Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Cocktails

This time of year is pretty crazy in the distillery business, so this post is going to be to the short and sweet. My blogging friends have posted some great holiday cocktails already, such as the Snowshoe, classic Eggnog and Hot Buttered Rum, and Glogg, for starters.

Here are a few more holiday cocktail ideas - one with vodka, one with gin, and one with whiskey. They whiskey one is from our friend Charles Joly at the Drawing Room, he serves them this time of year and they are great. The other two have been featured at our tasting events this season, which means they are easy to make in batches, and appeal to a broad range of people. Not exactly high-brow mixology, but delicious just the same. In fact, I'm off to go pour some of these today.

Happy holidays eve

Apple Cider Punch
2 oz (North Shore) Vodka
3 oz High-grade Apple Juice
1/2 oz German Apple Schnapps
Dash of Ground Cinnamon
Dash of Ground Nutmeg

Pour ingredients in mixing glass, stir. Fill tall glass with ice, pour contents into glass. Garnish with slice of fresh apple and dash of ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Also delicious served warm instead.

Cranberry-Ginger Gimlet
2 oz Distiller's Gin No. 6

1 oz Fresh Lime Juice

1 oz Cranberry and Ginger-infused Simple Syrup

Shake ingredients with ice, strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and slice of fresh orange for a fun, festive look. For the syrup, use 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, 1/2 cup of fresh cranberries and 2" of fresh ginger, peeled & sliced. Simmer 5 minutes, then mash cranberries. Cool completely, then strain. Can be made ahead, and stored in refrigerator for a few weeks.

The Guild Meeting
, by Charles Joly
1.5 oz White Sugar
12 oz Hot Tea (orange or chai is nice this time of year)
2 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
5 oz Fresh Orange Juice
2 oz Domain de Canton ginger liqueur
2 oz honey liqueur (Drambuie, Wild Turkey American Honey or even Benedictine is nice)
5 oz Rittenhouse 100
2 oranges

Use a vegetable peeler to cut 4-5 strips of orange peel. Place peels and sugar in bowl and muddle to allow sugar to absorb orange oils. Add hot tea and stir to dissolve sugar, then add remaining ingredients and stir.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Grinch Post: When is a Honey Crisp not a Honey Crisp?

Recently, I exchanged emails with Leah Zeldes over at the Dining Chicago Blog. I happened to see that she had written about Crispin cider. In her post, she pointed out that Chicagoist had it wrong when they said their newest cider was from honey crisp apples.

You see, I have spent at least two Saturdays this fall standing near someone pouring samples of Crispin ciders at area liquor stores, and she was telling people that the cider was made from honeycrisp apples. So of course I wrote a comment on Leah's post saying that she was wrong and Chicagoist was right.

Turns out I was wrong and she was right, despite what the marketing rep I had spent time with had said (repeatedly) to consumers.

Is it just me, or does it seem disingenuous to label a cider "honey crisp" when it's not made with the uber-popular honeycrisp apple? At a minimum, it's capitalizing on the honeycrisp craze.

According to their marketing rep's comments on Leah's post, it is made with honey, and their name is Crispin, so hey, there's honey crisp. And they point to the distinction between the apple name "Honeycrisp" and their name "Honey Crisp." Reminds me a little of Clinton's "It depends on what the meaning of the words 'is' is."

I do like the Crispin ciders quite a bit, and in fact have enjoyed several 4-packs over the last few months with friends and family. Right now, though, I like them a little less. And I don't get the whole pour it over ice thing, but hey that's me.

Illinois USBG Holiday Party & Mixoff

Late last month, I had the distinct privilege to be on the judging panel for the 2009 Illinois USBG Mix-Off/Holiday Party, which was sponsored by Skyy. I must admit I was a bit skeptical of having a tiki-themed event sponsored by a vodka company, but many folks really got into it and it was a heckuva great time.

Here are a few pictures of the competitors and the drinks.

Pictured mixologists include Lynn House (graham elliot), Kyle McHugh (Drinks Over Dearborn), Josh Pearson (Sepia), Milan Aquarius, Ari Silver (Bice Bistro), Charles Joly (Drawing Room, in the coconut bra), and Todd Appel (Crimson Lounge). In the end, Charles won the competition, and the cash prize - congrats to Charles!

