Barrels of fun: Campari competition shows tasty things come to those who wait

Mike Steele, Industry Alley

At Industry Alley, Mike Steele’s barrel-aged Sir Reginald, among the competition’s nine entries.

More than a month has passed since Dallas’ last two cocktail competitions, both coincidentally arranged for the same day in June. While a few ingredients may have been pre-prepared a day or three ahead, the bartenders at both the “Disaronno Mixing Star” contest (won by Smoke’s Mandy Meggs) and the subsequent Pisco Mercenaries’ “Pisco Punch Duel” (won by Rapscallion’s Andres Zevallos) pretty much shook or stirred their cocktails up in real time.

Last week, though, brought a different sort of beverage bout, one that deliciously demonstrated how patience and ingenuity can create liquid gold. The Campari Barrel-Aged Cocktail Competition, organized by local rep Chase Streitz, showed how barrel-aging smooths out liquor’s hard edges while adding beautiful depths of flavor; mixtures are conceived and left to age for weeks in a barrel, the wooden cocoon from which will hopefully emerge a beautiful butterfly of a drink.

Robbie Call, Madrina

At Madrina, Robbie Call pours his beer-enhanced Frenchie cocktail, the base of which was barrel-aged.

The rules were this: Contestants had up to six weeks to age their cocktail in a 5-liter barrel. Each was to be built on a base of Bulldog gin, a London Dry-style spirit featuring several influences not typically seen in gins – lotus leaf, poppy and the lychee-like dragon eye fruit. The final presentation could include no more than seven ingredients, one of which had to be the Italian bitter liqueur Campari or one of its products.

In all, nine bartenders fielded entries. Some concoctions had entered the barrel fully assembled and then reappeared, transformed; others, like Robbie Call’s Frenchie, went into the barrel in partial form and were enhanced with other ingredients before serving.

Call, the bar manager at Madrina, poured out his bright barrel-aged mix of gin, Aperol and herbal-sweet Dolin Genepy and shook it with lemon, simple and egg white; that was then strained into a half-glass of Duvel beer.

The result craftily utilized the egg white, which sat atop the cocktail and gave it the appearance of a frothy summer ale. “It makes a great foam,” said visiting judge Amanda Olig, of Denver’s Meadowlark Kitchen. “It looks like the head on a beer.”

Peter Novotny, Armoury D.E.

Novotny’s Sancho cocktail, at Armoury D.E.

Another notable was Peter Novotny’s Sancho, a play on the classic Martinez and a recent addition to the specials board at Deep Ellum’s Armoury. Featuring gin, orange bitters, roasted-black-pepper-infused cherry liqueur and dry vermouth infused with the cherry-vanilla influence of tonka beans, its unaged version was pleasantly sweet and worth drinking on its own. (One judge, in fact, preferred it over the aged one.)

The barrel-aged drink was boozy and winter-ready, illustrating how the process can take a drink from sunny-weather refresher to winter warmer.

All of the entries evidenced the undeniable influence of wood. These were vigorous barrels. “You’re not going to get rid of the taste of the wood,” said Dee Sweis, who tends bar at The People’s Last Stand. “That’s the whole point of barrel-aging.”

A few bartenders got a rein on those woodsy depths by pre-treating their barrels: For his Churchill Negroni, Michael Reith of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen in Knox-Henderson poured sweet Spanish sherry into his barrel and rotated it daily for a week before replacing it with his classic Negroni combination of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.

Michael Reith, Sissy's Southern Kitchen

Reith rotated his barrel for a week with sweet sherry before setting his Negroni to age.

But Reith also elaborately pre-spiced his gin with goodies including clove, coriander, star anise and dried fruits, his overall goal being to evoke sherry and tobacco, two of Winston Churchill’s favorite ingredients. “Rather than actually using tobacco, I wanted to hit those notes,” he said.

The result was luscious and beautiful, and it took second in the judging. Parliament’s Drew Garison took third with his Summer in SoHo, a mix of pear and white-peppercorn-infused gin, apricot liqueur, Aperol and lavender bitters.

On the top prize, though, we all agreed on an unlikely source: Renfield’s Corner, the high-volume party den in Uptown where Rogher Jeri’s sultry Bulldog and Zen, playing off the gin’s Eastern and Western influences, was all at once thoughtfully presented, bold and well-conceived. He combined the spirit with dry vermouth, a touch of ginger liqueur and herbal Yellow Chartreuse, and a vinegary lemon-lavender shrub. Halfway through the aging process, he added a jalapeño oleo saccharum, a classic sugar oil typically extracted from citrus.

