Tea Time

Ever since I can remember, I've had a strong love for tea. Fresh, energizing green teas tend to be my favorites, but I've truly enjoyed most varieties I've tried and always look forward to expanding my tea knowledge. Without doubt, I have my father to thank for this appreciation. He's been teaching me about tea since my youth and continues to share new ones that he's discovered. Perhaps you can say that each of our food and beverage loves is a mix of genuine flavor perception and nostalgic or emotional value.

Given my feelings toward tea, I take hot toddies very seriously. The traditional hot toddy is a cocktail made with tea or warm water, liquor, lemon, honey, and optional spices. In my opinion, if all you can get at a bar is a Lipton tea bag with a packet of sugar, a piece of lemon, and a hearty pour of rail whiskey, perhaps grab a beer instead. Hot toddies are a drink to be treasured and appreciated because they allow so much room for experimentation. You can dream up countless combinations by swapping teas and playing with herbal and spirit components. Even the variety of honey you choose plays a pivotal role in the flavor profile of the finished cocktail.

I wanted to take the hot toddy inspiration to a more imaginative level with an unexpected tea, surprising botanicals, a quality spirit, and the use of my favorite type of honey. If all of these ingredients seem daunting, feel free to play around while sticking with the basic rations. Consider starting with a tea and honey you have in your pantry, then work your way to acquiring these specific ingredients if you're hooked on the hot toddy concept. 

I started with a base of hot osmathus oolong tea and added Copper and Kings American Craft Brandy, buckwheat honey, fresh lemon and 11th Orchard Birch Bark Bitters. The tea has a buttery sweetness with floral and fruity notes from the osmanthus. It's wonderful enjoyed on its own and really makes this drink shine by creating a smooth and complex foundation. I took special care selecting a smooth spirit to add to the cocktail as serving a drink warm can amp up the bite of sharper varieties. Copper and Kings American Craft Brandy gave me exactly what I wanted - oak-aged smoothness with a hint of fruity spice.

If you've never tried buckwheat honey, I highly recommend you get your hands on it. It's on the dark end of the honey spectrum, almost like a molasses, with a distinctive scent and a rich, nutty, slightly bitter flavor. It's not for everyone but it'll be a game changer in your drinks if you enjoy the taste. I grab mine at a local honey farm in Southern Wisconsin which offers the added bonus of helping with seasonal allergies (eating local honey can help with pollen sensitivity). The honey added smoothness and aroma to this cocktail, blending beautifully with the oolong and brandy.

I finished off the drink with some fresh lemon for balance and a dropper of birch bark bitters for brightness. The bitters are from a new Chicago-based company called 11th Orchard who specialize in locally foraged ingredients that are indigenous to the area. All of their products are fantastic but the birch bark variety really surprised me with its minty sweetness. You won't be able to find these bitters in stores outside of Chicago, but they're available for purchase online. 

The resulting cocktail is warming, unbelievable smooth and uplifting with its rich bouquet of fruity, nutty and floral aromatics. If you have a tea set at home, it'll make the presentation even more lovely and special for your guests. 

Tea Time

  • 5 oz freshly brewed osmanthus oolong tea
  • 1 oz aged brandy
  • 1 tsp buckwheat honey
  • 0.25 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 15 drops (roughly 1 dropper) birch bark bitters

To make cocktail, brew and strain tea and allow to cool to drinking temperature. Stir in buckwheat honey until dissolved, then add brandy, lemon juice and bitters. Serve in a tea cup and garnish with a fresh or dehydrated lemon slice. Enjoy while savoring the last few weeks of winter and calming your eager anticipation for springtime. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage tea set.

 

Electrify Me

A great lesson I learned from planning my wedding is that traditions are what you make them. In any celebration, we have the choice of which traditional components to accept and which to set aside in favor of more personalized practices. The same applies to Valentine's Day. My husband and I are always open to another excuse to celebrate our relationship but we don't entirely play by the rules. We try to do a staycation and a nice dinner sometime during the month of February because we've found experiences to often be more meaningful than possessions.

Instead of giving your partner or galentine flowers this week, consider sharing an experience with them by putting your effort into a beautiful, aromatic, and memorable cocktail. This drink takes inspiration from a timeless bouquet of roses, but I wanted to take the floral element in a different, surprising direction and to break the stereotype of floral drinks being a feminine enjoyment. 

I knew I wanted to build the drink on a base of gin but chose a more complex option - St. George Dry Rye Gin. I love that this gin is less Juniper forward and offers the rich grain finish of warm spice, similar to a rye whiskey. If you're weary of gins but haven't tried this one yet, it may just change your mind with its smooth yet peppery flavor. I further enhanced that electrifying kick with a 24 hour infusion of black peppercorns. The infusion is quite easy to achieve - simply add gin and cracked peppercorns to a glass jar in the proportions detailed below, then strain with a fine mesh strainer when finished. 

The peppery spice provided an excellent juxtaposition to the other key ingredient in this cocktail - hibiscus rose syrup. This syrup is made with dried hibiscus flowers and rosebuds (find these on Amazon or at a nicer grocery store) and is both tart and delicately floral. Both the hibiscus flowers and rosebuds also give the syrup, and the resulting cocktail, a stunning deep pink hue.

I finished the drink with egg white to smooth out the pepper to a palatable level and added some fresh lemon to enhance the tartness and help develop the egg white foam. To finish the cocktail, you can garnish with either fresh rose petals or the dried rosebuds you used for the syrup. The resulting drink is tart, pleasantly floral with an electrifying touch of peppery spice

Electrify Me

  • 1.5 oz black peppercorn-infused Dry Rye Gin*
  • 1 oz hibiscus rose syrup**
  • 0.5 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 egg white

To make cocktail, shake all ingredients without ice for about 10 seconds, occasionally releasing the pressure built up in the shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled. Double strain into a coupe glass and garnish with fresh flower petals or dried rosebuds. Enjoy with mood lighting and good company.

* For black peppercorn-infused Dry Rye Gin, add 1/2 tbsp freshly cracked black peppercorns and 1 cup of Dry Rye Gin to a glass jar and allow to sit for 24 hours, shaking occasionally. Strain with a fine mesh strainer.

*To make hibiscus rose syrup, add 1 tbsp dried hibiscus flowers, 1 heaping tbsp rosebuds and 1/4 cup sugar to a small saucepan with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes, then strain and allow to cool. Store excess in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography!

Persimmon Boulevardier

You may not have tried the classic Boulevardier cocktail, but I'm betting you've been exposed to its cousin of sorts, the Negroni. Both are very booze-forward (aka entirely booze) with a hint of citrus, a lot of depth, and an overall bitter finish. The difference between the two is the base spirit - the Boulevardier features bourbon or rye whiskey while the Negroni is built on a foundation of gin.

I had never tried making the Boulevardier but thought that the richer flavor of whiskey could better balance the bitterness of the aperitif component and therefore wanted to explore further. Though the traditional recipe calls for Campari, I prefer using ingredients with all-natural color and flavors and thus chose to incorporate a new brand local to Chicago - Apologue Liqueurs.

With one of the founders of the company coming from an accomplished industry background at The Violet Hour and Letherbee Distillers, I figured Apologue would offer a quality product. I certainly wasn't disappointed. Robby and Jordan were able to create an offering of three unique and dynamic natural liqueurs crafted from predominantly local ingredients. I tend to always favor well-established French brands for liqueurs, but Apologue has really shaken things up by bringing a fresh perspective to the market, and I'm thrilled to see their products being incorporated at bars throughout Chicago.

For this drink, I used their take on Campari - Persimmon Bittersweet Liqueur. The liqueur is pleasantly sweet, with a burst of warm spice and a finish of smooth fruity bitterness. I don't typically enjoy simply sipping an aperitif but this liqueur is truly an exception.