The evening ended with a group toast, and much celebration. It was a fantastic evening.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sweet 16 of Mixology Wrap Up

Second Semi-Final Round
Back on October 22nd, the folks at Boka Restaurant Group held the second semi-final of their "Sweet 16 of Mixology," a casual cocktail competition that's been going on all summer and fall. This round saw Zach Friedlander from Relax Lounge (and the coming soon Gilt Bar) against Charles Joly from the Drawing Room.

Both competitors brought their A-games and mixed up great drinks. Bacardi 8 was the sponsoring spirit, so rum drinks were in order.

Zach Liked it Hot
Zach modeled his drink after the classic Hot Buttered Rum, with a few twists. He made his
own butter mixture, infused with some wonderful spices, and had homemade marshmallows that he roasted with a handheld torch.

Charles Kept it Cool
Charles used some rich spices as well, including Rosehip Liqueur and Pimento Dram along with fresh juices to create a rich, savory concoction.

Charles served his punch style, while Zach had heated tureens holding his warmed rum mixture.

Both drinks were great, and the vote was close. Zach won the day, and advanced to the finals.

On to the Finals
The final match, between Benjamin Schiller of Boka and Zach Friedlander took place on Wednesday, November 11th. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend, but I heard the drinks were fantastic and the crowd was huge. Read more about it here.

Congratulations to Benjamin Schiller, who took top honors

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Repeal Day 2009 in Chicago

This coming Saturday, December 5th, is the 76th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. On December 5, 1933, Utah (yes, Utah) ratified the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving the needed 3/4 majority to end the thirteen year drought of legal spirits in the U.S.

On Saturday, whether you're at home, or out with friends raise a toast to Repeal Day. If you're going out in Chicago, here are a few options that night for celebrations:

  • Custom House, 500 S. Dearborn - This great restaurant and bar is celebrating the occasion all day (11a-11p) with $5 cocktails honoring the occasion. The cocktails are made with small-batch Midwest spirits, and include choices like the Rock 'n Rye and the "Bathtub" Gin Rickey (made with our No. 11 - can't wait to try it!).
  • In Fine Spirits Lounge, 5420 N. Clark - Join the folks from Templeton Rye (reputedly Al Capone's favorite) in a period-themed celebration of classic cocktails at this great cocktail lounge in Andersonville.
  • Sage Grille, 260 Greenbay Road in Highwood - you'll find a menu of classic pre-Prohibition cocktails for the occasion at this great restaurant, and you'll be in a historic neighborhood for restaurants, where many a moonshiner made hooch during Prohibition in the back alleys.

Regardless of where you are, or what you're doing, I hope you'll raise a toast to this most American, most appropriate drinking holiday. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Long Time No Write

Hi there, how are you? Good, I hope. It's been awhile since I've posted anything here. There's been plenty going on, and plenty of great drinks consumed, but I somehow fell off the writing bandwagon for awhile. I think I OD'd on it, actually - I had signed on to be the Chicago Cocktails Examiner, and realized that writing two or three posts a week (they actually want four) was too much for me to handle. After all, I do have a full-time job that pretty much takes up all of my waking time, and I try to have a personal life now and then, and I try to write fun stuff here too.

Well, I've had a month to ponder it all, and am ready to get back to the blogging. I've got some fun updates from events, as well as some new cocktails I've been working on and such. So stay tuned, and thanks for checking in with me now and then!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fall Cocktail Ideas, Part II

With the change of seasons, favorite cocktails change as well. Here are a couple that feel like Autumn to me. These both were developed for the Fall Flavor Festival that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Pomegranate Punch (aka the Fall Fizz)
1½ oz Vodka (I used North Shore, of course)
½ oz Brandy (used Paul Masson Grande Amber)
2½ oz Pomegranate Juice (POM)
½ oz Fresh Orange Juice (used Cara Cara oranges)
½ oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice (yellow grapefruit, not red)
½ oz Ginger Simple Syrup (1:1)
1 oz Club Soda
Combine first six ingredients over ice, stir well. Top with soda and garnish with fresh orange slice.

This one works great as a punch, you can simply change the oz to cups and have servings for 6 people. It's great for football tailgating, you can just mix in the soda right before serving, top the glasses at the event with it, or just leave it out entirely.

