Step past the industrial park-like façade of 4 Kahunas in Arlington and you’ll find yourself in the likes of something the Dallas-Fort Worth area hasn’t had in some time: A real live tiki joint, one that even the most ardent tikiphile can enjoy.
“I never thought I’d work in a place where patrons were battling with little pirate ships and shark mouths,” said bar manager Brad Bowden of one evening’s crowd. “They were like little kids.“
With a four-page tiki drink menu backed by a thatched-roof bar, island-inspired wall art and a soundtrack infused with surf and exotica, 4 Kahunas embraces the tiki aesthetic with a fervor not seen in DFW since the days of Trader Vic’s.
Tiki-philes know that its culture extends far beyond cocktails, but ever since Vic’s sailed off into the horizon, those who’ve carry a torch for tiki have only marginally seen their daiquiri dreams fulfilled, from Proper’s ongoing three-month “tiki pop-up” in Fort Worth to, in Dallas, a short-lived tiki reboot of Sunset Lounge in 2013 and the confused clubbiness of Pilikia.
Otherwise, tiki has been relegated to a random once-a-week or off-menu exercise, with its fruity coconut libations periodically surfacing at places like Lower Greenville’s Rapscallion, East Dallas’ Lounge Here and The People’s Last Stand in Mockingbird Station.
Now, in a budding commercial complex behind a stretch of Division Street car dealerships in Arlington, 4 Kahunas – which marked its grand opening on Sunday – has planted its tiki flag, with a modest but lovingly appointed space with a half-dozen or so stools at the bar, a couple of high-tops and several large booths.
“I’ve had more people ask for Singapore Slings here in Arlington than I ever did in Dallas,” Bowden says – and the tiki classic isn’t even on the menu. “I had no idea there was so much interest in the Mid Cities.”
Among the drink’s fans is Marc Davis, a Hawaiian-born Filipino/Pacific-Islander who runs a local food truck called Smoke and Pickle. Having stumbled onto 4 Kahunas while seeking a parking spot at Arlington’s 4thof July celebration, he was suddenly gripped by memories of his island upbringing and his dad’s love for Singapore Slings and Marlboros. “I like the low-key vibe,” he says.
Tiki’s laid-back Polynesian flavor flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, with Trader Vic’s and its Zombies and Mai Tais leading the way. Though the trend would fizzle within a few decades, the ongoing re-emergence of craft cocktails revived interest in its tropical tipples, with places like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and PKNY in New York among the first to resuscitate its rummy riches.
Several years ago, on a visit to Vegas,4 Kahunas co-owners J.P. Hunter and Chris Powell visited the venerable Frankie’s Tiki Room, and it was enough to revive Hunter’s California childhood memories – the L.A. beaches, the plastic monkey cocktail garnishes his mom would give him off her drinks.
Hunter, a University of Texas-Arlington grad nearing retirement in the construction business in Houston, was already eyeing a third act. Why not do something he really enjoyed? He and Powell recruited two other college friends as investors, their four caricatured faces now represented by large carved wooden tiki heads behind the bar.
“Our only missing link was a bar manager,” Hunter says. “And lo and behold, there’s Brad.”
Bowden, already spinning tiki classics and variations at Lounge Here in East Dallas, was more than ready to crank out Painkillers and Headhunters (as well as my personal tiki favorite, the flaming-lime-boat-topped Jet Pilot). With Bowden on board, 4 Kahunas quietly opened on June 9, but it wasn’t long before word spread among fanatical tikiphiles, never mind the out-of-the-way location.
“We’ve already had people coming in from Chicago, Atlanta, Florida,” Hunter says.
It’s a decidedly unchain-y place in a bar-and-grill-leaning city that Hunter says finally has greater ambitions – and affordable Arlington represented a chance to be part of a scene that’s just starting to grow. Says Hunter: “The train is just leaving the station.”
Hey, guys! It’s more than a hundred degrees outside. And with triple-digit temps looming the rest of the week, we’re officially in the thick of the summer, the part where even the diehards who insist they love North Texas summers crave cold showers, whip out their heat shields and seek shelter from that infernal orb in the sky.
Chances are they, like the rest of us, yearn for brisk and brawny adult beverages, and lucky for everyone involved, the bartenders of Dallas-Fort Worth have got this need covered. From cool afternoon refreshers to evening energizers, here are six DFW cocktails to get you through the rest of the sweltering season.
CARDAMOM LIMEADE, Zatar, Deep Ellum
Zatar’s Cardamom Limeade is a simple and perfect antidote to a stiflingly hot afternoon, and if it were any more friendly you might get suspicious.
A blend of gin, lime, soda and cardamom bitters, it’s a no-fuss cooler with exotic flavor and I would gladly drink these well into a summer night were it not for the fact that there’s so many other great drinks out there.
CARD SHARK, Billy Can Can, Victory Park
When it’s this hot, one word comes to mind: Slushie. My friends, Billy Can Can will hook you up. The mythical journey of this mysterious man of the West is chronicled in the cocktail lineup at this newly opened establishment in Victory Park, and the Card Shark sits near the end of that trail. A frozen variation of the classic Queen’s Park Swizzle — a Trinidadian mix of rum, lime, sugar, mint and bitters — it’s served up in a glass boot, so despite the drink’s name, the only thing you’ll need to worry about with this Card Shark is tipping it over.
MANGO LASSIE, Parliament, Uptown
Parliament’s Jesse Powell was introduced to the traditional Indian mango milkshake during a recent visit to Pub Royale, an Anglo-Indian style tavern in Chicago.
