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. 

MBA_7737.jpg

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.

MBA_7753.jpg
MBA_7764.jpg

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. 

MBA_7798.jpg

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

MBA_7849.jpg
MBA_7971landscape.jpg

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.

MBA_8068.jpg

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.

DSC_0342landscape.jpg

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

DSC_0356landscape.jpg
DSC_0363landscape.jpg

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. 

DSC_0391landscape.jpg

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.

DSC_0395landscape.jpg

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.

DSC_0397landscape.jpg

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.

MBA_1293.jpg

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).

MBA_1299.jpg

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.

MBA_1390.jpg

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.

MBA_1450.jpg
MBA_1458.jpg

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. 

MBA_1464.jpg

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.

MBA_1516.jpg

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.

MBA_4287.jpg

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.
MBA_4307.jpg
MBA_4323.jpg

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.

MBA_4340.jpg

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. 

MBA_4444.jpg

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.

MBA_4418.jpg

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! 

MBA_4133.jpg

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.

MBA_4138.jpg

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).

MBA_4165.jpg

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. 

MBA_4263.jpg

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.

MBA_4284.jpg

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.

MBA_8038.jpg

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.  

MBA_8040.jpg

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. 

MBA_8098.jpg
MBA_8116.jpg

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.

MBA_8045.jpg

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. 

MBA_8131.jpg

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.  

MBA_8201.jpg

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

 

Campfire Tale

Lovers of bitter flavors rejoice - this cocktail is the first (and most potent) in a three part series covering my exploration of bitter spirits! Not a fan of bitter cocktails? You're probably best off avoiding this one - but I have some more manageable options coming your way. My goal was to find a spectrum of bitterness that everyone could enjoy so the two recipes to follow this one will be less booze/bitter forward and lighter in flavor profile. 

I was inspired to create this cocktail after a trip to Fonda Frontera in Wicker Park. They offered a modern take on the classic Vieux Carré cocktail with Añejo tequila replacing the cognac. I loved the smoky, bitter feeling of the drink and wanted to give it a try with the ingredients I had on hand in my home bar. 

I'm not much of a tequila drinker but I tend to love all forms of aged spirits for the richer, woodier taste they take on through barrel aging. Añejo tequila is aged in small oak barrels from 1 to 3 years and features an amber color and pleasantly smoky flavor and aroma. I recently received a bottle from Grand Centenario, and it's hands down the best tequila I've ever tried in terms of flavor and mouthfeel. 

I used Koval Distillery Rye but Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye could be an alternative if you're looking to limit your costs. For the bitter element, I chose St. George Bruto Americano. I first discovered this delightful spirit when looking for a natural alternative to Campari (which uses red food coloring). I had a lot of faith in the St. George brand for their diverse line of gins and Spiced Pear Liqueur. Their take on an aperitivo liqueur certainly left an impression. The Bruto really packs a punch and can be used sparingly to add citrusy, woody and bitter complexity. 

I finished the drink off with a few dashes of orange bitters and an orange-peel wrapped Amarena cherry garnish to emphasize the citrus in the Bruto. The resulting cocktail is wonderfully deep in wood and smoke flavors yet surprisingly smooth given that it's 100% alcohol!

Campfire Tale

  • 1 oz Añejo tequila
  • .75 oz Rye whiskey
  • 0.5 oz St. George Bruto Americano
  • 3 drops orange bitters

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice to chill, then strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with an orange twist, cocktail cherry, or both and enjoy while sharing gripping tales around a campfire. 

Thanks to Belen Aquino for the stunning cocktail photography and to Gather Vintage Tablescapes for the tray and hollow stemmed coupes. 

Awaiting Spring

It may have been an absurdly mild Chicago winter and temperatures may still be oscillating but I have officially decided that spring is upon us. Is there a snowstorm in our future? Probably. Does that need to dampen my excitement for abundant sunshine and the return of color to the world? Not at all. 

I wanted to celebrate my heightened spring spirits with a refreshing and floral cocktail. My wonderful photographer and friend, Belen, offered up a bottle of Crop Organic Cucumber Vodka for the occasion. Generally, I stray away from flavored spirits because I find them overly sweetened, poorly flavored or simply limiting. A bottle of plain vodka can be used for a much wider array of recipes if you're not seeking to highlight a single infusion. However, successful flavored and infused spirits can save you effort and elevate the complexity of your cocktails. 

Crop's Cucumber Vodka impressed me with it's smoothness and accuracy of flavor. The cucumber element felt natural, fresh, and easy to work with. In the past, I've loved pairing cucumber and elderflower flavors. I decided to try something new with this cocktail but to stay in the floral realm for a fragrant spring feel. Conveniently, I have a ginormous jar of dried lavender flowers in my pantry. As a relevant side note, if you ever choose to work with lavender in home cooking or mixology, it's significantly cheaper to stock up on it in bulk. I picked up a pound on Amazon and haven't made a dent in it after over a year of semi-frequent use. 

