The Vodka Strikes Back (with Jackson Cannon!!!) at Island Creek Oyster Bar Burlington [The Regulars]

THE REGULARS features bars that we’ve been to often enough to recommend without hesitation … well, if you have any damn taste.

Sometimes the best experiences start off sounding like the beginning of a horror movie.

“There’s a Ketel One event happening Tuesday at 5”, Danna from Burlington’s ICOB texted Lorri and me. She might as well have said “There’s a tooth pulling and fingernail ripping event – you guys should come!”.

Those of you who have endured my anti-vodka rants (in our writeups of the Gallows and The Ghost Walks ) know my irrational hatred of the stuff.  Look, everyone has to be unfairly prejudiced against SOMETHING, so I chose the three most innocuous things to be a total ass about: The Yankees, “Africa” (by Toto) … and vodka (especially Tito’s).

(Fun Fact:  “Toto” is a brand of toilet in Japan  and also phonetically Chinese for “vomit”, so you can’t accuse this “vomit toilet” of a band of false advertising.).

“Getting John to a vodka event is going to be a hard sell, but I’ll try”, Lorri promised.

“That’s the whole point, to change the way people view vodka. He of all people should come.” said Danna.

CRAP,  this is what happens when your favorite bartenders know you too well. She knows I can’t back down from a challenge. Maybe I could manage to accidentally knock myself unconscious on Tuesday.

Tuesday afternoon rolls in and I’m looking for a heavy yet somewhat soft hammer to hit myself with … but then this text comes through:


OK, gotta admit that this is an intriguing menu. And if you gotta drink vodka, Ketel is near the top … Now I know how a tuna feels as it’s biting on that tasty morsel with a weird string attached to it.

I ask Danna if I can bring my OWN bottle of Ketel One (“It’s just regular Ketel One infused with gin, gin and more gin … until there’s no vodka left”), which she sensibly rejects on legal, artistic and moral grounds. OK, fine, here we come!

The Hello Frenchie and The Espionage – gateway drugs to vodka ?!?!?

30 minutes later I’m trying Danna’s “Hello Frenchie”, which reminds me of one of my favorites, the Alaska (gin, yellow chartreuse and bitters) except the Frenchie is more like an Alaska that decided to stop being so prim and proper and just got fun, loose and flirty for one night (which is exactly like the night when … ehhhh, maybe I DON’T tell that story)

It’s got the same structure, as if the combo of vodka and St. Germain filled the space where gin & its botanicals used to be – also, the Frenchie’s bolder green chartreuse  adds more complexity and less sweetness than the Alaska’s yellow chartreuse. It was devilishly clever and beautifully composed and I enjoyed the hell out of it (but don’t tell Danna that, I’ll never hear the end of it).

Lorri did the “Espionage” which was a BIG stretch for her as it featured TWO amari, Cynar and Montenegro but again it was skillfully proportioned and made for a complex herbal experience in conjunction with the chartreuse and Ketel. She loved it, which will shock many of our favorite bartenders.

The age of aviation gives way to … the Jet Age

I jumped on the “Jet Age” (vodka, Maraschino liqueur, creme de violette), interested in trying a variation on the classic Aviation. While I missed the acid of the missing lemon juice (there was no citrus in ANY of these cocktails – was that a requirement for this menu?  Tricky!), the Jet Age came across as creamier and boozier than the Aviation and was a solid drink on its own right.

The Fashion Sense (Hey, I know those bitters!)

Lorri’s next one, the Fashion Sense  (Ketel Citroen and cranberry bitters) was a real find on two levels:

  • One, you CAN have virtual citrus if your vodka is infused enough and you find the right bitters
  • Two – Hey, I’ve seen that bottle before. Could it be??

Yes, it could be. While Wolverine got pointy metal claws and Cyclops got killer eye-beams and Jean Grey got the ability to wipe out entire planets with a wave of her hand, I got the much-more-useful mutant superpower to identify liquor bottle labels from far distances and slam them securely into my memory (knocking out less important data like family birthdays, dental appointments and where I left my car keys).

Last summer our friends invited us to a weekend in their summer home in Portland, Maine and amongst our many stops we popped into a small winery called Sweetgrass that also had some very good gin and an odd looking bottle of cranberry bitters. Of course we got the gin and bitters … and I promptly forgot about the bitters UNTIL TODAY.

Now I know one drink I can make with that stuff – the night just kept getting better.

Vann (the Burlington location’s beverage director) hung out with us for a while and made us glad for the thousandth time that we were past the infant raising stage. He is always fun to talk to and really knows his stuff, but on a personal level is a really cool dude. We were also able to catch up with Steven (another of our regular bartenders) and discuss NYC bars. Steven was actually off the clock and just there to hang with the staff … and Jackson Cannon who I’ve lauded many times in these pages (like here) and who by now surely thinks we’re stalking him since we just saw him out of the corner of our eye two days ago. Steven invited us over to meet Jackson and we did our usual “Oh yeah, sure, we’ll get to that” deferral.

One does not simply walk into Mordor … or walk up to Jackson Cannon, you know?

