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Anatomy of a Fall Cocktail Menu

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Nov 4, 2011 6:40PM

2011_11_3_morso-wolfsbane.jpgOver the past few weeks, Chicago bars and restaurants that care about such things have been debuting brand-new cocktail menus tailored to the fall season. Among them is MörSo, which unveiled nine original fall drinks on Tuesday. Matthew "Choo" Lipsky, who previously ran the bar at the Southern, has been conceiving and preparing MörSo's cocktails since the two-story restaurant and lounge opened this past summer. (Lipsky's handsome Panacea cocktail, off MörSo's first cocktail menu, was just named one of Tasting Table's top 10 drinks in Chicago for 2011.) We grabbed one of the two seats at Lipsky's intimate second-floor bar to find out what goes into creating a successful menu of drinks apropos of autumn.

Lipsky says that the first step he takes is to craft a list of spirits and ingredients he's interested in working with. With respect to both, he tries go as broad as possible, aiming to appeal to a wide swath of imbibers. In other words, only, say, one bourbon cocktail or (if this were still summer) one drink using ginger beer. Lipsky cast a wide net with spirits for his fall menu; besides the usual suspects vodka (Red Azalea) and gin (Foxglove), there's armagnac (Snowdrift), blended and single malt Scotch (Smolder; pictured at right), and mezcal (Chimenea), among other spirits.

But spirits alone don't necessarily say "fall." The mixers, modifiers and garnishes complete the equation. Many trappings of the season - some familiar, some less expected - can be found behind Lipsky's bar, including Malbec wine mulled in-house with various baking spices, maple syrup, black current jam, pumpkin puree and pressed organic fig juice. (Lipsky's apple pie-infused bourbon, a favorite from his days at the Southern, is also back by popular demand.)

The most painstaking step, as you would imagine, is pairing the spirits with complementary ingredients and refining the proportions for a balanced result - and not just in terms of flavor. Likewise attuned to his cocktails' aesthetics, Lipsky garnishes the Red Azalea (vodka, the mulled Malbec, lemon) with a sprig of fresh, green rosemary to add contrast to this deeply ruby-colored drink.

A cold-weather cocktail menu wouldn't be complete without hot drinks, either. Lipsky is doing two for this fall: a rye-and-chai cocktail called Sumac; and the armagnac-based Snowdrift, warmed with hot cocoa and topped with a disc of hazelnut-studded marshmallow.

A final concern is achieving a range of complexities. Lipsky's list builds from the light and bright Foxglove cocktail (gin and blood orange juice, topped with dustings of cardamom and allspice) to the dark, brooding Wolfsbane cocktail - a rich, rounded concoction featuring cognac, porter, lemon, a heap of black current jam and dashes of Bittercube Bolivar bitters. Drinks like this make the descent into another Chicago winter seem not only tolerable, but welcome.

MörSo is located at 340 West Armitage Avenue.