29 June - Tasting Summer at The Iron Horse Hotel

Summer. Feel the sun on my skin, the smell of natural oils mixed with lotion. Listen to the cars zooming by on their way to unknown destinations, the occasional bass booming from an open window donning a 20-something in Ray Ban's...all welcome company. I smell marinated flank steak cooking on the barbie and think of my favorite frequents...Summerfest, La Merenda for cuisine, live music anywhere and Iron Horse Hotel for cocktails.

Featured on the "Today Show" and Conde Nast's "Travelers Hot List for 2009", the Iron Horse captures the essence of edgy chic and casual cool. With an eclectic decor of primitive antiques, wrought iron, amber glass and Edison bulbs, this hotel has attracted world travelers. It sits at the base of a historic and active railroad. "Iron Horse" is what Native Americans used to call the train. The modern day interpretation of "Iron Horse" is the motorcycle. Eloquently enough, a guest will find the new Harley-Davidson Museum nearby.

"When you come to a hotel like this, you don't want to order a cosmo at the bar. It's already been done and too mainstream. I would expect to see trained bartenders who take the classic cocktail, then twist and resurface them on the menu," says Dustin Drankiewicz, resident mixologist and head bartender of the Iron Horse.

The weekly task was tasting the 10 new Signature Cocktails of Branded, the main bar and restaurant of the Iron Horse. These are to be introduced this week. Branded's signature cocktails are infused with certain herbs and spices. With names like Ginger Snap, Apple Jacques, Reviver and Beeka, after Dustin's grandmother, what's not to pique one's interest? And of course, I had to bring a crew of discriminating palates...John, Yvette and Cora. The overall comments were "refreshing, unique, crisp and perfect spectrum of exactly what you want." The thought process behind creating this season's span of rock drinks was to use fresh herbs to enhance the flavor profiles, stay on the sweeter side, and the use of simple syrups. All products are from the distributor Capitol-Husting. And all alcohol bases are infused by Dustin himself.

Dustin uses only fresh ingredients and herbs to infuse and garnish the specials -- from lemongrass, rosemary, sage, basil to granny smith apples. He tends to avoid the neutral spirits like vodka but prefers gin, bourbon, vermouth and whiskey to infuse. And he is quite select in using Rehorst products and tastes like St. Germain, a liqueur based on the Elderflower from the Alps.

Being a mixologist, there comes a wealth of much knowledge. As Dustin was describing some of the ingredients, he would launch off on the history of Milwaukee-based Rehorst, or how the heirs of Chambord branched into two products, Canton, a ginger-based cognac and St. Germain. I asked how Dustin began his interest in mixology. "I was bartending and cooking in Las Vegas for two years...with someone who kept up with educating himself on different techniques of cooking. He would feed me knowledge. This sparked a passion for experimenting with herbs and spices. I would go home and start cooking with different tastes. This eventually spilled over to mixology.... Gary Regan was a big influence. [From reading his books on mixology] I realized there were different levels of bartending -- making classic cocktails versus serving a beer."

Thus began Dustin's new creative outlet and interest in experimenting with different flavor profiles. He told us of a story that while making fish tacos, he decided to garnish them with sage. He took a sip of lemonade with the sage taste still on his palate and thought the two blended nicely. Mix in taking a bite of a pear, thus came his idea of "Cristal Flower"...a pear- and sage-infused gin with lemon juice, ginger simple syrup and St. Germain. Complemented with a sprig of rosemary inhaled with the sip, it won us over. John said it was the quintessential outside drink on a good hot summer day. This was Yvette's favorite.

The next cocktail, The Reviver, is Dustin's take on a "pick me up", serving the same purpose of the classic Bloody Mary. The twist is using the anise taste of Absinthe, St. Germaine, Lillet Blanc, a white wine vermouth, lemon juice and Plymouth Gin. The beauty of this, in our opinion, was the hint of licorice was subtle with a nice citrus taste. To me, after letting it sit, it seemed the taste opened up like the bouquet of a red wine. It marinated and mellowed.

The Apple Jacques was quite interesting. Comments on this was "complex taste and establishes its own category." Dustin used a coriander simple syrup, muddled basil and ginger, lemon juice and rye whiskey infused with granny smith apples. Simply delightful.

The Ginger Snap was not only aesthetically pleasing, but one of our favorites in taste. It contained gin, Canton, cinnamon simple syrup, ginger beer, mint and lime juice. It is interesting to note the ginger. Dustin mentioned he likes to keep up with the latest trends, confirming why I have seen more ginger beers in a few restaurants in Milwaukee.

The next cocktail was mine and Cora's personal favorite, Pineapple Smash. All the flavor profiles suited me, as I am a big fan of basil. My husband and I make a lime basil granita in the summer months. The peach simple sugar, lemon juice, basil, Rehorst gin infused with pineapple was excellent.

Ol' Donny Boy...our comments? The best-scented. A Mexican Mimosa, as John called it. This incorporates the citrus of orange, lemon, lime and cherry with Agave simple syrup and tequila. Pleasant remnant of nostalgia of breakfast with my family as a child.

The Beeka is named after Dustin's grandmother, due to its "sweet and stern" nature at the same time. He incorporates a taste of Wisconsin with Door County Cherry-infused brandy.

The remaining cocktails are Pryor Street with an orange blossom liqueur garnished with rosemary, Round #1 with Barcadi's Dragon Berry (strawberry), and Nacional with essences of peach and apricot.

Truly, this breadth of signature cocktails spans the spectrum of discriminating palates as there is something here for everyone. I look forward to enjoying a few on Iron Horse's outdoor patio, "The Yard." The ambience simulates friends' rooftop lounges in Chicago...a feeling of home. I also look forward to checking in with Dustin next season to see what more he has learned and with whose paths he crossed that may have left a new influence. "You are as good as the people you empower yourself with."

Well said, my friend. Be sure to pay Dustin a visit and taste a bit of summer.

More information on the Iron Horse can be found at http://www.theironhorsehotel.com/.