While I wanted to combine the persimmon liqueur with whiskey, I didn't want all of the more subtle notes in the liqueur to be overshadowed. I therefore chose to use a white rye from KOVAL, a sweeter and almost vegetal counterpart to the oak-aged variety. As prescribed, I finished the drink with a touch of sweet red vermouth but decided to use slightly less than the traditional Boulevardier recipe calls for. Though I enjoy vermouth, I wanted it to bring the other two ingredients together rather than compete with either of them. The resulting cocktail is strong yet bright, palatably bitter, and perfect for warding off the winter chill

The Persimmon Boulevardier

  • 1.5 oz white rye whiskey
  • 1 oz Apologue Persimmon Liqueur
  • 0.75 sweet red vermouth (I used Noilly Prat)

Stir all ingredients with ice until chilled, then strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with a dehydrated persimmon slice or an orange twist and enjoy while wrapped in a blanket cocoon

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses.

Festive Pines Punch

The thing I love most about my craft is the opportunity to share it with those I love. However, I try to strike a balance between being a good hostess, creating imaginative cocktails and actually enjoying the company of my loved ones. The best way I've found to accomplish all of those things is to create cocktails in punch form. You can make a punch fit any style of party by adjusting the presentation. This particular creation is meant for a festive holiday gathering.

Before we get to the drink itself, let's talk ice. Typical cloudy ice cubes just aren't the most attractive thing to look at and tend to melt fairly quickly due to the air bubbles they contain. You can always cover them up with punch garnishes such as flowers and citrus fruit but there's another, fairly effortless alternative: use a silicon bundt cake pan to make a decorative ring of ice. I picked this one up on Amazon for under $12 and was so impressed with the result. It didn't take too long to freeze (I made mine overnight), looked lovely, and melted slowly. You can fill yours with herbs and fruit if you wish, but I found that doing so discolored the ice and therefore added my garnish separately.

I had picked up a bottle of Far North Solveig Gin while travelling to Duluth, Minnesota and wanted to incorporate it into a festive cocktail that did the beautiful bottle justice. Aside from the eye-catching branding, the gin is really well done. It's made with winter rye grain and features citrus, pine, lavender, thyme and coriander flavors. While I always appreciate a straightforward gin, I get so excited to see distilleries playing with different grains and unique botanicals. 

The typical ingredient used for festive holiday color is the cranberry, but I wanted to explore an alternative and settled on concord grapes for both their high pigmentation and rich flavor. You may liken concord grapes to typical "grape" flavor but the fresh fruit is so much brighter and sweeter. I bought them at the height of their freshness and chose to preserve them in syrup form. I added rosemary to the syrup for a savory aromatic note and to complement the botanicals of the gin.

To finish off the cocktail, I added fragrant Meyer lemon juice and Cava, a Spanish variety of sparkling wine. I prefer to use lower cost sparkling wines when I'm adding them to cocktails instead of enjoying them on their own. The Cava category tends to offer a good selection of low cost options with a nice citrus flavor that doesn't steal the show. The resulting punch is wonderfully festive, fragrant and sweet-tart. While it features gin as the main spirit it's got enough other flavors in tow to appeal even to gin skeptics. 

Festive Pines Punch 

Ratios for 1 serving (scale up as needed):

  • 1 oz gin
  • 2 oz Cava sparkling wine
  • 0.5 oz concord grape rosemary syrup*
  • 0.25 oz Meyer lemon
  • Fresh rosemary, for garnish

Chill ingredients prior to serving. Scale up the recipe as needed and combine all ingredients other than garnish in a punch bowl over a ring of ice. Stir to chill and combine and then garnish with fresh rosemary. Enjoy with holiday cookies and good cheer.

* To make syrup, combine 1 lb grapes, 3 cups water and 1 cup sugar in a medium pot. Simmer for 15 minutes, then add 3 sprigs of rosemary. Simmer for 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally, then strain and allow to cool. Store excess in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the punch bowl, cups and tray. 

 

Faraway Plains

After first setting eyes on a Smoking Gun at Apogee Lounge, one of the most imaginative bars in Chicago, I knew I'd eventually need to add one to my arsenal of mixology toys. Quite conveniently, the maker Breville reached out and offered to provide me with one in exchange for participating in a virtual holiday "mix-off" along with 9 other influential bartenders and mixologists. Getting the opportunity to play with a new medium made me want to take my cocktail creation in a completely different direction from anything I'd done before.

I selected Japanese whiskey and sherry to form the backbone of my cocktail. Both are ingredients that are praised in modern cocktails yet I had only tried them when going out for drinks. I quickly found that Japanese whiskeys come in quite a range of prices and flavor notes but Kikori Whiskey seemed like a particularly intriguing option to mix with. Made entirely from rice and aged in sherry casks, Kikori feels like a mash-up of the best attributes of saké and more traditional whiskey. It's a wonderfully unique addition to the world of whiskey and features a floral aroma with a caramel smooth finish. 

I also learned that sherries come in many varieties, each of which boast a unique flavor profile. Sherry is defined as Spanish fortified wine crafted in the region surrounding the city of Jerez de la Frontera (the word "sherry" stems from "Jerez"). Within that category, the wines vary from very dry to sweetened and have undergone different degrees of aging and oxidization. I chose the Manzanilla variety which falls on the drier end of the spectrum and was named with the Spanish word for chamomile tea due to flavor similarities. 

I played up the floral notes in the whiskey and manzanilla sherry with fragrant fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon juice and a wildflower honey syrup. The honey syrup balanced the dryness of the sherry, and the Meyer lemon juice tied the other ingredients together with a touch of pleasant acidity. 

The coolest thing about using the Smoking Gun in creating a cocktail is that you can fill it with a number of different wood chips, dried herbs or dehydrated fruit. This allows you to enhance the drink's flavors by engaging the sense of smell and truly takes the cocktail to the next level. I used applewood chips and dried chamomile flowers to smoke this drink. The applewood chips created a sweeter, fruity smoke and were a perfect match for the floral sweetness of chamomile. As a sidenote, I highly recommend getting dried chamomile flowers in bulk instead of buying it in teabag form - it's cheaper, more flavorful and lovely for garnishing!

The resulting cocktail is a bouquet of flavors unlike any I've enjoyed before - it starts out with a bit of floral dryness, transitions to the creamy smoothness of the honey and whiskey and finishes with a touch of sweet smoke.

Faraway Plains

  • 2 oz Kikori Japanese Rice Whiskey
  • 0.5 oz Manzanilla Sherry
  • 0.5 oz wildflower honey syrup*
  • 0.25 oz fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • Dried chamomile and applewood chips, for smoke
  • Fresh chamomile flowers, for garnish

Add first four ingredients to a mixing glass over ice and stir until chilled. Cover mixing glass with a julep strainer so only the spout is exposed. Insert the tube of the smoke gun through the mixing glass spout. Place a light covering of applewood chips and dried chamomile in the burn chamber of the smoke gun, ignite, and use the higher fan setting to fill the mixing glass with smoke. Once filled, remove the smoke gun tube from the mixing glass, change the orientation of the julep strainer so the handle covers the spout and allow for the cocktail to infuse with smoke for several minutes. Give the mixing glass a swirl and strain the contents into a Japanese tea cup or punch glass. Garnish with fresh chamomile flowers. 

* To make wildflower honey syrup, add 1:1 parts wildflower honey and almost boiling water to a leak-proof glass jar and shake until honey is dissolved. Open jar to allow syrup to cool and store excess in the fridge for up to 1 month. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and Breville for the Smoking Gun.

Vinyl Hour

If you're a Chicago local, have ever visited our city, or simply follow the spirits industry, there's little chance that you haven't heard of The Violet Hour. Hidden behind a wall that regularly rotates between contributions from various artists, The Violet Hour is an intimate speakeasy lounge that focuses largely on pre-prohibition era cocktails. Their rotating cocktail menu is simultaneously creative and highly formulaic, and all of the drinks I've had the pleasure of trying are both complex and perfectly balanced. 

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Lucky for us, The Violet Hour has now made a taste of their signature flavors available for home bartender use. Managing Partner Eden Laurin crafted the first cocktail syrup, Batch No.1, with a natural blend of scorched demerara sugar, vanilla, orange, and bittering agents like wormwood, caccia bark, and licorice root. Her idea was to create a one-stop, approachable product that would efficiently offer sweetness and depth. My husband and I enjoyed the syrup in a Pimm's Cup and Sazerac while visiting the bar, but it's really so delicious that I could add it to just about anything or simply have a spoonful for dessert. One of the things that I found particularly meaningful is that Eden has used this product release as a means to help others. A portion of the proceeds goes to her nonprofit project, The Drinking Fountain, which aims to give back to communities who struggle with clean water access.

