The Violet Hour

Well, you might have noticed that there were a few “S” cocktails missing from the Savoy Stomp…

Chicago’s a funny city. One of the largest cities in the country, it is also one of the hardest drinking party towns in the Midwest. Gangsters and Speakeasies played a big part during prohibition, but after prohibition, like elsewhere, there was a bit of a lull in cocktail culture.

Even after new classic cocktail bars started opening in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, the Midwest has lagged behind, caught in the culture of bigger is better.

Chicago, though, seemed like it could do better. A fabulous culinary destination, arguably one of the best in the whole of the United States.  How long until a bar in Chicago took cocktails as seriously as restaurants like Alinea, avec, or blackbird?

With thoughts along those lines, Toby Maloney and his partners opened The Violet Hour in late June of 2007.

Toby,

I’ll be in Chicago for a dinner at Alinea on Thurs.  We’re staying
through the weekend to relax.

Hoping to stop by The Violet Hour (finally!)

Do you still have anything to do with that venue?

I do need to photograph at least this week’s 5 Savoy Cocktails (Star
through Stinger) somewhere in Chicago.

Seemed like The Violet Hour might be a fun place to do it.

Think anyone there would be interested?

Best,

Erik E.

Hey Erik,

I am happy to say I am an owner of The Violet Hour so I will always have my fingers in it. It would be my pleasure to get you a rezo at TVH anytime you want. Many people find a cocktail after Alinea is the perfect thing to decompress and settle the stomach. YAY Cynar.

I am checking with one of my people to see when they can make time for your photo shoot. Do you want the place to be open?

As soon as I hear back I will shoot you an other email.

Cheers,
Toby

Hey Toby,

Alinea is on Pernod-Ricard’s dime and there are quite a few bartenders
in tow, so perhaps we’ll make it over afterwards. I’ll suggest it,
unless they have already been in contact. Those Amaro based cocktails
were looking pretty darn appealing to me, and it is only 11:00AM here.

Usually before open or during a bit of a slow time is best for
photography. If such a thing exists at TVH. Is Saturday jammed from
open? I hate to get in the way of opening chores. Sunday at 5 or 6?
Whatever works.

Would be nice to do a bit of an interview and such, if they don’t
mind, and get some pictures of the atmosphere. Always curious about
the cocktail scene in other locales.

Erik E.

Toby,

Simon Ford appears somewhat taken with the idea of visiting TVH for a
post-prandial nightcap.

Our Alinea reservation is on Thurs at 7, I guess that means some time
around 11 or 12?

I will text closer to the time, if the idea gains traction.

Erik E.

I might need a little more notice than hours. Lynette is in I know, You, your wife and Simon make enough for me to make you a rezo in the back room. Any new info should be txted to me to insure prompt action to this fluid situation.

Cheers,
Toby

Well, nothing like rolling in with a bunch of high profile bartenders who have already been drinking, to put a place on edge. I know I always get nervous. Will they break anything? What will my hangover be like tomorrow morning?

Fortunately, we did not break anything, and all went well. Delicious post-prandial libations, perfect to sate our stuffed stomachs.

The next night Mrs. Flannestad and I traveled back to The Violet Hour in Wicker Park, this time to try a few Savoy Cocktails. Unfortunately, among the next 12, or so, cocktails, there wasn’t a lot of greatness. Michael Rubel did his best to maintain his cool and make the cocktails work. But some were just not that great.

Star Cocktail (No. 1)
1 Teaspoonful Grape Fruit Juice.
1 Dash Italian Vermouth.
1 Dash French Vermouth.
1/2 Calvados or Apple Brandy.
1/2 Dry Gin.
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.
Harry McElhone notes this was, “A very popular cocktail at the Plaza, New York.”

Tastes, I guess, change. We first tried it with Carpano Antica, Noilly Prat Dry, Busnel V.S.O.P. Calvados, and Anchor Junipero Gin. Pretty close to undrinkable. Michael, not being one to admit defeat, had to mix it again, this time massaging the amounts a bit and using Bombay Gin instead of the Junipero. As he said, “it isn’t going to rock your world,” but it was at least drinkable.

Messing around later, I found a version made with 1 teaspoon M&R Bianco, 1 teaspoon Carpano Antica, 1 teaspoon Grapefruit, 1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy, and 1 oz Krogstad Aquavit to be actually enjoyable. Your mileage may vary, but, made literally, this classic cocktail is definitely one of questionable merit.

Star Cocktail (No. 2)
1/2 Italian Vermouth.
1/2 Applejack or Calvados.
(dash House “Aromatic Elixir”)
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.

Michael went with 1/2 Carpano Antica, 1/2 Laird’s Bottled in Bond, and, after a brief query, “I’d put bitters in this, wouldn’t you?” he suggested we add Violet Hour House Aromatic Elixir to the cocktail. Maybe it was the previous Star Cocktails, but what a relief to be drinking an Apple Brandy Manhattan! Whew!

Stomach Reviver Cocktail
5 Dashes Angostura Bitters.
1/6 Fernet Branca.
2/3 Brandy.
2/3 Kummel.
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.

This cocktail just seemed so appropriate for a bar which has a section of its cocktail menu based on Amaros! Plus, it’s just odd to find a bar with Kummel on the back bar! We used Maison Surrene Petit Champagne Cognac, Kaiser Kummel, Fernet and around an eighth of an ounce of Angostura!

And nice it was, a fine example of extreme Fernet Mixology. About our only criticism would be, it was almost nicer before it was chilled and diluted. Maybe I’m just used to drinking Fernet at room temp, but the flavors seemed a bit muted after the cocktail was cold.

Stinger Cocktail
1/4 White Crème de Menthe.
3/4 Brandy.
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to drink a Stinger, but as we were talking, Michael had a funny story. He mentioned that it was one of Dale DeGroff’s favorite cocktails, and when he was working in New York, he got an order from the great man. For some reason, which I fail to exactly recall, he decided to make it, instead of with Cognac, but with a (very nice) Spanish Brandy.

The next Saturday night Michael was working, in the height of the evening’s rush, Mr. DeGroff came back to talk to him, and explain in no uncertain terms, without concern for how busy Mr. Rubel was, precisely why it was wrong to use Spanish Brandy and exactly the way he preferred his Stingers, thank you very much.

Well, after that story, how could I not finish the evening with a Stinger prepared by Mr. Rubel?

This evening we made the stinger with Brizard White Creme de Menthe and Maison Surenne Petit Champagne Cognac.  You can’t say Michael did not learn his lesson. We did serve it up, per the Savoy Cocktail Book, and I believe Mr. DeGroff prefers his over cracked ice. FYI, just in case you get an order for one from him one busy Saturday night.

I can’t say I entirely see the appeal of the Stinger, I did think it could use a bit less Creme de Menthe. I also believe I agree with Mr. DeGroff and prefer it over cracked ice.

This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow again and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.
- Bernard DeVoto “The Hour”

I have to thank Toby and especially Michael and Maura of The Violet Hour staff for making me welcome and putting up with a couple pretty awful Savoy Cocktails. The most inspiring thing, as a bartender and customer, that I took away from our evenings at The Violet Hour, was that the staff were great hosts. I loved watching the truly professional way they interacted with each other, the customers, and kept their bar top in order. Amazing. Although I didn’t see the unicorn this time, I certainly hope it won’t be another 3 years before I get a chance to return and look for it again!

This post is one in a series documenting my ongoing effort to make all of the cocktails in the Savoy Cocktail Book, starting at the first, Abbey, and ending at the last, Zed.