It is fair to say that The Violet Hour is the most important and iconic cocktail bar in Chicago. This is actually a pretty big statement, because Chicago takes its alcohol very seriously—probably more seriously than any other city in the U.S., if not the world. Yes, the writer of this blog post is a native of Chicago, but this opinion is grounded in objective fact.
The Violet Hour is also one of those places that is not easy to find, if you're not looking with the right pair of eyes. The door is camouflaged by a beautifully painted mural, which changes with the season. As soon as you step through this door, you enter into a dimly-lit, ultra-sexy space where mixology has risen to an art form.
It is equally fair to say that The Violet Hour holds an important place in the history of To’ak. Before we released our first edition to the public in 2014, we conducted a series of pre-launch tastings with mixologists and sommeliers in my home city of Chicago, most notably at The Violet Hour. It was here that the first-ever To’ak-Cognac pairing was put forth. The sheer sumptuousness of it is what inspired us to chase down a fifty-year-old Cognac barrel in France and bring it to Ecuador to age our chocolate in. Thus, To’ak’s first barrel-aged chocolate edition was born from a pairing suggestion offered by Aubrey Howard and Eden Laurin at The Violet Hour.
Three years later, we’re back at The Violet Hour exploring the next generation of To’ak Chocolate pairings under the guidance of mixologist Pat Ray. After Pat Ray took some time to experiment with various pairings, I came by The Violet Hour during one of my visits to Chicago to talk to him about his final selections. The following is a transcript of our conversation.
Interview with Pay Ray, Mixologist
Photo by The Violet Hour
JERRY: Let’s start out with your background. Tell us a little something about your journey to this point in time, in terms of your work.
PAT: Sure. My name’s Pat Ray. I am a bartender at The Violet Hour in Chicago. I started my bartending career in Japan. I bartended in Tokyo for several years, moved back to the States, and started working at The Violet Hour about four years ago. I had the opportunity to go through the bartender training here with Toby Maloney and learn a lot about pairing spirits, usually with other spirits here in the context of cocktails. More recently, I’ve been studying for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ sommelier exam, so I’ve been doing a lot more with wine pairings. Chocolate is notoriously hard to pair with wine, but I’ve also found it to be a really fun and challenging experience. Which is why I was excited to work with To’ak on this. It’s been a great opportunity to taste different chocolate next to different spirits and see what the result was, which flavors played on each other, which worked and didn’t work. In the context of The Violet Hour, we talk about flavors echoing, mirroring, complementing, and contrasting each other. There was a lot of that going on, and I came up with a couple of pairings that I thought were very interesting and brought out characteristics in the chocolate and in the spirit that were hard to pick up on in isolation.
JERRY: Tell me a little bit more about this concept of echoing, mirroring, complementing and contrasting. How does that work?
PAT: It’s more like a framework to think about what the flavors are doing to each other. For example, in the context of cocktails, you would pair orange bitters with a Campari cocktail because there are bitter orange peels in the Campari itself, so those flavors naturally work very well together because they play on each other’s strengths. They mirror what’s going on flavor-wise.
JERRY: What about an example of a pairing that works by virtue of contrasting?
PAT: The first example that comes to mind is sweet and sour; the basic triptych of sugar, citrus, and spirit that defines whiskey sours, daiquiris, gimlets, and countless other cocktails is based on the contrasting combination of sweet and sour flavors.
JERRY: So walk us through your pairing recommendations with To’ak Chocolate.
PAT: Sure. I wanted to start with a straight spirit pairing, and I was immediately drawn towards barrel-aged spirits, especially because of the Laphroaig barrel-aged chocolate. I ended up settling on the Neisson Reserve Speciale. It is an aged agricole rum from Martinique. It’s actually a blend of aged rums, some aged up to ten years, both in bourbon and in Scotch whisky casks.
Pairing Recommendation #1:
Rum: Neisson Rhum Agricole 18 Yr Old (Martinique French West Indies)
JERRY: What exactly is an agricole rum?
PAT: An agricole rum is a distillate of pressed sugar cane juice rather than molasses, which is what the vast majority of rums are distilled from. So, sugar cane is actually in the grass family, and it definitely showcases a little bit more terroir than something that’s gone through industrial sugar production. I feel like sugar cane spirits and chocolate are a natural pairing because they both express the nature of the place where they were grown and the specific circumstances. And To’ak’s El Niño Harvest is a good example of that. We get to see how the environmental conditions in which something was produced is reflected in the final product. Agricole rum tends to have a much more grassy flavor profile, lots of sharp and fruity notes, lots of esters, aldehydes, the things that give spirits their flavor profile. When you put that in a barrel, it does many different things, but one of those is that acids in the spirit turn into simple esters, and then simple esters turn into more complex esters, things like honey and spices, and that continues. The longer a spirit stays in the barrel, more of these complex esters and aldehydes get created.
