The riverwalk was getting a bit brisk (it was still May), so we decided to close the evening at a relatively new bar, the self-proclaimed gastropub, Rumpus Room. Like the modern rare spirits bars, the Rumpus Room is set up like a library with near floor to ceiling back shelves lined with liquors of all sorts, a veritable wall of drool-worthy selections, of which a small portion would set you back years, both monetarily and in liver-functionality. The bar patrons were thin, so we sat down near the first third of the bar, in front of two bartenders who were cleaning more than they were serving. One of them handed us a bar menu, I promptly ordered one of their cocktails called ‘The Night Watchman,’ a tasty concoction of Woodford bourbon, Cherry Herring, Carpano Antica vermouth, Amaro Montenegro, and a three bitter blend. Given the time of the night and low liquid volume, this cocktail was quickly ingested and I was on to bigger and better things.
I scanned the shelves for something delectable. The ultimate after-dinner drink caught my eye- Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Tawny Port. I questioned the bartender on the cost per glass. He responded with the highest price I have ever heard for a glass of wine- $35 (the bottle, which is virtually impossible to get here in the States goes for around $200-$250). I made him this deal- if I could get an ounce of Sirene absinthe, I’d pay for a glass of the Taylor Fladgate 40. He agreed. The Taylor came in a dark, red tinted bronze color, I guess that it owes its hue to the years it shared encased in oak; it was expected and sort of surprising at the same time (probably because non-red port is a bit disconcerting). The aroma was reminiscent of old tawnies from Taylor, but the taste was so different. It starts out fruit forward, like you would expect, sweet and rich, then its complex nature comes in as it reaches all the corners of your mouth- all kinds of flavors appear- the strongest to me was hazelnut, but there was also caramel, butter, and the taste of tan crunchy outside of a perfectly roasted marshmallow. After that, the finish was full of sweet residues, mixed with minerals and grass notes and lasted FOR-EV-ER. I was impressed.
I became a fan of the Sirene absinthe as well. Sirene is made by North Shore Distillery in Chicago and sold at Sentry in Madison for around $60. I was looking for a bottle of absinthe to replace my dwindling La Fee; Sirene is in the running. I did not have an opportunity to test this absinthe’s louche, but straight up it was appealing. It has a dark olive color- darker than any of my absinthes at home- but I prefer its more natural color than the seemingly artificial electric green glow of some I’ve seen. The taste without sugar or water was still very sweet and strongly anise with a mixture of other herbs like mint. I can see how this absinthe would not pass the muster for the purist, but I liked it a lot. Its closest cousin is probably Herbsaint.
Our bartender returned and Cindy ordered a gin and tonic to close the night. Lucky for us, the bartender had noticed us talking about some of the unfamilar bourbon bottles on the wall directly opposite of our bar stools. The two bourbons in particular, come to find out, were orphaned barrels from mothballed distilleries affiliated with Diageo (makers of Bulleit bourbon, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Guinness, and more). Diageo decided to release some of these bourbons in the early part of 2014, creating a huge buzz on the internet. Our bartender offered us an ounce of both bourbons. The first was the 20 year old Barterhouse bourbon, which currently goes for $75 a bottle. I thought it smelled better than it tasted; it was butter sweet and honeyed vanilla on nose and tongue, but the wood was non-existent. I would never pay for a bottle of this. The other bottle was the 26 year old Old Blowhard. I actually drank both of the bourbons, first, without knowing which was which; the bartender asked my opinion- immediately I grasped the Old Blowhard and said, “this one is older and better.” He agreed. The Old Blowhard was full of oak, which did betray its age, and tasted the way good bourbon is supposed to taste- like toffee, vanilla, and wood sugars with a solid punch of burn somewhere involved. Now Diageo wants $150 per bottle, which is insane when I can get great bottles of Woodford or Blanton’s for much cheaper.
We thanked and tipped the barkeep and finally headed off back to our hotel room. Want a running total of wine/beer/spirits that I had in my 2014 8-hour drinking tour of Milwaukee? Here it is in chronological order -
- Railsplitter cocktail
- A double Slow & Low and 7
- A shot of Cazadores tequila
- A glass of Chilean malbec
- A glass of Woodford Four Grain bourbon
- A glass of Rock Bottom Naughty Scot Scottish Ale
- A Night Watchman cocktail
- A glass of Taylor Fladgate 40 Year tawny port
- An ounce of Sirene absinthe
- An ounce of Barterhouse bourbon
- An ounce of Old Blowhard bourbon