Fall of Brazil
My partner in crime, Jessi Brickner, developed this one - it's delicious
1½ oz Cachaça (Leblon)
½ oz Vanilla Liqueur (Navan)
1 Egg White
Sparkling Apple Cider
Lime Wedge
Rim a rocks glass with cinnamon sugar, fill with ice. Shake first three ingredients, plus lime wedge, with ice. Strain into ice-filled glass and top with cider.

When we served this one en masse to our class, I stirred the first three ingredients with a whisk first to emulsify the egg, then poured the mixture into a shaker. It worked really well. This was a great one for introducing people to egg whites in drinks.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Everyone's Gone to Mercadito

Mercadito, the well-known NYC restaurant group, just opened a branch here in Chicago. I had a chance to visit last night and try a couple of cocktails.

My expectations were high, given that a number of Chicago's most notable mixologists left other gigs to go and work there. I was a little surprised at just how many people went to work there either full or part time (Jen Contraveos, Dan de Oliveira, Maura McGuigan, Casey Sullivan, Daniel Love, Kyle McHugh), especially since the well-known Tippling Bros. had been brought in to do the cocktail menu.

So how was it?
In short, I was impressed. Although all the cocktails and mixed drinks use an agave spirit for the base, they offer a range of options - from the accessible margarita (made the right way, with fresh juices and fruit) to more esoteric offerings with mezcal.

Here are the drinks I tried, both of which had insider-y names (which was entertaining to me, but I wonder if the general public cares and how they respond):

Misty's Sleeve
  • Named for Misty Kalkofen from Drink in Boston (or more properly, her tattoo). Misty's a fantastic bartender and advocate for the industry, a founder of LUPEC Boston and a heckuva lot of fun too.
  • Made with Blanco tequila, ginger, hibiscus, fresh valencia orange juice, a touch of serrano chile, and a half rim of hibiscus salt.
It was delicious. Spicy, complex, and fresh - very well balanced. Jen Contraveos, at left, made it for me.

Tres Coops
  • A salute to three liquor industry folks who have the last name Cooper - Ron Cooper from Del Maguey, Rob Cooper who owns St. Germain, and John Cooper, who owns Domaine de Canton. Rob and John are brothers, from a long family line of liquor industry professionals, but they're not what you'd call close, according to word on the street. Ron is not related to either of them, but is a heckuva fun guy and he imports fantastic mezcals.
  • Made with the Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, St. Germain, Domaine de Canton, Averna amaro, egg white and grapefruit. Casey Sullivan, pictured at left, made mine.
Apparently this drink is polarizing among the staff, some love it, some think it's a bit too dry and a bit forced - trying too hard to make the three Coopers idea work. I thought it worked really well, and the drink was delicious. It was also well balanced, with the creamy texture from the egg and deep complexity. It was drier than the first, but I like 'em dry so I enjoyed it very much.

One other thing I thought was great at Mercadito was the lineup of flavored salts and spices for the glasses. Rather than the stacking trays that could have been there for months with who knows what in them, they have small dishes out for each options that they clean & refill often.

Monday, September 28, 2009

MxMo XLII: Dairy

It's time again for Mixology Monday, the monthly celebration of cocktails on blogs around the world. This month, our hosts are the fine folks over at eGullet, led by group manager Chris Amirault. Here was the instruction for this month's theme:
"Any drink using a dairy product is fair game: milk, cream, eggs, butter, cheese, yogurt, curds, you name it. Given the importance of dairy products in drinks dating back centuries, there are lots of opportunities for digging through vintage receipts for a taste of the past, and as always innovation is highly encouraged."

I've recently written about another drink that calls for cream, the Smashing Pumpkin. In addition, I give you the Jasmine Orchid.

I am enamored with jasmine these days, although have set it aside for the last month or so. This drink calls for both jasmine syrup as the sweetener, and jasmine tea to enhance the jasmine further. It's definitely a dessert-style drink, and I served it alongside apple pie at a pairing dinner - it was a nice pairing. Of course, since it requires a lot of s
haking, I made the guests who wanted refills shake their own!

