Yesterday we celebrated my nephew’s first birthday! Once the cake and presents were out of the way, our gracious host Jim invited us down to his basement bar for a tequila tasting. Jim is a true tequila aficionado, and he has clearly built his bar with that in mind. We sampled a very fine Partida reposado tequila. It was delicious unadorned – smooth and a bit spicy. The Partida was great, but I was more excited about the other tequila we tried – Lunazul – if for no other reason than it falls more in line with my budget. Priced at under $20 for 750 ml, Lunazul is a steal! Lunazul tequila is grown, distilled and bottled at the Tierra de Agaves Distillery in Tequila, Mexico. To pursue his goal of producing the best small batch tequilas in the world, former co-owner of Jose Cuervo, Francisco Beckmann, founded Tierra de Agaves in 2002. Lunazul comes in two varieties: blanco and reposado. Jim told us about how he chose Lunazul as his house tequila after conducting a blind taste test among friends. He served us the blanco in margaritas which he makes using agave nectar for sweetener, a natural pairing considering that tequila is also made from the agave plant. After returning home from the party, I headed to the corner liquor store and picked up my own bottle of Lunazul. Since we had already tried the blanco at Jim’s, I decided to buy the reposado. We sipped it straight up and in margaritas. It proved to be buttery, smoky and a bit sweet. Who knew a budget tequila could be this good? I can see why it scored so highly in Jim’s taste test.

I’m declaring this weekend to be the unofficial start of the holidays. Thanksgiving may not be for another few days, but I’m ready to start celebrating now! People around here get so mad when they see the shops putting up their Christmas decorations early, but I’m a total sucker for it. I just love the winter holidays. Robert won’t allow Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but I know one way to start celebrating this weekend – by mixing up a special holiday cocktail!

My perspective is that holiday cocktails should always involve bourbon, brandy, or one of the other brown liquors. This isn’t the time for vodka (although, gin, with its wintry pine flavor, is acceptable.) Winter flavors such as orange, spice, apple and pear work well for a holiday drink. Flipping through a recent issue of Bon Appetit, I came across a recipe for a cocktail called Northwood #2. Inspired by the New England woods he grew up around, David Moo of the Brooklyn bar Quarter, created this special cocktail that fits my idea of a holiday cocktail perfectly. To make the Northwood #2, simply shake the following ingredients with ice and strain into coupe glasses:

3 tablespoons gold rum
2 tablespoons brandy
1.5 tablespoons fresh apple cider
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

It couldn’t be easier to make, and tastes delicious! This is a pretty strong drink; the apple and maple flavors are quite subtle. I suspect that some people would want to increase the amount of apple cider to make the drink more palatable, although I thought the flavors were perfectly balanced. Then again, I might be some kind of lush because I thought the recipe made a perfectly reasonable single serving (it is actually supposed to serve two!) I may try this again using spiced cider for even more of a winter flavor. Happy holidays!

I have this mental checklist of activities that I like to do each December to help get me into the holiday spirit. Some are obvious: decorating my tree while listening to Christmas carols, baking cookies at mom & dad’s, and watching my favorite old holiday specials on TV. Another one of my favorite things to do around this time of year is to get dressed up and go out for a holiday cocktail. It started in my college days when my friends and I would meet at Kinkora for drinks and to exchange gifts. Kinkora was this old Irish dive, and our holiday drink usually consisted of whatever cheap beer was on tap, but they always had a Christmas tree up and a roaring fake fire going so I was guaranteed to leave the place full of holiday cheer. Later, after Robert and I had met and were living on First Hill, we enjoyed going out for a holiday drink at The Hunt Club in the Sorrento Hotel. The Hunt Club had everything you would want in a holiday bar – slightly ritzy, very cozy and a menu of old school cocktails. The past few years, we have had a harder time finding just the right place for our holiday drink. There are plenty of bars on Capitol Hill, but so many of them are too sleek and posh. More hipster-cool than cozy and festive.

