This spring we had a Chicago first. A gathering of cocktail enthusiasts, bartenders, and industry insiders known as the Chicago Cocktail Summit. This was the first of what promises to be an annual event spanning two days and many cocktail-centric topics. The event’s goal was to bring together “both sides of the bar”, the people behind the bar and those sitting at the bar. An event to “showcase the spirit of collaboration, respect, and enjoyment”. The summit is the brainchild of Billy Helmkamp, co-owner of The Whistler, and Erik Westra, owner of Minneapolis based event production company Westra & Co. These two guys combined posses endless event, concert, arts, and cocktail knowledge. As well as deep community involvement in the Logan Square area. Which brings us the the venue.
The Chicago Cocktail Summit was held on May 22nd and 23rd, 2016 at The Logan Theatre. A classic movie theater built in 1915; since renovated while keeping the vintage decor. With its four large theaters devoted to educational sessions and bar/lounge area setup with sponsor booths and mingling. The venue was the perfect location for this educational and collaborative event. Day one targeted consumers and enthusiasts while day two focused on bar and restaurant professionals. Each day was packed with 12 unique sessions, the complete schedule breakdown can be seen here. As well as post event activities and parties. Each day ran from 9:00am to 6:00pm. Full days jam packed with cocktail programming and mini cocktails!
To kick things off was a meet and greet complete with mini coffee, mini cocktails, and mini food. We had about an hour to mingle with other attendees and sponsors. I spent time speaking with the founders of Chicago’s Dark Matter Coffee as we sampled espresso and four different cold brew coffees. All of these were part of their Barrel-Aging Program where the raw beans spent between 2 weeks and 6 months in Basil Hayden bourbon barrels. For those of you in the know Basil Hayden comes from Jim Beam as part of their “Small Batch” collection. Dark Matter has previously used or has on hand barrels from Knob Creek, KOVAL, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Heaven Hill. As I sampled the cold brews they told me how each one uses different beans and is barrel aged a different amount of time leading to various degrees of pronounced to nuanced changes in flavor. Some were more bourbon forward while others took a backseat to the aroma of notes in the coffee. All were delicious and while they are currently sold out online you may be able to find it in one of their three Chicago retail locations or Whole Foods. After our morning happy hour began my run of the 4 of 12 overlapping sessions I chose for the day.
10:30am – The Perception of Taste and the Science of Flavor
Session one got right down to some science business. Ben Carlotto of Bon Vivants and Royal Dutch Distillers gave us a deep dive into how and what we taste. We did a few perception exercises including placing a drop of an unknown liquid on my hand, holding my nose, and tasting. A slight saltiness is about all I could pick up until I released my nose and the flavor of vanilla hit me like a sack of vanilla beans. This as Ben explained that 80% of flavor is perceived through the nose. Nothing like a hands/nose on demonstration to drive a point home. Ben went on to tell us how bitterness is the only flavor perception we don’t lose with age, a primitive defense mechanism. And how salt is good at reducing bitterness in cocktails. He’s actually formulated a saline based solution in dropper bottles to distribute to bars this week to use in their Negroni Week cocktails. Ben recommended adding a small amount of salt to your next cocktail to see what happens.
BONUS TIP: June 6th through 12th is Negroni Week. Follow this link to find a participating bar near you! Click here.
12:15pm – The Making of a Modern Classic
Session two was brought to us by Robert Simonson, columnist with the New York Times and author of The Old-Fashioned, “The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail”. Accompanying Robert was Toby Maloney, Head Mixologist of The Violet Hour amongst many other endeavors. Only fitting that for the next hour these gentlemen would be teaching us about classic cocktails. They started with a brief history of the “dark days of the cocktail”, during the 80’s and 90’s. Out of which came the Cosmopolitan, a cocktail abomination by some accounts. Made famous by Madonna and Sex in the City yet ironically not even on the menu at the bar of its inception, The Odeon in Tribeca. We went on to learn about the “cocktail renaissance” starting around 2000 which included the origins of the Margarita, the Penicillin, and the Red Hook. All examples of modern classics which Robert defines as a cocktail which 1) Travels beyond its birthplace. 2) Is respected by bartenders. 3) Is popular with the public. Robert and Toby went on to tell us about “The Juliet + Romeo”, a gin based cocktail at The Violet Hour, and “Inside the Rock”, a cocktail now served inside of a sphere of ice at The Aviary. There was a ton of history shared during this session. Though perhaps the most shocking thing we picked up from Robert was this. When Milk & Honey, formerly of NY, opened in 2000 the “well” rye whiskey they poured and mixed was from the infamous Pappy Van Winkle family. Let that one soak in the for minute then get to work on a time machine.
