Category Archives: spirits

Whisky and 5 fun Chicago holiday events 2017

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We’re on the brink of the holiday season with Thanksgiving only 2 weeks away. The holidays rank high among the many good reasons to break out the fine spirits. And so, of course, now is a grand time to stock up on your preferred whisk(e)y – Scotch, bourbon, et al. – to enjoy in front of the fire or the candles or the television, or whatever strikes your mood that day.
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Some of our favorites include Japanese Hibiki Harmony, beautifully blended, light and layered with flavors from Beam Suntory ($80), Tullamore D.E.W., a delightful and smooth Irish whisky ($44), and Glenfiddich’s array of excellent Scotch whiskies which include, among many others, the Experimental Series with Project XX (twenty), India Pale Ale Cask, finished in ale barrels and great paired with ale – talk about a classy boilermaker! ($70), and its most recent star known as Glenfiddich Winter Storm, 21-year-old Scotch finished in ice wine casks – the heightened candied sweets and oak flavors of Glenfiddich complemented by mouth-watering tropical fruit notes and underlying wine notes ($240).

And see below an opportunity next week to pair some well-known Kentucky whiskey brands with some delicious meats. And then check out a few other fun holiday events coming up.
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Texas de Brazil Churrascaria gets into the spirit with delicious Kentucky Bourbon Dinners offered at their Chicago place at 210 E. Illinois, on Wednesday, November 15 – and at their Schaumburg location on Tuesday, November 14. The special four-bourbon, three-course dining events pair Jim Beam and other whiskey brands with the restaurant’s unique menu, begin at 6:30pm Cost $95 per person, inclusive.
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Guests at the Kentucky Bourbon Dinners will be welcomed with a Maker’s Mark Mango Mint Julep before being invited to experience the salad area which includes over 50 freshly-prepared salads, soups and side dishes to be paired with the Basil Hayden served neat.  The main course includes rodizio-style service of freshly-grilled cuts of meats carved tableside from skewers by costumed gauchos and paired with Knob Creek served neat. And for a truly sweet conclusion to the evening, the Jim Beam Vanilla will be paired with a slice of pecan pie a la mode. Tickets available here.
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Saturday, November 18, 9 to 11am, bring the kids for Breakfast with Santa at both Texas de Brazil locations. The events benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana (RMHC®-CNI).  In Chicago, the fundraiser coincides with the annual BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival in its location just steps from the famed boulevard. On the same morning, suburban supporters can dine at the Texas de Brazil at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. Special Santa  breakfast menu, children’s entertainment and gifts, and a surprise visit from Santa. Tickets $35 for adults, $20 for children 3-12 years of age, and $3 for those under 3. All children must be accompanied by an adult. Tickets for either location: www.RonaldHouseChicago.org/breakfastwithsanta.
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TrEat Me Fest goodies
TrEat Me Fest goodies

TrEat Me Fest, offers new ways to eat and pamper yourself. Sunday, December 3 (two sessions 11 to 1pm or 1 to 3pm) produced by Social Power Hour is back for a one-day festival at Concord Fifty+Five. Prepare to relax and treat yourself with samples from companies that offer treats, eats, drinks and pampering services. The current vendors included for the ultimate TrEat Yourself are as follows: (more to be announced closer to the event date): Knife & Tine,Bai Drinks, Spiritual Center, Getaround, Your Father’s Toffee, barkTHINS, Essa Dora. $25 ticket gets you samples and two cocktails. Purchase tickets at Eventbrite.

Dovetail Brewery wood and leather crafts for sale
Dovetail Brewery wood and leather crafts for sale
Dovetail Brewery’s Second Annual Holiday Market, Saturday, December 16, 12 to 7pm. Check out craft artisans selling a variety of goods in Dovetail’s upstairs barrelhouse loft (1800 W. Belle Plaine at N. Ravenswood; 773-683-1414). Artisanal goods range from wood and leather to brown soap to original artwork. Shop until you drop, and then take a seat downstairs in the taproom and recharge with any of Dovetail’s highly praised beers including their Holiday Bock. The Holiday Bock is stronger than your typical lager, with a robust malt character, a darker hue and a slight candied-fruit sweetness. Enjoy snacks from the bar and from favorite Chicago food truck Bruges Brothers. In addition, Sausage König will be selling sausage baskets and currywurst.
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Carnivale adds raw bar to its exotic food-drink-music mix

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Invited recently to experience Carnivale, we walked into the large venue at 702 W. Fulton St. in Chicago’s trendy and bustling West Loop. Immediately colorful lights inspired our vision and energetic Latin-fusion music warmed up our party parts. We got the definite feeling we were going to have a good time – and the goal of their staff members seems to be just that: do everything they can to make sure a good time is what you have.

