Category Archives: Cocktails are everywhere

I’ll have another: Fort Worth Cocktail Week returns for second annual run

Sean Conner, for The Establishment
The coming week is a celebration of Fort Worth’s booming craft-cocktail scene — and an homage to the kinship between craft bartenders and chefs.

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.

Second time around: This time featuring six signature events, plus chef-driven food.

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.

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Snoop Dogg, Texas bar industry help nation’s largest spirits festival mark 15th year

Kallhoff, Eakin, Orth, Hartai
Among those representing Dallas at Tales were Justin Kallhoff of DEC on Dragon; Eddie Eakin and Matt Orth of wine and spirits distributor Southern Glazer’s; and barman Mate Hartai of Black Swan Saloon.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail
The annual cocktail festival, based in the French Quarter, draws about 20,000 people.

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 of the Cocktail
At the festival’s pisco tasting room, cocktail luminaries Tony Abou-Ganim and Dale DeGroff hammed it up for the camera.

“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.

Laura Bellucci, SoBou
At SoBou, Laura Bellucci’s dessert-like House of the Rind – featuring honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and chamomile-citrus bitters — was among the festival’s cocktail highlights.

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.

The Standard Pour
Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Dallas poured drinks at Tales’ mezcal tasting room.

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.

The festival draws more “cocktail enthusiasts” every year. At top, pals Verhaar and Stevens; below, the Davises and Lawyers of Mobile.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail
At Tales, numerous tasting rooms offered attendees the chance to sample spirits or liqueurs — straight, or in cocktails — like this set-up from Sonoma, Calif.-based Uncle Val’s Gin.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail
Snoop Dogg at Friday’s Dogg House Party, sponsored by liquor giant Diageo, New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center.

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.

Amaro Montenegro
Master botanist Matteo Bonoli prepares to illustrate Amaro Montenegro’s production process using an alembic, boiler and macerating device.

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.

Fritzel's, New Orleans
Drawn by rumors of its Valium-like effects, LSU students in the late 80s came to Fritzel’s to drink Jaegermeister, making this Bourbon Street jazz joint the launchpad for its eventual widespread popularity.

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.”

Tales of the Cocktail
Black Swan’s Hartai brandishes the Texas flag at the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s annual midnight toast.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail
When the party’s over: The aftermath of Villa Campari’s Aperol Spritz rooftop happy hour.

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Don’t Tell Supper Club aims to make cocktails a feast for your senses

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Don’t Tell’s Green Eggs and Ham. I would drink it on a boat.

I’ve just sipped from a glass brimming with vodka, fruit puree, lemon and champagne on crushed ice, and the crackle of Pop Rocks is still rocketing around my tongue.

“This is going to be a full sensory experience,” James Hamous says, casting a nod at the room as he takes it all in. “Not the humdrum of your typical restaurant.”

It may look plain on the outside, but inside it’s a sensory wonderland.

Do tell, sir!

Actually it’s the Don’t Tell Supper Club we’re in, but it’s clear from our grand surroundings that the folks behind the curtain want the place to be anything but a secret. The décor is whimsical bordering on outlandish, with designer mirrors, slanted shelves, an array of sexy crossed legs along a wall and a stack of books behind the bar that transform into a flock of flying seagulls.

At Don’t Tell, already in soft opening but which officially launches its dinner menu July 27, it’s going to be all about the show, stage and all. The place transforms from dinner club to nightclub at 11 p.m. and will be open three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, with former Top Chef contestant Tre Wilcox the architect du cuisine.

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Houghton’s vodka and fruit puree-powered Contortionist is sprinkled with Pop Rocks.

“It’s going to be socially interactive,” says general manager Hamous, also co-owner of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who prefers to describes his role at Don’t Tell as “facilitator of entertainment” and then, on second thought, as “director of crazy.” He’s thinking maybe geishas in the future, or mermaids in a ginormous water tank.

Yup. It’s going to be that kind of place – a cabaret of contortionists, aerialists and dance revues wriggling and prancing as you devour another forkful of lamb, the sort of spectacle you might find in such clubs in Amsterdam, Miami or New York City.