Jasmine Orchid

2 oz Vanilla Vodka (see note below)

1 oz Jasmine Tea Syrup (see note below)

1 oz Cream or Half & Half

1 large egg white

1/2 oz Jasmine Tea (see note below)

1 oz Club Soda

Combine vanilla vodka, syrup, cream, egg white and tea in shaker; shake well without ice. Add ice, and shake vigorously, longer than you think you might need to. Strain into champagne flute or coupe glass; top with soda. If desired, garnish with a few jasmine tea leaves or a jasmine pearl.

For vodka: I used our Tahitian Vanilla, which is getting rather hard to find since we suspended production. I imagine others made with real vanilla will work too, such as Tru.

For syrup: heat 1 cup of water, steep one tea bag (or equivalent) in water for 45 secs. Remove tea bag, add one cup sugar, and stir well to dissolve. Cool completely, and refrigerate.

For tea:
steep 1 tea bag in 1 cup water for 45 seconds, then remove tea. Cool completely, then chill.

I used Republic of Tea Asian Jasmine White Tea for this drink, so the advice above is for their tea bags. As with any tea, you may need to adjust based on the strength and potency of the tea you use.

Thanks to the folks over at eGullet for hosting this month!

Note: photo is from

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cocktails from the Fall Flavor Festival

Last night I teamed up with mixologist Jessi Brickner and Chef Adam Grandt from Sage Grille in Highwood on a Fall Flavor Festival. We led students through six cocktail ideas for fall parties and three appetizers. The cocktails included two for Halloween, two for Football Parties, and two inspired by the season. We had a lot of fun coming up with new recipes, and I wanted to share some of them here.

GPR Sparkler
- refreshing and savory, perfect for a cheese course or with a lighter herbed, roasted meat.
¾ oz Gin (used Distiller’s Gin No. 6)
1½ oz Pear Puree (used Perfect Puree for class, also good with Ceres)
Sparkling Wine (used Saint Hilaire Limoux Blanc de Blanc Brut 2005)
Fresh Rosemary

Shake gin, puree, and sprig of rosemary with ice, strain into champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine, garnish with rosemary sprig.

Smashing Pumpkin
- not-to-sweet dessert style drink, with hearty fresh pumpkin and spice flavors and rum undertones
2 oz White Rum (used Ron Matusalem Platino)
1 oz Cream or Half & Half
3/4 oz Pumpkin Puree (fresh is best, but it's a little early for pumpkin in Chicago yet)
1/2 oz Ginger Simple Syrup
Dash Cinnamon & Allspice

Shake ingredients with ice, strain into cocktail glass. Top with additional dash of cinnamon, and garnish with candy pumpkin or black plastic spider.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sweet 16 of Mixology, Elite 8 Round 2

Last night saw another great cocktail competition as part of Boka Restaurant Group's Sweet Sixteen of Mixology. The field was narrowed to eight competitors in the last round, and we're on our way to the final four. Despite the competition, this event is full of laughs and fun, as you can see from the pictures.

This match featured Charles Joly of the Drawing Room vs. Maura McGuigan of the soon-to-open Mercadito (and formerly of Graham Elliot). This was a tough match, both drinks were delicious. The sponsor was Bacardi, so Bacardi Silver was used in both cocktails.

  • Charles used fresh canteloupe puree, lemon balm, and spearmint, and garnished with mini melon balls and herbs.
  • Maura added Rittenhouse rye, fresh grapes, ice seasoned with Herbsaint, fresh citrus and a fresh mint sprig garnish.
The guest judge this week was R.J. Melman from Hub 51.

In the end, Charles emerged victorious, and will advance to the final four in a few weeks. He joins Benjamin Schiller, newly of BOKA (formerly of In Fine Spirits), who won last week's match.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Illinois Liquor Tax Saga Continues

This could get really interesting - today the Chicago Tribune is reporting that Rocky Wirtz and his family-owned Wirtz Beverage (2nd largest liquor wholesaler in Illinois, and operating in several other states) have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Illinois law that included the huge liquor tax increases I've written about recently. Stay tuned, we'll see if there's even a hearing before the law takes effect next week.

If Life is a Bowl of Cherries...

