Chicago’s Violet Hour Now Has Its Own House-Made Malört

For the uninitiated, Malört is not a spirit, but a dare. The bitter, face-contorting Swedish brannvin is something recent Chicago transplants like to challenge their out-of-town friends to drink just to watch the expressions when the aftertaste hits. My phone autocorrects "Malört" to "MALORT," which is pretty accurate. 

Even though it’s been a part of Chicago culture for a long time, Malört kind of had a banner year in 2012. It was featured in the local commuter paper, the RedEye, featuring a montage of the staff taking shots of the stuff and showing their “Malört faces;” it later showed up in the Wall Street Journal. Anthony Bourdain sampled the stuff at Lakeview’s L&L Tavern on a Chicago episode of The Layover. Many intrepid mixologists have taken to crafting Malört cocktails. At the new Headquarters in Lakeview, a self-described “beercade” packed with old arcade games and wrestling on TV, bartenders offer “The Billy Mitchell,” a variation on a gin & tonic with Bombay Dry, lime juice, Bitter Tree Lemon Soda and Malört. Bar DeVille in Ukrainian Village offers a similar narrative of gin and citrus with the “Hard Sell,” which features St. Germain, lemon and grapefruit peel.

Before, only one variety of Malört, made by the Carl Jeppson Company and recognized by its distinctive, Chicago-flag-copping insignia, was available for these adventures in alcohol. Now, at Wicker Park cocktaillery of note The Violet Hour, they’ve outdone themselves with, in collaboration with Letherbee Distillers, a house version of Malört named “R. Franklin’s Original recipe Malort” after bartender Robby Franklin Hayes. In contrast to the dive bar staple bottle, Violet Hour’s seems to be a kinder, gentler Malört, featuring a beautifully-drawn label from Nick Pyle and a mix of “grapefruit peel, juniper, elderflower and star anise” to the unforgettable, lingering-in-your-mouth flavors of the original. The house Malört is used in “The Thigh High,”where it resides with Letherbee Autumnal Gin, lime, Amaro Sibilla, egg white and orange flower water. The house Malört made some appearances at the end of the year, was in stock on New Year’s Eve and now it looks like it’ll have a regular place on the shelf in 2013. Sadly, it’s only available at The Violet Hour for now, but maybe someday, this bitter house-made fire-juice can be yours to take home.

[via Chicagoist]

Industry Insiders: Chris Morris, Master Distiller

Chris Morris knows his bourbon. And if you drink Woodford Reserve, he knows yours too. The master distiller for the super-premium small-batch bourbon samples about 150 barrels of it a week. But while the quality of what’s in your glass is a distiller’s main responsibility, the job has evolved since Brown-Forman, the company that produces Woodford Reserve and a host of other spirits, made America’s first bottled bourbon in 1870. For example, ten minutes before the start of the Kentucky Derby, Morris, whose accent confirms his status as a lifelong Kentuckian, was on NBC showing Bob Costas how to make the $1,000 mint julep (the proceeds went to charity) using ingredients like ice from the Arctic Circle, mint from Morocco and sugar from the South Pacific.

Point of origin: I started working at Brown-Forman as an intern in the central laboratory, working for the master distiller and various jobs. I went to school here in Louisville at Bellarmine University. So, I was a full-time intern, and I worked nights, weekends, holidays just because I loved it. We had two distilleries here in Louisville; the Old Forester and the Early Times.

On what’s required to become a master distiller: It’s very much a journeyman’s type of role, like you’d have with electricians, plumbers and carpenters. You just have to do it and you have to work at the hands of the master craftsperson; the master distiller. He tells you, “This is right, this is wrong, this smells great, this is not what we want in our product,” and you learn by doing it. That’s the only way. There’s no university degree out there for distilling.

