Monday, March 31, 2008

Mixologist: Peter Vestinos

Luckily, Peter loves a challenge. For the last nine months or so, he has lived in a frenzied whirlwind of mixology. He joined Sepia in June 2007 as part of a 3-person bar team. However, his talented colleagues were quickly consumed with many of the other details of getting the restaurant open, and the entire cocktail program soon became his sole responsibility. He’s also competed (and done very well) in several major cocktail competitions this year, with more to come.

Peter is surprisingly humble, and grateful for the opportunity at Sepia. Although he had been behind the bar for several years, his interest in cocktails had primarily been built as a hobby before Sepia. At the Tasting Room, his prior haunt, he had the occasional cocktail request. However, the Tasting Room is really known for their wine selection, and that was his primary area of focus there.

Looking for Something
Back in 2000-2001, cocktails weren’t really on Peter’s mind unless he was out for the evening.
He was working in television production, mostly doing corporate promotional videos for large companies. As Peter put it, he was the “middle person” between the corporate client and the film crew, and it involved “long, long hours and bad pay.” He began bartending on the side at Cyrano’s for extra cash, and quickly found that he could make more money (and have more fun) behind the bar. Eventually he burned out on the TV game, and was introduced to the owner of the Tasting Room. He started there full-time in 2004. The Tasting Room was a great place to learn about wine, and he was able to meet a wide range of people from the beverage industry. But in mid-2007, it became time to move on and do something else, and he knew cocktails had to be a bigger part of his next opportunity.

The Unforgettable Cocktail
A Whiskey Smash changed his view of cocktails forever.
Sometime in 2005, Peter read about the Pegu Club and just knew he had to go there. He did so on his next trip to NYC, and he found an entirely different way of looking at a cocktail program. No vodka on the back bar, fresh ingredients, all in-house syrups and other ingredients. And the Whiskey Smash that tickled his taste buds told him that they were onto something.

Back in Chicago, he started collecting cocktail books and playing around with recipes and ingredients as often as he could. He also started conducting “field research,” which continues to be one of his favorite pastimes.

Sepia’s Drinks
I asked Peter to tell me about his goal for the program, and he said that he wasn’t “trying to reinvent the cocktail” because that wouldn’t really fit at Sepia.
Instead, he aims to provide a cocktail menu that is on a comparable level to the other menus at Sepia. Peter’s view is that a quality restaurant, where you have access to purveyors of good produce, should offer a beverage menu should be of the same caliber as the food menu. Like Sepia’s chef, Kendal Duque (click on "The Team" for bio), Peter focuses on seasonal, fresh ingredients. And he does all the work himself – from making syrups, bitters and tinctures (thanks to inspiration from John Kinder at MK) to developing the menus, ordering supplies and training staff.

For spring, he is working with floral flavors (especially Crème de Violette), and looking to go lighter & brighter with the cocktails. He hopes to build his knowledge of rum and mescal this year.

Always the Comedian (Really)
Peter has always been into comedy.
He told me about sneaking out of bed in elementary school to watch Johnny Carson until his parents caught him and sent him back to bed, and that his family has a strong interest in classic comedy (Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, etc.). He started writing sketches in high school, and has continued his writing since then. He also dabbled in acting in college, and when he first arrived in Chicago, he took some classes at Second City. He continues to write and perform with his three-man sketch group, 37Foxtrot, and on his own.

Unfortunately, Peter reports that the Chicago sketch comedy scene isn’t what it used to be, despite the tremendous talent here. That, coupled with the all-consuming launch of Sepia’s beverage program, has meant Peter hasn’t been very involved in it lately. He really hopes to get back to writing and performing soon. He has a big part in a local film coming out this summer, Chicken Cargo – and you can see some of his work here, here and here (video links).

Fast Facts

  • Find him: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Sunday evenings are usually safe bets. He is sometimes behind the scenes concocting syrups and other cocktail ingredients.

  • What to order at Sepia: Peter’s favorite drink changes daily; ask him what he’s in the mood to make.
  • Favorite Hangouts: When he’s not at Sepia and has time to go out, he loves the Matchbox, the Long Room (one of the best beer lists in the city), and Ten Cat Tavern.
  • Test Drink: Depends on who is bartending and where he is - Peter orders beer or bourbon unless he’s sure he’ll get a well-crafted cocktail.

  • On a Deserted Island: he’d want a citrus press and a source for fruit, and ice.

