“Now, using fine leaves picked by pretty maidens,
In a bag knitted by a seamstress who lives in Copenhagen,
Brewed up in a pot made of semi-precious metal,
Let the blessed contents settle in my very special kettle!”
– Professor Elemental, “Cup O Brown Joy”
A couple of years ago I found myself in the now closed down Cedar Grill in picturesque Long Grove, IL; in the company of a great friend of mine, a great beer (which escapes my memory), and a plate of delicious beef brisket. While I still fondly recollect this visit to this very day, I’ll remember the Cedar Grill as the place I had my very first encounter with Hendrick’s Gin. Had it been on the menu I probably would have skimmed past it, but it was a lovely Hendrick’s representative that offered me a Hendrick’s and Tonic. How could I have said no? Back then I thought that the cucumber garnish was “a nice touch”, and appreciated the cocktail’s cool, yet heart-warming nature. It was flowery, like drinking steeped chrysanthemum petals and chewing on the stem of a wild carnation, brought together by the unmistakable flavor of cucumber. I liked it. I loved it. I loved it despite the Dickensian images that gin reminded me of. Gin was dystopian and dreadful; a fog drenched in drab; a rainy nightmare smelling of wet, dusty pavement and soaked wooden crates; a temptress on a Monday morning after a graveyard shift. Sure, the connotation is unfair; there is nothing grim about the contents of gin. It is not born from a heartless factory; it is crafted by blindfolded artists on a tightrope stretched between alchemy and medicine. Drinking that simple cocktail was lovely like living in the moment with your best friend, and felt like falling asleep in your own bed after a humdrum of a day. There was life tapped inside that gin; yarrow, elderflower, juniper, angelica root, orange peel, caraway, coriander, chamomile, cubeb berry, orris root, lemon – an entire bouquet of botanicals from every corner of the world just thriving in their new liquid form. There was something else as well, like the pang of remembering something lost, a melancholic incompleteness; a little something I now recognize as hiraeth. It wasn’t until I got home and did some research when I discovered that one of the key components in Hendrick’s was the Bulgarian Damask rose. Of course. It all made so much sense for a Bulgarian immigrant to take to heart the lingering fragrance and taste of his homeland.
If it is true that we are all made from star dust, then I have no doubt that at one point in time, past or future, I must have been, or will be, in the same constellation with the star stuff of this gin. It was at that precise moment that I stopped loving, and fell in love with Hendrick’s. If gin is your drink or you are curious to hear more about it, and if steampunk, comical anachronism, men wrestling with mustaches, pith-helmeted explorers a la Professor Elemental looking for treasured jungle flowers, the occasional Monty Python non sequitur, or pure, unrefined, thrice-distilled oddity and unusualness are your thing, then you should definitely read about the Mecca for Hendrick’s lovers –
The Emporium of the Unusual!
Located at the storefront at 1336 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago, the so called Emporium of the Unusual was Hendrick’s Gin’s three day pop-up event from June 10-13. Only an online RSVP was needed, and the entire event was totally and utterly free of charge! Our chosen time was at 5 pm. on Friday, and as the clock neared the important hour, the line outside of the venue slowly began to grow with men and women from all walks of life eager to partake in some gin consumption. As soon as we entered we were greeted by our host, whose red vest, can and top hat immediately prepared us for the oddities that were to ensue. Bird skeletons in jars, roses tucked in inside dictionaries predating most of the participants, and a small, cozy apothecay-style foyer greeted us. Guests was given two wooden Hendrick’s Gin tokens, as well as a small card for a complimentary Hendrick’s cocktail at one out of three nearby bars which was good till the clock struck twelve.. Each token was meant to be used in exchange for a selection of special cocktails, and if you think that’s too generous we were all given a small Hendrick’s Gin and Tonic concoction. To sample the goods, so to say. Our gracious host greeted all of us, and as the small room started to fill with more and more people I frantically started to look around until I saw a large bookshelf which looked suspicious. And lo! The outlandish piece of furniture parted in the middle, and we were all beckoned to enter the Emporium and enjoy ourselves.
This kind of showmanship and theatrics are really just a small part of Hendrick’s brand, which encourages exploration, curiosity and rewards with comical ostentatious display of the peculiar.
