Chicago: Whisky at The Bristol is Smokin'

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[Photographs: Anthony Todd]

Once in a while, even a cocktail nerd like me will order a drink on automatic. In my case, that means I'm tired, bored or otherwise not in the mood to analyze every molecule that enters my gullet—and in concrete terms, it usually means I order anything on the menu labeled "Manhattan." A few months ago, I did this at The Bristol after a long day of work, with no expectations. What I found, the Smoked Sicilian Manhattan ($11), caused me to sit up and take notice.

The word "smoked" or "smoky" is tossed around a lot when talking about liquor; especially with bourbon and scotch. Here, it's meant literally. When I asked Debbi Peek, The Bristol's mixer, for the recipe, her email response began with "Using an industrial smoker..."

I had to see more.

Peek came up with the cocktail on her commute (she lives in the Chicago suburbs), inspired by The Bristol's popular home-smoked bacon. She asked herself, "If we can smoke bacon, why can't we smoke cocktails?" A whiskey seemed a good choice, and Peek chose Maker's Mark to smoke because of its sweetness—adding smoke to an already bitter rye would make it hard to mix.


Chris Pandel, the chef at The Bristol, showed us the smoker. Hardly an imposing device, the little box sits behind the restaurant in the alley, belching out tasty aromas. "We've already had two stolen this year," Pandel told us, and we admitted that we weren't sure why someone would walk away with something so humble-looking. Pandel puts the whiskey in a hotel pan and smokes it for about an hour, using alder wood smoke. Any longer and "it might end up tasting like an ashtray," warned Peek.

Batches of smoked whiskey are stored behind the bar. Usually, they are only poured into the Smoked Sicilian Manhattan, but Peek admitted that word has gotten out. People have been asking for it straight, and after a taste, we can't blame them. 45 minutes of smoke gives Maker's Mark a whole new depth of flavor.

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The cocktail itself was inspired by a visit to Sicily. It starts with an ounce and a half of smoked Maker's, but instead of vermouth, Peek uses half an ounce of Averna Amaro, and in place of the traditional angostura, 4 drops of Stirrings Blood Orange bitters give the drink a fruit finish. After pouring all the ingredients into a mixing pint, Peek stirs the drink 50 times - no wonder it's listed as taking "a few minutes" on the Bristol's menu!

"We [Chicago] are known as a beer and shot town, so many people ignore our cocktails," lamented Peek. Anyone who tastes her Smoked Sicilian Manhattan will be hard pressed to ignore them in the future.

Have you ever had smoked whisky or any other smoked spirits?

The Bristol

2152 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (Map) 773-862-5555;