What made Jeri’s effort so intriguing is that in unaged form, there was nothing special about the drink. It was both blond and bland, a little cloudy in appearance, an ugly duckling loosed into the world. But it returned a swan: Tart and nicely balanced, with a handsome amber hue and a just-right singe of jalapeno, which can often be overdone. It was a startling metamorphosis.

Rogher Jeri, Renfield's Corner

Jeri’s remarkable Bulldog and Zen.

“It’s like a wasabi burn,” said judge Austin Millspaugh, local rep for liquor distributor Frederick Wildman and Sons, as he sipped. “It clears your nose and then dies off.”

“It travels through your palate and, just as it starts to heat up, it sweetens,” Streitz added.

To top it off, Jeri gave a nod to the gin’s signature ingredients by garnishing the drink with a lavender stem and a lotus flower sculpted from a jalapeno. It was exquisite. Or as judge Pezhmon Sabet, secretary of the the U.S. Bartender’s Guild’s North Texas chapter, said: “That’s a badass drink.”

Was it Churchill who said good things come to those who wait?

Ever tried pisco? Cocktail event Monday gives you a dozen ways to try

If February's Pisco Sour competition offers any clues, you're in for a treat Monday.

If February’s Pisco Sour competition offers any clues, you’re in for a treat Monday. 

The Pisco Mercenaries want your love. More to the point, they want you to learn to love pisco, the national spirit of Peru – so much so that they’ve put aside their differences in pursuit of that higher goal.

On Monday, you’ll have a chance to see what eight local bartenders can do with the light-colored brandy when the group holds its second pisco cocktail competition at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel.

The Pisco Mercenaries are four Peruvian-born gents: Neighborhood Services’ Ivan Rimach; Daniel Guillen and brother Armando, most recently of Parliament and The Standard Pour; and food and beverage consultant Pablo Valqui. They represent four pisco brands eyeing major inroads in the U.S., a market even the Peruvian government supports going after. But rather than fight each other for market share, the brands are joining forces to raise pisco’s profile as a whole.

Queirolo and Intipalka will be among the pisco brands represented at Monday's competition.

Queirolo and Intipalka will be among the pisco brands represented at Monday’s competition.

Through this ongoing series of competitions, they hope to demonstrate pisco’s versatility and earn it a place on bartenders’ shelves. “This is our way of introducing it to the U.S. market and showing there’s way more things you can do with it,” says pisco mercenary Armando Guillen, who is on his way to London after a stint as bar manager at Uptown’s Standard Pour.

The group held a Pisco Sour competition at the Westin Park Central in February. Monday’s contest, set for 6 p.m. at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel, will feature variations on the classic Pisco Punch. In addition to their cocktails, bartenders will be judged on presentation, use of Peruvian ingredients and the stories behind their concoctions.

The classic Pisco Punch came to life during the go-for-broke days of the Gold Rush in San Francisco, where pisco shipments arrived on South American cargo ships that regularly posted up in the Bay, as author Guillermo Toro-Liro has noted. That made pisco easier to get at the time than whiskey, which had to be brought in by wagon from the Eastern U.S.

Tim Newtown of Henry's Majestic pours his chirimoya-inflected drink at February's event.

Tim Newtown of Henry’s Majestic pours his chirimoya-inflected drink at February’s event.

No one knows for sure exactly what comprised Duncan Nicol’s recipe that rose to popularity at San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon, but today it’s evolved as a tropical blend of pisco, pineapple, citrus and sweetener. A supposed secret ingredient, which may or may not have been cocaine, has been lost to the ages – but for that reason, it’s an openly malleable cocktail.

Monday’s competitors include Andres Zevallos of Rapscallion; Ricky Cleva of Henry’s Majestic; Chris Dempsey of the Four Seasons; Jorge Herrera of The Standard Pour; Ryan Kinkade of TBD; Justin Payne of The Theodore; Cody Riggs of The Mitchell; and Chad Yarbrough of Armoury D.E.

The winners of Monday’s contest – both a judges’ and a people’s choice – will win cash and the chance to compete in a fifth and final round planned for November. That winner will be on his or her way to Peru, which according to Pisco Porton rep Michael Turley boasts 300 distilleries and 471 registered brands – the most popular of them being Queirolo, the one you’ll find even at Peruvian gas stations.

