The second half of the Tasting Panel Magazine event held at Epic Restaurant in Chicago was featured a particular, upstart liqueur. The liqueur in question was an herbal one from Holland, namely: Harlem Kruiden liqueur. The producer of the spirits, Nolet Spirits, had been good enough to provide a number of bottles of Harlem Kruiden for a cocktail competition. This was held appropriately downstairs while the more high-brow affair of tasting was held upstairs.
Now, Proof66 brings two very distinct prejudices to events like these:
- First, there is never any good reason to shoot a good liquor.
- Second, the cocktail culture of today is rife with overly sweet drinks; we hate overly sweet drinks.
Given that set of bias, imagine our anticipation at approaching an event that featured a liquor that is designed to be shot in a cocktail competition of (mostly) sweet shooters. Twelve in all. Twelve stations; twelve "mixologists"; and more shot glasses than we've ever seen in one place at one time spread across 12 stations in Epic's generous bar. We felt like a hot, female scholar-athlete approaching a Star Trek convention even though we share very few similarities to hot, female, scholar-athletes. Even assistant executive editor Nicolette Teo - who apparently shares some of our prejudice in these matters - later admitted to approaching the shooter event with a certain sense of dread.
But then the event actually happened. And just like those scholar athletes will tell you, the game's not played on paper; it's played on the field.
Therein lies a good lesson for all of us. The very reason these competitions happen; the very reason these exhibitions of cocktail mixology occur; really the very reason Proof66 was founded (and presumably the Tasting Panel and similar institutions) is to give people an opportunity and a reason to expand their horizons and broaden their mind. And brother, after that shooter competition, you can consider our minds expanded!
This was our first opportunity to try Harlem Kruiden, which is mean to be an upscale competitor of the popular shooter (but seldom reviewed) liqueur Jagermeister. In tasting the Harlem, (chilled, as recommended) it's a very delicate and sophisticated liqueur that itself was not at all overly sweet and shockingly smooth for an 80 proof liqueur. (In fact, one might plausibly argue it's a flavored vodka.)
Having now been witness, we can say beyond question that the best way to showcase a spirit is to unleash 12 competent bartenders each competing for a 2-night stay in Las Vegas to invent a cocktail that best highlights that spirit. The competition at Epic was near-miraculous. Every station - every single one - had at minimum highly competent drinks and at best some shooters that had us furiously writing down the ingredients intending to recreate it. Best of all for Nolet, we bought a bottle of Harlem Kruiden on the way home we were so impressed.
Having openly criticized shooting drinks and shooter cocktails on this site several times, we think it only appropriate to chronicle some of the drinks that we found to be highlights of the night - though we ended up sharply disagreeing with the official Tasting Panel's decision. The bartenders were great - every one of them had a story and an approach for the cocktail and were ready to talk about it... and as we all know, the theater behind the drink is oftentimes as good as the drink themselves. Chicago was amazingly well-represented as a cocktail city by Epic and the bartenders that they invited. Below, out of the 12 that we tried, are our favorites with the bartenders and the bars they represented. Visit them and tell them Proof66 sent you. And then make damned sure you get one (or a dozen) of these shooters!
by Sarah Busen of Tiny Lounge
1 oz Harlem Kruiden
½ oz Pomegranate Juice
½ oz Peach Nectar
¼ oz Cassis
"Pour ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a shot glass. Shoot!"
The origin of this drink is another cocktail called the "Red Headed Slut." Sarah Busen is herself a rather striking redhead and this has led to countless requests for that shot, which she considers to be more notorious than tasty. The "redemption" part is taking the elements of that shot and making a real drink out of it. Our take was that the drink was exceptionally well-balanced between the tartness of the fruit and the sweetness of the liqueur and nectar. At a lighter overall proof, one can shoot these liberally all night long and still stay one's feet.
by Jaime Koeppler from Madisons Downtown
1 oz Harlem Kruiden
½ oz Crème de Violette
½ oz Hibiscus Flower Syrup
Chamomile Honey Foam
Mandarin Orange Zest
"Shake first three ingredients in a tin. Strain into small rocks glass. With an ISI whipper, top the shot with a small layer of Chamomile-honey foam. Top with fresh mandarin micro zest."
