked lead crystal to lead poisoning, my grandmother said: ‘It’s a pretty bottle, so hush.’”

The original recipe calls for bourbon, maraschino liqueur, orange curaçao, simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, Angostura Bitters, and Amer Picon. Amer Picon, a potable French bitters, is no longer imported to the States, so I substituted Amaro Ciociaro—a similarly flavored Italian bitters.

The Mother-In-Law Cocktail begins sweetly, thanks to the maraschino liqueur and orange curaçao. The flavor of the bourbon follows with some high proof heat—we use Old Weller 107. The Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters, as well as the Amaro Ciociaro, lend the cocktail’s finish a slight, pleasant bitterness. It has a wonderful citrusy nose from the expressed lemon peel.

Though I’m not preparing it by the quart as Mr. Baldwin’s grandmother’s recipe instructs, I do remain true to the original proportions. The Mother-In-Law Cocktail is a great drink for those who like their libations brown, bitter, and stirred.

Photo by Robert Brenner.