Even though some know-it-alls (well, me, mostly) have been predicting the demise of the speakeasy concept and all the curiosities and conventions it promises (secret entrances, period costumes, “Boardwalk Empire” décor), there are plenty of cities in the country eager to dip their toes and beaks into the period drinking style. That’s obviously the thinking behind opening at Pittsburgh’s Omni William Penn Hotel of Speakeasy, “a sophisticated social lounge that whisks patrons back to the Pittsburgh of the 1920s,” according to press info.
They’ve brought in Chicago-based barman Adam Seger to help establish the space, tucked beneath the hotel lobby within the depths of the Omni. Speakeasy features a number of local Pennsylvania craft distillers - Boyd & Blair, Wigle and Dad's Hat, for instance – in the drinks Seger “mid-wifed,” as he puts it, with head bartender Dawn Young and Riaan Young, Omni William Penn's F&B director.
The menu, filled with historical notation, excerpts from newspaper stories from before Prohibition, photos and such, includes 10 club service style Collins, an equal number of sours, and Pennsylvania-inspired cocktails such as “Mrs. Mollie’s Groggery,” made with Laird’s Apple Brandy, Cynar, Massenez crème de fraise de bois, spiced butter and Earl Grey tea. The drink is named for Mollie Regan, “an Irish mother of twelve, (who) ran an illegal groggery in her hovel on the hillside of Holy Ghost College, less than 1/2 mile from this location,” shares the menu.
Seger et al even insist on a local touch for such things as the house sour – theirs is made with Pennsylvania maple syrup and birch bark, and hewing to the locavorian style so common now, local beers and whiskies are also featured. By the way, Pittsburgh comes by its attachment to speakeasies honestly – it’s in this part of the country that the term first became known, at a salon owned by Kate Hester, who admonished the customers she served outside legal hours to “speak easy, boys, speak easy,” according to a New York Times article from July, 1891.
Speakeasy style imbibing may be with us for some time to come, but one ancient drinking tradition, hot alcohol beverages, seems still relegated to ski lodges and such. At the restaurant Trillium, in Denver, where Scandinavian influences are important in dining and drinking, they’ve introduced a twist on winter warmers: a French press twist.
Under beverage director Kelly R. Wooldridge, Trillium has menued three hot signature drinks to be prepared tableside; the Levi (a Finnish style glogg made from gloggavit [sic], brandy, wine, spices and orange); the Grindelwald (gin, Alpine berry tea, blueberries, lavender and honey); and the Lillihammer (whiskey, Alpine walnut liqueur, coffee and vanilla).
Mixed and prepared tableside, the cocktails for two mix is then press plunged a la French press coffee and served in small coffee cups. Nice press – uh, twist.
If not now, when else is it time for those hot drinks to be on the menu and ready to go? In Chicago, full-service restaurant Mindy’s Hot Chocolate offers a new lineup of hot drinks to go with an already interesting standard menu. The seasonal heaters read tasty indeed: the Seraph, made with Benedectine, A.E. Dor VS Cognac, pumpkin-spiced white chocolate, espresso ristretto, steamed milk, nutmeg and dried orange zest; the Siren (Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof, Krauter herbal liqueur, dark chocolate, espresso ristretto, steamed milk, molé bitters, cayenne and paprika); and a fancy Hot Buttered Rum (Ron Zacapa 23, housemade-butterscotch, boiling water, Frangelico-infused whipped cream, cinnamon and nutmeg).
The drinks join an inspired standard menu, including Fire & Ice (Old Forester, Inniskillin Vidal ice wine, Jamaican #2 bitters, orange, cherry) and October Country (Ron Botran, chai-infused Punt e Mes, Angostura bitters, lemon and cinnamon).
If hot is seasonally smart, so are Christmas themed ideas. Two notable holiday roll outs worth mentioning: one, at Park 75 Lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel, Atlanta, it’s the 12 Days of Cocktails, with a new drink every day from Dec. 12 through the 23rd. Barman Peter Hill starts with “A Partridge in a Pear Tea” – Cruzan rum, baked pear juice and housemade wormwood bitters. Day two brings Santa’s Sauce – Bulleit bourbon, chai tea, cardamom syrup and cinnamon, and day four features the Grinch – Scotch, port and Aperol together.
The second notable holiday drink parade is going on in Washington, DC, at Italian restaurant Bibiana, where beverage director Michael King has created 25 new seasonally inspired drinks. There are winter warmers on hand - Vin Brulé, made with mulled wine and spices; the Hazelnut Old Fashioned, made with hazelnut-infused Filibuster bourbon, orange and cherry; Hot Chocolate with Cognac and house-made cardamom marshmallow; and a Hot & Cold Gin Fizz. Also in the mix, Eggnog with a Twist (Pedro Ximenez, Benedictine and Buffalo Trace Bourbon) and Amari Cup (cucumber, Averna, Fernet Branca, lemon and lime).
Additionally, Bibiana is serving house-made Rosolio, a traditional liqueur distilled from the peel of lemons, mandarins, fennel and other ingredients found along the Amalfi Coast. Rosolio is meant to be served after coffee in the lengthy Neapolitan dinner array, though as a cocktail ingredient, it has promise. Maybe next year, as the Met fan is used to saying.