Ever since I got my handy-dandy cherry pitter, I love cherries. So much easier, and more fun, than pitting with a knife. Sour cherry season is pretty much over, and I had one quart left. So, seeing as I had some time on my hands this past weekend, and some sweet cherries too, I made rummed cherries (using sour cherries) and brandied cherries (with sweet cherries). I started with some recipes from reliable sources, and tweaked here and there. Here are the recipes I used, with citations:

Brandied Cherries
from the Art of the Bar by Hollinger & Schwartz, and recommended by Bobby at Drink Dogma and Marleigh at Sloshed! (adjusted proportions to match what I had on hand):

2 pounds dark, sweet cherries
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
2/3 oz fresh lemon juice
1 small cinnamon stick (used Mexican stick cinnamon)
3 1/2 oz brandy (Paul Masson Grande Amber)

Combine the sugar, water, lemon juice, and cinnamon in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the cherries and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, remove the cinnamon sticks, and stir in the brandy. Yummy, and I'm going to try with a cocktail tonight.

Rum-med Cherries
Posted on the Chanticleer Society by user Evo-lution, apparently for a competition.
½ cup soft demerara sugar (used brown sugar, but will try again with demerara)
½ cup water
1-2/3 oz fresh lemon juice

1 cinnamon stick (Mexican cinnamon again, all I had)

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Half a scored vanilla pod (used a dash of vanilla extract, didn't have any beans on hand)

1 pound sweet pitted cherries (Bing)

1 cup aged rum (Cubaney 5 Anejo)

Wash and pit cherries. In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except the cherries and rum and bring to the boil. When liquid begins to boil, reduce heat to a light simmer, add cherries and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add rum and cool immediately. Transfer cooled cherries and liquid to clean glass jars and refrigerate.

What am I Doing in the Pits?

After these adventures, I found myself with extra cherries (mostly sour), and I found myself with a bunch of cherry pits. Thought it might be interesting to see whether they have any flavor to them on their own, so I made some cherry pit syrup, and stuck some pits into some high-proof spirit to infuse. Still waiting on the infusion, but the syrup is pretty mellow.

Used 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, and a pound's worth of cherry pits. Simmered 10 minutes, then cooled completely.
It's a lovely pink color, from the bits of cherry still left on the pits, with hints of cherry flavor and nuttiness. Not as much flavor as I would have liked, unfortunately. I did make a couple of cocktails with it, but the flavor was too light to come through much.

Thanks to Erik Ellestad over at Underhill Lounge, I later learned that I could have made Ratafia, or perhaps Cherry Pit Ice Cream. Next time, I have to smash up the pits, and give one of those recipes a try. I should've known that a quick blog search would turn up some great experiments already run by trusted bloggers! Next time, I'll do that first.

The Rest of the Cherries

went into this delicious sour cherry streusel pie. YUM.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jenever Juniper

Thank you Donovan for the title (sort of). Darn it, now I'm hearing that song in my head.

What with the Chicago launch of Bols Genever this week and my attendance at the Low Country Libations seminar at Tales of the Cocktail last month, I've had a lot of genever lately. It's high time I wrote something about this most interesting spirit.