This year, we decided to try Licorous for our holiday drink because it is close to home and I heard that they make excellent cocktails. Licorous is located right next door to Lark and is actually owned by the same people. Licorous has all of the elements of a posh Capitol Hill bar, but it manages to be cozy at the same time. A sleek bar, silver ceiling tiles, and retro, geometric designs provide the cool factor, but dim lighting and rust & pumpkin colored walls and drapes give it enough warmth to make the space inviting and cozy. Although it is often referred to as Lark’s little sister, and many people in fact use it as an area to sit while waiting for a table at Lark, Licorous has plenty going on to make it a culinary destination all its own. Exquisite cocktails aside, the menu at Licorous (designed by John Sundstrom, chef/owner of Lark) features inventive small plates in the same style as Lark but at slightly lower prices.

Though the menu looked interesting, we weren’t there for the food, just the holiday drink. Now, I feel the need to make a point of clarification here. When I say holiday drink, I am not talking about a beverage made with some syrupy chocolate or mint liquor and topped with whipped cream. I hate that stuff. For me, the ideal holiday drink is any sophisticated, adult cocktail that is appropriate for winter (think bourbon or brandy, not margarita or mai tai.) Licorous’ Barbaro cocktail fit the bill perfectly. The Barbaro consists of Elijah Craig bourbon with Amaro Ramazzotti, Cinzano, and Drambuie, shaken and served in a tall flared glass with an orange twist. It is a perfectly balanced drink, slightly sweet with a bitter finish. Very delicious. I also ordered the rye whiskey popovers that are meant to accompany my drink (each specialty cocktail has a matching nibble that can be ordered for an extra $2.) The popovers, which were closer in my opinion to miniature bread puddings, were very yummy. I could have easily eaten 5 orders of them. They went beautifully with my drink, and weren’t a bad match for Robert’s Knob Creek either. I think we may have found our new holiday drink spot!

Licorous is located at 928 12th Avenue and is open Monday through Saturday 5PM to 1AM.

Friday night, I went out with friends for drinks at The Bottleneck Lounge. I had been meaning to check this place out since it opened, earlier this year, because I kept hearing it being described as a nice, simple, straightforward neighborhood bar. No frills. No gimmicks. That sounds like the ideal bar to me.

Bottleneck Lounge is located right in between snooty Capitol Hill and even snootier Madison Valley. This area used to be a bit on the seedy side. It never felt too dangerous to me, but, any time I walked from Madison Valley back up to Capitol Hill, I was guaranteed to pass by more than one shifty-eyed person loitering about. Hey, that’s what makes a city a city, right? If I wanted everything to be safe and sanitized and homogeneous, then I would live out in the burbs. Safe and sanitized and homogeneous seems to be the direction that this area of Madison is headed, however. Chocolate City, a notoriously troublesome club located just up the block from Bottleneck was shut down earlier this year (one of the people I was out with is a cop, and she was telling stories about being called down to Chocolate City every weekend.) Across the street from the former Chocolate City is Crush, a very upscale restaurant, and it’s only a matter of time before more places like this move in.

For now, though, there isn’t too much around which makes Bottleneck feel like a little hidden oasis. It is located just far enough from Capitol Hill as to not be overrun with young hipsters. It’s a good thing, too, because Bottleneck is pint-sized! There are maybe five tables and additional seating around the small bar. When we were there, the music was really mellow & not overly loud like some places prefer it. The bartender and waitress were laid back and very friendly. It felt really cozy & comfortable inside. Perfect for a rainy Friday night!

One glance at the menu will inform you that the owners of Bottleneck love dogs. Each cocktail on the menu is associated with a photo of a dog (plus one cat) and are given names such as “Dog Noir” and “The Ugly Chihuahua” (okay, so maybe there is some small amount of gimmickry here.) I tried two cocktails: “The Skirt Chaser” which is Absolut Mandarin, Campari, Rose’s lime juice and soda and “The Loyal Companion” which is Tanqueray gin muddled with fresh basil, Rose’s lime juice and soda. Of the two, “The Loyal Companion” was my favorite. It was so refreshing. And, the basil aroma that wafted over me as the bartender was muddling my drink was incredible.

In addition to cocktails, Bottleneck also has a small number of beers and wines available. As for food, they offer grilled panini sandwiches which looked very tasty. On Sundays, they have a bloody mary & grilled cheese sandwich special for only $10 (be forewarned: their bloody marys have an rather unusual secret ingredient that you may or may not like. I won’t divulge it here out of fairness to the bar.) They are also going to start hosting game day each Sunday which I am particularly interested in because I love me some Scrabble! Chess, Uno and Battleship will also be available for play. Prior descriptions were spot-on in my opinion: Bottleneck really is a great neighborhood bar.

