Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Plethora of Newfangled Sodas

Along my travels the last few months, I've managed to collect quite an array of fairly unusual and hard-to-find flavored sodas. Some of them have potential as cocktail ingredients, while some of them are really more just for drinking on their own. I figured I had better get started on writing about them (and drinking them) before they entirely take over my counter top & refrigerator.

I'm going to start with one of the first ones I acquired, which I really like. I haven't found a lot of cocktails for them yet, but they're fun to drink in
place of juice or soda.

Fizzy Lizzy Sodas

I found these sodas in San Francisco at the Village Market in the Ferry Building originally, and I had a couple of them there. I wrote down the information, and researched them a bit online when I returned. Low and behold, they are available here in Chicago at one of my favorite gourmet grocery stores, Fox & Obel. So I bought all the flavors they had in stock, and brought them home to try.

What's cool about these is they're not like the mainstream sodas (or should I say pops), they are just fruit juice and seltzer water, that's pretty much it - no added sugars, no flavorings, etc. They're refreshing, bubbly, and not too sweet, kind of like a glass of juice cut with soda water, only its already cut for you in a nice proportion. Maybe folks with kids could convert their kids to these, they're definitely healthier than sugary sodas (although of course a piece of fruit would be even better).

Here are the flavors I tried, with some tasting notes & ingredient details:
  • Northern Lights Cranberry - nice, fizzy with a fruity but tart & crisp flavor. It's made with more grape juice than cranberry juice, and you can taste that, but I enjoyed it. Very refreshing after a long day of walking all over SF. I think this has potential for light summertime cocktails, although you'd need to be careful not to overwhelm its flavor. I'm not sure why the bottle I bought here in Chicago has a different label than the other ones and than what's on the website, but it tasted OK, so I just went with it.
  • Costa Rican Pineapple - Very pineapple, seems like it might be fun in cocktails in substitution for pineapple juice - its not as sweet, but still tastes like fresh pineapple. I wish this one had more carbonation, it seems a bit watered down.
  • Yakima Valley Grape - Very reminiscent of grape soda, but not as sweet and with a more genuine grape flavor. I liked this one a lot, mostly because I drank a LOT of grape soda when I was kid, but don't think it has much potential for cocktails. No one else who tasted it liked it, but they didn't love grape soda back in the day, either. More for me.
If you find yourself out and about where you can find Fizzy Lizzy, check 'em out and let me know what you think! And let me know if you have any creative cocktail recipes using them.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Inside the Liquor Industry: Distributors and the Supreme Court

Usually I write about cocktail topics. Today I’ve got my lawyer hat on, and I’m writing about a liquor industry topic instead. It all stems from an email I got this morning, one of my alcoholic beverage industry updates. The first article in the update was a press release from the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of America about a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

A Bit of History

Before I get into all of that, here’s a brief background that may help those who aren’t familiar with how the U.S. alcoholic beverage industry works. Liquor sales in the United States are regulated in most states under a three-tier system. The manufacturer of the spirit is the first tier, the distributor is the second, and the retailer is the third. For the most part, a business is only allowed to exist in one of the tiers - I can make the stuff, but I can't sell it directly to consumers, or I can buy it from the manufacturer and distribute it, but I can't run a retail shop, etc. There are some exceptions, such as in the control states where the state government acts as both the distributor and the retailer, and for microbreweries and wineries in some states, where they are allowed to sell direct to consumers.

The bulk of these rules have been in place pretty much since Prohibition ended, and were intended to prevent much of the corruption that existed in the alcoholic beverage industry at that time. Unfortunately, the rules have certain other effects that may or may not have been intended. The reality today is that distributors (both individually and collectively) yield a considerable amount of power in the marketplace. They decide which products will make it to market, and they have a tremendous impact on the success or failure of a brand in their market (the supplier can only do so much, if the distributor fails to make timely deliveries or keep a relatively intact sales staff, etc.). They often have strong (and lucrative) relationships with the major spirit houses, and significant sway with local government.