I finished the cocktail off with some lemon for a hint of tartness and club soda for a lighter, more refreshing feel. If you're feeling adventurous with your garnish, you can fairly easily recreate this cucumber ribbon at home - all you need is a medium sized, preferably firm cucumber and a veggie peeler. Simply peel a few strips off the long edge of the cucumber to get to the flesh, then run the peeler carefully along the cucumber from end to end. You'll be left with a long ribbon that has peel on the outside and flesh on the inside. Form the ribbon into a squiggle shape with your hands, then run a cocktail spear through and adjust as needed. 

Awaiting Spring

  • 2 oz Crop Cucumber Vodka
  • 0.5 oz lavender syrup*
  • Juice of 1/2 small lemon
  • Club soda, to top
  • Fresh cucumber, for garnish

Mix vodka, lemon juice and lavender syrup in a shaker and shake with ice until chilled. Strain into a collins glass over ice, then top with club soda and garnish with a cucumber ribbon or slice. Enjoy repeatedly until spring finally arrives. 

To make in bulk for an event, mix an entire 750 ml chilled bottle of Crop Cucumber Vodka, 1 cup of lavender syrup and juice of 7 small lemons in a large pitcher or punch bowl (you can add fresh cucumber slices for presentation). Top with chilled club soda and serve over ice. 

*To make lavender 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 lavender flowers. 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.

Cara Cara Orange Marjoram Mimosa

If you're still under the impression that there is only one type of orange, you've been seriously missing out (or masterfully avoiding grocery shopping trips since childhood). Especially at this time of the year, produce aisles are overflowing with a variety of citrus - lemons, limes, grapefruit, oranges and many combinations thereof. This gives you the perfect excuse to slow down on the weekend and enjoy breakfast in bed with a fresh and exotic mimosa. 

I chose to feature Cara Cara oranges for their sweeter, less acidic, and more complex taste. While they're practically identical to ordinary navel oranges from the outside (I recommend keeping them inside a separate bag in the fridge so you don't mix them up), they've got a rosier hue on the inside and a flavor reminiscent of red fruit. They're also seedless and therefore easier to use as different forms of garnish. 

Is using fresh citrus in a mimosa worth the extra effort? 

Yes, yes, and again, yes.

Not only does fresh-squeezed juice have more flavor, but the aromatic experience of working with fresh citrus will pleasantly invigorate your senses. You can also set aside a few slices to snack on with breakfast or to adorn glasses if you're making these mimosas for a gathering. If you're truly concerned about the time involved, make a jar of fresh-squeezed juice in advance and refrigerate overnight.

I wanted to add an herbal twist to this mimosa for more complexity so I challenged myself to experiment with an herb that was new to me: marjoram. Hailing from the same family as oregano, marjoram is a tad sweeter, with flavors of citrus and pine. It's been said to help calm anxiety and boost immunity, making it a perfect ingredient to incorporate during cold season. I find that I get the most flavor from herbs by making them into a simple syrup and adding a fresh sprig as garnish to complement taste with scent. 

For the bubbly, I chose to feature La Marca Prosecco because I wanted something crisp and fresh to work with the orange and herb flavors. I appreciate that this Prosecco is such a great quality for the price point and easy to find at most stores. The resulting mimosa is lightly tart, blissfully scented and pleasantly effervescent for enjoyment at any time of day. 

Cara Cara Orange Marjoram Mimosa

  • Juice of 1 Cara Cara orange
  • 0.5 oz marjoram syrup*
  • Chilled Prosecco, to top

Add fresh squeezed Cara Cara orange juice and marjoram syrup to a champagne flute and stir to combine. Top with chilled Prosecco and garnish with fresh orange and a spring of marjoram. Enjoy while appreciating a slow and relaxing weekend morning. 

* To make syrup, dissolve 1/2 cup sugar in 2 cups water in a small saucepan, then add bunch of fresh marjoram. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, or until your desired flavor has been achieved, 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 tray and vintage cups and saucers. Champagne flutes are from Crate&Barrel

A Modern Bouquet

Let's face it, roses, teddy bears, and the standard Hallmark festivities have gotten a bit too routine. This Valentine's Day, I encourage you to challenge tradition and present your sweetheart, best bud or gal pals with an unforgettably delicious cocktail. I guarantee that they'll be pleasantly surprised by the complex flavors and thoughtful presentation. Who knows, maybe this show of affection will pave the way of celebratory signature cocktails as your new tradition!