Bottleneck Lounge is located at 2328 Madison Street and is open 4PM to 12AM Tues, Wed, and Sun and 4PM to 2AM Thurs-Sat (closed Mondays).

I’ve been dying to try a pumpkin beer for weeks now. It’s odd because I’m not normally the type of person to go for novelty beers. I like my IPA and that’s final. The problem is that I’m very susceptible to hype. As soon as Elysian Brewery announced that it would be hosting a pumpkin beer tasting, people around town started really hyping it up. 10 pumpkin beers on tap? Including one undergoing a second fermentation inside of a giant pumpkin? That’s exciting stuff! How could I not have pumpkin ale on the brain after hearing about all of that?

Well, I missed the pumpkin beer tasting because of other obligations, but I did manage to locate a 22-ounce bottle of Elysian’s Night Owl Pumpkin Ale at my store. This beer gets rave reviews from both beer critics and anonymous drinkers on the internets. Many claim it is, hands down, the best pumpkin beer out there today. Having never tried a pumpkin beer before, I can’t really say whether this is true or not, but it was quite good. It primarily tasted like a mild, slightly sweet pale ale. But, with every sip, you get a subtle, yet instantly recognizable, taste of pumpkin pie. Elysian ferments their Night Owl with 150 pounds of pumpkin meat and infuses it with pumpkin pie spices including nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. My only complaint is that it seemed a little flat, but that could just be because I am so used to drinking hoppy IPAs. I’m curious how it is straight off the tap. I might just need to run next door to Elysian and try it. Who knows? Maybe they will still have it available straight from the giant pumpkin tap!

Finally, a few days of summer weather! I decided to make the most of yesterday’s sunshine and, instead of having a winesday, I served up some delicious summertime cocktails with dinner. My CSA box came overflowing with cucumbers once again this week. Although the fried cucumbers from last week were…interesting, I thought a cucumber cocktail might be more my style.

After a quick search for cucumber-based cocktails online, I found this recipe for “The Cuke.” The Cuke won the New York Times’ best summertime cocktail recipe contest in 2006. It is similar to a mojito in that it contains limes, sugar, mint and sparkling water. Instead of rum, The Cuke calls for my personal favorite liquor, gin. Cucumber is what really makes this cocktail special, however.

To make The Cuke, you put sliced limes, sliced cucumbers, fresh mint and sugar into a large pitcher and muddle the ingredients together. Then, you add gin and let it steep for at least 30 minutes. When you are ready to serve, simply strain into ice-filled glasses and top with a splash of sparkling water. Muddling the ingredients proved to be somewhat problematic (it calls for LOTS of cucumbers and limes) so I did muddling combined with a rough chop in the food processor. I also used about 2 tablespoons of simple syrup instead of the 1/4 cup of sugar called for in the recipe (I halved the recipe.)

For dinner, I served grilled salmon steaks with nectarine-basil salsa, steamed baby potatoes, and stir-fried pattypan squash with spinach. The Cuke was the perfect accompaniment to this lovely summertime meal. It was tasty and refreshing but, be forewarned, The Cuke is one strong drink. A whole cup of gin for three servings! I’m not sure if I should admit it, but it actually ended up being two servings for us (in my defense, I really didn’t try too hard to squeeze the excess liquid out of the muddled cucumbers and limes – I’m sure there was probably an extra serving hiding in there somewhere.) I only used up one of the five cucumbers from this week’s box so I have a feeling there may be many more Cukes in my future this weekend!

Last night, on our way to dinner, Robert and I decided to stop for a drink at Havana, a bar located a few blocks away from our apartment. Although it has been open for nearly a year, we only just discovered it the other day. Havana has done a good job of keeping itself hidden. To get to Havana, you enter through an unmarked door in the middle of a generic parking lot. There is no sign, just a black awning letting you know where to go. Havana does have windows to the outside world, but they face a street that no one ever walks down. In fact, that’s how Robert discovered the place. He just happened to be walking down that street one day and, through the windows, he saw all these people drinking and having fun. A secret bar!

