Traveling around the Midwest, one cocktail at a time

I did a bit of traveling this year and also stomped around Chicago a bit, all the while happily partaking of the local food and booze.  I thought I'd report out on some of my fave cocktails from 2018 in the hopes they'll inspire you (and me) to do more mixin' in 2019.

Proof on Main, Louisville, KY

Louisville is a mixologist's Mecca, especially if you're a bourbon fan (shocking, I know). I visited with a friend, and on our first day there, we discovered Proof on Main, an excellent gastropub and cocktail lounge in downtown's 21c Museum Hotel.  Featuring house select whiskies (this is where the buyer selects the specific barrel they want, and in some cases, decides how it will be finished in the final stretch) and house-made liqueurs and syrups, they're as much cocktails as works of art (and in case you miss that part, the creator's initials "sign" the menu listing).

Final Ward
Ridgemont 1792, yellow chartreuse, chamomilla di sibona, clarified lemon

META, Louisville, KY

META, located just far enough away from the Fourth Street Live tourist trap to be convenient but still cool, might be my favorite bar, period.  As the name implies, the shop's claim to fame is bartending about bartending, or taking classic cocktails, giving them each a new spin, and then spinning the spin.  I'd call the approach "farmer's market meets molecular gastronomy" – whether they're making simple syrup from fresh figs, using their restaurant-grade centrifuge to obtain clarified avocado, or pushing the flavor envelope with fat-washed spirits (truffle-spiked rum, anyone?), it was difficult not to drink the whole menu.  I was lucky enough to stop by when the owner and head crafter was there – in addition to being a fun, laid-back guy, I got all kinds of tips on cocktail crafting, and maybe more importantly, how to source ingredients for said cocktails (making friends with the produce guys being a big one).

Kentucky Delight
Copper & Kings Craft Brandy, Butchertown brandy, roses, saffron, black pepper date palm syrup

Sazzy B, Kenosha, WI

My wife and I took a few long weekends in Wisconsin this year, but the standout cocktail experience from these trips had to be Sazzy B. Part jazz bar, part gourmet small plates restaurant, Sazzy B was a surprising find given the extent to which Kenosha's food and drink scene is completely eclipsed by nearby Chicago and Milwaukee. We were close enough to the bar at Sazzy B in Kenosha for me to see how they made our drinks. For my fave, End of Shift, the bartender inverted a snifter on a plank of maple wood and torched the wood, letting the bowl of the glass fill with smoke, then set it aside to prepare the drink in a mixing glass. The server brought both over, snifter still atop the plank, then quickly turned it right-side up in front of me and poured in the cocktail, smoke dissipating fragrantly as I took my first sip. Fun stuff.

In addition to a robust and creative cocktail menu, Sazzy B also offers the chance to let go of the decision fatigue. Similar to the Aviary's Office concept, just choose a base spirit, a flavor profile (fruity, sweet, herby, etc.), the type of glass, and a few other details, and leave the rest in the bartender's creative, capable hands. 

End of Shift
A Jameson Caskmates Manhattan smoked twice with charred maple wood.

Fulton Market Kitchen, Chicago

Chicago's Fulton Market is one of the city's hottest restaurant scenes – and that's saying something. Fulton Market Kitchen's food is rivaled only by its eclectic art gallery feel and short but intriguing cocktail menu, all of which change on a seemingly frequent basis. As the only person of both driving and drinking age at the table, my ability to partake was limited, but what I did consume was pretty special.

Shrubby McShrubbyton
Jefferson's Reserve bourbon, Manzanilla sherry, creme de cassis, blackberry-thyme shrub, grapefruit, rhubarb bitters

HQ Beercade – River North, Chicago

Last but definitely not least, is HQ Beercade. While the beer list is usually the preferred accompaniment to the clanging pinball machines and classic arcade cabinets of your youth, the 8-bit 80s charm of the place is so pervasive, it even comes to life in its cocktail menu. From names like "Don't grow up, it's a trap" and "Prom Punch" to the use of ingredients like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Red Bull, and Boba pearls, it's like a top bartender went back in time, imparted her advanced creative and technical mixology knowledge and high standards to her younger self, and then let her design the cocktail menu without help. Magical.

Cereal Killer
Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Bourbon, Black Walnut Bitters