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)
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.
If you’re headed to Louisville for next weekend’s 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, you’ve probably got whiskey on your mind. But while the city and its signature brown spirit have become synonymous, Louisville’s craft-cocktail scene is having a moment, too.
No doubt, Louisville is a straight-ahead bourbon town, and visitors will find expressions here they won’t find anywhere else. Things could get even better, with the state considering legislation that would let anyone sell old unopened whiskey bottles to bars or restaurants. If it passes, some cool vintage stuff could be showing up soon on (or off) menus.
“There are probably more bottles of bourbon tucked away in attics in Kentucky than anyplace else in the world,” Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It just stands to reason, because we are the birthplace of bourbon and we have been producing the great majority of the world’s bourbon for now over 200 years.”
But the city hasn’t missed out on the craft-cocktail boom, and you’ll find plenty more than Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours. Plus, bars here stay open until 4 a.m.
“The city has evolved a lot,” says Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which stocks about 400 bourbons, some for sale by the bottle. “It’s incredibly more advanced than it was when I moved here 12 years ago.”
The rise of the region’s whiskey visibility and the city’s cocktails scene has been a symbiotic one, says Brian Elliott, master distiller at Four Roses Bourbon. When he was a kid, Louisville wasn’t widely known for much beyond the University of Louisville Cardinals and that big horse race at Churchill Downs. That began to change in the mid-1990s as foodie culture took root nationwide and the craft-cocktail renaissance bubbled in the wings. As tastes changed and chefs and bartenders answered consumer demands for authentic, quality ingredients, Kentucky whiskey offered Louisville homegrown artistry.
“At the same time that people started caring about the craftsmanship of their cocktails, bartenders were looking for quality ingredients and the story behind them,” Elliott says. The same had happened with food, and whiskey was prized as a local product. “It’s such a part of the culture here that inevitably it became kind of a centerpiece of cocktails and food.”
Cocktails, marinades, glazes, dessert syrups– any way you can utilize whiskey has been tried.
“Now the scene in Louisville is remarkable,” he says. “I don’t think you can think about Louisville without thinking about the food scene, and that goes hand in hand with the cocktail scene.”
Four Roses’ Kentucky roots date back to 1888; the brand was one of a half-dozen allowed to be sold during Prohibition for medicinal purposes. “You could actually get a prescription,” Elliott says. For what? “Well….that was probably more about your relationship with your physician than anything.”
After Prohibition, Four Roses became the top-selling bourbon in the U.S., and the brand was purchased by Seagram’s, in Canada. While the company kept exporting Four Roses’ original recipe to Europe and Japan, it remade a Canadian-style blended whiskey for the U.S. That continued until 2001, when Japan’s Kirin bought the brand and reinstituted the original style.
You’ll now find Four Roses in cocktails like the Petal Pusher at Martini Italian Bistro, in East Louisville. But it’s also among the local whiskeys on the shelves of cocktail bars like Meta, a Daniel-Craig-cool industrial-style hang (next to a downtown strip joint) with marble counters and original drinks traced to their classic influences: For example, try the Northern Lights, featuring un-aged brandy from locally distilled Copper & Kings along with bourbon-barreled gin, Yellow Chartreuse and dandelion bitters; underneath that you’ll find the classic from which the drink gets its inspiration, the Alaska.
A few blocks in one direction takes you to the regal Brown Hotel, where you can enjoy a Mint Julep in oaky opulence along with the famous Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with bacon, tomatoes, Pecorino Romano cheese and Mornay sauce developed in the 1920s to appease hangry wee-hour clubgoers. Head another direction and you’ll find the historic Seelbach Hilton hotel, which opened in 1905 and poured drinks for the likes of Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Not far away is the fascinating Proof on Main, a whimsically artful cocktail bar and restaurant attached to the renowned 21c Museum Hotel. (You’ll know it by the strawberry-pomegranate-themed Lincoln limo parked outside, and if not that, then the gold, four-story-high statue of David.) Look through a thoughtful drink menu bursting with fruit and herb and try the outstanding False Flattery (pictured at top) – a mix of ginger liqueur, Hum botanical liqueur, lime, simple, tiki bitters and mint. Then check out the contemporary art gallery in back while you sip.
A 2014 Imbibe magazine story traced the scene’s roots to long-gone pioneers like Meat and 732 Social, but those led to local granddaddies like the Silver Dollar, a Southern cocktail honkytonk rocking a former firehouse and once named one of the nation’s best whiskey bars by GQ magazine. But there’s other gems on the menu, too, like the Juke Box Mama, a bright blend of aquavit, Aperol, vanilla syrup, lemon and sparkling wine.