If the February competition is any indication, you’ll be in for a treat: That event offered the chance to sample various piscos on their own or in mini-versions of the competing cocktails, and to crown a people’s choice winner.

Each competing bartender made mini versions of their drinks for attendees.

Each competing bartender made mini versions of their drinks for attendees.

Tim Newtown, of Henry’s Majestic, employed chirimoya, a Peruvian highlands fruit, in his cocktail, while Quill’s James Slater tipped his cap to Peru’s Japanese influences with additions of sencha tea and yuzu citrus.

Ida Claire’s Alexandrea Rivera dropped a hint of Malbec into her pisco drink, while Parliament’s Drew Garison accented his concoction with muddled grapes and a ginger-saffron marmalade.

In the end, though, it was Bolsa’s bar manager Spencer Shelton who the judges crowned winner. (Full disclosure: I was among the panel.) Shelton’s garden-fresh “Cease Fire,” made with mellow-earthy Cuatro Gallos quebranta pisco and a bit of the Italian bitter liqueur Cynar, included lemon, bell pepper, fennel, dill, Peruvian yellow chili pepper and Peruvian olive brine. Or as he described it: “Peruvian cuisine in a cocktail.”

Shelton Spencer, Bolsa

Spencer Shelton’s winning cocktail at February’s contest, the Cease Fire.

Unlike most, Shelton skipped the drink’s signature egg white, which provides lightness and a silky texture. That’s where the olive brine came in: “The brine adds viscosity and mouthfeel,” he explained. An olive branch garnish added the final touch, signifying the unity of the four pisco brands; he served it with tapenade and plantain chips.

Peruvian yellow pepper and olive brine? That brought a smile to pisco mercenary Rimach, who dreams of a day when pisco is a staple spirit behind the bar along with gin and whiskey and vodka and rum. The Pisco Mercenaries partnership, he hopes, is just the start.

“When you have more variety, it’s easier for people to understand and enjoy something,” Rimach says. “We’re trying to create a whole new category.”

Midnight Rambler event to benefit uninsured musician’s medical expenses

A musician's medical expenses are piling up, so Midnight Rambler is ready to get down.

A musician’s medical expenses are piling up, so Midnight Rambler is ready to get down.

If you’re familiar with Dallas’ music scene, you might have caught Mwanza “Wanz” Dover singing lead for the band Black Dotz or spinning records at venues such as Midnight Rambler, Nova, Red Light and the Double Wide.

Last fall, as the Dallas Observer reported, he took a dive off a stage and hurt himself; what he thought was a minor ailment turned out to be a much more serious intestinal injury. He made it to the hospital just in time for emergency surgery that apparently saved his life. Further hospitalization and another surgery would follow.

The trouble is, like a lot of people who make their living as creative types, he has no medical insurance. And so, on Sunday, Midnight Rambler — among the finest of the city’s craft-cocktail joints — will hold “Ramble For A Cause,” a DJ-driven night of music to benefit Dover and help pay what bar co-owner Christy Pope describes as “a mounting stack of medical bills.”

The event, which runs from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., is sponsored by Hochstadter’s Slow & Low rye whiskey and Four Corners Brewery. There will be drink specials and prize raffles, and proceeds will help pay Wanz’s medical bills. DJ’s will include Travis Box, Gabriel Mendoza, Jeff Paul and Marcos Prado and Dover himself.

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Cocktail of the Week: Let the Mayahuel’s Awakening be your tasters’ choice

Austin Gurley, High and Tight

Among the perks of visiting High and Tight is this coffee-powered gem from Austin Gurley.

High and Tight, in Deep Ellum, is among the newcomers to the craft-cocktail scene, one of the stars that make up the several-star constellation that includes adjacent Armoury D.E., Black Swan Saloon and Brick and Bones across the street.

Of course, none of the other bars can boast an adjoining barber shop (hence the name of the place, which refers to a certain cut) and while High and Tight’s cocktail list is fully legit, it’s the seasonal board to the right of the bar that you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Which is where you’ll find this gem, which is a perfect way to mark Cinco de Mayo, if you’re into that sort of thing.

COCKTAIL OF THE WEEK: Mayahuel’s Awakening

SOURCE: Austin Gurley, High and Tight

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Mexican coffee

WHAT’S IN IT: Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon

WHY IT WORKS: Because if you’ve ever had Mexican café de olla, you’d be well acquainted with the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip.