Savoring its mix of yogurt, mango, milk and sugar, he naturally wondered — as he often does, when it comes to these things — how he could translate its pleasures into a cocktail. He structured its viscous, sour-sweet depths on a dark rum foundation, garnishing the Creamsicle-orange drink with cool mint and a clever dash of Mexican tajin, the chili powder that often graces that country’s mango street snacks. Complete with crushed ice, it’s one of the tastiest summer cocktails you’ll ever have.
HER NAME IS HAZEL, ABV Lounge, Lower Greenville
The Pimm’s Cup is the seasonal warm-weather classic, and ABV Lounge’s Christian Rodriguez has added ginger and spice and everything nice, by which I mean gin.
For the summer, Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur, cucumber and lemon have welcomed saucy Allspice Dram, the bite of ginger syrup and Aviation gin over to their house and hey, it’s everybody into the pool.
GRITO!, The People’s Last Stand, Mockingbird Station
Finish your night with this spicy number, one that might have you aay-yai-yai-ing like a joyful mariachi — the sound of which the drink’s name recalls.
The first of several concoctions Henry Mendoza of The People’s Last Stand has devised in tribute to Pixar’s Coco, it’s a cool but fiery mix of smoky mezcal, peppercorn syrup, agave, sage and summery bitters. The pachanga-in-your-mouth mix of pepper and citrus/chamomile-heavy “Boston Bittahs” is what makes this one shine. Bring on the sequel!
At Hide in Deep Ellum, the Green Tara is a lovely, lemonade-hued cocktail, dressed with dehydrated citrus and an eye-catching yellow bud that looks like a little knit gumdrop.
The drink – a vodka-based number flaunting pear, jasmine green tea, vanilla bean, lime and lemon – is tart, crisp and refreshing, with soft, herbal notes. But take a crunch of that fuzzy little bud and within seconds, your mouth lights up like a state fair midway.
And, notes bar director Scott Jenkins, “it totally changes the dynamics of the drink.”
The Brazilian jambu goes by many names, but here in the U.S., it’s most commonly known as the buzz button. The flowering part of an herb known as Acmella oleracea, it’s less known for its looks than its effects on the palate, caused by the release of a natural chemical compound called spilanthol.
“It’s like putting a nine-volt battery on your tongue,” says bartender Spencer Shelton of Ruins in Deep Ellum, which uses buzz buttons – referred to on the menu as “Brazilian bud” – in Armando Guillen’s appropriately named Cojones! My Tongue! “It’s kind of Pop-Rock-y.”
The bud’s initial taste is grassy, almost straw-like, before the electricity kicks in – a hint of sour as it prompts salivation, then a prolonged carbonated tingling on the tip of your tongue. The sensation is almost numbing. “There’s a slight analgesic quality to it,” Hide’s Jenkins says.
And it’s one more way to perk up the cocktail experience. The first time I ever encountered one was in 2012 in Las Vegas, where a buzz button graced an Asian-influenced Margarita variation at The Chandelier Bar at The Cosmopolitan. Guests were urged to drink half the cocktail before eating the bud to experience the drink’s altered state: The tingle on the tongue lent a jolt of effervescence.
At Hide, the Green Tara starts with a burst of green tea and citrus, followed by the soft sweetness of pear. A bite of buzz button bumps up the drink’s floral components, sweetens the citrus and creates a bubbly sensation as you drink.
I also saved a bite of buzz button to try with Hide’s tequila-based Yellow Belly, which features yellow bell pepper, Yellow Chartreuse, lemongrass and coriander; it beautifully boosted the pepper’s sweet, vegetal brightness.
In a way, the buzz button experience is a micro version of the flavor tripping parties that were trendy a decade ago, where people gathered to chomp on miracle fruit berries and then marvel at how Tabasco suddenly tasted like doughnut glaze or cheap tequila like, well, really awesome tequila.
Bartenders say jambu’s sensation works best with citrus and clear spirits like gin, vodka and tequila, “really any kind of patio drink,” Ruins’ Shelton says. “It’s mouthwatering and refreshing. It just begs you to drink more.”
Several years ago, when Shelton worked at Bolsa, near Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District, he and then-bar manager Kyle Hilla were researching herbs when they came across jambu.
Curious, they turned to Cynthia Mulcahy of Mulcahy Farms, who’s grown herbs and edible flowers for Bolsa for years. “She was pretty much our personal botanist,” Shelton says.
As it turned out, Mulcahy was already familiar with the plant, having traveled to Brazil annually for 15 years. “It’s something you find in Rio de Janeiro and other places,” she says. “They have herb farms in the hills that ring the city. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. It’s like the Italian countryside.”
Mulcahy started growing buzz buttons for Bolsa, where Shelton and Hill – now beverage director for the Statler Hotel – used them on drinks and randomly handed them out to unsuspecting patrons to see their reaction.
“Sometimes people freak out,” Shelton says. “Everything from curse words to just saying, ‘Ow!’ It’s one of a kind, and you don’t expect it. It’s just fun, that’s my favorite thing about it.”
If you’re looking for somewhere to mark Cinco de Mayo, you could do worse than Dallas’ West End, where the day happens to coincide with Dallas Fest, the neighborhood’s annual showcase of artists, musicians, brew masters and chefs.
You’ll find plenty to drink at the outdoor extravaganza, but you aren’t likely to guzzle anything more guapo than the Tex Mex at Y.O. Ranch Steakhouse, a nod to a holiday that isn’t authentically feted much anywhere in Mexico except in Puebla, the site of the battle it commemorates.
