Speakeasy. 1920s. Take a sip of a Carmon’s cocktail, close your eyes, and you just might feel like you’re there.
Maybe you thought Carmon’s was all about the rustic French food. So did I, but clarity didn’t take long to set in: I went several times for the food, but every time I saw the drink menu, I ordered a different cocktail and liked it. Each drink expresses a delicate balance of sweet yet tangy or elegant yet bold. Whether based on whiskey, gin, St. Germain (elderflower liqueur), or champagne, no one element overwhelms another. And the citrus in many of the cocktails, always freshly squeezed by hand, makes the drinks taste brighter and more like they’re from the garden than from the shelf.
Jenna Frye, the mastermind behind the drink list, and also the manager at Carmon’s, established what she calls the “speakeasy-ish and French-focused” theme for the cocktail list. Some of the recipes she picked up while working at other bars, both in Champaign-Urbana and in Chicago, and changed ingredients or tweaked them for balance. Others she developed according to taste or available ingredients. But all the cocktails reflect the tone she set for the list, like the French Seventy-Five and the Fleur-De-Lis (pictured).
1.25 oz Vodka
1 oz. St. Germain
1 oz. fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
Pour into shaker over ice and shake.
Frye tries to keep the cocktail list as “interesting as the wine and as diverse as the beer list,” which is a feat, since they source the wine from small, but diverse, organic European vineyards and the beers are an array of Belgian or Belgian-inspired drinks. The cocktail list rotates according to what’s behind the bar and what interesting syrups the kitchen provides her, but Frye maintained some of the most loved drinks, like the Downtown Old Fashioned, when she last updated the selection.
Currently, the the Gin Squeeze ($7, pictured left) and the Downtown Old Fashioned ($9, pictured right) represent two of the more popular drinks on the list. The Gin Squeeze, a lightly sweet but tangy drink, always includes an interesting simple syrup made by the kitchen. This week, the syrup was wild violet, and the previous week, rosemary. Frye shared the recipe, in case you happen to have some wild violet or other herbed simple syrup sitting around and want to try making this at home.
Wild Violet Gin Squeeze
1.25 oz. gin
1 oz. of wild violet simple syrup (or other herbed simple syrup, see note below)
1.5 oz. of Fever Tree Lemon Tonic
The Downtown Old Fashioned, a take on the traditional Old Fashioned, contains bourbon and St. Germain rather than bourbon and angostura bitters. Another interesting feature on the cocktail list, ultimately a steal compared to local prices, is the liter of punch ($15), like this week’s gin and black raspberry punch. Not quite as strong as the cocktails, but yes, an entire liter of mixed drink in a carafe, just for your table. Or just you, however you prefer it. If you’re wondering, a liter (34 ounces) calculates out to about five drinks. Frye rotates the “punch” recipe every week, too, to keep things interesting.
In spite of the small size of the bar, Frye manages to keep the drinks diverse and the ingredients fresh, including the citrus juices and house-made sour mix and bloody mary mix she makes from scratch. They even do a full absinthe service, offering two types of absinthe and a pastis.
With fabulous cocktails, fresh ingredients, upscale but rustic French food, and a landscaped dining patio, reasons to visit Carmon’s outweigh the reasons to stay home.
Carmon’s Bistro is located at 415 N. Neil St. Cocktails range from $5–9.Tuesday’s special is half-price wine by the glass. Lunch hours are Tues. to Fri. 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and brunch hours are Sat. and Sun. 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Dinner hours are Tues. to Thurs. and Sun. from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Note: To make an at-home herbed simple syrup, boil equal parts water, sugar, and a small amount of herb until sugar dissolves. Cool before tasting or mixing with alcohol.
Thirsty Around Town explores alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages found in different venues around the Champaign-Urbana area. If you have a favorite obscure drink, email me. I want to try it!