Likewise, the showy ‘tude infuses the drink menu from bar manager Sam Houghton, formerly of Dragonfly at Hotel Zaza and The Standard Pour. Think dry ice, smoke and fanciful touches like those Pop Rocks in the so-called Contortionist, added, as the drink list says, “to bring the party to your mouth!” (Exclamation point not mine.)

The tiki-esque Trainspotting includes four syringes of rum piercing its icy depths, to be injected upon serving into the highball of orange, lime, pineapple and coconut.

The Most Unusual Tea, a name playing off the brand phrase for Hendricks Gin, is poured from a beaker into a tea cup that bubbles smoke rings like a magic potion of gin, lime, basil and citrus-chamomile bitters.

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Houghton’s Bumbledypeg, a twist on the classic Bee’s Knees designed for a friend who’s allergic to honey.

One standout is the Green Eggs and Ham (pictured above), a cool mix of tequila, egg white, jalapeno/cucumber puree, St. Germain and spicy Firewater tincture. With a slice of candied bacon crawling from the lime-green surf over the rim of the coupe, I would drink it on a boat, or with a goat. The name even references “Sam I am” Houghton herself.

My favorite may be the Bumbledypeg, whose name recalls mumbledypeg, the old-timey childhood game played with a pocketknife; Houghton says she wanted to make a Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon and honey syrup) for a friend who’s allergic to honey. Her version nicely substitutes almond-y orgeat for honey, but the coup de grace that graces the coupe (boom!) is a Bit-O-Honey speared with a tiny plastic sword.

Drink prices are expected to hover around $12, with many echoing the venue’s theatrical theme: “They’re things that alter and play with your senses,” Hamous says.

DON’T TELL SUPPER CLUB, 2026 Commerce Street, Dallas.

Negroni Week: An occasion to enjoy this classic cocktail AND feel good about it

Michael Reith, Sissy's Southern Kitchen
At Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, former bar manager Michael Reith rotated his barrel for a week with sweet sherry before setting his Negroni variation to age.

 

Negroni Week is underway, and as summer creeps ever closer it’s time to make this legendary ruby-red cocktail your wingman for the next few months. Bittersweet and refreshing, it’s one of my personal favorites, and while any decent bar with a bottle of Campari can generally cobble one together, this week is extra special: It’s all for a good cause.

As drinks go, this is Kirk, Spock and McCoy (or hey, if you like, Harry, Ron and Hermione). The complementary trio of equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and lush, bitter Campari dates back to early 20th-century Italy and has inspired a host of variations; you can enjoy the original and its spawn through Sunday at bars across Dallas-Fort Worth and feel extra good about the fact that your hard-earned dollars are going to charity.

High and Tight
At High and Tight, Austin Gurley’s Negroni variation: Bols genever, Cocchi di Torino, Campari, orange, lime, vanilla.

Now in its fifth year, Negroni Week, presented by Imbibe magazine and Campari, has a hashtag and a flashy web site with a super-cool feature: You can specify your global location, set your acceptable travel range (yes! Drive 150 miles for a Negroni if you wish!) and be given a list of participating bars. There are 95 such venues within a 15-mile radius of Dallas, for instance, so there’s really no excuse not to drink and donate.

Between 2013 and 2016, the effort has grown from 100 participating venues to about 6,000 worldwide, raising nearly $900,000 in the process for charities such as Mercy Corps, Water for People, United Cerebral Palsy and the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. In Texas, the recipient is Trigger’s Toys, which serves long-term hospitalized kids and their families.

Among the participating venues – you can find a full list here – in Dallas are the Time Out Tavern, Americano, Lounge Here, The Mirador, Sprezza, Oddfellows and The Cedars Social. In Fort Worth, you’ve got Rodeo Goat, Proper and Cork and Pig Tavern. Among others. Even Ruth’s Chris Steak House is getting into the action.

Three really is a magic number!

For one night, Dallas bartenders take over a San Francisco bar — for charity

Pacific Cocktail Haven
The Standard Pour bar crew, doing its thing at San Francisco’s PCH — for charity.