Farther out, in a developing area called NuLu, or New Louisville, is Garage Bar, an informal bourbon den housed in a former auto service garage and whipping up wood-fired pizza; a few minutes’ walk away on Market is Rye, where you can partner cocktails with lamb burgers and more from an internationally inspired menu.
I found one of my favorite Louisville spots in Butchertown, a historic neighborhood east of downtown. A stone’s throw from the Copper & Kings distillery, Lola is the cozy, late-night sister to the excellent Butchertown Grocery restaurant. Lola’s dimly lit, vintage vibe is backed by a refreshingly inventive cocktail menu; down some beignets or tasty mushroom fries and sip a Golden Porsche, featuring Copper & Kings brandy and absinthe, lemon and two Italian bitter liqueurs, or a luscious Lady Midnight (Old Forrester bourbon, bone-marrow-washed sherry, honey liqueur and mole bitters).
Take the time to get to the other side of the freeway and you’ll find the quirky Louis’ The Ton, with some of the best cocktail names in town – take Life in the Shruburbs, or Not Drunk, Just Buzzed. Or head a few miles southeast of downtown to Germantown, where the speakeasy-style Mr. Lee’s Lounge has a reputation for Southern hospitality and sparse illumination; table servers are beckoned via little lights on the wall.
For fine Southern dining and great cocktails, head to Jack Fry’s, in the Highlands, or Bourbon’s Bistro, in the historic Clifton neighborhood adjacent to Butchertown. As always, it comes back to bourbon.
“Any bartender in this city worth their salt is going to be heavy on bourbon,” Haymarket’s Landan says. “Just like anyone in London is going to know their gin drinks, or someone in Mexico City can talk about agave…. That’s what’s going to set us apart from anywhere else in America.”
THEY CAME, they saw, they cocktailed – and by Sunday evening, Tales of the Cocktail 2015 had been conquered. Thousands of bartenders, bar owners, distillers, product reps and cocktail enthusiasts — a good portion of them from Texas — swarmed New Orleans’ French Quarter last week for the spirits industry’s biggest gathering, taking in five days’ worth of workshops, networking, tasting receptions, parties and spirit-paired dinners.
From brand-sponsored cocktail breakfasts to rum seminars to after-party confabs at favorites like Erin Rose (home of the Frozen Irish Coffee), there’s a lot to take in. But most of all, the festival is about camaraderie – a time for those who practice and support the cocktail craft to revel in each other’s knowledge, company and support. Bar staffs get better at their craft – by watching each other work, learning about new products and techniques, discovering the history behind what they do — and as a result, we, the consumers, get a better bar experience. It’s a win-win.
One big happy family. Except for one thing: While festival rivalries are never bitter, Texas members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild got word that heading into this year’s ritual midnight toast, another USBG chapter had Texas in its sights.
AMONG THE MANY traditions of Tales – which last year drew 18,000 people – is the USBG’s annual midnight toast, held on Thursday night of the festival outside the landmark Old Absinthe House, at Bienville and Bourbon streets.
The toast is a quick but raucous affair, a celebration of unity, but of course, Texas can’t help but go big. And having been late to the cocktail game behind places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago – a deficit Lone Star State cities have since made long strides toward closing – maybe there was a little something to prove as the 2014 toast approached.
Either way, forces aligned: With a Texas-staffed event simultaneously happening at a two-story venue across the street, “there were, like, Texas fight songs and Texas flags waving from up on the railing,” remembers Dallas’ Chase Streitz, Bulldog gin’s Texas ambassador. “It was like Texas Mardi Gras for 15 minutes.”
“Texas is kind of the underdog of Tales,” said Alex Fletcher, bar manager at Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “So it was kind of, like…. You know. Texas style.”
It was all over quickly. But rumors soon began that a Texan had thrown a rival chapter flag to the ground, and naturally its owners were not amused. When Travis Tober, beverage director at Austin’s VOX Table, heard they were going to come out swinging this year, Texans decided it was time to rally.
TEXAS’ MARK ON TALES is huge, given the state’s size and proximity to New Orleans. Festival founder Ann Tuennerman says representation likely lags only behind New York and California, but this year marked the fourth in a row that a Texas-run party helped kick off the week – and as far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s still Tales’ only state-specific event.
Houston cocktail enthusiasts Michelle Mata, Teddy Bucher and Laura Villafranca were making their second, fourth and sixth Tales visits, respectively. At a dinner at famed Commander’s Palace to showcase Maker’s Mark’s new Cask Strength bourbon, the state went four-for-four, with one table seating a Houston-based rep for Beam Suntory spirits, a wine enthusiast from Austin and a pair of spirits writers from San Antonio and Dallas.
