While on vacation, I usually stick to drinking wine, but with the explosion of the artisan cocktail movement, the rise of the bar chef, and the sudden ubiquity of the term "mixologist," I was curious to see for myself what the fuss is all about.
After Pisco Sours and an "Ernest Hemingway" in Louisville, I made my way to Chicago. Now everyone knows that Chicago is brimming with incredible restaurants with ridiculously good food and outstanding wine. In the past couple of years, this city has also redefined the cocktail lounge. Certain establishments, such as the Drawing Room (lepassage.com), have elevated drinks to art and the cocktail lounge to places of worship.
"The answer to what makes a great cocktail is so very simple but unfortunately hard to find nowadays: fresh ingredients, quality spirits, and, most importantly, balance," explains Cristiana DeLucca, a bartender at the Drawing Room. "Fresh ingredients and quality spirits make all the difference in terms of flavor, aroma, and texture in a cocktail, but if they're not balanced, it'll never be a great cocktail."
The source of this recent cocktail movement can provoke a chicken-or-the-egg argument. Some say it was brought about by the explosion of artisan distillers in all categories of liquor, from gin to whiskey. Others insist that it's the other way around. Either way, with so much at a bartender's fingertips, it would seem that the options are endless.
"For spirits, I reach for gin the most often," DeLucca says. "For liqueurs, I've loved mixing with white vermouth lately, namely, Martini & Rossi Bianco. It has a fortified white wine base and is sweetened and infused with botanicals. You'll pick up notes like honey, vanilla, and chamomile, but it's a bit dry as well. It's quite lovely all on its own with maybe a few cubes of ice, but I think it adds a really great aroma and another layer of flavor when mixed into a cocktail. I describe it to customers as being the halfway point between sweet and dry vermouths, having qualities from both but also having some unique flavors of its own."
It's an exciting time for those interested in cocktails or in the cocktail business. Mixologists are experimenting with unheard-of combinations of spirits, liqueurs, and a bevy of nonalcoholic ingredients such as jams and house-made tinctures.
"My favorite drink is definitely the drink I created for the competition/final for a class I took called 'The Academy of Spirits and Fine Service,'" DeLucca says. "I worked really, really hard on it, and it was the first cocktail I created all on my own, so it's sort of my baby. It has Pampero Aniversario aged rum, Velvet Falernum, fresh lime juice, a little Grand Marnier, some orange bitters on top, and a flamed orange peel. It's called 'The Queen's Ration.'"
Why this intense focus on cocktails? Look at society's renewed focus on what we eat for a clue.
"I think that with people paying attention to what they're putting in their bodies, now more than ever, it was only a matter of time before cocktails caught up with food," DeLucca suggests. "It wouldn't make sense to walk into a restaurant, enjoy a fabulous organic, locally sourced meal, and then chase it down with a vodka and energy drink. We, as bartenders, now have the opportunity to utilize the kitchens, pantries, and walk-in coolers to make amazing products from scratch, and we're doing it. [Plus], quite frankly, I think we all just got sick of drinking crappy cocktails. I know I certainly did."