For any serious Dallas cocktail fan, the crew behind the bar Sunday would have looked familiar – Austin Millspaugh, Jorge Herrera and Christian Rodriguez, the popular Thursday night crew from The Standard Pour in Uptown – jostling shakers, swirling liquids, torching lemon peels and working the room in their dapper TSP uniforms. It was a practiced environment for the TSP crew, but a typical Uptown crowd this was not. A glimpse outside made it clear: They weren’t in Dallas anymore.

Chinatown was a half-mile away; the Transamerica Pyramid a few blocks beyond that. Five miles to the west, the Golden Gate Bridge. On Sunday, the Standard Pour team – which in recent months has made a habit of doing guest pop-ups at other bars – took things to a whole new level, bringing their traveling “TSP Takeover” to Pacific Cocktail Haven, or PCH, one of San Francisco’s newer cocktail joints.

Pacific Cocktail Haven
TSP’s Herrera talks cocktails with a thirsty patron who teaches at Stanford University.

“We’re going into a West Coast stronghold,” Millspaugh had said before the trip, aware that the city, along with New York, had forged the beginnings of today’s craft-cocktail revival. “We have to bring our A-game.”

And that they did, with a six-drink lineup sponsored by Pernod Ricard USA. As with their previous pop-ups at Dallas’ Industry Alley and High & Tight, it was all for charity – with Planned Parenthood the recipient of this night’s proceeds.

Though PCH has hosted guest bartenders before, “we’ve never had a team take over the bar,” said Kevin Diedrich, PCH’s operating partner. The bar, typically closed on Sundays, had opened for this special event. “It’s a cool way to share what we do, but also for them to share with they do. We went through the drink list this afternoon. There’s some cool flavors. They’re pushing the boundaries.”

Pacific Cocktail Haven
Millspaugh, garnishing his quirky Light Camera Action — reminiscent of caramel-truffle popcorn.

There was Rodriguez’ tropical Bad and Boujee, a mix of tequila, horchata, lime, cinnamon-vanilla syrup, Topo Chico and tiki bitters.

Herrera’s Tourist Trap was a crowd favorite featuring Irish whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, bittersweet liqueur, sweet vermouth and a tobacco tincture.

Millspaugh, meanwhile, in typical Millspaughian fashion, had concocted the cocktail equivalent of caramel-truffle popcorn with his disorientingly delicious Light, Camera, Action – an ensemble of Irish whiskey, nutty Oloroso sherry, popcorn liquid, dehyrdrated foie gras and black truffle salt.

“It’s weird,” said one woman, a Stanford University instructor. “I feel like I’m drinking a movie.”

Pacific Cocktail Haven
Rodriguez’ tiki-style Bad to Boujee.

The TSP team showcased Texas hospitality and flair, with Millspaugh at one point grating dehydrated foie gras directly into a woman’s mouth. He, Herrera and Rodriguez have drawn a loyal following on Thursdays at The Standard Pour, which has made a habit of trying not to be a standard bar.

Last year, the McKinney Avenue venue featured a weekly series of guest crews from other Dallas bars; a weekly event felt like too much, so as 2017 rolled around they brainstormed. What if the TSP team spent one night a month working at other bars, they thought? “We’re just trying to get our names out there,” Rodriguez says.

Pacific Cocktail Haven
Pacific Cocktail Haven is one of the San Francisco’s newer and most well-regarded cocktail spots.

Their first “takeover” took place at Knox-Henderson’s Atwater Alley, after which Herrera proposed the idea of doing it all for a good cause. April’s event at Industry Alley, sponsored by Remy Cointreau, benefited Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, while proceeds from their March pop-up at Deep Ellum’s High & Tight, sponsored by Avion tequila and St. Germain, went to the Dallas office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Each event raised $1,300 or more for charity.

They recently met Jessamine McClellan, the San Francisco-based national brand ambassador for Redbreast Irish whiskey, and told her about the project, pitching the idea of taking their show on the road. She suggested the idea to Diedrich, who agreed to host the TSP crew. The Standard Pour offered to partially subsidize their trip, and the deal was done.

“The idea is, one, to showcase the place we work at, and two, to give back,” Millspaugh said. “It’s, like, paying it forward.”

Pacific Cocktail Haven
The Standard Pour crew: Rodriguez, Herrera and Millspaugh.