The Decision
Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down a Maine law that attempted to require shipping companies to check the ID of recipients of tobacco products (summary here, decision here) and imposed liability on them for failing to properly handle shipments of tobacco products. This case is of concern because the same issue could arise with the shipping of alcohol (and affect your ability to buy that bottle of whatever-it-is on the internet, or participate in a wine club, etc.).

The heart of the issue in the Maine case was one of preemption - whether federal law preempted the State of Maine's ability to adopt and enforce such a law. The Supreme Court agreed with two lower courts, and found that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA) preempts an individual state's ability to interfere with the operations of interstate shipping companies by adopting these rules. One purpose of the FAAAA was to protect interstate shipping companies from onerous and potentially conflicting state laws, which could happen if the Federal government didn't prevent it.

Okay, so that makes sense to me - interstate shipping should be regulated at the federal level. The logical outcome from that (which Justice Ginsburg writes about in her concurrence) seems to be that Congress needs to pass a law that would apply across the country in regard to the issue of shipping tobacco (and perhaps also to alcohol).

Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of America Response
You may have already figured out that the wholesaler industry is not too fond of alcohol shipping, especially when it is sent directly from the producer of the product (which many wineries do now, if their states permit it). They always argue that they are protecting the public interest and preventing shipments to minors (in fact, they argue they are in the best position to do so, which just seems odd to me), but they are also very much protecting their interest and their cut of the pie.

The President and CEO of the WSWA responded to the Supreme Court’s decision by saying that “The Supreme Court’s decision is clear: age verification is not a responsibility which can be delegated to common carriers,” and that “States now need to reassess the wisdom of laws permitting direct shipping in light of this Supreme Court ruling. The licensed system in this country is based upon accountability, and if states are powerless to hold carriers accountable, there is no way to ensure that alcohol will not end up in the hands of minors.”

I’ve got a Problem with That
I read the Supreme Court's decision, and I don't think that's what they're saying at all. The Court is saying that only the federal government (i.e., Congress) may regulate this issue - an individual state does not have the authority to do so. They most definitely do not say that carriers cannot be held responsible; they merely say that an individual state cannot adopt a law to make it so.

Much as the WSWA would like all states to ban the shipment of alcohol and internet sales (and they might actually convince some of them to pursue that path), that's just not a realistic goal. We live in the internet age, where virtually anything can be bought and sold online, and there will always be people who are buying and selling alcohol (and tobacco).

It is important to keep alcohol (and tobacco) away from underage consumers. However, just because the states cannot achieve that objective through direct regulation of transportation companies, does not mean that shipping should not be allowed at all. It would make far more sense for Congress to discuss this issue and adopt standards for both tobacco and alcohol that would apply to all common carriers, than for us to walk back in time as the WSWA would prefer.
Note: pictures in this post are from

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mixology Monday XXIV - All About the Ladies

For this month's Mixology Monday theme, Jimmy over at Jimmy's Cocktail Hour selected Variations. So many possibilities with that topic, but I had to narrow down to one. So I decided to continue a discussion that I've been having with a bartender friend regarding the "Lady" drinks, all of which are variations on the classic sour (base spirit (gin) + lemon or lime juice (lemon) + sweetener).

There are a number of variations on the gin-lemon sour with the name "lady" attached, most of which come from Prohibition days or before. The most commonly seen variations are the Pink Lady, the White Lady and to a lesser extent, the Blue Lady. That bartender friend also came up with a new "lady" drink, which he calls the Mademoiselle.

The Pink Lady

This lady has often been discussed, and can be found in many cocktail books. Its a bit difficult to find its definitive history
, however, and I found varying reports on how/when it was created. The recipes vary on ingredients as well - they all have gin, lemon juice and grenadine (except the Savoy, which doesn't have lemon juice). The other recipes sometimes include Applejack, egg white, and/or heavy cream.

One potentially very similar cocktail, the Clover Club, must be noted - it contains gin, lemon juice, grenadine and egg white. Most recipes for the Pink Lady have taken care to separate themselves from that drink, but each in its own way.

One very good version is the one from Ted Haigh's book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. That version has the Applejack and egg white, no cream:

The Pink Lady No. 1
1½ oz Dry Gin
½ oz Applejack
Juice of half a lemon
1 egg white
2 dashes real grenadine

vigorously with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.

