Monday, December 8, 2014

An Evening with A Hollow Leg

I recently had an opportunity that I just couldn't pass up.  If you follow From Scratch on Facebook, you might remember that this past summer, I was asking people to vote for a local Chicago drink slinger, Devin Kidner, in Slow Food's Ark of Taste Cocktail Competition.  At that point, I was just happy to be supporting someone who used KOVAL liquor, Seedling cider, Ellis Farms honey, and other local ingredients to make what sounded like a pretty great drink.  Devin contacted me, and we were able to meet up in person.  It didn't take long for me to realize that we shared a lot of the same interests and beliefs about local food, about heritage strains of plants, and about supporting local farmers, and I felt like we could have chatted for days.  Turns out, Devin's drink took first place, earning her a trip to Italy to be a USA delegate at Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto!  And that kicked off a boozy whirlwind of exciting opportunities for her, including being invited to moderate the Speakeasy workshop of Terra Madre, becoming head mixologist at KOVAL distillery, being invited to design drinks for an event in NYC, teaching classes for Rhine Hall (another Chicago distillery) and starting up Hollow Leg.  Hollow Leg is Devin's way of packaging all her passion and knowledge about local drinks and presenting it to people who want to learn.  She offers classes on mixology, some basic and some more in-depth, but all meant to give the students the confidence to experiment with their drinks with Julia Child-like curiosity and conviction.  She has a line of classes called Hep Hops, that focuses on the up-and-coming trend of beer cocktails, and offers services to corporations looking to impress their clients.  She also has what I think is one of the coolest ideas ever: Cocktail Whispering, where she will talk to you, find out a bit about you and what you like to drink, and then design you your own personalized cocktail.  You get to name it and everything!  How cool is that?!?!



Anyhow, it was this venture with Hollow Leg that Devin reached out to me about.  And I've got be to honest about you, when I saw her message, I totally squealed.  And I'm pretty sure that after catching up on the phone with her and talking all about Hollow Leg, I didn't come down off of my cloud for weeks. It was one of those moments that I just kind of took a step back and went, "Whose life is this?"...having someone who I admire as much as Devin Kidner contact me about checking out such an amazing new venture...I mean, I life around here is about the most suburban you can imagine.  It's pretty Stepford some days, albeit with a dash more swearing and several more fart jokes.  So having an award winning mixologist call me up and see if I wanted to check out her classes was more than a bit surreal!  Needless to say, I was all in.  All in.

The hubs and I found accommodations for the minions and got all set to take a holiday cocktails class that included some of the basic Cocktail 101 stuff, but also making your own bitters, which really intrigued me.  Devin holds some classes at both KOVAL and Rhine Hall, but this one was held at her Ukrainian Village loft in the city.   Again, not ashamed to say that I was totally geeking out about it.

Devin greeted us with her usual cheery enthusiasm and showed us around her kitchen as we waited for another couple who was taking the class to arrive.  I'm pretty sure my husband thought we were both crazy as I oohed and ahhed while Devin showed me the yummy frozen fruits in her freezer, the stacks of mason jars filled with homemade jams and jellies in her pantry, and her farmers' market haul from earlier that day spread out across her back counter.  Truly, we may be cut from the same delicious food-loving mold.

The class started, like all classes should, with introductions and a good drink.  Devin mixed us an amazing concoction that included homemade cranberry syrup, rosehip liqueur, vodka, homemade apple cider vinegar, and egg whites.  Besides tasting delicious, this drink immediately opened the door to several interesting points of conversation.  For one, the fact that Devin is committed to using local ingredients in her drinks means that she has to think outside the box in many ways.  Citrus is not a food that grows naturally here in the Midwest, so popular cocktail flourishes like a squeeze of lime or a twist of lemon are out of the picture.  Things like homemade vinegars can bring that tartness, and add a bit more character to the flavor profile.  Plus, you've got to admit, making your own vinegar is pretty impressive, especially if you have the skills to use it in making a fantastic drink.  Using the egg whites in the drink is a move that always catches my eye, because it really shows that you're confident in your booze knowledge.  Most people get a little freaked out by the idea, but I love what egg whites can bring to the party.  Visually, a nice float of foaminess on top.  Taste-wise, a little extra richness and a fullness in the texture that makes drinks almost creamy.  I love that Devin started out the night with a drink that wasn't afraid to challenge us.  It totally got me excited about what the rest of the evening would have in store.


Oh, and a side note: Devin mixes her drinks in...wait for it...mason jars!  Brilliant for several reason, including that it has it's own measuring marks, you can see how your drink is looking, feel how cold it is, and the jar seals tightly so that you can really get your shake on.  Plus, you already know how I feel about jars.  I heart them.