One morning in the festival’s pop-up bookstore, bartenders Christian Armando (of Uptown’s Standard Pour) and Austin Gurley (of Plano’s Whiskey Cake) browsed the festival’s ever-increasing stock of spirits-related books and cocktail enhancers, from ginger-turmeric bitters to smoke-and-salt bitters to a $75 bottle of truffle bitters.
And the weather was scorching hot – which made the lavish pool parties thrown by spirits producers such as Trinidad-based House of Angostura – all the more welcome. As an attendee from Austin posted on Facebook: “Never in my life have I felt more confident in my decision to pack 8 undershirts.”
THE RALLY PLAN was this: To meet at Thursday night’s High West whiskey-sponsored barbecue dinner at One Eyed Jacks on nearby Toulouse Street. Chris Furtado, High West’s Texas rep, had brought a backpack brimming with Texas flags, ready to distribute. From there the group would move on to Erin Rose, and finally to the Old Absinthe House. “I’m sure I’ll be hoarse by the end of the night,” Furtado said. “I’ve heard they (the other chapter members) have a chant. We’re not that organized.”
He had big hopes, though, expecting other Texas-based liquor reps and distributors and hordes of bartenders. But by 10:30 p.m., when it was time to move on to Erin Rose, there was just him and a pair of Texas supporters from Reston, Va.
Outside Erin Rose, the passing minutes brought only a trickle, and by 11:15, Furtado seemed concerned.
At last, a handful of others showed, including Austin’s Tober, USBG Austin chapter president Jessica Sanders, North Texas chapter president Brian McCullough and Julian Pagan of The Mitchell in Dallas.
The showdown was barely a half-hour away.
THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY is now a $23 billion beast. The category made up 35 percent of alcohol sales last year, a slow but steady rise from 29 percent in 2000, with new products coming out all the time.
So you can’t blame brands for going all-out to win favor. On top of dozens of Tales tasting rooms, spirit portfolio giants William Grant & Sons, Diageo and Bacardi are known for extravagant parties with multiple drink stations churning out brand-specific cocktails amid the sensory smorgasbord.
Rutte, a Holland-based line of vodka and gins, made its official U.S. launch with a presentation led by master distiller Myriam Hendrickx and packets of the many botanicals that go into its products – juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom and, interestingly, nuts, which influence its genever (gin’s European precursor). Then came another party, with more drinks handed out, and oysters done Dutch: On the half-shell, with a splash of gin.
With so much liquor flowing freely, it’s wise to heed the words of advice that preface many a festival: You don’t have to finish that. In other words, unless a cocktail is truly special, a taste is enough. Then set it aside. There will always be another one.
That said, among the drinks I actually got the chance to try, these were my top four. I might have even have had one or two of them twice.
SWEET AND DANDY (by Kellie Thorn, Empire State South, Atlanta)
This sublimely bittersweet gem from Alameda, Calif.-based St. George Spirits – of which I am a loyal fan – featured its California Citrus vodka, Suze bitter liqueur, vanilla liqueur, lemon, green tea syrup and orange peel. I arrived late to the St. George tasting, so I only got to try it because publicist Ellie Winters was nice enough to share hers with me. And thank the heavens for that.
SOLERA PINA (Lynette Marrero, Zacapa Rum)
OK, it was crazy hot at Diageo’s annual House Party, held at the city’s Contemporary Arts Warehouse, and between that and the killer 80s-cover band onstage, it somehow seemed OK to fall for a snow-cone cocktail. Featuring Zacapa rum along with amantillado sherry, macadamia nut syrup and pineapple, its icy crunch was gloriously enhanced with a sprinkling of Marrero’s vanilla-infused salt.
TIERRA D’ORO (Jim Kearns, Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, Greenwich Village, New York); and
MACHO PUNCH (Tony Abou-Ganim, The Modern Mixologist)
At Thursday’s packed Peruvian pisco tasting room, at least a half-dozen versions of the classic Pisco Punch were on display, and these two were absolutely standout: Kearns’ Tierra D’Oro spiced up Pisco Porton with lime, aji Amarillo (a Peruvian chili) syrup, passion fruit syrup, guava puree and classic pineapple, gorgeously presented with an edible flower garnish.
Meanwhile, the gregarious Abou-Ganim mixed Macchu Pisco with floral Yellow Chartreuse, pineapple gomme syrup, lime and lemon and a garnish of pineapple and pineapple-ginger foam to sweet, refreshing effect.
THINGS WERE LOOKING shaky as the Texans headed into battle a couple of blocks away. But as the group neared the intersection of Bourbon and Bienville, a critical mass began to form, constellations of others joining in along the way as they closed in.
“Let’s do this, Texas!” Tober yelled.
