Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mixologist Lynn House

From the beginning, Lynn House struck me as a great bartender and avid cocktail historian. She has a true passion for sharing the history and preparation of great cocktails. When we met, I was at the Drawing Room with some friends, and Lynn made drinks for our group (most of whom were not then as nerdy about cocktails as me). My friends were completely enraptured with Lynn’s presentation, in a way I had never seen before. In fact, I still hear stories about that night from time to time, she made such an impression.

I knew immediately that I wanted to write about Lynn here, but didn’t get around to asking her or actually setting up an interview for entirely too long. A few things have changed for Lynn since that first encounter. She’s now running the drink program at Graham Elliot, a truly innovative restaurant here in Chicago, and she just won a prestigious cocktail competition. She also just recently started living on her own again, after her daughter got her own apartment nearby.

Life on the Stage, a Little Work on the Side
Lynn grew up in Columbus, OH (I still like her, even though she’s a die-hard Buckeye). She studied theatre in college, and studied at the British American Drama Academy after graduating from Miami University of Ohio with a BFA in Theatre.

She spent many years as a professional actor and writer, primarily in live theater. She won acclaim for many roles, including a 2000 Best Actress award for her portrayal of Ruth in The Gift Horse at the Goodman Theater. She worked with many accomplished directors, writers and performers, including one of her mentors, Regina Taylor. I wish I could have seen her on stage – I am sure she'd be fantastic, and it comes through in her work now.

Like many of us, Lynn worked at a restaurant during college. She continued working in the restaurant business after college as well, to supplement her pursuit of acting. She mostly waited tables, and became a head trainer at Spring. She became more interested in beverages there, and started researching wines, beers and spirits, and teaching classes to the staff about them.

A Fork in the Road
About three years ago, Lynn found herself at a crossroads. A seven-year relationship was ending, and she enrolled in Bridget Albert’s
Academy of Spirits and Fine Service (the same class that has been so influential for others in Chicago). She was so inspired by Bridget, and by the class, that she dug much deeper into cocktails and beverages. She was waiting tables at Chalkboard at the time, and created her first original cocktail – the Chalkboard 75, which is reportedly still on the menu.

Dreams, Cooking, Music
It’s been 2½ years since she stepped behind the bar full-time, and she hasn’t looked back. After leaving Chalkboard, Lynn honed her skills at the Drawing Room, which is where we first met. She later joined the opening team at Graham Elliot, which just celebrated its first anniversary. Lynn runs the beverage program at GE, and these days finds her greatest inspiration in her dreams, in cooking and in music. Those seem like natural inspirations, especially at Graham Elliot. One of Lynn’s favorite cocktails, London Calling, was inspired by the song and became enduringly popular – it will be included in Gary Regan’s upcoming book, The Bartender's Gin Compendium.

In Lynn’s cocktails, you won’t find a ton of extravagant, unusual ingredients – she favors balance first, and a rationale and purpose for each ingredient in the drink. She takes influence from classic cocktails, but aims to put her own distinctive spin on them. One of her other favorites was the Blueberry Hill, a gin-based variation on the classic frappe with crushed ice, but served in a cocktail glass.

Creating Her Own Work
Regina Taylor gave Lynn a pivotal piece of advice – to “create your own work.” In the theater, it meant writing and collaborating with others to create meaningful roles and characters, and Lynn pursued those paths in the theater. She continues to write now, when she has time and inspiration. She finds that the advice is even more meaningful to her at GE, though - she is creating her own work in a different medium, and she is loving the opportunity to create great cocktails and share them.

Cocktail Champion
Although she doesn’t live for competition, Lynn has entered a couple of cocktail competitions recently. In her latest outing, she won the Illinois round of the GQ/Bombay Sapphire competition last month, and will soon be going to Las Vegas for the national competition! Here’s her winning cocktail:

Summer Siesta
1½ oz Bombay Sapphire
¾ oz Thatcher's Cucumber liqueur
¼ oz fresh lemon juice
¼ oz simple syrup
2 diced strawberries

Muddle the berries and syrup, add other ingredients and stir. Serve over crushed ice and garnish with strawberries and cucumber.