  • Personal Life: Sorry folks, Peter’s got a girlfriend, Gallit Greenspoon. Gallit is the producer for Check, Please!, so between the two of them, they pretty much have great eats and drinks covered.

  • Something you probably don't know: Peter is very committed to community service. He volunteers with Literacy Chicago, and is working on a very exciting project to help the people in the New Orleans hospitality industry (expect more details soon!)

Competitions and Recipes
Peter has done very well in the first three mixology competitions he entered (his most recent was placing 2nd in the country at the Shake it Up competition at the Las Vegas Nightclub & Bar Show last month).
He loves the challenge of competition, although he feels a bit of pressure now since he has done so well in his first three. His strategy (at least what he would tell me)? Cross off obvious choices and look for ingredients and flavors that will be fun to play with. He tries to be creative with presentation, but practical in a drink’s design.

Here’s one recent award-winning recipe (he won first place in the Chicago Iron Bartender competition last fall):

Indian Summer
1½ oz Cruzan Single Barrel Rum (or another quality aged rum)
½ oz Cranberry Liqueur
½ oz Maple syrup
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
Dry sparkling apple cider

Shake and strain over rocks in a collins glass. Top with cider.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Seen In a Bar - 3.30.08

Periodically I will share a funny/interesting/weird thing I see on my travels through bars and restaurants. As you might have gathered if you've been reading this blog, I spend a fair amount of time in them.

Here's today's entry, just to get the ball rolling:

Seen in a Wrigleyville bar: Bartender using rail vodka to clean his glasses.
At last, a use for the stuff.

Got one to share? Let me know!

Friday, March 21, 2008

An Absinthe Dinner

Last week, we had the pleasure of attending the Absinthe Dinner put on by the team at The Drawing Room at Le Passage. For $45 per person, we were treated to seminar on absinthe, as well as a series of absinthe cocktails and matching food courses.

The cocktails and food were designed by The Drawing Room’s Chief Mixologist, Charles Joly, and their Executive Chef, Nick Lacasse. As the first-ever event of this kind in Chicago (at least in modern times), it was exciting to see how they presented absinthe to the diverse crowd in attendance.

The sold out room was intrigued with learning about absinthe and tasting it, and Charles began with a brief discussion of the history of absinthe, the reputation it developed, and the truth about what it is (and is not). Throughout the evening, he interjected with stories about absinthe and its rituals.

Here’s a brief rundown of the event:

Beginnings: The Amuse Verté

  • Drink: Absinthe, lime, mint and pineapple
  • Notes: A light, refreshing pre-dinner cocktail with only a hint of the signature anise flavor from the absinthe. Very popular with everyone around us.

First Course: Corpse Reviver and Fennel Pollen Gnocchi

  • Drink: Gin, absinthe, Lillet Rouge, fresh sour
  • Food: PEI mussels, fresh fennel gnocchi, baby spinach and pepato reggiano
  • Notes: The use of Lillet Rouge rather than Blanc was a nice change of pace (never seen/done that before), and it really worked well in the drink. The drink paired well with the saltiness and richness of the food, and each accentuated flavors in the other.

Second Course: Forbidden Fruit and “Cobb Salad”

  • Drink: Absinthe, elderflower liqueur, peach puree, orange bitters
  • Food: Chicken roulade, corn mascarpone, avocado, vinaigrette
  • Notes: Another excellent pairing, with the sweetness of the cocktail balancing out the savory flavors in the salad. The cocktail was not as sweet as it sounds from the ingredients, and the salad was much more complex than the description lets on.

Third Course: Heightened Senses and Roasted Pineapple

  • Drink: Crème liqueur, Absinthe, vanilla cognac liqueur, peach bitters
  • Food: Shortbread cookie, yogurt-rosemary sorbet, vanilla-bean caramel
  • Notes: Both the drink and the food were delicious on their own. The pairing didn’t quite work though, they didn’t really complement each other; instead they were competing.

Grand Finale: Louche Final

  • Drink: 3 parts Water, 1 part absinthe, sugar cube optional

This was what many in the audience were most excited about – the opportunity to drink absinthe in the traditional way, with a fountain on each table. It was interesting to see the varied reactions to the cocktails once they were ready.

While some of us really enjoyed them, some did not. Anise is not popular in the U.S., and for some of the attendees, this was the first time they had tasted something with so much anise flavor. The other couple at our table did not finish their cocktails, saying they were just too much licorice flavor for them. We, of course, finished ours and had a second.

