I could have had a “Meet Me at the Bar,” or “The Monk’s Daiquiri” or a “One Man’s Ceiling.” But all I wanted was a martini. A really, really good martini — which is what I always crave whenever I set foot in a steak house.
And Michael Jordan’s Steak House was no exception. So I waved off the list of undoubtedly fabulous signature cocktails at this new Boul Mich destination restaurant. And ordered up a martini (with extra olives) and encouraged my friend Lisa — who hardly needed nudging — to do the same.
Martini purists be damned, I like a vodka martini. Yes, vodka. But really wonderful vodka — the kind that doesn’t taste like it could fuel a Honda Civic. And yes, I used the word “taste.” Although technically a “neutral spirit,” vodka can actually have flavor, and I’m not talking about citron, kurant or peppar.
Lately I’m besotted with Death’s Door vodka, which Michael Jordan’s thankfully serves. No, the Middleton, Wisc.-based craft spirits maker isn’t some sort of creepy doomsday cult. The name comes from the waterway that separates Wisconsin’s famed Door County peninsula from Washington Island, where farmers grow the organic hard red winter wheat used in the company’s vodka, gin and white whiskey.
So I dialed up Death’s Door president Brian Ellison to determine why martinis and steak houses are as synonymous as Martin and Lewis. Yes, there was some talk about nostalgia and tradition. But I liked when Ellison got down to the nitty-gritty.
A martini “enlivens the palette and can make you hungry,” he explains. “So you’re fortifying yourself with booze upfront, and then you can enjoy your steak and wine at dinner.”
Bingo. And the obvious reason — besides the fact that we were feeling preeeetty happy — that Lisa and I ordered a second round of Death’s Door vodka martinis before toddling off to eat steak (and other goodies) and drink red wine with The Husbands.
I also wanted to know how Death’s Door creates a vodka that can be shaken or stirred into the crispest, cleanest martini around.
“We’re making a vodka that tastes like vodka,” Ellison says. “We’re not making gummy bear, chocolate-whipped cream-flavored vodka.”
And to do that, Death’s Door starts with that Washington Island wheat, combines it with organic Wisconsin malted barley, and triple-distills small batches of it in European copper pots.
This craft process “allows the flavor of the grain to come through in the product” and gives the vodka “a creaminess” that other vodkas — which shall remain nameless — lack.
“It’s not thin like a solvent; it’s creamy like a scotch or a whiskey,” Ellison says.
Using top-quality vodka is the absolute key to creating a truly great martini, he notes.
“In a martini, that’s where you really see it play out. You need good vodka, because that’s where you can really taste the spirit.”
In my opinion, having a really great olive or two — blue cheese-stuffed optional — doesn’t hurt either.
Michael Jordan’s Steak House – Chicago
505 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60611