What’s a party without music and live entertainment? At Carnivale scantily clad acrobatic artists perform at strategic locations around the dining area, including a long-blonde-haired mermaid waving her tail while suspended in a net above the tables and painted hard-body entertainers executing feats of skill or gyrating to the music.

The food and wine and cocktails are carefully curated. Our knowledgeable server, Jorge, who is also the restaurant’s sommelier, offered expert guidance in choosing dishes from the dinner menu and beverages that perfectly complemented them.

A new addition to Carnivale’s offerings is its extensive raw bar. Jorge recommended the raw-bar-for-two ($50) – a delightful collection of seafood goodies including poached shrimp, crab claw and half-lobster tail – cooked just right and served with several interesting sauce options in addition to fresh lemon. This dish – possibly one of the best values on the menu – was served dramatically in what looked like a professional toolbox that you open from the middle, the long way, to stepped sides. Nestled in the ice on the bottom were three dishes of Carnivale’s delicious and unique ceviches – generous for two to split. Hard to decide which we liked the best: shrimp,  blue crab, or mixto (shrimp, calamari, octopus and a delicious combination of slightly exotic touches like preserved lemon, sweet potato, cilantro and more).

After such a generous starter, it made sense to split Jorge’s next recommendations: the dry-aged prime ribeye ($49) and Hook’s cheddar potato gratin. Meat was nicely grilled and flavorful, though somewhat chewy, with a succulent wine reduction on the side. The potato gratin made a nice pairing. Good thing to split those, because the dessert Jorge suggested was irresistable – the Chocolate Dome ($9), made with white and dark chocolate mousse, strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries. It was so visually appealing and so incredibly mouth-watering, most of it was gone before the photo got taken.

Since you can’t eat everything on the menu, when you visit Carnivale be sure to look around at other tables. See if you can spot a cotton candy dessert (complete with housemade caramel corn) or even one of their signature cotton candy cocktails. It’s just one more way to liven the party up. And don’t forget their Latin-inspired fusion brunch on weekends. And by the way, they have lots of space for private events – a great place for companies to put on a party or for you to put one on for friends and loved ones.

Whether you’re in the mood to party, or you want to get into the mood, Carnivale clearly stands ready to turn on party mode at all hours every day of the week. Contact them here for reservations or to find out more.

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Bourbon on Division – way more than a late night haven

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Bourbon on Division bar
Bourbon on Division bar

Known for its late-night drinks and menu that make it a popular haven for late-hour denizens of Division Avenue, the recently opened Bourbon on Division restaurant and bar offers a small collection of creative interpretations of Southern-influenced dishes for dinner from 5pm onward, a selection of hand-craft cocktails (many bourbon-based) and a respectable rotating list of bourbons available as either 1.5 or 2-ounce pours ranging in price from $7 to $27. The food menu varies, too, depending on what’s available.

