The Singapore Sling: Two Dallas bars give the much-maligned drink a classic retelling

Over the years, the Singapore Sling came to be known as a tropical drink along the lines of this one from Dallas barman Lucky Campbell.

Over the years, the Singapore Sling came to be known as a tropical drink like this one from Dallas barman Lucky Campbell.  Its origins are nowhere as sweet — but arguably just as delicious.

The Singapore Sling is the Rashomon of cocktails: Everyone remembers it differently. Like a rumor that starts at one side of the table and wildly mutates by the time it comes back round again, it’s a tasty tale whose twists and turns vary depending on who’s doing the telling.

How is it still considered a classic?

Because despite its many tweaks – “The Singapore Sling has taken a lot of abuse over the years,” wrote tiki master Jeff Berry in his book Beachbum Berry Remixed – it’s managed to stay delicious no matter how it’s interpreted. Even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson considered it a favorite.

But somewhere along the line, the century-old drink attributed to bartender Ngiam Tong Boon of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel lost sight of its simpler beginnings, becoming a tropical mishmash of seven ingredients or more – and a headache for bartenders, which may be why you rarely see it on bar menus. “I remember Sasha (Petraske, founder of the classic New York City bar Milk and Honey) was not a fan,” says Chad Solomon of Dallas’ Midnight Rambler, who worked with the late cocktail legend. “But people loved drinking it. He was, like, ‘It’s got too many damn ingredients!’ ”

It’s a misfit of a drink, a gin-powered cocktail that muscled its way into the tiki canon through luck and guile, disguising itself in pineapple and grenadine. But while its more dignified origins faded in the process, two Dallas bars – Industry Alley and Midnight Rambler – are breathing new life into the Sleeping Beauty that’s been there all along.

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Imagine two actor brothers born in close succession. They look just enough alike, and their names are similar enough, that they’re often confused with each other. The older brother teaches the younger one all he knows, but the younger brother’s easier disposition makes him more likable than his rugged, reserved sibling. And when the younger’s career veers from drama into comedy, making him a star, the family name rises to fame with him.

That seems to be the story of the Singapore Sling, whose sweeter flavors and catchier name propelled it through the thick and thin of cocktail lineage rather than its older brother, the Straits Sling. A sling is a type of drink, at its base a simple mix of spirit, sweetener and water. As cocktails historian David Wondrich observed in his book Imbibe!, it’s “a simple drink in the same way a tripod is a simple device: Remove one leg and it cannot stand, set it up properly and it will hold the whole weight of the world.”

The Straits Sling, born sometime in the late 1800s, was just that: A mix of gin (spirit), sweetener (Benedictine, a honey-sweet herbal liqueuer) and carbonated soda (water), plus lemon and bitters. But its defining flavor was cherry – in the form of kirsch, a dry cherry brandy.

The original Singapore Sling – at least as well as anyone can figure out – was basically the same drink, except that it used sweet cherry brandy instead of dry and subbed lime as the citrus. That’s the Singapore Sling you’ll get if you order the classic drink at Midnight Rambler in downtown Dallas, and a few dashes of Angostura make all the difference, giving depth to what would otherwise taste like an off-kilter black cherry soda.

Adam McDowell includes the mix in his entertaining and recently published Drinks: A User’s Guide, whose characterization is hard to argue with: “Here’s the correct recipe; ignore all other versions like the meaningless static they are.”

Ingredients
1 oz London dry gin
1 oz cherry brandy
1 oz Benedictine
1 oz lime
3 d Angostura bitters
Club soda
Instructions
Stir in a Collins glass. Garnish w/Maraschino cherries

 

You’ll also find the drink on the inaugural menu at Industry Alley just south of downtown, where owner Charlie Papaceno digs its less-is-more simplicity. “It’s like with French cooking: Here’s the mother sauce,” he says. “Here’s what we work from.”

