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Chicago's Cocktail Geeks

What do Chicago's top bartenders do on their days off? Compete against each other, of course.
Friday Sep 12, 2008.     By Stacy Warden
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

photo: The Boozehound
The Boozehound and Veev: a match made in cocktail heaven.

Self-defined cocktail geek and history buff, Kyle McHugh, has a passion for all things alcohol. He does not, however, have a passion for the rules and restrictions that come along with most high-end cocktail courses, which is why he decided to start his own this past January.

The mixology lab, launched under McHugh's The Boozehound label, has been running on a bi-monthly basis since. It goes down like this: A different bar and distiller take the lead each time and Chicago's best bartenders—also some of McHugh's best pals—use the featured spirit to test new recipes, which are then voted on by those present. The winning drinks typically end up on a handful of local menus, in addition to the distiller's signature recipe list. Most recently SushiSamba Rio and a new California-based distiller called Veev got the draw. Since the events aren't open to the public, Centerstage was there to see what was shaken and stirred.

Things were set to kick off on SushiSamba's rooftop patio at noon, but as the world of bartending goes, late nights mean equally late mornings. The mixin' crew, clad in tattered jeans and t-shirts, began to trickle in around 12:30 p.m. Those in attendance represented some of Chicago's finest establishments, including Crimson Lounge, The Drawing Room, Brasserie Ruhlmann and La Madia, among others.

Debbi Peek
photo: The Boozehound
Award-winning bartender Debbi Peek preps a glass during the competition.
After fueling up on coffee and Brazilian pastries, McHugh kicked things off with a quick run-down on Brazil and its mighty sugarcane, while briefly touching on headier topics like the slavery triangle. And to assure that everyone knew what they'd be working with, he threw out pop-quiz questions regarding Veev's main ingredient, the healthful Acai berry. But before the crafty bartenders could put their creativity to good use, they'd have to shake up a few signature cocktails already on Veev's menu. The drinks that rated highest would stay, while the others would be replaced with the winning mixologist's creations.

Tops among the contestants were Myong Park, head bartender at McCormick and Schmick's (Gold Coast) and DJ Love of The Drawing Room. Myong's "Brazilian Passion" combined Veev, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and passion fruit. DJ Love also found inspiration in eggs and fruit with his jussaira de melon, a mix of fresh lime and watermelon juices, Agave nectar, Veev and egg white. Both drinks were refreshingly light and made for the perfect afternoon aperitif—and, more importantly, both may be available on a cocktail list near you sometime soon.

When McHugh isn't busy mixing and mingling with his fellow bartenders, he conducts classes on beer, wine, spirits and bartending for groups of one to 100. McHugh is also in the throes of opening his own full-service beer, wine and spirits boutique called Drinks over Dearborn. In addition to its serious selection of local and imported drinks, the shop will also carry specialty items like gluten-free beer, fine kosher wine and plenty of organic products.


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