By Josh Noel, Tribune Newspapers
September 22, 2013
There's often a moment on the tasting panels or cocktail competitions Charles Joly judges that draws a collective sigh: the pre-mixed, ready-to-drink category.
Think of the bright concoctions with names like Tropical Sea Breeze and Strawberry Shortcake Blenders, with the instructions, "Just add ice!"
"Everyone cringes a little bit because they're so sugary and have colors that don't exist in nature," said Joly, who has become one of the nation's pre-eminent cocktail-makers while manning the bars at The Aviary and, previously, The Drawing Room.
But with the burgeoning craft spirits movement, which has brought us more small distilleries and bars dedicated to finely tuned cocktails, Joly knew those bright elixirs were onto something.
His take, released this summer, is Crafthouse Cocktails, a line of pre-mixed craft cocktails — emphasis on the word craft — that Joly said aren't far from what he would serve at his home bar.
So far, Crafthouse has released two relatively simple blends in 750-milliliter swing-top bottles: a Southside (gin, lime, sugar and mint) and a Moscow mule (vodka, ginger beer, lime juice and sugar). Next up will be a paloma (tequila, grapefruit soda, sugar and lime juice) and, down the line, Joly plans to experiment with American whiskey and aged rum.
Crafthouse Cocktails aren't quite a substitute to walking into a bar and, for instance, asking a bartender to make a seasonal gin-based cocktail for someone who tends to drink straight whiskey at home (guilty as charged). But they are remarkably bright, fresh and balanced, the craft cocktail version of picking up a six-pack of craft beer on the way to a party.
The Southside, with an easy-drinking accessibility that wowed my girlfriend's non-cocktail-drinking mother, is smooth and minty, with a relatively light gin presence that arrives at the end of a sip. What wowed me was the Moscow mule, which boasted a bright sour-ginger burn above a light sweetness that made it endlessly drinkable.
Joly, a James Beard award winner who was named American bartender of the year at the Tales of the Cocktail convention this summer, said quality ingredients are key to his pre-mixed products. That includes pure cane sugar, house-made simple syrups and a lack of preservatives.
Joly concedes he could have opted for stronger or more challenging flavors but said he wanted to create pre-mixed cocktails with mainstream appeal.
"A bottled negroni would be delicious, but a lot of people don't like bitter," Joly said. "If you bring one of these to a party, I don't want you and one other person to be like, 'This is great,' and 40 other people to be unhappy.
"We're aiming for a sense of balance and what I think people will like."
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