But of course Papaceno had to tweak his version just a little. Rather than using equal parts, his recipe boosts the gin and tones down the liqueurs, with just a squeeze of lime. The drink is tart and a bit Scotchy thanks to its signature ingredient, Cherry Heering – not the summery cool pineapple drink the name usually calls to mind, but a leathery, autumn-ready gin-and-tonic.

“So, it’s like, to take it back,” Papaceno says. “Somehow it’s just gotten so tricked up.”

Industry Alley's Singapore Sling is barman Charlie Papaceno's slightly tweaked version of what's believed to be the drink's original recipe.

At Industry Alley, Charlie Papaceno’s slightly tweaked version of what’s believed to be the drink’s original recipe is suitable for colder weather.

Until Wondrich tracked down the recipe above in a 1913 Singapore newspaper, no one really knew what the standard was for sure. By the late 1920s and early 1930s the rumor was a good ways down the table and already starting to morph; even the Raffles Hotel itself touted an “original” recipe in the 1930s with pineapple and grenadine, flowery additions that nonetheless endeared it to the wave of tiki that was just starting to emerge.

Before long the drink with the catchy name became a game of eeny meeny miny mo, something everyone did but felt free to put their own spin on. “Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike,” wrote David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).

Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947) included two versions; so did Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology (2003), listing the neglected Straits Sling recipe as “Singapore Sling #1” and offering a second that included triple sec.

“The Singapore Sling is a perfect example of the kind of drinks that came from outside the world of tiki establishments and took up residence on tiki menus everywhere,” wrote San Francisco bar owners Martin and Rebecca Cate in Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016). The legendary Trader Vic, they wrote, included it on his first menu under the category, “Drinks I Have Gathered from the Four Corners of the Globe.”

Here’s a typically involved recipe, the one I favored for a while, from The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy (2011):

2 oz. pineapple
1 ½ oz gin
½ oz Cherry Heering
½ oz grenadine (I use pomegranate molasses)
¼ oz Cointreau
¼ oz Benedictine
¼ oz lime
Angostura bitters
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Collins glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cherry and a slice of pineapple.

 

Yep, that’s a lot of moving parts for one drink. No wonder Wondrich once wrote: “The Singapore Sling is one of those complicated drinks that taste better when you don’t have to make them.”

Midnight Rambler's play on the Straits Sling, the Solomon Sling is served with a shot of mezcal and a beer.

Midnight Rambler’s play on the Straits Sling, the Solomon Sling, is served “Gonzo-style” with a shot of mezcal and a beer.

But, you might be saying, what about the Straits Sling? Isn’t it being neglected all over again?

Not anymore, thanks to Midnight Rambler, where mixmaster Solomon has revived his own version of the drink with a wry literary nod.

Even before he began learning the craft, Solomon had the Singapore Sling on his radar after reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in high school. “(Thompson) was describing sitting poolside at his hotel with a Singapore Sling, a side of mezcal and a beer chaser,” Solomon said. “I was, like — what’s a Singapore Sling?”

Then Solomon happened into the budding cocktail renaissance underway in New York City in the early years of the millennium, working at classic bars like Milk and Honey and the Pegu Club. In 2004, Ted Haigh gave a nod to the drier Straits Sling in his book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails – “but if you make it as Ted as written,” Solomon says, “it’s a terrible drink. Virtually undrinkable.”

Egged on by cocktails writer Martin Douderoff, one of his Pegu Club regulars, Solomon decided to see how he could improve on the drink while keeping its historical accuracy. By early 2006, he’d hit on a Benedictine-less version that used both dry and sweet cherry brandies – kirsch and Cherry Heering. It appeared on the Pegu Club menu later that year as the Solomon Sling.

Late this summer, as Solomon prepared Midnight Rambler’s fall menu, he knew he wanted to incorporate seasonal stone-fruit flavors, but not in an overly sweet way. When one of his bartenders suggested he reincarnate the Solomon Sling, he thought,“Okay. But let’s have some fun with it: Let’s serve it Hunter S. Thompson style and miniaturize it.’”