The entrance led us through a small jungle-like botanical den filled with mist and steam, which turned into a larger area filled with happy faces, live accordion covers of famous songs, and a nice background of jazz, retro and electro swing. And that’s as normal as it ever got! Teams of bartenders were mixing, straining and shaking cocktails in one corner, a strange box with a moustachioed man’s portrait was glaring at us from another, a ginormous topiary of a man hugging a surprising large bottle of Hendrick’s, a 20 ft. tall woman with a tea party area under her dress was waving, and an accordion player with an enviable handlebar mustache was zooming back and forth on a penny-farthing. There were little people all too eager to dance.. and hang around and inside the tall lady’s dress… and a whole wall with all kinds of antique jib-jabs, portraits which followed our every move, and some of the pictures even opened and strange hands offered us various souvenirs. It was simply…. amazing. Every corner of the room was like a small altar dedicated to the Gods of Bewilderment, and I found myself walking all over the place and exploring every nook and cranny, and the more I looked, the more I found. There were no chairs; tree trunks were available on top of beds of mulch. There was even a bathtub filled with pillows!
And I eventually convinced my friend to get inside said bathtub. He had some difficulties getting out, but I think we can all agree that he had a good time.
Our first token was spent at a station “womanned” by a charming lady who was offering the so called…
TRAVELING EMPORIUM PUNCH:
- 2 parts HENDRICK’S GIN
- 3 parts cucumber shrub*
- 3 parts hibiscus or strawberry tea
- 1 part Lillet Rose
- Rhubarb bitters to taste
- Cucumber wheels and strawberry slices to garnish
Combine all ingredients in a large punch bowl over a block of ice. Stir to chill and dilute. Add bitters to taste, then garnish and serve.
*Place cucumbers in a juice extractor and set aside. Combine 1 pat sugar, 1/2 part vinegar and 1/2 part water, then heat until sugar dissolves. Once the mixture has chilled, combine with 1 part cucumber juice.
The Traveling Emporium Punch is a bold, slightly syrupy aperitif brimming with sweet energy and a one-of-a-kind tanginess akin to light strawberry vinaigrette. Right from the start, this is a potent cocktail showcasing the exotic nature of Hendrick’s Gin, as well as the relatively odd recipes that it can shine in. This is definitely a conversation drink meant to be sipped slowly and gently in order to truly appreciate the complexity of the punch. Strawberry and rhubarb play very well together and provide the aroma for the punch, and the small amount of vinegar in the cucumber shrub goes a long way with the quinine notes of the Lillet. What the Traveling Emporium Punch really reminds me of is the morning “pick-me-up” concoctions I used to make to lose weight, where I’d mix some apple cider vinegar with dandelion tea, freshly squeezed lemon, mandarin and grapefruit juice. I can totally see this type of drink as a.. well… a great traveling companion, especially if chilled and diluted with some extra ice cubes. It would be a great little energy drink to sip on while catching your breath on your weekend hikes. Because water is boring. I could also see this pairing up pretty well with some homemade trail mix of raw almonds, raisins and craisins (dried cranberries), which should match the bitter, sweet and tart nature of the Traveling Emporium Punch. I could also see this drink evolving from place to place. Keep the cucumber shrub, gin, and perhaps the Liller Rose the same, but add new kinds of tea, bitters and garnish according to your exotic location. My friend and I definitely said “Wow” and “Whoa” a bunch of times and ate the garnish to boot. Shame this is kind of hard to make!
The lady of the station even told us that the punch has a way of making the drinker’s wishes come true, so here’s hoping that drinking this will get me the half-way decent job I so desperately need…. *hiccup*
We were also served some hors d’oeuvre foods, such as mysterious sushi rolls (I think?), salmon cream cheese with dill (I think?), and bruschetta, and soon after we were done with our Traveling Emporium Punch and did some more exploring, we decided to cash in our second tokens. Will went for a:
- 1 1/2 parts HENDRICK’S GIN
- 1 part blueberry green tea
- 1 part fresh lemon juice
- sparkling water to fill the glass
- Cucumber spear and fresh blueberries to garnish
Combine ingredients in an iced long glass and top with sparkling water. Gently stir together with a cucumber spear, garnish with fresh blueberries and serve.