The avenue was a gumbo of Bourbon Streeters and festival-goers, but little Lone Star flags were already waving en masse as beads rained off the balconies. A bigger flag drew a lineup of Texans for selfies and, as midnight drew near, the throng broke into a loud, proud group-sing of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
The big showdown – well, it never materialized. If the rumors had ever been true, the evidence was nowhere to be seen or heard. “I don’t know what happened,” Furtado said. “We owned it.”
And then it was over once again, and the festival rolled on. San Francisco’s ABV bar reigned victorious at Tales’ annual Bar Fight (which went international this year) and won Best New American Bar at Saturday’s annual Spirited Awards, Denver’s Williams & Graham was named Best American Cocktail Bar and New York’s Ivy Mix was named best bartender.
Sunday’s annual picnic rewarded those who went the distance, but for many, Tales was a beatdown and done before they knew it – with great memories tinged with realizations of how much they had yet to learn or regrets over missed opportunities.
“New Orleans, you were a whirlwind romance this year,” Austin’s Sanders posted on Facebook. “Can’t believe I have to leave already!”
And from Whiskey Cake’s Gurley: “Well, that was an experience. Tales of the Cocktail, you win this time. Back to Dallas.”
NEW ORLEANS — The Season of the Drink is upon us once again: Tales of the Cocktail 2015 has come to town, marking its 13th year in the Big Easy. From around the world they’ve come – thousands of bartenders, liquor reps, spirits producers, bar owners, beverage industry scribes and cocktail enthusiasts here to witness the monster truck of all spirits festivals in the grandest of all party towns.
New Orleans is a city that knows how to drink: From its primordial jambalaya sprang more than a few now-classic cocktails – among them the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz and the insufferable Hurricane. We know her as NOLA, and she is among America’s craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud’s French 75, Antoine’s Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it’s not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here.
The five-day festival can be grueling, overflowing as it is with workshops, networking, happy hours, competitions, tastings, spirit-paired dinners, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions and French Quarter camaraderie, huge parties and… even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one’s resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if one is not careful – for instance, advanced bartender trainings; tips on opening and running a bar; seminars about the flavors of Cognac, the reemergence of Canadian whiskey or the pairing of cocktails with cigars; and of course, the singularly unique city itself.
This is my fourth year at Tales, soaking in knowledge and sunshine and chronicling the shenanigans as the members of Texas’ craft-cocktail community represent the Lone Star State. Texas, along with New York and California, is among the top-represented states at the festival, which last year drew nearly 18,000 attendees. About three-fourths of those were working bartenders or industry professionals.
“Everything we do is in support of the spirits industry,” said Paul Tuennerman, co-founder of the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, which sponsors the festival. “We want to ensure that flavorful cocktails are served for years to come.”
Most of the action is going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street (home to the famously revolving Carousel Bar), where Wednesday morning’s annual Texas party helped kick things off for the fourth year in a row, with Austin’s bar peeps leading this year’s charge.
The bar staff of The Pastry War, Houston’s pioneering agave spirits spot, is among a handful of crews competing in Thursday’s yearly Bar Fight (which this year has gone international, with competitors representing Paris, London and Melbourne). Texas is also known to bring its oversized presence to the U.S. Bartenders Guild’s annual midnight toast, and in general you’ll find Lone Star peeps chilling at local spots like Cane and Table, One Eyed Jacks and Erin Rose.
We all know that the people who make your cocktails can be right up there with your doctor, your shrink, your spiritual leader and your favorite podcast host when it comes to simple week-to-week survival. Sometimes they’re kind of all of those things rolled into one, except that they can also knock out a good drink – which might make them the most important people of all.
So when the best of them move on to new places, you want to know. Here’s a roundup of some of Dallas’ craft-cocktail peeps who’ve found new digs.
If you haven’t seen Eddie Eakin mixing things up at Bishop Arts’ Boulevardier lately, it’s for good reason: The buff barman has been busy readying beverage operations at soon-to-open Rapscallion, the new Lower Greenville venture from the folks behind Boulevardier.
With Eakin at the helm and one wall pretty much entirely devoted to bar space and storage, you know it’s going to be serious.
In Eakin’s absence, former Meddlesome Moth mixmaster Austin Millspaugh has stepped in to fill the void. The man who once incorporated foie gras into a cocktail is now overseeing Boulevardier’s bar program and is already in full tinker mode; if your tastes lean toward bitter, try his smoked Negroni with Fernet, thyme and Green Chartreuse. His ambitious alchemy should be interesting to watch as the year goes on.
Oak, in the Design District, is another place to put on your radar: The high-end restaurant has gotten double-barrel-serious about its cocktail program by bringing on both Michael Reith and James Slater, who between them produced three of my favorite cocktails of 2014.
