I am a neophyte to wine. I’m even more green to cocktails.
Believe it or not, I took my first (serious) sip of a cocktail about eight months ago. It was at Tailor. It is called The Crumble. It was very enjoyable. It is no longer (as of posting date) on the cocktail menu there.
But, even that positive experience wasn’t enough to push my interest much further.
For one thing, I hold alcohol just about as prudently as a boat does water; I have the tolerance of a fly. I simply can not justify ordering an entire cocktail for myself. Second, despite the success of The Crumble, I generally (from sips of friends’ drinks, here and there) have a pretty awful impression of cocktails: they’re sticky, harsh, and, other than colorful (boy, did I have a lot to learn about what makes a good cocktail), have never provided a pleasant drink.
But, The Crumble, was exceptional. It was my first hint that a cocktail could be better – much better. Something special. Great, actually.
Or, maybe, it was the building anxiety in the of months leading up to my 30th birthday that started me down the slippery cocktail slope. Or, perhaps, it was that my unquenchable curiosity about all things edible and potable that finally caught up with me.
Perhaps, it was a group of faraway friends, whose enthusiasm and knowledge sparked my interest.
Whatever the reason, in the latter half of January, I decided it was time to do something to lessen my ignorance of the bottle. So, I sent an S.O.S. to some learned “cocktailian” acquaintences, mostly New Yorkers.
“Help! Teetotaler in need of good drink!”Through a series of exchanges, they, collectively, affected a crash course for u.e.; helping me feel my way around my tastes/preferences and remotely navigating me through (or putting up with?) my city’s (shockingly pathetic) limited number of decently-stocked bars (you’d be surprised how rare freshly-squeezed juices and things like Peychaud’s bitters and green Chartreuse are in Kansas City!).
So, I worked off a few classics: a Sidecar, that I found too sticky and sweet, and amuck with syrupy orange juice. I found more pleasure in a Jack Rose, which was tart, and tangy, but perhaps a little too aggressive on the tangy – they used a sour mix instead of freshly squeezed lemon/lime. I found even more pleasure in a Negroni, which tasted like pine needles and grapefruit rind, with a splash of sweetness. Not my style, per se, but I was getting closer.
Then there was a smokey margarita, a house specialty at one of my favorite restaurants in Kansas City. Not bad. Fresh juice. Light and refreshing. Enjoyed the salty rim. It was even better when I took the garnish – a smoked goat cheese-stuffed sweet pepper – for a swim through the drink.
They also do a green tea vodka and sake drink with Midori called “Antioxident,” which tasted just about as healthy (and looked just about as toxic) as it sounds (mellow and low on flavor). And, I also tried their beer cocktail (this was a new concept to me). It actually made beer (something which my city does not lack) taste decent (to me) for the first time. The “Boulevard Summer” features a local wheat brew with Lemoncello and ginger. I thought it would be better with a touch of honey. I told the bartender that it tasted like a like an effervescent, ginseng, ginger drink with a lemon drop. “You’re the only person who would say that, ” he retorted. He laughed. So did I.
At my friends’ insistence, I also managed to find a bartender who had the requisite ingredients for “The Last Word.” According to them, it’s THE definitive mot in the cocktail world. So, there I was, at our local McCormickand Schmicks – not even at the bar because the happy hour is just too damn crowded – giving a rather strange recipe to our cagey server to relay to the bartender. It was very good, very smooth and rounded, and tasted of candied fennel and juniper. But, it wasn’t quite the period and exclamation mark as claimed.
Although I hadn’t been cocktailing long, I had quickly deduced two things about my preferences:
1. I like ’em dry.
2. I prefer non-citrus drinks to the citrusy ones.
“But,” my friends all stressed, “you’ll never REALLY find a good cocktail in Kansas City. You’ve got to go to Chicago, or New York.” So, theoretically, the sum of my efforts thus far, to them, was insufficient. It was simply an exercise in mediocre to prepare me for stellar.
It just so happened that I was heading to Chicago. And, I knew just where I needed to go – The Violet Hour.
