“Drinks, in my experience, owe as much to serendipity as they do intention,” says Tona Palominio, mixologist at Chicago’s Trenchermen. “For every drink we set out to make with a specific flavor profile or concept in mind, there are at least an equal number of drinks we’re fortunate enough to look up and see staring us in the face. The Pioneer is one of those lucky drinks.”
He might be exaggerating the luck factor a tad—the Pioneer is as much a drink of skill as circumstance—but Palomino’s right to point out that other kind of mixology—where a magical and/or mundane collision of factors yields something pretty special, as in this pine-infused cocktail ode to IPA. The only catch: you have to have your eyes open, lest you miss your window of serendipity.
Palomino’s eyes were open for years, ever since he took his first sip of Goose Island IPA, the original Greg Hall recipe with layers of “pine, citrus, and something tropical like mango or passion fruit,” and a bitterness “so elegant and restrained that every sip left you wanting more.” Even in recollection, that first sip inspired Palomino to heights of poetic rapture: “It’s a marvel of tension between the opulence of mouthfeel and crisp thirst-quenchingness.”
Years later, Palomino still carried with him the haunting memory of that sip. “I’ve thought about making a drink based on that flavor axis a few times: pine, citrus, bitterness—and even once carbonated rye with clarified O.J. and Zirbenz pine liqueur. Tasty stuff.” Then, one sweet day, the answer landed on his doorstep: a case of pine needles and an excess of whiskey. The whiskey was less happy accident than a professional inevitability in the booze business—a liquor rep left five cases of George Dickel at Trenchermen.
But the pine needle story has a little more charm to it. “There is jewel of a man in Chicago called Rod Markus, who runs a company called the Rare Tea Cellar,” says Palomino. “He’s not just into tea; he’s into whatever strange, hard-to-find, rare, and delicious things chefs are into: matsutakes, truffles, ambergris, and (of course), pine needles that a crew of foragers climb 25 feet up in the air somewhere in Oregon to pack and ship.” One day, not long ago, one such shipment arrived at Trenchermen.
Palomino knew he was ready to chase his hoppy IPA dream. “Years ago I’d tried pine needles and Mezcal, which isn't good, and, let's face it, gin doesn't really need pine.” The whiskey, on the other hand, had three things going for it: quantity, a whiskey fan base (“experience has shown that if Chicagoans embrace a spirit, that spirit is certainly whiskey”), and pine-receptivity—a soft, young whiskey that “takes to the pine really well.” All Palomino did for the infusion was snip the needles, twig and all, and let them steep in the whiskey overnight. The result—affectionately called “Piney Dick”—has a strong pine nose up front tempered by the whiskey’s sweet smoothness.
“The whiskey and pine are separate entities that weave in an out of one another and meld, so each is unmistakable and enhanced,” says Palominio, poetic flourish a sure sign he was getting very close to his Goose Island inspiration. Rounding out the ode are Campari, citrus (“fidelity to the initial concept”—the citrus of a hoppy IPA), and “a spoonful of sugar [or simple] to make the medicine go down.” As for the name, Pioneer was as close as Palomino could get to evoking the ruggedness of the pine harvest, with a bonus of sounding a lot like pine. “It could have easily been spelled ‘Pine-neer,’” he admits. “But we try not to stoop that low … most of the time.”