Feel like it’s been getting awfully dark, awfully early? Try going for a cocktail at Delilah’s smack on the dot of 5 p.m. Now that’s dark. A friend and I walked into the Lincoln Park bourbon/biker bar at exactly that hour yesterday afternoon and found ourselves doubling the patron tally to four—or maybe five. Other than two men sipping beers a few stools down, I thought I glimpsed the shadow of one more lone drinker near the back of the room, but who could be sure? Truly, it was dark.
No matter. We were on a mission, and it wasn’t a social one. I’d placed a call to the Ravenswood distillery Koval earlier in the afternoon to find out where I might try its just-released Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey—billed as “Chicago’s First (Legal) Whiskey Since Prohibition”—and was told Delilah’s was the only local bar that definitely had each of the four varieties (Rye, Oat, Dark Rye, Dark Oat) in stock at the moment.
Despite the slow pace of business, it took a while to place our order, since, it must be noted, the tattooed bartender in his Slaughter of the Dogs T-shirt was just not that into us. Delilah’s is a rock ’n’ roll bar, so first he needed to put a new record on the turntable (something by the garage band M.O.T.O., if you must know), and then he had to cue up a vintage horror movie on the TV. But eventually we were allowed to state our interest in Lion’s Pride, and after one false start involving an unrelated whiskey and one phone call to find out where the correct bottles might be, we found ourselves staring down shots of regular Oat and regular Rye ($6 a pop).
Now, I’m not here to rack up eye rolls by pretending that what I tasted in those whiskey shots was every flavor of the rainbow plus a hint of mudflap, a top note of sparkling ruby, and a possible nuance of freshly baled hay. I did grow up on bourbon, but I’m no professional bourmmelier.
Here’s what really happened. When I lifted the Lion’s Pride regular Oat toward my nose, my first thought was this: bonfire. And when I tasted it: sweet cinnamon-y bonfire. The Rye had less of the charred quality than the Oak but more sweetness—I did begin to crave a chocolate chip cookie, so there must have been a vanilla note in there somewhere—and a more potently alcoholic finish. The “Dark” versions of each have been allowed to mature slightly longer (all are aged under two years, since the aging is only for flavor and not for filtering), and the results are similar but sweeter and more intense. Truth be told, my favorite variety was the one that seemed easiest on the palette: regular Oat.
This morning, I followed up with one of Koval’s owners, Sonat Birnecker, to find out if my observations were at all on target, from a whiskey maker’s point of view. “The regular Oat is aged in a lighter char than the dark oat, but you’re probably picking up on the more smoky oat notes mingling with the natural fruitiness of the oat spirit,” she explained. (Lion’s Pride, by the way, is named for Sonat and Robert Birnecker’s son, Lion.) And why did Koval decide to release Lion’s Pride now, after previously specializing in only white whiskeys? “It was just a matter of time before all the white whiskeys we were making would be released as aged whiskeys,” she said. “We like being the only distillery in the U.S. to offer so many expressions of whiskey out of five amazing Midwestern grains: rye, oat, wheat, spelt, and millet. Basically, Lion’s Pride is just an all-natural, organic, honest whiskey that we hope does Chicago proud . . .. This city has waited long enough to have one of its own!”
Look for a millet release in time for the holidays, Sonat says. Meanwhile, you can find bottles of Lion’s Pride for around $47 to $49 each at Binny’s, In Fine Spirits, City Provisions, and Whole Foods locations that carry hard liquor. Delilah’s is still your best bet (for now) for a Lion’s Pride bar experience, but when you’ve had enough whiskey, don’t try to order a beer to wrap things up. The bartender has a slasher flick to watch, and he really can’t be bothered with such middling requests.