Open Source Cocktails
January 7, 2010 12:00 PM   Subscribe

The Violet Hour, a speakeasy styled lounge in Chicago with no sign, has been pushing the envelope in creative drink mixing since it opened in 2005. Toby Maloney, the Violet Hour's "Head Intoxocologist", had no problem posting on a Chicago food forum and sharing some of the drink recipes that have made his bar one of the most exciting in the country.
This one recently won third place in GQ's 20 best cocktails:

Juliet & Romeo
* 2 oz Beefeater
* .75 oz Fresh Lime Juice
* .75 oz Simple Syrup
* 3 drops Rose Water
* 3 drops Angostura
* 3 slices Cucumber
* 3 sprigs Mint
* Tiny pinch of salt

Glass: Coupe
Garnish: Mint leaf and 1 drop rose water/3 drops of Angostura Bitters.
Ice: None

Muddle cucumber, mint and pinch of salt. Add rest of ingredients. Let sit for 30 seconds (time allowing). Shake. Strain. Garnish with 1 floating mint leaf and 1 drop rose water on top of leaf, and 3 more drops of angostura on the surface of the drink.

You can buy rose water at Sultans Market on North Ave. I would get an eye dropper at the container store as well as a couple of extra drops will make this drink way to much like the jewerly box of a very old southern belle.

The pinch of salt is really, really small. It should be muddled with the cuke to bring out it's freshness.
posted by AceRock (35 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Maloney on why he has no problem sharing specs:
There are lots of reasons that I have no problem with sharing spec’s. First it is standard amongst bartenders to give out the minutia of each drink to other bartenders. ...

The other thing is there is something so nice about being served and then cleaned up after. There are many restaurants who have published cookbooks, and that hasn’t hurt their business. Also seeing how other bartenders construct their drinks it can give you ideas of your own, so it makes all bars better. And the more places to get solid cocktails the better. Maybe one day there will be fierce competition amongst high end cocktail lounges, there just aren’t enough of them around to saturate the market.

Also it’s nice to get what you are doing out there on the net with a time stamp if there is ever any argument with who came up with a drink first. And most people can make a couple of these labor intensive drinks at home for themselves. It’s making hundreds of these drinks that is really, really difficult. So I am happy to share any knowledge I have with people who want to know. There aren’t that many souls out there who’s eyes don’t glaze over when I start babbling about ice density and the merits of a mime shake.
posted by AceRock at 12:05 PM on January 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

I finally went to the Violet Hour a couple of months ago (it's a block from my apartment, but the whole no-sign thing is a little intimidating-- there's no indication that there's anything inside, no windows, old wood-shingle siding with a mural painted over it for the facade, and the only sign that the place is open is a little light bulb over the door that illuminates during business hours). The place is fantastic. They only let in as many people as they have seats for, the waitstaff is knowledgable, courteous, and conversationally friendly without being a bother. In fact the whole ambience is geared towards having good conversation. And the cocktails are absolutely phenomenal.

Maloney also created the cocktail menu for Big Star, which is right across the street. If anyone feels like getting $14 absinthe-based cocktails sometime, MeMail me.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:19 PM on January 7, 2010

I don't know if my palate is ready for something like this:

This drink should taste like a pulled pork sandwich but made with booze.
posted by naju at 12:20 PM on January 7, 2010

Those recipes actually look delicious and well-mixed; the ingredients seem to make sense together, and the drinks seem like they might highlight, rather than mask, the taste of a good liquor.

I've been having too many new cocktails lately that fall into one of two categories, the tacky and the horseshit. The recipe for the tacky looks like this:

People don't like the taste of alcohol, so I am going to mix vodka with something sweet and then add something with a lot of caffeine and maybe add something sweet on top of it. And then I'll put whipped cream on top.

The recipe for the horseshit looks like this:

We're going to take a classic recipe, but here, where it calls for ginger ale, we're going to swap that out for sashimi-infused ginger beer, and here, where it calls for a lime wedge, we're going to use a slice of those square Japanese watermelons that cost $100, and here, instead of gin, we're going to use vodka and a curried mayonaise. And now, a $6 cocktail costs $18, and tastes like somebody threw an Asias fusion restaurant in a blender!
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:20 PM on January 7, 2010 [12 favorites]

I visited Chicago last year for NYE and going to The Violet Hour was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I sat at the bar and the bartender knew almost everything there is to know about cocktails, and he wasn't shy about conversation and didn't act pretentious in the least bit. At first I thought the prices were a bit steep (I think they were around $12) but I was basing that on shitty vodka/rum cocktails (they shouldn't even be able to call them cocktails) I drank at my local bars. Probably the most welcoming bar I've ever been too. It feels like something out of a Kubrick movie, but friendly. If (actually: when) I return to Chicago I will be sure and go there again. Thank you a million favorites for posting this.
posted by thepalephantom at 12:29 PM on January 7, 2010

Let me share my favorite drink:

The Gin & Tonic
1 part gin (brand largely irrelevant)
1 part tonic (my mother-in-law drinks La Croix, but whatever)
Shake in ice, strain & serve with a thin slice of lime.