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The syrup was so packed with flavor that I didn't need to do much to make it shine. Eden's recommended recipe is to adapt the syrup into an Old Fashioned with 2 oz of your favorite spirit and a citrus peel. I ran with that inspiration but added several complimentary components. 

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I knew I wanted to pair the syrup with KOVAL bourbon given it's lovely vanilla sweetness but decided to pack in more fall flavor by infusing the bourbon with fresh black figs. Since figs aren't in season for long, infusing them into a spirit is a great way to make their flavor last. You could also try this with frozen figs (I've seen some at Trader Joe's) or even dried figs (though look for ones without any added sugar). The infusion took only 5 days and was so tasty that I would gladly just sip it on ice. I then chose to add fresh-squeezed navel orange juice for some citrus brightness that wouldn't distract from the drink's velvety sweetness. While lemon and lime are excellent in lots of applications, they tend to steal the show pretty quickly and can distract from the rich profile of whiskey

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I finished off the drink with flamed orange peel for a deeper, roasted citrus oil scent and flavor. For garnish, I added fresh figs but you could use the citrus twist if you're making this drink after fig season is over. The resulting drink was strong yet delightfully smooth with an uplifting scent, rounded sweetness, and lingering complexity.

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Vinyl Hour

  • 2 oz black fig-infused bourbon*
  • 0.5 oz fresh-squeezed orange juice
  • 1 barspoon Violet Hour Batch No. 1 Scorched Demerara Cocktail Concentrate
  • Strip of orange peel
  • Fresh fig, for garnish

Stir all ingredients other than orange peel and fig with ice until chilled, then strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Run a flame along the orange peel and then express the orange oils onto the surface of the cocktail. Cut the fig in half lengthwise and slide both halves onto a cocktail spear. Enjoy while getting cozy under blankets and jamming out to your latest vinyl finds.

*To make fig-infused bourbon, place 4 sliced black figs into a 16 oz jar and fill with bourbon to the top. Put in a dark place and allow to infuse for 4-5 days, shaking and tasting occasionally. Strain with a fine mesh strainer when you're happy with the flavor. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the glass. 

The Swaying Stalk

If you've been following my blog for some time, you've probably noticed that I enjoy using infusions in my cocktails. They're quite easy to prepare if you understand the proper length of infusion time for various ingredients. Simply add fruit, herbs, tea or spices to liquor, wait while it infuses, and then strain out all of the solids to stop the process. Infusions are an excellent way to add complexity to a drink because they have no added sugars and don't water down the overall cocktail. I've done infusions for both flavor and color with great results.

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I was recently approached by the company Teroforma to test 1pt, their newest product line of artisanal spirit infusion blends. This blog is a space for me to share my findings on brands whose ingredients and value propositions I support, and 1pt met and exceeded my criteria. I've typically done infusions with one or maybe two ingredients at a time and then added additional flavors in the cocktail mixing process. In contrast, all of of 1pt's seven blends feature at least four thoughtfully layered herbs, spices and teas, meaning you don't need to add much to the infused spirit to make a fantastic cocktail. I chose to play with their Citrus Blend, a mix of lemongrass, ginger, lemon verbana, Yerba Mate, and marigold petals

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Given the freshness and citrus character of the infusion ingredients, I chose to use a London Dry Gin for the spirit. London Dry Gin's aren't necessarily made in London nowadays but tend to be more juniper-forward, higher proof, and with a citrus component. Beefeater is particularly great for infusions as it's very reasonably priced, fairly straightforward in taste profile and therefore quite versatile. 

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I wanted to use honey to completely smooth the bite of the gin and thus draw the focus entirely to the brightness of the infusion. Instead of using a plain honey syrup, I paired blackberries with wildflower honey for a pop of color and a delightfully tart fall flavor that I slightly accentuated with a bit of lemon. I then topped the drink with club soda to give it the refreshing feel of a gin and tonic.

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For garnish, I added a fresh stalk of lemongrass and a dehydrated citrus peel. If you'd like to learn how to make dehydrated citrus peel in your oven, check out this earlier post. The resulting cocktail was fresh, herbaceous, bright and complex.

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The Swaying Stalk 

  • 2 oz 1pt Citrus-infused London Dry Gin*
  • 0.75 oz honey blackberry syrup**
  • 0.25 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 oz club soda
  • Lemongrass stalk and/or dehydrated lemon slice, for garnish

Stir all ingredients other than garnish with ice, then strain into a stemmed glass and top with crushed ice. Garnish with lemongrass and dehydrated lemon and enjoy while taking a deep breath of cool air after a rainstorm.

*Infuse gin with 1pt Citrus Blend for 5 hours.

**To make syrup, bring 1 cup water and 1/2 cup blackberries to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Muddle the blackberries and then add 1/4 cup wildflower honey, stirring just until it dissolves. Allow to cool and store excess in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

If you'd like to try 1pt for yourself, use the code valcohol10 for 10% off orders over $20.

 

A Bountiful Harvest

Have you ever tried a savory cocktail? Many of you are likely familiar with the Bloody Mary, a brunch staple that often comes loaded with a feast of garnishes. I've never been able to warm up to the Bloody Mary myself, probably due to the high acidity, spiciness, and overall heaviness of the drink. Other savory drinks I've tried have been an interesting experience but I wish I could have tried a little taste rather than having to finish the entire cocktail.

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With the fall harvest of our rooftop garden bringing in copious amounts of tomatoes and basil, I decided to try my hand at crafting a savory, tomato-based drink that I could enjoy. My first dilemma was which particular tomatoes to use and how to best prepare them for the purpose. I started with cherry tomatoes and tried simply muddling them but wasn't thrilled with their sweetness or the inconsistent texture of the resulting juice. Grape tomatoes proved more savory, and I was able to get a great texture by blending them and straining out any remaining solids. You could probably use roma, kumato, or heirloom tomatoes as a substitute (let me know how your drink turns out if you do).

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Instead of making a typical syrup, I tested an infused salty solution with black peppercorns, fresh basil, and sea salt. I loved the manageable ting of spice added by the peppercorns and the freshness of the basil when paired with the tomato flavor. I further played up the basil aromatics by pinning some fresh leaves to the drink as garnish. Note that leftover salt solution could be a great flavoring component for a soup. I also incorporated balsamic vinegar as a complement to the tomatoes and basil. It helped pull together the creamy, yet tart finish of the drink while balancing all of the components.

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From the start, I knew I wanted to use egg white in this cocktail to test out the savory side of foam. The acidity of the tomatoes was sufficient for foaming the egg white and the resulting frothy finish created a striking visual contrast and a firm top layer for sprinkling with freshly ground peppercorn.

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For the spirit, I chose a vodka that would add character to the drink rather than getting lost among the other ingredients - KOVAL Organic Rye Vodka. This vodka is similar to KOVAL's white rye whiskey, but triple distilled for more smoothness. It blended beautifully into the drink while adding a depth of grain flavor that worked wonderfully with the savory palette. 

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The finished cocktail is substantial yet fresh, with the creamy texture of the spiced foam blending effortlessly into the tomato body. The notes are lightly peppery, pleasantly acidic and aromatic.

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A Bountiful Harvest

  • 1.5 oz rye vodka
  • 0.5 oz balsamic vinegar
  • 0.5 oz peppercorn basil salt solution*
  • 10 grape tomatoes
  • 1 egg white

Blend and strain grape tomatoes, then add to a shaker along with other ingredients. Dry shake for approximately 10 seconds, occasionally releasing the pressure in the shaker. Add ice and shake until chilled, then strain into a champagne flute or other stemmed glass. Top with fresh cracked pepper and garnish with 1-2 small basil leaves. Enjoy while strolling through an abundant fall garden.

*To make infused salt solution, add 1 cup water, 1 tbsp cracked black peppercorns, and 1 tbsp whole black peppercorns to a small saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes. Add several basil leaves and simmer for another 10 minutes. Allow to cool before using.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography. You can find the West Elm items from this shoot, herehere, and here. The cocktail shaker and jigger are by Viski.  

