Adventures in cocktailing, based in Dallas USA -- drinking globally, acting locally. Barmoire is Marc Ramirez -- journalist, boulevardier, lover of food and drink and winner of exactly one cocktail contest.
There’s a built-in air of exclusivity that comes with opening a pricy membership-only bar, but the people behind Dallas’ Network Bar – which recently launched at Trinity Groves – seem determined not to let that affect perception of their drink prices. And in fact, the cocktails on bar manager James Slater’s well constructed menu do ring in at a respectable $13, which is on the low high-end of what you’ll find around town. (For comparison, drinks at Five Sixty, at Reunion Tower, run $16 apiece.) And there’s a $7 cocktail happy hour.
But there’s one drink you won’t find on Network Bar’s menu that puts even the high high-end libations to shame. Forget that $30 fishbowl Margarita you’re dunking your snout into – and meet the Golden Dawn, which at $150 is decidedly a fancydrank splurge and like the bar itself, a hidden gem that only those willing to fork over the dough can try. (I had the pleasure of accompanying my Dallas Morning News colleague Tiney Ricciardi for a tasting. She wrote about it here.)
The good news is, like many of the drinks on Slater’s menu, the Golden Dawn is pretty delicious – and not just because it makes Gran Patron Burdeos, a so-called “luxury anejo tequila” – the star of the show. You could probably count on one finger the reasons you’d actually mix a spirit like this into a cocktail, and this would be it. Slater’s Golden Dawn, served in what looks like a silver, leaf-laden chalice, expertly layers the aged tequila’s vanilla/raisin nuances with a lovely balance of bittersweet French Amer aperitif, blood-orange liqueur and a touch of absinthe.
But slow down there, tiger. Before you can plant your lips on this baby, Slater amps up the spectacle with a few poofs of homemade perfume around the glass – even the stem, so that the experience extends to your fingers – and a final sprinkling of gold flakes.
It’s a big show, of course, which you might expect in a cocktail this expensive – and a good way, as all eyes drift to the what-the-heck-is-going-on-over-there pageant unfolding before you, to set yourself apart from not just a good chunk of cash but from your fellow hobnobbing professionals who, like you, have paid $500 to $1,000 for a year’s Network Bar membership.
Raise that chalice proudly, O intrepid overlord – and whatever you do, don’t chug.
Five miles southeast of downtown Fort Worth, on a course where golf greats Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned the game, something cool is happening in the world of whiskey.
A spiffy archway off Mitchell Road marks the new portal to what was once the Glen Garden Country Club, a 112-acre property soon to be reborn as Whiskey Ranch. The handsome new development, which opens in mid-November, is the expanded operation of Fort Worth-based Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., producer of TX Whiskey and, more recently, TX Bourbon.
Whiskey Ranch, though, is much more than a distillery – and it could portend the emergence of this juicy cut ofTexas, from Fort Worth down to Hill Country and the Houston area, as a distillery-rich region along the lines of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Texas, after all, is one of the nation’s largest consumers of whiskey; why shouldn’t it be made here?
“It’s more than likely going to become a beacon of whiskey tourism,” says Nico Martini of Dallas-based Bar Draught, a cocktails-on-tap startup. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this part of the world becomes a known whiskey region.”
Owners Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson conceived Whiskey Ranch not just as a place to make spirits but as a showcase to illuminate the production process, a site for charity and private events and a sampling area, all amid a still functional, par-68 golf course.
Showcase the process it does, with its radiant centerpiece a 50-foot-tall, Louisville-made column still, as well as massive fermenters that can be viewed up close and from a second-level vantage point.
Now, those who tour Firestone & Robertson’s primary distillery will find it nestled in a pastoral setting beyond a guard gate, abutted by a courtyard, retail center, tasting room and special-events space with a sweeping patio overlooking the golf course’s 18th hole.
In terms of property and capacity, the two say, it will be the largest whiskey distillery west of the Mississippi. And to their knowledge, the only distillery on a full-fledged golf course.
Says Robertson: “It’s kind of a whiskey wonderland.”
A PLAN BEGINS
The pair’s plans began to bubble five years ago after they, along with master distiller Rob Arnold, launched their palate-friendly TX Whiskey at 901 Vickery, their original, pot-still operation in Fort Worth’s Hospital District that they simply call “The 901.” Anticipating the need for more capacity to feed the spirit’s growing popularity, they also noticed a market for tours and special events. The idea of a multi-dimensional facility was born.
