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.