After mixing our drinks, we relaxed and talked about some of the basic science behind making a good drink.  Being a bit of a science geek, I loved it.  I knew some of the things that we discussed, but also found that there was a lot more that I didn't know.  Trigeminal effects, for example, were  fascinating to me...kind of one of those things that you know how it makes you feel, but have no idea about the reasons behind it, or what it's actually called.  We talked about how temperature actually has an effect on flavors, and why certain types of drinks should be served at fairly specific temperatures.  Devin walked a nice balance between giving us plenty of complex information without making it overwhelming, and keeping it all very easy to understand.   My favorite quote of the evening?  When we were told that good drink mixing was "like science and art had an alcoholic baby".  :)

Armed with all this new and fantastic knowledge, we headed to the kitchen to mix up our own drinks.  There was a great spread of liquor, mostly local, homemade syrups and a caramel sauce that was to die for, and various homemade bitters.  We were able to taste and smell everything, and Devin taught us about proportions and ratios to build a cocktail.  She also mixed up our second drink of the night, a delicious pumpkin drink that she calls the "Bad Bitch", because it's so not basic.  Made with KOVAL rye whiskey, local pumpkin, maple syrup, and homemade cinnamon mace bitters, it's nothing short of heavenly.  Like a hard pumpkin pie in a glass.  When one of the other students asked what mace was, Devin was happy to hop over to her spice rack and pull some out for us to smell, explaining that it was similar to allspice and related to nutmeg.  One of the best parts of taking this class was that you could tell that not only does Devin Kidner really know her stuff when it comes to food and drinks, she's not hesitant at all to share what she knows with others.


Each of us made up a drink on our own, to our own liking.  My husband went straight for the smooth, almost creamy, KOVAL Oat Whiskey.  The other man in the group created his drink around a lavender simple syrup that caught his fancy.  His date wasn't into whiskey, so she reached for the vodka and livened things up with rose water.  I went for gin, that caramel sauce, and some caraway liqueur that I have a slight addiction to.  It was interesting to see what we each came up with when left to our own devices.  Everyone loved their own drink, and you could feel a mix of pride and astonishment in the air.

As we sipped on our personalized concoctions, we moved on over to making our own bitters.  Once again, Devin had done it up right with a huge array of spices, flavors, and aromatics.  My husband went for rosemary and peppercorns in his, so I went a different direction and used dried cherries, cinnamon, and rosewater.  We carefully filled the apothecary vials that we were given, and I had to snicker a little as I tucked them into my purse to take home.  Purse Full of Bitters would be an awesome new band name.


After the bitter making, Devin mixed up her last concoction of the evening.  She used Rhine Hall grappa and brandy and something else that must have been magical, because the whole thing ended up with a coconutty flavor that was completely unexpected!  Oh, and we were all totally impressed by the contraption that Devin pulled out that took blocks of ice and melted them into prefect ice spheres almost the size of a baseball!


To end the night, we took a little peek up on the roof of Devin's building and were treated to a spectacular view of the Chicago night skyline.  It was chilly, but so worth it.  In warmer weather, Devin says she tries to use the roof for her classes as much as possible, and I have to say, I can't wait to take a class up there.


Does it sound like I'm gushing yet?  It was an amazing experience!  I really loved every minute of it.  It was right up my alley.  Devin's drinks are thoughtful and delicious, and they prove that using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients can be a great approach to mixing cocktails.  You really leave the class inspired to go out and create your own concoctions, a "liquid confidence" of sorts.  Without being as intimidating as a bartending class, the Hollow Leg classes give you the information and the hands-on practice to make your drinks amazing, sure to impress your guests!  I would highly recommend it to anyone in, around, or just stopping by the Chicagoland area.  Talk about a taste of Chicago...what could be better than booze from local distilleries mixed with produce from local farms?

Oh, wait...I know what could be better...getting a special discount on the classes!  How about $10 off a Hollow Leg class?  It would make a fantastic holiday gift for the foodie (or drinkie!) in your life, even if that foodie happens to be you!  Just send an e-mail to hollowlegproductions@gmail.com, let them know that you heard about them on From Scratch, and you'll get hooked up!  There are plenty of classes scheduled, but if you don't see one that fits your needs, send Devin a message, and she'll be more than happy to find something that will work for you.  I'm telling you, you don't want to miss out on this!

Find Hollow Leg on the web at www.ahollowleg.com, and on Facebook!  Be sure to check out the drink gallery and the upcoming events, and give Hollow Leg a follow on Facebook to stay in-the-know on what's going on.

Cheers!  :)