Here in the U.S., though, Cinco de Mayo has become a convenient excuse to swill, even if nobody knows why – and to market drinks to said imbibers, which explains how, when Y.O.’s s front-of-the-house manager Nicole Hester realized the double dose of action going on in the area, suddenly had the idea for a drink with a red, white and green ice cube.
Hester’s inspiration came from a Pride Day cocktail she’d seen at a bar in New York City, where she worked before returning to Dallas. That drink, she explained to her fellow Y.O. managers, featured an ice cube layered in the colors of the LGBT movement’s rainbow flag. “I said, this should be easier because it’s only three colors instead of seven,” Hester explained.
Given the owner’s go-ahead, Hester set to work developing the tri-color Cinco de Mayo cube as well as a Margarita-like drink to put it in. Her first version, using pureed jalapeno and water for the green and Godiva white chocolate liqueur for the white, was too spicy – and as the cube melted, white flakes developed in the drink. Not a good look. “I had to start all over,” she said.
She tried a new version, again freezing the bottom layer before adding the middle one, and again before adding the top. This time, she infused the tequila with jalapeno for heat, crafting the cube with strata of pureed mint, coconut milk and a strawberry/prickly pear mixer boosted with pomegranate.
The finishing touch to the drink – a mix of house tequila, Cointreau, lemon, agave and soda – is a Mexican flag and a rim of red, white and green colored sugars. Its orange-y charm is drinkable enough, and it’s best swigged through the straw; consider the rim purely decorative, since the drink is already sweet.
It’s a fiesta in a glass – and while the $10 drink will be served only on the patio during Saturday’s Dallas Fest, it’s also Y.O. Ranch Steakhouse’s cocktail of the month, meaning you can throw this Tex-Mex party in your mouth all May long.
Y.O. Ranch Steakhouse, 702 Ross Ave., Dallas. 214-744-3287.
It’s probably fair to say that no other craft-cocktail bar in America has marked Arbor Day in the way that Parliament did last night in Dallas.
That’s because the Uptown bar’s celebration started on Arbor Day Eve, which you might not know was a thing, because it really wasn’t until Parliament somehow made it one. With Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s able cocktail crew managing a typical cacophony of drink orders, you could barely see the chorus for the trees towering over the bartenders like a rowdy Rainforest Café.
Leaf it — ahem — to Campbell, whose flair for showmanship has made him one of the most familiar bartenders in the city. The vest and fedora might be gone, but as he showed Thursday night, he’s still willing to clamber atop the bar top to lead a New-Year’s-Eve-like countdown through the branches as the seconds ticked toward midnight.
“Happy Arbor Day!” everyone shouted in unison, a little unsure whether to take it all seriously or not. (A few found it hard to believe the trees were even real.) And admittedly, Arbor Day, a day on which Americans are encouraged to plant trees, might be the nation’s most unsung holiday.
Bartender Jesse Powell had been a little uncertain himself a couple of days earlier when Campbell informed him that he had bought a pair of 13-foot-tall red oaks to mark the day. “It’s such an underappreciated holiday,” Campbell observed.
“Then Lucky was, like, ‘Can you go buy 200 coconuts?’ ” Powell said, and the next thing he knew he was marching out of H Mart with two shopping carts full of them.
A lineup of tree-themed drink specials featuring the aptly chosen Greenhouse Gin was designed for the occasion, including the Cocos Nucifara, a mix of gin, fruit and coconut water served in a coconut. That joined a pair of other delicious cocktails including the lychee-pearl-topped Weeping Willow and There’s A Tree In Your Bar?, enhanced with turmeric.
And on the fly, Powell even renamed the bar’s popular smoke-infused Old Fashioned variation the “Forest Fire” for the night.
The trees, adorned with glowing green rings, were positioned behind the bar so that the crew could maneuver beneath the canopy, though Powell finally tired of bumping his fedora and ultimately hung it on a branch.
When the night was over, there naturally remained one challenge: What to do with the trees.
With that, Campbell and Powell got to the roots of the holiday: On Friday, they procured a trailer and one of the trees was taken to and planted in a location undisclosed “for his safety and well-being,” Powell said. “We look forward to taking care of him and watching him grow…. We really hope he gets along with the other trees.”
If there’s one thing that unites the majority of the globe, it’s the sweet relief and refreshment that many of us find at day’s end in a cocktail glass. Now, all-world barman Alex Fletcher is summoning the spirits of the earth to Deep Ellum’s Trick Pony, where starting Tuesday (today) and for the next few months, you can sample international sips one drink at a time.
The drinks of “Around the World in 80 Cocktails” — a nod to the Jules Verne novel, made into its best-known movie version in 1956 — will be rolled out weekly in groups of six. One of them will get a social-media push daily, but all six will be available during the week. “It’s a trip all over the world,” says Fletcher, who handles operations for the group that owns Harlowe MXM, Breadwinners and Henry’s Majestic.
Some familiar names dot the overall list, standards like Peru’s Pisco Sour, France’s French 75, Tahiti’s Mai Tai and Brazil’s Caipirinha. But there’s also a sake martini from Japan, a rum-based drink called a “Hot Dog” from Martinique and the Suffering Bastard, a gin-and-brandy concoction from Egypt.
The lineup represents nations from Iceland and Indonesia to Uruguay and the Netherlands. The Kenya-based Dawa is a Caipirinha-like cocktail that involves muddling lemons with cream honey. Vietnam’s Fishy Surprise supplements whiskey and Drambuie with a bit of fish sauce.
“There’s some cool stuff from Thailand that I found,” Fletcher says, such as the Siam Sunrays, which flavors up vodka with ginger, lemongrass and Thai chili. “I tried to find places where people didn’t know cocktails existed.”
