Category Archives: beverages

Jake Melnick’s kicks a** on Chicago’s BBQ scene

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You know how sometimes when you walk in a place – air-conditioned and comfortable-like – on a hot day, you feel so grateful you decide to set a spell. That’s how it feels to walk into Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap, 41 E. Superior. Don’t let the address fool you. It’s a quick and easy walk from Michigan Ave., sitting nearly katty-corner to  The Peninsula Hotel.
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Helpful classifications on Jake's beer menu
Helpful classifications on Jake’s beer menu

The lighting is a mixture of behind-the-bar, overhead (subtle) and twinkle lights; the effect is warm and cozy – even the tiny lights lining the panels of the dark wood ceiling are a warm orange-y shade. The music is upbeat, and the mood is laid-back party. With a big selection of beers, craft and otherwise, plus a selected list of decent wines and a full bar, you can get anything you want to slake your thirst and/or complement your food. Remember, the keynotes here are ‘barbeque’ and ‘fried.’

Jake's Street fries accompaniments - practically a full meal
Jake’s Street fries accompaniments – practically a full meal

Jake’s signature Street Fries are amazing. Served with half a dozen condiments, from creamy, rich cheese sauce, sriracha and jalapeños to pulled pork, delicious chunky guacamole and chopped cilantro, they’re skin-on, just-crispy-enough French fries. You can get them with everything dumped on top or with everything on the side so you can customize your taste experience. The cilantro and guac combo is excellent – even sans fries. Dip some fries in the cheese sauce and top with fresh chopped jalapeño – scrumptious.

The pickles tend to slide out of the breading, but the flavor is great
The pickles tend to slide out of the breading, but the flavor is great

The deep-fried pickles are cut in long, thin whole-pickle slices rather than chips or spears so you get plenty of the delicious breading in every salty, savory bite – which you can further enhance by dipping in a little tub of Ranch dressing. The hand-cut BBQ potato chips are crunchy and gently-BBQ-seasoned. Topped with a sprinkle of blue cheese and chopped scallions and served with a light blue cheese dressing, these were the only items that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Jake's French fries - skin-on and crispy
Jake’s French fries – skin-on and crispy

Order the pulled pork sliders, served with a huge pile of French fries, so you can have the chance to try all three of Jake’s signature sauces – Carolina (vinegar-based), Georgia (mustardy and delicious) and traditional BBQ flavors – one on each of three mini egg buns full of sweet, juicy pulled pork that’s smoked right on the premises. They smoke all their meats here – brisket, chicken, ribs and more.

Jake Melnick’s has been servin’ up good BBQ in Chicago for 15 years now. Even as I write I’m still dipping fries in the cheese sauce and scarfing up the rest of the jalapeños. Great place to hang with a group of friends or bring the family. With a choice of so many signature sauces for almost everything, ketchup on the fries seems like overkill – but at Jake’s, you make the call.
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Monthly specials at Jake Melnick's
Monthly specials at Jake Melnick’s

And don’t forget the wings, burgers and sides – and the monthly specials. August specials are: 1) Jake’s jumbo crispy Charred Orange Bourbon Maple chicken wings served with rosemary Ranch dressing $13.95, 2) Burger al Pastor (pork marinated with red choke paste, fresh herbs & citrus, grilled and topped with roasted Serrano aioli, grilled pineapple, onions & shredded lettuce, served with fries) $15.95, 3) Mac Daddy Mac n Cheese Pizza Mac (crispy pizza dough with house-made pizza sauce, Jake’s creamy Mac, cheddar cheese, local Makowski hot link & green onion) $11.95; and 4) Jake the Ripper Makowski hot link wrapped in bacon, served on a sausage roll & topped with grilled onions, fresh pico de gallo & chipotle-lime cream) $12.95.

Be advised, come hungry and leave your diet behind. And if you want a little more nutrition, they’ve got salads. And brick oven pizzas.
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And, oh, yeah. sweet potato fries.
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Bulletin…this just in. In case you have room for dessert – or that’s really what you want anyway – they’ve got some kick-a** items in that category, too:
  • Fried Oreos. The classic cookie, pancake battered and fried, then served over vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. – $6.95
  • Warm Apple Pie Skillet. Fresh-baked old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream. – $6.95
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Skillet Sundae – a giant warm chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream, warm fudge and whipped cream. – $6.95
  • NEW! Jake’s Carnival Fries:house-made funnel cake strings tossed in powdered sugar, topped with vanilla ice cream, strawberries and caramel sauce with whipped cream and sprinkles. $7.95
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T&B Grill – taco/burger ambrosia in Albany Park

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Don’t drive or walk too fast down the 3600 block of Lawrence Ave. or you may miss the opportunity to enjoy some exceptional food in an unlikely location in Albany Park. T&B Grill, 3658 W. Lawrence, is a delight – but shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s getting nearly 5-star overall ratings on Facebook and Yelp.