Licor 43 challenges Cherry Heering to a showdown on “Sweet Street”

The ever cheerful and wickedly efficient Billy knocked out Steven’s “Sweet Street” which featured TWO of my under the radar favorites, the vanilla-heavy Licor 43 and Cherry Heering (which is so rarely used it has the nickname “Cherry Heering, Never Disappearing”). It lived up to its name, almost a cherry creamsicle in a glass. Steven’s really daring in terms of smashing together ingredients that aren’t usually seen together (I still hit him up for his utterly insane Cornucopia when the bar is slow) and it’s always fun to what he comes up with.

Our next two cocktails were the Ready Freddy (Gin, Lemon, Vermouth, Egg White and Lorri’s-Aperol-Swapout-For-Campari) which was creamy, piquant and lovely and the final Ketel cocktail, the Orangjestad (Ketel Oranje Vodka, Vermouth, Benedictine, Cinnamon) whose last two ingredients weren’t to Lorri’s liking but I ended up liking the novelty of.


Final verdict on vodka : OK, it’s workable. In the hands of a great bartender it’s a fairly blank slate with a lot of room to experiment and some interesting things can come out of it. I still believe that it’s hard to develop a vodka cocktail with the intensity and depth of a great gin or whiskey cocktail, though.

Danna bringing us back home : Bourbon on big ice!

Lorri and I came back to familiar ground, as Danna whipped us up something delectable with Bourbon, Montenegro, Angostura and mole bitters. OK, she really whipped it up for Lorri – I was mooching off of it when ….

“Hey- did I see you guys on Sunday at the Hawthorne?” I heard from behind us … and of course there’s Jackson Cannon.

THEY always say to avoid meeting your idols because they’re human and they’re bound to disappoint you … but I can tell you THEY have not met Jackson Cannon, who somehow made us feel instantly comfortable and just dove into one of the most entertaining, informative, interactive and inspiring conversations we’ve ever had with someone we’ve just met for the first time.

Now, it’s not this blog’s place to report on every detail of what was essentially a conversation between three individuals (as opposed to a renowned figure talking on the record), but here are three great industry-related bits that I can’t resist sharing:

  • Not only has Jackson read this blog, but he showed it to Caitlin (from Sunday’s Hawthorne blog)! It was totally surreal to hear him quote a phrase from that blog entry, and it’s beyond cool that this blog let a wonderful bartender know how great our experience with her was.
  • Upon hearing Lorri’s dislike of Campari and how an upcoming “Slow Road to Negroni” post was coming, Jackson asked if she was a super-taster, because super tasters can taste bitter on a whole different level than regular people (which of course made her super happy for an excuse to NOT like Campari..) commenting that it’s actually not a great thing to be since it can ruin your appreciation of many things, like musicians that have perfect pitch. I then blurted out how my brother the symphony conductor (who got the perfect pitch in our family) was driven nuts by Springsteen’s acoustic album Nebraska because his guitar was slightly out of tune the entire album. Jackson commented that’s what you get when you record demos on your four track at home and they end up becoming the album (Hey! I’d wager some money that Jackson and I were the only two people in the restaurant who actually knew that! GMTA!!!)
  • Jackson called himself “an average, maybe slightly above average bartender” who has a knack for building great teams (which I could relate to, being a VERY BELOW AVERAGE programmer with a knack for building great development teams). But when we mentioned Patrick (from the Baldwin Bar and Blossom Bar), Jackson’s eyes lit up and he absolutely raved about Patrick’s technique and artistry, which we could totally relate and agree with.

He also could not have been more gracious or earnestly complimentary about our blog – it’s not like we purposefully set out to have a specific tone or approach, other than to share our stories and our appreciation for this industry, so it was great validation to hear that it clicked with him.

I thanked him for the countless wonderful experiences his bars and his teams had given Lorri and me over the years. On a less sentimental note, Lorri (being the true shark of this couple) asked Jackson if we could do a Deep Dive feature on him and he said “Of course!  I’ll get my card for you.”

And that’s how fucking VODKA ended up getting us Jackson Cannon’s card with his direct number written on it (and a future exclusive with him?)

That would be a great way to end this post … but the night got even better.

Carole, a friend and ex-employee of mine just happened to comment on our Facebook post that she wanted to meet us at ICOB the next time we were there …. to which we responded “WE’RE HERE NOW!”

And that’s how we got to catch up with our friend who had just finished her cancer radiation treatments … on probably the most memorable night in our most regular of REGULARS.

We’ll leave you with this pithy quote from the ICOB menu …


Postscript One: Upon returning home, we watched the first episode of Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams whose character was immediately established as she downed nips of vodka, alternating between Absolut and Tito’s.

I turned to Lorri and said “See honey, that’s how the show is telling us that her character is a terrible person … it’s Tito’s!!! ” (she doesn’t agree with this statement for the record)

The hate endures …..  


Postscript Two: All fun aside, Lorri correctly pointed out that Tito’s is not horrible stuff – it’s certainly in the upper tier of vodkas (and miles better than Absolut or Grey Goose, for god’s sake) and I’m actually a great admirer of the company’s achievements and social values.

It’s just endless fun to beat up on a brand that is a little misleading in its marketing (because that NEVER happens in the whiskey business, right?) and is championed by people who haven’t bothered to try Chopin, Belvedere, Ketel or even a good Smirnoff.

So, for the record,
Tito’s Vodka is NOT horrible. 
Tito’s Drinkers are horrible.
I hope that clears things up.

The hate endures ….

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