The Peasantry is the perfect place to meet for a drink and elevated street food. From starters to sweets, beers of the month to craft cocktails, the upscale restaurant on Clark scarcely leaves anything to be desired.
Unfortunately, on this day, it was closed.
The utterly painless but nonetheless banal solution in these situations usually is across the street. No exception here.
“Are you the Gichners?” I asked a startled couple staring thoughtfully at The Peasantry’s menu and clucking at their misfortune — a misfortune we shared.
They garbled some response. That’s when the real Gichners approached, and we made our way to the adjacent alternative across the street.
The Edge Bar & Grill wouldn’t be my first choice, but then again, it probably shouldn’t have been my second choice either. Trying to impress two spirit connoisseurs with an upscale craft bar and utterly failing, reality sets in like a well-poured Guinness. Times like these call for a drink of the strong-proof variety.
Sitting with two entrepreneurs of the spirit industry, surely they would acquiesce to the age-old adage, “It’s five o’clock somewhere?”
Hardly. Jackie orders a coffee with yogurt and granola. For Eric it’s an iced tea and a chicken Caesar wrap. They do have to work later, they inform me, as they will be setting up a tasting booth at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park for their newly launched (in May) line of award-winning, premium-prepared cocktails: Vitani Spirits.
Three years ago, the couple was just spirit aficionados. Eric was working for the Chicago Board of Trade, a once-rowdy trading pit that was quieting down as electronics took over. The couple enjoyed going out together in the city.
They had settled on an idea at a friend’s house in Highland Park and were working out the kinks. Jackie enjoyed drinking dirty martinis — stirred, not shaken. (Helpful tidbit: only flavorful mixers like sour mix or cream liqueurs — and James Bond’s flamboyantly strong orders — need shaking.) They wondered: Why wasn’t there an easy-to-drink, Mike’s Hardesque solution to dirty martinis?
The Gichners did their homework. They visited bars and talked to bartenders and patrons. They tried different cocktails. Your heart breaks wondering how they ever managed to work through such tough times.
But the business side wasn’t a picnic — it was a crash course in entrepreneurism. Jackie’s background was event planning and corporate hospitality, so the couple effectively had to learn everything on the fly.
“Going into this, we had no idea how complicated it was,” says Jackie.
The liquor industry has a bevy of laws and regulations related to liquor branding and sales. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment, most states settled on a three-tier system of alcohol distribution. Broken down, it becomes producers, distributors, and retailers that have a highly structured way of doing business with each other. Only retailers may sell to consumers, which means a distributor is key to entering into any market.
Meanwhile, the Gichners — who live in Northbrook — were perfecting their flavors, which had expanded to include a Cosmo, the darling of martinis. They did “a ton” of focus groups, says Jackie, bringing their creation to offices and friend’s houses.
“We went anywhere from college-age kids all the way to people in their 60s or 70s who drink a martini,” she notes.
As for a name, they looked closer to home. Their three kids David, Taylor, and Dani were an inspiration. Vitani is an anagram of two letters from each of their names that, when arranged in this way, takes on a distinctly Italian, high-quality sound.
There are five flavors, all infused with vodka. Other than the Dirty and the Cosmo, there’s the Citrus-Ginger, Cucumber and the Elderpear (natural pear, honey, and elderflower). Last year, Vitani’s Cucumber Martini took home the silver medal at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. The Elderpear won bronze.
“Our distributor, Heritage Wine Cellars, wanted to launch all five,” says Eric, “and so here we are with five flavors from day one.”
Vitani can be found in over 50 select retailers — from Macy’s on State Street to Mariano’s. Each is packaged in a re-sealable aluminum bottle — perfect for summer days spent lounging in glass-adverse pools or boats. Word of warning: they’re 36-39 proof. But for habitual martini drinkers, that shouldn’t be an issue.
I had my own focus group last weekend. After receiving a bottle of each type from the Gichners, I assembled a group of twentysomethings at my apartment, providing them with a martini glass filled with their favorite flavor. Upon trying it, two girls practically yelled: “Oh my God — it’s strong!”
As you might have guessed, the consensus for buying this product in this age range was a resounding yes.