And that’s how you’ll find it on Rambler’s current menu – served “Gonzo-style” and slightly downsized with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony. It’s a delicate drink, slightly sweet with a lush cherry finish – and did I mention it comes with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony?

The sibling slings are finally having their day, and there’s little to fear or loathe about it.

Sling made: Gin, lime, Benedictine, Cherry Heering and a few dashes of bitters.

Sling made: Gin, lime, Benedictine, Cherry Heering and a few dashes of bitters, topped with Topo Chico.

DMA exhibit to showcase cocktail culture history — through its barware

Dallas Museum of Art

Did someone say cocktails? Among the collection of vintage barware at the DMA exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art)

So….. that cocktail you’re holding in your hand? Your great-great-grandfather might have drunk the very same thing.

That historical connection is one of the great charms of the modern craft-cocktail renaissance, and now, thanks to the Dallas Museum of Art, you might even get to see the very shaker the old guy’s drink got made in. (OK, the chances are wee, but you get the point.)

Dallas Museum of Art

“Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail” features nearly 60 vintage and modern cocktail items. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art)

Later this month, the DMA will open “Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail,” a yearlong exhibit tracing the development of cocktails from the late 19th century to their modern-day renaissance, as well as the wares used to prepare and serve them.

The collection goes on display Nov. 18 and features nearly 60 items ranging from 19th century punch bowls and early 20th-century decanters to Prohibition-era shakers and modern designer barware.

The exhibit also spans craft-cocktail culture’s long and glorious history, starting with the punchbowl potions of colonial times and, long before fedoras were a thing, the 1862 publishing of storied bartender Jerry Thomas’ How To Mix Drinks: Or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion – the first printed compilation of cocktail recipes.

Opening night will bring an appearance by Dale DeGroff, another storied bartender whose attention to fresh ingredients and classic techniques at New York’s Rainbow Room throughout the 1990s are pretty much why you can find a properly made Sazerac even in select dive bars today. The godfather of the modern cocktail revival, DeGroff (a.k.a. “King Cocktail”) will addfress the current scene and its centuries-old roots.

As cocktails rose in popularity, so too did the tools needed to make them, and they got fancier and cleverer as time went on.

Dallas Museum of Art

Cocktail culture’s modern reboot has inspired a new wave of designer barware. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art)

In an article about the exhibit, Samantha Robinson, the DMA’s interim assistant curator of decorative arts, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that silver was among the primary materials for luxury barware, especially in the prosperous 1920s, when speakeasies flourished in defiance of Prohibition.

Given drinking’s underground nature at the time, shakers took on seemingly whimsical shapes – like penguins, or lighthouses – to mask their actual utility.

(The coolest thing about the story, by the way, is learning that Robinson is a fan of the Aviation, though I prefer mine with crème de violette – as it should be.)

Starting around the 1960s, cocktails fell out of favor and plummeted to truly awful depths of neglect. The current reboot, rooted in the late 1990s, has inspired a new wave of cocktail artistry, including designer shakers and martini glasses, some of which will also be on display.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 12, 2017.

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Halloween party, at least for a night, raises classic Dallas cocktail team from the dead

 

Victor Tangos, where Monday's Halloween bash benefits a good cause. Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.

Victor Tangos, where Monday’s Halloween bash benefits a good cause. Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.

Here’s some Halloween weekend activity that won’t have you saying Boo.

Monday’s event at Victor Tangos is the highlight, and the costume party/cocktail fest doubles as a charity effort, with proceeds benefiting Dallas CASA, an agency that helps abused and neglected children find safe and permanent homes.

Bar Smyth

Josh Hendrix and Omar YeeFoon, behind the bar at since-closed Bar Smyth. Now spirits ambassadors, both will be pouring at the Victor Tangos event.

The longtime Knox-Henderson craft-cocktail den is teaming up with Brian Floyd of The Barman’s Fund, a national organization of bartenders who hold monthly events to benefit worthwhile causes and donate their night’s tips to the proceeds.