“We really wanted to share the process,” Firestone says, noting two factors that differentiate whiskey from, say, vodka – an aging component, and thus a need for storage space and more capital. “Whiskey making is really a mystery to a lot of people.”
Their eyes fell upon the former golf course, sprawling over the bluff in a modest residential area southeast of the city. Though fallen into neglect and shrouded by a half-century of overgrowth after closing in late 2014, it seemed perfect for their vision.
As the Fort Worth Star-Telegramreported, early opposition arose from some residents fearful of what an alcohol-driven development might bring. Ultimately, though, the city approved the plan.
In shaping their vision, Robertson and Firestone took cues from model Kentucky distilleries – the campus feel of Maker’s Mark, the vintage style of Woodford Reserve. Wanting to preserve as much of Glen Gardens’ history as possible, they garnished the tasting room with golf memorabilia and evoked the stone and wood design of the original clubhouse in the grand patio outside.
They also wanted to echo the feel of The 901, whose design incorporates reclaimed materials “partly out of necessity and partly because we liked the look,” Robertson says.
TAPPING INTO THE SENSES
At the new facility, visitors will enter the “Ranch House” foyer, with wainscoting fashioned from repurposed pallets and a mosaic made from the brand’s signature boot-leather bottle tops.
That leads into a rustic retail area and further into what looks to be the classic rickhouse setting of a barrel-aging warehouse. The rows of empty barrels are actually a facsimile of what’s inside the distillery’s working barrel barn, an obsidian-tinted building a stone’s throw away that looks vaguely like a dormitory. It’s the first of five they’ve got planned on the site, ultimately creating room for 20,000 53-gallon barrels.
Firestone and Robertson created the smaller copy, which they call the “barrel breezeway,” since fire codes prohibit large numbers of people from wandering the real thing, Partway through the barrel-lined corridor, a right turn takes you into the chandeliered Oak Room, a special-event space with concrete floors and room for 180 people. More space is available on the patio outside, where two large fireplaces complete the lodge-like setting.
Just inside, through another door, is the so-called “Tavern Room,” where the near-daily tours will end and guests can sample TX whiskeys and cocktails made with them by a staff bartender.
Early on, as 16 months of construction and landscaping began, Firestone and Robertson noticed something as the overgrowth was cleared away: There on the horizon, at the edge of a sea of treetops, was downtown Fort Worth. “We realized we were on this bluff with an incredible view of the city,” Firestone said. “At night, it’s electric.”
That distant skyline view is now the focal point of the courtyard, which stretches from the Ranch House to the Stillhouse. Inside, behind a pair of two-story doors, is the dramatic column still that will allow for continuous production at the facility. Made by Louisville’s Vendome, the copper contraption is a distillery rarity in that it’s fully visible, with a window allowing guests to peer into its bulbous base.
A walk upstairs lets visitors rise with the copper column and look into the fermenters and see the yeasty bubbling of the mash. The entire experience is meant to tap into the senses, with production “designed to operate completely while still having people around,” Robertson says. “Nothing’s in the back room, so to speak.”
Production at the new facility will be underway by December, taking advantage of four deep-water wells onsite. But Firestone and Robertson will continue to make whiskey and offer tours at The 901, where they’ll also experiment with potential new products.
Their vision, they say, has pretty much aged and turned out as planned. If anything, it’s grander than they imagined, but as Robertson puts it: “Our aspirations have always been to compete at the highest level with the biggest whiskey producers.”
WHISKEY RANCH, 2601 Whiskey Ranch Road, Fort Worth.
The idea behind Dallas’ Network Bar is simple. It’s a craft-cocktail bar where you network. The members-only concept from Phil Romano and Stuart Fitts, which targets career-minded professionals, opens Monday at Trinity Groves.
Granted, there are networking happy hours you could attend for free, so why would you shell out $500 to $1,000 to become a member of Network Bar?
Here are five possible reasons.
1.Because of the networking, of course.
Yes, you could do your networking in a place meant for drinking. But here, you can do your drinking in a place meant for networking. According to its website, Network Bar “takes networking and social interaction to another level.”
Members must be recommended by other members and have their applications approved by a committee; those sought are described as “eager, ever curious, always-on-the-hunt individuals (who) thrive on new ideas and problem solving…. They must have a purpose.” In other words, not your garden-variety professionals!