Fruit Bowl

Blended drinks aren't often bucketed into the craft cocktail category. Perhaps that's because the term "blended" makes many of us think of candy-sweet classics like hurricane slushies, strawberry daiquiris, and piña coladas. I've been happy to see cocktail bars in Chicago and throughout the country challenging that stereotype by creating blended drinks with more depth and quality of ingredients. It seemed like a great idea to join the movement myself.

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I love a good blended cocktail for several reasons. They're

  • Easy to make in bulk
  • Surprisingly hydrating (you tend to consume a lot more of the ice then you would in a cocktail served on the rocks), and
  • Allow you to get away with using thicker textures, thus retaining more ingredient flavor.
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I chose to stay with rum for the spirit since it tends to be the go-to for so many tropical, blended beverages. Instead of using white rum, I featured Oak and Cane, an aged rum infused with orange peel, for more weight and character. I wanted the rum to add interest to the drink rather than simply getting lost amid the fruit flavors and this one certainly delivered. The cool (and rare) thing about Oak and Cane is that it's made in Florida of entirely American ingredients (Florida grown sugarcane and orange peels and American white oak barrels for aging). Its flavor profile is both woodsy and lightly bitter from the citrus yet delightfully smooth at 80 proof.

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For the fruit components, I used chunks of ripe pineapple, homemade peach puree, and freshly squeezed lime juice. It's true that incorporating the fruit in these forms takes more work, but it makes a world of difference in the finished product. Though pineapple juice can be an alternative if you can't find fresh pineapple, the flavor will be more muted and syrupy rather than vibrantly sweet/tart. I've also tried several different peach liqueurs but nothing ever came close to the fragrant sweetness of freshly made peach puree. That being said, ripe pineapples and peaches aren't always available so, if you really find that you love this drink, consider pureeing and freezing the fruit for future use. 

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Blending these ingredients with ice resulted in an absolutely beautiful (and ridiculously delicious) foam. The cocktail will separate after you pour it into the glasses and all of the froth will rise to the top. I garnished the drinks with dehydrated lime slices as they have a lovely scent and are a little bit lighter than fresh slices for sitting on top of foam. You can check out an earlier post for instructions on making dehydrated citrus at home. The resulting drink has a delightfully creamy texture and fresh fruit brightness intermingled with the woodsy depth of the rum.

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The Fruit Bowl

  • 2 oz Oak and Cane Rum
  • 1/4 cup pineapple chunks 
  • 1.5 oz peach puree
  • Juice of 1/4 lime
  • Dehydrated lime, for garnish

Add all ingredients other than dehydrated lime to a blender along with 4-5 ice cubes and blend on a medium/high speed until the texture is consistent and frothy. Pour into stemless glasses and top with the dehydrated lime. Enjoy whenever you need some extra sunshine in your life. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the lovely MCM tray and glasses.

 

Sunlit Reverie

The creation of this cocktail started with a very wonderful gin-centric adventure. London-based Sipsmith Gin sent me their London Dry Gin along with a beautiful collection of upcycled glass and copper tools adorned with their iconic swan. They then invited me to join them for an unforgettable, cocktail-filled evening at one of Chicago's top rooftop bars, DrumBar.  

 Photo by Azuree Wiitala

Indisputably, the highlight of the evening was getting to meet Sipsmith Founder and Master Distiller, Jared Brown. Have you ever been able to tell instantly upon entering conversation that your partner is overflowing with knowledge, enthusiasm, and creativity? The opportunity to speak with Jared and hear about his journey in the world of spirits was both humbling and inspirational. He emerged into the industry spotlight with his website and book celebrating the martini and has since then continued a journey of lifelong learning while graciously sharing his wisdom. I took a chance at royally embarrassing myself when he offered to teach me how to "throw" a martini behind the bar but somehow managed not to spill! 

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Given the art and history behind Sipsmith's London Dry Gin, my gorgeous newly acquired tools, and the passion I felt from their entire team, I knew I wanted to create a truly special cocktail with vintage flair. I started with the idea to use an intricate crystal coupe, lemon cordial, and a fruit and herb component. Lemon cordial makes a great alternative to fresh lemon juice as it's thicker in texture like a limoncello yet preserves the brightness of the citrus. It's an excellent ingredient to take a cocktail from flat to multi-dimensional. If you whip up a batch for this cocktail and have some left over, give this delicious Rosé punch a try.

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To enhance the European roots of this cocktail, I decided to feature woodland strawberry tea as the fruit component. You've likely never had woodland strawberries if you're in the U.S. as they're native to Europe, but you can luckily still find them in tea form. Woodland strawberries are smaller, sweeter, and more fragrant than garden strawberries, and the tea luckily captures their vibrant flavor. You can typically find the tea at Eastern European food stores (woodland strawberries are called zemlyanika in Russian and poziomka in Polish).

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I cold brewed the tea overnight to get a more concentrated flavor and added fresh thyme from my rooftop for the herbal component. The pairing was absolutely delightful and transported me to being in a sunlit forest grove at the height of summer. Use the excess tea mixture to spice up lemonade or simply enjoy it chilled on its own. 

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I've found it best to stir rather than shake drinks with cold-brewed tea to avoid over-dilution. Stirring this cocktail chilled the ingredients while maintaining the potency of the flavors. To finish it off and enhance the sensory experience, I added some flowering fresh thyme garnish. The resulting drink was unbelievably smooth with a light fruity sweetness enhanced by a bouquet of herbal notes.

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Sunlit Reverie

  • 50 ml Sipsmith London Dry Gin
  • 100 ml woodland strawberry thyme cold-brew*
  • 25 ml lemon cordial**
  • Fresh thyme, for garnish

Stir first three ingredients with ice until chilled then strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme and enjoy while dreamily watching a spectacular summer sunset. Note that the ingredients for this cocktail are listed in metric units as Sipsmith provided me with a lovely metric measuring tool. If you don't have metric tools on hand, use a ratio of 1.5:3:0.75 fluid oz. 

* To make cold-brew, add 24 oz of water, 4 teabags of woodland strawberry tea, and a bunch of thyme to a glass jar. Shake to incorporate and leave to infuse overnight. Strain and store excess in the fridge for up to 1 month.

** To make lemon cordial, heat the peel of 3 lemons, 3 cups of water, 2 cups of sugar and 1 tsp citric acid in a saucepan for about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and add the juice of 7 lemons. Allow to cool, then strain. Store excess cordial in a glass container in the fridge. 

Thanks to Azuree Wiitala for the event action shot, Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses and tray.

Island Flair

If you’ve ever experienced a tiki drink, you probably know that tiki culture involves fun, flair, and plenty of flavor. I’m no tiki expert, but I’ve had blast seeking out tiki bars in my travels and often gravitate to tiki drinks for their delicious blend of fruit and nut ingredients. The trend started in mid-century America and has, in my opinion, seen a recent resurgence in popularity. It’s hard not to get behind a cocktail style that’s so theatrical and easy to enjoy.

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My biggest qualm with a lot of tiki drinks is that they tend to be deceptively debilitating. The drink tastes great as you’re enjoying it, but the aftermath can hit quite unpleasantly. Tiki drinks often contain a fair amount of booze but, more likely, it’s the sugar content that causes your hangover. Typical tiki syrups and liqueurs are high in sugar content on their own and are often used in combination with a slew of sweet fruit juices.  

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I wanted to create a cocktail that was true to tiki flavors and garnish while being easier on my body. After some brainstorming, I landed on a combination of an aged and spiced rum, fresh apricot puree, orgeat, and lime. I paired Grander, a high-proof Panamanian rum aged for 8 years in bourbon barrels, with Spytail, a ginger-spiced French rum with a delightful vanilla smoothness. Joining the rums with a 1-1 ratio gave me the spirit strength I wanted and allowed the spice flavors to elevate the drink rather than steal the show from the other ingredients. 

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I chose to include fresh, ripe apricots rather than apricot liqueur to control the sugar content and was rewarded with a burst of authentic flavor. To give the puree an easier consistency to work with, I added lime, water, and a bit of demerara sugar to the apricots before blending them. The leftover puree held up well in my fridge for about a week, allowing me to experiment adding it to other drinks without worrying about the whole fruit going bad.

