The South Rises Again—On Cocktail Menus

Virginia's award-winning Barboursville Vineyards' Octagon, 2006, is on the menu at Table Fifty-Two. (Photo: Audarshia Townsend)

I was skeptical when I was first introduced to Southern wines—as in American Southern wines, not South American wines—in 2007 at the San Antonio Wine Festival. The popular annual event, which is in its 32nd year in 2012, features wines from the Lone Star state varying from complex viogniers to robust Cabernets. Many of the wines easily held up to the more familiar vinos from France, Spain and California, and had me looking for them on menus in Chicago.

That’s why when I received an invitation to a Wines of the American South Dinner at Table Fifty-Two, I RSVPed without hesitation. The Southern cuisine-focused restaurant, owned by renowned chef Art Smith and helmed by chef Rey Villalobos, expanded its wine list this fall to include 16 hard-to-get wines from the likes of Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and, of course, Texas.

Table Fifty-Two assistant wine director Mark Gallagher says the idea to complement the wines with Smith’s famous fried chicken, fried green tomatoes and more came when he was given a bottle of Texas vino. It impressed him so much that he started researching Southern American wineries in order to build an envious wine program at the rustic Gold Coast restaurant. The collection includes sparkling (Wolf Mountain, Blancs des Blancs, 2010, Lumpkin County, Georgia), an award-winning Bordeaux blend (Barboursville Vineyards, “Octagon,” 2006, Virginia) and ice wine (Elk Creek Vineyards, Vidol Blanc Icewine, 2008, Kentucky).

“No one’s really carrying these wines because they’re so hard to get,” says Gallagher, who added that he’ll soon focus on a similar program with American Southern craft beers. Prices for the wines are surprisingly affordable; $12-$14 a glass and $48-$56 a bottle. And if you were wondering which wine Gallagher would pair with the sinfully delicious Hummingbird Cake (layers filled with chopped pecans, crushed pineapple and mashed bananas topped with cream cheese frosting), he recommends the Elk Creek Vineyards ice wine.

In addition to the American Southern-focused wine list, Table Fifty-Two pays homage to classic cocktails with a Southern twist. The Savannah Sangria includes Sweet Tea Vodka and the best-selling Prohibition Manhattan features Wild Turkey Rye, cherry herring, Antica bitters and sweet vermouth.

More Southern American bar programs in Chicago:

At Big Jones, in Andersonville, you’ll find a number of Southern-inspired cocktails and also a very cool program called The Bourbon Society. The free membership includes a “passport” to 40 of Big Jones’ 60 whiskeys, invitations to members’ only events, and a complimentary pour of the “Whiskey of the Month” during each visit. Those who mark their passports with the 40 whiskeys earn the distinction of “Master Taster” and win tickets for two to a one-of-a-kind whiskey dinner.

You’ll find four Southern wines and one Southern beer at Hearty, a whimsical, comfort-food spot in Lakeview. Intensely flavorful dishes like lavender buttermilk fried chicken with creamed collard greens and bourbon sweet potatoes as well as the three-cheese mac ‘n’ cheese pair well with the choices. There’s Original Sin Cider from Savannah, Ga., Super Tuscan wine from Asheville, N.C., and luscious Cabernet from Barboursville, Va.

And in Bucktown, The Southern offers a seasonal cocktail menu featuring local produce and spirits from all over the South. For fall/winter, you’ll find Hot Bubba—a nod to Hot Buttered Rum—with the option of adding Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Old Overholt Rye or a house-infused pumpkin rye. There’s also Bad Apple (Tito’s Handmade vodka, St. Germain, Seedling Farms’ apple cider) and a Maple Bacon Manhattan with house-infused Jim Beam bacon bourbon, maple syrup and North Country smoked bacon.