Ambrosio Mancines, Chef/Proprietor, brings his passion for good food together with his experiences in the culinary world and his desire to be of service to hungry and discerning customers. All of this comes out in the form of a unique menu that features very tasty tacos, burgers, fries, appetizers, and desserts. Who would think: Tiramisu on the menu with shrimp tacos? Who would imagine a bison burger with truffle fries and a chocolate soufflé for dessert ? How about tortillas handmade with cilantro and jalapeño? Think house-made ketchup with a touch of chipotle, and sweet potato fries with a crisp-crunchy touch of sugar on the outside. Nearly everything here is made from scratch and obviously with tons of love. And the mixing of the cuisines is intentional – Bon Appetit looks for just such originality in its “best new restaurant” category. We believe T&B belongs there this year!

Value for your dollar is exceptional at T&B. The menu offers mini burgers – variously topped with anything from bacon or cheese to caramelized onions and/or a small fried egg – that can be had with fries for a mere $5. The colorful and flavorful tacos – generously filled with duck, shrimp, steak, grilled veggies and so on – are on the menu at $3.50. This kind of pricing is hard to beat anywhere in Chicago – except maybe at an occasional happy hour – and it’s even more amazing when you realize the food is of such high quality.

We tried several of the burger types and loved them, except for the black bean burger which seemed to have too much flour in the mix. Otherwise, all versions were very good, cooked to order, and served on delicious buns. In fact we, who are normally in the habit of taking half the bun off our burgers, didn’t want to do it here. Just too good.

While you eat and drink – BYOB whatever you like, or even choose to mix with any of several house-made cocktail mixes – enjoy the unique and original artwork adorning the walls. In fact, Ambrosio recently engaged a local artist, Manuel “MATR” Macias, to paint a giant mural on the outside wall of the restaurant on the Lawndale Ave. side. Coming soon, it will make it nice calling card for vehicle and pedestrian traffic coming from the west side.

The French fries are hand cut, skin-on and cooked with just enough crispiness on the edges. The variety of choices – four appetizers, seven types of burgers, seven types of tacos,  four types of french fries and four different desserts plus seasonal ice cream – gives you a sense that you can have something new every visit. Visit here for more information on T&B Grill and LOTS of gorgeous professional photos of the food.
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And make no mistake. You will want to come back. This place is worth the trip, even if you don’t live in the area. We were impressed with the value and love that it’s also BYOB. Congratulations, Ambrosio and manager Omar Contreros. Great job. Have already put the word out to friends and neighbors. We can’t wait to come back.
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Happy belated National Scotch Day!

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Even though National Scotch Day was July 27, it’s never too late to share news about this legendary drink. Whether you’re a Scotch devotee or an occasional imbiber, pretend today is National Scotch Day and read on.
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Spirit of Place book coverWe received a beautiful book a while ago about Scotland’s distilleries. Called Spirit of Place, it was written by Charles MacLean with gorgeous photos by Lara Platman and Allan MacDonald. This coffee-table-worthy book tells stories of the many dedicated professionals who spend their lives producing unique expressions of this venerable drink. My daughter backpacked through Europe and Africa some years ago, and she said Scotland was the most beautiful country in all her travels. If you love Scotch whisky and you can’t visit there yourself, this book will bring you to the people and the places of 50 of Scotland’s great distilleries in a way that only beautiful pictures and heartfelt words can. $35.55 on Amazon.
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For some, Scotch is an acquired taste; the heavy peat-and-smoke flavors of some expressions can put newbies off. Even some Scotch aficionados like a less-smoky spirit. But either way, you can look forward to refining your own taste buds as you try out the many, many types of Scotch available.
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Old Pulteney 12 year old
Old Pulteney 12 year old

