When I was back in Chicago over Thanksgiving, Vikki, my sister Kelly and I took occasion to go to the Violet Hour — my favorite thus far of the Chicago cocktail bars, even if it is a faux-speakeasy. I’ve never really been into the whole fake speakeasy idea, and am relieved that the trend seems to be dying. People sometimes forget that “pretense” is the root of “pretentious,” a fact I’m never more aware of as when I’m at a hidden, exclusive, “password-only” bar that I found by checking their address on yelp.
Regardless — once you find the stupid hidden door and wait at the stupid velvet curtain, actually being there is a very pleasant experience.
The standout drink I had there was called the Autumn Negroni, which on paper looked redundant. Five of the seven ingredients (71%) are bittering agents, and one could reasonably think that once you have Campari, Cynar, Fernet Branca, and Angostura Orange bitters, a dash of Peychaud’s seems like a waste of everyone’s time.
In practice, however, the bitters strip away individually and at different moments, yielding waves of flavors that make each each sip last like 10 seconds. Each ingredient picks up at the tails of the last one and carries the flavor for a while before handing off to another. It’s like a relay race, or cars of a train. This drink is so fucking good.
2oz dry gin (Beefeater)
0.75oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
0.25oz Fernet Branca
1 dash orange bitters (Angostura)
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Stir over ice and strain into coupe glass; garnish with orange peel.
I immediately asked them for the recipe, which they immediately gave me. Not to single out Saltbox, but I’ve made this drink for probably two dozen people, all of whom loved it, and all of whom now know where to get it if they ever find themselves in Chicago. I share recipes with anyone who asks. I firmly believe it makes all of us better.
Peychaud’s anise shows faintly on the nose alongside aromas of the sweet vermouth’s wine. But what’s so engaging about this drink is that you get to taste all the ingredients, more or less one after another. When taken, the sweetness of the amari mixes with the gin’s juniper, followed by the bittersweet Campari and the brightness of the orange bitters, but right when the Campari would turn rusty bitter that quarter ounce of Fernet Branca prickles up all peppermint and menthol, only to be batted back down by the long, earthy finish of the cynar.
Before this, I had no idea that bitters could layer in this way. I have since used this as the inspiration for the Mane of Needles, my favorite of the URBN cocktails and about which I’ll write soon.
This is the kind of drink that you keep going back to, keep taking small drinks because you identify something different in each sip, and when you feel like you’ve almost mapped all the flavors, you find there’s nothing left but sweetness on your lips and you have to do the whole thing all over again. Which is all I could ever ask from a cocktail. Four stars. A+.