The late-night menu features lots of stomach-filling items – cheese curds, “sloppy” fries with white cheddar Mornay sauce and pork belly, smoked wings (delicious), fried shrimp and fries, chicken barbecue in white sauce with pickles on a brioche bun $11. The burger comes loaded with Dijon, mayo, cheddar, red onion and house pickles. $8. Beef it up with an extra patty for another $4. The bar’s open until 4am and the kitchen until 2am.
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And there are plenty of compelling reasons to come in earlier, namely for delicious dishes you can’t get on the late-night menu. Let’s start with dessert for the heck of it. Pecan pie is just what you think and served with bourbon whip cream. Fruit cobbler very tasty – baked in a tiny skillet with brown sugar streusel and an ovoid of caramel ice cream on top $6 – very tasty. The mint julep Creme Brûlée comes in a huge serving with the sugar crust you expect, except with a different kind of filling – like a mint julep pudding underneath for $7. The chef said he’s still experimenting with this one. The spicy chocolate meringue pie sounded fabulous – cinnamon meringue on a spicy chocolate custard nestled in the house-made crust and served with Berry Coulis. $8. We didn’t get to try this but want to, soon.
From the main menu we first tried the smoked chicken wings ($9). A generous serving of fried-but-not-breaded wings came with a sweet pepper jelly that made a wonderful sauce and with crispy black-eyed peas and garlic chips for a nice crunchy contrast. The carrot salad ($7) features a big heap of shaved smoked carrots mixed with arugula, pistachios and honey lemon vinaigrette, all generously sprinkled with pickled mustard seeds – the whole combo a serious high-nutrition/flavor winner.
The grilled salmon trout (pinker than regular brook trout) was cooked to tender, juicy perfection – the thing was served practically smoking hot and yes, literally, the juices were running from the fish onto the plate – and the roasted spaghetti squash that came with it was succulent and sweet, just browned enough from the roasting. We took a chance on this dish, because neither one of us had had a positive experience with spaghetti squash in the past, but this version was a definite 5-star, as was the entire dish. Absolutely worth the $18 price.
My companion had the chicken and dumplings ($16) which consisted of juicy beer-braised chicken, herbed dumplings frosted with a white cheddar Mornay sauce, pea puree and shaved vegetables. She was particularly pleased that the dish contained dark meat, her favorite. $16.
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Love the spherical cube in the Black Rob cocktail
Love the spherical cube in the Black Rob cocktail

Cocktails are made with care and flare. A few to consider: Methuen’s Bargain ($14, gin based from Ireland), the Black Rob (Scotch based – we loved the hand-made spherical ice cube!), the Sippin’ on Gin and Cider ($12), and the Midnight Campfire (bourbon combined with DiSaronno and other goodies $13). Unique combinations of flavors worth trying. Big list of bourbons, not surprising given the restaurant name, and a nicely curated list of higher quality wines. Prices for wine by the glass range from $8 to $16, so you can choose from a good variety. The restaurant also offers brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 5pm.

Our server, Gigi, is well on her way to becoming a full-fledged wine sommelier as well as a whisk(e)y sommelier. She gave us lots of good information and guidance on the menu and the drinks. We were there at 5pm on a Thursday, just as the place opened and were lucky to have her full attention. Eclectic music selections – from bluegrass to country rap and country hard rock – made a lively background. Don’t expect Beethoven here, but do expect good food and interesting drinks.
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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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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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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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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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2 new rums and a Chile liqueur

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Havana Club hot cocktail with homemade ricotta cheese on cinnaman oat pancakes
Havana Club hot cocktail with homemade ricotta cheese on cinnaman oat pancakes

Rum is one of those drinks that can vary wildly in taste and smoothness. Some of the best are so smooth and delicious they can be enjoyed neat – like brandy/cognac, sipped as a post-prandial libation or nightcap. One of the leaders in the rum game is Captain Morgan, and they make a dozen different varieties from spiced (love it!) to regular to tropical flavored and super-premium. Below are a couple of rums and a unique chile liqueur we just learned about.

Oakheart spiced rum is deLISH as a nightcap
Oakheart spiced rum is deLISH as a nightcap


Oakheart Spiced Rum from Bacardi
 is delicately but richly spiced and tastes utterly lovely all by itself, even without ice. In a recent blind taste test, results indicated Oakheart won out over Capt. Morgan, but of course, you must judge for yourself. Oakheart is a clear winner for our nightcap needs around here.  Love the subtle layers of flavor and the gentle spicy warmth going down.

Uh, yeah. You can mix this with cola, but we think it’s a shame to drown all these flavors: “characteristics of oak barrel staves with the essence of bourbon or brandy, a hint of smoke from the charring process, background notes of dried fruit and heavy delivery of sweet creamy butterscotch. Notes of custard, maple and honey flavors [emphasis ours!] coat the tongue and [the drink] finishes with a touch of pepper.”