I didn’t get a chance to try it, but the concept does sound delish. Will had to donate his token to the mysterious portrait box thing, which supposedly was the image of one Dr. Hendrick’s. A man said some magic words, tapped the box, and the portrait moved just enough to let the Blueberry Delight through. Beat that! Much simpler than the Traveling Punch and yet again utilizing a type of tea, this cocktail should be easy to make after a trip to the specialty tea store or something, and it just so happens that this is going to be more efficient to be made in large quantities… Just the excuse one needs to spend the afternoon sipping on a Blueberry Delight, right? I’d be tempted to muddle some blueberries or add a bit of Blue Curaçao to give it that blueberry color.
While Will was having his Blueberry Delight, I looked around and decided to have one of the other cocktails at the bar. Just take a moment and see how colorful the place was with the many, many roses and tuxedo-looking medicinal bottles of Hendrick’s all over the place!
- 1 1/2 pats HENDRICK’S GIN
- 3/4 part honeydew melon puree
- 3/4 part fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 part simple syrup
- 1/2 part melon rooibos tea
- Melon ball and lemon wheel to garnish
Combine all ingredients over ice and shake until well mixed. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, add garnishes and serve.
The Melodious Melonade captivated me with well… its melons. I had never had honeydew melon or just melon in drink form, so I was curious to find out, and this cocktail delivered, and then some. It was simply sublime, and was easily my favorite drink of the night. And we had many. Before and after the event. The fresh taste of melon in the puree, the caffeine-free rooibos, and the garnish are reinforced by the simple syrup to give the cocktail that truly rich, sugary taste. It completely overwhelmes the gin, and even the lemon juice, so the Melodious Melonade is melony through and through, making this a dangerous cocktail in the hands of those with a sweet tooth. Did you know that cucumbers and melons are very closely related? It really makes sense once you think about it, and no wonder why the flavor of the cucumber blends so seamlessly with the melon. This is definitely an advanced to intermediate recipe, but I’ll definitely give it a shot as soon as I happen to have all the necessary ingredients and a Parisienne scoop.
Before we knew it, an hour had passed, and a new batch of gin-curious Chicagoans invaded the premises, but we were never rushed to leave and were free to look around, share some stories, laugh, take pictures and just enjoy ourselves. Overall, the Emporium of the Unusual was just as advertized, and I don’t see any other liquor brand caring as much about their customers or taking so much pride in their creations. Sure, I’m not a gin fanatic, and I’m green when it comes to events of such caliber, but for me Hendrick’s Emporium of the Unusual is the event to beat. Free, spanning multiple days, entertaining, good music, appetizers, interesting people, innovative cocktails, amazing atmosphere. It really doesn’t get much better than that. The event really represented the spirit and goals of the company, and with all the outstanding oddities it became clear that Hendrick’s penchant for all things weird is not just a cheap marketing gimmick, but a way of being.
Around 6:10 pm. we finally decided to make some room for the newcomers and we said out goodbyes with the Emporium. Outside the line was longer than ever. We decided to cash in our pass for a free Hendick’s cocktail over at the Standard Bar and Grill, which was just across the street. The place was pretty busy with other gin enthusiasts like us and the World Cup game between Chile and Australia was playing on the screens, so we slithered through the crowd and ordered us a pair of..
- 1 1/2 parts HENDRICK’S GIN
- 3/4 parts fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 parts simple syrup
- 4 mint leaves
- 3 cucumber wheels
Combine ingredients in a mixing container over ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass, add a cucumber wheel to garnish and serve.
The Cucumber Southside, which is a more traditional drink, is a version of the Southside Fizz, and is usually poured over the muddled mints leaves and cucumber, then shaken. Ours were not served in martini glasses, and the cucumbers were cut into tinier pieces, but the drink was just as great and refreshing with шге additional herbal notes from the mint lingering alongside the many botanicals of the gin. Equal parts citrus and simple syrup also added the usual notes to the cocktail and the additional cucumbers highlighted the cucumber in Hendrick’s. Overall, this is a great drink that’s all about the gin and its nuances, and was my first cocktail with mint. Bulgarian culinary tradition uses a lot of spearmint in a wide variety of dishes and soups, so I’ve always been iffy about having spearmint in my cocktails. Maybe it’s all the other odd sensory overstimulations, maybe it’s something else, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by how well the mint leaves matched the rest of the flavors.
And with that, the Emporium of the Unusual was over, though it will surely return to the goodly folk of Chicago and it will surely continue to amaze. If you made it to this one – GREAT! If not – HUMDRUM!
Now you know, though.
Now you know.