Gut Check's Three Favorite Cocktails of 2013

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       Olio's transcendent "Emerson." | Zach Garrison
  •        Olio's transcendent "Emerson." | Zach Garrison

It's a tough job, but, somehow, we managed to try enough cocktails to pick out three of our favorite for 2013. It's been a banner year for fancy drinks in St. Louis -- just about every week a new whiskey or cocktail bar opened up. Mixologists are now veritable artists, crafting custom drinks and inventing crazy concoctions on the spot. Across the board, the bar has been raised -- and we couldn't be happier.

See also: - Still630 Distills Whiskey in Downtown St. Louis

Olio's "Emerson"

Housed in an old 1930's Standard Oil filling station, Olio (1634 Tower Grove Avenue; 314-932-1088) offers one of the most inspired and intellectually stimulating cocktail menus around. It makes sense that bar manager John Fausz is an English major, and an extremely friendly one at that. While making the "Emerson," he talks about the man behind the drink, and it's pretty fascinating.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a philosophic and literary giant in the early-19th century, and a key figure in the transcendental movement -- sort of a back-to-nature type of deal. But by the end of his life, Emerson was a shell of his former self. He suffered from aphasia, the loss of memory and the ability to speak, effectively robbing him of his greatness. And then his house burned down, which sucked. But hey, now we can drink in his honor, so at least there's that.

The "Emerson" is a blend of gin, lime, maraschino and sweet vermouth. Fausz describes it as a "bright drink, but with a nice fall flavor," and modestly explains how the lime juice works in conjunction with the sweet vermouth. The drink's warm orange glow is lit up beautifully by the big open windows, the maraschino and sweet vermouth add a great counterpunch to the gin, and the lime contributes some citrus as a reminder of summer.

• 3/4 oz. gin • 1/2 oz. lime juice • 1/4 oz. maraschino • 3/4 oz. sweet vermouth

       Taste the smoky goodness. | Zach Garrison
  •        Taste the smoky goodness. | Zach Garrison

Tripel's "Smoke Wagon"

Tripel Brasserie's (1801 Park Avenue; 314-678-7787) "Smoke Wagon" involves bourbon, amaro, bitters and chocolate bitters, plus more sweetness with maple syrup and orange zest. The secret weapon, though, is the Smoking Gun: It's basically this genius device that is catching on among expert drink-makers that allows flavorful smoke to be infused into your drink. For the "Smoke Wagon," wafts of French plum tea leaves are shot into a glass and then quickly covered and trapped. The drink is essentially a cross between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned -- warm and full of heavy, rich flavors. Though we'd add that saccharine tones are present in each sip (thanks to the syrup and chocolate bitters which cut through the bourbon), balancing things out nicely.

• 1.5 oz. bourbon • .5 oz. maple syrup • dash of bitters • dash chocolate bitters • edge of orange • French plum tea leaves infused with the Smoking Gun

       Taste's perfect Halloween drink. | Zach Garrison
  •        Taste's perfect Halloween drink. | Zach Garrison

Taste's "TBD"

Back in October we approached the artists behind the bar at Taste (4584 Laclede Avenue; 314-361-1200) and asked if they could make us a cocktail that tasted like Halloween. Without missing a beat barkeep Kyle Mathis nodded and went to work. The result was truly inspiring. A creation of Joel Burton, another star bartender at Taste, the drink (the name, still in the experimental phase, was given as "To Be Determined") began auspiciously with the straining of an acorn-squash puree of a particularly sharp orange hue (which was just cool to watch). After pouring in five-year Plantation rum, Mathis mixed in cayenne pepper and ground cinnamon, adding spice and heat. Rich maple syrup contributes a sugary sweetness.

All told, the fall cocktail set before us absolutely and deliciously evoked Halloween -- this aroma needs to be captured and turned into a scented candle. Before even taking the first sip, the scent conjured visions of pumpkin pie, one of those cornucopia horns, Halloween candy and even colorful leaves falling gently to the ground. And then we carefully took our first drink, and everything changed. It's not overly sweet, but just sweet enough, warm and spicy yet smooth and drinkable, this just might the perfect cocktail to enjoy on All Hallows' Eve.

1 1/2 oz. Plantation rum 3 spoons of acorn squash puree 2 pinches of cinnamon 1 pinch of cayenne pepper 1/2 oz. maple syrup

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