Membership is $500 for those 30 and younger. If you’re older than that, it’s $1,000. As of Friday, membership was up to 217, said the bar’s Stayci Runnels.
Not a member? You can still get in as a member’s guest or, like at your gym, tour the place under the watchful eye of a membership team representative.
2. Because there’s an app for that.
Yes, this club comes with its own mobile app. Once inside the club, members can then peer into the app to see who else is checked in – and then reach out to make connections and exchange digital business cards. Networking!
3. Because of the atmosphere and membership benefits.
Check out those handsome leather chairs. Those brawny barstools, that stylish wood paneling and dim lighting. This place is elegant AF. Cool photographs of wild animals, in soft sepia and stately black and white, gaze at you from the walls, along with a big bison head. Is this not a place you want to freely roam? It’s like you’re in Wayne Manor.
In addition to the expansive old-lodge-y setting, there’s a private meeting room. Otherwise, classy red drapes can be drawn to make public seating clusters more secluded. And the website promises activities such as wine tastings, a lecture/workshop series and fireside chats.
4. Because of the cocktails.
The bar’s drink menu features original cocktails from James Slater, described on Network Bar’s website as “one of the best mixologists in the world.” Lofty praise, indeed, but Slater is indeed no slouch, having previously helmed bars at Knife, Spoon, Oak, Quill and most recently, Idle Rye. (He also created two of my favorite cocktails of 2014.) “This place is different than any place I’ve ever worked,” Slater says; his drink menu will feature 15 cocktails priced from $13-$15, including a frozen rose cocktail and half-dozen barrel-aged ones.
“I’m putting my heart and soul into it,” Slater says.
You may also catch a glimpse of a curious vessel resembling a small silver chalice. What is that, you might (rightfully) wonder? The answer may or may not be the most lavish cocktail in Texas, an off-menu, super-premium concoction featuring a high-end tequila and a dusting of gold flakes.
5. Because of the brain food.
“The Network Bar is committed to nourishing your network as well as your brain,” the website says. That means food and drinks that the club declares will amp up your memory, focus and productivity – think green smoothies, lean proteins and cold-pressed juices. And then think some more.
But really, Network Bar is about rubbing shoulders in a setting designed for that purpose. “You can come in here and talk ideas, make connections, whatever,” says general manager Josh Laudan. “It’s like LinkedIn, but with cocktails. It’s a very unique concept as far as this industry goes.”
Visit Industry Alley these days and you might notice a couple of new faces roaming the bar: Marty Reyes and his wife Jen, who goes by the catchy moniker Jen Ann Tonic.
Known around town for their occasional “Swizzle Luau Lounge” pop-ups, the jaunty tikiphiles and bar-culture enthusiasts have taken up temporary residence in the Cedars neighborhood watering hole. They’re filling in for owner Charlie Papaceno, elder statesman of the Dallas cocktail scene, who’s taking a two-month sabbatical to be with his 91-year-old father in rural New York.
“My dad is having some health issues and I’m going up there to care for him,” said Papaceno, who opened the low-key, classics-minded cocktail bar after leaving the venerable Windmill Lounge in late 2014. “He can’t be alone if we want to keep him in his house.”
While he’s gone, Papaceno is leaving his bar in the hands of the Reyes tiki tandem and bar manager Mike Steele.
The Reyeses say they’re humbled by the chance to oversee a place helping to infuse new life into the area and don’t plan to alter the laid-back, jukebox-and-pool-table feel that’s made it a bar-industry favorite. However, an actual kitchen is on the way along with a seasonal drink lineup, and an off-menu tiki selection may find its way into existence for those who carry the torch.
Papaceno hit the road Tuesday on his way to Warwick, the town where he grew up, and says he’ll be with his ailing dad through the holidays, at least.
“It’ll be nice to spend the last days of his life with him,” he said. “There’s been too many years apart for too many fathers and sons.”
Thompson’s Bookstore. Proper. The Usual. Basement Lounge.
You may have noticed that Fort Worth has a cocktail scene. And while it’s not nearly on the scale of Dallas’ ever-expanding arena, DFW’s western half does have one thing the Big D does not: A cocktail week.
The second annual Fort Worth Cocktail Week kicks off Saturday, even bigger and tastier than its predecessor. Each of six nights’ worth of events will be complemented by chef-designed dishes, with a portion of each night’s proceeds going to charity.
