Julia Momose making the Protea at Kumiko in Chicago (image: Kailley Lindman)
No one knows a bar better than the people behind it. For “My Bar in 3 Drinks,” the people running the best bars around make and discuss three of their bar’s most representative cocktails.
Julia Momose’s reputation precedes her. The Japanese-born, Chicago-based bartender launched her stateside career at two of the most prestigious bars in the country: molecular-mixology powerhouse The Aviary and its boîte basement speakeasy, The Office. From there, she was spirited away to head up the beverage program at GreenRiver, the short-lived bar and restaurant in a hospital high-rise launched by The Dead Rabbit alums Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon.
So when Momose announced her sudden departure from GreenRiver in late 2016, questions loomed. What could possibly lure her from such a coveted position? The answer: a restaurant. Momose joined the husband-and-wife team at Oriole, a humble dining room on a weird little street in Chicago’s West Loop, to hone her decadent spirit-free cocktails. Meanwhile, she parlayed the research into a spot of her own. Last year, Momose and her Oriole partners leased a building around the corner and, after an eternity of buildup, opened Kumiko on New Year’s Eve.
In the midst of what was arguably the biggest week of her career, Momose paused to speak to the three drinks that define Kumiko, her first bar of record.
The primary ingredient, adzuki (a red bean from Japan), is used in both savory and sweet preparations. In the Protea, Momose balances it with subtle spice (Seedlip), acidity (verjus) and effervescence (tonic). The name was an afterthought, inspired by the color of the ingredients when combined in the glass. Also known as sugarbush, protea is a flower from South Africa.
“In flower language, it represents change and hope,” says Momose. “Cara [Sandoval, a partner at Kumiko and Oriole] and I bought a dried protea flower when on a shopping trip to find beautiful finishing touches for the bar. As I was developing this drink and struggling to find a name, the color of it caught my eye. The petals match the hue of the spirit-free drink. I feel that the idea of change and hope rings true for many who are not drinking alcohol.”
“I have an obsession with Japanese whisky highballs,” says Momose. As the story goes, a chance encounter at a hidden highball bar in Japan inspired her to take up bartending. More than a decade later, obsession is an understatement. Momose considered five elements of the highball when designing this one for Kumiko: glass, ice, spirit, mixer and technique.
Up first was the glass. “The Kimura Compact highball glass, created to be less than one-millimeter thick, is like holding liquid encapsulated by air,” says Momose. Next is the ice. “I had a vision for the ice for the Kumiko highball, but it took multiple rounds of varying shapes and sizes until I came upon the right fit for the glass, the spirit-to-mixer ratio, and accounting for varying ranges of speed in which the highball may be consumed. When I speak of the speed in which someone drinks their highball, it’s because if a single spear of ice is in a highball, and the drink is consumed rapidly, there comes a point when the ice is too tall to comfortably get the last sips of the drink. To counter this, we cut the traditional ice spear in half, then carve the ends with a knife to form two small diamonds. When stacked, they’re the same height as a typical spear. However, as the drink is moved and sipped, the ice falls in such a way that it sinks to the bottom of the glass at a rate which matches that of the imbiber.”
As for Japanese whisky, Momose settled on Mars Shinshu Iwai whisky for the bar’s opening highball. On its own, she says this particular whisky is a bit subdued, but once it’s topped with club soda and paired with a little float of 20-year-old oloroso sherry, “the whisky sings with vanilla, delicate floral notes and fabulous maltiness.”
The mixer is Q club soda. In terms of technique, Momose says the hand-cut diamonds are kept in the freezer until a highball is ordered. Thereafter, a glass is chilled, the diamonds are stacked, the whisky is pulled from its spot in a cooler, and a fresh bottle of soda is popped at the last minute to preserve effervescence.
Momose is a constant note taker. This drink, which first came to her as an idea at a nihonshu tasting, eventually found its way to a cocktail shaker. “Fukucho Moon on the Water is a junmai ginjo with notes of lime, pimento, cantaloupe, crisp banana and pleasant streaks of minerality,” says Momose. “I saw rum when I first tasted it. A love for terroir-driven agricole led to the choice of the firm backbone of Rhum Clément Select Barrel to pair with the Fukucho. The surrounding elements of classic lime juice and rich demerara came naturally, with the inclusion of hōjicha, a roasted Japanese tea, and Weatherby’s Bolivian cola bitters.”
By pairing some familiar ingredients and flavors with less familiar ones, Momose hopes guests will feel at ease to explore the rest of the menu. “It’s also a chance to taste the inspiration of a drink beyond the words that they may hear from the server or read on the menu,” she says.