The inspiration for this cocktail grew out of a collaboration with KOVAL and West Elm. In selecting the glassware and serving essentials, I was looking for items that channeled vintage vibes with a modern air. I wanted to re-imagine the Valentine's Day color palette to appeal to a broader audience. In other words, I believe that the color pink can be enjoyed by everyone if executed with taste (and paired with gin). 

From the perspective of the cocktail itself, I was aiming for a rose hue, an elaborate garnish, and a flavor profile to please whiskey and gin drinkers alike. KOVAL's Barreled Gin built the foundation with it's oaky depth and balanced herbal notes. I've always loved the combination of gin and grapefruit, so I added fresh squeezed red grapefruit juice and supplemented with fresh blueberries to accomplish the rose color I was looking for.

I used a homemade honey cardamom syrup for sweetness to play up the touch of spice in the barreled gin and finished the cocktail off with cherry bark vanilla bitters to impart an almost creamy lingering smoothness. For garnish, I peeled several strips of fresh grapefruit skin, cut one of the long sides of each peel, then wrapped them in a spiral that I pierced with a cocktail pick. Note that it's best to pierce the spirals closer to the top so they don't keep flipping upside down. 

The resulting cocktail is a sensory experience of stunning natural color and well-rounded yet subtly unique taste. 

A Modern Bouquet

  • 1.5 oz KOVAL Barreled Gin
  • 2 oz fresh red grapefruit juice
  • 0.5 oz honey cardamom syrup
  • 1 oz blueberries
  • 5 drops cherry bark vanilla bitters

To make syrup, heat 1 cup honey, 1 cup water and 2 tbsp cardamom seeds in a small saucepan on low heat. Stir until honey dissolves and mixture has taken on the cardamom flavor (about 15 minutes).

To make cocktail, muddle blueberries in a cocktail shaker, then add ice and other ingredients. Shake until chilled and double strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a grapefruit peel rose. 

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

Vintage Daydream

Chances are, you have a strong feeling about anise and therefore about absinthe. Either it's a spirit you swear by to bring an edge to your cocktails and pay homage to classic recipes, or you avoid it at all costs. I used to be part of the latter group but I tend to view flavor dislikes as an exciting challenge. In my opinion, it's far more rewarding to make a cocktail you love with an ingredient you're weary of than with an ingredient you invariably enjoy. 

I had only experimented with absinthe once in the past, and it was somewhat of a rocky start. I didn't think twice about starting out with a 0.5 oz pour of the absinthe in a gin-based cocktail and then spent over an hour trying to keep it from overpowering all the other flavors. On my second try, I approached more cautiously. Chicago Distilling Company graciously shared a beautiful bottle of their Lanfray's Trigger Green Absinthe (available locally) and I wanted to highlight its character in a drink with broad appeal. I had recently acquired a bar spoon and decided this would be the perfect occasion to try it as a unit of measurement. It's far easier to add more of an ingredient than to have to correct for an overly zealous pour.

To complement the abinthe's herbal character, I used Chicago Distilling's Finn's Gin. Finn's is a more modern take on gin and therefore a pleasure to mix with - think less juniper and more other exciting botanicals such as green cardamom, Szechuan peppercorn and hibiscus. If you need any more reason to give it a try, Finn's keeps it local by using entirely Illinois grain. 

I wanted the herbal quality of this cocktail to be appreciable yet smoothed over for broader appeal. Egg white foam balanced out the bite from the gin and absinthe while blood orange added a bright freshness and honey contributed a pleasant hint of sweetness. I added just a bit of lemon to maintain some tartness as blood orange is much sweeter than your typical citrus fruit. The resulting drink is creamy, dreamy and reminiscent of the classics with a modern twist.

If you have some time on your hands and want to experiment with adventurous garnish, I recommend trying your hand at dehydrated citrus slices. They'll last in an air-tight container in the fridge long after your favorite citrus fruit goes out of season. Plus, though dehydrated citrus is a tad time intensive to make, the process itself is quite easy. Simply cut up the citrus (I used blood oranges for this cocktail) into 1/4" slices, place on a cooling rack layered on top of an aluminum baking sheet and place in the oven on 180 degrees Fahrenheit for about 6 hours, flipping the citrus slices halfway through the baking time. 

The Vintage Daydream

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1 bar spoon absinthe
  • 0.5 oz honey syrup
  • Juice of 1/2 blood orange
  • Juice of 1/4 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 dehydrated blood orange slice. Enjoy while lounging on a velvet settee and getting lost in some vintage tunes.

*To make honey syrup, heat a half cup of honey and a half cup of water in a small pot at low heat. Stir frequently until honey dissolves to avoid boiling. Allow to cool and 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 tray and lovely vintage coupes.