First, a brief background and introduction:
  • Pronunciation and Spelling: They tell me it's pronounced "Jen-eee-vur" in English, "Yeh-nay-vur" in Dutch.You can spell it genever, jenever, jeniever, or even Hollands Gin if you like.
  • General History: Genever is the precursor to traditional dry gin (which was the English's attempt at copying genever). It has been made in the Benelux region (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as well as parts of France and Germany) for centuries - the first recorded mention of the word is from 1623 in The Duke of Milan by Philip Massinger. Like so many spirits, it started as a medicinal tonic, but gradually became more popular for it's flavor.
  • US History - in the 1860's, genever was very popular in the US - it was 5 to 6 times more prevalent than English dry gin, and made several appearances in cocktail books from that time. Hence why we're seeing it now again - it's an essential part of exploring this country's cocktail history.
  • Production: Genever is traditionally made with a malt wine base. Typical grains used include corn, rye, barley and wheat. The grain is fermented, and then distilled, into something that resembles unaged (white) whiskey. It is then infused with herbs and/or flavored with herb distillates/flavorings to give it some herb notes, and might be distilled again. The only required herb is juniper, and it does not have to be discernible in the spirit.
  • In short, genever is all about the grain distillate, with hints of herbs (maybe), whereas dry gin is all about the herbs alone.
Oude vs. Jonge
These are the two main categories of genevers. The words mean "old" and "young" but the terms don't relate to the age of the spirit. Instead, they relate to the production process and makeup of the spirit.
  • Oude - the base spirit must be at least 15% malt wine, it must be at least 70° proof (35% alcohol), and can have no more than 20 grams per liter of sugar (the best have none). Aging is optional, but if you do it you must age it for at least one year. Most genevers are aged in used American whiskey barrels.
  • Jonge - base must be no more than 15% malt wine, it must be at least 70° proof (35% alcohol), and can have no more than 10 grams per liter of sugar (the best have none). Jonge is often very light in flavor, some have described is as essentially vodka (highly refined distilled grain) with a tiny bit of malt flavor.
Genever in Chicago
There are a few products labeled "genever" available in Chicago now, and one that is coming very, very soon.
  • Bols Genever - I attended a launch party for this one this week here in Chicago, and came home with a bottle autographed by their distiller. It should start showing up very soon in these parts - it's been in SF and NYC for almost a year now. They say it's lighter in flavor than the original genevers (and former versions of itself - they say this current recipe dates to 1820). It still has lots of character, with rich malty/yeasty flavors.
  • Boomsma Oude and Jonge Genevers - I've only had the Oude, and not since I've tried so many others. I need to revisit this one.
  • Anchor Genevieve - this one has rich, strong malty notes with hints of herbs. It is higher in proof than the others I've tried, and definitely makes itself known in cocktails.
  • Zuidam Genever - more herbal than some of the others, this one has hints of malt with a variety of herb notes. I haven't had this one in awhile either, so I'll have to revisit.
Genevers Not Available in the US
This is a much, much longer list. Here are a few of the great ones I got to try that you can't get here:
  • Oude Schiedam - (pronounced Skee-dam). 100% malt wine base - made with 2/3 barley, 1/3 rye, distilled twice and infused with only one herb - juniper. Bottled at 80 proof. This was the most authentic genever we tried, true to the old tradition of genever production made with 100% malt wine, not blended. It was incredibly malty and rich.
  • Rutte & Zn Oude Simon - 70 proof, and a blend of malt wine and neutral grain spirit. It was softer and lighter, and more herbal than the Oude Schiedam.
  • Rutte Paradyswijn - this is reportedly the most expensive genever in Holland, it is aged in Bordeaux casks for 8 years. Eminently sippable, it has soft malt, floral and fruit notes. Delicious.
Other Lowlands Beverages
  • Old Schiedam Liqueur - Mandarijnen Moutwijn Likeur - At the Tales seminar, we also tasted this fantastic liqueur. Made with a malt wine base blended with neutral spirit, it has rich fruit flavors (from hand-grated mandarin oranges) blended with hints of malt. Apparently this has been discontinued and is quite rare now - I was delighted to get a taste.
  • Els La Vera - a malt wine liqueur infused with herbs. The dominant flavor is grand worwmood (Els = alsem = artemisia absinthium), so it reminded me a great deal of Jeppson's Malort. Apparently, "Els" is a style of spirit and this "La Vera" was but one version of it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Local Cocktail and Food Pairings

We get invited to participate in some pretty cool events. One of the most fun in recent memory was billed as a Pottery Barn Dinner. We teamed up with our new friend, potter Melissa Monroe, as well as Chef Efrain Cuevas from Clandestino, to design a five-course dinner with cocktail pairings.

As many as possible of our ingredients were fresh and local, including our spirits. Melissa made all the dishes for the meal in her pottery studio, and hosted the dinner in her barn/studio. Chef Efrain and I pulled many ingredients from her fantastic garden for the food and cocktails. She even has some roosters running around in the garden - see pic below.

Here's a rundown of the menu, with the drink pairings. Unfortunately, I don't have photos of the food & drink - we were so busy making them I didn't take pictures! You can find some more photos of the event here and here (in an article about the dinner).

First Course:
ood: Caprese lollipop amuse, then summer gazpacho with shrimp in prosciutto jackets

Drink: Cucumber Caipiroska - posted on my blog last week.