This is not that drink – but it could be its long-lost boozy cousin. The traditional sipper is prepared stovetop, dissolving brown sugar and cinnamon in boiling water with ground coffee, letting the mixture steep and then straining it into your favorite vessel.

These are the roots of the Mayahuel’s Awakening. (Pronounce it “ma-ya-WELL.”)

“It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” Gurley says.

He’d been pondering an approachable tequila-forward cocktail, and when he stumbled onto a tasty brand of concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee that he thought would pair well with agave, the game was on: A quarter-ounce of the concentrate did the trick, providing strong coffee flavor without drowning out the tequila flavor.

Gurley used reposado tequila for its aged softness and fruity overtones, added a bit of smoky mezcal to offset the coffee’s bitterness and some brown-sugar simple syrup for richness. Finally, he tied it all together with the cinnamon, vanilla and orange-peel notes of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters.

The cocktail is served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar. The result? A perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name salutes the Aztec goddess of fertility – and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born. And as Henry Rollins once said, “What goes best with a cup of coffee? Another cup.”

Top Dallas chefs unite for benefit pop-up for kids — with a $1,000 haircut on the auction block

Make Room for Daddy and That Girl: What sounds eyebrow-raising is actually the benefit event's two featured cocktails.

Make Room for Daddy and That Girl: What sounds eyebrow-raising is actually the benefit event’s two featured cocktails. (Photo by 

It all started with hair – Noelle Hendrix’s hair in particular. The Dallas private chef has the kind of eye-catching dreadlocks that invite teasing from fellow chefs, who would joke about taking their knives to it – maybe for charity.

Teasing turned to brainstorming and then into action, and on Saturday you’ll be able to reap the results when Industry Alley, in the Cedars, hosts a pop-up dinner showcasing a semi-supergroup of Dallas chefs. Proceeds will fund Hendrix’s “$10K for Kids” effort to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The cash-only event, which goes from 6 p.m. until the grub runs out, will feature four of Dallas’ top chefs, each offering a specialty dish for just $10. Doors open at 4. Early arrival is advised.

Participating chefs include John Tesar of Knife, Oak and adjoining Quill, Graham Dodds of Wayward Sons, LUCK’s Daniel Pittman and Kitchen LTO’s Nick Amoriello. So while it’s all for a good cause, this is clearly a chance to benefit your belly as well. Behold the choices: Beef cheek on creamy polenta (Tesar); lamb, pork or beef brisket tacos (Pittman); venison tartare (Amoriello); or strawberry shortcake (Dodds).

Bar owner Charlie Papaceno will be offering a pair of cocktails created especially for the event, each of them a nod to Danny Thomas, the actor, singer and comedian who founded St. Jude in 1962 to treat and research catastrophic childhood disease. Make Room for Daddy – the name of the sitcom Thomas starred in from 1953-65 – is an old-fashioned mix of Old Forester bourbon and Lebanese 7-spice syrup, while That Girl – the name of the series starring Thomas’ daughter, Marlo – features tequila, triple sec, cranberry and Champagne.

There’ll also be live music, plus a handful of raffles and silent auction items – including Hendrix’s signature dreadlocks, which can be had for $1,000. “The money goes to the kids, and the scissors go in the winner’s hands,” she says. “Otherwise, they’ll stick around and be ready to cut next year.”

This is the latest in a series of pop-up dinners at Industry Alley, which has also featured chefs such as Small Brewpub’s Misti Norris and Lucia’s Justin Holt. But it’s the first to fund a cause, or to have anything to do with hair.

More information is available here.

INDUSTRY ALLEY, 1711 S. Lamar St.

Cocktail of the Week: The Whisperer shrouds its message in a sneaky puff of smoke

Armando Guillen, Standard Pour

The cocktail Whisperer: Guillen’s Trojan horse of mezcal

The all-around craft-cocktail chops at The Standard Pour can be lost in the timid tastes of the partying Uptown throngs that fill its McKinney Avenue environs every weekend. But delve deep into the drink menu and you’ll find a solid lineup of classics and bar originals both – including this one from Armando Guillen.

Guillen, who heads TSP”s bar program, has been a longtime stalwart of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene, a frequent competition winner and, most recently, is among CultureMap’s nominees for its bartender-of-the-year award. He designed this drink, he says, at the behest of San Diego’s renowned Polite Provisions for an event sponsored by El Silencio mezcal.