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The real highlight of this drink is the homemade orgeat. Orgeat, pronounced "or-zhat," is a rich almond syrup with a hint of floral flavor. Store-bought varieties tend to be pricey, artificial or overly sweet, so I experimented with making my own. In a nutshell (pun intended), you grind up toasted almonds and then soak them in a simple syrup overnight for the nut oils to be released. Orange flower water is added for the floral flavor and a bit of vodka acts as a preservative. You can also use the discarded ground almonds as a topper for oatmeal or yogurt - just toast them in the oven after straining them out of the syrup. 

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Going in the tiki direction gave me an excuse to get really wild with my garnish. I've been mesmerized by flaming lime garnishes plenty of times at cocktail bars and found after some research that they're not too hard to recreate. The flame will burn longer if you use a stronger spirit so I recommend finding a cheap bottle of overproof liquor for this purpose. I wouldn't directly mix with the spirit I used for this garnish but it's great for making bitters. Because I care about your safety, please be sure to use a metal (not paper straw) or to add the straw after the flame dies out to avoid any unintended chaos.  

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Island Flair

  • 1 oz Grander Rum (aged rum)
  • 1 oz Spytail Rum (spiced rum)
  • 1.5 oz apricot puree*
  • 0.75 oz orgeat**
  • Shell of 1/2 lime
  • Sugar cube
  • Overproof spirit (I used 190 proof Polish pure spirit)

Stir first four ingredients with ice until chilled, then strain into a tiki mug or a colorful party glass over crushed ice. Add crushed ice as needed to fill your glass to the top, insert a metal straw, and nestle a hollow lime half into the ice, open side up. Place a sugar cube into the lime, pour a bit of overproof spirit over the sugar cube and then light the sugar cube to ignite the flame. Enjoy while wearing your most ridiculous Hawaiian shirt and dreaming of your next tropical getaway.

*To make the apricot puree, blend 8 ripe apricots (seeds removed), 0.5 oz lime juice, 1 tbsp demerara sugar and 1 oz water. Strain out any leftover solids if you prefer a smoother consistency and store the excess in the fridge for up to 1 week.

**To make the orgeat, broil 3 cups of almonds until toasted, then grind them up in a blender. Add 1 cup demerara sugar and 2 cups waster to a medium saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved. Add the almonds to the syrup and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the syrup from heat, cover and allow to infuse for at least 12 hours. Strain out the solids, then pour into a glass jar or bottle and add 0.25 tsp orange flower water and 0.5 oz vodka. Store excess in the fridge for up to 1 month.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses.

Gone Glamping

This past weekend I went camping at one of my favorite spots - Devil's Lake State Park. As always, the hiking was the perfect amount of challenge, the lake was beautifully clear for swimming, and the weather turned out better than any of us could have expected. Of course, we enjoyed S'mores for dessert both nights and had a laugh over everyone's various preparation strategies. I prefer removing the outer skin of a totally flamed marshmallow while my husband surprised me with pre-warming the graham cracker and chocolate on the grill for an extra gooey (and messy) treat. 

To me, S'mores are one of the quintessential enjoyments of summer but I do wish the ingredients could be more natural and less processed. I took the inspiration of the chocolate, charred marshmallow and cinnamon-coated graham cracker components and re-imagined them in purer cocktail form. 

Starting out, I knew I wanted to use a smoky spirit and chocolate balsamic with a homemade cinnamon syrup and an egg white foam. I chose Gran Centenario Añejo Tequila for the base because I love that it has a very approachable amount of smoke. Don't get me wrong, I can enjoy scotch in the right situation but I generally prefer less smoke in my cocktails because it can quickly steal the show. I can be apprehensive around tequila but this one has the smoothness of a good whiskey and a flavor that's balanced enough for easy mixing.

You're probably a bit confused about the chocolate balsamic component. Vinegar opens up a whole other world of possibilities for mixology, and most varieties can be incorporated in a drink if mixed correctly - shrubs, champagne, balsamic (the list goes on). It's a great alternative to citrus for adding acidity and can also help build complexity in non-alcoholic drinks. Balsamic vinegar is especially wonderful because its sweet taste and creamy texture makes it more of a crowd pleaser. Both my and my husband's parents gave us bottles of chocolate balsamic and it blew my mind how well those flavors worked together. I've used it to make brownies in the past but thought it could be perfect in this cocktail for helping the egg white foam, balancing the sweetness, and adding chocolaty depth. 

I did some research before creating the cinnamon syrup because I had heard of different cinnamon varieties and was pretty confused about what all of them entailed. Surprisingly, I found that cassia cinnamon, the variety most common in the U.S., can be toxic to your liver and kidneys if consumed on a daily basis. Ceylon cinnamon, the variety native to Sri Lanka, doesn't have the same negative impacts while benefiting metabolism and containing similar antioxidants to green tea. I grabbed it in bulk off of Amazon to get a more reasonable price and was impressed with its softer texture and sweeter flavor profile. It paired wonderfully with the less processed demerara sugar to make a delicious and versatile syrup. The whole sticks are perfect for steeping in syrups and teas and using for garnish but you can also grind them into powder using a regular coffee grinder.

To finish the drink off, I experimented with a brûléed egg white foam. I had never tried a cocktail like this but understood the general theory - after creating an egg white cocktail with a well-formed foam you could sprinkle sugar over the top and then torch that sugar to caramelize it. I found that the key was to keep the torch moving over the surface of the cocktail to prevent the sugar getting burnt. Don't get discouraged when you try this at home - it takes a bit for the sugar to start caramelizing but the process is pretty fast from that point on. 

The resulting drink was booze-forward and decadent without being heavy. It had just the right amount of sweetness and the egg white created an excellent texture to bring all the other ingredients together. It may be more of an involved creation but it's certainly worth the effort!

Gone Glamping

  • 2 oz añejo tequila
  • 0.25 oz chocolate balsamic vinegar
  • 0.75 Ceylon cinnamon syrup*
  • 1 egg white
  • 0.5 tsp white sugar

Dry shake all ingredients other than sugar (without ice) for 10-15 seconds, popping the cap occasionally to release the pressure from the egg white. Add ice and shake until chilled. Double strain into a coupe glass, sprinkle the top evenly with sugar and torch the surface until the sugar has caramelized (turned golden brown). Enjoy as an extremely sophisticated adult substitute for S'mores.

* To make Ceylon cinnamon syrup, heat 1 cup water,  1/4 cup demerara sugar and 3 cinnamon sticks in a small saucepan for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Excess can be stored in the fridge for several weeks but should be shaken before use as some settling may occur. Try adding the leftover syrup to coffee for another delicious treat!

 

 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses.

Vice Grip

My tolerance for spicy foods is basically nonexistent though I've been challenging it diligently ever since leaving for college. This tends to be pretty typical when you're Eastern European and grow up primarily with salt, (small amounts of) black pepper, parsley and dill. Somehow, I went from a fairly limited spice exposure to deciding upon Mexican as my favorite food category. I love the brightness and variety of the seasoning and the way the different ingredients balance each other out if mixed in just the right way. While I prefer mixology over cooking, I appreciate the cross-functional concepts you can apply if you're avidly learning both skills. 

I chose to create this drink to channel that flavor vibrance and to find a way to enjoy spice in liquid form as much as I've grown to approach it in cuisine. My thought process led me to the classic screwdriver cocktail - a drink that's very straightforward but often leaves you wanting. I aimed to take the concept of vodka and orange juice and to dress it up with better ingredients and a fiery kick. Perhaps the most critical way to improve on the classic is to pick the right vodka.

Though vodka is often disregarded as a spirit that is simply neutral, I believe that a good vodka will disappear amidst other ingredients while a great vodka will blend smoothly and add flavor interest. I was thrilled to incorporate BET Vodka, a particularly great Wisconsin spirit made from co-op grown sugar beets. It starts smooth and therefore plays nicely with most cocktail ingredients, but also adds a bit of a peppery body and a lingering vanilla sweetness. I don't often get excited about vodka, but BET left quite an impression with both its flavor profile and beautiful minimalist branding. 