We were pleased to receive recently a review sample of Old Pulteney 12 Year Old Scotch Whisky. This brand is matured in hand-selected American ex­‐bourbon casks. Over the years, the casks gently absorb the northern sea breeze, giving the whisky its smooth, complex flavors and coastal characteristics. The combination of the exposed maritime environment and traditional distillation methods create a malt described by a leading whisky writer as ‘unashamedly excellent.’ (SRP, $45)

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We liked the different categories they suggest to characterize each whisky. For example, the above Old Pulteney 12-year-old is shown as (rookie, traditional, sailor, honey). Many of the terms were derived from the heritage of each brand. For example, the maritime heritage is at the heart of Old Pulteney whiskies and they’ve long embraced the sea as a source of inspiration. The brand is actively committed to celebrating the achievements of maritime communities and individuals who share their passion for the ocean. See several other impressive Scotches described below:
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Speyburn 10 year old
Speyburn 10 year old

Speyburn 10YO (rookie, traditional, golfer, honey)
Speyburn 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (SRP, $30) offers a classic Speyside experience with its medium-bodied, delicate and fruity character with a long, smooth finish. Always a favorite, it’s no surprise that the Speyburn 10 was awarded a gold medal in The Scotch Whisky Masters competition from The Spirits Business in 2016. Consistent quality and outstanding reviews (like the 93 points Wine Enthusiast awarded the selection) make this a go-to selection for next National Scotch Day and every day.

Speyburn Arranta
Speyburn Arranta

Speyburn Arranta Casks (rookie, traditional, hunter, spicy)
The limited release Speyburn Arranta Casks (SRP, $40) is a 2016 International Spirits Challenge Gold Medal winner.  Wine Enthusiast chose Arranta Casks as one of their Top 100 Spirits of 2015 awarding the selection 93 points and a “Best Buy” designation. Arranta (meaning “bold”, “daring” and “intrepid” in Scottish Gaelic) is unique for its exclusive use of first fill American Oak ex-bourbon casks and draws its rich color and full-bodied, bold flavor from the quality and character of the air-dried wood.

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Old Pulteney Navigator (rookie, bold, sailor)
Old Pulteney Navigator was created to celebrate the sailing community and commemorate the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Only 3,000 bottles are available in the United States of this one-time release. Aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, Navigator delivers a rich, balanced flavor showcasing the nuances of the distillery character. The 46% ABV allows the salty, citrus notes to shine through. (SRP, $55)

Stroma Liqueur
Stroma Liqueur

Stroma Liqueur (rookie, bold, sailor, spicy)
Stroma Liqueur is a careful blend of malt whiskies from Old Pulteney’s multi-award winning portfolio. Bottled at 35% ABV, its smooth, sweet taste has robust and rugged undertones and a warm and comforting finish. Every aspect of Old Pulteney’s latest release is designed to embody the intrigue, craft and history of the brand’s seafaring roots. Stroma’s unique bottle features an embossed image of crashing waves and it is packaged in striking black and gold – with a foil neck tag, which includes the brand’s story and tasting notes. (SRP, $34.99)

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Balblair
Balblair

Balblair 2005 (aficionado, indulgent, collector, citrus)
Only a handful of American oak, ex-bourbon casks laid down in 2005 were selected by Distillery Manager John MacDonald to form this classic Balblair expression. Light, fruity and refereshing, this classic Vntage embodies Balblair’s house style. (SRP, $65)

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anCnoc 12YO (rookie, bold, design lover, honey)
The anCnoc 12 Year Old is renowned the world over. Known as a must-have in any whisky drinker’s collection, it’s light and yet complex. Smooth yet challenging. And each twist and turn delivers a surprise. Sweet to start with an appetizing fruitiness and a long smooth finish. Light yet complex, smooth yet challenging. This is a dram that has something for everyone. (SRP, $50)
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Patio pleasures at Trattoria Gianni

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Trattoria Gianni's charming enclosed patio
Trattoria Gianni’s charming enclosed patio
Sitting on a block of Halsted in Lincoln Park that’s also home to high-flying successes like Alinea and Boka can be a challenge for any restaurant. Trattoria Gianni, 1711 N. Halsted, takes it on as a comfortable Italian oasis that has the distinct summer advantage of a large, enclosed, charmingly decorated patio.
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On a recent press visit we sampled some of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Rice balls that were tender inside and deep-fried just enough to give a hint of crunch on the outside. Meatballs made with pork and veal. Pasta veggie primavera. Italian-dressed romaine and tomato salad with Italian bread. Italian food, filling and plentiful.