While billed as “a celebration of our city’s booming craft-cocktail scene,” the week – which runs through next Friday, Oct. 20 – is also a tribute to the kinship between chefs and craft bartenders, both of whom prize fresh and local ingredients and attention to detail and history.
The week will feature a repeat of last year’s five signature ticketed events in addition to one newcomer: Saturday’s “Sips” event, which will highlight before- and after-dinner drinks and cocktails. That event will join a lineup that already spotlights tiki drinks, bourbon, gin, vodka, agave spirits and Texas-based spirits.
Organizers are partnering with local arts and nonprofit organizations like Fort Worth Opera, The Cliburn and Amphibian Stage Productions, each of which will receive part of the ticket proceeds from one of the week’s events. Tickets are available here.
Here’s a list of the week’s events:
Saturday, Oct. 14: “Sips,” 5-8 p.m. at Proper, 409 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $20
The evening will highlight aperitifs and digestifs, from cognacs to Italian bitter liqueurs, “in an indulgent celebration of exquisite before- and after-dinner libations.” Drinks will be complemented by dishes from Fixture owner and chef Ben Merritt, two-time winner of Fort Worth magazine’s Top Chef competition.
Monday, Oct. 16: Texas Spirits Tasting Party, 6-9 p.m. at Mopac Event Center, 1615 Rogers Road. Tickets: $15-20
This showcase of Lone Star State spirits will feature bites from chef Nico Sanchez (Meso Maya, Taqueria La Ventana), whose latest concept, TorTaco, recently opened in Fort Worth.
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Bourbon Bash, 6-9 p.m. at Thompson’s Bookstore, 900 Houston St. Tickets: $15-20
Bourbons will be the star of this Old World-themed evening at Thompson’s downtown, whether alone or in cocktails. Samples of harder-to-find whiskeys will also be available for an extra charge. The evening’s food will come from chef David Hollister (Yucatan Taco Stand, Gas Monkey Bar and Grill).
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Tiki Drink Rum Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Usual, 1408 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $15-20
A night focusing on the resurgent tropical cocktail trend will be paired with dishes from chef Juan Rodriguez of Magdalena’s Supper Club.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Bartenders Without Borders, 6-9 p.m. at Salsa Limon Distrito, 5012 White Settlement Road. Tickets: $15-20
Agave-based spirits like mezcal and tequila will anchor the evening, including small-batch selections. Chef Keith Grober, former head chef at Rodeo Goat, will provide Mexican street-style food.
Friday, Oct. 20: Gin vs. Vodka Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Foundry District, 2624 Weisenberger St. Tickets: $15-20
Advertised as “a bare-knuckle brawl for the soul of the martini,” this evening will showcase the history, flavors and versatility of the classic clear spirits. Chef Stefan Rishel, head chef at Texas Bleu in Keller, will provide the munchies.
Yes, it might be fall, but summer don’t care. It’s decided to linger around North Texas and deliver one last beatdown, with temps in the mid-90s until early next week.
You don’t have to sit there and take it. Because when life hands you lemons, you make Sidecars, and when it hands you unbearably hot weather, you’re going to fight back with cool, refreshing cocktails.
Here are six drinks you should enjoy before autumn finally sets in.
BIG STICK MOJITO, The Theodore, NorthPark Center
First of all, just look at this. This is a gorgeous drink. And the Big Stick Mojito – the “big stick” a reference to the famous “speak softly” quote from the president this NorthPark Center restaurant is named for – is as fun and delicious as it appears, a visual feast of green, white and red from bartender Hugo Osorio.
This mojito sweetened with tropical pineapple features a brilliant raspberry coulis that rests at the bottom of the glass, perfect for slurping through a straw while simultaneously offering balance in taste and texture.
“We wanted this cocktail to be super approachable,” says Kyle Hilla, bar director for Turn The Tables Hospitality, the group behind The Theodore as well as Bolsa, Smoke and other restaurants. “And on top of that, we wanted something incredibly stunning to look at.”
You’re probably not surprised to see a snow cone on the list. When it’s hot out, your body naturally craves snow cones. It’s science.
However, you may be surprised to know this snow cone comes from Fat Chicken, the fried chicken joint at Trinity Groves. One of a trio of frozen drinks designed by Stephen Halpin, global mixologist for Patron tequila, the Raspberry-Watermelon Freeze is summery and fruity with a bit of DIY mischief: The mix of Patron silver, watermelon and lemon juices and muddled raspberries is presented in a small carafe that you get to pour into the heaping glass of Hawaiian shaved ice presented alongside. (Though I’d recommend first using your straw to dig out a shaft into which the liquid can descend so it doesn’t end up all over your table.)