The drinks menu for Violet Hour looks fantastic, but the "sustenance" side leaves me cold, especially this:
Quartet of Kobe Beef Minidogs:
Chicago Style: Yellow Mustard, Onion, Tomato and Pickle
Making burger or sausage out of kobe beef or "american kobe" beef just seems to miss the point entirely.
posted by boo_radley at 12:32 PM on January 7, 2010

Philip Ward seems to occupy a similar role in New York liquornerdery. Although I first tasted it in 2008 his Fresa Brava got me into infusing spirits (and still wows houseguests). Unfortunately, I have yet to find the same array of creativity and delightfulness at Mayahuel - instead most of their cocktails taste like an attic full of leather after a fire.
posted by abulafa at 12:35 PM on January 7, 2010

Shake in ice, strain & serve with a thin slice of lime.

Shake in ice? Really? Is tonic water not carbonated in your part of the world?

I think "speakeasy-style" bars are becoming really popular and on-trend, at least according to my 20-something friends who live in Chicago, Cambridge, and NY. It makes me a little sad that someday they'll go the way of the Irish pub (like, one on every corner, they're all called "The Speakeasy", and they have 2-dollar call specials).
posted by muddgirl at 12:38 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not being a fancy kind of guy (though a fan of the Manhattan and Rye-and-Ginger), I had thought this new cocktail trend was bullshit. Then I happened to be invited to West Restaurant where "award-winning mixologist" (watch me start to gag) David Wolowidnyk made me a Kaffir Fling (scroll down). It was finished with a kaffir lime leaf clapped in the hand "to release the essential oils" and a pinch cinammon dropped through a tiny blowtorch flame as a garnish. (See me roll my eyes again.)

It was the most amazing fucking thing I've ever tasted. Layers and layers of flavours playing off each other. I'm not such a smartypants now.

(And I like the taste of alcohol, Astro. If you only knew.)
posted by Turtles all the way down at 12:40 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

If it makes a good coctail, it makes a good cocktail. I've had very few.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:44 PM on January 7, 2010

Yeah, the drinks at Violet Hour have miles of flavor and subtlety. Also they rarely use vodka because (western-style) vodka is flavorless, and their mixology philosophy is all about flavorfulness.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:51 PM on January 7, 2010

I have gone to Violet Hour a great many times - It was not a place I expected to like, but I soon fell in love with it, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they truly do make the absolute best cocktails I have ever had in my life. It quickly became a chicago staple for me. I wouldn't go so far as to call the drinks a bargain, but they are definitely not overpriced, as they really are something special.

It is also solely responsible for me learning that under the right treatment, Citrus can be extremely flammable. This is what I would love to know more about - How to treat an orange peel so that I get a small explosion when it's exposed to a flame.

I love knowing that not only do they truly give the drinks the care that they advertise, but that they are so open with how they are made.
posted by MysticMCJ at 1:00 PM on January 7, 2010

The oil from citrus fruits is volatile and flammable. When you squeeze the oil out of the fruit peel it vaporizes enough that you can flash your flame. It is primarily the D-limonene in the citrus oil that vaporizes and ignites. The flash point of limonene is 50°C. Limonene is used as an orange flavoring, a cleaner, and may have use as a biofuel. [source]
posted by AceRock at 1:06 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Garnish: Blackberry and Knotted Pigtail Lemon Twist

Ah, one of those places. With all due respect to the positive reviews, I think I'll stick to drinks that are made in five-gallon batches, minimum.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:07 PM on January 7, 2010

I have a few "go-to" cocktail recipes passed down through my family.

Uncle's Egg Nog
Ice Cubes

1 part gin
Idly contemplate going down to the liquor store for vermouth
Garnish with one wrinkled Spanish olive rescued from year-old jar in the back of the fridge.

Mint Julep
Freeze silver-plated mint julep cups for at least an hour at 29 degrees F.
Muddle mint leaves with marble mortar and pestle (NOT porcelain or granite)
Using a slotted absinthe spoon, pour 1/2 oz. cane juice (I prefer to source it from Vietnam, but Brazilian will do in a pinch) over a teaspoon of mint leaves.
Pour 1.5 oz. Pappy Van Winkle bourbon over absinthe spoon.
This isn't canon, but I also like a drop of lime juice to pep things up.
Just before drinking, sprinkle a bit of salt water from the tears you've cried contemplating your wasted, empty life. Bottled or fresh are equally acceptable.
posted by logicpunk at 1:08 PM on January 7, 2010 [17 favorites]

This place sounds a lot like Milk and Honey without the outrageous douchebaggery. I like the fact that they are trying that same kind of intimate, carefully-crafted feel available to anyone who manages to get there in time.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:12 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd like a single plum floating in perfume served in a man's hat.
posted by fixedgear at 1:21 PM on January 7, 2010 [10 favorites]

1adam12 - there are place in NY that are like this with similar door policies. Indeed the Petraske places (M&H being one of them, and all famed for d-baggery) have been superceded by them as far as cocktail quality is concerned.

