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Raising spirits

"There’s a certain audacity to offering Chartreuse on tap,” says Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, because no other bar in town offers the esoteric French liqueur on draft. The tap, a modified Cornelius keg running through one of Sable’s beer lines, keeps the liqueur chilled and cocktail-ready, an operational advantage over keeping Chartreuse on the speed rail.

Ryan has developed a number of cocktails featuring the green Chartreuse. On Sable’s menu currently are: The Sovereign, made with High West Rendezvous Rye, Ramazotti, Chartreuse and coconut; the Diamondback, a blend of bonded rye whiskey, bonded apple brandy and Chartreuse; and Last Word, a mix of London Dry Gin, Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and fresh lime juice. All cocktails are $13. Chartreuse, made by Carthusian Monks from a secret blend of 130 herbs, plants and flowers, is an industry favorite. Local bartenders will drop in at Sable for a chilled shot of the aromatic liqueur.

When the novelty wears off, Ryan plans to switch up the spirits tap, and has been playing around with a couple of ideas. Cold-brew coffee on tap is currently very trendy in the Windy City, and Ryan may collaborate with local roaster Dark Matter to create a cold brew coffee-based cocktail. Dark Matter will tailor a bean blend to punctuate the drink’s spirits component. Another possibility, says Ryan, is a draft version of the classic gin and tonic. For that, he would create a tonic syrup, add gin, then carbonate and keg the cocktail. Not all cocktails benefit from kegging and carbonation, says Ryan. “But the right combination can really add to the cocktail experience.”

Whiskey chasers

Whiskey is one of the hottest products these days, thanks to the newfound popularity of classic bourbon, as well as the rapid growth of craft distilling. The Bourbon/Tennessee category was up 5.2 percent in volume and 7.3 percent in revenues last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Much of that growth was in top-shelf whiskey, up 12.4 percent in volume and 14.4 in revenues. The number of craft distilleries has increased 10-fold over the last decade, to nearly 300 facilities.
Many operators have responded by growing their brown spirits collection accordingly, snapping up all the new labels that are crowding the market. Last year, 46 bourbons and 22 rye whiskeys debuted, according to DISCUS.

But not all brown spirits are gold. Good whiskey takes years or decades to mature, gaining color and complexity from aging in charred oak casks. Eager to see a faster return on investment, some craft distillers are trying to hurry up the maturation process with techniques ranging from smaller barrels to molecular manipulation. The results may make some good-tasting spirits, many experts agree, but it’s not as rich and complex as mature whiskey. Taste before you buy.

And all those labels popping up on the market with lots of barrel age? Check the credentials. More likely than not, those are bottled by what the trade calls “nondistiller producers,” which is what the name implies.

Always on the lookout for interesting whiskeys, Brad Miller, beverage director for Bellevue, Wash.-based Schwartz Brothers Restaurants says he’s wary of NDPs. Since joining the five-unit, multiconcept restaurant group three years ago, he has bumped up the bourbon selections at the three Daniel’s Broilers from 30 to over 70. But NDPs (which some might call “nondescript distillers”) are giant distilling operations, Miller says, that will take a customer’s flavor profile, blend mature whiskeys, then bottle and put the customer’s label on it. Buyer—and taster—beware.

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