Fast Facts
  • Find her: at Graham Elliot on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday – guaranteed to be there between 5 and 8 pm, and often there later, but she might be behind the scenes
  • What to order at her bar: Rites of Spring was a recent favorite, it’s one of her most creative drinks to date. However, she’ll likely have some fantastic summer drinks on the menu now, so I recommend going over to check it out.
  • Hobbies: When she’s not at GE, she can often be found in her home garden. She is an avid gardener, growing tomatoes, herbs, asparagus, onions, and more – some of it for use at the restaurant in her cocktails. She’s an avid cook as well, and sometimes puts her homemade ingredients into beverages as well- such as the homemade apple butter she used in the London Calling.
  • Test Drink: If she has confidence in the bartender, she might order a Mojito or Manhattan. If not, a beer. Her favorite cocktail, when made well, is the Margarita.
  • On a Deserted Island: she’d want pictures of her family, guacamole, and chilled Champagne (preferably Egly-Oruriet)
  • Personal Life: Lynn is single.
  • Something you probably don't know: She definitely doesn’t look it, but Lynn is a grandmother! Her beautiful daughter Lexi (short for Alexia) was named after Alexander the Great, and Lexi has two beautiful daughters of her own– Leilani and Aaliyah. Lynn dotes on her granddaughters, and loves spending as much time with them as possible.
Photo credits: first photo is by Jim Columbo, second photo is mine, third is by Carlos Cuarta.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tales of the Cocktail - Days 3 and 4

On Thursday night, after the spirited dinners, most of the Chicago contingent got together for a toast outside the Old Absinthe House. Like last year, it was one of my favorite nights - we had a great time, just hanging out and talking with everyone.

Some Highlights from Days 3 and 4 Sessions

  • Low Country Libations - I had the opportunity to taste some really interesting aged genevers from the Low Country, namely Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland, and learn more about the spirit. We also tried some whiskey, and some wine, made in the region.
  • Sugar: The Science of Sweet - we tried a variety of types of sweeteners, talked about a few more, and got a scientific explanation of them as well. It was fascinating. I hope to play around with some additional options in the near future.
  • Hollywood Cocktails - in the most entertaining session I attended, we learned about some famous cocktails from the golden age of Hollywood - who drank them, how they became popular, etc.
I'll likely be writing more about all of these topics in future posts.

Other Highlights
  • Our friends Tim Lacey and Cristi DeLucca from the Drawing Room competed in the Leblon Caipirinha competition on Friday night. Unfortunately they didn't win, but they put on a good show and represented Chicago well.
  • The Bartender's Breakfast on Saturday night followed the funeral procession for a bad drink (this year, the Red Headed Slut was buried), and it was a blast - good drinks, music, and a great crowd - it was must better orchestrated than last year (when we gave up on getting in, despite being on the list). For those who haven't attended, this one starts at midnight and goes as long as you do. I got home around 4 am.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alcohol Taxes Going Up in Illinois

Despite statements that he wasn't sure he supported an alcohol tax increase, and despite the fact that we already had the highest liquor taxes in the Midwest among non-control states, Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill (now Public Act 096-0038, starts p. 117) yesterday that will increase the taxes on alcoholic beverages effective September 1, 2009. It's part of a big public works package intended to stimulate our local economy, with some significant tax increases thrown in to fund it ($109 million from alcohol taxes).

Before the Increases
Here's where we stood before the increase on Illinois taxes (these are just for the state, not the feds):

Beer and Cider up to 7% Alcohol - $0.185 per gallon
Wine and others under 20% Alcohol - $0.73 per gallon
Spirits and anything else 20% Alcohol or more - $4.50 per gallon

Just for comparison, the state tax rate on spirits in neighboring states are:
Indiana: $2.68 per gallon

Missouri: $2.00 per gallon
Wisconsin: $3.25 per gallon

So we were already significantly higher than the three states near us with similar alcohol regulatory schemes.

After the Increases, Effective September 1, 2009
Here's where we stand after the increase:
Beer & Cider up to 7% Alcohol - $0.231 per gallon ($0.046, or 25% increase)
Wine & Others under 20% Alcohol - $1.39 per gallon ($0.66, or 90% increase)

Spirits & anything 20% Alcohol or more - $8.55 per gallon ($4.05, or 90% increase)

The power of the beer lobby is apparent - they typically spend significantly more in lobbying efforts in Illinois than the wine or spirits lobby.

How it Plays Out - Who Gets Hurt
It remains to be seen how this will play out exactly - it was difficult to even find the legislation through the major media outlets covering the news. It's safe to say that many prices will rise in response.

A $4.05 per gallon increase translates to
$.80 per 750 ml bottle in additional tax. However, the tax is assessed at the distributor level of the three-tier system, which means both the distributor and retailer markups will be applied before it gets to the consumer. So that $.80 may be $1.60 or more in increases at the liquor store.

