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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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?
There was a moment as I was savoring Remedy’s delicious RxPx cocktail when everything else became insignificant – any thoughts of calories, my tendency to shun “dessert-y” drinks, the bustling bar around me, the very fact that I was an adult – and I simply lapped up my ice cream like an 8-year-old kid. Such was the allure of Mate Hartai’s decadent drink, which perfectly suits the motif at recently opened Remedy on Lower Greenville Avenue.
Pedro Ximenez sherry is probably the richest player among the Spanish fortified wine’s many varieties, and its raisin-like notes make it a welcome garnish for vanilla ice cream. Hartai, the beverage master at Remedy and formerly of Libertine Bar, took that idea further, adding ice cream to an ounce of sherry and topping it with a balsamic cherry. The result is sinfully good. “It’s basically a Pedro Ximenez milk shake,” he says. “The three flavors play really well together, and then you have that cherry, and it’s, like – boom.”
Remedy’s approachable and unique bar program is inspired by the elegant soda fountains of the first half of the 20th century, before they settled into stuffy, Leave It To Beaver versions of themselves. And sodas (available straight-up) are the driving force behind Hartai’s compact, simply conceived drink menu, from its breezy highballs to the more adventurous wild cards and after-dinner treats like the RxPx.
At Libertine, Hartai’s wonkishly thoughtful enthusiasm for the craft made the neighborhood bar’s cocktail program an under-the-radar gem, so it’s not surprising to see him undertake Remedy’s mission with a similar zeal. The innovation here is the carbonated water itself, produced in a recirculating fountain that constantly roils the water to promote carbon dioxide absorption, which Hartai says gives it “the same level of carbonation as Topo Chico, if not better.”
The heightened fizz means Remedy’s bartenders can pump soda water into drinks without having to stir, which lets the drink retain more carbonation. In other words, upping the carbon levels itself becomes a mixing tool. (And skipping that step also means bartenders can theoretically get your drink to you faster. So there’s that.)
For the most part the cocktails pack a light-handed punch, the very definition of soft drinks to complement Remedy’s hearty comfort dishes like fried bologna sandwiches and chicken pot pie. But while the lineup has little to echo the obvious heft of, say, a Sazerac, its soda-jerk pep offers a spirited diversion.
Among the highlights: The French-75-like Bitter Lemon, with Meyer lemon syrup meeting gin, sparkling wine and the herbal bitter Suze; the sturdy Oleomaize, Hartai’s twist on a classic Corn and Oil employing dark rum and lime syrup in its Cuba Libre-like favor, and the playful Mustachio, whose white-chocolate shavings begin to descend into the drink about halfway through to be straw-slurped along with rye, cacao and an orgeat syrup made from pistachio and pumpkin seeds. And the fantastic spiced apple soda is one worth having on its own. “It’s like Christmas in a glass,” my pleasantly surprised friend Hollie said.
The mindfully seasonal menu is about to undergo a revamp with ingredients like Meyer lemons going out of season, but Remedy sports a sufficiently good foundation to ensure that happy days will be around for some time. The warmer weather to come should prove an ideal setting for soda drinks to shine. Not to mention sherry milkshakes.
DALLAS – Early last summer, in the private parlor at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, five weathered books spread out on a vintage trunk – among them Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946), Robert H. Loeb Jr.’s Nip Ahoy! (1954) and Obispo y Monserrate’s Bar La Florida Cocktails (1937). “Please be careful,” said Emily Perkins, regional rep for Collectif 1806, a project of Remy Cointreau USA. “They’re very old.”
With the seeming ubiquity of craft cocktails these days, it’s worth remembering that the scene is less revolution than revival: The practice dates back more than a century, and while there’s plenty to appreciate about craft cocktails – the culinary parallels, a culture of hospitality, their ability to take the edge off a day – one of the things I personally love about them is the history that serves as their base. When you make a proper Old Fashioned or Aviation, in other words, you’re building something that someone made pretty much exactly the same way a hundred years or more before. While the tools, technology and the range and quality of ingredients have all since improved, the drinks that have come and gone have left an enduring canon of classics, and the craft at heart is the very one conducted for decades upon decades.