“I wasn’t sure when I got here if people would want to drink their drinks out of a snow cone,” says manager Christopher Garrison. “But they love it.”
MEET YOUR MATCHA, Yayoi, Plano
When Lyndsy Rausch took over the bar program at Yayoi in Plano, shochu – the featured spirit at Japanese izakayas – was a natural starting point. “Adding matcha to it was really the first thing that came to mind,” she said, “because I wanted something earthy to match the complex flavors in shochu.”
A low-proof liquor distilled from rice, barley or sweet potatoes, shochu likewise is earthy; Rausch paired Iwai barley-based shochu with matcha powder, added citrus-y yuzu and mint to cut the bitterness, and topped it off with club soda. The result is radiantly green and highly drinkable, a liquid hammock to lay your thirst in when temperatures climb.
FROZEN GIN AND TONIC, Harlowe, Deep Ellum
It’s got gin.
It’s got tonic.
And it’s frozen.
There’s much to like about Deep Ellum newcomer Harlowe, including the brunch-time lobster waffle and an expansive rooftop bar, but the simplicity of the Frozen Gin and Tonic is nothing short of genius on a 90-degree day. With nothing but a bit of star anise stranded atop the blindingly bright tundra of its surface, it’s a stone-cold certain way to punk that nasty summer-like warmth.
DUE SOUTH, Parliament, Uptown
Another way to beat the heat is to fight fire with fire. At Parliament, bartender Jeremy Koeninger’s Due South puts a Texas spin on the tropical Painkiller, adding jalapeno to the tiki staples of rum, coconut and pineapple with a dash of orange and nutmeg. “Being from Texas, I like the combination of spicy and sweet,” he says.
Presented with a jalapeno coin atop the foam, Due South is a terrific hot-weather refresher, showcasing creamy pineapple, cool citrus, peppery heat and a nutty finish. (I’m always surprised at how well coconut and jalapeno pair up, which is probably the one reason I never get tired of watching Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in Lost In Translation.)
The name of the drink, Koeninger says, refers partly to the happy coincidence that any south-of the-border spirit – except for cachaca – works in the drink; pisco, in particular, is excellent.
ABSINTHE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER, The Cedars Social, The Cedars
It might be hard to imagine absinthe as the basis of a soothing refresher, because unlike shochu, it’s notoriously anything but low proof. The Cedars Social’s Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder is a drink to ease the pain of a sweltering summer night, or a starry starry night, or in this case, an autumn night that still feels like summer.
Copper & Kings’ 130-proof absinthe is the star of this show, backed by a remarkable pecan-based orgeat and a chorus of soda. A fortifying fusion of licorice and pecan, it’ll almost make you wish the hot weather would linger a while longer. Almost.
Four years ago, the annual, bar-industry-driven fundraiser for Triggers’s Toys was a modest Christmas-season party at The Standard Pour, with 50 bartenders in Santa hats raining cocktails upon their mirthful elf minions. These days… well, look at it: Repositioned in the expansive savanna of Klyde Warren Park, this benefit behemoth, now dubbed the Ultimate Cocktail Experience, last year raised more than $200,000 and aims to exceed that this time around. Naturally.
The 2017 version of the Ultimate Cocktail Experience is set to go down on Saturday, Sept. 30, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. There will be food trucks and a charity casino area. Tickets, which range from $65 to $125 for VIP status, are available here. Or you can get your tickets for $80 at the door.
This big boy pop-up is the brainchild of Bryan Townsend, vice president and sales director for spirits producer The 86 Co., who a decade ago was a corporate wonk who didn’t like his job very much. In 2008, he left his job and began to focus on other things – including his dog, Trigger.
One day he was a Grapevine hospital with his newly trained dog when he met a nurse distressed about a young girl who’d been in therapy for a year, unable to socialize with others. Townsend suggested that maybe the girl would like to give Trigger a treat.
The girl did, and Townsend wondered if she might follow the dog through one of the hospital’s children’s ward play tunnels. Then that happened too. The nurse retrieved the girl’s mother. “It was the first time she’d ever crawled,” Townsend remembered.