Prices are reasonable, and this is an ideal place to come before or after the theater – Steppenwolf Theatre is across the street down the block. Be forewarned that the air conditioning works much better in the front section of the restaurant; the hot day we were there it was uncomfortably warm in the back section. But if it’s a nice day, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the patio. This patio is beside the restaurant – not stuck out on the sidewalk as so many are these days – and runs the length of the building, so it’s roomy. A glass door opening to the patio allows servers a clear view of tables and easy access to patrons. Sadly, it was raining the day we visited so we didn’t get to experience it personally, but I can picture us enjoying some wine or a summer cocktail among the flowers and the twinkling lights.

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Moscato d’Asti will open your eyes

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Surprise: Moscato d’Asti from Italy’s Piedmont region is worlds away from what “moscato” meant to most American 20 years ago – which was generally an over-sweet wine without the balance of appropriate acidity. Just plain cloying to drink.
There are versions of Moscato being made in Sicily and other parts of Italy, but the magic of Moscato d’Asti comes from the strict regulations of the DOCG designation. No extra sugar can be added, for example. And fermentation must be natural, not from injected gas. Because standards are so strict, every year is declared a vintage.
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Today 4000 companies in Piedmont grow grapes on 27,000 acres of mostly hillsides to create the light, low-alcohol, floral white naturally sweet wine with a touch of bubbles. The natural fermentation sets it apart from the simplicity of Prosecco, which bears no comparison to the complexity of this Moscato d’Asti. Some say this Moscato has similarities to complex yet lightly sweet German wines like Riesling and Gewurtztraminer.
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Generally considered a fresh wine, you won’t find many older vintages of Moscato d’Asti. Though you might find a bottle here and there that has stood the test of time for a few years, up to 5 or so. Part of the reason for the freshness is that producers don’t bottle the wine until it’s been ordered. They actually use fine-tuned technology to maintain the fresh, non-alcoholic juice at 2 degrees below zero Celsius until it’s time to bottle. Once an order is placed,  winemakers gradually raise the temperature of the juice until fermentation sets in, then watch it carefully until the perlage – bubbles – are just right for the maker’s vision.
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Climate change is affecting how the Piedmont Moscato winemakers do their work. They are having to pick earlier and anticipate in the near future having to grow their grapes almost exclusively on the hillsides where it’s cooler than in the valley, has more light and cooler nights.
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Most of these winemakers suggest enjoying their wines as apertif or even as a midday refreshment. Remember the study that said office workers who consumed a glass of wine at lunch tended to perform better, come up with more creative solutions, and generally be in better moods? It’s true, people. Come on, live a little!
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Here are a few wines that struck a chord at this event:
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Saracco Moscato d’Asti DOP 2016. Surprisingly delicate, complex and slightly fizzy rather than bubbly. Fun to drink with dessert or alone, as a pleasant mid-day break. Remember – delicate bubbles, low alcohol (generally only 5%) and extremely aromatic. A treat.
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Coppo Moncalvino Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Moscato represents one of the most important indigenous grapes to the Piedmont region. And Moscato d’Asti has higher acidity – to balance the natural sweetness – than almost any other sweet wine, which keeps the flavors interesting and complex. This particular wine is fresh and aromatic with floral notes and peach and pear overtones.
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Marenco Vini Scrapona Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. This wine has a heady combination of aromas – almost reminiscent of musk oil – that translate into a deliciously rich flavor. The winemaker said, “We are all about preserving the distinctive aromas of the Moscato grape.” One part of achieving that goal is to allow no irrigation; the wines are made with whatever moisture nature provides. This particular wine is substantial enough to pair well with a wide variety of foods: from tempura and spicy foods, to light cheeses, to desserts and fruits of multiple varieties.
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Vignaioli di Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. A bouquet of elder flowers, lime and peach. A little sweeter than the others with a delicate rather than a bold aroma. Suggestions to pair: sweets, cakes and ice creams plus some cheese or fruits like figs or melons.
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La Caudrina Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Aromatic with a delicate flower scent, sweet yet lightly acidic. Perfect for dessert, with dry bakery such as Panettone (a fruity bread) or Easter Coloma. Refreshing anytime as a low-alcohol option. Only 5% alcohol. Lively and pleasant.
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Food news you can use

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 One of our favorite things to do is to taste-test new and interesting food products for this blog. We were recently invited to try out products from Just Spices,  Peter & Pat’s Pierogies and molly&drew®. Now we’ve got a couple of new ideas for cooking at home and for gifts for other cooks. Below are some thoughts.
  1. Just Spices is a German company that makes a series of flavorful seasoning powders, some spicy, some sweeter (like the new berry flavoring for yogurt) that are USDA organic and “sourced with love.”
     The one for barbecue popcorn is a surprise – it gives your evening popcorn a barbecue flavor that doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks, like many BBQ seasonings do. Especially if you pop your popcorn in coconut oil – so delicious – you don’t want to overwhelm it with spice. This BBQ seasoning is delicate yet definite enough to make your mouth pay attention.