Despite, and at the close of, my epic birthday dinner at Avenues, my friends and I decided that the night was still young, and that a visit to The Violet Hour would not be unreasonable. In fact, it was required.
Our cab dropped us off at the Six Corners around about midnight. Scurrying in the cold (one in heels), we proceeded to pass The Violet Hour – three times – back and forth (seeking shelter in between at a nearby 7-11 to regroup and warm up).
Clearly, The Violet Hour isn’t competing for foot traffic with the dozens of other bars and clubs in its neighborhood.
For the unfamiliar, it successfully replicates the speakeasy era; it’s cleverly hidden. There’s no door number. Heck, if it hadn’t been for a stranger who pointed out the *magic* yellow light, I’d dare say that there was no door at all.
The interior is what I would describe as Wedgewood meets The Delano (for those of you who have been to South Beach, you’ll know what I’m talking about). Except, it’s about five shades dimmer, and with an appropriately loud beat (good music, but loud).
There are over-sized chairs (think tall and gothic), austere banquettes and plush Ottomans big enough for six. There’s a fireplace, two bars, and telephone booth-like water closets. The place definitely has character.
The cocktail menu is generally divided by the base alcohol. There’s also a food menu that looked interesting (unfortunately, food was the farthest thing from our minds at this point).
The cocktails (all $11) here are very good. It’s funny how even the most untrained palate (me) can tell good from not-so-good. I can’t say that I liked everything I tasted, but I could tell that all of these cocktails were all very balanced and well-made.
My experience at The Violet Hour further confirmed my earlier discovered aversion to sugary and citrusy drinks.
The “Hush & Wonder,” for example, was too sticky and sweet for me. It’s a rum-based drink with Methusalem, creme de violette (Rothman & Winter, in case anyone is curious), fresh lime, and grapefruit bitters. It had a significant amount of lime with a chasing hint of bitter-citrus from the grapefruit bitters. The latter end of the taste spectrum suited me better.
Same with my friend’s “Winter Sidecar.” We both failed to understand what was so “wintry” about it. I don’t know enough about liquor. The drink involved Landy Cognac, lemon, orange flower water, and Pimento Dram. This refreshing and orange-y drink had well-rounded flavor, but was still a tad sweet for me.
The “Winter Sazerac,” however, was revelatory. It was drier than any cocktail I had tasted thus far. It was stoic and hauntingly good. It had (what I call) a smooth purple bitterness to the end that I liked (maybe, better described as a sweet licorice-y end). The ingredient list read like a witches brew to me: Old Overholt Rye, Herbsainte, brown sugar, coffee syrup, Peychaud’s bitters. Interestingly, the coffee element was discernible, but I wouldn’t have been able to pick that out on my own.
The “Chi-Town Flip” was novel, only because of its silky, egg white-induced texture (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Dow’s Tawny Port, whole egg, Fee’s Old Fashioned bitters). I was expecting a figgy-cherry flavor from the port, but instead, it tasted more like a malty eggnog. I preferred sipping off the rim which allowed the aroma from the freshly grated nutmeg on top of the foam to enhance the experience. The flavor through the straw fell flat by comparison.
The “Aviation,” was was very clean-tasting, almost breezy and airy. It had a hit of tartness from the lemon, but it is overall a rather dry drink (just a hint of sweetness). The gin was subtle and soft.
The best cocktail, of the evening for me was an “Old Fashioned” made with Jim Bean rye. The afterglow of oaky butteriness was nothing short of phenomenal. And, this, perhaps was the most rewarding discovery of my short cocktailing life, thus far: I like rye whiskey.
Service at The Violet Hour was friendly, and surprisingly efficient. We had tried to grab a seat at one of the two bars, but it was quite crowded and we settled for a lounge spot (I don’t believe that reservation requests are accepted).
I had planned to return to The Violet Hour the following night to conduct more rye whiskey reconnaissance, and hopefully get a little more one-on-one with a bartender. Alas, despite best intentions, I did not. I look forward to returning on my next visit to Chicago later this year.
For more (fun) reading about The Violet Hour, see the write-up in Time Out about the “decor” at The Violet Hour.
The Violet Hour
1520 North Damen Avenue