The Best of 2018
From a whiskey distillery in Chicago to proposing on the shores of Galway Bay, Ireland to driving a mobile whiskey lounge across the Midwest, here are some of the most memorable whiskey highlights of my 2018. Happy New Year, everyone. Cheers.
The Most Memorable Bottle
This bottle said the words for me on the shores Galway when I asked my future wife to make forever to be real.
The grief, the weapon emotion that drink can entice from the side of the bar where glasses are filled only upon request is where the damaged of the barroom can rest. But sheltered from the damp streets of Dublin, an American drank in cheer and celebration with trusting and a loving girlfriend at Jameson Distillery Bow St. As a cocktail or two climbed higher than one can count one a single hand, the American developed the ambition and courage to change is life for absolute better.
As we exited through the gift shop of the distillery, I purchased a bottle of Jameson Distillery Reserve with a custom label. The label read: Will You Marry Me? On the first night I met my girlfriend, we both sipped on Jameson cocktails and her love for Irish whiskey runs as deep as her passion for the legendary Bourbon she’s employed by. Still, I was extremely anxious upon my purchase. I had to lookup the correct spelling of marry just to make sure everything was perfect.
The following evening, on the shores of Galway, I took her to the coast at sunset. When she wants looking, I dropped to a traditional knew. I quietly spoke her name through the subtle Irish wind. She turned around, and I allowed the label on the bottle to do most of the talking. She froze in astonishment. Romantic tears rolled down her face, allowing me to shed tears of my own. I rose. We laughed through the tears and sealed our engagement with a kiss… and a couple glasses of our newfound whiskey.
The Place I'll Most Miss
Brendan’s Pub / Lower Broadway
My fiancé and I approached the packed bar. I asked for a couple of beers, but, in return, I received two 10 oz. glasses of Laphroaigh, just shy of their brims. Ten-year-old scotch, random bottles of wine and colorful labels of vodka were the remnants of Brendan’s Pub. We drank in ceremony but also, ambivalently, to the end of the night when our neighborhood pub would close it doors forever.
“The history of the United States could be told in 11 words: Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus,” wrote H.I. Phillips of the New York Sun. Except at Brendan’s, it was one flight down and ask for Don. Don wore the history of the old saloon on him; from his standard shirt and tie apparel to his properly quaffed silver mane, all to the tales he shared with the folks on the opposite side of the bar. Don was the reason we visited Lower Broadway, the speakeasy underneath Brendan’s, on a weekend evening. He maintained the charm of the Prohibition era speakeasy to the modern, hipster allure of the “speak softly shops.”
A patron visited Lower Broadway for the cozy living room atmosphere buried beneath the Chicago streets, but stayed for Don’s stories. I must have heard about his year or two living in Brooklyn, painting apartments for an apparent mobster more than a handful of times. But as he crafted cocktails with plastic cups from whatever spirits and cordials were left behind on the bar’s last night, all I wanted to hear was about Don and the blank walls in Brooklyn.
The Best Cocktail Bar
Dandelyan’s Pinnacle Point Fizz
After a long day of walking around London, nothing sounded better than afternoon tea. Even better, this sort of afternoon tea didn’t follow the traditional British standards of silver pots and dainty sandwiches. Afternoon tea at the world’s best cocktail bar consists of booze forward cocktails, stretching imagination and invention of infusion, taste and decor.
I’m quite certain that England’s mid-eighteenth century implementation of heavy taxes and restrictions on New England rum distilleries (to protect their Caribbean investments) wasn’t meant to curtail 21st century American tourists from drinking locally. But after experiencing Dandelyan’s ‘Modern Life of Plants’ menu last Spring, I kind of wanted to sip and savor every day at the London cocktail bar.
Dandelyan sits on the River Thames, peering out to the city. The interior of the bar feels like an art deco construction from the mind of Boaz Luhrmann. The elegant stylings of Dandelyan highlight the beauty of the cocktails crafted and served by their topnotch staff. Each cocktail from their ‘Modern Life of Plants’ program works to combine the history of the fruits and active ingredients to flourish with the selected spirits sharing the glass together. My fiancé and I sampled four cocktails and by the end of our afternoon tea, the idea of becoming expats filtered through our tipsy conversation.
Favorite New Chicago Cocktail Bar
Heavy Feather in Logan Square
After a PBR or two, my friends were ready to head upstairs. At the time, I didn’t even know there was an upstairs at Slippery Slope. Turns out though, the upstairs of the darkly lit Logan Square bar that looks like the bedroom of a high schooler in 1997 that praises the tunes of Marilyn Manson is my new favorite cocktail bar in Chicago. Heavy Feather is a charming upstairs cocktail lounge that takes you back to the late 1970s/early 80s. Even though it’s an upstairs lounge, Heavy Feather houses a sunken den with a warmly lit atmosphere that accentuates the golden accessories surrounding the room.