Well, it turns out that Robert and I are just behind the times, and everyone else has already discovered (and figured out how to get into) Havana. Supposedly, it gets packed at night when it turns into a dance club with live DJs. We were there in the afternoon so it wasn’t too busy. It was just us and a bunch of students from the beauty school next door. They were a little loud but, otherwise, Havana was a really comfortable spot to be.

The decor at Havana is, not surprisingly, vintage Cuba featuring lots of pastels and gold trim and palm plants. High ceilings give the place an airy atmosphere, and tall windows let in lots of light. There are a few roomy booths along one wall and plenty of barstools along the bar and another wall. There is also a cozy lounge upstairs that can be reserved for large parties.

We sat at the bar and chatted with the bartender who was really friendly. I get the feeling that he’s not from Capitol Hill, evidenced not only by the lack of attitude but also in his choice of music. You don’t hear too much Bachman Turner Overdrive on the Hill. I loved it, of course. I’m not a fan of classic rock or anything but, any place that rejects the indie music snobbery present at most Capitol Hill bars, is okay in my book. Plus, BTO? That’s almost wacky enough to be cool.

The cocktail menu at Havana is pretty short and focuses mainly on cocktails with a tropical flair. Most of the specialty drinks are made with rum or tequila. That said, don’t expect to see any frothy, too-sweet pineapple drinks garnished with party umbrellas. The cocktails at Havana are all very sophisticated. I started with the Paper Tiger which is Plymouth gin, lemon and blood orange bitters. It was served in a narrow glass with a sugared rim and raspberry garnish. It was delicious; lemony and just a little bit sweet. My second drink was El Floridita. This was made with white Bacardi rum, grapefruit, lime, and a bit of Maraska Maraschino liqueur. This was my favorite of the two. I am not a big fan of maraschino in general, but it really worked here. It added a very subtle, dark cherry flavor to the cocktail.

Overall, we really liked Havana for afternoon cocktails. If you’re not afraid of secret entrances and a little classic rock now and then, you should check it out. Havana is located at 1010 E Pike St. It is open every day from 4 PM to 2 AM and happy hour is from 4 PM to 7 PM.

Robert and I have settled into a fairly strict sushi routine over the past few years. Every couple of weeks, when we are craving sushi, we head down to our neighborhood sushi joint, Hana on Broadway, and every time, without fail, we order the exact same thing. We start off with bowls of miso soup. This is followed by one Spicy Tuna Roll and our three favorite nigiri sushi: Sake (salmon), Saba (Mackerel), and Suzuki with Shiso (striped bass). We typically order one other piece of nigiri sushi, usually Hamachi (yellowtail) but sometimes something else depending on what is on special that evening. We used to get Unagi (barbecued eel) but the Unagi at Hana is never served warm like it should be so we have stopped ordering it. We are currently in love with the Saba which has an unusual, briny flavor that is somewhat of an acquired taste. My all-time favorite, however, is the Suzuki with Shiso. It consists of an oval of rice topped with a shiso leaf, a thin slice of striped bass, and a dusting of togarashi, a Japanese red pepper spice mix. The flavors are so good together; the shiso leaf has a unique herbal, citrus flavor and the togarashi provides just a tiny bit of spice. Delicious!

Last night, we decided to break out of the routine. We headed up to the other place in our neighborhood that serves sushi: Liberty. Liberty is a bar, first and foremost. They have a huge selection of liquor and make some amazing cocktails with it. But, in addition to cocktails, they also offer sushi. Cocktails and sushi, what a brilliant idea! The sushi menu at Liberty ranges from the very traditional (salmon nigiri, spicy tuna rolls) to the wacky (the Fishface Roll, for example, which includes hamachi, shrimp, jalapeƱo, mango, cabbage and wasabi aioli). Since our plan was to go outside of the routine, we opted for wacky sushi. We ordered two rolls: the Alaska Roll, which is salmon, asparagus, avocado, radish sprouts, sesame and tobiko, and the Jamjuree roll (named after the Thai restaurant located next door.) The Jamjuree Roll is made with shrimp, peanut sauce, mint, cilantro, red pepper, cucumber and cabbage. The sushi was okay but not great. Although the Jamjuree Roll is inventive and had a really good flavor, both rolls were on the dry side and the servings were very small. On the other hand, my cocktails were awesome! I had the Jasmine (gin, lemon, cointreau and campari) and the Dragon’s Toe (bourbon, cucumber, ginger water and a splash of ginger ale). I will definitely be returning to Liberty for cocktails, but I think it’s back to the Hana routine for sushi. Hana is located at 219 Broadway E and Liberty is at 517 15th Avenue E.

