Take me, for example. I’m a scientist by training, and my approach is clearly analytical. When I sit down to make something new, I turn the drink categories over in my head and think about what I can use as a model. “I feel like making a daisy, today,” I might say. “But this time with bourbon.” I have the ratios of spirit to sour to sweet easily at hand and classify drinks like a butterfly collector classifies his specimens.
I muse aloud about this to Trevor Rose-Hamblin, — General Manager and Head Mixologist at iNG, — but he simply shrugs. “I never learned any rules. I just follow my palate.” And at that he pours a measure of Sheep Dip Scotch, dumps in some cherry-balsamic gastrique and tops it with a few drops of rhubarb bitters.
For a moment I balk. It’s a bold combo and I’m skeptical, but as we take sips, heads nod assentingly… it’s kind of working. He reaches below the bar and uncaps a sour ale. It lengthens the drink, giving the complexity of the first three ingredients a bit of space to shine, while the beer’s tart acidity compliments the base. The result is both fantastically nuanced and easy to drink. And it’s something I’d never have come up with.
Rose-Hamblin’s active approach is a bare contrast to my own, but it fits his demeanor in the same way my style fits mine. On this afternoon, he has agreed to spend a few hours with fellow Chicago Foodie Josh Brusin and me with no agenda other than to have fun. The freeness of the assignment, I see quickly, provides him with an ideal environment; as a quick talker and a multi-tasker, Rose-Hamblin doesn’t need — or necessarily want — the same guidelines I would set out for myself at the start.
iNG is the sister restaurant to Homaru Cantu’s Michelin-starred moto, and Rose-Hamblin has a number of futuristic toys at his disposal. “We get a lot of hand-me-downs from next door,” he says, waving at an array of Erlenmeyer flasks and then pulling a desiccator off the shelf. “I remembered we had a shelf of these after having dinner at Eleven Madison Park in New York.” There, Rose-Hamblin says, he had a dish of smoked fish atop a bundle of twig and flowers that arrived under a glass dome filled with smoke. “After that meal, I thought, ‘Let’s do a drink with smoke.’”
We begin mixing up a Manhattan variation: rye, sweet vermouth and chocolate bitters. Rose-Hamblin picks up a homemade amaro I’ve brought, but decides it’s too sweet. “Yellow Chartreuse?” I suggest, thinking of a softer bitterness. He adds that, then — doubling down — adds some rhubarb the bar has on hand. We taste, think a minute, and then harrumph. This one’s gone off the rails. “It’s got too much going on,” Trevor decides. “There’s no one dominant note.”
That might be an understatement. Chartreuse is made of 130 botanicals, the bitters include a dozen, and the vermouth has probably two dozen more. As if the fix to the complexity is to pile more on, we add a short pour of Cynar.
A sip, a flash of a smile on Trevor’s face as if in revelation, then a shake of the head. Nope.
“This time, let’s do a sazerac. Simple is better.” Rose-Hamblin spritzes an old fashioned glass with a mist of Ardbeg Scotch in lieu of the traditional absinthe and in anticipation of the coming smoke.
He places the assembled cocktail into the desiccator, pumping the enclosure full with a smoke gun, and the room now smells of barbeque. The glass dome goes cloudy, then eventually settles after a few minutes. “This is when we’d take it to the table,” Rose-Hamblin points out. “As soon as you can make out your drink through the cloud, open it up.”
The puff of smoke has the three of us hungry and Brusin suggests a beef jerky garnish. Instead, Rose-Hamblin pulls out an Ardbeg-soaked cherry and drops it to the bottom of the glass. As we try the drink, the reaction is universal: meaty. The savory nature is intriguing, but ultimately too much. “It smells like my dad’s deer hunting shed in here,” Rose-Hamblin declares and, with no venison steak to pair it with, we shelve this one as well.
For our final trial, Rose-Hamblin reaches for a taste of the Cynar again. It’s the fifth or sixth time he’s done so and says again, “I have to get a bottle of this.” The bitter artichoke liqueur has struck his fancy and he turns this time away from dark spirits and toward Edinburgh gin. He considers returning to the rhubarb, but instead pairs his gin with hibiscus syrup. “I’ve been on a bit of a beer cocktail kick lately,” he admits and it shows as he tops this cocktail off with Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA.
Bitter on bitter with a little sweetness, he takes the first sip, then smiles ear to ear. He wants to keep silent so as to not color our opinions, but he can’t help himself and blurts out, “I love it,” before either of us gets a taste. Indeed, it’s a winner, another smooth summer quencher.
Game to try a few of these at home? Check out the recipes below.