The Victor Tangos party features an all-star cast of Dallas bar industry pioneers, including five members of the original teams at milestone craft-cocktail joints Bar Smyth and/or The Cedars Social, both of which earned national acclaim: Michael Martensen, Mate Hartai, Josh Hendrix, Julian Pagan and Omar YeeFoon.

Joining them will be Victor Tangos vet Emily Arseneau, Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour, Midnight Rambler’s Zach Smigiel and spirits distributor Kristen Holloway.

The fun gets underway at 7 p.m. with drink specials, with tracks spun by DJ Bryan C and prizes to be awarded for the best, most outlandish and most inappropriate costumes.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the classic Windmill Lounge on Maple Avenue will hold its annual Halloween bash with drink specials, a midnight costume parade and contest ($100 for first place!) and DJs Chris Rose and Genova providing the beats.

The Windmill's Halloween party gets underway at 9 p.m. (Image courtesy of Windmill Lounge)

The Windmill’s Halloween party gets underway at 9 p.m. (Image courtesy of Windmill Lounge)

Both events are free.

Victor Tangos, 3001 N. Henderson, Dallas.

Windmill Lounge, 5320 Maple Avenue, Dallas.

Bigger venue means higher hopes for annual charity cocktail bash

This year's benefit cocktail event aims to be the largest ever.

This year’s benefit cocktail event aims to be the largest ever.

It’s the fete that launched a thousand sips.

Now, it’s back for another run: The 5th annual Trigger’s Toys cocktail bash, billed as “The Ultimate Cocktail Experience,” is projected to be the biggest ever – with ailing kids as the beneficiary.

The yearly pop-up, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 5, has moved to Klyde Warren Park, showing how far the annual benefit event has come after stints at The Standard Pour in Uptown and Henry’s Majestic in Knox-Henderson.

Five teams of bartenders, distributors and brand ambassadors from around Texas will face off for charity, and under this year’s theme, “Cocktails Around The World,” each squad’s pop-up bar will represent a particular continent – North America, South America, Africa, Asia or Europe.

With this year’s larger venue, Trigger’s Toys founder Bryan Townsend hopes to raise as much as $300,000, more than three times the $130,000 raised at last year’s event. By 2020, he aims to offer a million Christmas-season care packages to needy area children.

“We’re offering a unique way for people to experience the talents of our service industry while giving back to their community,” said Townsend, who named the agency for his dog, Trigger, after seeing the animal’s positive effect on a child in need of therapy.

The annual event helps chronically sick kids and their families through financial assistance and supplemental programming.

This year’s event will run from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets, available here, are $65 or $125 for the VIP experience — including 6 p.m. entry.

Team captains and their logos (provided courtesy of Trigger’s Toys) are as follows:

africatrigger

AFRICA: Rafiki’s

Captain: Bryan Dalton, Mexican Sugar, Plano

asiatrigger

ASIA: Kamikaze

Captain: Kiyoko Kinoshita, Midnight Rambler, Dallas

europetrigger

EUROPE: Mad Hatter’s Cocktail Emporium

Captain: Jenny Park, Filament, Dallas

northamtrigger

NORTH AMERICA: New World Carnival

Captain: Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos, Dallas

southamtrigger

SOUTH AMERICA: Dr, Amazon’s Apothecary

Captain: Ravinder Singh, Rapscallion, Dallas

 

For more information, or to donate to Trigger’s Toys, go here.

Dig Houndstooth? Try Jettison — Oak Cliff’s new sherry and mezcal bar — on for size

Jettison, Oak Cliff

A good reason to start drinking early: Jettison’s Good Morning Jerez mixes sherry and spiced syrup with cold brew coffee.

Sean Henry has already made a name for himself in the coffee world. Now he’s ready to try his hand at cocktails.

Jettison, an espresso shot of a bar at the flourishing Sylvan Thirty complex in Oak Cliff, will specialize in two undersung heroes of the backbar, sherry and mezcal – while still showcasing the drink (coffee) that got Henry this far in the first place.

