MOST OF WHAT I associate with winter happens within the first two weeks. Four days in, Christmas comes—all candy canes and fruitcake, followed by days and nights of leftovers. Less than a week later, New Year's Eve explodes in a shower of bubbly wine.
After 10 days, winter feels like a done deal. Maybe it's the close of a year's worth of living. Maybe it's trading in the old One Direction calendar for the new Harry Styles solo version. Or maybe it's that the next holiday of any note requires an actual effort to get a kiss—rather than just standing under mistletoe or staying awake until midnight or whatever you do to get a kiss on Groundhog Day.
But the fact is, winter's still got 10 more weeks. Slipping down my treacherous porch stairs to chip away at my ice-covered Ford Escape (like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man), I'd be lying if I said my first thought is anything but "Damn it, I need a drink."
Specifically, I need a Manhattan. Whiskey provides warmth, fortified vermouth lends life some stability, and bitters can perhaps calm my stupid stomach—which after a solid week of holiday eating has decided that raw oysters, baked ham, and everything else "au gratin" is a reasonable diet.
That first Manhattan of the year has to be an excellent one, so I head to St. Jack (1610 NW 23rd), where the bartenders wear custom aprons that cost more than my whole outfit, and even though they're sporting straight neckties, if you close your eyes you can easily imagine them in bow ties. They carve ice off a giant block behind the bar, is what I'm saying. And after spending my morning doing that very thing to my car, I'm ready to pay top dollar for this kind of service. And I will, because at $14, the Jack's Manhattan is nearing the limit of what I'll spend on a drink in this town. But George Dickel rye whiskey and Bonal Gentiane-Quina—an herbal and fruity fortified wine—taste like $14 in heat and comfort. Add a splash of Boker's bitters and curaçao, and you're basically making money on this deal.
The Bonal in St. Jack's Manhattan recalls a classic twist on the Black Manhattan. In a Black Manhattan, you replace the vermouth with Averna, which is an amaro (an Italian bitter or bittersweet herbal liqueur). However, there are tons of different kinds of amaro out there, so you'll see various types in a Black Manhattan.
Nostrana (1401 SE Morrison), for instance, makes their Black Manhattan ($12) with a house nocino (a bitter, brown liqueur made by steeping unripe green walnuts in liquor). This Black Manhattan uses bourbon, which in my book is a capital offense. But I have to admit the roundness of the bourbon does give the nocino's sharp teeth less purchase—though what really softens me to this drink are the cranberry bitters, a slight nod to the holiday season.
Now that we're feeling loose with the rules, let's hit Expatriate (5424 NE 30th) to see where brandy takes us. Their No. 8 cocktail ($13) is made with Dickel rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, and an alpine liqueur called Genepy, which is an artemisia-based herbal drink (like absinthe meeting chartreuse at high altitude). That Alpine briskness makes the No. 8 a great companion for icy January nights.
Genepy excels in all things wintry. Next time you're at the Hop & Vine (1914 N Killingsworth) mulling (get it?) over your choices for a Hot Buttered Anything (price of spirit plus $2), consider Genepy des Alpes. Its herbaceous sweetness rolls comfortably into the house-made hot butter mix, and its low alcohol content means you can have a couple if you really want to warm up.
Another hot Genepy option is at Bit House Saloon (727 SE Grand), where they liven up a hot cocoa with it in the Nightrunner ($9). Naturally, the liqueur pairs excellently with what Swiss Miss has led me to believe is the great Alpine tradition of hot chocolate. And the sweet, cold Chantilly cream on the top of most of Bit House's hot drinks is one of my favorite things about this season.
Look! I already have favorite things about this season. This is my year! I'm finally going to get that Groundhog Day kiss.