The Toast of the Town

Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Toast3The proposal last week noted that we have not tried a cocktail with Scotch. There are classic cocktails like the Rob Roy or Blood and Sand, but don’t seem to be nearly as many variations with Scotch as there are with other whisky (or whiskey). On the other hand, Scotch whisky can vary by being single malt, single grain, blended and all of that with different distilleries by region. The single malt is simply water and malted barley, while the single grain, oddly, can use other grains but is made at a single distillery. The blends make this more complex by blending more than one single malt, more than one single grain, or single malt with single grain.

Once a neophyte grasps that, and the taste variations that come along with it, there are the recognized regions and the differences that brings. The regions are Speyside, Cambeltown, Islay, Lowland and the Highlands. One of the things I find most peculiar is that while Scotland may be an island itself, it has small islands on which they make Scotch. That seems like a region too, but those are included in the Highlands region. Islands are highlands? Of course they are.

Not complicated enough yet? Scotch must be aged in oak casks for at least 3 years to meet requirements but can be, and is, aged much longer to mellow, smooth and increase the complexity of taste. Someone could, and no doubt has, spend their lifetime taste testing all the single malts, single grains, the blends derived from them, and the aged Scotches. I know that I have few friends who would happily volunteer for that task.

The cocktail this week is a relatively new one created by Mike Ryan at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. It is called the Talk of the Town and I found it in the e-book Speakeasy Cocktails. It uses a blended Scotch from the Famous Grouse family called Black Grouse. Black grouse is described as being smoky and smooth which was appealing as a contrast to the standard sweet and sour (citrus) that make up so many cocktails.

2 ounce Black Grouse blended Scotch

.5 ounce fresh grapefruit juiced

.5 ounce fresh lemon juice

.75 ounce honey syrup (simple syrup made with honey instead of sugar)

Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake and strain into a coupe or martini glass.

In the proposal I suggested that David may want to go to Sable to try this drink. Interesting that, as David notes, it doesn’t appear on the menu any longer. Not sure this is a verdict on the cocktail, or a comment on the cocktail bar that is constantly mixing and re-mixing to find new combinations.

Here’s David’s Review:Toast 2

I’m compiling a list of bars and restaurants I’d like to visit when my brother comes to Chicago. If you were to arrive here on or around St. Patrick’s Day or the evening of some post-season game, you might think Chicagoans are all nomadic drunks, but we have some sophisticated drinkers too. We don’t all have mustaches, drink PBR, and bray about “Da Bearrs.” Just about every eatery on my list features a cocktail special to that place and—as a bonus—many serve good food.

So I was happy to visit The Sable Kitchen and Bar, one of the dim minimalist, black-furnished, in-the-know spots that seem to appear on every corner inside the loop. Perhaps you have them in your city too—this one had an eight-foot long fireplace filled with a video screen displaying flames. Because it was 1° F the night my wife and I visited, we’d have liked a real flame more, still I’m not making fun. One of the most wonderful aspects of living in Chicago is its celebration of, well, celebrations. Any excuse for a libation will do. Certainly a cold night will do.

But enough civic pride. When we arrived at The Sable, I explained we were on a mission—I might have said… “from Gawd” in that Blues Brothers way, but everyone has heard that around here so it’s understood. The cocktail menu rebuffed us. It didn’t include The Talk of the Town, but our waiter carried the recipe off, explaining their bartenders could make anything.

He returned with the drink and news—they knew the drink after all, as “The Toast of the Town,” and it had appeared on some previous incarnation of their cocktail menu. The drink I tasted, however, seemed a little cobbled together. The recipe calls for honey simple syrup, and this version seemed to have a too-generous squirt of honey in it. Too sweet and nearly hiding the Scotch, for which I’d longed.

Fortunately, he’d brought just one, and, by the time my wife’s arrived, the bartender had evolved—or changed—and I understood how this cocktail works. Though I hadn’t had the chance to try Black Grouse by itself, it’d been advertised as a peaty spirit, and the citrus and honey served to blunt, without eradicating, the somewhat leathery taste of the Scotch. Her drink was lovely, and I wanted to steal it.

We have an Islay Scotch at home. It comes from an earlier drink recipe, but we only use it now to illustrate to guests how strange and “challenging” a spirit can sometimes be. I’ve been trying to rehabilitate Scotch ever since that unfortunate evening before I participated with my fiddler college roommate in a reenactment of the Battle of the Greensboro Courthouse (don’t ask), but I’ve been unable. Now, finally, I feel I’m making progress. Why shouldn’t I like Scotch, why shouldn’t it go with citrus and honey and whatever else, why shouldn’t I join the ranks of those in Chicago and elsewhere who find Scotch the most subtle spirit, a gift of the Celtic gods?

David’s Take: Scotch purists would say any mixed drink is an unjust adulteration of the perfected moderated spirit, but, properly executed, this drink was delicious.

Jonathan’s take: The smokiness that seemed so inviting may be the drawback to this. The initial taste is blended and wonderful, but the peat lingers at the finish.

Next week (proposed by David):

Oddly, here in Chicago we’ve been having Manhattan week (of 14 days, apparently… see earlier comments about Chicago) with assorted restaurants offering their own variations. Suddenly I wondered, “How have we missed trying such a classic?” I thought it might be fun to invite Jonathan to try the traditional type—or one of those variations—while I try another version. So let’s hop Southwestern to LaGuardia and New York to try a Manhattan.

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