NAME: The Whisperer

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Fiery citrus

WHAT’S IN IT: El Silencio mezcal, peach liqueur, honey, lime, salt, Scrappy’s “Firewater” bitters, spiced rim.

WHY IT WORKS: The Whisperer is a smoky play on the classic Margarita, capped with a spicy supernova kick. Bartender Armando Guillen, who manages The Standard Pour’s bar program, aimed to create a Trojan horse of mezcal, another agave-based spirit that, while on the rise, many have yet to embrace. He dipped into the bartender’s crowd-pleasing arsenal of friendly flavors – “peach, strawberry and pineapple; that’s the trifecta,” he says – and chose peach because it pairs well with mezcal’s earthy, smoky qualities.

To sweeten it up, he chose honey over simple syrup for its earthier flavor and added a pinch of salt to round it out. A dash of habanero-based Firewater bitters lends a not-so-subtle scorch of heat. “You’ve got smoke, earth, spice and fruit, everything mezcal needs to have,” Guillen says. And it’s true: In Mexico, mezcal is usually sipped straight, with accompaniments of orange slice and sal de gusano – a blend of chile powder, sea salt and the ground remains of roasted moth larvae that feed on agave plants – that offer a similar combination of flavor.

Guillen serves the Whisperer in a coupe, half-coating it with an appropriately smoky-spicy mix of cayenne powder, sea salt, chili powder and smoked paprika. With a final lime-wheel garnish, the result is a visually striking bouquet of lemon yellow, lime green and rusty red. On the tongue, its spicy edge suddenly slashes through its citrus-y sweetness, planting a lasting burn on the lips that leaves you wanting more.

The name? Yes, a nod to the El Silencio brand name – but really a reflection of Guillen’s sly intentions. “It’s like,” he says, a cupped hand covering his lips as he slips into a whisper, “ `Hey – you should drink mezcal.’ ”

With bottled cocktails, acclaimed bar man Rocco Milano finds his new venture is on the rocks

Among the OTR collection: The Aviation, Cosmopolitan and Mango Daiquiri

Shaken, stirred — or bottled? OTR’s Mango Daiquiri, Cosmopolitan and award-winning Aviation.

FROM A LOFTY outdoor suite at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the elusive Rocco Milano is taking in FC Dallas’ home opener against Philadelphia. He has a cocktail in hand – and the fact that the venue even sells them says a lot about how far craft-cocktail culture has come.

You remember Rocco. As Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene blossomed in the early 2010s, Milano was among its luminaries, emerging from the Mansion at Turtle Creek to preside over well-regarded bar programs at Private/Social and Barter in Uptown. Then, with Barter’s sudden closing, he vanished, leaving a trail of mystery. What is Rocco up to, people wondered? Has anyone heard from Rocco?

Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.

Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.

Everyone may be about to. Along with partners Patrick Halbert – owner of P/S and Barter, which operated successively in a space off McKinney Avenue – and Andrew Gill, Halbert’s cousin, Milano has been crafting a line of bottled cocktails, hoping to join a growing playing field.

Their venture, called On The Rocks, or OTR, has been building a buzz; FC Dallas is the team’s first major client, with four OTR cocktails now sold in the stadium’s suite-exclusive Jack Daniels Lounge. (Other, less potent OTR drinks are available on the concourse to general ticket holders.)

This week, On The Rocks scored 11 medals at the esteemed San Francisco World Spirits Competition – including two gold, four silver and five bronze. But OTR’s sights are set much higher, with the group sweet-talking several major airlines to get their drinks onboard national and international flights.

Several of OTR's bottled cocktails are now available at Toyota Stadium's Jack Daniels Lounge.

Several of OTR’s bottled cocktails are sold at the stadium’s Jack Daniels Lounge.

Here in the suite with Milano are partners Halbert and Gill, along with other OTR staffers and people like industry consultant Steve Ousley. “What they’re doing is really innovative,” Ousley says of OTR. “It’s like, how do we execute a crafted cocktail and bring it to consumers really quick? This is in a bottle, and that’s about as quick and convenient as we can deliver it.”

As the brand name implies, the beverages are meant to be served over ice. But with bottled cocktails a relatively new concept, kinks remain: As the match gets underway, an OTR team member arrives fresh from the lounge, where he’s just ordered the bottled Aviation. “They poured it wrong,” he tells Milano; the server poured the liquid straight into a glass, he says, with no ice.

Milano’s eyes widen. “It’s called On The Rocks!” he says, incredulously.