Instead of orange juice from a carton, I used the juice of an entire fresh navel orange. It takes a bit more effort but it is so incredibly worth it. Not only is fresh juice additive-free, but the flavor is so much brighter immediately after extraction. Oranges are also fairly easy to find throughout the year and affordable to grab in bulk. If you'd like to make this drink for a group and don't have an efficient way of juicing fresh oranges, grab some freshly squeezed juice from the grocery store on the same day you make this cocktail. Just remember that you'll still need fresh orange peel for the syrup.

To finish the drink, I crafted a syrup with orange peel and habanero pepper. Adding the spice element in syrup form gave me plenty of control over the final flavor balance of the cocktail. I worked with incredibly spicy habanero peppers, so I just added one to my syrup for a minute to get the level of spice I was looking for. Make sure to taste the syrup as it's simmering. If you'd like more spice, simply throw in another pepper or leave the one pepper in for a little longer. 

The resulting cocktail is bursting with citrus freshness and a pleasant spice finish. It's perfect for a hot summer day but would be equally lovely to break up the gloom of a rainy autumn or cold winter.

The Vice Grip

  • 2 oz vodka
  • Juice of 1 fresh orange
  • 0.25 oz orange habanero syrup*

Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into chilled glasses. Garnish with a habanero pepper and enjoy on a scorching summer day. 

*To make orange habanero syrup, combine 2 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, peel of 1 orange (try to avoid the pith) in a small saucepan and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add 1 chopped habanero pepper and simmer for another minute. Strain out the solids and store excess in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. The pepper oil will separate to the surface so be sure to give the jar of syrup a shake before using it next.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses and tray.

Fourth of Rosé

When I think of summer libations, strawberries, lemonade and rosé wine instantly come to mind. While they're all excellent on a standalone basis, can you imagine how fantastic they'd be mixed together? I tested this theory with a punch-format cocktail and found the result to be absolutely wonderful. The natural red hue of this punch makes it a great fit for your Fourth of July entertaining, but it's a recipe you're bound to enjoy all summer long.

One of my favorite features of this punch is that the ingredients can be prepared fairly far in advance and the final prep is effortless. Since the fruit components are preserved via infusion and cordial, you can find the freshest fruit when it's available or well-priced and use it before it has the chance to spoil. To give the punch a bit more of a kick (pun intended), I incorporated strawberry hibiscus infused vodka. The nice thing about a fruit infusion is that it provides so much flavor that you can, and should, use a more mid-range spirit - I picked an organic vodka from Trader Joe's, which I'm convinced is made by Prairie Organic but with the friendlier price tag of $13.99. I recommend using organic fruit for infusions as alcohol will pull any pesticides from the fruit along with the color and flavor. Luckily, organic strawberries are much easier to come by in the summer. Hibiscus is best bought in bulk online, but you can also use a hibiscus tea from the grocery store.

Note that you'll need to plan ahead for this component of the punch as fruit infusions reach their peak after 5 days

Instead of using fresh lemon, I chose to work with lemon cordial. I discovered lemon cordial when collaborating with the Bar Manager of Chicago Distilling Company on a bar takeover and have been using it in pretty much everything since then. Lemon cordial is effectively a lemon syrup, something akin to limoncello but quicker to make and non-alcoholic. Lemon juice is best enjoyed on the day it's squeezed, but lemon cordial allows you to preserve that flavor brightness and achieve both tartness and sweetness with one ingredient. The basic premise is to boil lemon peel with water and sugar, mix in lemon juice, pour into a sterilized glass bottle and store in the fridge (more details in the recipe below). I also recommend adding some citric acid to strengthen the tartness, but you can substitute with fresh lemon juice when preparing the actual punch if you prefer. 

The rest of the punch is quite straightforward - rosé as the main component and club soda for a bit of fizz. I found this particular rosé to work beautifully with the other ingredients, but most fruit-forward varieties should fit the bill. If you want to class up the punch for the 4th, float some rinsed white spray roses in the punch bowl or garnish with fresh blueberries. The resulting drink is fruity, balanced and unbelievably smooth. 

Fourth of Rosé

Individual format:

  • 1.5 oz strawberry hibiscus infused vodka*
  • 2 oz rosé wine
  • 0.5 oz lemon cordial**
  • 1 oz club soda

Or, to serve 12:

  • 2 and 1/3 cups strawberry hibiscus infused vodka*
  • 1 bottle rosé wine
  • 3/4 cup lemon cordial**
  • 1.5 cups club soda

Stir all ingredients with ice to chill and pour into your favorite celebratory glassware over ice. If making in bulk, simply mix in a pitcher or punch bowl with a bit of ice. For an extra festive experience, garnish with white spray roses and blueberries. Enjoy while reliving your childhood amidst firework fun. 

* To make strawberry hibiscus infused vodka, add 2 cup chopped strawberries, 2 tbsp dried hibiscus flowers and 1 bottle of vodka to a sealable glass jar (split into 2 batches if you don't have a 1 jar that's big enough). Put the jar in a dark place (like a cupboard or pantry) and allow to infuse for 5 days, shaking occasionally. After 5 days, strain with a fine mesh strainer. The infused vodka should be fine to store at room temperature if you remove all the fruit solids. 

** To make lemon cordial, heat the peel of 3 lemons, 3 cups of water, 2 cups of sugar and 1 tsp citric acid in a saucepan for about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and add the juice of 7 lemons. Allow to cool, then strain. Store excess cordial in a glass container in the fridge. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses and pitcher. If you're local to Chicago and want to learn how to craft some delicious punches in person, check out my upcoming class with KOVAL and West Elm.

 

 

 

 

Turmeric Ginger Milk Punch

A month ago, I was approached with a project to design two cocktails for the anniversary party of a local clothing and accessory boutique and the launch of a related bridal boutique - Milk Handmade and Honey Bridal. This particular cocktail was my solution for the milk-themed half of the event, and I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious it turned out. I don't typically mix with dairy to keep my drinks a little lighter, but dairy can be so effective at giving cocktails a silky smoothness and balancing the bite of most spirits. 

Earlier this year, I discovered turmeric for natural health purposes and found that it is often enjoyed with milk and several other spices for an immune system boost, cold relief, and a slew of other benefits. Conveniently, I also found turmeric to be delicious. It can be overwhelming in large quantities but wonderful if used in a balanced way, sweetened with some honey, and paired with ginger. Turmeric root powder is typically easier to find than the actual root, though the root can yield a more vibrant flavor if you're up for the extra effort. If you go the powder route, I highly recommend saving some money by stocking up bulk.

I chose to add turmeric to the punch via a simple syrup made with turmeric powder and added a bit more spice and sweetness with KOVAL's Ginger Liqueur. For the spirit, I selected KOVAL Oat Whiskey for its amazingly smooth, almost creamy finish. The natural sweetness and mouthfeel of the the Oat Whiskey make it my go-to for more decadent dessert drinks. 

For the milk, I chose an organic 2%. Personally, I find skim to be rather flavorless and whole milk to be too heavy, so 2% was a great balance for the little bit of fat content and flavor to round out the drink. If you can, try to use organic as pesticides are easily transferred through the fat content of dairy. If you prefer to go dairy-free, a blend of full fat coconut milk and almond or cashew milk should make an effective and tasty substitution. 

This drink can easily be presented individually, or scaled up as a punch. The only component that takes a bit of effort is the turmeric syrup but that goes quite quickly when using powder. I added some candied ginger cubes for garnish for an extra spicy treat and some more visual interest. The resulting drink is a beautifully colored, lightly spiced boozy milkshake that is actually somewhat good for you! 

Turmeric Ginger Milk Punch

  • 2 oz Oat Whiskey
  • 0.5 oz Ginger Liqueur
  • 0.5 oz turmeric syrup*
  • 2 oz 2% milk
  • Candied ginger, for garnish

Stir first four ingredients with ice until chilled, then strain into a tall glass over ice. Garnish with a piece of candied ginger on a cocktail spear. If making in bulk, prepare in a punch bowl or pitcher with chilled ingredients and serve with ice. Enjoy to cool down and give your body a boost on a hot summer day.

*To make turmeric syrup, add 1 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar to a small saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved. Add 1 tbsp turmeric powder and stir until dissolved. Allow to cool and store excess in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. Some separation will occur - just shake up the syrup before use.