One night, Reith was working his last night at the venerable Windmill Lounge in T-shirt and jeans, and the next he was pouring fancydranks in Oak’s signature white button-down shirt, black pants and tie. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s going to be a chance to shine again.”
Slater, formerly of Spoon, is likewise happy about the move; the dynamic duo have already put their formidable imprint on Oak’s cocktail menu with classic variations that include a killer Negroni and an Old Fashioned made with Old Tom gin. Though the two are different in style, their philosophies are simpatico, and the Panamanian-born Slater aims to inspire patrons to consider them as much of an accompaniment to dinner as wine.
“We’re going to change the bar program,” Slater says. “We’re like Batman and Robin.”
Meanwhile, it’s been six weeks since the much decorated Daniel Guillen left La Duni, for … well, for what no one was exactly sure – but after more than nine years with the operation, whose cocktail operations had become synonymous with his name, it was time to make a change.
It turns out there was a beast waiting to explode: The proudly Peruvian-born bartender has been unleashing his passions for Central and South American drink culture at places like Proof + Pantry and pop-up events – like next week’s cocktail dinner with Chef David Anthony Temple at Twenty Seven.
“Most bartenders focus on classic American cocktails, maybe a few from Europe,” Guillen says. “In my case, that doesn’t make sense. I would be one of many. So I thought, what can I bring to the table?” Look for more of the same while he and cocktail guru Sean Conner, he of the metroplex’s northern hinterlands, work on an upcoming project set to launch this fall.
At Blind Butcher, Ian Reilly is putting his own spin on things after joining the meat-forward establishment a couple months ago. “He’s the shit,” a departing and obviously happy patron says one evening. “He educates you and he makes you a badass drink.”
Reilly’s variation on the Old Fashioned, which he calls the Hubris, features whiskey with a hops-based syrup, because, “If I had to envision something that men here would want to drink – guys on the prowl, out celebrating, maybe going from beer to cocktails – what better way than to use hops as the sweetener?”
It’s one way that the bearded bar man is easing his way in at a place that has carved out a niche on busy Lower Greenville. “The formula here is working,” says Reilly, formerly of Bowl & Barrel and The People’s Last Stand. “I don’t want to stomp on that.”
Barter’s closing in January dispersed a number of souls to the winds – and one of them was the understated Creighten Brown, who has resurfaced at Tate’s in Uptown. (Juli Naida, as noted in 2014’s end-of-year post, has joined Mate Hartai’s team at Remedy.)
The talented tipple maker – whose Black Monk was also among my favorite cocktails last year – went from bar-back to bartender at Barter and is already hyped to be among Robbie Call’s team at Tate’s, along with Pro Contreras and Ryan Sanders. “The whole gang, man,” he says. “Good times, good times.”
Finally, Dallas recently bid farewell to two budding talents – Lauren Loiselle, who headed the bar program at Meddlesome Moth, and bartender Damon Bird of LARK at the Park. Both also figured prominently in my 2014 list but found themselves drawn to the Bay Area (and who can blame them?). “Two of our real good friends live in San Francisco,” Bird told me before they left. “We talked about it a long time and just decided to give it a go.”
Leaving Dallas was bittersweet, but both are excited about their new opportunities: Loiselle has joined the bar team at Café Du Nord, the new venture from the owners of Trick Dog. The team knows what it’s doing: Trick Dog is among four finalists for Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, to be awarded next month. “I’m super stoked,” she says.
Bird, meanwhile, has nested at Mikkeller Bar, a beer-centric spot near Union Square featuring the best of brews from around the world. While he misses the craft-cocktail world, you can tell the easygoing drink-slinger has found his people. “This was my choice place,” he says.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified Tate’s Ryan Sanders as Ryan Frederick.
NEW ORLEANS — Here in the city that sets the standard for revelry, you never know what you might see: A Santa Claus in shorts, random people on stilts, or perhaps a llama. Add to that the loosely organized mayhem that is Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s largest national gathering, and you‘ve got “Rum Institute” class sessions, tasting stations disguised as giant Cointreau bottles and sponsored parties teeming with booze and spectacle.
Exhibit A: Absolut Vodka’s Wednesday-night welcome bash at Mardi Gras World, a circus-themed soiree featuring drink-slinging midway characters, Andy Warhol lookalikes in various sizes and craft-cocktail founding father Dale DeGroff crooning jazzy standards in the garden of gigantic floats. Or: the acrobat-dotted William Grant & Sons-sponsored party at Lakefront Airport, a restored art-deco edifice where I’m 85 percent sure I saw a camel.