Notes: I was really happy with the garnish for this one, I used a c
ucumber wheel with a sprig of oregano flowers in it. It was a great starter drink, and the cucumber and herbs played nicely with the gazpacho.

Second Course:
Food: Squash blossoms filled with local cheese, dipped in egg batter and pan fried, served on a bed of fresh greens with vinaigrette

Drink: Muddled Mary
1½ oz Aquavit Private Reserve
½ oz Fresh Lemon Juice
¼ oz Simple Syrup (1:1)
3 Cherry Tomatoes
Few Sprigs of Fresh Herbs (Basil, Oregano, Thyme, etc.)
Muddle toma
toes, simple, herbs and lemon. Add aquavit and ice, shake well. Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with cherry tomato on rim.

Notes: This one was a bit harder to pair with - salads are tough. I aimed more at the blossoms and cheese, and to integrate the flavors of the drink with the vinaigrette. It wasn't my favorite of the set, but I think it worked relatively well, especially with the cheese-stuffed blossoms.

Third Course:
Food: Housemade fettucini with zucchini buttons and wild mushrooms, in a vodka cream sauce

Drink: Grapefruit Basil Fizz
2 oz Distiller’s Gin No. 11
¾ oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice
½ oz Simple Syrup (1:1)

1 oz Club Soda
Large Basil Leaf + Sprig
Combine gin, juice, simple and basil leaf in shaker. Shake well with ice, strain into glass filled with ice. Top with sod
a, garnish with sprig.

Notes: In this one, I tried to provide a nice foil for the rich cream sauce with some citrus and a hint of bitter from the grapefruit, along with some fresh herb notes from the basil.

Fourth Course:
Food: Grilled (local) chicken with herbs and a maple glaze, pole beans, potato terrine

Drink: Apricot Thyme

2 oz North Shore Vodka
1½ oz Apricot Puree/Juice
½ oz Aperol
1 oz Club Soda
2 sprigs fresh Thyme
Shake vodka, puree, Aperol and one sprig of thyme with ice. Strain into ice-filled glass, top with soda. Garnish with fresh apricot

slice and thyme sprig.

Notes: I was a little worried here too, since chicken is so lean. We went lighter on the drink, and pulled in the Aperol for depth and balance. This drink worked especially well with the maple glaze, it was really spectacular.

Fifth Course:
Food: Olive oil almond cake, grilled peaches, homemade peach ice cream

Ginger Gimlet
2 oz Distiller’s Gin No. 6
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice
¾ oz Ginger Simple Syrup (1:1)
2 sprigs Fresh Mint
Shake gin, lime, ginger syrup and one sprig of mint wi
th ice. Strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with 2nd sprig.

Notes: This dessert was rich, so I went up a little in alcohol to balance out the fat and intensity of the flavors. The drink worked especially well with the ice cream, the mint and ginger played very nicely with the peach and helped cleanse the palate after the rich ice cream.

All in all, a fantastic evening of food, dri
nk, pottery and conversation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Illinois Liquor Taxes - Highest in the Nation

Recently I wrote about the liquor tax increase taking effect on September 1, 2009 in Illinois (link to .pdf from IL Dept of Revenue).


The increase was included in the
"Illinois Jobs Now!" act, which is a $31 billion capital improvement bill - lots of road, bridge and transit expenditures, as well as some money for schools and community development. To pay for it, there are lots of new taxes and fees, including an increased sales tax on candy (which has it's own headaches), sweetened tea & coffee drinks, increase title, registration and drivers license fees, taxes on grooming & hygiene products, and the controversial introduction of video gambling.

The increased beer, wine and spirits taxes are only expected to raise $119 million, so they're really a small part of this massive spending bill. However, the increases leave Illinois with the highest liquor taxes in the nation.
That's right, the HIGHEST in the nation among non-control states, by a factor of 31% over the next highest state.


One of our customers (thanks Adam!) gave me a handy-dandy chart today that shows all the tax rates in all the states in the US that are not control states (meaning the state governments do not run the liquor stores and/or act as the distributor - they are traditional three-tier states, so we're comparing apples to apples).

Top Ten States
Although the Marin Institute says this is good news, this is really unfortunate for our industry and the consumer who imbibes. Here's the ranking by state liquor tax rates.