Another interesting version, from The Ultimate Book of Cocktails by Stuart Walton, claims the drink was invented and named for a 1910 musical production. That recipe is:

The Pink Lady No. 2
1½ oz Dry Gin

½ oz Grenadine

½ oz Heavy Cream
¼ oz Lemon Juice
1 oz Egg White

Shake all the ingredients with ice, then straining into a glass that has been rimmed with grenadine and dipped into sugar.

The Pink Lady No. 3
1½ oz Dry Gin
1 tsp Grenadine
1 tsp Cream
1 Egg White

Shake ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and serve. This recipe was quite common in online databases (perhaps they all copy each other), but also in a book or two.

I prefer the No. 1 version, but the story with the No. 2 is pretty interesting, and puts the cocktail far earlier in time than most of my other resources. No. 3 didn't really do anything for me, and I couldn't find much of an explanation for that particular recipe.

The White Lady
Awhile back, I wrote about the history of the White Lady, and its many variations, so I won't repeat that here, except to say that the variations I saw mostly dealt with whether or not the drink contains egg white, and the proportions for the ingredients. My favorite recipe for this one is the Savoy version, which is:

The White Lady
2 oz Dry Gin
1 oz Cointreau
1 oz Lemon Juice

Shake ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Its also a nice cocktail made in a 1:1:1 ratio, if you are using a gin that can stand up to that ratio.

Blue Lady
This lesser-known "lady" drink deserves to be lesser known. In most of the printed recipes, it is a simple variation on the 1:1:1 White Lady. However, there are a few versions out there that call for egg white and/or cream. Here are a couple of variations:

Blue Lady No. 1
1 oz Dry Gin
1 oz Blue Curacao
1 oz Lemon Juice

Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon.

Potential variations:
  • On the Cocktail DB, their version is 2:1:1 Blue Curacao, Gin and Lemon Juice, respectively, with some egg white added.
  • Another website had the 2:1:1 ratio of gin, lemon and Blue Curacao, which I liked better than the 1:1:1 version. That one is OK with half an egg white too.
And in that same book by Stuart Walton referenced above, I found a completely different recipe for this drink that didn't come close to any of the others (except for the blue stuff):

Blue Lady No. 2
1½ oz Blue Curacao
½ oz White Creme de Cacao
½ oz Heavy Cream

Shake ingredients thoroughly with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. No garnish.

I don't usually like sweet dessert drinks, so the thought of that one makes me shudder. I didn't even try it. Besides, if it were the right one, it wouldn't really be a modification of a classic sour recipe, so I'm going to pretend I didn't see it, and stick to the No. 1 version.

A New Lady - the Mademoiselle

Troy Sidle, now a bartender at the Violet Hour in Chicago (and the original inspiration for my post about the White Lady), recently poured me this drink. He had entered it in a contest for St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur (it took third - congrats Troy!). Its a modification of a lady drink, using the St. Germain (which is French), so he called it the Mademoiselle.

I don't have the exact recipe, but I know it contains Dry Gin, St. Germain, Lemon Juice, and Egg White. The floral notes were really kept in check by the other ingredients, and it was a fun take on the classic. Hopefully Troy will add a comment if I've missed anything or if he cares to share his recipe. If not, you'll have to go visit Troy to give this one a go (and perhaps have him mix you up another lady).

Friday, February 8, 2008

Mixologist: Tim Lacey

Meet Tim Lacey, the Bar Manager/Beverage Director for the Spring Restaurant Group. In addition to that role, he’s an accomplished mixologist, a bit of a perfectionist, a relentless experimenter, and very excited to be expecting his first child next month.

The Restaurant Called
It all started when Tim was studying theatre in college; he was working in retail and looking for something else (ideally where he could make more money). A family friend told him about a busser position at a local restaurant, so he checked it out, and made the leap. Moving on from busser to server, and eventually to bartender, Tim spent time in several restaurants along the way, including the acclaimed Trio in Evanston. Eventually he met up with the chef he works with now, Shawn McClain (who had also been at Trio in the past, although not at the same time). Tim has been in his current role for a couple of years now.