Inspired by the experience, Townsend launched Trigger’s Toys, a nonprofit that provides toys, therapy aids and financial assistance to hospitalized kids and their families. That’s the organization at the heart of the revelry that now includes bartenders, brand reps and spirits distributors from Texas and beyond who come to lend their shaking, stirring hands.
Recast as a global throwdown, the Ultimate Cocktail Experience puts forward six unique bar “concepts,” each representing a different part of the world with drinks to match. This year’s showcased locales are Mexico City, London, New Orleans, Hong Kong, Havana and Casablanca, and each station’s drink lineup will include a classic drink and a non-alcoholic selection.
In the mix this year are bartenders Ash Hauserman of New York’s Havana-themed Blacktail, named Best New American Bar at this summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, and Iain Griffiths of London’s Dandelyan, which won the honor of the world’s best cocktail bar.
This year’s teams, classic drinks and team captains are as follows:
Casablanca (Mule): captain Andrew Stofko (Hot Joy, Uptown)
Let’s say you are the type of diner who confidently fords a robata grill menu, stoutly navigating the fare only to break into a paralytic stupor at the sight of an extensive sake list. Faced with a noodle bowl of unfamiliar terms, you might very well leap into the abyss of a random choice or opt for a safer fallback (“Sapporo, please!”) — but wouldn’t life be one less mystery burdened if you knew what all those enigmatic terms meant?
Fortunately for you, George Kaiho is here to help. The resident bar manager at mezcal/sherry bar Jettison in Oak Cliff, Kaiho has been moderating a series of sake tastings every other Sunday at Deep Ellum’s Niwa Japanese BBQ, sharing his love and considerable knowledge of Japan’s brewed, rice-based alcohol with anyone who will listen. (Niwa’s next sake tasting will be Sunday, Aug. 6.)
This is the way to explore sake: In dribs and drabs, with an experienced tour guide leading the way. Niwa’s tastings begin with a thin spiral-ring booklet called “A Guide To Tasting Sake.” Inside is a detailed description of sake production along with a map of the 47 prefectures of Japan. And because one is never too old for sticker books, attendees also receive a baggie of stickers with photos of the five premium sakes to be sampled and background on each; these can be applied to pages in the booklet with space for notes about each sake’s first impressions, tasting notes, pairing ideas and more.
Each sake – all of them registering about 15 percent alcohol – is paired with a small bite. At Niwa’s inaugural sake tasting in late June, first up was the Daku Nigori, nigori meaning a sake left partially unfiltered; with a milky, porridge-like texture, it’s best served chilled. Offering notes of grape, berry, banana and pear, the Daku was paired with a Wagyu short rib deviled egg, a rich contrast to its viscous, syrupy sweetness.
Kaiho, who was born in Dallas but grew up in Japan, explained that while sake’s quality and diversity are similar to wine, it ‘s better compared to beer, being less affected by climate than by the production process itself. “Wine is about what happens in the vineyard,” he said. “This is more like a beer. It’s about what happens along the way.”
Cheap sakes abound, but it’s premium sakes that are on the rise, one of the main characteristics being the degree to which the rice is polished, or washed, since the grains’ exterior layers offer less desirable flavors to the final product. To be called premium, a sake’s grains must have been polished down by at least 30 percent. “Ginjo” sake has been 40 percent polished, “Daiginjo” 50 percent.
Our second sake was Otokoyama’s Tokubetsu (special) Junmai from Hokkaido prefecture, one of Japan’s northernmost breweries, founded in 1661. While some producers add alcohol to sakes to bypass the lengthy fermentation process, a junmai sake is free of such chicanery; made with snowmelt well water, ours was dry with apple notes and it paired well with the starch of spicy fries and wasabi aioli.
Next up, the Kirinzan Classic, immediately distinguished by a funky, yeasty aroma. Its watery, nearly flavorless taste blossomed into an apple/pear finish; Kaiho speculated that yeasts were likely added during production with a neutral spirit added to halt fermentation. (Trickery! See above paragraph.) It coupled nicely with a salty kara-age chicken.
Fourth up was Masumi’s highly drinkable Karakuchi Kiippon, a junmai ginjo (no added alcohol, 40 percent polished) made with soft mountainous water from Japan’s alpine Nagano region. (The Coors of Japan!) Kaiho said this particular sake, served with sashimi, was a favorite when he worked at Tei-An, where tables of buoyant imbibers would order bottle after bottle. Pleasantly refreshing with a clean, cucumber-y taste, our glass at Niwa was appropriately flanked by a crab cucumber roll.
