Last-minute spirits gift guide – and a cure for too much

Okay. You didn’t finish shopping. Many stores are open today, but what if you can’t think of anything good to get? Serving special drinks is a great way to celebrate end-of-year holidays – and giving the spirits themselves is a fabulous solution for quick and easy gifts that tend to be much appreciated. Below are a few ideas for your giftees – or for yourself:


Caliche brand rum comes honestly by its cachet as a super premium white rum. Rande Gerber, one of the original pioneers of South Beach nightlife, partnered with Destileria Serralles in Ponce, Puerto Rico – a long-time producer of fine rums – to produce Caliche in response to the nuances and preferences of cocktail consumers. My take: it’s a fairly smooth, clean-tasting rum that’s suave enough to serve alone if you’re a rum lover, but it also goes well with just a dash of something creamy. Ice cream and eggnog are wonderful pairings, but even half-and-half works. This clear, white Caliche Rum is also great in mixed cocktails. A bottle goes for around $25, depending on where you shop.

Captain Morgan, another well-respected maker of rums, put out a commemorative version of spiced rum this year that’s just delicious – neat or in creamy or other cocktails. Called Captain Morgan 1671, its unique blend of spices makes it festive (all year!) with notes of dried fruit, vanilla, caramel and oak. Finished with Spanish oak to deliver a smooth and refined drinking experience. Around 20 bucks a bottle – they made only limited quantities, so get one soon.

Sparkling wine – can’t-label-it-champagne-but-it’s-bubbly

Pasternak Wine Importers carry a number of delightful sparkling wines that will surprise and delight you and your gift recipients. Here are a few for your consideration:

  • Domaine Lucien Albrecht, Blanc de Blancs, Brut – Distinguished by a fine and elegant bead, a beautiful straw color; a light, delicate palate. It is delicious at any time of the day and with many foods.
  • Domaine Lucien Albrecht, Rose, Brut – Strawberry and wild cherry fruit, with a touch of richness on the mid palate. Well-balanced with dry, crisp acidity and complimented with a creamy texture and long finish.
  • Valdo, Oro Puro Prosecco Superiore DOCG, Brut – Floral with fruity aromas of strong pear and golden apple. The palate is refined and harmonious, with lingering aroma and savoriness.
  • Valdo, Prosecco DOC, Brut – Well-balanced structure, matched with its flavorful and aromatic fruity fragrance make it the perfect pairing with starters and particularly with delicately flavored dishes and especially seafood. Excellent as aperitif due to its distinctive characteristic of being “easy to drink.”
  • Valdo, Rose, Brut – The bouquet has fine and elegant blossoms, with a consistent presence of raspberry. The palate has a tickling fine perlage of minute bubbles; pleasant round warm flavor with a charming fruity aroma.
  • Lady of Spain, Brut – Fine, delicate and very clean, with lightly toasted pastry notes and syrupy fruits. Fresh and fruity, well structured, crispy, balanced carbonic and good persistence. Light recall to pastry and fresh fruits

Another nice, light bubbly is Ruffino Prosecco – Intense sensations of apples and peaches drive a pleasant aftertaste with fruity and floral aromas. Ideal as an aperitif and a versatile food companion. Around $11, 11% alc.

Vodka for every occasion

English: Picture of an old Smirnoff Vodka 375m...
English: Picture of an old Smirnoff Vodka 375ml bottle standing up found in my grandparents garage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always been a Smirnoff vodka fan, even as fancier brands have taken the cocktail scene by storm. I found out not long ago that Smirnoff regular won big in a blind taste test. That made me happy. Then recently I found out that Smirnoff has a huge line of flavored vodkas – I mean an amazing array. I haven’t tried them all yet but did like some a bit more than others. Some of the flavors tasted a little artificial when drunk neat. The aromas are strong, but I think that’s intentional because these flavored guys turn out to be wonderful for mixing with other ingredients.

The first broad category of flavors is the trademarked Smirnoff Sorbet® collection – a series of reduced-calorie, fruit-flavored vodkas (all triple distilled as is the original Smirnoff) like Light Mango-Passion Fruit, Light Pineapple-Coconut, Light White Peach, Light Summer Strawberry, Light Lemon and more. I thought the White Peach had a strong aroma and was a little artificial tasting when I tried it neat, but this was cured easily by mixing with  club soda. Then later I tried some of the flavors with ginger ale and with half-and-half, and they were lovely.

Then there’s the Smirnoff® Confections series. Kissed Caramel® – nice aroma, sweet taste, delicious mixed with half-and-half or poured over vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Cinnamon Churros – great aroma, excellent taste – like many other of these flavors, great with something bubbly or creamy. Whipped cream – I wanted to love this one, but it was a little too chemical-tasting for me. But again, this improves dramatically when you mix it with something creamy. This series includes Fluffed Marshmallow, Root Beer Float, Vanilla and more. Don’t you want to go out and get some of these flavors right now? I’m taking a bottle of Smirnoff® Kissed Caramel to my family Christmas eve gathering tonight. You ­­­can’t go wrong.