Currently in soft opening, the subtly chic digs adjoin Houndstooth Coffee, the fourth and most recent of Henry’s Austin-based coffeehouse locations. The space is accessible both from the café and from a second entrance from outside.

Oak Cliff, Sylvan Thirty

The cozy space adjoins the most recent of Houndstooth Coffee’s four locations.

The bar program is headed by George Kaiho, a veteran of both Tei-An and Parliament, with cocktails featuring fresh takes on both mezcal, the smoky spirit derived from Mexican agave, and sherry, the Spanish fortified wine.

Take the Red-Headed Oaxacan, Kaiho’s play on the modern classic Penicillin, which subs mezcal and tequila for base Scotch (with a crafty float of Caol Ila 12), honeys up the ginger syrup and caps it with a rim of Himalayan salt, a common sidekick to agave spirits.

Or the sublime Good Morning Jerez, an addictively peppy blend of sweet East India Solera sherry, cold brew and cinnamon syrup that’ll have you wishing you’d started ordering it earlier in the evening.

The mezcal Negroni ups the spirit and switches dry vermouth for sweet, while another twist on a classic, the BLVD, is a wake-up call of rye, espresso vermouth and two Italian bitter liqueurs, Campari and Averna.

George Kaiho

A play on the classic Boulevardier, the BLVD is one of several Jettison cocktails that incorporate coffee.

Jettison, which will mark its grand opening on Oct. 21, isn’t looking to be the premier carrier of either mezcal or sherry, just to have a solid and well-curated supply of each.

And a series of intimate Monday-night, drink-paired “pop-up suppers” kicked off last week with a mezcal-themed event, with several more to come – a French-themed wine dinner featuring chef Julien Eelsen of Whisk Crepes Cafe on Oct. 10, an Italian vermouth dinner on Oct. 17 with former Filament chef Cody Sharp; and a Spanish sherry dinner, also chef’d by Sharp, on Oct. 24.

Tickets are available here.

Jettison will no doubt draw a good part of its clientele from the Sylvan Thirty apartment complex just across the parking lot and from nearby neighbors like Teresa, an Oxford, England-born patron who complimented Henry on the vibe of the place.

Jettison, Oak Cliff

Jettison bar manager Kaiho at work.

“It’s bloody good,” she told him. ”I like the aesthetic here. You’ve got what they call ‘a keen eye.’ ”

But if those of you further flung need another bullet point to make the drive down I-30, consider Henry’s bar snack, doughnut segments – not only a playful alternative to nuts but a perfect complement to coffee that Henry may or may not continue.

“I don’t see why not,” he says.

Standard Pour bartender wins local cocktail battle, will represent DFW at national competition

Espolon Cocktail Fight 2016

Dallas’ Jorge Herrera takes on Fort Worth’s Amber Davidson in the final round of DFW’s Espolon competition.

For a lot of people, the idea of making a few drinks brings to mind mixing a little vodka with soda over ice, but for the craft bartenders who strutted their stuff before the judges earlier this week, it meant much, much more – firing up an original cocktail and then knocking out a dozen tequila classics, all within minutes. And with flair, to boot.

Espolon's annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District's DEC On Dragon.

Espolon’s annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District’s DEC On Dragon.

Jorge Herrera is on his way to New York City because he managed to make the whole thing look easy. A veteran of Plano’s Mexican Sugar who joined The Standard Pour in Uptown earlier this year, Herrera took top prize at Monday’s Espolón Cocktail Fight for the right to represent the DFW area at the tequila brand’s national finals in November.

Held at the DEC on Dragon, the event – part culinary competition, part WWF – was a raucous, “luchador-style” affair pitting Dallas drink slingers against their Fort Worth brethren.

Here, in photos, are some of the highlights.

In the first matchup, Devin “El Guapo” McCullough of The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station, took on Amber “Waves of Pain” Davidson of Fort Worth’s Bird Cafe. Contestants had two minutes to set up their stations and three minutes to prepare their original cocktails for the judges.