     The Just Spices Mexican seasoning is transformative. Now an avocado-studded taco salad – minus the beans and the meat – can be pretty delicious with just romaine, cilantro, red onion and salsa, topped with thickened 2% Greek yogurt (lower fat and calories than sour cream) and lots of fresh lime juice. Add a few drops of Habanero sauce and you’re good to go. But then, if you add a quarter teaspoon of the Just Spices Mexican seasoning, that same dish puts you on the sun-soaked hacienda of an elegant Mexican resort. And you immediately want to order a margarita with your salad. Even if it’s 8:30 AM. We also added it to our turkey meatballs and to the tomatoes we cooked ’em in and really enjoyed the whole thing.
     Go try some of these. They just introduced 20 new flavors, too. You won’t go wrong buying one of their boxed sets as a gift for a hostess or friend who enjoys cooking but isn’t fanatical about making their own seasoning. These provide a shortcut that any non-professional cook – and maybe some professionals, too – will appreciate. Each individual package is 100 milliliters and priced from $5.99 to $7.99. Available online only at www.justspices.com/

  2. Peter & Pat's Pierogies make an easy dinner entree
    Peter & Pat’s Pierogies make an easy dinner entree

    Peter & Pat Pierogies. And how about some low-fat, low-cholesteraol all-natural pierogies to back up – or be – your dinner entree? Peter & Pat love traditional Eastern European food so much they built it into a thriving catering business over the past 20 years. The most popular dish on their menu is the pierogies. In fact, theirs has become one of the top-selling pierogie brands in the United States. It’s been so successful they’ve now officially launched in Costco locations across the Midwest.
     We can personally vouch for the flavor and filling ability of the 4-cheese-and-potato version they sent to test – delicious mix of creamy mashed potatoes with Cheddar, farmers, Parmesan and Swiss cheeses. Yet only 240 calories for four pierogies – not bad for so much creamy, cheesy goodness. Frozen bags of 4 pounds – that’s a lotta pierogies (65 per bag – 12 servings) – for $9.99 at Costco.

  3. molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy
    molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy

    molly&drew® Single Serve Mug Cake Kits come in four flavors include, Ooey Gooey Chocolate, Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel, Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake, and Chocolate Candy Cane. Just add water, microwave for 90 seconds and ditch the need to mess up the kitchen. Fast, easy dessert for one or two. Top with whipped cream to make it more decadent.
    molly&drew® also craft their own beer breads and beer cakes that let you blend your favorite beer into ready-to-go mixes. Try the beer bread for appetizers, main dishes, sides and desserts. There’s a cake mix, too, which we sampled – fun to make a cake with beer. We did, however, find the sizable dose of almond extract in the Amore Amoretto flavor somewhat overpowering. We left the cakes sit out for a day and the almond flavor diminished a bit. Still, what a fun – and EASY – idea for sharing with family and friends for brunches, barbeques, dinners, parties, sporting events and more.

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The Symington family of fine port wines

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Charles Symington in the vineyard
Charles Symington in the vineyard

Interestingly, port wines often do not state vintage years. Instead, when a wine is particularly good one year, it is “declared” a vintage after it’s been bottled. Because differences in weather are unpredictable every year, only great years can command a declaration. It is always an exercise in self-restraint for port winemakers to decide which years deserve to be declared.

Rupert Symington checking the grapes
Rupert Symington checking the grapes

Some of the biggest names in port from the Douro Valley are all owned by the Symington Family Estates. Cousins Rupert and Charles Symington came to Chicago recently to introduce their exciting 2015 vintages and showcase a few of their older premium offerings.