In addition to the sake martini and Caipirinha, this week will kick off with Spain’s cava-infused Agua de Valencia, Hollywood’s bourbon-based Brown Derby, a rhubarb fizz from Australia and the Jamaican Planter’s Punch.
Coming off Trick Pony’s last special program – a lineup of cheesy 1980s drinks – Fletcher’s bar team was jazzed but wanted something more challenging. The fact that Fletcher threw 80 cocktails at them may have made them think twice.
He says he first got the idea while perusing the web site of Hendricks Gin, a brand given to fanciful, old-timey imagery. The hot-air balloons reminded him of the 1956 movie and then, a book called “Around the World in 80 Cocktails” was published last fall.
He’s even had a 5-foot-by-10-foot world map produced for the occasion, which ultimately will be smattered with travelogue-style Polaroids of each drink.
All are established cocktails. “Why reinvent the wheel?” he says. “Why not showcase what’s going on around the world?”
He did have to ignore some of his discoveries because the ingredients weren’t available locally, while other specifics, like measurements, were inexact or described in old terms such as “a hogshead of lime juice.”
“I thought, ‘How am I going to make this into something my bartenders will understand?’” he says. “What does that mean in ounces?”
The drinks aren’t necessarily arranged by region; Fletcher says he tried not to bunch similar flavor profiles together to avoid “a palate blowout.”
One drink he found from Hong Kong is traditionally served punch-style in, literally, half a globe – which makes sense because it involves a dozen ingredients.
“I saw that, and I’m, like, ‘I’m in,’” Fletcher says. And he may or may not have ordered some globes for the event, which means you might not only be able to drink in the world, but drink from the world too.
At The Theodore, at NorthPark Center, bar manager Hugo Osorio enjoys making a good egg white cocktail – from the time and attention it takes to its silky, foam-layered result. But while some of his regulars like to try new things, “when I give them a Whiskey Sour, they’re like, ‘I can’t. I’m vegan.’”
Then he discovered aquafaba, an ingredient that has vegans swooning over its accessibility and versatility. A portmanteau combining the Latin words for bean (faba) and water (aqua) it’s, as Bon Appetitput it, “the translucent viscous goop you probably rinse down the drain when you open a can of chickpeas.”
In other words: Chickpea water. Now, in Dallas and around the country, aquafaba is becoming part of the bartender’s toolkit – and while patrons might struggle to tell the difference, bartenders say it offers distinct advantages over egg white.
As detailed on his site Aquafaba.com, it was Indiana software engineer Goose Wohlt who sparked aquafaba’s popularity in 2015 after finding a French chef’s video showing how the liquid from beans, or hearts of palm, could be used, in tandem with starch and gum, to make a vegan meringue for a chocolate mousse. After some experimentation, he found that chickpea liquid could be used all by itself to achieve the same effect – and posted his discovery to a popular vegan Facebook page.
It’s since spawned a fervent vegan following and a persnickety, fast-growing Facebook group with 83,000 members who share and celebrate aquafaba’s culinary possibilities. “Please don’t thank us for adding you to the group!” reads a post pinned to the top of the group’s discussion page. “Posts like that will be deleted, and a comment on this post only clutters up the questions people may have. Thank us by diving into your kitchens and creating something AQUAFABULOUS!”
At Uptown’s Standard Pour, assistant manager Reid Lewis came across aquafaba after feeling compelled to seek egg-white alternatives “with the surge of veganism and healthy eating and people being conscious of all that.”
She started using it for Whiskey Sours and even the painstaking Ramos Gin Fizz, but it didn’t actually appear on a menu until By Any Other Name, a New Year’s Eve menu option including gin, sweet vermouth, lemon and pink peppercorn.
At Shoals Sound & Service in Deep Ellum, bar manager Omar Yeefoon, who is vegan, has made aquafaba a firmly embedded feature at his classic-cocktails-minded bar. There, it helps make the Pisco Sour – anchored by gorgeously floral Caravedo Torontel pisco – a silky swig of beauty.
In cooking, egg whites are added for texture, generating a mix of airiness and lift that enhance the dish. In cocktails, they produce a layer of velvety foam that’s visually striking and soft on the palate, one that can be garnished with a splash or swirl of bitters, or a sprig of thyme. “The fat from eggs soaks up flavor,” Yeefoon says. “That makes a Sour (cocktail) soft and nice.”
But egg white has its disadvantages, and not just for vegans: One shortcoming is a faint, off-putting aroma that some compare to wet metal or even wet dog. That’s easily counteracted with a splash of aromatic bitters, or an herb or floral garnish, since the foam layer doubles as a convenient canvas. It’s a happy union.
Aquafaba, like egg white, acts as an emulsifier and a foaming agent. But bartenders say it freezes well and offers better consistency and efficiency without altering the taste of the drink.
“It’s almost hard to tell the difference,” Yeefoon says. “The texture is nice, without that fat blocking a lot of the sharp edges. It doesn’t interfere with the other ingredients as much as egg white does, either.”
With an egg-white cocktail, bartenders start with a “dry shake,” shaking the egg white and ingredients without ice to start the emulsification. Some begin by shaking the egg white solo, then adding the other ingredients, except for the ice, and shaking again. Then the ice is added for a final shake before straining into a glass.
With aquafaba, the process is much the same. Osorio actually skips the dry shake altogether, shaking the aquafaba, ice and other ingredients simultaneously. And most say the process doesn’t take as long as egg white, using anywhere from one-third to half an ounce of aquafaba per drink.
