On The Road: Chicago Cubs – Spring Training (Mesa, Arizona)

See my original article about the Cubs here

I had the opportunity to tag along on a business trip with my SO down to Phoenix, and I jumped at the chance just to get out of Chicago and the winter that won’t end.  He only had to be down there for two days but we extended it for some personal R & R.

One of the biggest draws for getting down there a few days early was that baseball’s Spring Training games were still being played.  These are exhibition games that are played before the start of the regular season. The teams, during this pre-season play, are not divided into the standard American and National league.  Instead, we have the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League.  The Cactus League is based in Arizona.  The Grapefruit League is based in Florida.

While the Chicago Cubs and White Sox both play in the Cactus league, our team of choice is the Cubs.  The North Siders primarily play out of Sloan Park, which is located in Mesa, Arizona.  The stadium is fairly new, built in 2014, and was designed to resemble Wrigley Field.  It was originally named Cubs Park but, in 2015, Sloan Valve Company signed a “naming rights” deal to the ballpark.  Sloan Park is the largest spring-training facility, with a capacity of 15,000.  This does not include the lawn because when we were there, the attendance that day was 16,100.  Tickets need to be purchased pretty far in advance.  We were attending games in late March and, when we tried to purchase seats in mid-February, the only thing available were lawn seats.  Still, a great view.

 

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Getting there is easy and parking is even easier.  They have one big, gigantic lot and it is only $5.00 to park.  Depending on how late you get there, you might have a decent walk to get into the stadium, but they have cycle rides available if you are not feeling the hike.  Not sure what they charge though.

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Inside the park, everything you need to enjoy a game is available.  Food, drink, team store shopping, etc.  If you are sitting on the lawn, bring a blanket.  We forgot to pack one and had to find something at the last minute.  The only other thing you can bring into the stadium is unopened water bottles.

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We enjoyed this trip more than we expected and cannot wait to go back again next year.  I’m sure the 80+ degree temperatures helped.

Not from Chicago?  Click here to find out where your team plays their Spring Training games.

Day Drinking – Chicago Ale Fest – Winter Edition

Did you miss the winter edition?  Mark your calendars: the summer edition will take place on June 1, 2019.

Chicago Ale Fest is a bi-annual event that takes place every winter and summer.  This year the winter one took place on Saturday, February 2 at Lacuna Artist Lofts.

Like many other beer festivals, there were more vendors than you could visit in one afternoon.  Majority of them were local craft breweries, but there were a good number of out-of-state options to try as well.  Sours were trending this year (not my thing but my son loves them).

There are two entry times to choose from: 12:00-3:00 pm (with a 1 hour early entry option) and 6:00-9:00 pm (also with a 1 hour early entry option).  We chose the earlier session (with the extra hour).  The cost for 4 hours was around $70 but you know your girl found this on Groupon and only paid $44 (with a 20% promo code).  I love a deal!

With the entry fee you get a signature tasting glass and they also gave you a lanyard with a punch card attached.  The vendors were supposed to mark off a beer every time you received a pour.  As you can see from my pic below, no one was particularly diligent in marking your card (‘cause you know I did not just have one).  It was way too busy for that.

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Quite a few vendors also had “treasures” available.  We collected logo stickers, coasters, koozies, and bottle openers.  The most interesting one was the Grapefruit IPA chapstick.  Well, that, and the bottle opener with the roach clip.

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A handful of food trucks were in the parking lot to fill all of your buzz-fueled hunger needs.  The beef skewer from Chicago Culinary Kitchen and the pork on naan from The Roaming Hog were delicious.

Food trucks 1

Food trucks 2

The location changes each time and the 2019 Winter Edition was held at the Lacuna Artist Lofts in the Pilsen neighborhood.  Once the world’s largest macaroni factory, the Loft is now home to some offices and retail spaces for painters, photographers, sculptors, clothing designers, and other creative minds.  This was a really cool space and below is a picture of one of the rooms (there were 3 or 4 rooms total):

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The Summer Edition will be taking place on June 1 at Butler Field in Grant Park.  This event is already available on Groupon.  The Winter Edition was available on Goldstar so I am assuming you will find the Summer Edition on there eventually.

Day Drinking – Koval Distillery

(Not from Chicago?  Google “distillery tour near me”)

Not every distillery tour is the same.  The process is very similar, but the result is very different from one brand to another.  Plus, this was a great way to spend a cold, snowy afternoon.

