Dusk to Dawn

With more hours of sunshine, buds appearing on trees, and my first seed garden happily sprouting on the windowsill, I’m in full spring mode and planning for patio entertaining. Springtime encourages me to transition from the richness of whiskey cocktails to the lightness of gin cocktails, but I crafted this cocktail with a barrel-aged gin to make that transition smoother. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, barrel-aged gin is an excellent option for guests who are weary of the juniper and other herbal notes of traditional gins. Aged gins tend to carry the richer oaky mouthfeel of whiskey with a smoother layer of herbal flavor.

KOVAL barrel-aged gin is one of my favorites, in part due to the flavor profile and in part due to the gorgeous bottle design (pro tip: keep the bottle once it’s empty and add a pour spout to use for storing olive oil on your kitchen counter).

Choosing a more rounded gin allowed me to add different herbal notes with one of my favorite new liqueur additions to the home bar: Italicus. This liqueur is technically an Italian aperitivo but it’s not bitter as you would expect. On the contrary, this liqueur is citrus and floral forward and incredibly bright. It’s primarily built with bergamot and another Italian citrus variety with the addition of chamomile, lavender, gentian, rose and melissa balm.

To continue along the path of juicy, fruit-forward flavors, I added muddled Champagne grapes to the mix. This grape variety is small, sweet, and crisp with just a hint of tartness. They’re wonderful muddled and double as a beautiful edible garnish for this cocktail. If you can’t find Champagne grapes in a store near you I’d recommend using ripe green grapes instead.

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I finished this drink off with a touch of lemon juice to balance the sweetness of the fruit and liqueur and a splash of club soda for bubbles.

The resulting cocktail is bursting with citrus, ripe fruit, and herbal notes yet is incredibly smooth and refreshing.

Dusk to Dawn

  • 1.5 oz barrel-aged gin

  • 0.5 oz Italicus liqueur

  • 1 palm-sized step of champagne grapes (with another step for garnishing)

  • 0.25 oz fresh lemon juice

  • Club soda, to top

Muddle grapes in a shaker until all juice has been released, then add ice and all ingredients other than the club soda. Shake until chilled and strain into a stemmed glass. Top with club soda as desired and garnish with additional grapes. Enjoy on the patio in the warm, tranquil dusk of springtime.

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

A Long-Awaited Spring

Living in the Midwest, you get used to unexpected seasonal patterns. Some years, we get graced with a beautiful spring but usually it's a bit of a climate roller coaster. Don't get me wrong, I love seasons. It's the change and uncertainty that make us Chicagoans appreciate nice weather when it happens and to fully take advantage of it. After six months of winter and several April snow showers, I was thrilled to see crisp green buds appearing on trees and fragrant flowers popping out of the ground. Even with some unavoidable variation in temperatures, we've been spending every evening dining on the rooftop and delighting in the sunset displays. For me, springtime evokes a transition from anticipation to wonder as life and color return to the outside world.

I wanted to capture the coming of spring in a brunch-friendly cocktail just in time for Mother's Day. My goal was to create something delicate, fragrant and wonderfully smooth. I had recently gotten my hands on some St. George California Citrus Vodka and let its crisp floral flavors inspire my brainstorming process. Gravitating typically to gin or whiskey, I hadn't previously found a vodka to write home about. I typically approached vodka as an ingredient to disappear and allow the other components of the cocktail to shine. This vodka, however, is so ridiculously delicious that it can easily be enjoyed neat at room temperature. Built on a foundation of Barlett pears with no additives, the vodka is then infused with Valencia orange, Seville orange, and bergamot peels. The resulting spirit shines with bright citrus and herbal notes with an almost sweet juicy finish. 

I thought the vodka would pair nicely with a jammy flavor so I incorporated some cold-brewed hibiscus tea. Hibiscus has a stunning natural hue and a vibrant tartness that I thought would enhance, rather than overpower, the vodka's citrus notes. Then I decided to get a little weird and try out an ingredient that has always mystified me in cocktails: yogurt. Though it sounds bizarre, Greek yogurt in particular can add to a cocktail's tartness while also imparting a creamy texture. I promise that it doesn't taste like eating a spoonful of plain yogurt - you just need to be smart about the other ingredients you mix it with. I chose to work in a wildflower honey syrup to take the bite our of the yogurt and blend it in as a more complimentary rather than center-stage component. The honey worked beautifully to tie everything together and balance out the tartness of the hibiscus and Greek yogurt. 

I finished the drink with some stunning edible flowers I spotted at Whole Foods. I have been hunting for these in stores for some time and haven't yet had the chance to plant them in my own garden. Whole Foods packages up a variety in the refrigerated herbs section - just be sure to get them shortly before you plan to use them as they do spoil quickly. I love how the flowers enhance the vibrant character of this cocktail and create an extra special treat for whoever you choose to share it with. The resulting cocktail is lightly tangy with notes of citrus and jam rounded with a creamy sweet smoothness. It's delicious at any time of day, but I think it would be especially wonderful with brunch.

A Long-Awaited Spring

  • 1.5 oz St. George California Citrus vodka
  • 1 oz cold-brewed hibiscus tea*
  • 0.5 oz wildflower honey syrup**
  • 1 tbsp plain Greek yogurt
  • Edible flowers, for garnish

Add all ingredients other than flowers to a shaker with ice and shake vigorously until chilled and frothy. Strain into a Nick and Nora or other stemmed glass and garnish with 1-2 edible flowers. Enjoy outdoors to complement the delicious brunch you prepared for your mother.

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.

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

 

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

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.