The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Properly Sauced - The “Vaportini”

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 12, 2009 6:00PM

Culinary gimmickry seems to be everywhere these days. Molecular gastronomy, bacon-infused candy, flavored air - oh my! While this epicurean mayhem can be a bit overwhelming, we’re always ready to try something new. As we have learned from restaurants like Moto and Alinea, sometimes “gimmicks” can be an opportunity to showcase artistry, creativity and some really tasty food. Or, it can go horribly, horribly wrong.

So, it was with some apprehension that we approached Red Kiva last week to try their much-talked-about Vaportini. A posh West Loop bar, Red Kiva sits a bit outside of the hustle and bustle of the Randolph Street restaurant district. At the door, we met proprietor (and inventor) Julie Palmer, who came up with this crazy libation. Julie was inspired by the Finnish tradition of pouring vodka onto hot sauna coals, and tried to create a similar effect that was contained within a single drink. All of the equipment and the process were designed in-house, and this drink is exclusive to Red Kiva.

She showed us to the bar and presented us with the vaportini menu. There are four options - Knob Creek, Effen Black Cherry Vodka, Absolut Raspberri and Tanqueray Rangpur, each served with an appropriate garnish. We ordered a Knob Creek and a Tanqueray, and honestly had NO idea what to expect.

What arrived was a strange combination of dish, art object and drug paraphernalia. A hand-blown glass ball sits inside of a metal bowl filled with lead. The bowl is heated in the kitchen, and the liquor (about 1/2 a shot) is put into the glass ball. The glass ball, when nestled inside the metal bowl, is heated to 110 degrees, vaporizing the liquor. Drinkers insert a straw into the glass ball and “drink” the alcoholic vapors.

We were frankly amazed at how well the flavors of the liquor carried over into the “vapors.” Especially with the Knob Creek, the full range of flavor present in the bourbon appeared on the palate - indeed, without the burn associated with drinking straight liquor, the flavors were actually clearer. The drink lasts for about 20 minutes, and can be reheated on request until all of the alcohol has been consumed. The effects? Well, for one thing, food won’t help take the edge of this buzz - the alcohol is absorbed straight into your bloodstream through your lungs. We were a bit lightheaded after trying one vaportini, and after two, we staggered a bit. The effects cleared quite quickly, but don’t assume this drink is as insubstantial as its appearance suggests.

The drink costs $10, and for the experience and the strange sensations, we say it’s worth it. We’d steer clear of the Effen Black Cherry - it’s flavoring, when vaporized, tasted strongly like some kind of off-brand floor cleaner. But the bourbon and gin both made wonderful drinks.

Vaportini service is only available on Thursday nights, for now. Red Kiva is located at 1108 West Randolph Street.