Death & Co
Pegu Club

and a few more. No Door, but once they are full they are full. And full means no seats available. No standing anywhere.
posted by JPD at 1:23 PM on January 7, 2010

Flaming an orange peel
posted by neroli at 1:39 PM on January 7, 2010

I just read this article in The Atlantic about the different types of ice used at the Violet Hour. Apparently it's all about the ice.
posted by wherever, whatever at 1:45 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure whether this conversation has moved on from the "open source" aspect into an overall discussion of cocktail culture. Most of these guys are my friends, so I have some things I can say about both.

As a general rule of thumb, most of the best and most well-known people making cocktails are willing to share the recipes for their creations rather than jealously guarding their secret formulae. Why? Because it's better for Toby if someone making the Juliet & Romeo is making it according to the correct recipe, and it's also better for Toby to get credit for creating the cocktail. Otherwise, you're likely to get 100 different versions of the drink made according to a wide variety of guesses and tweaks, and none of them crediting the creator. Look at what happened with the Cosmopolitan. Of course, bartenders have long published their recipes in books going all the way back to Jerry Thomas. What's different now is that bartenders are putting their original creations out there in food forums and blog posts and print media articles before even writing the book. The speed with which these things can find their way into the public consciousness is just too fast for a bartender to wait to accumulate a book's worth of original recipes before "going public." The first person of which I'm aware who started doing this is Audrey Saunders, probably not coincidentally because her rise in the business coincided with the growing ubiquity of internet media, blogs, discussion fora, etc. But it's possible someone like Dale was putting stuff out there "for free" before that.

Meanwhile, popularizing your recipes can be a great way to grow your reputation and presence. For example, these guys from the bar Cure down in New Orleans came up with a provocative book called "Rogue Cocktails" a while back which they self-published. Before that, hardly anyone in the community had heard of them. Now, most everyone knows about Rogue Cocktails (ironically, they were forced to change the name of their venture to "beta cocktails" for legal reasons). But "going public" certainly put them on the map in a way that simply slinging their drinks down in NoLa would not have -- certainly not that fast anyway.

Of course, the comparison to open source is not entirely apt, because cocktail formulae don't have intellectual property protection under any law.
posted by slkinsey at 1:48 PM on January 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Austin MeFites, check out Peche, which is my new favorite place to go for cocktails since the Peacock closed (sniffle). Don't be scared away by the "absinthe bar" thing -- it's not, not really. They'll make you a damn fine cocktail -- they have house-made bitters, brandied cherries, and ultra small batch artisanal vermouth. I credit Peche with introducing me to the joys of violet liqueur, which might be my favorite liquor ever.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:56 PM on January 7, 2010

Yea, I was coming in here to echo that most folks aren't shy about sharing information (hi, slkinsey, I didn't know you were a mefite. I haven't seen you in person in forever. Fancy running into you here).

There is a lot of sharing of information between folks, whether it's about recipes, techniques and just shop talk in general. It's also not unheard of for people to guest bartend at other bars in other cities, and this sort of open source sharing and a general sense of community is pretty evident even from just opening up a menu at a place like Violet Hour or PDT and seeing a "Friends and Family" section, or have a drink made using bitters made by so-and-so or have a bartender in one bar make you a drink off the menu based on your preferences and say, "Yea, this is actually a drink by so-and-so over at bar X."
posted by kkokkodalk at 2:06 PM on January 7, 2010

Here's a fun Chicago Reader story in which Maloney and other Chicago bartenders try to tame Jeppson's Malört, the infamous local wormwood liqueur.
posted by Iridic at 2:19 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

For sake of convenience, here is a more easily browsable list of the recipes and other wisdom from the thread in the OP. Toby Maloney (not, by the way, responsible for the excellent tequila and whiskey cocktails at Big Star across the street, that would be Michael Rubel, also of Violet Hour) also participated in an eGullet thread, with some more recipes.

Here are a few videos featuring Violet Hour recipes.

