Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Asked and Answered

Charles Joly heads up the mixology program for The Drawing Room at Le Passage in Chicago, as well as a number of bars and lounges for Three Headed Productions there. Recently, he took top honors at the annual Sherry cocktail competition, so I thought it worthwhile to check in with him about the contest, recipe development and the state of things in the Windy City.

You recently won the annual Vinos de Jerez Sherry cocktail competition put on by the Sherry Council and Steve Olson - do you participate in many of those? What about working with sherry appealed to you?

Joly: I compete as often as possible. Creating cocktails for different competitions drives you to try new things, work with new products that you may overlook otherwise. There are so many opportunities out there - I've been able to travel the world to compete. It's an amazing time to be behind the bar. As far as sherry is concerned, I think it's a fantastic cocktail ingredient. There are such a wide array of styles available; everything from dry and nutty to sticky, rich dessert varieties. You're seeing a ton of reusage of sherry barrels as well; the Scotch industry in particular has embraced this finish. Sherry is a somewhat unexpected ingredient that can play a number of roles.

You're responsible for beverages at a number of operations, all very different - how do you make that work?

Joly: I oversee operations for five different concepts. I'm 100% hands on at the Drawing Room. There we have a very forward-thinking beverage program and I can really push the limits to do whatever we want. Several of our other venues are more neighborhood bars, great party bars where you're more likely to have a draft and excellent "bar food". I don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole there. You have to know your clientele and tailor the program to them. In a very high volume environment, speed and consistency are king. I'm taking baby steps with all of our venues to take them to fresh juice programs, at the very least- I have three of five on board so far.

The Drawing Room, though, is the place where cocktails matter - How would you describe your approach to creating the cocktails on the menu?

Joly: I was part of the conceiving team for the Drawing Room. Although I was working in a pre-existing space (so I had limited bar design options), I had carte blanche with the beverage program. With each menu change I learn a bit more. We'll change seven-eight times a year to keep seasonal- in spring and summer my chef and I will be at the farmers market weekly and update menus accordingly.

I get inspiration for cocktails in many ways. Maybe it’s a flavor combination I've been thinking of or a dish I had in a restaurant. I keep a concise, balanced menu with classics and originals. I try to put on drinks that represent the gamut- from classic, brown and stirred drinks to fresh, bright options. We are very interactive with our guests to find them something that will wow them.

Chicago's long been known as a fine dining destination, but it was a little slow to get in on the cocktail revolution - how would you describe things there now?

Joly: The cocktail scene in Chicago has been kind of a sleeping dog. We're here and quietly shaking some of the best cocktails in the country. Several of our top mixologists are involved in restaurants, but new cocktail lounges are opening all the time. I know of three that either just opened or are slated to very soon. We have a great blend of styles here, both embracing cocktail history and the classics and pushing the envelope to create interesting new libations.

What are your three favorite spirits/categories to work with and why?

Joly: Rum- there are so many styles available in this category. From funky Smith & Cross pot-stilled to La Favorite Rhum Vieux to a solid Flor de Cana 7 Year Old and cachaca, there are some beautiful statements out there. I love that prices haven't gotten out of control in this category- you can get some truly amazing rums for $25-40 and often less.

Mezcal- Watching this spirit category blossom has been great. The spirits that Ron Cooper & Del Maguey are bringing in are nothing short of fantastic. This smoky, hand made sauce is one of the most flavorful, balanced and intriguing around. Customers are asking for it and bartenders are embracing it. I'm excited to see new labels show up in this realm.

Rye Whiskey- I always go back to this standby. When you nose a glass of good rye, it's America in a glass. Either as a base in a cocktail or just sipping neat, there are some truly remarkable spirits in this category. Our distillers are bottling some whiskey that can stand up against the best Scotches on the market.

What's your current favorite cocktail?

Joly: We just rolled out a new late winter menu. There are two on the list that I'm really enjoying. One is called the "Red Light"- 1 1/2 oz. Bols Genever, 1 1/4 oz. Grand Marnier, 1/3 oz Underberg Bitters. Stir and serve up. It's ridiculously simple and has a very classic feel.

We also just rolled out one called "Ethel", with locally distilled North Shore Aquavit, Galliano l'Authentico, Absinthe Sirene, orange marmalade and some fresh citrus. There are layers of flavor in this drink that are really pleasing, plus it's introducing some less familiar spirits to guests.

(A version of this interview was originally published in the Mix newsletter.)