***

IMAGINE THIS: You’re on a plane from Dallas to New York. You’ve ordered a cocktail – not the standard one-and-one mixed drink, like a gin and tonic or a whiskey and coke – but an actual cocktail. Maybe it’s a Mai Tai, or a Cosmopolitan. The flight attendant shows up and cracks open a 100-milliliter bottle, drops a napkin on your tray and a cup with a scoop of ice. Then you’re handed the bottle, to dispense as you please.

“It’s just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

This is what Rocco Milano has been up to.

While a bottled cocktail can’t fully match the punch and zip of one freshly made, OTR’s concoctions taste remarkably like the real deal – a threshold the team has worked hard to meet. Though the airline dream is still just that, it’s one the OTR team hopes to make a reality, as early as this year, having been in talks, they say, with Hawaiian, Alaska and Virgin Airlines.

The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)

The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)

Airline cocktails are no rye-in-the-sky illusion, though it’s still relatively uncharted territory: In 2014, Virgin tapped Austin Cocktails’ low-cal “Vodka Cucumber Mojito;” more interestingly, Alaska Airlines teamed with Seattle-based Sun Liquor to let passengers make cocktails at their seats using Sun spirits and recipes (a squeeze of lime, a bit of vodka and a pour of ginger ale, and voila! You sort of have a Moscow Mule).

Bottled cocktails are further out of the gate, though quality varies widely. Acclaimed Chicago barman Charles Joly has been producing his Canada-based Crafthouse line – which also scored well in San Francisco – since 2013. There are others sprinkled around the U.S., and around the world. But no other brand in the category did as well in this year’s San Francisco competition as OTR, which won a third of all medals given and was the only U.S.-based company to take gold.

The OTR brand features three cocktail lines – a signature line with classics like the Margarita and Cosmo; a tropical line sporting rummy drinks old and new; and a craft line which “is where we get really weird and esoteric,” Milano says. That category includes the Smoking Pepper, which fans of Milano might recall from Private/Social as the drink actually served in a hollowed-out bell pepper; Milano has recreated a bottled version.

The team's Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR's "crowd-pleaser"

The team’s Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR’s “crowd-pleaser”

While their ingredients don’t necessarily mirror fresh cocktails (to account for items, like juices, with a short shelf life), OTR’s drinks are nonetheless all-natural, with no preservatives, additives or artificial flavors. All are either 20 or 35 percent alcohol, using real spirits procured from bulk purveyors, whether whiskey, rum or barrel-aged gin.

Take the Spiced Pear cocktail. “There’s some amazing spiced pear in there, and some nice Darjeeling tea,” Milano says. “It’s done with the barrel-aged London Dry gin, so you’re gonna get some cool wood notes, but it’s still gin. The acid is Meyer lemon, which just adds a beautiful pop to it, and then a little bit of allspice.”

The Rye Old Fashioned is a standout – “pretty much our crowd-pleaser,” Halbert says. There’s a Moscow Mule, and a Daiquiri; a Mai Tai and a Blackberry Bramble.

The bottle’s logo design is a nod to its ice intentions, with the lower half of “OTR” submerged in illustrated cubes.

“And it’s the same regardless of who pours it,” Milano says. “Everything you need is in this drink.”

**

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be this way. The three had originally planned to focus on a fledgling distillery operation once Barter had closed. But as Virgin Airlines made its debut at Love Field in late 2014, a handful of Virgin execs came to Barter to celebrate. One of them, Milano says, told him something to the effect of, “These drinks are so good, I wish we could have them on our planes.”

“And Pat was like, `Well, shit – let’s put them in a bottle,’” Milano says. Not knowing how serious the execs were, they didn’t get their hopes up. “People say a lot of things,” Milano says.

Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR's cocktail creations. Here, Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR's offices.

Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR’s cocktail creations. Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR’s offices in December.

Months later, he says, the Virgin guys called to check in. That led to more serious talks, then intros to other airlines and a crash course in bottled-cocktail science. By last year’s end they’d invested half a million into the venture, mostly on inventory and legal and consultant fees, and crafted close to 40 different cocktails.

At the time, they had 90,000 200-milliliter bottles sitting in a warehouse, with 300,000 half that size on the way. The bottles conform to federally approved sizes for alcohol sales; meanwhile, some cocktails had to contain particular ingredients to fit official government definitions. For example, according to the feds, a Margarita must include triple sec, and OTR’s Rye Old-Fashioned is described as such because the government’s definition of the classic drink calls for bourbon.