Christine Farkas of Canada-based IHeartFood consulting uses aquafaba mostly for cooking, but she’s dabbled in cocktails as well, preparing her foam with sugar before combining it with the rest of the ingredients for shaking. (Her recipe for a Pineapple Pisco Sour, which includes a lime aquafaba preparation, can be found here.)
“When it comes to aquafaba, you can’t over whip it,” says Farkas, who I met at last year’s International Association of Culinary Professionals’ annual conference. “You can whip it up; it has structure. And if it deflates, you just whip it up again. It’s one of those cost-effective ingredients, a byproduct we would normally be tossing out.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that a chickpea salad sandwich appeared on Shoals’ minimalist menu soon after Yeefoon started using aquafaba. While he prefers canned chickpea water (for the preservatives), Osorio of The Theodore, which also offers hummus, procured raw chickpeas from the kitchen and let them sit in water for a couple of days, oozing proteins, to make his own.
Reaction has been positive. “People find it really cool that you can work around their lifestyle,” Lewis says. “It’s nice to have that flexibility behind the bar and make sure there’s something for everybody.”
Both Standard Pour and The Thedore plan to add aquafaba cocktails to their spring menus. Osorio’s, shown above, features mezcal, lime, agave syrup, Yellow Chartreuse, orange blossom water, tarragon and a few dashes of a beet-ginger cordial.
“People are really surprised,” Osorio says. “Especially the vegans. Because when you make things their way, they get excited.”
Here’s how to make a Whiskey Sour using aquafaba:
2 oz bourbon
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
1/3 to 1/2 oz aquafaba
Add ingredients to a shaker with ice and shake vigorously for about 30 seconds. Strain into a glass (iced, if you prefer) and garnish with half an orange wheel and a maraschino cherry.
If you like dinner with your tequila, then boy, does Henry’s Majestic have a treat for you: On Wednesday, Jan. 24, the Knox-Henderson mainstay will present “A Majestic Agave Dinner” – a four-course dinner featuring dishes paired with varying expressions of Avion tequila.
Expect cocktails such as a prickly pear Paloma or a tequila Old Fashioned spiced up with a pistachio orgeat to accompany delicious sounding dishes like a curried lamb empanada or a cocoa-crusted venison.
As 2017 got underway, it wasn’t insane to wonder if the local craft-cocktail scene had lost its mojo despite its expanding influence around the region. Sure, Hide had just opened in Deep Ellum, with its fancypants behind-the-scenes gadgetry elevating its ambitious alchemy, and well-etched torchbearers like The Standard Pour, Atwater Alley, Bolsa, Jettison, Black Swan, Bowen House, Thompson’s Bookstore and Industry Alley (to name a few) powered on, doing what they do.
But even as cocktail lists sprouted like bluebonnets throughout North Texas – in Frisco, in Lewisville, in Trophy Club, for god’s sakes – too many of the area’s proliferating iterations emerged uninspired or even unhinged, seemingly designed more to ride the trend than to propel it forward. Overall, creativity seemed stifled by malaise. Had things finally peaked?
Then July brought Shoals, the soulful, back-to-basics cocktail lounge in Deep Ellum, and Fair Park’s Las Almas Rotas, whose heartfelt ambience admirably sated Dallas’ growing thirst for mezcal. And as the year pulled to a close, Bourbon & Banter appeared down the rabbit hole of downtown Dallas’ Statler Hotel, sprinkling its craft savvy with photogenic dashes of Wonderland whimsy.
DFW did get its groove back, and then decided to make a night of it. In 2017, a wave of low-proof cocktails met the need for an evening’s worth of social nectars without the boozy kick that might send one home early. Low-alcohol cocktails dotted menus at Hide, Uptown’s Standard Pour and sherry-focused Jettison in Oak Cliff; Yayoi, in Plano, made its Wasabi Bloody Mary with Japanese shochu, while Bourbon & Banter’s excellent Undercut put Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur, in the spotlight.
Hide also blazed tasty trails with savory cocktails, employing mushrooms in its magnificent Champion, bananas in its Tally Man and chicken stock in – well, more on that later. At Bourbon & Banter, Kyle Hilla topped two of his stellar cocktails with small spoonfuls of savory goodness. Meanwhile, green chilies surfaced as a popular flavor as bartenders toyed with a pair of newly arrived ingredients, poblano-driven Ancho Reyes Verde and St. George’s multi-peppered green chile vodka; elsewhere, Hatch green chile syrup ignited Skyler Chastain’s Santa Fe Smash at The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station.
Ever-flourishing agave-based spirits drove some of the year’s best drinks. Smoky mezcal danced with Ancho Reyes Verde and lemon liqueur in Brittany Day’s Prolific Poet at Thompson’s Bookstore in Fort Worth; at High and Tight in Deep Ellum, it partnered with cinnamon-infused whiskey to amp up the smoke in Austin Gurley’s solid Smokey Bandit. And at East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Brad Bowden flexed aged tequila’s guns in Dirty D’s Thang, his tribute to an aging dive-bar ladies man in long-ago New Orleans.
Gin sparkled in Sprezza’s Julieta in Oak Lawn, in George Kaiho’s Sylvan at Oak Cliff’s Jettison and in Chad Solomon’s remarkable Screwpine Fix at downtown’s Midnight Rambler, where it was infused with lemongrass and paired with Bolivian pisco. And Robbie Call used Gracias A Dios’ agave-based gin and his own vanilla-spiced tonic for a smoky Spanish Gin Tonic, a short-lived gem at since-shuttered Filament in Deep Ellum.