Balancing Act
Like any great mixologist, Tim always strives for balance in his cocktails. I asked Tim when it was that he knew this was his career path. He told me that one night a few years after he started in the restaurant business, he was out with his wife Lisa, and she ordered a dirty martini. After tasting the glass of half brine she received, Tim realized that he knew a thing or two about balance that some bartenders just didn't get. He has always been creative, and loved the opportunity for creativity behind the bar. So there he stayed, gradually moving into beverage management roles.

Tim takes a seasonal approach to his cocktail menus, and right now he’s playing around with citrus fruits, including blood oranges and Meyer lemons. Brown spirits entice in the winter, and his favorite spirits to work with right now are whiskeys (Elmer T. Lee and Old Overholt are favorites, and he’s exploring ryes). He also makes a range of colas, tonics, ginger beers, tinctures, and bitters in-house, and is often experimenting with those as well.

Inspired by… a True Story
Rows of bottles inspire Tim, and get him thinking about flavors that work together. He also finds inspiration in checking out other cocktail menus and hearing what other mixologists are doing. Nailing a cocktail on the first (or even second try) is the sign of a great day. Like many of us, Tim sometimes end up tinkering with a recipe a bit too long, and sometimes has to tell himself to give up and move on.

Each day, Tim works toward getting people thinking about beverages differently, to open their minds and be curious about spirits and cocktails. One example - he has a drink on the menu right now using a "Hollands Gin" that he made based on a recipe in David Wondrich's book Imbibe (a blend of Plymouth Gin and Jameson Whisky, as it turns out). It’s called the Wicked Old School, made with the Hollands Gin, blood orange and bitters. While people do occasionally order it, they rarely ask what Hollands Gin is, even though it’s in quotes. Unfortunately, Tim's main concern has ended up to be making sure people know it's a true adult beverage, not a fruity juicy one, despite the blood orange. But he’s working on it.

Love it, Hate it
Tim loves the fact that creativity is part of his job, and that he actually is paid for it (in contrast to the playwriting he was doing for awhile). He also loves the variety - routine has never been his thing. He doesn't mind the non-corporate hours, and appreciates the flexibility he has in his schedule.

On the other hand, Tim dislikes having to balancing that artistic side with the customer's fear of change. Despite his efforts to innovate and create unique drinks, the Cosmopolitan is still the most commonly ordered drink in his restaurants. I was a bit surprised, and a little disappointed, to hear that one, but I imagine that it's true at more places than I realized. It’s frustrating when people who seek out adventure on the plate don’t seek it out in their glass (and sometimes refuse it, even when recommended to them).

And What Else?
Tim and his wife Lisa are expecting their first baby next month, so most of his free time right now is being spent planning and getting ready for their baby girl. Tim loves to cook when he has time, although he doesn't do much drink-making at home. He tends to drink mostly wine and beer at home and when he's out, unless he is tempted by a unique cocktail.

At the end, I asked Tim to tell me one random fun fact about himself that might surprise people. His answer: "I think Carl is the funniest name on the planet." He had to come up with one of these for a recent get-to-know-you thing at work, and that's what he said. It turned out that one of his colleagues had a date with someone named Carl shortly after that, and the colleague kept laughing about it during the date (and then blamed Tim).

Seek and You Will Find
Tim is often around, although sometimes behind the scenes, at Custom House these days. He tends to float between the restaurants, and doesn’t have a set schedule (he likes that). You can always find his libations at the restaurants, so be sure to check ‘em out!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ginger Saga - Final Words (for Now)

Despite my recent (and somewhat extensive) posts about ginger beers, ginger liqueurs and such, I managed to stumble upon a few things to add after I posted them. Here's a brief addendum to those recent posts, covering some additional ginger beers/sodas and that elusive Canton ginger liqueur.

Ginger Beers Part III
No sooner did we complete our taste tests of ginger beers, than a few more potential contenders appeared. One of our mixologist friends, Tim Lacey, is making his own ginger beer at Custom House. It's fantastic, with rich ginger notes and a touch of heat. Unfortunately you have to go there to taste it. He is serving it as a non-alcoholic drink choice, but you can have his team whip up a cocktail with it if you like.