 They brought four of their renowned name brands and presented the 2015 vintage along with carefully selected  older vintages of the same brand. It was a fascinating horizontal and vertical tasting exercise that highlighted the differences between young port wines and mature. It very clearly showed how aging in the bottle changes and deepens the complexity and flavor in a fine ruby port.
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Cockburn's vintage port 2015 label
Cockburn’s vintage port 2015 label

Our favorite among all was the Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port, its bicentenary vintage. The Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s from the  company that had been operating it since the family sold it in the 1950s – to the detriment, they believed, of the fine brand. “We wanted to bring back the spirit of Cockburn’s,” said Rupert. So they organized a tasting of some of the very oldest Cockburn’s vintages – from 1912, 1920 and so on. They knew, then, what their goal would be to engineer the re-birth of the Cockburn excellence. Their 2015 has lush aromas and flavors of maraschino and black cherry that eventually turn into Kirsch-like flavors. Rupert described it as “tropical jungle.” The 2011 vintage port is a perfect example of this super-refined structure and power of the Cockburn port profile: dark, brooding, powerful.

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The Symingtons offered a couple of observations about grapes: Touriga Franca is like Merlot – softer, forgiving, aromatic. Cabernet is more like Touriga Nacional – dark and needs softening.
Port goes through three phases: 1) young, fresh and full of fruit flavor; 2) after 10 to 15 years the port starts to mature and begins to get that raisiny flavor; and 3) 20-30 years when the port loses some of its intense, deep color and becomes much more subtle as it approaches serious maturity.
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Vintage port is made with extraordinary grapes. Then they add a colorless brandy with a 20% level of alcohol. The brandy gradually gets absorbed into the port and basically disappears, and then the wines darken up. A simple fact: it takes 7 liters of wine to make one liter of brandy– which is how they do it in Spain.
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Graham’s Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2015 was lovely. Made from tiny grapes, it has been declared a vintage. Shows very concentrated fruit and a pure expression on the nose. Slight tropical notes, Only 345 cases made.
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Six Grapes is a Grahams brand of port that uses the same grapes as Dow’s port. When Dow’s declares a vintage, the next best barrels go into Six Grapes bottles. When there is no declaration, the best grapes of all go into the Six Grapes brand. You get the finest quality at a much lower price with Graham’s Six Grapes.
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Their Quinta do Vesuvio winery does not declare – it bottles. The wines are velvety and sweeter with lots of fruit aromas. Sweetness makes it smoother on the palate. All Vesuvio vintages are trodden by foot. producers are so consistently exceptional that they simply call it a vintage almost every year.
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Dow’s rounded out the selection of pairs – themselves very nice, slightly drier wines. Quinta del Senhora da Ribeira has had almost ideal climate for growing port grapes. All their wines are velvety. Floral tones from the Touriga Franca, resin and spicy flavors from the Nacional along with some tar and smoke
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Profile – Rémy Martin Cellar Master Loiseau

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Remy Martin Cellar Master Baptiste Loiseau
Remy Martin Cellar Master Baptiste Loiseau

The message is clear: Rémy Martin XO Cognac, savored slowly, yields oh-such-rich rewards. Baptiste Loiseau is young to be in charge of creating some of the finest Cognacs in the world. At 36 – tall, slender, handsome and impeccably groomed – he is the youngest Cellar Master ever to be appointed to the Rémy Martin house of fine Cognacs. And he’s earned that place, learning at the right hand of Rémy Martin’s then-Cellar-Master after having already paid his dues studying wine making around the world.

Loiseau spoke with passion about how memories connect with fine Cognacs – the layers and subtleties of this fine distilled spirit evoke not only aromas and flavors but also feelings. He grew up spending copious amounts of time with his grandparents, who grew flowers and vegetables and taught him from an early age to pay close attention to scents and flavors.
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He decided first to study agriculture, in honor of his fond memories of learning at the feet of his grandparents, and then moved into research. But he found he missed contact with people. Wanting to be in a job with much contact with others – and of course that included good food and wine in some way – he settled on winemaking. He knew this career would also allow him to travel the world. In particular he wanted to pursue the intense curiosity he’d developed from reading about South Africa. In the six years he first studied winemaking, he spent two in Toulouse, then traveled to Montpelier, Bordeaux, South Africa and New Zealand, learning techniques along the way.
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Flowers with Waldorf-Astoria's signature royal purple
Flowers with Waldorf-Astoria’s signature royal purple

But his heart was drawn back to Cognac. Having experienced the rich multitude of aromas emanating from those small copper pot stills full of eau de vie, he wanted to learn what was going on in there. So his next step was to spend two years researching the connections between grapes and eau de vie. And that’s when Rémy Martin invited him to join their team, led by their Cellar Master – actually, Mistress. She took him under her wing and taught him everything she knew about how to turn eau de vie into the distinct style of Rémy Martin. He spent seven years under her expert tutelage, learning how to select the eau de vie, determine the quality of the cask, and make the blends. “She was like my mother at work,” said Baptiste.