Established in 2008, Koval is the first distillery within the Chicago city limits since the Prohibition era.  The tour takes place in a small storefront in the Ravenswood neighborhood with the actual production facility about a mile up the road.  One of the things I learned on the tour is that Koval is the largest organic distillery in Illinois (maybe the US?  I was trying to pay attention and take notes at the same time).  One aspect of organic distilling is the use of organic barley.  This is more expensive, however, they are also using local farmers as their suppliers.  Another quality that makes the whiskey organic is the use of virgin oak casks.  They purchase all of their barrels built and charred from scratch.  This prevents the spirit from coming into contact with any non-organic material.  You would think this would result in a surplus of barrels, however, they can be sold for re-use.  Besides other distilleries (that don’t require virgin casks), they also sell them to breweries who produce bourbon-barrel aged ales.  Additionally, the average consumer can purchase a used one for their home décor needs for the small price of $150.00.

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While walking us through the distillation process, we learned that Koval’s signature style is to only use the “heart”, or the middle process of the distillation, in their spirits.  The full distillation process produces what are known as the “head”, “heart”, and “tails”.  I could not even begin to describe these stages or at what point these are cut.  This link explains it perfectly and in simple terms.

Equipment

Now, what would a distillery tour be without a tasting or two (or three)?  Whiskey is not the only spirit produced at Koval.  They also bottle and sell gins, brandys, and other flavored liqueurs.  Our first tasting was of their single barrel bourbon whiskey.  110 proof.  Boom.  Now I’ve got that warm toasty feeling inside.  The second tasting was of their new cranberry gin liqueur.  I do not like gin, but I tried it anyway.  The cranberry flavor was definitely present, but it did not overpower the gin itself.  Our third, and final, tasting was a personal choice.  I chose the peach brandy.  I regret my choice only because I heard, after the fact, that the ginger liqueur was a big hit.  This is their second best seller after the single barrel bourbon  whiskey (the regular version, not the 110 proof).

Tasters

Liqueurs

The tour, should you decide to take it, is only $10 per person.  You can also find this activity on Groupon.  This one is limited to Sundays at either 2:00 pm or 4:00 pm.  They have an option for a group of two ($19) or four ($35).  The bonus is that you get to leave with a souvenir shot glass.

CHEERS!

Day Drinking AND A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Bacon and Beer Classic

Bacon.  AND Beer.  What?!?!?  Yes.  And it was just as good as you are imagining.

This year was the 4th annual Bacon and Beer Classic in Chicago.  You can also catch this tour in other cities but the food and beer vendors will be representative of those locations.  The event was held at Soldier Field and took up the entire walkway on the Mezzanine level.  There were over 100 beer vendors (craft beers) and over 30 bacon dishes.

General Admission* got you entrance into the event, three hours of eating and drinking, and a really nice souvenir cup.  No throw-away plastic here.  This one was ceramic.

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There was also a VIP option (which I might consider upgrading to next year).  You get an additional hour of tasting (before the General Admission crowd comes in), designated bathrooms, and a lanyard that hold your souvenir cup.  Trust me when I say this would have come in handy when I was trying to juggle the mini cup and all of the food I was sampling.

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As I mentioned before, there were over 100 craft beer vendors.  Some were brands you might know like Pollyanna, Bells, and Founders.  My SO and I are always up for something different so we were trying out the local vendors.  There were also a couple of cider vendors as well as a few spiked sparkling water booths.  A little something for everyone.  One stop that put a smile on our faces was the bacon bourbon table.  I wish I could tell you what it tasted like but they were mixing it with their special brand of Bloody Mary mix.  So it looks like I’ll be making a trip to Binny’s (I already Googled it.  They carry it.).

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Now, let’s talk about the food.  With the exception of a few places, you were only getting a tasting portion.  Which was fine because there were over 30 food booths.  A few of our favorites were a pork belly fried rice, a bacon beignet, and a bourbon glazed shredded pork over mashed potatoes.  Seriously, they weren’t playing here.  But hands down, our two favorites were the bacon topped jalapeno popper and the spiced pork belly with a pineapple relish.  We went back for seconds on the latter one.

Bacon favorites

My one tip for you – if you pass a beer or food vendor and don’t want to stand in the long line, you will not be able to go back later.  Well, you will, but the chances are pretty high that they will be out of their product.  Especially the first-time and local vendors.  Trust me, the line was long for a reason.  I found out the hard way when I missed out on a bacon topped Krispy Kreme donut.  Someone is in the dog house for convincing me we should come back later.