As DFW’s craft-cocktail universe continued to expand in 2016, these stars shone brightest

Bartender Jordan Gantenbein's delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath -- aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry -- was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.
Bartender Jordan Gantenbein’s delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath — featuring aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry — was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.

One evening last month, having somehow wandered far beyond my urban comfort zone, I stopped in for a drink at Rye, a bustling bistro just off the square in McKinney. No, not McKinney Avenue, the trendy SMU hang in Uptown where, not surprisingly, some of DFW’s best cocktail joints have clustered in the last five years – but McKinney, the fast-growing former farm center 45 minutes north of Dallas.

Surely, I thought, even at this suburban outpost, I could score a decent gin and tonic. Maybe even an Old Fashioned. But as I scanned bar manager Manny Casas’ drink list, I found myself eyeballing anything-but-rural components: Mole bitters; gomme syrup; aloe liqueur; Fernet Francisco; honey-blessed Barr Hill gin. And then I noticed the small barrel to my left, which – as I would soon discover – harbored a terrific barrel-aged variation on the classic Negroni. My cocktail destinations had grown by one.

It’s more challenging than ever to keep up with the constantly expanding universe of cocktails in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the area’s farthest reaches, and in places that five years ago would have been content to serve simple mixed drinks, you can now order a Sazerac, or a Last Word, and avoid the indignity of blank stares or massive shade.

Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, of course, and pretty surroundings alone do not a great cocktail bar make. DFW’s craft cocktail landscape in 2016 wasn’t without its casualties – notably Knox-Henderson’s Hibiscus, whose small but well-informed bar program enjoyed a loyal following, and noble but aborted ventures like Frisco’s Vicini and, in Lower Greenville, Knuckle Sandwich and Remedy, destined to close by year’s end.

But from straight-up cocktail joints like Oak Cliff’s Jettison and clubby enclaves like Quill in the Design District to cocktail-minded restaurants like East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Uptown’s Next Door and Quarter Bar in (gulp) Trophy Club, the boozy buffet available to cocktail drinkers showed few signs of abating. (And Hide in Deep Ellum and Frisco’s Bottled in Bond are still to come.)

At their very best, these spots echo – and often are part of – fine restaurants, serving up not just great drinks but a successful mix of efficient, attentive and consistent service; fresh ingredients attuned to the passing seasons; an energizing and welcoming vibe; the ability to cater to tastes simple and complex; and a savvy and innovative staff behind the bar.

Here, in alphabetical order, were my favorite 15 craft-cocktail spots in 2016.

Abacus
Bartender Jason Long shaking things up at Abacus.

ABACUS

Most come to the highly regarded Knox-Henderson restaurant for its fine dining – but personally, I never make it past the classy, comfortable bar and its black-clad crew of Jordan Gantenbein, Jason Long and John Campbell. Abacus’ thoughtful and playful drink list is a standout from season to season – Gantenbein’s Rosemary Wreath (pictured at top) was a wintry thing of beauty – but the off-road adventures are equally delicious and fun, as in Long’s recent mix of mezcal, cinnamon syrup and amaro.

Atwater Alley
A dark, intimate atmosphere accents Atwater’s speakeasy character.

ATWATER ALLEY

A couple of years have passed since Henry’s Majestic, at this once-cursed location on McKinney in Knox-Henderson, unveiled the speakeasy pearl buried within its oyster depths. Named for the nondescript thoroughfare from which it’s accessed, Atwater is a two-story, dimly lit sanctuary swathed in senatorial wood, where bartenders like Ricky Cleva (and the occasional guest bartender) let their talents run wild like wildebeests in the nighttime streets. Jumanji!

Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.
Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.

BLACK SWAN SALOON

Black Swan is a craft-cocktail lover’s dive bar, where barman Gabe Sanchez makes it look easy, firing volleys of classic and original drinks at the eager Deep Ellum hordes while somehow creating a backyard post-BBQ atmosphere. Among DFW’s early craft-cocktail spots, the Swan’s speakeasy vibe (there’s no signage outside) is captured in the image of Clint Eastwood above the back bar: anonymous and enigmatic, rough around the edges, coolly efficient. No drink list here; just tell Sanchez what you’re in the mood for or point at one of his latest jarred infusions, and let your Drink With No Name come riding into town.