And I happened to visit my favorite store in Chicago for esoteric sodas (West Lakeview Liquors), and I found none other than cult-favorite Blenheim's ginger ale from South Carolina (both the #5 regular and #3 extra spicy, which are in the exact same packaging except for the color of the cap). According to BevNet, their ginger beer is actually less flavorful and spicy than these two ginger ales, so I got these two.

The #3 was indeed extra spicy (with the most heat of any of the beers we tried by far). It was nice in a Moscow Mule, I liked it better that way than on its own. The #5 was lighter in spice, but still had a nice spice note. It was lighter than the other ginger beers, but more flavorful than most ginger ales. We liked the #5 best on its own. Bundaberg is still my favorite ginger beer overall, but these were very fun to try.

And wouldn't you know it...

No sooner did I post about the Massenez ginger liqueur, than I spotted a bottle of the elusive Canton Ginger Liqueur at Nacional 27 in Chicago. Last Friday night, my friendly bartender Loronz (at right with the bottle) was kind enough to give me a little taste of this liqueur.

How was it?
It was pale straw color, with a rich, straightforward ginger flavor. It definitely has some nice heat, along with some subtle spices that complement the ginger. It wasn't as different from the Massenez as I expected it to be. The key difference was in the ginger heat, and it was slightly more complex/spicy. Since I can't buy it in Chicago anyway, I'll happily use up my Massenez and then see where I am.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mixologist Profile Series

As promised at the beginning of the year, I am adding a new feature to this blog - bartender/mixologist profiles (one of many questions is, what label do you prefer?). A new breed of bartenders has emerged in the last decade or so, bringing back many of the great traditions from pre-prohibition days and innovating new ones too. It will be fun to explore the profession a bit more, looking at it through the eyes of those innovators.

The first one of these posts will be coming this week. I'm starting off with Tim Lacey, the Bar Manager/Beverage Director for the Spring Restaurant Group in Chicago, which includes Custom House, Green Zebra and Spring. These three restaurants share one highly acclaimed chef, Shawn McClain, but each have their own personality and a truly distinct menu (generally focused around meat, vegetables and seafood, respectively). Tim changes his menus often, and is a real innovator behind the bar. We've known Tim for about two years now, and he has become a friend, as well as an amazing supporter and business partner for us. He has taught me many things about mixology and the restaurant business, and has shared several of his wonderful creations with us, some of which you can find on our website. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Ginger Infatuation Continues...

I've recently been tasting lots of ginger beers, and I have a couple more to talk about in an upcoming post. On a related front, I have been looking all over for the Canton ginger liqueur that I've read so many posts about.

Its nowhere to be found in the Chicago area, so I thought I was out of luck on ginger liqueurs until I found this one at the mecca for all esoteric liqueurs in Chicago, Sam's Wine & Spirits in Lincoln Park.

This Creme de Gingembre is made in Alsace by G. E. Massenez. Its clear in color, 20% alcohol by volume, and has a rich, straightforward ginger flavor. Its not as sweet or syrupy as some liqueurs, which was a nice surprise. The ginger flavor is a true ginger, with a bit of spice (but no heat).

For the most part, I've used this one in small quantities or sipped it on its own. Like fresh ginger, a little goes a long way, and it tends to overwhelm other ingredients in a cocktail if too much is used. Here's a drink I'll be serving at an event tonight with it, just for fun:

Tahitian Dream

2 oz Tahitian Vanilla Vodka
1 oz Fresh Tangelo Juice
Splash of Massenez Ginger Liqueur
Dash of Fresh Lime Juice

Pour vodka, juices and liqueur into shaker with ice, shake well. Strain into cocktail glass or champagne flute and garnish with fresh tangelo slice or chunk of candied ginger. (This photo from - having camera troubles today)

The Canton is made with a cognac base, and is infused with other flavors (at least that's what I've read in those other posts), so I imagine its a very different taste experience. Which means I'll have to try that one too once it finally gets here.