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And then, when he was just 33, she handed him the reins. He looks ahead now to always innovating while honoring the spirit of Rémy Martin. He welcomed Chicago visitors recently at the Waldorf-Astoria.
 One of the distinguishing differences, said Loiseau, between Rémy Martin and other Cognacs is the fact that all their grapes and eaux de vie derive from just two plots of chalky soil in the Champagne region of France. Also, they don’t just distill the clear eau de vie but also manage the lees – the natural yeasts that contain so many of the aromas and are present in wine cellars. “Our wines from which we make eau de vie must, in themselves, be perfect,” said Baptiste. “The vapors from these wines escape and become liquid, creating the heart of the eau de vie – elegant with concentrated fruitiness.”
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Rémy Martin XO new decanter and gift box
Rémy Martin XO new decanter and gift box

Okay, what’s the right way to taste the finest Rémy XO? You must take your time, says Baptiste. The aromas reveal themselves gradually as the liquid sits in the glass. First, you will notice some fruitiness. Then comes the richer flavors of nuts. And later, the surprise of complements to dark chocolate. “Do you keep the chocolate in your mouth when you taste the Cognac?” He nodded and watched my surprise as I experienced an explosion of flavors and sensations all around my mouth – utterly delightful. He smiled. “That is what happens when you combine dark chocolate with XO. But you have to wait a while. The right complementary flavors and aromas are not released until the liquid has been in the glass for a little while.”

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“The floral notes don’t reveal themselves until the spirit has aged at least 10 years,” he said. “The bitterness of the chocolate highlights the softness of the spirit.” He kept murmuring: “butterscotch, oranges, rich, yeasty brioche…” It was a pleasure to see how deeply involved he was in experiencing and naming all the complexities of this magnificent Cognac. Gives the rest of us something to aspire to.

He talked about the tasting events they put on at the distillery for four to six guests at a time. They offer each group 20 to 30 samples of eaux de vie during the winter season. The first round of tasting, guests are asked to choose their own reactions to each – fortunately for the aroma-impaired, you are given a multiple-choice sheet to check off – and then they go through the tastes again with Baptiste leading the process. He asks guests what feeling they experience with each sample. Plus, guests are allowed to assign bonus points to each deserving sample.
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Besides the XO, Rémy Martin makes a VSOP that exhibits a harmony of flavors like vanilla and dried apricots. 1738 expresses nuts and vanilla. If you’re looking for a luxury gift for your Cognac-loving dad or grad, you won’t go wrong with Remy Martin.

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Wine in cans, organic spirits, and real-fruit sparkling water

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New players in the huge beverage market are out there contending for our drink dollars and responding to the public’s deep desires for 1) convenience, 2) organic and natural, and 3) healthy alternatives to soda pop. We don’t include plain bottled water ‘cuz we worry a lot about companies siphoning water from natural springs that already belong to the people – and charging us for processing it and putting it in bottles. Doesn’t sound like a pyramid scheme at all, right? So here are a few new items worth a try:
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Backpack Wines
Backpack Wines

Backpack canned wine. You’ve heard of boxed wine, of course, and a number of makers are putting out some excellent quality in that formerly-scorned-but-becoming-more-popular packaging. Now comes wine in a can. Backpack Wines, based here in Chicago, recently put out two blend varieties: Cheek Rosè® and Snappy White®, in four-can packs. Made with grapes from quality vineyards, the wines come in recyclable cans you can take anywhere with the same convenience you get from canned beer or soda. We’re not talking luxury wines here, but the taste is reasonable and the convenience unbeatable. Chill a few cans for your next barbecue, picnic, beach outing – or just sip one with a friend sittin’ on the patio on a summer evening (yes, summer is going to hit with a vengeaance any minute).

