Chicago’s best new beer, cocktails, and spirits of 2016 | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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Chicago’s best new beer, cocktails, and spirits of 2016

The top quaffs of the year from local breweries, bars, and distilleries

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COURTESY KOVAL DISTILLERY
  • Courtesy Koval Distillery

Susan for President barreled peach brandy from Koval Distillery

The first installment in Koval Distillery's new line of limited-edition spirits is named for Koval cofounder Sonat Birnecker Hart's aunt Susan, who used to jokingly campaign for President of the World. Peach brandy—not to be confused with the sickly-sweet bottom-shelf spirits of the same name—was a staple of the early colonists, but fell out of favor after the 18th century; only recently has it started to make a comeback among craft distillers. Distilled from peaches and aged for six months in Koval rye barrels, the distillery's fall release is both delicate and lush, with tons of juicy peach flavor and a faint sweetness that turns into a peppery finish balanced by vanilla and butterscotch.


CHRIS RIHA
  • Chris Riha

Spaceman Spiff at the Sixth

The Sixth knows how to put on a show and make a mean cocktail. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Lincoln Square bar's Spaceman Spiff. The mezcal-based drink with grilled pineapple juice, hazelnut orgeat, and barbecue bitters is served in a stemless, conical glass atop a smoke-filled bowl that contains a diorama meant to be evocative of something Spaceman Spiff—Calvin's alter ego in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip—might've seen on another planet. Sweet, savory, nutty, and smoky, it's the closest I've come to drinking a campfire.


Dovetail Brewery - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Dovetail Brewery

Lager from Dovetail Brewery

Challenging the notion of lager as a boring, tasteless macrobrew is hardly new—Metropolitan has been making excellent lagers for years—but even in an increasingly crowded market, the version made by Dovetail Brewery in Ravenswood manages to be exceptional. The water used to brew it is treated using a reverse osmosis process to mimic the water of Pilsen, the town in Bohemia where pilsner was first made, and it's cooled in a large, shallow, open tank called a coolship, which brewer and cofounder Hagen Dost says increases clarity and improves flavor. The result is straightforward, crisp, and a touch creamy—and not at all boring. And it's on tap not only at Dovetail's tasting room, but also many local bars.


CLAYTON HAUCK FOR LAND AND SEA DEPT.
  • Clayton Hauck for Land and Sea Dept.

Port of Spain at Milk Room

Part of the charm of Milk Room, the ticketed bar helmed by Paul McGee inside the downtown Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, is its old-timey, secret-club atmosphere. The other (arguably more important) part is the lineup of rare and vintage spirits, some of which date back to the mid-20th century. The simple cocktails are built to showcase those spirits, and none does it better than the Port of Spain. Navazos Palazzi cask-strength rum and Caroni 16-year-old single-barrel rum combine with Valdespino Pedro Ximenez sherry and Angostura bitters for a round, full-bodied cocktail that tastes intensely of the remarkable rums in it, backed up by the nutty sherry and spicy bitters.


COURTESY HOPEWELL BREWING COMPANY
  • Courtesy Hopewell Brewing Company

Cold Brew at Hopewell Brewing Company

Hopewell's bright, airy taproom in Logan Square feels more like a cafe than a bar (and even has Ipsento nitro coffee on tap), so it's probably not a coincidence that my favorite of the company's beers is called Cold Brew and tastes just like iced coffee. Though it's not sweet, the beer has zero bitterness and some very appealing milk chocolate undertones, making it one of the smoothest-drinking coffee beers I've had. It's a seasonal offering that isn't currently on the menu but will return in the spring.


COURTESY MEZCLAERIA LAS FLORES
  • Courtesy Mezclaeria Las Flores

Illuminati Handshake at Mezcaleria Las Flores

Sal de gusano—salt with chiles and dried ground agave worm—doesn't sound all that pleasant. But added to the rim of the Illuminati Handshake at Mezcaleria Las Flores, its spicy salinity works wonders on an already outstanding drink. Mina Real mezcal and Old Overholt Rye meld with Lustau Oloroso sherry, rooibos tea, and Angostura orange bitters for a nutty, barely sweet cocktail with layers of flavor and a hint of orange.


DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs

Onu You Didn't at the Ladies' Room

A major component of this cocktail, Onu Tuica Romanesca, is the result of a collaboration between the Ladies' Room's parent restaurant, Fat Rice, and CH Distillery to re-create the recipe for Romanian plum brandy that Fat Rice's Transylvanian janitor, Onu, has made for years. The cocktail, which pairs the brandy with a plum shrub, umeboshi vinegar, and visinatå (sour-cherry liqueur), is light, floral, and savory, less sweet and fruity than you'd expect from a drink in which every ingredient involves plums or cherries.


The Tasting Room at Moody Tongue - JORDAN BALDERAS
  • JORDAN BALDERAS
  • The Tasting Room at Moody Tongue

Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Gingerbread Imperial Stout
at the Tasting Room at Moody Tongue

Moody Tongue's black truffle pilsner has gotten a lot of attention—and it's a beautifully restrained beer with a faintly earthy, fungal undertone—but it's the gingerbread imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels that kept me coming back for more. Its spiced molasses notes and creamy, almost buttery chocolate-graham cracker flavor combine to create a relatively dry beer that doesn't hint at its whopping 14.2 percent ABV. Available only at Moody Tongue's Pilsen tasting room.


Three entries in Chicago Distilling Company's line of single-malt whiskeys - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Three entries in Chicago Distilling Company's line of single-malt whiskeys

Rauch American Single Malt Whiskey from Chicago Distilling Company

Any of Chicago Distilling Company's line of single-malt whiskeys, made from the mash bills of various beers and available at the Logan Square distillery and local retailers, could be a contender for this slot. I love the fruity Belgian dark strong ale, the roasty stout, and the smooth dunkelweizen. But the subtle smokiness and toffee finish of the rauchbier whiskey puts it over the top.


Feni cocktail at Annex at GreenRiver - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Feni cocktail at Annex at GreenRiver

Carnivale Queen at Annex at GreenRiver

When I set out to interview bartender Julia Momose about how she uses feni—a spirit from India distilled from cashew fruit—in cocktails at GreenRiver and the adjoining bar Annex in the Gold Coast, I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm she expressed for a spirit that she said smelled like acetone. At the time she'd recently retired one feni-based cocktail but developed another, the Carnivale Queen (currently on the GreenRiver menu). Feni can be difficult to work with, but Momose balanced out its aggressive flavors perfectly with Chareau (an aloe vera liqueur infused with cucumber, muskmelon, and spearmint), pistachio orgeat, Aperol, lime juice, and cinnamon.   v

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