Still creating after all these years: Bolsa's bar was among DFW's early craft cocktail practitioners.
Still creating after all these years: Bolsa’s bar was among DFW’s early craft cocktail practitioners. (Photo courtesy of Bolsa Restaurant)

BOLSA

Among DFW’s earliest craft-cocktail purveyors, the modestly sized bar-in-the-round at this Bishop Arts mainstay is going strong under lead barman Spencer Shelton, whose wonky spirits wisdom continues to fuel Bolsa’s culture of experimentation. The well-honed southside outpost, with a bold seasonal drink menu – take Shelton’s smoky bitter Mi Alma Rota, featuring mezcal and Fernet – is a last-stop refuge for neighborhood regulars and others looking for uncommon spirits and across-the-board creativity.

The clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown's Bowen House.
The clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown’s Bowen House.

BOWEN HOUSE

The place is gorgeous, dah-ling. But owner Pasha Heidari’s homey hideaway a stone’s throw from the madness of Uptown’s McKinney Avenue has finally settled into a groove nice enough to match its elegant Prohibition-Era character, what with its turn-of-the-century library and great-granddad’s framed pictures on the wall. A viable drink list now complements the able bar squad’s ability to craft something to your own tastes, and a sickle-shaped bar counter promotes interaction.

Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social's latest resurrection is divine.
Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social’s latest resurrection is divine.

THE CEDARS SOCIAL

Look who’s back. Once the shining light in Dallas’ budding craft drink scene, The Cedars Social’s nationally acclaimed promise imploded in what I simply refer to as The Great Unpleasantness, thereafter plummeting off the craft-cocktail radar. Several iterations later, barman Mike Sturdivant is at the helm, and things are looking bright again: Along with Dallas pastry chef Annika Loureiro, he’s crafted a refreshingly original drink menu – including the Soju Spice, which makes excellent use of the Korean rice-based spirit – while staying true to pre- and Prohibition-era classics.

Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way.
Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way. (Photo courtesy of Industry Alley Bar)

INDUSTRY ALLEY BAR

When Charlie Papaceno left the Windmill Lounge in late 2014, among his goals in opening Industry Alley was to recreate the lounge’s come-as-you-are vibe. In that he has succeeded, creating a down-home atmosphere that’s a favorite for Cedars-area locals and industry regulars alike. You won’t find fireworks, fancy syrups, infusions or house-made bitters here – just the makings of a good time and classic cocktails like the legendary Singapore Sling.

Oak Cliff, Sylvan Thirty
Jettison’s cozy space in Oak Cliff adjoins the most recent of Houndstooth Coffee’s four locations.

JETTISON

The latest addition to Oak Cliff is a welcome one, especially for imbibers of sherry, the Spanish fortified wine, and mezcal, the smoky agave spirit mostly from Oaxaca. Discreetly nestled within the Sylvan Thirty complex next to Houndstooth Coffee, whose owner, Sean Henry, launched Jettison as his initial cocktail venture, it’s a sleek and shadowy hidey-hole where barman George Kaiho crafts excellent classic twists like the Red Headed Oaxacan, a play on the Penicillin fielding both tequila and mezcal along with honeyed ginger syrup, lemon and a float of Scotch.

Dallas cocktails
Midnight Rambler: Setting the pace in Dallas-Fort Worth’s craft-cocktail scene.

MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

This rock-and-roll hideaway in the underbelly of downtown Dallas’ Joule Hotel is truly a gem — and it keeps getting better, with its lush and well-structured space equipped to manage the peaks and valleys of hotel and weekend crowds. The long-awaited project from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, which opened just over two years ago, is purposely efficient, lavishly designed and wholly adventurous, driven by Solomon’s bordering-on-geeky cocktail-science know-how: Witness the Pinetop Perker, which graced the spring menu, a woodsy wallop of genever, aquavit, pine, lemon, egg white, apple schnapps and a perfume-like “alpine woodland essence” spritzed onto a dehydrated lemon wheel.