*I thought I saw this event on Groupon but, since I already had tickets, I did not save the link.  Look for it next year.

Day Drinking – Whiskey Acres

Whiskey Acres Distilling Company is a true “seed-to-spirit” operation.  A certified “farm distillery”, Whiskey Acres is located in DeKalb, IL.  The Walter family decided to turn some of their farm land into crops to be used to produce their own brand of whiskey and bourbon (and some vodka too).  The corn, the wheat, and the rye are all grown right there on their land.  And you can tour the farm and distillery to see where the magic happens.

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They started opening the distillery to the public in 2014.  Our guide, Cherise, has been leading those tours since they opened.  Her knowledge of the process and passion for what they produce added to our fun-filled experience.

The tasting room is open from 1:30-8:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and again on Sundays from 1:30-5:30 pm (from April thru November*).  Tours are given at the top of every hour.  The cost for the basic tour is $10 and gets you the tour, a tasting, and a souvenir shot glass.

You can upgrade your tour to include a full drink (or two).  This was a no-brainer.  Especially when they had bourbon slushies on the drink menu.

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The journey begins with a view of the farm and a story about the history of the family and the crops they grow there.  What I found fascinating was the variety of corn they grow and the various flavors they can instill in their spirits as a result.  The photo below shows some of those “specialty” corns.

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From there, you get to see the stills and learn about the distilling process.  They discuss the mashing, fermenting, and barreling of each batch they produce.  After that, they age it, bottle it, and ship it out themselves.  They even host “bottling parties” that are open to the public.  I definitely want to get in on one of these.

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Once your tour is over, you are welcome to stay on the property and enjoy more of their libations.  They have a really cute cocktail patio and even encourage visitors to bring their own snacks or lunches.  We packed up a small cooler with cheeses, crackers, peanuts, etc.  It was a beautiful sunny day and they have plenty of seating.

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*They are currently in the process of building a new visitors center.  The plan is to have it completed by the end of November.  This new building will enable them to remain open year-round.  The current visitor center is only 400 square feet and feels like a cozy bar.  Except that, with 40 people in our tour group all trying to buy tour passes and cocktails, it felt less cozy and more cramped.  The new visitor center will be around 4,000 square feet and will seat around 60 people (with more than enough wiggle room for standing room only).

Old visitor center

New visitors center

I was able to see the new building when I was there, but it had only just been framed out.  I guess I will have to go back again to get all of you an update.  Twist my arm.  This was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  I highly recommend taking the road trip!

Baseball – The Chicago Cubs – Part I

Summertime means baseball.  And there are plenty of teams in Illinois to support.  Let’s start with the Chicago Cubs.  I know there is a rivalry in this town and, while I consider myself a Cubs fan, I am not a hater.  I have many family members and friends who are die-hard White Sox fans.  I don’t have time to be disrespectful of something they love.  Speaking of love, what baseball fan wouldn’t love this view?

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But, I digress.  Wrigley Field has been an iconic stadium on the North side of Chicago since 1914.  It is the second oldest park in the Majors, second only to Fenway Park in Boston.  Originally known as Weeghman Park, it hosted its first Cubs game in 1916 and officially changed its name to Wrigley Field in 1926.  It is best known for day games (especially in the bleachers), the ivy that covers outfield walls, and the forest green scoreboard that is still changed by hand.

Scoreboard

There are a couple of ways to get tickets: a) Go to the Cubs main website or other ticket vendor (StubHub, etc) and you can purchase single game day tickets, b) go to Groupon and you can get discounted tickets – but they only have a handful of upcoming games available at a time, or c) register for the Chicago Cubs lottery and try to win $10 tickets – but only if you are available to go within 48 hours.

Baseball is, in my opinion, an easy sport to be a spectator at even if you are not familiar with all of the rules of play.  It has a relaxing, slow pace to it that goes well with day drinking.  There is also an added element of fun when you go to a day game – almost like you are playing hooky.  And, let’s be honest, the person sitting next to you probably is.  But night games are fun too.  Especially when they can fly the “W”.

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There is so much to see and do around the park as well.  There is no shortage of bars, restaurants, and shops (to get your gear on).  You can also relax in the sun in the new park area on the Clark Street side.  Or you can take a stroll around the park itself and check out the statues and brownstones (some of which have rooftop views).  It feels like a big block party when you go to a game.

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I will have a second post that will cover the new hotel and other recent improvements to the park and the game day atmosphere.  Baseball season doesn’t end until October – get out and see a game!