A beautiful walnut bar stretching across the majority of the lounge serves as headquarters for a collection of professional barkeeps that pair atmosphere with cocktails. Their vast menu blurs the line between Prohibition soda parlor and the speakeasy when the children of the parlor were put to bed and the deniers of the 18th amendment appeared from the alleys of darkness. A Witches Night Out serves a combination of dark rum, pumpkin spices, caramel and Frangelico in a malt glass, topped cream stretching inches out of the glass. While traditional cocktails are developed with personal twists. The best part of the Heavy Feather is they don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s not a hidden door or secret code required when entering the upstairs lounge from the downstairs dive. Heavy Feather is built to drink and enjoy the conversation around your table. This is truly a must visit for all in 2019.
The Oddest Place I Enjoyed a Whiskey
Slow & Low Midwest Tour in Milwaukee, WI
I was in search of adventure and whiskey this summer. To fulfill both cravings, I accepted a job with Slow & Low. My main gig was driving a converted 1970s G20 Chevy across the midwest promoting the brand. The converted element of the van was the modified whiskey lounge built in the entire back of the interior. While on my travels I felt the spirit of the bootleggers and the speakeasy patrons dousing their harsh whiskey with bitters and candy to make tolerate the taste. I wanted to meet folks and talk over whiskey, and if I was so fortunate, take a portrait of them at the end of the evening.
After nearly two weeks of driving around Wisconsin, one particular night above Miller Stadium proved to standout from the rest. Up on a hill, late after an extra-inning game, patrons flowed in and out Steve’s On Bluemound. Interesting characters from all walks came to the van that night and none two stood out more than Chad and Gordy. Chad educated the crowd on the laws of marijuana as he rolled the a joint with Slow & Low promotional rolling papers (I suppose they served their purpose), and Gordy, well, ole Gordy told me he didn’t drink much whiskey. So he sipped on a few Buds and also sipped on a few promotional Slow & Low drinks (you know, because he didn’t drink much whiskey). On that street corner in Milwaukee, I shared one quick sip of rock and rye with fellas and thanked for an evening of laughter and entertainment. I found what I wanted on the road this summer. I’m very fortunate for people like Chad and Gordy, they opened my life to good people and good conversation. No one can ever regret those results.
Most Needed Whiskey
Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland is cold, Scotch is required after.
It was my first night in Iceland. The infamous Icelandic wind rushed off Lake Thingvellir. Our cottage for the night had an incredible view of the sun dropping behind the mountains surround the lake. Picturesque? Absolutely, but I was waiting for the sun to completely fade to darkness, and allow the northern streaks of green to solely have the theater of the sky. At 9pm, a bright moon reflected off the Lake, providing the only light for miles across the the quiet forest. I drove towards the mountains and before reaching my designated site to photograph the Northern Lights, a grayish hue with a slightly green illumination filtered through the darkness of the night. I pulled over and hiked off the main highway towards the base of the mountains. I propped my camera onto my tripod and watched the most amazing show I’d ever witnessed. The green flashes danced in unison over the crests of the mountains, fading in and out of sight for a couple hours.
The forest ground was frozen and the wind was chilling, but I coudln’t leave the brilliant luminescent glow of the sky. I kept snapping photos of the lights dazzling in perfection. The Northern Lights were mainly the reason for traveling to Iceland on the brink of winter. I could’ve stayed in that spot all night, but a dense fog of clouds rolled over the midnight sky, putting the an intermission on the Northern Lights until the following night. Plus, my fingers did feel a little frozen. I didn’t realize how cold my body was until I got to my car. At first, I couldn’t even grip the steering wheel. On the drive back to my cottage, I couldn’t stop thinking about the small bottle of Balblair that I brought from the States. The Highland single malt felt like stepping into a hot tub of water. I polished off all 50ml before catching a few hours of sleep before heading back out to the most peculiar country I’ve visited yet.
The Bottle I’ll Hold Onto For A While.
KOVAL Special Edition, blended by Phil Romanello.
One of the most important lessons I’ve leaned while working in this industry is: it’s not just about what’s in your glass, the shared experience is more powerful than a good bottle. Freddie Johnson of Buffalo Trace Distillery sums it up best on Neat The Story of Bourbon, “It’s not about the whiskey. It’s about the lives you touch and the people you meet. And the whiskey is the byproduct of a good relationship.”
Last winter, a former colleague of mine at KOVAL Distillery blended his first small batch whiskey. He chose between his two favorite expressions wheat and rye. The day he picked his barrels, he shared a sample from each cask with me. We spoke through the complexities of each whiskey and how they might pair together once blended. Later that week, the distilling team bottled less 200 bottles of Phil’s Special Edition whiskey. I grabbed two bottles of the smooth, caramel, buttery blend; one for myself and another for newborn godson Jack. I wrote a message on the back of Jack’s bottle, depicting the importance of how friend made this single bottle of whiskey. I cannot wait to share the story and the whiskey with Jack.
Thank you, Phil for creating a future of warming, joyful cheers with a little boy that I love.