It was a great evening. Given the general aversion to anise in the U.S., however, it will be very interesting to see if absinthe really catches on or if it will be more of a fad (or cult) phenomenon.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Gender Specific Cocktails?

Lately I've seen a few things talking about gender and beverage choices, and some of them offend me a little (and in few cases, more than a little). I recognize that I'm not the typical woman walking into a bar, but I've been pondering just far off I am from the norm.

Do most women really only like the fruity, sweet (and/or light) cocktails? Even if that were true, is that because that's really their preference, or is it because of how spirits have been marketed to them, and/or because of a lack of education & experience with other choices?

His & Hers Press Release
I received a press release
recently from a large boutique hotel group announcing their new "His and Hers" cocktail menus. They claim their aim is to "entertain the individual palates of women and men." The press release posits that due to TV shows like "Sex and the City," the cocktail has become something that is "perceived as a 'woman's drink'" (seriously, do men think that??). Their new menu is intended to "re-introduce the cocktail as a preferable option for men" and "the women's offerings will set the beat for new cocktail trends."

And Men vs. Women Drink?
Women are encouraged to order a Blackberry Margarita, or a Chai Almond Deluxe. Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to order a Bronx Cocktail or a Dark and Stormy, according to the press release.

I'd like to think there are plenty of ladies out there who would order something that is likely to appear on the "his" list rather than the "hers," and perhaps my husband is right that women actually get the better end of the deal here because they could easily order from both (whereas a man might get (or just fear) an eyebrow raise if he ordered from the ladies' menu).

Is this necessary and/or helpful to take this approach to a menu? I think it would be far better to just have a great cocktail list with a bit of a story for each one, and let anyone order anything they like from it. Am I missing something here?

Note: photo in this post is from I don't have any friends who order fruity drinks. Well yes I do, but I don't take pictures of them doing it.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Mixologist: Charles Joly

Charles is an accomplished mixologist, but also an avid competitor and a true renaissance man. Cocktails, spirits, athletics, music, woodworking and flowers all play a part in Charles’ life, and he’s done a wide range of things in his 31 years.

Today, Charles is the Chief Mixologist at The Drawing Room at Le Passage, and the Executive General Manager for Three Headed Productions. Three Headed owns a variety of clubs, bars and restaurants in Chicago (and elsewhere), and Charles oversees the operations at their venues. Historically, he has also handled expansions and new venues, from concept development through opening day.

Stumbling into the Bar Business
Charles didn’t in
tend to be in the bar business. In fact, he was a pre-veterinary medicine major in college, and intended to go on to become a veterinarian. His first job in a bar came about by accident; he was out partying at Crobar after college with a buddy and ended up filling out an application in the back room for a job. He needed a job and it sounded fun at the time, so he went for it without too much thought. At such a high-volume nightclub, Charles was thrown into the fire right away, first as a busboy for a couple of days, then as a bar back and bartender.

Over time, Charles’ career interests evolved. He has always been into music, and played in a punk band for many years. After college, he tried a variety of jobs, but always had a nighttime bartending gig and was pursuing music on the side. He came to a point where he decided he had to choose and go for something more permanent rather than dabbling in a variety of things, so he accepted a full-time management role with Three Headed. In the end, he decided that the service industry was the right place for him – he loves seeing someone happy and enjoying something new.

Mixology Obsession Takes Over
A light went on in Charles’ head when he met Bridget Albert a year and a half ago. He’d been working in the bar business for nine years by then and was well versed in developing concepts, building new bars, and running them profitably. Yet she managed to make a tremendous impression on him when she walked into Cans that fateful day. Charles immediately realized that she was the real deal – she knew mixology and could mentor and teach others to raise their level of skill and art behind the bar.

Working with Bridget really changed Charles’ view of the bartender and what was possible with a beverage program, and he’s spent the last year and a half intensively studying the classics and working with new cocktail recipes and flavors. Shortly after meeting her, he enrolled in the Academy of Spirits, and has been an active member of the Illinois Chapter of the US Bartending Guild (aka USBG) ever since.