If it's gin and whiskey beauty you seek, venture to The Mitchell.
If the beauty of whiskey and gin you seek, venture to The Mitchell.

THE MITCHELL

What if there were a place where you could pluck away the plumage of more involved libations and jump directly into the embrace of your whiskey or gin without feeling like a vegan at a Vegas buffet? Well, my friends, The Mitchell is your place: The stately space in the former home of Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Chesterfield in downtown Dallas boasts 50 kinds of gin and a hundred different whiskeys, the better to meet your martini, Old Fashioned or straight-up sipping requirements. And the glassware is beautiful too.

Bartender Jesse Powell dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.
Bartender Jesse Powell, dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.

PARLIAMENT

Comfortably nestled within the labyrinth of Uptown apartments off raucous McKinney Avenue, Lucky Campbell’s gem of a bar can often be as busy as its 100-plus drink list. Just the same, the well-trained crew, featuring the occasional visiting star bartender, keeps the crowds soused and entertained from behind the horseshoe-shaped bar, whether the vibe is loud or laid-back. With concoctions like Jesse Powell’s unnamed mix of aged tequila, sweet potato truffle syrup, sherry, apple and cinnamon, Parliament is a first-rate cocktail den with Cheers-style ease, a special combination indeed.

Rock steady: The People's Last Stand.
Rock steady: The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station.

THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND

The Mockingbird Station stalwart is still going strong in its second-level space, churning out an ever-changing list of libations behind a veteran bar team led by general manager Devin McCullough. The drinks are original and varied – and occasionally playful, as in the wintry Petra at Night, a hot rum cider mix served with apple slices and mini wafers, and Mr. Joe Black, an equally snack-y blend of rye and cold-brew coffee featuring blackberries, brown sugar and cayenne-sugared pecans. “Everybody’s got their little side munch going on,” McCullough said.

Brian McCullough's battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.
Brian McCullough’s battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.

THE STANDARD POUR

Just up the street from Parliament, the McKinney Avenue landmark remains, as I described it last year, a craft-cocktail battleship – built to weather weekend barrages of bar hoppers but equally effective quietly docked on a Tuesday eve. A crew staffed by talents like Austin Millspaugh and Jorge Herrera helps take the sting out of former lead barman Christian Armando’s departure, pumping out a stream of solid originals as well as the ubiquitous Moscow Mules. Like Parliament and Industry Alley, Brian McCullough’s stalwart staple maintains a homey vibe whether rafting calm stream or raging river.

Bars of the Year 2013
A wry, loose attitude and remarkable consistency define this craft-cocktail institution on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue.

THE USUAL

While the cheeky drink menu has barely changed, the bartenders at this seemingly never-understaffed Magnolia Avenue haven in Fort Worth are more than handy with the palette of potions behind the bar. I said this last year, and it holds true today: More than anything, what impresses about The Usual – among DFW’s pioneering craft-cocktail joints – is that I have yet to have a drink there that didn’t qualify as a success, which is something I can’t say about that many places.

Victor Tangos restaurant in Dallas. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)
Lively and inventive, Victor Tangos still makes craft-cocktailers’ hearts skip a beat. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)

VICTOR TANGOS

Another of DFW’s initial craft-cocktail practitioners, this Henderson Avenue landmark found its footing again under beloved general manager Matt Ragan. Though Ragan recently departed, the cocktail program remains in the able hands of bar manager Andrew Stofko, one of the city’s most exciting young talents; among Stofko’s 2016 creations was The Dread Pirate Roberts, whose intricate mix of Brazilian cachaca, grapefruit liqueur, bitter Suze, lemon, cinnamon syrup, Angostura and hopped grapefruit bitters was wonderfully reminiscent of tart apple pie.

Runners-up: Armoury DE, Flora Street Café, Lounge Here, Small Brewpub, Thompson’s Bookstore.

With bottled cocktails, acclaimed bar man Rocco Milano finds his new venture is on the rocks

Among the OTR collection: The Aviation, Cosmopolitan and Mango Daiquiri
Shaken, stirred — or bottled? OTR’s Mango Daiquiri, Cosmopolitan and award-winning Aviation.