Espolon contest round 1

McCullough and Davidson, going mano a mano before the thunderous crowd. Both of their cocktails — McCullough’s coffee-inflected Milkman and Davidson’s black-salt-rimmed Pearls and Spice — earned them passage into the second round.

Next up was Jonathan “Manila Killa” Garcia, also of The People’s Last Stand, against Jermey “Big Jerm” Elliott of Citizen, in Uptown. Garcia appeared in a conical hat while Elliott fired up the crowd by stripping down to shorts and a tank top.

Espolon contest round 2

Elliott crafting his cocktail, A Mexican at Lumpinee, featuring curry powder and Thai basil/pineapple syrup, in the contest’s second matchup.

 

 

 

 

With competitors taking the stage with painted faces, or in skimpy or outlandish outfits, supporters embraced the costumed spirit of things and advantaged the nearby photo booth.

The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.

The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.

The third matchup pitted Cody Barboza, of Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., against Jason Pollard of The Usual, in Fort Worth. Both Barboza’s mescal-fueled El Rico and Pollard’s One Hour Break — which leaned savory with Averna and molé bitters — earned second-round status.

Cody Barboza, Armoury D.E.

Barboza’s El Rico cocktail, which paired Espolon reposado with mezcal, fruit and jalapeño with a chocolate/salt rim.

In the fourth duel, Brittany “B-Day” Day of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, faced off against Geovanni “Geo” Alafita of Knife, near Mockingbird Station. Day’s Smoke In The Morning went smoky-sweet with mezcal, maple syrup and Allspice Dram while Alafita’s preciously presented Rosario combined tequila with mildly bitter Aperol, cilantro and jalapeño.

Espolon contest 2016

Clockwise, from upper left: Day, of Thompson’s; Alafita’s Rosario; Alafita pouring his drink; Day’s Smoke In The Morning, after a drink or two.

In addition to taste, presentation and how well the tequila shone through, contestants were judged on showmanship. In addition to yours truly, the panel included chef Nick Walker of The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Bonnie Wilson Coetzee of FrontBurner Restaurants and Frederick Wildman brand ambassador Austin Millspaugh.

Walker, Wilson Coetzee, Millspaugh

Three of the night’s judges: Walker, of The Mansion, FrontBurner’s Coetzee and Millspaugh, of Frederick Wildman distributors.

The fifth and final first-round match was easily the most entertaining as the typically understated Jorge “Don Juan” Herrera of The Standard Pour took the platform with a lovely lady on each arm in his duel against Sean “McDoozy” McDowell of Thompson’s. But Herrera put some shine on his show by completing his deceptively simple drink with plenty of time to spare, then lighting up a cigar and preening before the crowd as McDowell continued to race against the clock.

Herrera’s Carolina cocktail was lush with cigar-infused Grand Marnier, while McDowell’s tart Trade With Mexico bundled both Espolón blanco and reposado with tea and homemade ginger beer. Both advanced to the second round.

Espolon contest 2016

Clockwise from upper left, McDowell’s Trade with Mexico; the two rivals take the stage; Herrera’s Big Daddy strut; Herrera’s Carolina cocktail; the competitors in action.

In the second round, the top six contestants each had to crank out 10 El Diablos — a lesser known tequila classic featuring reposado tequila, créme de cassis, lime and ginger beer — within a few minutes’ time.

Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas' Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.

Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas’ Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.

Herrera’s and Davidson’s were dubbed mas macho by the judges and both advanced to the final round, where each had to craft a Margarita using Espolón blanco, a Paloma with Espolón reposado and an Old Fashioned with Espolón añejo — again, within a few minutes.

A taste of each drink, then the judges conferred, taking into account the entire night. It was Herrera’s performance that was judged best overall, which means he’ll be competing at Espolón’s national finals in early November.

Espolon contest 2016

Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, embraces Herrera as the bartender is named winner of Espolon’s DFW contest.