Our final pour was Kirinzan’s Junmai Ginjo. The brewery, founded in 1843, gets both its water and rice from Niigata prefecture, and Kirinzan is a so-called zizake (local) sake consumed largely by local inhabitants. Sweet and clean with a lovely floral character, it was paired with sushi.
At the moment, Niwa offers the tastings for a generous $20-$25, a bargain compared to the pricey sake dinners Kaiho oversaw when he worked at Tei-An. The booklets have enough pages to accommodate multiple visits. “If you come to four or five, you’ll end up with a good book of sakes you can keep to yourself,” Kaiho said. (Actually, two tastings was enough to fill up my booklet, but I’ll not quibble with a pleasant buzz and a good time, provided the math isn’t torpedoing my wallet.)
And anyway, “the goal here is not to make money,” said restaurant owner Jimmy Niwa. “It’s to show people what sake is all about.”
And that right there should be reason enough to give sake’s goodness a try, for goodness’ sake.
Could Dale DeGroff have imagined that, some 25 years after he began squeezing fresh citrus and making simple syrups in the service of better cocktails, he’d be among the elder statesmen of a 20,000-strong spirits festival? Yet there he was – King Cocktail! – with his signature wry smile, at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone, flaming orange peels and cranking out drinks like a champ at Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits festival that last weekend concluded its 15th run.
A bartenders’ walking tour: That’s how all this started. Back then a lot of people still thought of bartending as a temporary gig you did on the way to something else – but the spirits industry is now a $25 billion-dollar beast, and Tales is likewise a juggernaut, with people traveling to New Orleans from 40 countries for five days of booze-related workshops, career advice, happy hours, tastings, competitions, parties, bonding and networking. What was once a manageable, almost intimate gathering of industry professionals riding a wave of love for the craft and quality ingredients has, in some eyes, become too big for its own good, an overcrowded, over-the-top party of sold-out seminars, ever-accumulating wristbands and fewer one-on-one opportunities.
“Tales has become, to me, more about learning one-on-on through networking than in seminars,” said Brittany Koole, a bar manager and consultant in Houston.
It didn’t help that the stretch of Bourbon Street normally frequented by Tales-goers was a war zone of giant potholes, wire fencing and bulldozers. “I didn’t feel the same connection with the area,” said Justin Kallhoff of Dallas event space DEC on Dragon, who spent more time off the strip and less time dealing with the big parties.
Just the same, Tales carried on, the thus-far clear leader in the spirit-festival world. As usual, attendees this year included a good number of Texans – bartenders, bartenders-turned-spirits-reps, bar owners, bar suppliers, bar goers and those who chronicle it all.
So there were Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who staffed a table at Saturday’s mezcal tasting room at the Monteleone. And Campari America rep Chase Streitz and Megan McClinton of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, were among those who joined Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller for Wild Turkey, for dinner and whiskey at Cochon. “I was lucky enough to get to pour Jimmy a glass, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Streitz, formerly of Bulldog Gin, The Standard Pour and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.
Cazadores Tequila partnered with the Bartender Boxing Organization to sponsor a battle between Houston and Los Angeles bartenders that culminated at Tales. And in a bowling event pitting bartenders from 14 cities against each other in the lanes, Team Texas took second only to Miami.
Major spirits companies, small-batch distillers and beverage-related producers also come to Tales to build or bolster brand recognition. But possibly the fastest growing group of attendees might be people who just like consuming and learning about spirits and the various things made with them – people like Jean Verhaar of Houston. “We are what you call cocktail enthusiasts,” she said, at the festival with pal Pam Stevens of New Orleans.
On Thursday, Steve and Beverly Davis of Mobile, Alabama, roamed a tasting room dedicated to pisco, the clear brandy native to Peru and Chile. “A little waitress at Galatoire’s told us about (Tales) some years ago,” Beverly said. The two have been coming ever since with friends John and Sue Lawyer.
“It’s just fun,” Sue Lawyer said. “There’s no purpose to it but to learn and have a good time.” She ducked over to one drink station where DeGroff, now widely considered the godfather of the modern cocktail renaissance, was busy making Algeria cocktails for the masses.