Havana Club Añejo Clasico Puerto Rican rum is a dark rum with oaky hints of vanilla and almond, along with fruity notes akin (think pineapple and apricot) with a robust and velvety finish. It’s really good in mixed drinks like the one in the recipe below. Perfect with a weekend brunch or a fireside session.

And on the 8th day...
And on the 8th day…

The 8th Day

  • 1 ½ parts HAVANA CLUB Añejo Clásico Puerto Rican Rum
  • 3 parts Chai tea
  • 1 ¾ parts coconut milk
  • 1 part simple syrup or 1 tbs white sugar

Method: Prepare Chai Tea. While the tea steeps, warm coconut milk over medium heat, do not boil. Combine ingredients in a high temperature resistant mixing glass, adding rum last and stir. Serve in an Irish Coffee Cup or preferred glass coffee cup, and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur for something different
Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur for something different

And then there’s the unique Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur from Puebla, Mexico. It’s good for after-dinner or aperitif, depending on your mood and your menu. This has been a favorite around here since we received the review sample. Thick and creamy, dark amber color, heat and peppery flavors make this a unique experience for your tongue and nose. Maker’s notes say: “Pleasantly sweet, followed by chile with moderate heat and slight acidity. Hints of spices, tamarind, plum, cacao, apple and almonds then subtle notes of fine herbs. A pleasantly lingering pungent taste on the finish.” Works for us!

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Crown Royal Vanilla greets the new year

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Crown Royal vanilla in a hearth- and heart-warming drink
Crown Royal vanilla in a hearth- and heart-warming drink

Crown Royal’s Canadian blended whiskies offer something for almost everyone. Its Signature series includes smooth Deluxe, Rye and Black. Its high-end Master series features XO and XR and more. And its Flavor series includes apple, maple and, now, a lovely vanilla-scented and -flavored version that mixes beautifully – and simply sings on its own. Maker’s tasting notes for Royal Crown Vanilla: “Rich vanilla bean with delicate hints of oak. Creamy vanilla on the palate with a smooth, light whisky finish that’s viscous and warming with a Crème Brulee aftertaste.” Yikes. No wonder we love this new version with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla! Makes us feel in some ways like we do when we sip a fine long-aged rum.

The company’s new tag line is especially meaningful in our world today. “Live generously and life will treat you royally.” In sending a sample for review, the company lived up to its motto by sending not only a bottle of the new vanilla-flavored Crown Royal to taste but also a bottle of the original Crown Royal. Each was nestled in a signature Crown Royal drawstring bag – one reading “One to keep” and the other “One to give.”

This kind of attitude in a business is admirable. We all know that corporations are in business to make a profit. So it stands out when a company takes a higher road in its advertising and then lives up to that position in other ways.

And if you like smooth sippin’ whiskey, you’re bound to love one or more of Crown Royal’s sophisticated blends. Get ’em at Binny’s or your favorite spirits merchant.

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Cognac is hot – for sipping and mixing

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The spirits fates can be fickle. Remember the great vodka wars – Ketel One, Grey Goose, later Tito’s, etc. – “What does your vodka say about you?” Nowadays Cognac is the new favorite cocktail base for many bartenders and consumers. Sophisticated palates appreciate sipping it to enjoy the many subtle layers of flavors to be found in various iterations of the spirit, including in the gradations of VS, VSOP and XO.
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Cognac Rémy Martin
Cognac Rémy Martin

Rémy Martin Cognac, for example – a name well-known among aficionados – recently set up pop-up “experiences” in major cities in the U.S., Chicago included. Titled “La Maison Rémy Martin,” the pop-up included 80 minutes of workshops and masterclasses in which consumers met and interacted with some of the world’s preeminent progressive thinkers from music, fashion, cuisine and art – for example, French Kinetic Artist Vincent Leroy who was commissioned to create a piece and to design the box featured at La Maison Rémy Martin experience. All the while participants learned about the process of making Cognac and got to blend their own. Cool, eh?