“When Milk & Honey opened the Rye [whiskey] in the well was Pappy Van Winkle” -Robert Simonson
2:00pm – Punch-Making Workshop
After a lunch break our third sessions was led by Punch House partner Will Duncan. Will gave a high spirited and fun presentation complete with hands on punch making. There is so much history to alcoholic punch it literally blew my mind. Did you know that punch is the precursor to the modern cocktail? Or that punch dates back to the early 1600’s? That it’s the earliest example of combining spirits with fresh juices to lower the ABV and improve the taste?! Awesome stuff from Will as he explained how punch is much more than just a large format cocktail. At Punch House they construct batches of 100+ servings of punch then filter and keg it for serving at their bar. The word “punch” is borrowed from Hindi and means “five”. This signifies the five flavors that must be balanced in any properly made punch. Strong, weak, bitter, sour, and sweet. Another important ingredient in punch is something called ‘Oleo Saccharum’, a combination of macerated lemon peel and sugar. Will tells us the best time to drink punch is after 1 to 2 days of aging. Keep that in mind should you try your hand at homemade punch. Or keep it simple and head over to Punch House for an expertly crafted selection of punches by the glass, carafe, or of course the bowl.
“At Punch House we’re all about tradition and history” –Will Duncan
4:00pm – Cocktails for Dinner: The Art and Science of Food
For my last sessions of the day I chose ‘Cocktails for Dinner’, hosted by the triple threat. Jerald O’Kennard of Tastings.com, Adam Seger of Balsam Spirits and Rare Botanical Bitters, and Robert Bansberg of Kendall College. Tastings.com has been sampling and reviewing wine, beer, and spirits for over 20 years. As well as hosting industry events and awards. These three guys have extensive history in the wine community. Evaluating and pairing wines with food, having hosted hundreds of wine dinners. To help immerse us in the sessions they provided a half dozen pipettes filled with various spirit and cocktail samples. As well as small food samples including BBQ potato chips and popcorn. And an introduction cocktail of CH barrel aged gin, umami shrub, crushed thyme, and Perrier. Paired with a potato puff with bacon, mushrooms, thyme, and parmesan.
Robert started us off with some tips when pairing wine and cocktails with food. First and foremost, learn the consumer’s palate. He shared his philosophy of drinking local, “if it grows together it goes together”. How the job of pairing wine with food largely rests on the sommelier as a chef is rarely going to change the food to accommodate a wine. When pairing with desserts, he said, always have the beverage as sweet or sweeter than the dessert. Dry Champagne does not pair well with wedding cake, a common mistake.
They moved on to tasting. Hyper sensitive taste buds at the back of the mouth. Be sure to get spirits and wine to the back of the mouth, near the molars, if you aren’t going to swallow it. Not a problem we usually face with bourbon!
“See alcohol as a nice spine that supports all kinds of different flavors.” -Robert Bansberg
The ongoing themes of this session were balance and perception. The importance of balancing ingredients within a cocktail and balancing cocktails, spirits, and wine with food. Delicate poached fish with delicate light wine. Big tannic reds with a juicy steak. Salt came up again in this session. Robert recommended adding a pinch of salt to your next Manhattan. Jerald and Adam went on to lead us through tasting the pipette samples paired with the food samples. The mini cocktails included Amaro, a sidecar cocktail, a margarita, and a few others.
Chad Hauge, Beverage Director at Longman and Eagle took the stage next. He shared stories from his experiences building his career in New York. His well received 13 course sake pairing dinner for a famous food critic. Another memorable pairing that helped shape his career involved pairing a drink with a molten chocolate cake. The traditional pairing in this situation would be a ruby port. Instead Chad finished the evening by pairing the chocolate cake with a glass of…milk. Unsurprisingly this went over very well. Who doesn’t like a cold glass of whole milk with a slice of gooey chocolate cake? On that note Chad wrapped up his presentation and we once again had a chance to mingle with the presenters and attendees before heading home for the day.
The Inaugural Chicago Cocktail Summit was very well planned. From the perfect venue conducive to presentations to the time allowed between sessions for talking with the presenters it really was a great day. I overheard numerous people say throughout day one that despite being consumer focused, the sessions contained a lot of great industry insight. This is something that I was excited about and other attendees seemed to be as well. Analogous to the bourbon industry, cocktail and spirit consumers have a thirst. Not just for finely balanced and expertly crafted spirits but also for knowledge, history, tradition, and process. The summit allowed consumers and industry professionals to learn from thought leaders and innovators in the cocktail community. It is a welcome addition to the Chicago craft cocktail scene and one we will look forward to attending next year as well!