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Favorite Things #1

I had an hour to kill in Avignon once, and that hour changed my drinking life. Well, at least my Manhattan drinking life. Now at the end of the day when the Manhattan mood strikes, I use half as much sweet vermouth and swap in Figoun, an aperitif made from red wine, sugar, figs, bitter oranges, angelica, mandarin oranges, vanilla and wormwood. Figoun, produced by Liquoristerie de Provence, is not available in most U.S. markets (my current bottle arrived through much chicanery courtesy of the charming Laurene Bourges), but it's worth seeking out if you like an old style aperitif: the vanilla and sugar well balanced by the tart citrus, the slightly dusty and white pepper aromatic pop engaged with the moderately ripe and restrained figginess. If you take to Figoun as I have, you'll find any recipe that calls for sweet vermouth or any other fortified wine might benefit from a little figounification.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

First Taste: Ardmore Traditional Cask Highland Single Malt Scotch

Just as whisky neophytes have gotten their minds around things like the Scotch tasting map, where Islay and other whiskies are on the smoky and maritime side and Highland whiskies are soft, smooth and sweet, Ardmore comes along to remind us that production methods trump all other distinctions. Ardmore claims to be the only Highland distiller fully peating their malt, and so of course, this non chill-filtered whisky starts out with an aromatic experience familiar to Islay lovers – a burst of smoke resembling a leaf fire on a windy day. But behind that is a pretty caramel and cream softness and richness, not the sinewy leaness of an Islay. On the palate, smoke again and a bit of saltiness to accompany a bourbony vanilla and oak sweetness - salted caramels, even. Ripe apples and pears emerge near the finish of this full bodied but not overpowering Scotch, and it climaxes with the brisk tang of fruitwood smokiness. While the edges could use some rounding and the vanilla and smoke can somehow seem a bit at odds, I'm looking forward to trying the other expressions from Ardmore. 46% abv (Beam Global)

My score: 7

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pimp My Julep

As promised, Pimp My Julep, performed by Francesco Lafranconi, Doug Frost and Eric Alperin. Jump ahead to about 1:30 on the vid to see the full performance.


The Hornet

The premise at the third annual Cognac Summit was the recreation of classic drinks first made with Cognac – Sidecar, Sazerac, Julep –into cocktails suited for 21st century tastes. For many of the drinks, deciding which direction to go was the hard part for the teams assembled randomly. But for my table, the first thought of most of the bartenders seemed to be “How do I get out of this?” Yeah, the Stinger was ours to play with, and the gloom that painted their faces was worse than any hangover stare.

But we soldiered on, at least the bartenders did – Shervene Shahbazkhani of the Voodoo Room in Edinburgh, Arnd Heissen of the Shochu Bar in Berlin, Eric Fossard of consultancy LiquidLiquid.org and Jozef Roth of Bratislav, president of the Slovak Republic Bartender’s Association. I tried to rally the troops, who were faced with the one drink in the range that had no fans, no adherents, no spokespeople. That’s not a surprise; as we found out later that week when someone produced bottles of 1920s era Cognac and Peppermint Get, both cordials and cognacs were much less sweet in the days (turn of the 20th century?) when the drink was created. But today, a cocktail made with two parts Cognac and one part crème de menthe is not only out of fashion, even as a digestif, but it’s a sticky, sickly, breath mint bomb, unpleasant and almost nauseating.

It’s not Cognac’s fault, though it can be argued that any recipe using Cognac created 40 years ago or more requires adjustment due to the much rounder and sweeter contemporary qualities of the spirit. Whether that’s due to changes in blending techniques, barrel management, subtle but legal product tweaks or technological advances that have finely tuned production, I don’t know. But contemporary cocktail trends demands a more balanced and angular drink than anyone can manage with just these two ingredients.

What did we do? Yellow Chartreuse came into play, as did green-, Earl Grey- and orange pekoe-infused Cognac, slices of ginger, mint leaves of course, simple syrup, etc., etc. Our range was limited, and we worked on fine-tuning what was becoming a very interesting drink, but as the deadline approached, Roth came up with a simpler version, closer to the original but balanced out with acid and fresh mint. It works as a modern digestif, we thought, and so here’s the final result of our two days work, called The Hornet.

1 3/4 oz X.O Cognac
1/2 oz white crème de menthe
1 barspoon cane syrup
3 mint leaves
1 lemon peel
1 lime peel

In a mixing glass, pour the cognac, the crème de menthe and the cane syrup. Add and muddle for 15 seconds the three mint leaves, the lemon and lime peels. Add ice to fill. Stir well for 30 seconds. Fine strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a mint leaf and small strips of lemon and lime peel