Curious about the new popularity of this spirit, we asked Mixologist Dan Rook of South Water Kitchen in Chicago a few questions about the phenomenon:
 
How would you explain the cocktail sensation going on in the U.S. today? 
The cocktail Renaissance going on in this country lately has to do with the evolving tastes of the consumer. Nowadays people are much more informed about what they put into their bodies, even when it comes to cocktails. Many people now expect fresh juice in lieux of sour mix, all natural ingredients, and house-made custom recipes. It’s becoming the norm rather than the exception, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
What is it about Cognac that mixologists like and why is it becoming so attractive to cocktail lovers?
I think Cognac has always been attractive to cocktail lovers. Some of the best classic cocktails – Sidecar, Sazerac, and Vieux Carre’ – all call for Cognac. The more educated modern bartenders become about the history of the craft cocktail, the more often they’ll reach for a bottle of Cognac. Cognac is a form of brandy, and brandy has been a bedrock in cocktails for a long time.
Cognac is unique in that it is an appellation and can only be distilled in one specific place, using Ugni Blanc grapes from a handful of regions in France. That makes for a very specific flavor profile that can be mimicked, but not replicated. Of course, there is still some diversity within the variety of Cognacs, based on the terrior where the grapes are grown, how long it’s aged, etc. That exclusivity of region and production method is really what sets Cognac apart, providing bartenders with a unique flavor for their drinks that they cannot get anywhere else. One of my go-to premium mixing Cognac is D’USSÉ™ VSOP. It has a full-bodied, bold taste that’s versatile and adds a unique twist to classic drinks.
Are some generations more into this trend than others?
Younger generations today grew up with more options than ever before – particularly Millennials. Instant gratification is the norm now; everything is one Google search away. A side effect is that these tech-savvy consumers tend to be more aware of current options that help them make more-informed choices. As an example, we recently had an older woman come in for a Gimlet and specifically request Rose’s Lime juice – something we simply do not carry. I suggested she try it instead with fresh juice, and she was over the moon for it. For us as bartenders, it’s really about taking that first step with a guest without being pretentious.
Which cognac-based cocktail do you recommend for newbies to the spirit? Or does it matter – since expertly crafted cocktails sometimes mask the strength/sensations of the main spirit?
Rather than mask anything, expertly crafted cocktails should showcase the flavors of the main spirit in a balanced and appropriate way; that’s how I approach it. I think the perfect Cognac-based cocktail for a newbie would be the classic Sidecar. It’s very easy to make, very well balanced, and always seems to please. My go-to build for it is 2 oz D’USSÉ VSOP Cognac, 3/4 oz of fresh (always fresh) lemon juice, 3/4 oz of quality orange curacao, shaken, up, in a half sugar rimmed cocktail coupe.
Among classic cocktail recipes with Cognac, which are your 3 favorites:  
My favorites are The Sidecar, Sazerac and Vieux Carre’, all of which pair well with the unique flavor profile of D’USSÉ VSOP Cognac.
SIDECAR
  • 2 oz of D’USSÉ™ VSOP Cognac
  • 1 part triple sec
  • 3/4 oz of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3/4 oz of quality orange curacao

SERVE: Shake and strain all ingredients into a sugar-rimmed coupe glass.  GARNISH: Lemon peel and a sugared rim. TIP: To create a unique take on the Sidecar, substitute the triple sec with ¾ part of Giffard Framboise to create the D’USSÉ™ Framboise Sidecar.

THE SAZERAC
  • 1 ½ oz D’USSÉ™ VSOP Cognac
  • ¼ oz Absinthe
  • Half a tea spoon demerara sugar
  • Three dashes Peychauds Bitters

SERVE: Rinse a chilled old-fashioned glass with the absinthe, add crushed ice and set it aside. Stir the remaining ingredients over ice and set aside. Discard the ice and any excess absinthe from the prepared glass, and strain the drink into the glass. GARNISH: Lemon Peel.

VIEW CARRE’
  • 1 part D’USSÉ™ VSOP Cognac
  • 1 part rye whisky
  • 1 part NOILLY PRAT® Rouge Sweet Vermouth Dash Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Dash Angostura® Bitters
  • ½ part BENEDICTINE® Liqueur

SERVE: Combine all ingredients, stir and pour into a glass of choice. GARNISH: Lemon peel.

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