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography. You can find the West Elm items from this shoot, herehere, and here. Cocktail picks are by Viski.  

 

Root & Chalice

We've all shared the days of enjoying simple rail drinks at dive bars or parties. The ingredients tend to be fairly ubiquitous, ratios are forgiving and just about any bar can create one to your liking. For my next series of recipes, I was inspired to channel that rail drink nostalgia into more complex, healthier alternatives. You won't be able to find these ingredients at your typical bar but you will be able to reminisce upon your college days and broaden the comfort spheres of your pickiest friends. 

The first drink in my series is a take on the classic rum and coke. Typically, this rail contains its namesake ingredients of white rum and Coca-Cola with a splash of lime.  I've never been much of a soda drinker due to its sugar content and additives so I sought to replace that flavor profile with a more natural, balanced alternative.

As you have probably figured out by now, I absolutely love to use tea in cocktails. It's widely accessible, can be incorporated in a variety of ways and adds so much depth while giving you control over sweetness levels. In my endless search for natural cocktail mixers, I stumbled upon Pearl Soda Company, based out of Portland, Oregon. They kindly shared several of their tea-based soda syrups with me, and I was blown away by how much the Dancing Dragon variety (crafted with sarsaparilla root and pu-erh, yerba mate and honeybush teas) mimicked a true, old-style root beer with a touch of earthy depth. I also appreciated that the soda syrup was very concentrated - a little bit goes a long way and I expect to get plenty of use out of it this summer in both single and batched cocktails.

I gravitated to aged rum instead of the traditionally used white rum because I wanted something with deeper oak flavor to yield a smoother beverage. Luckily, I stumbled upon Grander Rum, an all natural rum produced with care in Panama and aged for 8 years in Kentucky bourbon barrels. I'm fairly new to the vast world of rum but learned from Grander's owner that many varieties can have small amounts of additives for color, sweetness and flavor. Inspired by the art of bourbon creation from his Kentucky roots, the owner sought to create a more authentic rum by starting with a great un-aged product and keeping the entire production process at one facility in Panama. I found the rum to have a wonderful aroma of caramel and vanilla and a great strength to form the backbone of balanced cocktails. 

To further enhance the sweet, spiced, earthy depth of this cocktail, I added some of Bittercube's Blackstrap Bitters. Crafted by a duo of Milwaukee-based cocktail consultants, Bittercube Bitters feature extremely well blended flavor combinations without any artificial ingredients. I've enjoyed all of their flavors but the Blackstrap variety truly made this cocktail shine with a deliciously aromatic mix of sarsaparilla, molasses and cinnamon. If you decide to give Bittercube Bitters a try, I strongly recommend investing in their mini sampler pack.

I chose to serve this cocktail with club soda for the obligatory bubbles and crushed ice to make it maximally refreshing. The resulting drink is comparable to a delightfully spiked root beer with a hint of herbal character and a molasses finish.

The Root & Chalice

  • 2 oz Grander Rum (aged rum)
  •  0.5 oz Pearl Soda Company Dancing Dragon Syrup
  • 6 drops Bittercube Blackstrap Bitters
  • 2 oz club soda

Stir all ingredients with ice in a mixing glass until chilled, then strain into a soda fountain glass and top with crushed ice. Serve with a straw and an optional slice of dehydrated lemon for some extra sunshine. Enjoy while recounting tales of your craziest college shenanigans. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the beautiful vintage glasses.

 

 

Philosopher's Path

In spring of 2011, I finally realized one of my dreams – visiting Japan. My curiosity with Japanese culture was spiked by the book Shōgun and Miyazaki movies (extra Valcohol points if you’ve seen Totoro). I went on to take an elective Japanese history course at college and one of the themes that stood out to me most was celebrating the beauty of the fleeting moment. So many aspects of the culture center on this concept and teach the indispensable patience it takes to appreciate that beauty.

I was lucky to have a friend teaching English in Fukuoka so I started my voyage there and then continued on to Kyoto and Osaka. One of the most ephemeral yet timeless spots on our journey was the blooming Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto. Walking along the cobbled pathways by the side of a babbling canal and surrounded by flowering trees and ancient temples, I truly lost myself to the breathtaking beauty of the moment. While the cultural site has so much history behind it, the state of the path is always changing as nature works it course. 

I wanted this cocktail to evoke the transience of nature and the richness of Japanese culture, so I chose to craft it with matcha tea and a likeness to cherry blossoms. Matcha tea is a powdered form of green tea leaves traditionally used for the Japanese tea ceremony. Similar to other Japanese green teas, matcha is bold, grassy and vibrant in flavor. Because the leaves are actually consumed in the powdered form, matcha is especially high in antioxidant and vitamin content. Matcha can range considerably in price depending on its intended use. I recommend selecting a less expensive, culinary grade variety for a cocktail application. 

Natural cherry blossom flavoring is surprisingly difficult to find outside of Japan, so I had to get creative with my substitutions. I knew I needed a floral element, a hint of cherry and a sweet aroma. The combination of rose water and Bittercube's Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters was the perfect solution. Note that there's no need to overpay for rose water since it's a common component of Middle Eastern cooking and therefore available in much more cost effective form than what you would find at a gourmet grocery store. 

To emphasize the grassy and floral notes of the cocktail, I used a base of Death's Door Gin. Simple and always delivering in quality, Death's Door has been one of my favorite gins since I first started exploring the spirit. Of course, I especially love that it hails from Wisconsin. 

I finished the cocktail with egg white and fresh lemon to smooth the boldness of the matcha and the strength of the floral flavor. Lemon balanced the sweetness of the matcha syrup and gave the drink a pleasant, lingering tartness. The resulting cocktail is truly one of my personal favorites with its lovely marriage of grassy tea, bright botanicals, aromatic blooms and creamy finish. 

The Philosopher's Path

  • 1.5 oz Death's Door Gin
  • 0.75 oz matcha syrup*
  • 1 barspoon rose water
  • 6 drops Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 egg white

Dry shake all ingredients (without ice) for 10-15 seconds, popping the cap occasionally to release the pressure from the egg white. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a fresh blossom. Enjoy while losing yourself in the transient beauty of spring.

* To make matcha syrup, heat 1 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar in a small saucepan until sugar dissolves. Add 1/2 tbsp matcha powder and whisk until dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Excess can be stored in the fridge for several weeks but should be shaken before use as some settling may occur. Try adding the leftover syrup to some almond milk for a matcha latte or using it in baking if you're feeling adventurous!

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the tray, spoon and lovely vintage coupes.

 

 

Mate Manhattan

You know you're getting older when your bedtime starts moving farther up and the question of whether or not to go out becomes an internal struggle. In these cases, the question tends to be "do I need another drink or some caffeine?" While an energy drink cocktail or a simple soda mixer may seem convenient, there are so many alternatives that will treat your body better. My next three posts will be devoted to natural, healthier energizing cocktails to keep the party going late into the night (aka, they'll help you make it to midnight).

I first discovered yerba mate at my favorite tea room in college - Dobra Tea (the Madison location sadly no longer exists but there are a few others scattered through the US and Europe). A popular drink in South America, yerba mate (pronounced maht-eh) dates back to the 16th century and is still widely enjoyed today for its balanced energy and nutrition. Yerba mate comes from the the evergreen holly rather than the tea plant but is brewed similarly to a tea and traditionally consumed from a gourd with a metal straw. Not only does yerba mate provide a more sustained, less acidic source of caffeine, but it also contains more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than any other tea-based drink. I tend to enjoy it after lunch at the office for an extra kick of mental clarity without the stomach sensitivity caused by coffee. 

In flavor, yerba mate is best described as earthy, with a light sweetness and a grassy quality. The flavor isn't for everyone but you'll likely welcome it if you're already a fan of green tea. When brainstorming how to use it in a cocktail, I made the connection to sweet vermouth, a fortified wine with herbal character. I created a syrup with the yerba mate by brewing a strong batch with added sugar and used that syrup in place of vermouth in a Manhattan cocktail. 