This was the 12th annual TOTC gathering; nearly 23,000 people attended last year. The whole experience can be a bit much, a day-to-day beatdown so grueling that it’s tempting to keep score. “Goodnight NOLA, you’re a worthy adversary,” went Dallas’ Trina Nishimura’s fifth-night post on Facebook. “This round however, goes to me.” (Her final score: NOLA 2, Trina 2, draw 1.) But the frenzy couldn’t obscure the little things that make the annual festival special: The random run-ins with friends not seen since last year, the face-to-face encounters with people known only through social media, the new friends made over spirited dinners and Thursday’s massive midnight toast outside the Old Absinthe House by members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. The days were sprinkled with seminars on topics like bitters, a history of women working behind the bar or the Chinese spirit baijiu, but it was also worth taking a breather to browse the event’s bitters-and-book store or the Cocktail Kingdom-run shop with its gold-plated jiggers and beautifully reproduced vintage tomes like “Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual – Or: How To Mix Drinks of the Present Style” (1900 edition).
The Lone Star State was well represented. It was Texas, of course, that kicked off the jauntiness with Wednesday morning’s Tiki Throwdown at host Hotel Monteleone. The next day, Bonnie Wilson, beverage program manager forFrontburner’s Fork It Over Restaurants – think Plano’s Whiskey Cake or The Ranch at Las Colinas – crafted mini cocktails for the sampling hordes at one of numerous drink stations in Anchor Distilling’s tasting room. Later that afternoon, Austin’s Chris Bostick represented not just Texas but an entire gender at a Battle of the Sexes event sponsored by Mandarine Napoleon. And that night, Dallas’ Brad Bowden (Barter) and Christian Armando (The Standard Pour) were among the many visiting bartenders getting behind the stick at festival-related parties popping up at French Quarter-area locations.
Austin-via-Dallas resident Jason Kosmas, the easygoing co-founder of legendary New York bar Employees Only and one of the driving forces behind Dallas’ now thriving craft-cocktail scene, took some time to talk up The 86 Co., the fledgling spirits line he started with fellow EO barman Dushan Zaric and liquor ambassador Simon Ford. He held afternoon court at New Orleans’ Gravier Street Social, describing his products like a proud daddy recounting his 3-year-old’s budding sports prowess. “If it wasn’t for Tales, I don’t think we would have had the resources and relationships to take it to the next level,” he said.
Friday night would bring yet another party, this one sponsored by The 86 Co. – the annual bar battle pitting half a dozen bars from around the country against each other in a raucous atmosphere to see who could best handle the pressure, evoke their home environment and make the best set of cocktails. In short: To see who was mas macho. As with last year’s event — at which Dallas’ late Bar Smyth made an admirable showing — the throwdown was promoted boxing-style, this time with fancy posters and clever profile cards proclaiming each bar’s staff, fighting styles and words of warning to the competition. In addition to the Tiki Throwdown team, the night’s powerful Texas showing included at least a half-dozen Dallas-based state beverage reps; bartenders Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, Barter’s Stephen Halpin and Brad Bowden, Libertine’s Will Croxville and Driftwood’s Ryan Sumner; even cocktail gadabout Sean Reardon.
Upstairs, Houston bartending luminary Bobby Heugel poured mezcal. Vegas-based “Modern Mixologist” and author Tony Abou-Ganim singlehandedly lit up an entire corner of the dark room with his big-time smile. There was New York’s Julie Reiner, co-founder of the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club – but wait, who was that once again behind the bar at The 86 Co.’s station? None other than Dallas’ own Omar YeeFoon, the former Bar Smyth/Cedars Social cocktail magician who joined The 86 Co. as Texas state brand ambassador earlier this year.
My favorite sips of the evening, aside from the chicory-syrup-enhanced Milk Punch Hurricane poured at Boston’s Backbar, leaned toward the trending mezcal, including Vegas-based Herbs and Rye’s brilliant Smoking Mirrors – a spicy, sweet and smoky mix mining Fernet and pineapple syrup – and Denver stalwart Williams & Graham’s voluptuous Gold Digger, which matched the smoky agave spirit with Pierre Ferrand dry curacao and two kinds of sherry.
San Francisco’s Trick Dog would take the judges’ top prize, boosted by its carnival theme and cocktail-filled watermelons suspended in mini hammocks for midair imbibing through tiny spouts. Williams & Graham’s team – whose lead man, Sean Kenyon, would earn Tales’ nod as American Bartender of the Year, worked hard to recreate the bar’s library-esque atmosphere. A guy from New York’s NoMad climbed atop the bar and rained shots of premium mezcal into willing mouths, while Backbar was fronted in part by a fierce and impressively bearded madman with habanero eyes. Los Angeles’ Harvard & Stone was back there in a corner somewhere, out-crazied by the adjacent team from Herbs and Rye with its gaudy chandeliers and a leopard-bikini’ed woman the size of a Galliano bottle primping atop the bar, which in turn inspired Seattle bar man Rocky Yeh to peel off his shirt, leap aboard and let out his best beastly roar.