Now this drink may feel a bit difficult to create with its foams and micro-zest... something you might see on Top Chef rather than in your home bar. But a foam is actually easy to make and zest is as easy as owning a cheese grater. The drink is oriented and based upon flowers and the aromas of this drink are striking and unusual. The overall effect is light, airy, and springy without at all being sweet.
by Adam Porte from the The Fifty / 50
Harlem Kruiden (amount unspecified)
Ginger-Orange Simple Syrup
"In a shaker, muddle the lime, orange wedge, mint, and ginger-orange simple-syrup. Add ice and Harlem Kruiden; shake vigorously, strain and pour."
Harlem Banana Split
This drink is quite obviously based upon the famous Cuban mojito with its simple syrup and mint. In this case, the Harlem Kruiden takes the place of the rum along with some orange to bring out the flavor. You'll notice in our comments so far we haven't really mentioned the liqueur... and there's a reason for that - while tasting very nice those drinks didn't actually highlight the liqueur. This one did! The effect of the mint and orange on the herbal essence of the Harlelm was extraordinary. While the drink was considered too simple to execute by the judging panel, it ended up being our favorite choice of the night. Our opinion, top honors go here!
by Carolyn Little of Finley Dunne's Tavern
¾ oz Harlem Kruiden
¼ oz Cherry Juice
½ oz Crème de Banana
¼ oz Godiva White Chocolate
¼oz Vanilla Vodka
"Mix ingredients in a shaker and serve!"
We were quite taken with Carolyn who sold us on the fact that a dessert drink is ok at the end of a long night of eating chicken wings in the tavern. Apparently at Finley Dunne's, there is quite a call for sweet drinks and this was unabashedly meant for dessert. Was it sweet? Yeah, it was sweet. And normally we hate sweet drinks. But Carolyn's was nicely balanced and contained so many complementary flavors that we fell in love with it despite the baggage we brought along with us. Did the judges choose it? No... again, they probably thought it was too simple to execute. But for us, Carolyn was good enough for our second place award of the night. A cocktail to Fifty/50 but head for Finley Dunne's and ask for Carolyn if you want dessert.
by Adam Garvanian of McFadden's Restaurant and Saloon
1 oz Harlem Kruiden
Baileys Irish Cream
Dash of Goldschlager
"Add 1 ounce of Harlem, equal parts chocolate liqueur and Baileys and a dash of Goldschlager into a shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into a glass rimmed with cinnamon sugar."
This was the judge's second place finisher on the night. We thought this was a very good drink that was as much Christmas as anything... replace this shooter with what we usually get passed off as egg nog and the Christmas parties in the season will be much, much better. In fact, if this drink were heated up, we think it might be profoundly good.
by Mike Miller from Delilah's of Chicago
1 oz Harlem Kruiden
¾ oz Effen Black Cherry Vodka
¼ oz Cream Cherry Flavored Alcoholic Whipped Cream
"Shake Harlem and cherry vodka vigorously with ice and strain into a glass. Add topper of cherry cream and a cherry on top!"
This drink won on the night and mostly we think because of the fine story and premise that went with it. Mike Miller was attempting to display the dual nature of Amsterdam in his drink - the pristine and elegant daytime of the drink with the hooker at night represented in the cream and cherry. It's a great shooter because of the layered effects of the cream with the liqueur underneath.
What a fantastic way to spend an evening. Everyone had a great time at this event from us to the pros themselves. Anthony Dias Blue himself along with three other judges from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition panel of judges deliberated over the results and we can state that we watched with our own eyes how seriously they took it. Overseen by Nicolette Teo, they had careful notes and long discussion - and quite a debate, really, over the two finalists - which goes to show the skill with which the bartenders executed the drinks. Had this been any old set of frat party shooters, the judges may not have finished and certainly wouldn't have taken the time that they did. As it was, they took great care in selecting their winner. (We'll continue to privately grumble that our choices were actually better but defer to the professionals on this one.)
This is an event that can be reproduced in your own home and what a party it would be. Find an unfamiliar spirit that seems to do well with the scores. Try it. Invite some friends and invent some cocktails. Have a winner! It's a fantastic way to spend an evening and far more liberating than your run-of-the-mill potluck experience.