A typical Manhattan is a stiff drink with three components - rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. My lighter and more energizing approach incorporated KOVAL Four Grain Whiskey, yerba mate syrup and citrus bitters from Hella Cocktail Company. The creamy caramel palette and spicy finish of the four grain whiskey blended beautifully with the yerba mate and the citrus bitters added a brighter touch than the typical aromatic variety. 

Due to the high potency of a Manhattan, it's best to chill the drink while maintaining its integrity. I've been researching ways to create large clear ice at home for some time now, as clear ice doesn't crack and melts much slower than your typical homemade variety. Luckily, I stumbled upon an innovative company called Wintersmiths that makes the process very approachable. You can use water straight from the tap and your own home freezer to create these lovely, glowing orbs of perfection. The amount of time required depends on your freezer - mine take about 36 hours to freeze completely. Wintersmiths was kind enough to offer 10% off with the code "valcohol" if you want to snag one of their ice tools for yourself. 

To garnish the cocktail, I recommend expressing the oil of an orange peel, rubbing the rim with the orange oil and then twisting and dropping the orange peel into the drink. You've probably marveled at bartenders doing this at nicer cocktail bars, but the process is surprisingly easy to master at home. I peeled a fairly thin strip of orange peel and then held it over the drink as shown and gave it a firm squeeze with 3 fingers. If you've done it right, you'll see a spray of orange oil coat your cocktail. Don't get discouraged if you don't get it on the first try - it took me several to get the hang of it!

The resulting cocktail is amazingly full-bodied yet approachable, with an earthy, spiced and bright character.

Mate Manhattan

  • 2 oz KOVAL Four Grain Whiskey
  • 1 oz yerba mate syrup*
  • 5 dashes citrus bitters
  • Orange peel

Add all ingredients other than orange peel to a mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube and garnish with an orange peel. Enjoy to loosen up and invigorate for extra nerdy conversation.

To make yerba mate syrup, heat 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan, then add 1/4 cup sugar and 2 tea bags of yerba mate. Allow to steep for 10 minutes, then strain, stir and allow to cool. Store excess in the fridge for up to three weeks. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the glasses, tray and tea canisters. The gold bar tool set is from West Elm

 

Bitter Bloom

One of the beautiful things about mixology is that all of our palettes are both different and dynamic. I can easily remember a time when I didn't drink beer, approached wine with caution, and avoided all dark and bitter spirits. What a limiting existence! Through adventurous experimentation, I have pushed my flavor preferences into new territory. This evolution has given me a sense of challenge and growth as I continue to mix with new ingredients and build my mental booze database. 

Aquavit is an excellent example of a spirit that would have terrified me 5 years back but is now one of my go-to cocktail bases. Originating in Scandanavia, Aquavit literally means "water of life" and plays a large role in the area's culture and gastronomy. The easiest way to describe it is an earthier version of gin. Aquavit starts as a neutral grain or potato spirit and is then infused with caraway and other spices such as dill, fennel, and coriander. Conveniently, it's currently gaining traction with US craft distillers, such as the local CH Distillery

I wanted to approach aquavit from a bitter angle to embrace its earthiness, so I chose to pair it with Breckenridge Bitter. You've probably heard of Breckenridge Distillery's whiskey or spiced rum, but their bitter liqueur is just starting to spread through the US. I was lucky to pick up a bottle when visiting the distillery over a ski trip and tasting their gamut of offerings. Composed of alpine herbs, bitter roots and spicy dried fruit, Breckenridge Bitter is strong in flavor yet approachable. It starts sweet on the palette and builds to a bold herbaceous bitterness as you enjoy it. Breckenridge Bitter is not as citrus or mint forward as some the other bitter spirits I have featured, so it's a great option for adding depth without introducing an overly dominant flavor. That being said, I recommend starting out with small quantities of this liqueur in your cocktails (especially if you're just starting to explore bitter flavors). 

My next step was giving this cocktail a spring feel and softening the flavor profile for broader enjoyment. I decided to try incorporating muddled green grapes as I find them to have a wonderful, lightly tart and floral character. To further enhance the floral quality, I mixed up a chamomile simple syrup. The flavors blended beautifully as the grapes gave the cocktail freshness while the chamomile seemed a natural extension of the Breckenridge Bitter liqueur. I garnished the drink with fresh green grapes, sliced in half the long way for more visual interest and juicy color. The resulting cocktail can be likened to the feel of an earthy, aromatic spring day just after a heavy rainfall.

Bitter Bloom

  • 1.5 oz Aquavit
  • 0.5 oz Breckenridge Bitter
  • 0.5 oz chamomile syrup*
  • 10 green grapes

Muddle green grapes in a cocktail shaker, then add all other ingredients and shake with ice until chilled. Double strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube (using a fine mesh strainer helps remove the grape pulp for better cocktail consistency). Garnish with fresh grapes and enjoy while taking a deep breath of fresh spring air.

* To make chamomile syrup, add 1 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar to a small saucepan on medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves, then add 1 tbsp dried chamomile flowers (or 2 packets of chamomile tea). Allow to simmer for 5 minutes, then strain and allow to cool. Store excess in fridge for up to 3 weeks. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the glasses and tray. 

 

Parla Italiano

I'm thrilled to share this cocktail with you for several reasons:

  1. It features three distinctive and lively Italian spirits, and
  2. I finally figured out how to mix with Fernet.

Fernet Branca is an Italian amaro, or bitter spirit, dating back to the mid-1800s. Its vibrant blend of 27 various herbs, roots and plants lends it to often be enjoyed as a "digestif," or a drink enjoyed following a meal to ease digestion. Through some experimentation, I discovered that this was a tricky one to mix with for mass appeal due to its boldness of flavor. I found Fernet Branca to start on the fresher side, hinting at mint or eucalyptus, and to finish dry and bitter. Both the freshness and bitterness can easily overwhelm a drink if not used sparingly or with the right complements. 

I decided to try balancing the Fernet with fruit and tartness to mellow the bitterness while harnessing the herbal brightness. Conveniently, I had recently received two perfect spirits for the task - Malfy Italian Lemon Gin and Fabrizia Spirits Limoncello

Malfy Gin is an excellent first step for gin non-believers. It hits with lemon rather than juniper on both the nose and the palette and is surprisingly smooth even when enjoyed on the rocks. If (unlike me) you don't seek out gins that make you feel like you're drinking a forest, then I encourage you to give this one a shot!

I chose to further enhance the citrus tang of this drink with Fabrizia's delicious Limoncello. If you haven't yet tried a limoncello, it's a traditional Italian lemon liqueur made from soaking lemon peel in neutral spirit and then adding simple syrup. Most of the limoncello liqueurs I had tried to date were overly sugary to the point of being undrinkable, but I truly can't get enough of this one. I love that it's true to the lemon taste and aroma with a balanced sweetness and an almost creamy finish. It's clear that this limoncello is made with huge attention to detail and generous fruit content - I really can't recommend it enough.

When I think of my travels to Italy, I immediately picture the colorful cliffs and blissful beaches of Cinque Terre. I wanted this drink to channel those sights and the timeless, carefree feel of the quaint coastal towns. I added color and lightened the cocktail with cold brewed hibiscus tea. Hibiscus adds a deep, fuchsia hue and is pleasantly tart for a floral ingredient. Using hibiscus allowed me to bypass using any additional citrus, making this a a fairly easy and convenient drink to make in bulk for spring entertaining. 

I garnished the cocktail with fresh mint to highlight the freshness of the Fernet and a lemon twist for an extra pop of color and uplifting citrus scent. The resulting cocktail is zesty, fresh and incredibly drinkable for all palettes! 

Parla Italiano

  • 1.5 oz Malfy Gin
  • 0.75 oz Fabrizia Limoncello
  • 0.5 oz Fernet Branca
  • 2 oz cold-brewed hibiscus tea*

Shake all ingredients with ice to chill, then strain into a sturdy, wide-mouthed wine glass over ice. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint and a lemon twist. Enjoy outdoors with a wood-fired pizza and a view of the Mediterranean Sea. 

*To make cold-brewed hibiscus tea, steep 2 tbsp of dried hibiscus flowers per 8 oz of water for about 45 minutes, shaking occasionally. Strain and store excess in the fridge. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the glasses. The blue lacquered tray is from CB2