Creating a Culinary Cocktail Lounge
Right now, Charles spends most of his time at the Drawing Room, where he was responsible for developing the beverage program and menu. Open since November 2007, the Drawing Room is unlike any other cocktail lounge in
Chicago (and I can speak from personal experience). Charles has Debbie Peek and Lynn House on his mixology team, both highly regarded (and very accomplished) mixologists in their own right (navigate to their bios here). Along with a freshly prepared drink made tableside using house-made syrups and juices, you’ll also hear about the history and development of your cocktail. Some menu choices are cherished classics, like the Manhattan or French 75, while others are original creations by members of the Drawing Room mixology team. Charles worked closely with Bridget in developing the menu, and especially the tableside bar carts, to ensure a smooth experience for everyone.

It’s an ambitious concept, one that had not been tried before, but Charles reports that it is going very well. Of course they get the occasional person who doesn't understand what they're doing (one notable quote from a recent guest - "you can't use a jigger on Rush Street, you won't be open very long doing that"), but most patrons are excited to be there and to learn more about great cocktails.

Avid Competitor and Master of Many Things
Charles thrives on competition, and really enjoys preparing for and competing in the variety of cocktail competitions offered both through the USBG and various spirits suppliers. He’s at work on entries for three different competitions right now, and enjoys the challenge and focus required to create a truly unique, original cocktail.

Outside of bartending, Charles enjoys woodworking – he has his own lathe and makes muddlers, among other things. He’s also an athlete and enjoys competing in triathlons these days – he completed his first one last year in Memphis. He is also in the process of building his first home, which is taking a bit longer than he had hoped.

Some fun facts about Charles – although he was in a punk band (guitar & vocals), he loves swing jazz music too. He also has a knack for decorating, perhaps developed during the few years he spent working at a flower shop after college (American Romeo on Clark, although its not there anymore), where he started as a delivery person but grew into a designer and event planner.

For Charles, life is about having a focus, and actually doing something you’re passionate about – "you only get one shot, so make the most of it." He works best under pressure and with deadlines, so he creates those for himself. He enjoys a good challenge and trying new things, both professionally and personally.

Random Fast Facts

  • Find him: Usually at the Drawing Room, open W-Su from 4 pm onward; of course Debbie or Lynn can certainly make you a fantastic drink there too
  • Currently playing with: Rye whiskey (Rittenhouse 21 for sipping, especially if someone else is buying; 100 proof Rittenhouse and Templeton for cocktails); anise-based spirits (Absinthe, pastis, etc. for an upcoming absinthe dinner); and herbs and savory cocktails, while trying not to be too esoteric
  • Test Drink: If he doesn’t know the bartender, he orders a Makers & water or rye & water, depending on availability. If he wants to take a chance, he’ll order a Manhattan
  • On a Deserted Island: Aromatic bitters (current fave is Fee Brothers), lime press and limes, good bourbon (Elijah Craig 18, Makers Mark)
  • What You Should Order at his Bar: the Manhattan – it’s a great recipe, and he gets lots of compliments on it

Parting Words and a Recent Prize-Winning Recipe

Charles is extremely proud to be part of the group that is "raising the bar" in Chicago. He’s a die-hard Chicagoan, and is thrilled to be working with the other very talented people who are committed to this movement in the Midwest.

The Nooner, by Charles Joly
½ tbsp freshly grated ginger
¼ oz Maple Syrup
¾ oz Navan
2 oz Makers Mark
3 dashes orange bitters, over top of completed cocktail
Coupe glass

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass, put ice in your tin, and shake. Double strain through sieve into chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel – place peel up in glass and drop 3 dashes of orange bitters on top. If made with Templeton Rye instead, it’s a 12:15.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

BYOB Food & Drink Pairings

We have some good friends that share our interest in trying out food & drink pairings, and we often go to BYOB restaurants in Chicago (there are many here). We've had some great successes, some okay ones, and one or two less-than-stellar ones along the way.

Here are a few of our our recent favorites:

  • Rye whiskey sipped neat or on ice with BBQ ribs and brisket - David Soto, the spirits guru at Sam's Wine & Spirits, suggested this one and boy was he right! We got some interesting looks for sipping rye whiskey at the restaurant, but it was worth it.
  • Several chilled Aquavits for classic Swedish and Norwegian food - the restaurant even had the chilled glasses on hand for us. One of our friends is Swedish, so she selected some of our pairings (and brought along some great spirits direct from Sweden).
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for Lebanese food - we struggled with this one because some of us had red meat and some had chicken or vegetarian entrees, but the wine had enough body & substance, with a nice acidity, to work pretty well for all of us.
Anyone got any great (and unorthodox) food & drink pairings we can try for our next BYOB adventure?