FROM A LOFTY outdoor suite at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the elusive Rocco Milano is taking in FC Dallas’ home opener against Philadelphia. He has a cocktail in hand – and the fact that the venue even sells them says a lot about how far craft-cocktail culture has come.

You remember Rocco. As Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene blossomed in the early 2010s, Milano was among its luminaries, emerging from the Mansion at Turtle Creek to preside over well-regarded bar programs at Private/Social and Barter in Uptown. Then, with Barter’s sudden closing, he vanished, leaving a trail of mystery. What is Rocco up to, people wondered? Has anyone heard from Rocco?

Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.
Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.

Everyone may be about to. Along with partners Patrick Halbert – owner of P/S and Barter, which operated successively in a space off McKinney Avenue – and Andrew Gill, Halbert’s cousin, Milano has been crafting a line of bottled cocktails, hoping to join a growing playing field.

Their venture, called On The Rocks, or OTR, has been building a buzz; FC Dallas is the team’s first major client, with four OTR cocktails now sold in the stadium’s suite-exclusive Jack Daniels Lounge. (Other, less potent OTR drinks are available on the concourse to general ticket holders.)

This week, On The Rocks scored 11 medals at the esteemed San Francisco World Spirits Competition – including two gold, four silver and five bronze. But OTR’s sights are set much higher, with the group sweet-talking several major airlines to get their drinks onboard national and international flights.

Several of OTR's bottled cocktails are now available at Toyota Stadium's Jack Daniels Lounge.
Several of OTR’s bottled cocktails are sold at the stadium’s Jack Daniels Lounge.

Here in the suite with Milano are partners Halbert and Gill, along with other OTR staffers and people like industry consultant Steve Ousley. “What they’re doing is really innovative,” Ousley says of OTR. “It’s like, how do we execute a crafted cocktail and bring it to consumers really quick? This is in a bottle, and that’s about as quick and convenient as we can deliver it.”

As the brand name implies, the beverages are meant to be served over ice. But with bottled cocktails a relatively new concept, kinks remain: As the match gets underway, an OTR team member arrives fresh from the lounge, where he’s just ordered the bottled Aviation. “They poured it wrong,” he tells Milano; the server poured the liquid straight into a glass, he says, with no ice.

Milano’s eyes widen. “It’s called On The Rocks!” he says, incredulously.

***

IMAGINE THIS: You’re on a plane from Dallas to New York. You’ve ordered a cocktail – not the standard one-and-one mixed drink, like a gin and tonic or a whiskey and coke – but an actual cocktail. Maybe it’s a Mai Tai, or a Cosmopolitan. The flight attendant shows up and cracks open a 100-milliliter bottle, drops a napkin on your tray and a cup with a scoop of ice. Then you’re handed the bottle, to dispense as you please.

“It’s just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

This is what Rocco Milano has been up to.

While a bottled cocktail can’t fully match the punch and zip of one freshly made, OTR’s concoctions taste remarkably like the real deal – a threshold the team has worked hard to meet. Though the airline dream is still just that, it’s one the OTR team hopes to make a reality, as early as this year, having been in talks, they say, with Hawaiian, Alaska and Virgin Airlines.

The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)
The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)

Airline cocktails are no rye-in-the-sky illusion, though it’s still relatively uncharted territory: In 2014, Virgin tapped Austin Cocktails’ low-cal “Vodka Cucumber Mojito;” more interestingly, Alaska Airlines teamed with Seattle-based Sun Liquor to let passengers make cocktails at their seats using Sun spirits and recipes (a squeeze of lime, a bit of vodka and a pour of ginger ale, and voila! You sort of have a Moscow Mule).

Bottled cocktails are further out of the gate, though quality varies widely. Acclaimed Chicago barman Charles Joly has been producing his Canada-based Crafthouse line – which also scored well in San Francisco – since 2013. There are others sprinkled around the U.S., and around the world. But no other brand in the category did as well in this year’s San Francisco competition as OTR, which won a third of all medals given and was the only U.S.-based company to take gold.

The OTR brand features three cocktail lines – a signature line with classics like the Margarita and Cosmo; a tropical line sporting rummy drinks old and new; and a craft line which “is where we get really weird and esoteric,” Milano says. That category includes the Smoking Pepper, which fans of Milano might recall from Private/Social as the drink actually served in a hollowed-out bell pepper; Milano has recreated a bottled version.

