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Slainte! Beyond the Beer and Whiskey

You can sample some real Irish cocktails at Chicago's best pubs.
Thursday Feb 11, 2010.     By K. Tighe
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

warm up with a cocktail at Grafton
photo: courtesy of Bridget Cicenia
Just how many dyed green beers and leprechaun bendy straws can a person take? We all know that the novelty cocktails served in pubs across town on St. Patrick's Day are lacking authenticity, so why do we keep guzzling them down? Why pay to drink something that looks like it was ladled out of the Chicago River?

Probably because the Irish haven't given us many better options. Words like "appletini" and "cosmopolitan" simply don't translate to Ireland's pub dialect. Most public houses have two kinds of glasses—pint and shot—and the patrons like it that way, thank you very much. But you can sample some real Irish cocktails if you step away from the fair-weather fakers and raise a glass at some of Chicago's best pubs.

"May the dust of your carriage wheels blind the eyes of your foes."
Irish Car Bomb at Celtic Crossings

Sure, it's been co-opted by frat guys from coast to coast, but the Irish Car Bomb also happens to be one of the few cocktails enjoyed back in the homeland. Of course, by 'enjoyed' we mean pounded in rapid succession with little regard for liver function. For the real thing, nix the college bars for U2's preferred digs: Celtic Crossings.

Not only does the authentic pub forgo all the cartoonish Irish pageantry, but it also has a jukebox full of The Pogues. Even Bono would agree that nothing sets the mood for excessive drinking quite like a little Shane Macgowan. As for the Crossings' Car Bomb, simplicity is key: A shot of Baileys-spiked Jameson plunked inside a frothy pint of Guinness. In fact, the only thing complicated about this beloved Irish tipple is figuring out how not to crack a tooth.

"May you be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you're dead."
Grafton Zinger at Grafton Pub & Grill

If your mamma always told you not to drink on Sunday, she probably wasn't Irish. Uisce beatha, the Gaelic term for whiskey, literally translates to "water of life," a common phrase for "holy water." The name was given by the pioneering Irish monks of the Kilbeggan ("little church" in Gaelic) village; early holy men used barley from nearby fields and drew water from the river Brosna to brew the very first batch.

The smooth, oaky flavor of Irish whiskey has just a touch of sweetness, but is full-bodied enough to not be overshadowed by the ginger ale used in the cocktail. Add lemon to the mix, and you've got the Grafton Zinger ($6.50), a little cocktail with a big heart—and a bigger backstory.

"May the doctor never earn a pound out of you."
Black Stallion at Galway Arms

If ever there was a whiskey that lives up to the "holy water" standard, it's without a doubt Bushmill's Black Bush Irish Whiskey. Strong enough to knock the devil right out of you, this 80-proof blend is ideal for a pharmaceutical-grade Hot Toddy.

Next time you have the sniffles, belly up to the bar at Galway Arms and request a Black Stallion ($7). The dark, malted whiskey owes its unique profile to sherry-seasoned oak caskets, the absence of peat in the drying process and aging for up to seven years. The resulting nectar produces a clean, full flavor that marries well with the clove, lemon and sugars of Galway Arm's magic, custom-made tonic water in the Stallion.

"May you live as long as you want and never want as long as you live."
Nutty Irishman at The Kerryman

While a true Irishman rarely foregoes the comforts of whiskey and beer, there is one glaring exception: Not even the toughest man in the bar can turn down the sweet kiss of Baileys. Chicago's favorite coffee creamer flies off grocery shelves from November through March, but one Irish cocktail takes the java-boosting to the next level.

At Kerryman Bar, you can order up a Nutty Irishman ($7, $5 on Wednesdays) or just shout out, "Manager on Duty!" This exclamation will, for some inexplicable reason, prompt the bartender to make you this winter-busting concoction. Frangelico is added to the time-tested foundation of Baileys and coffee, adding a nutty kick to a classic. As if this velvety blend wasn't sweet enough, a dollop of freshly whipped cream crowns the whole affair.

Care to give home-bartending the old college try? Keep the St. Paddy's spirit going year-round with these easy drinks:

Irish Black Russian
To equal parts Kahlua and vodka, add cola and a float of Guinness.

Irish Eyes
If you've developed a creme de menthe habit from all the green-tinted pomp of this week's specialty cocktails, just add Kilbeggan whiskey, heavy cream and ice. Now shake and sip your Irish Eyes.

Dublin Handshake
If you subscribe to the "give peace a chance" sect, trade in that Car Bomb for a Dublin Handshake. Start with equal parts Baileys and Irish whiskey, and then fill with sloe gin.


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