Finally, the force was strong in 2017’s classic covers, with solid spins on drinks like the Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Bijou, Last Word and Pina Colada. At Black Swan, Gabe Sanchez’s Calvados-anchored Sidecar was a thing of beauty; Scandinavian aquavit fancied up The Keeper’s gimlet in Plano; and at the Theodore in NorthPark Center, Hugo Osorio’s falernum-spiked Bee’s Knees and Big Stick Mojito, juiced up with raspberry coulis, were as pretty as they were delicious.
My tastes are my own, of course. I love the botanicals of gin and the smoke of mezcal, the warm comfort of whiskey and the bittersweet beauty of European amari; I’m drawn to flavor combinations that lure me to unfamiliar territory and drinks that go down like great train rides, where every ingredient is visible along the way.
Here were my 15 favorite cocktails of 2017.
LA JOYA (Jason Long, Abacus)
Tequila reposado, Green Chartreuse, sweet vermouth, Port, orange bitters
At this cozy upscale lounge welcoming patrons of the celebrated Knox-Henderson restaurant, Long’s agave-driven play on a classic Bijou (French for “jewel”) was a bouquet of caramel, grape-y sweetness. Eager to make a drink honoring a tequila-loving colleague, Long tinkered with the floral Bijou, subbing smooth, aged tequila for gin plus a touch of Port. The name is the classic’s Spanish translation and an equally perfect gift for somebody special.
DUE SOUTH (Jeremy Koeninger, Parliament)
Rum, coconut, pineapple, orange, jalapeno, nutmeg
At Parliament, Koeninger put a Texas spin on the tropical Painkiller, itself a spin on the Pina Colada. “I wanted something a little less tiki,” he says. “And being from Texas, I like the combination of spicy and sweet.” So he added jalapeno and called it the Due South for the happy coincidence that any south-of-the-border spirit works as well as rum – except for, apparently, cachaca. (What up, Brazil?) Pisco in particular is fantastic. As you might expect, it’s a great warm-weather refresher, with its creamy pineapple, cool citrus and nutty spice, with some lingering heat on the tongue to boot.
MAMBO MORADO (Jonathan Garcia, Jose)
Blueberry/lavender-infused sotol, sunflower seed orgeat, lime, Campari, Crème de Violette
The drinks at this Highland Park gem naturally lean agave, and Garcia drew upon a pisco-based concoction he’d made for a local competition and funked it up by subbing little-known sotol, distilled in Chihuahua from desert Spoon, an agave cousin. Hacienda de Chihuahua’s delicately smoky sotol gets the tiki snow cone treatment here, draped it in floral, fruity and slightly nutty tones with a splash of bitter Campari to rein in the sweetness.
A few years ago when Slater was helming the bar at Spoon (now closed), he wowed with an off-the-cuff, darkly bittersweet creation he ultimately named Blue Moon, and he’s been riffing on it ever since. Though he’s since left his brief post as bar director for the members-only club at Trinity Groves, his latest spin on the drink was a winner: Still mining the bitter mint depths of Fernet, it subbed blackberries for blue and a ginger-forward bitter liqueur for less aggressive Averna, taming Fernet’s harshness while retaining its flavor; gorgeous Amer Gingembre does the same with ginger. Think of the Malta as a boozy berry detox juice with a dollop of licorice-like sweetness.
It was actually Sam Gillespie of The Mitchell, in downtown Dallas, who recently introduced me to the notion of a Sazerac built on smoky mezcal rather than the classic rye or cognac. His simple switch of spirit was solid and satisfying – but then, the very next day, I happened to drop by the Theodore, the NorthPark Center lair where barman Hugo Osorio has been unspooling impressive off-menu creations in his spare time. When I asked for something new, he said: “How about a mezcal Sazerac?” Osorio made the drink his own by adding the wintry cinnamon spice of tiki bitters and replacing sugar with a bit of sweet tawny port, serving up a spectacular sipper for the season.
God bless Jesse Powell’s grandparents in small-town Osage County, Oklahoma, for supplying him with all the sarsaparilla sweets a little boy could eat, because otherwise we might never have had this bodacious burst of root beer candy in a glass. When Powell visited them again not so long ago, “they had the same exact candy, and I was like, I want to come back and make a cocktail like that.” The infused rum pairs with earthy fernet and cola to echo herbal vanilla root beer with a hint of licorice and a drink that makes you feel like a kid in a candy store.
WINNER WINNER (Scott Jenkins, Hide)
Ford’s gin, chicken broth, clarified lemon, thyme
Why did the imbiber cross the road? To get to this drink at Hide. Though the bar’s beverage director, Scott Jenkins, is a fan of savory cocktails, he knows consumers don’t always warm to the idea. But once the menu’s magnificent mushroom-driven Champion earned a following, he knew he had license to do more. One day, as he was looking for something to complement gin and thyme, a thought occurred: What about chicken stock? “I gave it a try,” he said, “and I was, like, yeah. It’s got that saltiness.” Before you pooh-pooh the idea, know that Brits drink something called a Bullshot, a Bloody Mary alter-ego mix of vodka and beef consommé. (Midnight Rambler’s Pho King Champ shot is not far off, either, with a little oloroso sherry thrown in.) In Jenkins’ yummy Winner Winner, the broth grows more robust as you drink – offering a much-needed remedy for flu season.
All the drinks at Brick and Bones are named for occasionally obscure cartoon characters, and this one pays homage to Speedy Gonzales’ acceleration-challenged cousin. While its namesake might be slow, this drink is a carefree rush of floral sweet with a dash of heat, with exuberant hibiscus the life of the party. With citrus-y blood orange liqueur and sweet amaretto, “it’s like a Margarita without the acid,” Cantu says.