The group’s office, near Love Field, evokes a cohabitation of chemistry grad students who inherited their parents’ excess furniture. Remnants of Private/Social and Barter comprise the minimal décor or lie strewn throughout – the hanging wicker chairs, the randy sofa pillows, the curtain of metal string that once separated P/S’ bar from the dining area. “We obviously didn’t spend any money on the finish-out,” Halbert laughs.

On a typical day, the heavy-duty table at center is slathered with bottles, beakers, notebooks and vintage cocktail tomes. “We have graduated cylinders, pipettes, even scales that measure to 1/16 of a gram,” Milano says.

And the nearby fridge is filled not with beer and lunchmeats but scores of bottles spanning a range of concentrated flavors. “You can get flavors of anything,” Milano says. There’s butter, truffle, lemon zest, even something called cloud. Not all of it is good. They went through 60 flavors of lime before finding one they liked.

"Just crack and pour," Milano says. "That's the beauty of OTR, brother."

“Just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

Their bottled Margarita was the most challenging in terms of achieving the right balance of spirit, acidity and sweetness. It took a month to perfect. Whenever they thought they had it down, they’d run to Albertson’s, buy some limes and fire up a fresh drink for comparison’s sake.

“That was the standard,” Milano says. “I didn’t even have a juicer; I had an elbow. I wasn’t even gonna get pith off the lime, just boom – squeeze it in there. And if it didn’t compare to that, then we just started over.”

In the end, their bottled version turned out to be a mix of aged tequila, lime, orange and agave.

On the other hand, their Aviation took them all of 15 minutes. “That had everything to do with the violet extract,” Milano says. “But just like with a real Aviation, you can easily add too much and screw it up.”

Their experience with bars and restaurants has proved valuable. “We’re not guys in lab coats,” Milano says. “We know what a Margarita should taste like.”

Still, a guy in a lab coat comes in handy. To that end, OTR hired Illinois-based food science consultant Dave Wengerhof to assist them with the chemistry of it all. Their aim is to make the drinks taste freshly made even after sitting on a shelf for a year. They test their wares against heat and cold. “It’s not how it tastes when we make it,” Milano says. “It’s how it tastes when you drink it.”

Late last year, they took some of their bottled cocktails to Portland’s Clyde Common, base of renowned bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and ordered the actual versions to see how they measured up. They were especially pleased with their Aviation, and along with Milano’s Smoking Pepper, the drink was among OTR’s two gold-medal winners this week.

Their 11-medal showing was not necessarily what they expected so early on. When the results were announced, “the room just erupted,” Milano says. And they’re just getting started.

For OTR, it seems, the sky really may be the limit.

Cocktail of the Week: The Citrois is a three-ring circus of citrus

Ashley Williams, Boulevardier

Orange and spice and everything nice: That’s what cocktails of the week are made of.

COCKTAIL OF THE WEEK: Citrois (Boulevardier)

Boulevardier, in Oak Cliff, boasts a well-established tradition of supplementing its terrific bistro cuisine with a great selection of cocktails, including Eddie Eakin’s Steep Buzz – its Maker’s Mark version was the official cocktail of Chefs for Farmers 2013 – and its most impressive spin-off, last year’s autumn-spiced Buzz-Cat.

The bar at this Bishop Arts mainstay is deceptively small and craftily appointed, and it’s always worth checking out the daily mirror special for the staff’s latest whims, like this one from bartender Ashley Williams.

NAME: Citrois

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Orange spice

WHAT’S IN IT: Whiskey, dry curaçao, honey, orange acid, Chinese bitters, nutmeg

WHY IT WORKS: This is an orange-n-spice mashup, a mix of bourbon, citrus and cold-weather spices to usher you into spring. What sets this apart is orange acid, orange juice tarted up with citric and malic acid, an ingredient the restaurant always has on hand. Here it adds acidity and a nice shrub-like tang, negating the need to add lemon or lime to the drink so that the orange flavor can shine through.

Williams wanted to make a whiskey cocktail that wasn’t heavy on whiskey; in the Citrois, it serves as the sturdy undercarriage for a drink built like a sour (spirit, sweetener, the acidity of either lemon or lime and occasionally egg white). Instead, Williams began with the orange acid, which she correctly posited would pair well with honey and the cardamom-clove spice of Chinese bitters. After adding a splash of curacao for a boost of booze and even more orange flavor, she kept groovin’ on that orange spice riff by topping the drink with orange oils and a shaving of nutmeg. The result: Orange-y goodness with an edge.