Could that have been what ultimately earned Herbs and Rye the People’s Choice award? Who knows, but it was that kind of night. It was that kind of week. And for a community whose living revolves around giving guests a great experience, a time to soak in camaraderie and a great experience for themselves.
“I’m Dallas bound,” wrote TOTC first-timer Lauren Spore, a cocktail waitress at Southlake’s Brio Tuscan Grille, in a Facebook post when it was all over. “But thank you to everyone I met, the new friends I made and the old friends who helped make this even more amazing. This has been one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life and to all the people who made it happen, thank you.”
“The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards… above all the elusive promise of friendship and love.”
– Pete Hamill, from the documentary Hey Bartender
Yeah, think about that. You’re at your favorite bar, which is your favorite bar because they know what you like, or are clever enough to play to your tastes, or because they give you that little extra pour, or because they slyly started that conversation with you and that cute girl two seats away – but wait. Who’s they?
It’s bartenders, that’s who. And in this craft-cocktail renaissance that has demanded even higher levels of professionalism from those fine gents and damsels behind the counter, they are your tour guides.
Now comes a 2013 documentary that marks their role in the ongoing cocktail revival. Hey Bartender will screen at 7 p.m. Monday at the Highland Park Village Theater. Written and directed by Douglas Tirola, the film launched in New York City and Los Angeles earlier this year and follows the ups and downs of two bartenders: Steve Schneider, a retired U.S. Marine who hopes to tend bar at New York City speakeasy Employees Only; and Steve Carpentieri, owner of Dunville’s, a struggling pints-n-shots corner bar in small-town coastal Connecticut.
Employees Only, of course, is where Texas’ own Jason Kosmas earned his juice as one of the pioneering bar’s co-owners before he relocated to Dallas. (It’s also a bar Esquire’s David Wondrich calls “the greatest date bar in the world.”) Kosmas, who now co-owns The 86 Co. spirits venture, has since moved to Austin but had helped convince 4th Row Films to offer the screening here.
The events in Hey Bartender take place about the time Kosmas came to Texas – one reason, he says, he’s not more prominently featured in the film. On the other hand, it gave him the chance to see Dallas cocktail culture go from tottering baby deer to the swaggering buck it is today. (And of course Kosmas had much to do with that, though he doesn’t say so.)
In that sense, getting 4th Row Films to screen the film here was a way to thank his local bartending and alcohol industry community for eschewing the standard vodka-and-Red-Bull approach to help to bring the scene to where it is now.
The film features contributions from Dale DeGroff, widely acknowledged as man behind the revival; Charlotte Voisey, representative for family-owned distillery William Grant and Sons, which has partnered with the film; and prominent New York bar owners and drink makers Jim Meehan, Audrey Saunders and Sasha Petraske.
The film features a black-and-white photo of a youthful, less hirsute Kosmas in his mid-20s, when he met fellow Employees Only co-owner Dushan Zaric. Both were tending bar at Pravda, Dale DeGroff’s first venture outside the famed Rainbow Room. “We were kids,” he says.
Tickets to the film are $11.95, but seats are very limited. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to call the theater beforehand to confirm availability. Or try buying tickets here. Kosmas, for one, will be returning to Dallas for the occasion.
“I’m really excited,” he says. “It’ll be great to come back home.”
Because sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.
HIGHLAND PARK VILLAGE THEATER, 32 Highland Park Village. 214-443-0222.
DENVER – Whenever I travel to a new city, I like to immerse myself in the customs and culture of the local inhabitants, and by that of course you know I am talking cocktails. I’ve endured the ennui of countless connecting flights at Denver’s airport through the years, but it wasn’t until early this month, prompted by friends, that I visited the actual city for the first time and found that, if you head into Denver’s growing cocktail scene in search of a guy named Brian Smith, you can’t go wrong.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find in Denver besides, possibly, the head of John Elway carved into the side of a mountain, so I was mildly surprised to discover the modest buffet of fine libations thriving in this scenic, famously Mile High City. With its progressive atmosphere, outdoorsy vibe and beautiful setting, it recalled grunge-era Seattle — my former home — before the city was overrun with nouveau riche. The best part is that the half-dozen or so craft cocktail sites I visited were within a couple miles of each other: Downtown Denver and its nearby vibrant, hipster ‘hoods are highly walkable, or at least within reach of a quick cab ride – one foundation of a prime imbibing culture.
