Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Legend of The Squirrel Cage in Lisle

A beige, unassuming building with a lone Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer sign sits quietly on the West side of IL-53 in Lisle, Illinois. I first noticed this interesting piece of architecture when I moved to the area three years ago.  While  traveling on IL-53, just south of Maple Avenue, a very busy thoroughfare in the western suburbs of Chicago, I often wondered if it was someone's residence that was converted from a tavern, or if I had found the quintessential "old man" clandestine watering hole. I never saw anyone entering or exiting, nor had I seen many cars in the parking lot to make me think that this was an operating tavern. One Friday night, however, I was in the area a little later than usual and the parking lot was PACKED. All the lights were on, neon glowing beer signs were lit up in the upstairs windows - the place had jumped alive! My heart pounded with delight - I have found the perfect dive bar! I didn't have time to stop to check out the scene, so I asked a friend a few weeks later, "what's up with that place next door to Subway on IL-53?  You know, the one with the PBR sign out front?" My friend replied, "Are you talking about The Squirrel Cage?"  The Squirrel Cage? The clandestine watering hole now had a name and I needed to know more about this place that had intrigued me for so long. I did what every human being on the face of the earth would do: I Googled The Squirrel Cage.  I was pleasantly surprised to see so many fantastic reviews on Yelp! for this humble tippling house. One thing that struck me as interesting while reading these reviews - The Squirrel Cage is one of only a handful of places that carry Malört. Malört, a distilled beverage, is the name of a Swedish-style of schnapps called "Bäska Droppar," flavored with wormwood and dill weed. The word malört is the Swedish word for the wormwood plant. The smell and taste is musty and extremely bitter. Malört is alleged to be a cure for indigestion.

According to Wikipedia:  

From the label of Jeppson's Malört: 

"Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malort reject our liquor.  Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate.  During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malort. During the lifetime of our founder, Carl Jeppson was apt to say, 'My Malort is produced for that unique group of drinkers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits.'  The only distributor of Malört in the United States is the Carl Jeppson company of Chicago, named after a Swedish immigrant who popularized and sold the liquor in Chicago. Made in Chicago until the 1970's, Malört is currently produced in Florida exclusively for Jeppson's.  Jeppson's Malört is a staple of Chicago area taverns, but not well known elsewhere in the United States.  According to, "it has been adopted enthusiastically by bikers and is a mainstay at biker bars." Malört is often known as "Northern Discomfort" in Chicago area bars, this name is a play on Southern Comfort, and may be abbreviated as such (i.e. 'SoCo' is the abbreviated, hence 'NoCo', 'NoDis', 'NorDis', or 'NoDisco'.)  In June of 2011, Malört won "The World's Worst Liquor" contest on NPR's podcast, How To Do Everything.

I can't say that I wasn't a little intimidated by this - I detest Jagermeister, and I was getting the impression that Malört would fall into the same category.  I am also not a fan of "let's do a shot!" It goes against the principle belief of a traveling elixir fixer who mixes elixirs that tantalize your taste buds via the well-balanced cocktail. Don't get me wrong, I don't have issues with simple libations such as a Cubra Libra (rum/coke/lime), the classic highball, or a nicely balanced gin and tonic, and I take much delight in sipping on fine cognac, bourbon, rye, or an occasional Highland Scotch.  My problem with what is known as a shot is that it usually leads to bad behavior.  I know this from personal experience and after over 15 years in the bar industry.  I was willing to bend this rule because I was curious, and if curiosity killed the cat, I was prepared to die after a shot of this digestif-style liqueur.  Plus, I just had to stop at The Squirrel Cage for my Malört-tasting experience.

Another year passed before I was FINALLY able to experience The Squirrel Cage in person. I had crossed paths with some friends a few weeks before, and we had decided to meet on a Tuesday evening for my inaugural visit.  I pulled into the parking lot with only one other car present.  Okay, this could be very interesting. I opened the door to be greeted by Steve, the bartender. Two patrons at the bar were quietly enjoying PBRs.  The bar was three-sided and had probably been around since the early 70's or even the 60's.   Small tables were sprinkled throughout  the main bar area along the walls, which were covered with 1950's paneling and decorated with equally-aged beer signs.  I felt like a kid in a candy store!  We sat down, I ordered drink, and we waited for the rest of our party to arrive.

It didn't take long for my curious eyes to wander to the bottle of Malört sitting on the back bar.  I asked Steve for a shot.  Because I was a Malört "virgin," Steve joined me in my celebratory shot initiation. Honestly, it was not as bad as I imagined -- kind of like The Squirrel Cage itself. I was able to pick out several herbs and spices in the Swedish liqueur, including the wormwood and dill weed.  I understand how this herbal libation would have been used medicinally, as well as celebratory for purposes of greeting friends and family.  

I am always one to inquire about the history of an establishment, and I was thrilled to find out that The Squirrel Cage has been in Steve's family since 1951. His grandmother used to live upstairs, and she would come downstairs to work at the bar.  Originally, the tavern was quite the happening little supper club and banquet hall in Lisle during the 1950's. Some of that energy still lingers in the paneled walls - this was a step back in time, to an era when Pink Squirrels, Golden Cadillacs, Manhattans and a few Rob Roys were probably served on a regular basis. The photograph above was taken during the Squirrel Cage's 1950's heyday.  Steve showed me where the original dance floor was in the building, and I could almost hear Glen Miller playing in the background. A very old-school 1950's candy store counter now stands in one corner where the dance floor used to be.  Brewiana memorabilia that has been collected at the tavern over the years fills the glass case. Many people would probably look at this counter in disgust. I, on the other hand, see antiquarian history that has been left over the years at The Squirrel Cage, now housed in a glass time capsule for all to see and enjoy.

The tavern began to fill up with thirsty guests who were looking for cheap, cold draft beer.  They were in the right place. The Squirrel Cage is known for its dive bar charm and cheap beer - it is not known as a place high on the list for culinary charm.  If you are expecting silverware and a server presenting you a daily menu filled with seasonally-fresh, locally sourced ingredients, then have dinner somewhere else and visit the tavern afterward for a drink.  The only food served at this establishment is frozen pizza and a few bags of chips. This was not a big deal in my book, since I had learned this fact in a Yelp! review, and it was hot coming right out of the small table-top pizza oven, what can I say?  It paired beautifully with the Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap and was a perfect nibble while throwing back a cold one.  That's what you do at The Squirrel Cage - a local, family-owned tavern located in Lisle for over 60 years - throw back a cold one, laugh with a few friends, absorb the energy of yesteryear's patrons, and listen to a few tunes from the jukebox, or, if your visit falls on a Tuesday, enjoy a little trivia with fellow guests. My vote for the best trivia team name goes to Clara's Italian Restaurant employees who called themselves "Chocolate Jones and the Temple of Funk." With that kind of sense of humor, I may have to patronize Clara's very soon - and I will definitely stop back at The Squirrel Cage, my newly adopted local clandestine tavern.   Cheers! 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Egg Whites and Flappers

Life is full of history lessons.  Yesterday, I had an interesting history lesson conversation with my mother.  Not exactly a verbal conversation, this one was via text messaging while we were both watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick "Prohibition" documentary that airs on PBS this week.  

Two weeks ago, I was honored and thrilled to be asked to demonstrate prohibition-era cocktails for the reception that the Chicago History Museum was hosting for the "Prohibition" documentary release.  I've always been a huge fan of Ken Burns' work - I could smell the baseball field and a catcher's mitt while watching "Baseball."  My heart was heavy as I experienced "The Civil War," and I can still smell the gunpowder and feel the pain that every American endured during this time of our country's tumultuous period of history, as told by the master documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  I needed a partner-in-crime to help execute this event the way Ken Burns would make his documentaries.  I enlisted the help of my most awesome friend, Ms. Lynn House of Blackbird Restaurant in Chicago, and we decided to educate the public by recreating The Bee's Knees and the Clover Club cocktail for this amazing event. 

The Bee’s Knees
Beefeater Gin, Honey Syrup, Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice

The origin of the Bee’s Knees cocktail is lost to history, but we do know that it surfaced sometime during Prohibition, which is about the time that the phrase “the bee’s knees” popped up. The drink’s name may have originated from “flapper chatter” of the 1920’s and means 'the height of excellence.' Chances are very good that this prohibition-era cocktail was created to mask the raw juniper taste and smell of bathtub gin.

Clover Club Cocktail
Plymouth Gin, Raspberry Syrup, Egg White, Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice

The Clover Club originated at the Old Belleview-Stratford; and, chances are, was created by George Charles Boldt, the first manager of the old Waldorf-Astoria, circa 1904 (but could be as early as 1881).

This leads to the conversation my mom and I had via text message while watching "Prohibition": 

Mom: "What cocktails did you do for this "Prohibition" show?
Me:  "The Bees Knees and The Clover Club"
Mom:  "I've never heard of those" (not surprising, she doesn't drink gin)
Me:  Quick description of drinks/history in short text message
Mom:  "Why do you put egg white in a drink?  I heard you use it in several drink recipes"
Me:  "It gives a nice velvety texture and froth to a drink"
Me:  "Wasn't Grammy a flapper?" (referring to my great-grandmother)
Mom:  "Yes she was and went to opium dens"
Me:  "Seriously???"
Mom:  "Grammy left no stone unturned.  She was a fantastic person I always loved talking to her.  You called her MeMe"

In a small text message conversation, my mom learned why we use egg white in cocktails and I learned that my great-grandmother was even more incredible than I thought. Perhaps the next cocktail I create should be named the "MeMe Robertson", for the flapper in us all.