Day-to-day at Woodford Reserve: I do a lot of travel. As Master distillers, one of our job descriptions is be brand ambassadors and we’re constantly going to whiskey shows; we’re making calls on key accounts; we go to big consumer events. We’re the face and voice of the brand. That’s all built into a schedule of production. I might go to the cooperage to see how the barrel production is going and sort of knock wood with the gang out there. At the distillery, most of the work is involved in tasting the barrels. I don’t run the stills.

Favorite way to drink bourbon: I like Woodford at this time of year, especially neat. Just have it straight up; summer, on the rocks. When I’m out in the marketplace, if a bar has a signature Woodford drink, you’ve got to go with that. And in wintertime I like a nice Manhattan, primarily on the rocks unless the bartender really likes it shaken. An Old Fashioned is perfect as we get into the spring and summer.

Most bizarre use of bourbon: Bacon-infused bourbon. I’ve seen Woodford Reserve being used by the finest chefs in the nation. A good friend of the brand, Bobby Flay, will cook with Woodford Reserve, but to see bacon inserted in bottles, and left overnight or left for a couple of days, and then removed and then making drinks with it, that’s—that takes a bit of getting used to. But, they’re usually quite flavorful. They’re used in making Manhattans, for example. But, imagine bacon-infused Woodford, in a Manhattan with a little maple syrup, and this and that and all of a sudden it starts to sort of become a breakfast Manhattan.

Hobbies: I’m an amateur wood sculptor. So, I like to sculpt just abstracts; Archipenko, Jean Arp, Henry Moore type of work. Just free forms that sort of mimic the human form.

Go-to bars for bourbon: There’s a place down in Nashville called The Patterson House, and it’s an old speakeasy. It’s an old Victorian home down near Music Row and you wouldn’t know it’s a bar. They don’t even have a sign out. But, you go in, you walk into a foyer. There’s a bookcase and a couple of plush chairs, and a reading lamp, then you walk through a curtain and all of a sudden you’re in a bar. Up in Chicago, the Violet Hour – it’s a really cool place. It’s like drinking in Alice in Wonderland. Out in L.A., The Edison and Seven Grand are good Woodford friends, really cool places. I can’t even begin to describe the Edison. It’s a bar three stories deep and about a 100-year-old building, maybe the oldest in Los Angeles. It was an old power plant. So, you’re having drinks among these old generators and old coal boilers and stuff, they’ve restored everything. It’s really cool.

Industry Insiders: Chef Kevin Long, Travelin’ Man

Kevin Long stretches his expertise over state lines on a daily basis. He serves as executive chef at both SHRINE Asian Kitchen, Lounge and Nightclub at MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Scorpion Bar, located in Foxwoods Casino. Long also heads the kitchen at Tosca and Caffe Tosca in Hingham, Massachusetts. Humbly starting his career at family restaurants on Boston’s South Shore, Long rose to work alongside one of his idols, Thomas Keller, at The James Beard House and the Park Avenue Cafe.

What’s in a typical day for you? A lot of my days are consumed with driving, as the restaurants are two hours apart, and I oversee all of the operations in the kitchen, menu development, sourcing, and trying to keep connected with the food.

Commuting alone sounds like a lot of work. I’m a workaholic … I never really think about it, but I’m very passionate about my work: one restaurant is a high-end Italian, very creative. The other is fun Italian, another is an up-market nightclub and the last is a Mexican restaurant. And I can pick and choose what to eat every day!

How’d you get your start? I’d gone to college, working for a computer science degree, putting myself through in kitchens. I hated washing dishes, but got into the cooking very gradually — one of those things that started when I was 16 and got to prep the food in a small, local restaurant, and then it became what I was interested in.

When did you realize cooking was your passion? When I was starting out, I worked with some great chefs who exposed me to different aspects of the business. I love to travel, I love to eat out. Every time I walk in the wilderness, I see food. It’s amazing how it becomes your life, whether you’re looking at food on television shows or perusing a small town’s restaurants, I couldn’t imagine doing something else. There are people out there who hate themselves and their jobs, and I just thought, I’ll never be that person.