A more appropriate title for this post would be “Drinking Out” because I didn’t actually do any dining when I met friends for happy hour at Vessel yesterday. I meant to. I was just so caught up in reading the fantastic cocktail menu that I never made it to the page with the food offerings. That’s OK; Vessel isn’t really known for it’s food anyway. They’re all about the cocktails instead. They take their cocktails seriously at Vessel, and the artistry and attention to detail that the bartender’s put into every drink rivals anything that the chefs could have cooked up for me to eat.

Vessel is a relatively new bar located in the historic 1926 Skinner Building right next door to the 5th Avenue Theater in downtown Seattle. The first thing you notice upon entering Vessel is that it is super chic. Lots of metal and bright, slightly harsh colors give it a very modern look. A glowing chartreuse staircase is the most striking feature. Upstairs you will find a red-walled lounge area sparsely populated with sofas and lounge chairs. Downstairs is the bar and the main seating area. Seating consists of 6 or 7 tiny tables squeezed together into an even tinier space. If you are claustrophobic, you might just want to sit at the bar instead. Otherwise, you will probably end up knocking elbows with those sitting at the table next to you. It’s not exactly the warmest of places, but since when has super chic ever been equated with warm and friendly? Fortunately, it wasn’t too busy when I arrived so I didn’t have to uncomfortably squeeze my way into a table. And, although my jeans and hoodie look surely wouldn’t cut it at night, the happy hour crowd was more of a mixed bag of hipsters, office workers and older ladies taking a break from shopping. In other words, I only felt mildly out of place when I walked in.

Once I was seated, the waitress promptly brought me a menu and a large glass of cucumber-infused water. The menu features 8 or 9 pages of specialty cocktails, liquors, wines and beer and one page of food. It is the cocktail specials that really set Vessel apart from other bars. Many are originals, and, for those that are not, the menu cites the name of the creator as well as the location and date if known (some date back to the 1700′s!) Bitters has a huge presence on the menu as do some of the lesser used liquors such as Benedictine and Chartreuse. Things that you should know about Vessel’s cocktails: Each drink will cost you a whopping $10. This may seem steep until you factor in that each cocktail consists of a hefty 3-ounce pour. And, all are expertly prepared and beautifully presented. In addition to cocktails, Vessel specializes in ice. They have different types of ice for different drinks. Sometimes it’s hand-cracked ice, sometimes it is a single sphere of super-dense, slow-melting ice. I mean really, who wouldn’t want to pay $10 for super-dense ice alone?

I started out with Vessel’s signature cocktail, the Vessel 75, which is a blend of bourbon, simple syrup, Peychaud’s bitters and orange zest. Topped with a delicious, airy maple foam, it was a very impressive cocktail indeed. I’m not much of a bourbon drinker but this was perfect. Lightly sweetened and aromatic. The wide strip of orange peel even had a very cute star hole-punched out of it. I spent a long time savoring this cocktail; it was worth every penny. I followed this up with the Bramble: citrus and juniper infused vodka, blackberry liqueur, lemon and seltzer. It was served in a tall glass with plenty of beautiful crushed ice. The Bramble was good but not nearly as complex or unique as the Vessel 75.

If you are someone who loves a good cocktail, you will love Vessel. Likewise, if you are a fan of hip scenes and designer furniture, you will also love Vessel. I happen to hate modern furniture and would certainly never qualify as hip, but I enjoyed myself at Vessel nonetheless. 6 ounces of liquor probably had something to do with that. I’ll just have to remember to trade in the sneakers for a pair of strappy heels next time! Vessel is located on 5th Avenue between Union and University. It opens at 11 AM Monday through Friday and 4 PM Saturday and Sunday. Happy hour runs from 4 to 6 every day.

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