I’m the kind of guy who goes into a place and sits at the bar. I appreciate the interaction with the bartender, seeing the way he or she practices the craft, knowing that the drink I’ve ordered is being made just for me. That personal attention, and the work that goes into it, is part of the experience.
That’s why I’ve been reluctant to embrace the idea of bottled cocktails, and Francisco Terrazas, who manages the bar program at Austin’s Fino, knows my pain. The idea of pre-made batches of drinks theoretically annoyed him, even though he knew it was a trend — one that actually dates to the early 1900s — that would come sooner or later as Austin bartenders began looking for innovations.
Terrazas grappled with the idea until one day he began to see it in a new light. He’s how he puts it: When you buy clothes, you generally don’t expect to have the fit exactly right or know who made your outfit; you just grab something off the rack. If you want it just so, you go to a tailor.
Bartenders are the tailors of the drinking world. “If someone really wants a drink tailored to their specifications, they’re going to go sit at the bar,” he says. “Meanwhile, people on the dinner floor might want a good drink, but they’re willing to sacrifice a bit of the experience.”
And though it’s not something he’s tried yet, he realizes that for bartenders, it’s a good way to produce quality drinks more efficiently.
That’s the idea at The People’s Last Stand in Dallas, where bartender Chris Dempsey says the three cocktails produced daily have been selling well.
By the time I and a friend showed up late Saturday, the bottled Dark and Stormy’s were already sold out. Instead we tried the Harvey Wallbanger and something called a Time Bomb: Each was $7 and came in an old-fashioned-style soda bottle; drinking it reminded me of drinking fruity pop as a kid. Though I missed the ice shards that lusciously grace the first sips of a freshly made drink, each went down smooth, maybe too much so.
“I’m partial to this,” my friend said, indicating the Harvey Wallbanger (vodka, Galliano and OJ). “But I think it could be dangerous. It kinda reminds me of a wine cooler.”
But People’s thinks it’s on to something. “The fact that they sell out every day says something,” bartender Anthony Polo said.
I protested, citing my desire to know a bartender had made something just for me.
“But in a sense, I did,” Polo said.
Meanwhile, over at Bowl & Barrel, Ian Reilly is offering Manhattans and other cocktails in barrel-aged-and-bottled form.
It’s something the bar, owned by Free Range Concepts, plans to make a staple in coming months. As Reilly tells it, Josh Sepkowitz of Free Range Concepts, which owns Bowl & Barrel, called him over one day to see what he knew about barrel-aged cocktails, a practice that has gained steam over the last couple of years. (As far as I know, it was Sean Conner, of Plano’s Whiskey Cake, who first tried it around here, and since then several others have given it a whirl, pre-batching Negronis and Tridents and more.)
Barrel-aging cocktails can alter their character by infusing oak and/or other flavors into the drink; the process can also soften the sting of strong flavors; the barrel-aged Negroni I had at Whiskey Cake had a mellowness that enhanced the drink without reducing its charm.
As it turned out, Reilly did know a thing or two about barrel-aging, and he knew that not only could the practice affect taste, it could also promote efficiency on crowded bar nights. He was also able to get his hands on some stylin’ clear bottles, as well as someone able to etch them with the Bowl & Barrel logo. Everything fell into place.
He decided on the classic Manhattan as his first cocktail, one that would appease his Old-Fashioned-leaning customers with its mix of rye whiskey, bitters and sweet vermouth. (Cocktails without natural products that can go bad, like citrus, are preferable when barrel aging.) He then added two others – the white-whiskey-based Slow Hand and the Lucien Gaudin, a cocktail that Reilly named after a fencer when he himself worked at The People’s Last Stand; it features gin, Cointreau, Campari and dry vermouth. “It’s somewhere between a Boulevardier and a Martinez,” he says.
A fourth cocktail is on the way. So far Reilly has produced 31 liters worth of pre-batched cocktails, and he’s working on another 26. “We want to have the shelves lined with product ready to go,” he says.
Since launching a week ago, he’s sold nine or 10 bottles’ worth of cocktails in all. The mixtures have been bottled, sealed with wax and stored in the freezer behind the bar. Order a Manhattan and it’ll show up in a fluted martini glass. “You pour four ounces and put a maraschino cherry in there and you’re ready,” Reilly says. Speed.
The drinks are $10 apiece, and a group can spring for a whole bottle at $75. Last week, I and some friends took the Manhattan plunge even if the hot June weather didn’t exactly make us pine for dark spirits. The verdict was largely positive, though the fluted glass took me by surprise; I also missed the feeling of knowing the bartender was behind the bar making a drink just for me.
Had I been there on a packed night, well into my evening with service markedly slowed, I would have had a much different reaction: happy to get my perfectly fine and chilled Manhattan while others around me growled and waited for their craft cocktails to be made, giving me the evil eye while I preened with Brad Pitt-celebrity satisfaction and — well, now I’m getting carried away.
Reilly, too, has gotten carried away, and for that you might be grateful. Share in the experiment: He’s got a fancy algorithm “that a much smarter friend” made for him, telling him how long each batch has to sit in each differently-sized barrel to achieve his desired result. A three-liter barrel might correctly age in a month, for instance, but a 10-liter one might take more than twice that long. He’ll test them along the way.
“It’s fun,” Reilly says. “I get to be the cellar master here. When I bottle everything, I’ll imagine I’m some guy in Cognac…. I don’t have millions of dollars for a still, so this is the next best thing.”
THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND, 5319 E. Mockingbird Lane #210, Dallas. 214-370-8755
BOWL AND BARREL, 8084 Park Lane #145, Dallas. Phone: 214-363-2695