As bars phase out their bourbon-heavy winter cocktail menus, we're giddy to see tequila, gin and rum making their seasonal debuts. But along with those staples, bartenders are introducing other, less familiar warm-weather spirits to the mix. This is the summer of mezcal, pisco and rhum agricole, a trifecta of trending liquors that may even shake us of our margarita habit this spring. We talked to some of these spirits' biggest fans—bartenders themselves—to find out why they can't wait to introduce Chicago drinkers to a taste of the tropics.
What it is: A spirit distilled from grapes (similar to brandy) produced in Peru and Chile. "It's very floral and so versatile," said Jason Brown, head bartender at Kinmont (419 W. Superior St. 312-915-0011) in River North and a recent transplant from San Francisco, which he describes as "a pisco town." An eight-day trip to pisco-producing regions of Peru earlier this month left Brown with an even deeper appreciation for the spirit's nuances—and a desire to spread the word. "Midwesterners love brandy in general, so it's been a pretty easy experience to turn them on to [pisco]," Brown said. "It's also great in riffs on classic cocktails, and it can easily be placed in cocktails that call for gin to add some interesting floral tones."
Where to try it: One of Kinmont's best-selling cocktails is the pisco-based Riffel Express ($11), which pairs the spirit with grape-derived Cardamaro amaro. He also recommends pisco as a base for a riff on an Aviation, which he calls an Elevation. Peruvian restaurant Tanta (118 W. Grand Ave. 312- 222-9700) in River North serves a classic pisco sour ($12)—a great start for newbies to the spirit—while Lincoln Park's J. Parker (1816 N. Clark St. 312-254-4747) bar shakes up a Bitter Andes ($13), a light combination of pisco, Aperol, egg white and citrus.
What it is: A spirit distilled from agave. Many people mistake mezcal for a type of tequila, but that's backward. "Mezcal is the mother of tequila," said Annemarie Sagoi, beverage director—and mezcal evangelist—at The Dawson (730 W. Grand Ave. 312-243-8955) in West Town. On a recent trip to Oaxaca, the region of Mexico where most mezcal is produced, Sagoi saw first-hand the traditional methods that rural farmers employ to give the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Once an agave plant is ripe, farmers chop off the leaves to leave the heart of the plant, or pina, which is then roasted in underground ovens for one to seven days. "Most tequila is basically microwaved pina," Sagoi said. "Think about the difference in flavor between a microwave dinner and one cooked on a campfire." Though smokiness is mezcal's boldest characteristic, Sagoi said experienced drinkers can detect other flavors such as vanilla and pineapple. Another difference between tequila and mezcal? The buzz. "Most alcohol is a depressant, but mezcal makes you rise up like a stimulant," Sagoi said. "It gives you this cheesy grin and then sets you lightly down on your feet. Drinking mezcal is a completely different kind of buzz."
Where to try it: The Dawson will serve mezcal popsicles ($6) this summer on the restaurant's 150-seat patio, but Sagoi also likes to mix up off-menu mezcal negronis ($11) year-round. At month-old Fulton Market Kitchen (311 N. Sangamon St. 312-733-6900), beverage director Brian Sturgulewski (one of RedEye's Best Bartender 2014 finalists) highlights mezcal two ways: in a smoky, savory drink called Never Trust a Spaniard ($12; mezcal, manzanilla sherry, red pepper, citrus, barbecue bitters) and a refreshing highball called Ecto Non-Cooler ($10; mezcal, Jarritos lime soda, spice rim). To sample the true range of the mezcal rainbow, visit Logan Square's Masa Azul (2901 W. Diversey Ave. 773-687-0300), which boasts one of the most extensive selections in the city. Big Star (1531 N. Damen Ave. 773-235-4039) in Wicker Park and The Barrelhouse Flat (2624 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-857-0421) in Lincoln Park also stock an impressive number of bottles.
What it is: A type of rum distilled from cane juice rather than molasses. Most rhum agricole is produced on the island of Martinique, but cane juice rums also includes cachaca (Brazil) and Rhum Barbancourt (Haiti). Rhum agricole includes both aged and unaged varieties. "It's a really cool spirit, because whereas rum gets a bad rap for being sweet and really sugary, these are the antithesis of those types of rums. They're much drier," said Paul McGee of River North tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash (435 N. Clark St. 312-610-4220). "Blanc [unaged rhum agricole] appeals to the tequila drinker, and the sous-bois aged ones I like to recommend to the scotch or bourbon drinker. The vieux [aged three years of more] are for people who like cognacs and brandies." McGee said that though rhum agricole can be hard to find at liquor stores, he's seen its popularity behind the bar increase. "There's a growing cocktail community that wants these full-flavored spirits. These definitely aren't the mild, mellow, vanilla-heavy rums that a lot of people are used to."
Where to try it: Rhum agricole is a component of Three Dots and a Dash's mai tai ($13) as well as the bar's namesake cocktail ($13). Adventurous drinkers can head to Berkshire Room (15 E. Ohio St. 312-894-0800) in River North and ask for a Dealer's Choice cocktail ($13; choose your spirit, flavor profile and glassware) with a rhum agricole base. At Logan Square's Billy Sunday (3143 W. Logan Boulevard 773-661-2485), the herbal-leaning Bijou ($10) cocktail combines rhum agricole with red vermouth, centerbe Italian liqueur and bitters.