The name? It’s a blend of citrus and trois, the French word for three. With the French-inspired restaurant’s cocktail packing three expressions of orange, it seems tres apropos, non?

Cocktail of the Week: Filament’s Push It = real good

Filament

In the garden of gin and vermouth: Let Filament’s Push It tiptoe through your two lips.

COCKTAIL OF THE WEEK: Push It (Filament)

You may have heard about Filament, and by that I don’t mean the little thin fibers found in certain organic structures. No, this would be the new, industrial chic restaurant from FT-33 chef/owner Matt McCallister in Deep Ellum that’s garnered wide acclaim, including a glowing, four-star review from The Dallas Morning News’ Leslie Brenner.

The cocktails at Filament are well conceived and solid across the board, but for me the star of the bunch is this festive refresher from beverage program manager Seth Brammer.

NAME: Push It

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Flowers

WHAT’S IN IT: Gin, Cocchi Rosa, citrus, pink peppercorn, sea salt

WHY IT WORKS: Cocchi Rosa, the lush and rosy vermouth variation from the fine folks at Cocchi, is one of the best things you’ll ever put in your mouth. Flowery and fruity with the slightest hint of bitter, it’s a sensational sipper on its own; go get yourself a bottle right this minute. I’ll wait.

Okay, so: In Filament’s Push It, the Cocchi Rosa is subtly supported by gin’s botanical notes with a splash of lemon to round it out. Served in a Collins glass with floating peppercorns and a rim of fine sea salt, it’s playful and spontaneous, and while it’s beautiful to look at, those little pink globules are more than decorative, adding a floral pop of their own. The drink is served with a straw but I enjoy it most from the glass, where the random salt-and-pepper mix unleashes a tango on your tongue. Basically, if Tom Collins and sangria had a little rendezvous in the garden, this is what would happen. Enjoy.

Ramen, curry and Japanese-style cocktails await you at Industry Alley’s pop-up izakaya

Industry Alley

A sampling of Sunday’s shochu-fueled libations. (Justin Holt photo)

You don’t have to go all to Japan to find an izakaya, a gastropub-like gathering spot for those who love to drink shochu, the country’s national spirit. At least not this Sunday, when Dallas’ Industry Alley, Charlie Papaceno’s chill hang in the Cedars neighborhood, becomes a pop-up izakaya for the night.

Go get skewered.

Go get skewered. (Steel Wright photo)

It’s all part of the bar’s “1st Sunday Soiree,” a recently launched series of evenings featuring guest chefs and their gustatory goodies. The series kicked off last month with Small Brewpub’s Misti Norris, whose creative consumables were to die for; Justin Holt, sous chef at Lucia, will bust out an array of ramen, yakitori skewers and the Japanese delight known as Battleship Curry. The fare is cash only, with prices running from $2 to $10 from 8 p.m. until the food runs out. Try to remain civilized.

This time around, bar manager Mike Steele is getting into the fun, rounding out the izakaya theme with a mix of cocktails featuring shochu, a low-proof liquor distilled from stuff like rice, barley or sweet potatoes. As I wrote in The Dallas Morning News, it’s light and earthy, like a hoppy green tea.

industry Alley

Steele at work at Industry Alley.

In Japan, shochu is the featured spirit at izakayas, which evolved from sake shops that began adding seating so people could stay a while. While they still feature sake, beer, wine and whiskey, shochu is still the foundation; at 50-proof, it’s not as strong as most spirits but still brawnier than wine. Izakaya-style bars featuring American-oriented cocktails have blossomed throughout the country.

Steele and guest bartender Trina Nishimura — the two were among the original crew at Cedars Social, the influential craft-cocktail bar just down the street — will be serving up a mix of izakaya-style cocktails evoking both Japanese-style drinks (think low-proof) and cocktails adhering more to a Western philosophy. They’ll use ingredients like yuzu and matcha green tea syrup and stick to two kinds of shochu, one made from barley and the other from white sweet potatoes specifically produced for shochu. “Once you get that third or fourth sip and that shochu gets on the palate, then these other flavor profiles start coming through,” Steele says.

POP-UP IZAKAYA AT INDUSTRY ALLEY, 1713 S. Lamar, Dallas. Food is cash only. Starting at 8 p.m. until the food runs out.