That’s a notion thoughtful bartenders appreciate, and it’s something that Remy Cointreau, the U.S. branch of the French distiller known for its eponymous orange liqueur, has seized upon in a welcome and opportune way. The company has gradually compiled an archive of 250 vintage cocktail volumes, and for the past year, Dallas has been lucky to be among a small circuit of cities in which books are periodically presented for perusal through Cointreau’s bartender education and support arm, Collectif 1806. (Other cities include Miami, San Francisco, Chicago and New York.)
In addition to Sissy’s, Dallas “book club” events have been held at Barter in Uptown, Meddlesome Moth in the Design District and most recently, Abacus in Knox-Henderson.
The evening hours passed at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen as the select group took turns poring through the quaint and dated pages. Smartphones snapped photos of recipes, illustrations or inspiring prose. “I’m such a sucker for vintage illustrations,” Perkins said. “I love the books with the crazy drawings and the old ads.”
Meanwhile, five rounds of cocktails appeared, one from each book – including the sweet, mild Honeysuckle, from Angostura-Wuppermann’s Professional Mixing Guide (1941); the luscious Ian’s Fizz, from Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947); from Bar La Florida Cocktails, the lesser-known classic Brandy Daisy.
“I love old books,” said Julie Brown, who tends bar at nearby Hibiscus. “Trader Vic’s is, like, every bartender’s first book.”
Cocktails at these events naturally showcase the Cointreau line of products, which includes The Botanist gin, Bruichladdich Scotch whisky and Mount Gay rum. In general, original recipes are adhered to as faithfully as possible, though they aren’t necessarily what Perkins would serve to modern palates. “You’d have to tinker,” she said. “Most (of the old drinks) are really tart; they’re not using a lot of sugar. Before the 1940s it was rare and expensive. People didn’t have access to a lot of sugar and ice. They were stronger, boozier drinks.”
Despite the light atmosphere, the books are handled with a level of care that sometimes surprises Perkins, who’d initially been reticent to release the rare volumes, some frail and plastic-sleeved, from her protective embrace. “It was hard to let go of that,” she said. But “when it comes to handling the books, there’s a lot of respect and decorum.”
That’s one reason attendance is limited, to weed out looky-loos in favor of more serious practitioners. You wouldn’t want just anyone getting their paws on Harry Johnson’s classic The New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (1900), for example, or V. B. Lewis’ The Complete Buffet Guide (1903). Some of the lucky few even receive access to Cointreau’s online archives. “A lot of these are what people call proprietary secrets,” Perkins says. “It’s supposed to be a tool for bartenders who really care. It’s Holy-Grail-type stuff.”
Those at Sissy’s included Matt Orth of LARK at the Park, Parliament’s Stephen Halpin, Lauren Festa of The Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek and High West brand ambassador Chris Furtado. There was also Parliament’s Daniel Charlie Ferrin, who was proud to already be in possession of Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. “I bought it for $12 on Amazon,” he said. “Except the dust jacket is in pristine condition. It’s literally sitting in my car right now.”
In addition to the recipes, “I love the cartoons,” Ferrin said. He picked up the book and flipped open the cover to show an illustration of a bartender pouring liquid from one mixing glass into another. “In fact,” he said, “my next tattoo is going to be based on this one – except it’ll be a monkey, with a fez and a unicycle.”
The recipes are often preceded by wry insights or anecdotes. Introducing the rum-based Pikaki, the renowned Trader Vic wrote in his Book of Food and Drink (1946): “I’d save this one for my visiting great-aunt who, when approached as to her idea of a little before-dinner stimulant, shakes her finger at you reprovingly, ‘Well, just one.’ She’ll probably weaken and have two and go into dinner with her transformation askew.”
The books also recall a time of unabashedly flowery prose and titles – for instance, Charles H. Baker Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. 1 (Being An Exotic Cookery Book, or Around the World with Knife, Fork and Spoon).
So taken was I with the simple but noble sentiments of the finely distilled introduction to the Book of Food and Drink – which in 1946, was priced at $3.95 – that I tracked down my own copy of the book for my home stash. It reads: “Dedicated to those merry souls who make eating and drinking a pleasure; who achieve contentedness long before capacity; and who, whenever they drink, prove able to carry it, enjoy it, and remain gentlemen.”
“It’s dedicated to us,” Perkins said. “People who love to indulge in finer things – but it says never go overboard, treat people with respect. It’s idealistic and sweet.”
For this group, the books are more than novelty: They’re passed-down knowledge and perspective and a reminder that those who practice the craft today are part of something much bigger than themselves.
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