Go-to spots? I love The Violet Hour in Chicago, it’s off-beat, hip, really great. In Nantucket, I like Corazon del Mar. To go to Boston and visit my roots, I like Locke-Ober under Chef Lydia Shire. It’s Kennedy’s Boston, so fabulous … just sitting at the bar is a little getaway.

Other chefs you admire? Any chef nowadays calls on Thomas Keller, who has been a massive inspiration; I’ve had the luxury of working with him, and he’s just one of these guys who is going to be known forever as the modern day Escoffier, one of those guys who recreates everything in modern restaurant. The guy branches out and still maintains the quality.

Worst part about the recession in relation to dining? Something unhealthy — I hate to be a dark cloud — but the market right now has constricted people’s wallets which makes it tougher. Everybody wants lavish dining. It’s so much fun for us to produce it, but it can really put a damper on the cost-conscious.

Something people might not know about you? Everybody thinks I’m a monster, but I’m really quite approachable, a very nice guy. It’s just that I have an intimidating air in the restaurants.

What gets you through tough days at the restaurants? I love streaming radio and can’t get enough of it. It’s very hard for me being so busy working seven days a week. I don’t have time to manage my iTunes, so this is at your fingertips, instant gratification. It’s really quite a ride for me.

Chicago: Top 10 Ball-Dropping Places to Ring In 2009

imagePull out your card and make reservations now.

1. The Violet Hour (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – Reserve the third seating at this intimate hotspot. For $60 a person, you get unlimited sparkling wine and three cocktails (or beer or wine) from their NYE cocktail list. There will be an appetizer menu floating around, but food is not included in the price. 2. Province (West Loop) – Ring in an organic New Year. The early seating package (5:30 to 8 p.m.) inside this LEED-certified building includes three courses at $36 per person for food only; for the later seating, you get a glass of sparkling wine and your choice among five appetizers, five entrees, and three desserts for $65. There’s a couple of wine packages to choose from, too. 3. Pops for Champagne (Near North Side) – If you’re looking for an open-bar package with Piper-Heidsieck Champagne and passed hors d’oevres prepared by Chef Andre Brochu, then slap down $130 and indulge here. The Ava Logan Quartet will be bebopping downstairs in the intimate jazz lounge from 6 to 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

4. Blackbird (West Loop) – Celebrate with the regular menu, or feast on the $100 NYE dinner that includes caviar, roasted foie gras, lobster legs, braised rack of lamb, black truffle, and more. Wine pairings will be offered for an additional $55 per person. 5. avec (West Loop) – Nothing screams “Happy 2009!” like a wild boar menu. Nothing. 6. The Bristol (Bucktown/Wicker Park) – Lie to yourself about your upcoming resolutions while choosing between the ballotine of young chicken, the Bristol bouillabaisse, and the red onion tart. You get three courses for $39. Oh, and last we checked the second floor was still available for a private party. 7. The Publican (West Loop) – Make reservations early as Chef de Cuisine Brian Huston will prepare a special à la carte version of his pork- and oyster-centric menu to celebrate the season. Consider how the communal table situation might be perfect for finding someone to kiss at midnight. 8. Vertigo Sky Lounge (Near North Side) – Watch Chicago ring it in from the 26th floor. Tickets will cost you (and 164 other people) $206.50, but that gets you inside their “Octopussy Penthouse” party with running films, passed hors d’oeuvres, house cocktails, a midnight Veuve Cliquot toast, and a view from the open patio where they’ll have an “Ice Luge” with housemade shots and drinks. 9. Moto (West Loop) – Chef Cantu has created a 12+ course meal consisting of his most famous dishes. Bring your credit card because it’s $150 a person, plus another $90 if you want to do the wine pairing. 10. N9NE Steakhouse (West Loop) – The second seating (8 to 10 p.m.) will feature N9NE’s a la carte menu of signature steak and seafood dishes for $80 per person, and it also gets you into the upstairs Ghost Bar after 11 p.m. You could really live it up by also requesting a spot at the Champagne and Caviar Bar.