It was at New York’s Rainbow Room that DeGroff built a following by reviving classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails in the 1980s, a gig he landed a few years after being hired by restaurateur Joe Baum, the man behind the Four Seasons and other fine dining establishments; the Alegria – pisco, Cointreau and apricot brandy – was among the cocktails featured at Baum’s La Fonda del Sol in the 1960s, at a time when anything not a Manhattan or Martini was rare. Now DeGroff had revived it as the Algeria, with his own twist, for the pisco event. “Because (Baum) was my mentor,” he said.
Brands found clever ways to promote themselves, crafting whimsical and interactive tasting rooms, throwing happy hours, offering special product unveilings or cocktail-paired dinners – or, in the case of Amaro Montenegro, the excellent Italian bitter liqueur, having its master botanist demonstrate its 132-year-old production process using herbs and spices, an alembic, a boiler and a macerating device.
Jagermeister, the ubiquitous digestif now angling for a piece of the craft-cocktail craze, recruited Gaz Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, for a happy hour at Fritzel’s, the Bourbon Street jazz pub where LSU students made Jager popular in the late 1980s. And then threw a huge party afterward. And there was Diageo, the giant spirits company behind brands like Tanqueray and Don Julio, scoring Snoop Dogg for its own beats-heavy Friday night bash.
Workshops this year included explorations of ingredients like grains and bitter gentian in spirits and liqueurs; the use of technology such as centrifuges behind the bar; and the rising popularity of umami flavor and low-proof drinks.
Cocktails were plentiful, served mostly in small plastic Tales cups, and it was wise to heed the oft-quoted Tales adage “you don’t have to finish that” while collecting grab-and-go bottled water along the way. That said, I did find the bottom of a few superior creations –my favorites being Laura Bellucci’s House of the Rind, a dessert-like mix of Earl-Grey-infused honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and citrus-chamomile bitters served at Sunday’s “Legs and Eggs” burlesque brunch at SoBou; and from Aaron Polsky of Los Angeles’ Harvard and Stone, the Precious Punch served at Thursday’s pisco tasting room, featuring pisco acholado, apricot liqueur and amaro.
Camaraderie is what keeps people coming back to Tales, and festival vets saw old friends while newbies made new ones. Second-timer Ashley Williams, a Bols Genever ambassador who tends bar at Filament in Dallas, was looking forward to being in New Orleans and meeting fellow ambassadors. What had she learned from her first go-round?
“Pace yourself,” she said. “You don’t have to do everything. There’s so much going on. Take some time to just go sit in a park.”
Being in the French Quarter, amid the stilt-walkers and human statues and little kids drumming on plastic buckets, it was also worth revisiting gems like the rotating Carousel Bar, grabbing a frozen Irish Coffee at classic haunt Erin Rose or nestling in at the French 75 Bar at historic restaurant Arnaud’s, which recently won the James Beard award for bar program of the year.
Around the festival’s midway point came the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s beloved annual Thursday midnight toast, on which Texas naturally has put its stamp over the years with waving Lone Star flags and choruses of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” This year’s spectacle was a bit more subdued, given that the whole shebang had to be relocated from construction-torn Bourbon Street to the second-floor confines of Bourbon Cowboy Too. Nevertheless, Texas endured – and somehow so did Tales, which will power on to see another year.
First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal’s pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight – as some believe it should always be – and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.
Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?
A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so – and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as “that bottle with the worm in it.”
Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal’s virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled “Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead.”
When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they’d built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit — even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.
“We’re hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in,” says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker’s Mark. “Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits.”
Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant – but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.
“There’s an immense amount of genetic diversity,” panelist Ivan Suldana, author of “The Anatomy of Mezcal,” told an audience at 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. “We’re talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit.”
Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. “Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different,” he says.
Mezcal’s production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal’s distinctive flavors remember their conversion.
For Samuels, that moment came at Austin’s Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. “That was my first experience,” said Samuels, who’s been tending bar at Oak Cliff’s Bar Belmont throughout the last year. “I didn’t really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, ‘We need a good room to drink mezcal in.’ That led to this.”
Las Almas Rotas – “the broken souls” – will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you’ll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum. “It’s kind of an homage to our speakeasy,” Samuels says. “Just straight spirits and Topo Chico.”
Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown’s Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores (“saints and sinners”) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.
Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.
“We want people to get in love with mezcal,” says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. “It’s, like, with Mexican food. People think they’re eating real Mexican food but it’s actually Tex-Mex.”
Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.
Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel,” of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.
“We basically created a room that we would want to drink in,” Shad Kvetko says.
For their mezcaleria’s actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.
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