In downtown’s hotspot LoDo neighborhood, artisanal-beer-focused Euclid Hall offered a short list of quality beer cocktails – including the excellent Montezuma, in which Peach Street bourbon, Leopold’s orange liqueur and Campari played gracious hosts for Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale. Not far away, dark and thinly veiled behind a basement-level pie shop, Green Russell mined a strict speakeasy vibe, though I found its cleverly named drinks overly complex. The cool thing, though, was they actually had great pie.
Farther away, in trendy Highland, the bar crew at acclaimed restaurant Old Major (“seafood, swine and wine”) kept the throngs awaiting dinner tables ably supplied with solid drinks — including a top-notch Negroni, honestly one of the best I’ve ever had.
A friend and I enjoyed some lamb chops and octopus while awaiting entry to Williams & Graham, another popular speakeasy-style bar down the street. Concealed behind a moving bookcase, W&G’s formidable leather-bound menu had a welcome twist I hadn’t seen before: The pages following its basic house cocktail list not only named its spirits by type (gin, rum, agave, etc.) but offered lively, impressively pedigreed descriptions and a few classic cocktails built around each. For example, W&G’s list of Cognac, Brandy and Eau de Vie was preceded by a backgrounder penned by Esquire’s David Wondrich, then followed by related classic cocktails that a curious and/or inspired drinker might consider ordering – the Brandy Crusta, the Pisco Sour, the applejack-driven Jack Rose. In short, a nifty way to be enlightened and linked to cocktail history while sipping a tasty drink.
Retro-themed restaurant Squeaky Bean may have been my favorite of the bunch. There we found Brian Smith No. 1, the bar manager whose fanciful menu included a trio of cocktails prepared liquid-nitrogen style – a century-old cold-freeze technique that has recently caught some heat – but with some method to his madness.
Smith, who took over Squeaky Bean’s bar program in August, uses liquid nitrogen to plunge the temperature of the glass to a point where even alcohol freezes once poured in. At 40 degrees below zero, the liquid nitrogen boils and evaporates, priming the glass for Smith’s pre-made concoctions, which turn ice-solid before gradually thawing.
“It’s not exactly a slushy,” he says. “It’s not alcohol with little chunks of ice in it. It’s literally crystallized. It’s frozen.”
He ‘s not just making any drinks: Smith purposely chose cocktails he says were corrupted from their original form by being turned into frozen slushes over the years: The Hurricane, the Daiquiri and the Margarita. (Though Smith has modified and renamed them Gypsy, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, after characters from the show Mystery Science Theater 3000.)
Smith’s liquid-nitrogen process allows the imbiber to essentially have two cocktails in one: A frozen one – and the original, once the drink has thawed.
Drinking actual liquid nitrogen, by the way, would be an error. Hence the outcry that arose last year when a British bartender failed to remove the substance from a cocktail he served to a young woman celebrating her 18th birthday; she was rushed to the hospital with a perforated stomach. Smith properly ensures all the liquid nitrogen has boiled away, or pours out the residue, before adding the cocktail to the glass. It’s a matter of caution, he says – the same caution he’d take when adding a flamed element to a drink.
The cocktails he pours in are ready to drink as-is. “A good strawberry daiquiri is still a good strawberry daiquiri,” he says. “The cerebral part for me it to turn it, literally, into a frozen cocktail… It’s sort of being playful and saying: ‘This is both.’ It starts as liquid but then freezes into the bastard son of what it originally was.”
The next day brought brunch at Linger, a globally themed “eatuary” with a sweet view of downtown. The site was once Olinger Mortuary; after its extreme makeover, the new owners lopped the “O” off the huge sign atop the place and then proceeded to pour amazing coconut gin fizzes.
Denver is also home to the original Savory Spice Shop, a bartenders’ favorite for its primo extracts such as lavender, vanilla and black walnut. Even Dallas’ Mike Martensen, of Cedars Social and Bar Smyth, swears by the place. “They make the best,” he says.
One more night, one more spot: Back in Highland, we had chile-rubbed quail at Colt & Gray – and then closed down the joint with Brian Smith No. 2, the restaurant’s bar manager who scored immediate points by, instead of kicking us out, bringing us a nicely blended Fernet and Campari: A Ferrari. While his cocktails had made a mighty impression – including the Huge Mistake: W.L. Weller 107 bourbon, lemon, Strega, tiki bitters – it was his accommodating manner and generosity that won us over. The best touch of all: the NFL shirt, once I declared myself a longtime Seattle Seahawks fan, that lay hidden like a speakeasy beneath Brian Smith No. 2’s presentable attire – just one more thing that made me feel at home.
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