Prairie cucumber vodka
Prairie cucumber vodka

Prairie organic spirits. Another new player in the alcoholic beverages category is the line of Prairie organic Spirits. “Made with respect from seed to glass,” Prairie Organic Spirits offers 100% certified organic vodka, made from a single-sourced, organic corn grown on a handful family-owned and operated Minnesota farms. Each bottle of Prairie Organic Spirits takes three years of meticulous work. The Cucumber version we sampled gives off lovely and unmistakable aromas of fresh cucumbers. Immediately upon opening the bottle we imagined making our favorite chilled gazpacho or Bloody Mary recipe spiked with this pure, unadulterated spirit. It’s also great as a mixer with flavored sparkling water or in your favorite cocktail. Without question will increase the aromatic intensity of whatever you use it in.

Spindrift sparkling fruit water
Spindrift sparkling fruit water

Spindrift fresh-squeezed-fruit-flavored sparkling water. It’s always important to stay hydrated, but it can be problematic if you don’t enjoy plain water. And there’s some evidence that neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners are very healthy, so here’s a new option: sparkling water made with real fruit. Spindrift is the only bubbly that uses real fruit to flavor its water. It’s refreshing on its own or a great mixer for summer cocktails. These waters are flavored only with 100% organically grown fruit – juice and purée. We love the fruit aromas and the bubbles of all the flavors. Now imagine topping up a shot of Prairie cucumber vodka (above) with ice and a few ounces of cucumber Spindriftr sparkling water – and top it with a spring of mint. Hard to get more refreshing than that. Comes in blackberry, cucumber, grapefruit, orange mango, lemon and – our favorite so far – raspberry lime.

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Cafe Brauer – good food, cocktails and great views

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English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Re...
English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Refectory is a National Historic Place in Lincoln Park Chicago. It is currently run by the Lincoln Park Zoological Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lincoln Park has a number of interesting places to eat, and I just discovered the pleasure of one of those – the patio at Cafe Brauer. Delicious American food specialties, served by warm and friendly people, and a small selection of wines, craft beers and cocktails designed to satisfy most of us. One menu item promises fresh vegetables from Green City Market, one of the city of Chicago’s markets that sets up every Wednesday and Saturday nearly across the street on Stockton Blvd. This is a marriage made in heaven.

I love the fact that the patio  sits right next to the Nature Boardwalk that meanders through a nature preserve. Watch people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, enjoy the scenery. Or bring your own dog – the restaurant welcomes dogs on the patio.
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English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln P...
English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk in Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Entrance to the Nature Boardwalk is right off the patio. You can walk all the way around its half-mile perimeter as it wends through a 14-acre nature preserve. It’s a closed pathway, so you can trust that your bicycling or dog-walking grandchild or friend will definitely find her way back to you. No way to get lost. Being in “the wild” in the middle of the city without being worried you’ll get lost. Can’t wait to bring my granddaughter here.

Mallard duck pairs occasionally break the still waters of the pond next to the patio. It’s an incredibly peaceful and calming environment. Bird song everywhere. People walking.

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Fried chicken with french fries
Fried chicken with french fries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cafe Brauer patio is the site of many weddings, school and corporate events. The staff are highly experienced at providing buffets full of tasty all-American foods like buttermilk fried chicken (delicious!). The regular menu offers big plates to share – calamari, wings, guac and salsa, or steak chili nachos. Then there are soups and salads, plus paninis, burgers – including turkey and black bean and classic sandwiches, all served with fries. Sides are interesting – side salad,  Parmesan fries, waffle-battered sweet potato fries with maple-vinegar aioli, mac & cheese, and stir-fried Green City Market vegetablea, all priced at $4.95, but if you order them with a sandwich they’re only two bucks. Desserts are $5.95 and include Brownie Sundae, Blueberry Crisp, and Cookie Skillet with ice cream. Hungry yet?

Basically, Cafe Brauer has just about anything your heart could desire. They even play upbeat music at just the right decibel level – cheers the atmosphere and lightens the spirit.

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If you hop the bus through Lincoln Park, you can catch either the 156 or the 151 down Stockton Blvd. There are several stops you can get off at; the first stop for the zoo on the southbound 151 is at Webster. The next stop, Armitage, lets you off close to Cafe Brauer.
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Hours for the patio are 11 to 9pm Monday through Friday and 8:30 to 9pm on weekends. Obviously, Café Brauer has been around quite a while, but it sure feels nice to discover this charming option. BTW, they have free Wi-Fi, and if the restaurant is not busy, you are welcome to sit and enjoy as long as you like. So delightful. Thank you, Chicago. Another reason to love our city.
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