Hangover remedies

And in case you or your companions overdo things in this department, there’s a quick help for the day after called “Hangover Naturals.” These lozenges are drug-free and fortified with Vitamin B and C. They come in a box of six in a variety of good-tasting flavors: ginger, raspberry, or lime. They were created by a registered nurse named Noni who focuses on helping people with healthy lifestyles.

For your edification, here’s the list of ingredients: dried cane syrup, corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavors (made with essential oils) and natural colors. They taste – you guessed it – sweet, and low blood sugar is one of the effects of drinking alcohol. When I checked their store finder, I didn’t see any retail locations in the Chicago area, but you can get these bad boys in the online store, so you should be able to get some in stock for possible upcoming New Year’s needs.

In case you want to try curing a hangover with stuff you’re likely to have around the house, check out these 7 natural hangover cures.

Soothe your digestion with this aromatic Italian liqueur

Vecchio Amaro del Capo - Italia
Vecchio Amaro del Capo – Italia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vecchio Amaro del Capo has been around a long time. It’s a classic Italian liqueur infused with medicinal herbs, aromatic fruits and roots from the Southern Italian region of Calabria, distilled by Gruppo Caffo. I didn’t have room to store it in my freezer – it’s traditionally served ice cold to emphasize its aromatic flavor – so I drink it straight-from-the-refrigerator-cold. It has a unique roots-y, herb-y flavor and hits the spot drunk neat after a big meal. I also like it as a nightcap.

With the tonic properties of its ingredients – 29 herbs and fruits like orange, licorice, tangerine, chamomile, and more – Vecchio Amaro del Capo makes a great digestif – sip it after a long or hearty meal. If your holiday season is crowded with multiple parties, receptions and events, this is a great time to let its soothing properties help you enjoy each meal, stay healthy and be ready for the next party. Vecchio Amaro del Capo could be just the ticket for staying in good shape despite indulging. What more could one ask of a liqueur?

And just for fun, here are a couple of easy international drink recipes to make with it:

Caffoni from London, UK

  • 1 oz Vecchio Amaro del Capo
  • 1 oz red vermouth
  • 1 oz gin

Directions: Shake all the ingredients with ice and serve in an “old fashioned” glass. Decorate with a twist of pink grapefruit peel.

Capo Tonic from Brasilia, Brazil

  • .75 oz Vecchio Amaro del Capo
  • 3 oz Tonic
  • A generous splash of fresh lime juice

Directions: Mix and serve in a highball glass. Decorate with slices of lime and orange.

White del Capo Russian from Moscow, Russia

  • 25 oz Amaro del Capo
  • .75 oz Vodka
  • .75 oz Ccoffee liqueur
  • 3 oz half-and-half
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • Cinnamon powder
  • Orange Peel

Directions: Shake with ice Amaro del Capo, Vodka, Coffee liqueur and pour it in a tumbler glass with ice. Shake half-and-half with ice and pour it on top of the mixture in the glass without mixing. Insert cinnamon stick, dust with cinnamon and decorate with orange peel.

Meat and Whiskey go good! The Publican and George Dickel team up

George Dickel knows how to make whiskey. Several kinds – from un-aged No. 1 white as an aperitif to rich pre-, during- and after-dinner-style whiskies No. 8, No. 12 and Barrel Select – make great pairings with almost any type of food. In a brilliant partnership with The Publican Restaurant, 837 W. Fulton Market – a popular Chicago restaurant that really knows how to do meat – Dickel and chefs put together a fabulous dinner of meat and booze. Gotta tell ya’ I am surprised at how well these whiskies go with a multitude of dishes.

Notable items at the sample dinner included a gorgeously puffed-up, cheese-encrusted pork rind appetizer that’d knock your socks off compared to the ordinary version, and a beautifully moist and tender cut of pale-pink pork wrapped in fat, roasted and served atop a bed of crisply cooked cabbage and other vegetables. That meat was exquisite, and the vegetables perfectly cooked to bring out their best flavor. A side dish of roasted root vegetables had a nice tang but needed an extra 20 minutes in the oven. Still, the pork was an impressive dish among several others just as delicious. No. 12 and Barrel Select whiskies stood out as exceptionally smooth, flavorful and made powerfully nice accents to the meats.

It’s not easy picking out good whiskies unless you’re a connoisseur and spend a good chunk of time tasting and taking notes. I didn’t love the white version (a little harsh I thought but that’s just my taste). However, I can recommend the other hearty, Dickel made-in-America varieties for all whiskey lovers – see if there is one you might want to add to your list of faves.