JERRY: So you liked the agricole rum with the El Nino Harvest. Did it work with the other two chocolates you tried [Single Malt Islay Cask 3 Year and Andean Alder 4 Year]?
PAT: Yeah. I loved tasting the aged agricole next to the barrel-aged chocolates. I felt like lots of the flavors that are imparted by barrel aging, like oak and molasses, were really complementary to each other and highlighted the difference in, say, the smoky peat flavor of the Single Malt Islay Cask edition, which obviously owes its peat to the Laphroaig cask. The Andean Alder was a different story. I didn’t have any context for the Andean Alder until I tasted it, but the wood on that definitely came through in a fascinating way, and now I know I’m happy to say that I know what Andean Alder tastes like.
JERRY: Yeah, well, until now I don’t think any of us knew what flavor notes Andean Alder would offer.
PAT: It makes you want to throw some aguardiente or something in there. Just a lot of really interesting flavors going on there.
Pairing Recommendation #2:
Cocktail: Bitter Giuseppe (The Violet Hour, Chicago)
o 2 oz of amaro (Cynar)
o 1 oz of sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica)
o ¼ oz of lemon juice
o 2 dashes of orange bitters o stirred, poured over ice, with a lemon garnish
JERRY: So how about the Bitter Giuseppe? How did that enter into the mix?
PAT: I wanted to pair the chocolates with a cocktail that would highlight some different notes other than just a straight spirit, so my mind immediately went to wine pairings, things like a vintage port and Pedro Ximénez sherry. Sweet fortified wines are always my go-to in the wine world to pair with chocolate, so I wanted to go for a cocktail that would hit some of the same notes, but maybe with a little bit more complexity, a little bit more herbaceousness. So, I settled on the Bitter Giuseppe. It’s a Violet Hour classic cocktail. It’s more or less a Cynar Manhattan with a hint of lemon and some orange bitters, super light, refreshing, but at the same time, bitter and complex, very low ABV. When I tasted it next to the chocolate, the bitter notes were playing off of each other very, very well. This chocolate has a lot going on, flavor-wise, but it’s still quite dark and the bitterness does come through. So, playing those bitter notes in the Cynar against the bitterness of the cacao was something that showcased various different aspects of bitter flavors.
Photo by Eden Laurin
JERRY: Interesting approach, I’ve never actually thought of it in that way.
PAT: They say the human palate can identify more than 300 different distinct varieties of bitterness. I guess, because of our roots, bitter things tend to be poisonous sometimes. So, being able to tell the difference between different types of bitterness, at one point, was a very useful survival skill for early humans. Now it’s interesting in the context of examining flavors because you can pick up a great many nuances.
JERRY: So how do you make the Bitter Giuseppe?
PAT: The Bitter Giuseppe is two ounces of amaro (Cynar), one ounce of sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica), a quarter of an ounce of lemon juice, two dashes of orange bitters. And it’s a stirred cocktail poured over ice with a lemon garnish.
JERRY: Is that a secret recipe, or can that be published here?
PAT: Oh, no, it’s not secret. It was created by Stephen Cole, a Violet Hour alumnus who went on to open Barrelhouse Flat. That cocktail is a recurring player on our house classics list.
Pairing Recommendation #3:
Absinthe Duplais Blanc & Duplais Verte (Switzerland)
JERRY: This brings us to the absinthe. Let’s talk about this one.
PAT: This was something I went out on a limb with, and I’m glad that I did. Chocolate and absinthe are things that I had never heard of being paired together, and I couldn’t find any information on the Internet about it. So, having the benefit of The Violet Hour and our absinthe program here, I was able to taste each of the To’ak chocolate editions next to a wide range of absinthe, and the results were pretty surprising.
JERRY: How did you serve the absinthe?
PAT: I did a standard absinthe preparation with a sugar cube and a drip. The sweetened and diluted absinthe was able to cancel out the sweetness of the chocolate, and also some of the bitterness of the wormwood cut into the bitterness of the chocolate. This had the effect of showcasing some other flavors that were going on behind the scenes that you’re not able to pick up on their own. The chocolate actually made it much easier to pick out the differences between the flavor profiles of a blanche absinthe and a vert absinthe, and between a French absinthe and a Swiss absinthe, and it even highlighted some of the different styles and manufacturers. And then, between the different chocolates themselves, some of the more subtle fruit notes and spice notes came through in a big way. It was actually kind of amazing. Pairing the chocolate with the absinthe let me see both things in a new light. It was almost like taking the hood off of a car and looking at what was going on underneath—for both chocolate and absinthe.
Pairing Recommendation #4:
Pedro Ximenez Sherry
JERRY: I agree. That one blew me away, too. I’m going to take this one back to Ecuador with me. Anything else?
PAT: Well, of course there is Pedro Ximenez Sherry. That’s a famous pairing partner for dark chocolate—you can never go wrong with it. And with To’ak, it works beautifully pretty much across the board.