Here are some of the likely outcomes from where I'm sitting:
  • Costs will be higher to restaurants and bars, who are already hurting and preferring not to raise drink prices. They'll either have to raise prices or shift to lower-priced spirits.
  • Value-priced spirits will be hit the hardest, because they have the same increase as higher-priced items - it's not tied to price but to alcohol level and volume.
  • As usual, the little guys will suffer the most across all three tiers (manufacturer, distributor, retailer). Small companies like ours don't have the leverage with our partners to insist that they share in the increase. Either we have to eat it and reduce our prices, or we have to live with a price increase. Neither sounds particularly appealing in these tough economic times.
Once it shakes out a bit more, I'll try to post a further update on how the industry responds to the increase.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tales of the Cocktail - Days 1 and 2

We're officially in the thick of it here in NOLA for the Tales of the Cocktail. Yesterday, I went to some great industry-focused seminars - one on managing costs in a bar while maintaining quality, and another on building strong partnerships among bar/restaurant owners, brand representatives, consultants and others in the industry. They were educational, more for when I have my distillery hat on, than for when I'm writing about cocktails, so I'll keep that stuff to myself for now.

Then we had the big opening reception last night. I saw a few more Chicago friends, as well as some folks from other places, and had a great time trying the cocktails and enjoying the atmosphere. Later, I headed back over to the "Mixo House Bar" to hang out for awhile.

Today I've been to a few seminars, and have written a few posts for the Tales Blog - you can find all my posts here. There will soon be one explaining these pictures.

Tonight it's the Spirited Dinners, and I'm headed to Maximo's. I waited too long to book a seat, so I didn't get into my first two choices, but I'm excited about this one too. I'll report back soon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cocktail Bloggers all Around

Like many of my cocktail-minded friends, I am in New Orleans for the seventh annual Tales of the Cocktail. The official kick-off toast is but a few hours away, and this year's agenda is packed full of great seminars and events.

I came down a couple of days early to attend most of the Drink.Write 2009 event. The folks at the Cocktail & Spirit Online Writers Group did an amazing job of pulling together seminars and events for the group, and I got a lot out of it. Yesterday, we spent a couple of hours discussing garnishes, and a couple of hours on cocktail photography. I hope to improve in both those areas going forward, although you'll be the judge on that.

Here are a few pictures (and descriptions) from some of my adventures so far. Next year, you really should try to come if you're not already on the way - it's a lot of fun, the people are fantastic, the drinks are great, and the opportunities for learning and making new friends are plentiful.

CSOWG Events
These first two are from some of the CSOWG events. We had a wonderful dinner at Rambla on Monday night, sponsored by Leblon. The food and drinks were fantastic, and the company was great too. On Tuesday, we had a nice lunch at On Tuesday, we had lunch at Wolfe's restaurant, hosted by Zwack, and along the way we all had a shot of Zwack.

Zwack has an interesting history, it's the official spirit of Hungary, and they sell 6 million bottles in Hungary to the 10 million residents each year. Wow.

I was really impressed (and dismayed, since we can't really compete with all of this) at the level of sponsorship and donations the group received from the big liquor companies. It's great because it enables them to have these kinds of events, but it makes it really hard for us little guys to compete.

The Mixo House
The CSOWG have a great house with a communal bar for the group, and a kitchen. They have a variety of spirits, fruits and mixers available for their members and guests - it's really an incredible setup.

Here's Matt Robold the RumDood with his before & after pictures tasting Jeppson's Malort, which I've written about a few times. I think I might have to submit this to Malort Face on Flickr.

Sazerac Bar
On Monday night, we went to the newly reopened Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, and had the namesake drink. A Sazerac. Here's the legendary Chuck Taggart and his partner Wes, as well as a picture of my Sazerac. I've been following Chuck's recommendations for eating and drinking in New Orleans religiously, and it was a delight to spend a little time with him in person.

Along with the Fairmont Hotel folks, the folks at Sazerac made a big investment here too - glassware, exclusively made with Sazerac Rye, etc. It was a nice cocktail - it was about #10 that day, so can't really judge it too harshly.

Secrets of Benedictine
Last night, I went to an event hosted by the folks at Benedictine, called "Secrets of Benedictine." I was hoping to learn a bit more about it, but that wasn't the focus of the event - it was a big cocktail party with Benedictine-based cocktails. There were moving "statues," lots of guys in robes, and some cocktails and snacks to try. They also had stations where you could have your fortune told and be awarded a glass reflecting your social status (I was a "knight" and got a silver goblet), which you then had filed in the alchemy room.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Proper Independence Day Cocktails

In my last post, I promised to suggest some proper cocktails for this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend. I got some great comments from visitors, and some cocktail suggestions too. Then I promptly got busy with a bunch of stuff and didn't post anything else. Before the holiday passes me by entirely, here are a few ideas.