 

Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, said he had no doubt that the Uptown bar’s attention to efficiency on busy weekend nights helped prepare Herrera for the competition’s fast-paced demands.

Between that and Herrera’s previous training at FrontBurner, which owns Mexican Sugar, “he’s been working toward winning this ever since he started working here,” McCullough said.

To watch a normally subdued guy transform into the very picture of confidence made him proud.

“Seeing him do that was like seeing him come out of his shell,” McCullough said.

 

What you should be drinking now: Midnight Rambler’s magnificent tiki mashup

 

Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler

The Tiger Style is a blast of creamy orange spice, among a stellar lineup described as “gritty tiki.”

Ever since it burst onto the scene nearly two years ago, Midnight Rambler has regularly offered up one of the more ambitious cocktail rotations in Dallas. That can be largely credited to co-owner Chad Solomon, the New York City-trained bartender – and veteran of such places as the famed Milk & Honey and Pegu Club – whose bold and borderline geeky creations are always thoughtfully composed, conceived and curated.

Rambler’s glorious setting, in the lower level of the Joule Hotel, is stunning, and while I wasn’t blown away by the bar’s inaugural drink menu, Solomon’s lineups have proved increasingly sublime with each seasonal reboot.

Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler

Despite its delicate looks, the Neon Lilikoi is a passionfruit thundercat waiting to pounce.

The current summer lineup is his best yet: It lassoes the ongoing tiki trend and wrenches it into dark and adventurous places, infusing the genre’s cheery Asian South Sea island vibe with hard edges and soulful energy tracing the global Ring of Fire and beyond.

“It’s a gritty tiki,” Solomon says. “We wanted to do something more global, with tropical regions around the world touched by colonialism, man-eating animals and African rhythms.”

In other words, this ain’t your daddy’s Mai Tai. This is dark spice and jungle heat fueled by a soundtrack of steel drums and surf guitars. Take the Samoan War Club, a mix of aged spiced Jamaican rum, agricole rum, West Indian bay leaf, lime sugar oil and the lime-almond influence of falernum, sweetened up with a rich syrup made from gula jawa. Made from coconut sap, it’s one of the world’s oldest sugars, Solomon says, with “sort of a meaty umami-ness.” The drink is also the menu’s most “woodsy,” making up for the absence of any whiskey cocktail in the lineup.

Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler

The lingering taste of poblano puts a hellfire finish on the Purgatory Lost.

The Purgatory Lost is another standout, incorporating poblano for an appropriately hot finish; so, too is the Neon Lilikoi, a radiantly presented blended-Scotch beaut whose passionfruit rush is held in check with a hint of black cardamom tincture. While Asian flavors — criminally underused in cocktails — are prominent, as in the Savory Hunter, which incorporates lemongrass, cilantro and Thai chili, there are also nods to South America, Africa and the coffee-growing regions of Hawaii.

Make the rich Grasshopper-inspired Komodo Dragon your last drink of the night; its traditional mix of minty Fernet Menta and cacao is supplemented not with heavy cream but with coconut milk and a syrup made from tantalizingly sweet Southeast Asian pandan leaf.

But my favorite of the bunch is the Tiger Style, built on a platform of Batavia Arrack, a rum-like, sugar-cane-based spirit from Southeast Asia. Featuring calamansi (an acidic blend of citrus and kumquat), rich palm sugar, Indonesian black pepper tincture, egg white and earthy cassia spritzed atop a dehydrated lime, it’s a triumph of creamy orange spice dashed with a hint of Fireball cologne.

Co-owner, Midnight Rambler

Solomon on a rare night of bar duty, pouring Tiger Style.

“It was, like, how do we put Indonesia and the Philippines into a glass?” Solomon says. “The more you drink it, the more your lips tingle.”

It’s a hefty, not dainty, drink, a psychedelic Snickerdoodle – or at least that’s what my quivering fingers wrote as I pearl-dove into the cocktail’s delicious depths.

“It takes you into the exotic,” Solomon says, “and intentionally so.”

Wild things, you make my heart sing.

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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