1. Illinois, as of 9/1/09 - $8.55 per gallon

2. Florida - $6.50

3. New York - $6.43

4. Hawaii - $5.98

5. New Mexico - $5.68
6. Alaska - $5.60

7. Minnesota - $5.03
8. Oklahoma - $4.56

9. Connecticut - $4.50 (Illinois would have been tied for 8th before)

10. New Jersey - $4.40

  • Consumers who Drink. In most cases, a 750 ml bottle of spirits is going to cost at least $2 more, perhaps $3, regardless of the bottle's pricepoint, and before sales taxes. In Chicago, for example, once you factor in the federal, state, county and city manufacturing taxes, as well as sales taxes, more than 25% of the cost of a $30 bottle of spirits is tax - not money to the manufacturer, distributor, or retailer - taxes.
  • Liquor stores near the border with another state that has lower taxes. Wisconsin is $3.25 per gallon, Indiana is $2.68 per gallon. Illinois is $8.55. The difference translates to a few dollars per bottle - in each case, it's over $1 per 750 ml bottle in tax, before markups. People near borders will cross them and stock up, even if doing so is technically illegal. So we're sending business to our neighboring states.
  • The Little Stores. The single, independently owned liquor stores will probably suffer. They often don't have the resources and clout to buy huge quantities and stock up before the increase, or negotiate with the powerful distributors, so they'll be hit with the increase (and price increases) sooner. And little producers, like us, don't have a lot of wiggle room on pricing to absorb the tax, so our prices will go up, despite the tough economy.
  • Bars and Restaurants. Bars and restaurants are already suffering in this economy, and now they'll be forced to either raise drink prices or work on a slimmer margin, neither of which is particularly appealing. Once you break the tax increase down to a per-ounce count, in theory it would be about 5¢ per ounce. In reality, after distributor markups, it will be more like 8¢ an ounce in additional tax per ounce, or around 25¢ per cocktail (assuming about 3 oz of taxed liquid total). It may not sound like a lot, but that 25¢ per drink will add up quickly. And it doesn't matter what caliber of spirits you're using, if it's over 20% alcohol, it's the same tax regardless of price.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mixology Monday: Vodka, Vodka, Vodka

After a brief break (for Tales of the Cocktail), MxMo is upon us again. Our hostess Amelia over at Felicia's Speakeasy has chosen "Vodka is Your Friend" as the topic for this month. She posed some questions along the way, such as "what do YOU like about vodka? Why do you keep that bottle of [brand] on your shelf? What vodka-based drink has stayed in your personal book of beloved cocktails? ‘Fess up."

Vodka Still Rules
Despite what many of my cocktail-loving friends wish was the case, vodka is still the most popular spirit in the US. I spend lots of time in liquor stores, bars and restaurants, talking to people about spirits, and vodka is undoubtedly still at the top. Many, many people are afraid of gin, whisk(e)y and other categories, and unfortunately many people out there like a sweet cocktail where you can't really taste the liquor. So whether we like it or not, vodka ain't goin' anywhere anytime soon.

I Like Vodka
There, I said it. We make vodka (and it's really good, if I do say so myself). When I have it, it's usually over ice with a lime wedge or twist of lemon. I'm a simple girl when it comes to vodka. Sometimes I order a vodka-based cocktail too, but that's usually only if it's made with our vodka. And sometimes I make cocktails with our vodka, usually for an event, or cocktail pairing dinner.

Here's a cocktail we served last week at an event (more on the event later), and have been enjoying ever since our garden cucumbers and herbs started growing en masse.

Cucumber Caipiroska
Inspired by a recipe by one of my friends and mentors, Bridget Albert in her book Market Fresh Mixology

2 oz Vodka (used North Shore, no surprise there)
3/4 oz Simple Syrup (1:1)
4-5 lime wedges
4 cucumber wheels
2 sprigs Oregano

Muddle lime, 3 cucumber wheels, one sprig of oregano and syrup. Add vodka, then add ice and shake with ice. Pour shaker contents into glass, garnish with remaining cucumber wheel and sprig.

FYI, for any who might not know - a Caipiroska is simply a Caipirinha made with vodka rather than cachaça.

Enjoy! Happy MxMo and thanks to Amelia for hosting!