At The Cedars Social, the pioneering craft-cocktail joint just south of downtown, bar manager Sturdivant is always up for a challenge. For a good while, the bar menu featured a terrific drink called the No. 4, a creation of former Tanqueray Gin rep Angus Winchester. “People would order it all the time,” Sturdivant says. Then, this year, “I was trying to impress a girl at the bar who ordered one, and I told her I could do one better.” His botanical re-do, poured over flamed floral Chartreuse, is somewhere between the original and the classic Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon and honey): On the palate, it’s candied lemon tailgated by a mambo of lush botanicals, aromatic sweet celery and a pleasant, lingering burn.
FLEUR DE FEU (Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour)
St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Ancho Reyes Verde, Angostura bitters, cream
Austin Millspaugh, you so cray. This creamy off-menu knockout at Uptown’s Standard Pour, with a name that means “flower of fire,” is a low-proof treat, a deceptively sweet drink that actually turns out to be more savory. After the first three ingredients are mixed and poured into a nifty Nick and Nora glass, Millspaugh tops it all with a thin layer of cream, then torches it for a burnt marshmallow effect and a stunning contrast between the foamy top and wine-clear body below. “You think it’s going to be sweet,” he says. “But your notions are debunked the second you sip it.” The creamy fats add texture and depth to a beautiful mix of floral and spicy flavors with smoky overtones.
A fan of the bitter spice turmeric, Hilla wanted to feature it in a cocktail at the speakeasy-style bar where each of his house cocktails features a little razzle-dazzle. He muddled actual turmeric root rather than using the familiar powder, but its tannic earthiness was too overwhelming for tequila, and smoky mezcal was too strong, so he went half and half and added bitter Suze for some botanicals. As with all the bar’s hairstyle-themed drinks, Hilla put some thought into the Rat Tail’s picture-perfect presentation, serving it in a capita and capping it with a spoonful of avocado, cilantro and Basque Espelette pepper, whose mix of flavors both complement and counter. Marked by turmeric’s orange-yellow hue, it drinks like an earthy, slightly bitter Margarita.
Texas this year saw the coming of Italicus, a lovely bergamot-forward liqueur from Italy, and in this low-proof libation it pairs with Suze, an equally lovely French gentian liqueur. Ruiz initially set out to produce a Suze “sour” – a category of cocktail built on spirit, citrus and sweetener –and when bar manager Scott Jenkins brought Italicus to the shelf, Ruiz had his tools in place. With a few tweaks brainstormed with his colleagues, Ruiz’s result is soft bitter orange: Bittersweet bergamot and sweet maple balance Suze’s earthy bitterness with the abundant citrus – hence the name – playing off the drink’s orange notes.
COLADA NO. 2 (Chad Yarbrough, Armoury)
Cachaca, lime, orgeat, soda, coconut balsamic
This tangy tiki tipple, an obvious nod to its classic predecessor, was conceived as Yarbrough was browsing 1890 Marketplace, the most excellent olive oil and vinegar shop that at the time had just opened a few blocks away on Main in Deep Ellum. Having discovered the shop’s coconut balsamic vinegar, “I tried it and I was, like, we have to do something with this,” he said. Thus was born the Colada No. 2, a sweet and nutty mouthparty tempered by a tantalizing tang. Tangs a lot, Mr. Yarbrough. Tangs a lot.
Nothing at Hide is simple. They just make it look that way. Mostly when you’re not looking, spirits are “milk washed” and relieved of their harshness, citrus juices are clarified for a pure veneer and soda and tonic water are eschewed in favor of a lighter-handed carbonating device. The radiant Delight – Jenkins’ low-proof, bittersweet ballet of Italian aperitifs tamed with soft grapefruit and elderflower – is perfectly crisp and flavorful, whirled in a Perlini device for a delicate fizz that curls up on the roof of your mouth like a cat settling onto a sunny windowsill.
For a time, LARK drifted into a bit of a tailspin, but with Trevino at the helm, the drinks, at least, have regained their footing. This was the finest of his new additions to the menu, a play on the Last Word – a classic which, full disclosure, I adore – that drinks like candied apricot in a glass. Trevino says when he first tasted the fruity, spicy notes in this American-oak-aged whiskey, part of Johnnie Walker’s Blenders’ Batch series, “I immediately thought of apricot,” he said. “We didn’t have anything on the menu that was like a Last Word, so I built it that way.” With whiskey standing in for gin, lemon for lime, Yellow Chartreuse for Green and apricot liqueur for maraschino, it’s a handsome, honey-gold humdinger with bold autumn flair.
NEW ORLEANS – The oversized bottle of Mandarine Napoleon, perched atop a pedestal, had gone unopened for 25 years when it arrived at New Orleans’ Napoleon House in July. Here, ambassadors of Belgium-based Mandarine Napoleon had chosen Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s largest annual gathering, to unveil a taste a quarter-century in the making. Because some things, you know, are worth waiting for.
Nearly 200 years ago, New Orleans’ mayor had offered this French Quarter residence as a refuge to exile-threatened General Napoleon; hence the name of the classic bar downstairs. Now, a small crowd swirled and sipped cocktails in anticipation of this unique aged offering of Napoleon’s treasured blend of cognac and mandarin orange liqueur.
At last, the cork was loosed and glasses were filled, in carefully measured amounts. The notes of sweet orange were exquisite – and the coterie cooed in excitement, aware that the experience was both rare and unrepeatable.