The Dark 'n' Stormy is pretty easy, and delicious, plus, you have to make your own ginger syrup (two parts granulated sugar to one part ginger juice, reduced for a bit over a medium flame), which is fun. The Angostura Fizz sounds crazy, but it works. My default Manhattan is a variation on the Blue Ridge, and I default to Manhattans frequently.
posted by hoboynow at 2:47 PM on January 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Violet Hour is pretty great. Very low-key, and in addition to the great drinks the food is fantastic as well.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:50 PM on January 7, 2010

Irdic, don't forget about the Malört Face group on Flickr, which captures drinkers' reactions after downing a shot of the liqueur. My first Malört was at the Lincoln Tap Room, where almost all of my friends proclaimed that its taste was like mixing grapefruit with kerosene. The one exception, my friend Nick, is one of the sick bastards lucky people that actually enjoys the taste of Malört. Then again, Nick also loves Fernet Branca and Cynar, so what can you do about that? *shrugs*

[The Violet Hour--a place that I still want to call The Violent Hour--serves up a drink called the Tiger Balm. One of the drink's ingredients is Fernet Branca Menthe. If you order a Tiger Balm, the bartenders will not serve you anything else for the rest of the evening, mainly due to the fact that your mouth will be "burnt out" from the drink's intense menthol flavoring.]

I'm not a big rum fan, though I have had some great rum drinks at the Violet Hour, such as the Hush & Wonder and Dark & Stormy (which, sadly, does not come with a beagle typing on a doghouse). The one thing that needs to be emphasized about VH is that, yes, their drinks are $12, but they are POTENT. Two drinks should warm you up, three drinks will make you take a cab or train back home.
posted by stannate at 3:01 PM on January 7, 2010

Chicagoans, show some love for the Whistler, as well. Just one neighborhood over.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 4:34 PM on January 7, 2010

Whenever I visit my girlfriend in Chicago, the Violet Hour is the highlight of our trip. In addition to the wonderful atmosphere noted previously, the staff is tremendous. When we sat at the bar, the bartender would mix little samples of drinks or things he was concocting and ask us to have a taste. If we were unfamiliar with an ingredient, he would give us a small sample and some background on it. It is true about their reluctance when it comes to vodka; I ordered a vodka-based drink and the bartender recommended a similar drink made with gin, along with his reasoning.

Also, their Libertine (Gruet Sparkling, Lemon, Pernod Absinthe, Plymouth Sloe Gin) is one of the best cocktails I have ever had.
posted by kaisemic at 6:25 PM on January 7, 2010

What is it with these people and their insistence on using fucking cucumber in a cocktail?

Honestly, there is a Pimm's Cup where that works, and that is about it.

And this whole "served in a man's hat" twee bartending has got to go. I thought that shit had been played out in the mid-90s.

Honestly, just because everyone is finally cluing into the fact that adding assorted fruit juice to vodka and putting in a cocktail glass is not a martini, these freaks start getting all metrosexual with their drinks. Once you go beyond 4-5 ingredients or steps in the recipe, you are no longer making a cocktail.

You are baking bread. Poorly.

Jesus. Someone mix me a proper Manhattan. And use a real maraschino cherry (not that disaterous florescent thing the temperance league left us with after prohibition was repealed.) Make it a strong one. I'm drinking for three these days.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:00 PM on January 7, 2010

Ah, one of those places. With all due respect to the positive reviews, I think I'll stick to drinks that are made in five-gallon batches, minimum.

Halloween Jack, what part of the word "cocktail" did you not get? Yes, it's one of "those places" that serve drinks other than just beer.

That has got to be one of the most pointless snipes I've seen in a while.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:49 PM on January 7, 2010

Honestly, just because everyone is finally cluing into the fact that adding assorted fruit juice to vodka and putting in a cocktail glass is not a martini, these freaks start getting all metrosexual with their drinks. Once you go beyond 4-5 ingredients or steps in the recipe, you are no longer making a cocktail.

You are baking bread. Poorly.

I politely and humbly submit that you don't know what you're missing.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:07 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I visited Chicago last spring. I feared Violet Hour would be annoying and twee. The place is a DAMN good bar. Not a shot-and-beer bar, sure, that's a different category, with different criteria.

But for all the highfallutin drink language, they make fabulous cocktails, the staff is professional and warm, the atmosphere is hushed yet affectionate, in short, it's a class joint and the owners know what they're doing, and are doing it well. That Maloney will share a recipe instead of being a big ol mysterioso snob about is...great. That's a guy with whom I want to drink.

All types of bars have their conventions. I excuse silly titles and the "speakeasy" thing of Violet Hour with the same shrug that I excuse the ancient grime and warped paneling at my local drinkers' bar. Eh. Pfft.
posted by desuetude at 10:21 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Duder loves his apostrophes. I'm just sayin'. '''''''''
posted by mynameisluka at 10:07 AM on January 8, 2010

I like how this is advertised as "in Chicago" and actually is in Chicago, instead of "in Chicago" but is actually 40 miles away from Chicago in Waukegan.
posted by Evilspork at 2:11 PM on January 8, 2010

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