English: Image of the George Dickel distillery...
English: Image of the George Dickel distillery in Cascade Hollow, Tennessee. Taken by ProhibitOnions, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Butcher’s Tap – sports bar that shows you the love

The Butcher’s Tap opened recently at 3553 N. Southport. According to co-owner Bob Dalton, “We’ve revived this location (a former butcher shop) and given it a whole lot of TLC.” Gorgeous butcher-block tabletops that look freshly made line up to form a cozy, warmly lit seating area opposite the long bar. Lots of twinkly lights join with the multiple sports-centered flat screens to illuminate the place – it’s a sports-bar-lover’s paradise. And one thing I found extremely cool – they have a DJ who monitors the screens and puts on rockin’ music the second the advertising starts. Good games with great music instead of commercials? I’m on board.

Drinks range from barrel-tapped wines ($8 a glass) and bottles (a small but nice selection from $25 to $60) to hand-crafted cocktails like the Ravenswood Old Fashioned and Iced and Spiced Moonshine, and a big selection of beers, lagers, ales, stouts, and so on (many on tap). If you’re more in the mood for shots or liquor on the rocks, their selection is respectable and worth sampling.

The food is also a big attraction here. In addition to their hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed burgers, they’ve got signature sandwiches made with hand-sliced deli meats (from Smoking Goose, Dietz & Watson and Ferndale Farm) and off-the-block cheese like Saxon’s Big Ed Gouda, Decatur Dairy Havarti and lots more. PLUS, they offer an array of select and seasonal choices of cured meats and cheeses. The night we visited these included South Sider Cider (pork & Venison, brewed cider), Elk-for-heavens-sake (with dried blueberries and New Day Mead), Capriole Goat cheese (said to be the best in the nation), and Red Dragon English cheddar with whole grain mustard and ale (fabulous taste – I couldn’t stop eating it), among others. Their cheese plate goes for $14 and feeds two generously as an appetizer. Good value. And you can make your own burger by picking a protein and adding your own toppings (burgers go for $10 to $13 and include fries or a picnic side (see below).

Butcher's Tap - comfort food in a friendly atmosphere
Butcher’s Tap – comfort food in a friendly atmosphere

Butchers beef n friesThese guys love local. Butcher’s Tap consults on its cheeses with reps from Forge and Foster. The cheese board comes with nuts, crackers and spreads plus a little cup of scrumptious apricot jam that’s made in house. Sandwiches come on crusty multigrain, brioche and other breads from Upper Crust Bakery, and the cured meats come from the Smoking Goose in Indiana. Their French fries are made with real, honest-to-goodness fresh potatoes. They’re salty and crispy and delicious, and you can get an order for 3 bucks – nice. They make their own fried chicken by soaking chicken for 12 hours in beer batter and then hand-frying it for you (Cajun or classic). My companion said the chicken in her sandwich was a little dry and the breading looked slightly burned, but I’m sure they’ll get that under control as they fine-tune their processes. We both thought the mac & cheese could have used a little more oomph – more cheese or something. But again, this place is clearly out to show you the love, so we think any missed notes will soon be addressed. Other sides include onion rings ($4), elotes corn (grilled with a creamy sauce, $3), pasta salad ($4), potato salad ($4), and city slaw ($4).

Don’t miss a chance to enjoy the comfortable, friendly atmosphere and the good food at The Butcher’s Tap when you’re near the Southport corridor. This place could vie for one of my favorite “I need some love” – and food – stopovers.


Holiday wishes can end hunger

A fun way to donate to hungry kids this holiday: Buy a Wish Tag (you get to put your own wish on it!) at the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago. They just kicked off with a dinner at their restaurant, Chuck’s: A Kerry Simon Kitchen, to celebrate the theme — Imagine There’s No Hunger.

Kids from Chicago’s Children’s Home and Aid enjoyed Waffle Fry Nachos, Southern BBQ Wings and  the Double Iron Chef Burger. Then, they were each given a Wish Tag to write down a wish and place on the tree in the hotel lobby.

Now you can help, too. From Nov 3rd to Dec 31st, 2014 every Hard Rock Hotel around the world will have a Wish Tree in the lobby. Guests and visitors can purchase a Wish Tag from the Rock Shop®, write out their wish, and place it on the Wish Tree. Proceeds from sales of tags benefit WhyHunger and its sustainable agriculture education and nutritional feeding programs around the world.

At the first of the year, Wish Tags will be collected and shipped to Reykjavik, Iceland for safekeeping, in connection with the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER, an outdoor work of art conceived by Yoko Ono.

Fans worldwide are encouraged to share their IMAGINE experiences by posting messages, photos and videos via the official social media channels for the 2014 IMAGINE THERE’S NO HUNGER campaign:, and hashtag #IMAGINENOHUNGER.