With Christmas just around the corner, makers of rare and vintage spirits are pimping their wares with the subtlety of Paul Revere on his midnight ride. But while few have the bling to splurge on these liquid unicorns– say, one of just 74 bottles of Bowmore 1966 Scotch (priced at $30,000) or even a more fathomable $400 bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label “Ghost and Rare” – last summer’s Tales festival offered the chance to try a few gems that would be soon available to the general public.
Along with the 25-year-old Mandarin Napoleon, there were vintage releases from London-based Last Drop Distillers – which, despite the name, is not actually a distillery. “We describe ourselves as the antique dealers of the spirits world,” said joint managing director Beanie Espey.
The intimate lunch tasting unfurled on the lively second floor of iconic French Quarter restaurant Galatoire’s, where Espey had brought along Last Drop’s two most recent releases, keeping them carefully at hand like a femme from a Bond film ferrying a briefcase full of jewels.
A decade ago, Espey’s father James and his business partner Tom Jago – creators of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Malibu Rum – realized there were prize liquids out there going unenjoyed, the forgotten or neglected creations of quality distilleries willing to pass them on to others for proper care. The two formed Last Drop Distillers to gather what rare rosebuds they could. “These whiskeys really shouldn’t exist,” Espey said. “They’re all happy accidents.”
In nine years, the company has launched six products, producing an exclusive 5,000 bottles presented in leather cases complete with a Last-Drop-monogrammed cork stopper. “We want to curate and collect the world’s finest spirits,” Espey said – and not just Scotch, either; cognac, rum and fortified wine are all in the works or under consideration.
As a dapper old gent marked his birthday a few tables away flanked by cackling ladies in fine hats, Espey poured a sample of Last Drop’s 50-year-old “double-matured” Scotch whisky, released in 2015. A blend of more than 50 malt and grain whiskies, the batch had been first aged in bourbon casks, intended to be marketed in Asia as a 30-year-old whisky. A portion, however, lived on to be transferred to oloroso sherry casks for two decades, forgotten in the Scottish lowlands – and then rediscovered, Last Drop says, at just the right moment for bottling.
Only 898 bottles had been produced, and few remain available; before us sat bottle No. 193. The 50-year-old whisky still packed a firm handshake, with notes of autumn fruit and spice.
Espey then gingerly poured a dollop of last year’s highly acclaimed release, Last Drop’s triple-distilled, 45-year-old 1971 Blended Scotch Whisky ($3,999), named Scotch Whisky Blend of the Year by Jim Murray in his 2017 Whisky Bible and still available at select retailers. The allotments were generous considering the bottles’ price tags, making them worthwhile gift splurges for big spenders. “That’s a hundred dollars in that glass,” Espey said.
Having first been aged in bourbon casks for 12 years, the blend had been moved to sherry casks for nine years before being returned to bourbon casks for 24 more restful years. Slightly nutty and fruity on the nose, its taste was smoky and subtle, with notes of dried apricot. “It’s a very classic 1970s blend,” Espey said. “It’s quieter, but it wins you over. It’s quite charming.”
Next up for Last Drop? A nearly 150-year-old Tawny Port.
A day earlier, a few dozen attendees had gathered in the naturally lit back room of Bevolo Gas & Electric Lights, a 72-year-old French Quarter fixture, for a preview of Hennessy’s Master Blend No. 2, a limited U.S.-only offering ($75 at Total Wine; also available at other retailers) that finally hit shelves in late October.
Renowned cognac authority Olivier Paultes, the brand’s 53-year-old director of distillation, explained how more than a decade ago, Hennessey launched the single-batch project in which eaux de vies, or unaged grape distillates, are aged 18 months in young French oak barrels before being moved to older ones — for a total aging of at least 10 years.
Along the way, the barrels are moved to damp or dry cellars, depending on the desired effect; each blend is bottled only when and if Hennessy feels it has something interesting to say, introduced to the world when deemed worthy. The wonderfully spicy Master’s Blend No. 1, released in 2016, was a blend of between 80 and 100 eaux de vies between 5 and 15 years old.
“Maybe (a particular blend) doesn’t have the profile of (traditional) Hennessy, but it has its own worthwhile notes,” said Jordan Bushell , the brand’s national ambassador. “Maybe we don’t do it one year. It’s all based on the grapes and how they speak to us. If they don’t tell an interesting story, there’s no point making a blend.”
Luckily for those gathered at Bevolo, Hennessy had indeed chosen to issue the series’ second release. Barely a handful of humans had sampled the Master’s Blend No. 2 before our group, only one of them unconnected to Hennessy. The 86-proof blend veered rye-like, spicy and bold and velvety, with notes of pepper, clove, nutmeg and licorice combining for an extended finish. An elixir made for sipping neat or on the rocks, the cognac is sold in a gorgeous, artist-designed bottle.
And once they’re gone, they’re gone. “You will never taste it again,” said Paultes, who became the youngest master blender in France when he was just 25. Or as Josh Hendrix, a Dallas-based Hennessy rep, puts it: “This is history in a bottle.”
Bushell, the brand’s national ambassador, said the single-batch project offers “freedom, in a way, to create something that’s just… a taste of the moment. And to not have to recreate it again. There’s that freedom of expression to show off cognac in a different way. It’s all about the celebration of the moment.”
At a time offering plenty of celebratory moments, it might be worth adding one of these sippers to your own collection – or wrapping one up to pass along the love.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Last Drop Distillery’s co-founder, James Espey, as David Espey.
Booze news and adventures in cocktailing, based In Dallas, Texas, USA. By Marc Ramirez, your humble scribe and boulevardier. All content and photos mine unless otherwise indicated. http://typewriterninja.com