Now That’s a Gas: Vaporized Cocktails You Inhale at Red Kiva
Great ideas come from the strangest places. Passing through Helsinki, Finland, on the shortest day of the year (midwinter solstice), Chicago bar owner Julie Palmer was charmed by the way Finnish folk get more relaxation out of their celebratory saunas: They pour vodka on the hot coals and inhale the fragrant fumes. Back in the States, Palmer, who got her college degree in physics, couldn’t stop noodling on how to replicate the pleasantly vaporous experience at her bar, Red Kiva. Putting heads together with more brainy Palmers — her dad’s a rocket scientist and her brother-in-law is a chemical engineer — she invented the VaporTini (patent pending), a cocktail made by heating select spirits in a custom-made glass vessel, and then inhaling the vapors.
Though the idea of a hookah cocktail sounds Alice in Wonderland trippy, meeting Palmer at her modishly elegant bar dispels any fears. Tall, blonde and erudite, Palmer has worked hard to elevate her “inhale-tail” to quite the classy experience. Here’s how it works: Palmer decants the guest’s choice of one of four spirits into a handmade glass globe, and then heats it to 110 degrees to begin vaporizing the spirit. The globe is then tucked into a retro silver half-round vessel designed to retain heat and keep the spirits vaporizing for about 20 minutes.
To imbibe, I inhale the vapors through a short, flexible straw. What shocks me is how fragrant each spirit becomes as a vapor. I’m not using my nose, but the connection is there. There is no anticipated scary head rush — just the pleasant feel of warm vapor and the heightened awareness of aromas on the palate. Accentuating the experience, Palmer serves each VaporTini ($10) with a little something sweet on the side. The Effen Black Cherry Vodka comes with a chocolate-covered cherry garnish. Tanqueray Rangpur Gin has strips of candied citrus peel on the side. Knob Creek comes with a griottine (kirsch-soaked Morello cherries). And with Absolut Raspberri? Chocolate-dipped raspberries and raspberry-filled chocolates.
Palmer has limited the VaporTini menu to four spirits for now, as these “taste” best, but she intends to add more. Doing her research, Palmer has found that some spirits — tequila, for example — don’t convert well to the inhale-tail experience. She’s also found spirits need to be a high enough proof (about 80) to work; “the higher the better,” Palmer says.
Thus far, Palmer has kept VaporTini service to Thursday nights for two reasons: safety and savvy. Safety-wise, because the VaporTini is so new, Palmer wants to carefully explain the how-tos to guests so no one misuses the drink. Savvy-wise, serving it only on Thursdays was a smart business decision. “Traditionally, we’ve been a bit slow on Thursdays,” she confides. “I thought having something special and exclusive to the evening might boost business.”
VaporTinis have created a Thursday night buzz and, happily for Palmer, the crowds who come in for the drink branch beyond the young, hip regulars to include more mature foodies. Coming soon? Watch for the VaporTini group experience: a much larger glass globe through which an entire group can inhale vapors at same time.