The team's Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR's "crowd-pleaser"
The team’s Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR’s “crowd-pleaser”

While their ingredients don’t necessarily mirror fresh cocktails (to account for items, like juices, with a short shelf life), OTR’s drinks are nonetheless all-natural, with no preservatives, additives or artificial flavors. All are either 20 or 35 percent alcohol, using real spirits procured from bulk purveyors, whether whiskey, rum or barrel-aged gin.

Take the Spiced Pear cocktail. “There’s some amazing spiced pear in there, and some nice Darjeeling tea,” Milano says. “It’s done with the barrel-aged London Dry gin, so you’re gonna get some cool wood notes, but it’s still gin. The acid is Meyer lemon, which just adds a beautiful pop to it, and then a little bit of allspice.”

The Rye Old Fashioned is a standout – “pretty much our crowd-pleaser,” Halbert says. There’s a Moscow Mule, and a Daiquiri; a Mai Tai and a Blackberry Bramble.

The bottle’s logo design is a nod to its ice intentions, with the lower half of “OTR” submerged in illustrated cubes.

“And it’s the same regardless of who pours it,” Milano says. “Everything you need is in this drink.”

**

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be this way. The three had originally planned to focus on a fledgling distillery operation once Barter had closed. But as Virgin Airlines made its debut at Love Field in late 2014, a handful of Virgin execs came to Barter to celebrate. One of them, Milano says, told him something to the effect of, “These drinks are so good, I wish we could have them on our planes.”

“And Pat was like, `Well, shit – let’s put them in a bottle,’” Milano says. Not knowing how serious the execs were, they didn’t get their hopes up. “People say a lot of things,” Milano says.

Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR's cocktail creations. Here, Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR's offices.
Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR’s cocktail creations. Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR’s offices in December.

Months later, he says, the Virgin guys called to check in. That led to more serious talks, then intros to other airlines and a crash course in bottled-cocktail science. By last year’s end they’d invested half a million into the venture, mostly on inventory and legal and consultant fees, and crafted close to 40 different cocktails.

At the time, they had 90,000 200-milliliter bottles sitting in a warehouse, with 300,000 half that size on the way. The bottles conform to federally approved sizes for alcohol sales; meanwhile, some cocktails had to contain particular ingredients to fit official government definitions. For example, according to the feds, a Margarita must include triple sec, and OTR’s Rye Old-Fashioned is described as such because the government’s definition of the classic drink calls for bourbon.

The group’s office, near Love Field, evokes a cohabitation of chemistry grad students who inherited their parents’ excess furniture. Remnants of Private/Social and Barter comprise the minimal décor or lie strewn throughout – the hanging wicker chairs, the randy sofa pillows, the curtain of metal string that once separated P/S’ bar from the dining area. “We obviously didn’t spend any money on the finish-out,” Halbert laughs.

On a typical day, the heavy-duty table at center is slathered with bottles, beakers, notebooks and vintage cocktail tomes. “We have graduated cylinders, pipettes, even scales that measure to 1/16 of a gram,” Milano says.

And the nearby fridge is filled not with beer and lunchmeats but scores of bottles spanning a range of concentrated flavors. “You can get flavors of anything,” Milano says. There’s butter, truffle, lemon zest, even something called cloud. Not all of it is good. They went through 60 flavors of lime before finding one they liked.

"Just crack and pour," Milano says. "That's the beauty of OTR, brother."
“Just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

Their bottled Margarita was the most challenging in terms of achieving the right balance of spirit, acidity and sweetness. It took a month to perfect. Whenever they thought they had it down, they’d run to Albertson’s, buy some limes and fire up a fresh drink for comparison’s sake.

“That was the standard,” Milano says. “I didn’t even have a juicer; I had an elbow. I wasn’t even gonna get pith off the lime, just boom – squeeze it in there. And if it didn’t compare to that, then we just started over.”

In the end, their bottled version turned out to be a mix of aged tequila, lime, orange and agave.

On the other hand, their Aviation took them all of 15 minutes. “That had everything to do with the violet extract,” