Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
To the nine-month-old Trenchermen in Chicago's Wicker Park, spring is an entirely new season. Since it opened last July, the restaurant's gustatory stakeholders thus far have had the opportunity to interpret summer, fall, and winter. Tona Palomino, who goes by the ambassadorial, tongue-in-cheek title of Minister of Libations at Trenchermen, is doing his part to embrace the ascendant season; he's in the midst of a creative swing that, once settled in about a week or so, will result in an almost entirely new cocktail menu.
Much like his choice of title, Palomino shrugs off several conventions of the modern cocktail program, if such things exist. Instead of stocking elegant coupe glasses to cradle his drinks, he opts for less fussy vessels, all hewing to a standard utilitarian shape. He takes what you might call a functional-minimalist approach to garnishes, too, only employing them when they have a strong purpose. Which is not to say that Palomino isn't concerned with aesthetics; the alumnus of Wylie Dufresne's wd~50, in New York (also the one-time home of Mike Sheerin, one half of Trenchermen's brotherly executive-chef team), is very mindful of the color of his drinks. Among the new libations the minister previewed for me on a recent afternoon, there was bright pink; deep, ruddy orange; and a coffee brown. One of his popular past creations, highlighting Concord grape, was a lovely pale purple.
But of course what matters most to Palomino is flavor—which he often builds, rather methodically, behind the scenes. For instance, the new cocktail Watership Down calls for a carrot reduction that sees one and a half quarts of fresh carrot juice compacted into less than a cup of syrupy, savory, highly caramelized liquid. He has a host of house infusions in the works, including one featuring rhubarb, another with mezcal and pasilla chiles, and a third pairing Old Tom gin with orange peel.
In addition to favoring these extracted fruit and vegetal flavors, Palomino tends to use bitterness to round and balance out his cocktails. Campari keeps the Awesome Blossom from flirting with overt sweetness; Suze, a gentian-based bitter liqueur, adds a subtle bite to the aforementioned Watership Down; and a drink in development now will pit whiskey against a Cleveland-made bitters called Pelinkovac, whose unusual profile hints at anise, cinnamon, even bubble gum. Palomino characterizes the stuff as "a replica of a Ukrainian potion." Can't wait for that one. In the meantime, here's a look at five of Trenchermen's brand new cocktails for spring.