Guiding Principle: Drink American
In these tough economic times, on this most patriotic of holidays, you should support American-owned and run companies with your Independence Day libations. Maybe that small craft distillery in your area, or that craft brewery or winery. If you don't have those, or don't want/like those, then stick with American-made, traditionally American spirits & beverages.

OPTION ONE: Rye Whiskey
A spirit similar to the rye whiskeys you find in liquor stores today was popular in the US early on in the colonies - immigrants came here and brought grain distilling traditions with them, which they applied to the grains they found here. Rye was common, so rye-based whiskey was common too. It was popular enough that when the government tried to tax it to pay off the national debt in the1790's, we had the Whiskey Rebellion.

Whiskey Smash
(Adapted from this one on the Rye Whiskey is for Patriots blog)
2 oz Rye (Rittenhouse 100)
1 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
1 oz Simple Syrup (1:1 ratio)
2 sprigs of mint
Add ingredients to shaker, including one sprig; shake well with ice. Strain into ice-filled old-fashioned glass, and garnish with additional sprig of mint.

As far as I know, this drink originated in the US, and derives from the julep - a faster version, really, without all the pomp & circumstance. Some recipes leave out the lemon juice (and have less sugar), but I like that bit of citrus to lighten it up a little for the summer.

Or Try Rock & Rye
This is another interesting rye whiskey-based option, that I must admit I've not yet tried. Rock & Rye was created in the US, and was one of the few US-made spirits poured at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 according to Eric Felten's recent article. It was originally a medicinal tonic, thought to help colds and other illnesses.

I've never bought a bottle of the pre-mixed product labeled "Rock & Rye" at the liquor store. I imagine, like so many things, it won't taste like what it's trying to be. So I'll be trying this recipe, by the legendary LeNell Smothers:

LeNell's Homemade Rock & Rye
1 750-ml bottle rye whiskey (I prefer Rittenhouse 100 proof)
1 6-inch string rock candy (add more according to your sweetness preference)
2 orange slices
2 lemon slices
2 fresh cherries pitted or perhaps brandied or whiskied cherries (not the fake red maraschino, please)
2 dried apricots
1 pineapple slice
Tea bag full of dried horehound (optional)

Put all ingredients in a large jar and cover. You can start enjoying after one day; however, the flavor will change as rock candy dissolves with time. As you deplete the supply, add more whiskey and candy as needed. If the fruit slices show signs of breaking down, replace. Always keep fruit covered with alcohol; this stores indefinitely as long as the fruit is submerged. Of course, like all alcohol it will oxidize after a really, really long time.

Note: Horehound adds an extra bitterness to balance the sweetness and also acts as a cough suppressant. If you do use horehound, only steep for a couple of hours, then remove to prevent overly bitter flavors.

While some drink Rock & Rye on it's own over ice, I would recommend trying LeNell's Rock and Rye Cooler, or perhaps some other concoction with it. I better start mine tonight so I can have it on the 4th, assuming I can find or make some rock candy!

Bourbon is another distinctly American creation, and there are many fine brands available. With bourbon, I am inclined to either try one of the recipes that Alex Smith suggested in the comments (in the spirit of the great melting pot, using a few accents from other places) or do something with the fresh berries coming out in the farmers markets near me, such as:

Blackberry Julep v3.0 (adapted from v2.0)
1 1/2 oz Bourbon
1/2 oz Blackberry Liqueur
1/2 oz Simple Syrup (1:1 ratio)
3/4 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
4 fresh blackberries
6 Mint Leaves
+ One Mint Sprig
Muddle the mint, blackberries and simple syrup in a mixing glass. Add the liqueur and bourbon. Strain into a highball (or julep) glass filled with crushed or shaved ice. Swirl with a bar spoon until the outside of the glass frosts up. Garnish with a sprig of mint and a fresh blackberry.

The whole concept of Tiki culture in restaurants/drinks is a distinctly American creation as well, and most of the drinks use rum, which was popular back in the 1700's. So there are lots of options - I'd recommend consulting one of the great tiki bloggers, or try this one from the legendary Kahiki restaurant:

Polynesian Spell
1½ oz Gin (we used Distiller’s Gin No. 6, are you shocked?)
1 oz Grape Juice
¼ oz Triple Sec
¼ oz Brandy
1 tsp Simple Syrup
¾ oz Fresh Lemon Juice
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Whatever you drink this Independence Day, enjoy it and have fun with your friends & family!

Note: pictures in this post are from