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.