Inside the Mind of a Dragon

The Gents head to Dragon Ranch and speak with Arturo Gomez, president of Rockit Ranch Productions for their December 2012 outing.

Selected Spirits:

  • Dragon Whip Wheat Whiskey
  • White Dragon Moonshine

With a flair for fusion and an eye on emergent trends, Arturo Gomez, along with partners Billy Dec & Brad Young of Rockit Ranch Productions, launched Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ five months ago and has since seen his innovative restaurant idea boom.

Gomez has cooked up a unique dining and drinking experience by merging ingredients from diverse sources such as Southern barbeque, Chicago nightlife, Asian cuisine, and his own whiskey palate – and he chose an excellent location to fire up the grill.

Sitting just a few blocks north of the Chicago River at 441 N Clark Street, the Dragon Ranch is in the company of high-quality restaurants, nightclubs and lounges of River North. Inside the venue’s doors, the décor blends the feel of a barbeque picnic with that of a refined sushi bar. How?

Exposed brick interior walls and neutral colors provide a warm, inviting atmosphere. The bench-style seating at the dining tables have a “talk-to-your-neighbor” friendliness, but the wood of the benches and bar stools is polished smooth, adding class and sophistication.

We (four Gents) arrived just prior to our prescribed time, and after only a moment we were seated at a table near the middle of the restaurant. We perused the menus for a few minutes when a whiskey bento box appeared at our table. Our waiter described its contents and then introduced us to Gomez, who sat down and went into greater detail as he discussed the development of this relatively new establishment.

The bento box itself is a common Asian vehicle for serving a meal with defined spaces for different foods. The presentation of food in the boxes has developed into something of an art form in Asian cuisine, bringing color and shape together to form images ranging from beautiful abstracts to specific cartoon characters.

At the Dragon Ranch, Gomez is using the bento box to bring whiskey to the table. “You’re not usually going to set a bottle of whiskey down at the dinner table,” he explained, “and we wanted to do something besides cocktails and shots.” The objective, then, was to find a way to take nightclub-style bottle service into the restaurant space.

While Gomez researched ways to achieve this goal, he came across a 375 milliliter-sized bottle – the perfect amount to split between two to four people. Aside from the whiskey to be served (more on that later), there was one element missing to complete the equation: food pairings.

The opinions Gomez gathered from many whiskey sommeliers converged on three foods that best complement whiskey – pickles, cheese and chocolate. After carefully selecting his own version of the three foods, Gomez added a fourth of his own (such as dried apricots), put it all together and invented the whiskey bento box!

This brings us back to what is actually in the bottle and on the label. Gomez searched for some time in vain for a distiller willing to put the Dragon Ranch label – actually, any label but their own – on their bottle. “Most distilleries were just too large,” he said, adding that a smaller-scale operation was the key. And, as part of the agreement, Gomez wanted to help develop the proprietary recipe.

Capitalizing on the growing popularity of white whiskey, Gomez knew a moonshine recipe would avoid the years-long time burden of aging his label prior to selling it. He also felt his whiskey would need a softer edge to capture the interest of women who, in his experience, normally shrug off the spirit outside of a cocktail or shooter.

To create an approachable sipping whiskey, Gomez chose wheat as the key grain, which provides sweeter, floral notes to the finished product. The Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan was at the proper stage of growth for a partnership to be mutually beneficial, and they hammered out a deal.

Dragon Ranch offers two of Gomez’s moonshine recipes as well as two of Jouneyman’s aged whiskeys. Our first bento box contained one of the latter, Dragon Whip Wheat Whiskey. Gomez was confident that despite the whiskey being aged only 18 months, we would be impressed with the fullness of flavor and quality. Why?

Journeyman uses only the finest quality ingredients to produce their organic whiskey, to which Gomez attributed its refined flavors. And when combined with the pairing nibbles in the bento box, even newcomers to whiskey, he said, would be able to learn how to appreciate whiskey the way some people enjoy a fine wine.

An assertion has been echoing in our whiskey experience, which is that high-quality ingredients (typically, organic) and higher-than-usual alcohol distillation concentrations (such as those found in moonshine) greatly reduce the aging duration needed to develop a drinkable, flavorful whiskey. Koval Distillery (also on the menu) made the same claim when we toured their distillery in November 2011. I also came across a couple interviews on Whisky Marketplace TV with Penderyn Distillery and The London Distillery Company that reinforced these notions.

The aroma in the 45% alcohol by volume Dragon Whip definitely presented the sweet, floral notes promised to us. A spicy, antiseptic kick appeared on the palate but did not linger long for a smooth finish. We were reminded of Divine Bourbon, which has a similar flavor profile as the Dragon Whip. With just the right amount of spiciness, the flavor was basic and clean, and very approachable.

When combined with the accompanying foods in the bento box, the experience was amped to a new level of pleasure.

The homemade pickles paired well with the whiskey, with the apricots and cheese next in line. Gomez substituted the chocolate pairing for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup bits, and to our surprise, these were the best-suited match, yielding a delicious combination of flavors with the whiskey. Seeing the bottle quickly vanish, we ordered our meals and jumped into the White Dragon Moonshine bento box.

As an un-aged whiskey, the only notes that registered on the nose were the grains used in the distillation process, expressed as creamed corn and cereal scents. Without the flavors added from barrel-aging, the bento pairing foods added a balance as we sipped the moonshine. I enjoyed the moonshine with my pulled pork, and Mike reported a growing affinity for it as well. Moonshine on its own, we noted, might be a bit demanding on an inexperienced palate.

The concept of a whiskey bento box as a means of moving whiskey from the bar to the table is brilliant, and Gomez’s research into the best pairings paid off. “The amount of whiskey we move through this place is astounding,” he said, which also includes the cocktails. As for the Journeyman Distillery itself, “You’ve got to visit it,” Gomez emphatically advised. “It’s a gorgeous distillery.”

With over a dozen whiskeys to try as a bento box (bring a couple friends!), the combination is a winner. We heard from a reliable source that the Manhattan is excellent as well, and don’t forget the list of bourbons, ryes, sake and other spirits and cocktails on the menu.

Hearing Gomez relay the story and thought process behind the development of the Dragon Ranch revealed his passion for creating a high-quality, entertaining restaurant/bar venue, and we can attest to its success. We loved the bento box as an idea and an experience, and we were quite pleased with our meals. The garlic edamame, fried pickles, and cornbread were outstanding and deserve mention as well! The Dragon Ranch was exceedingly hospitable and we greatly appreciate the invitation to try their featured bento box! Cheers!

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Written and Edited by Joe, additional content by Mike and Rick.  Photos by Joe and Mike 

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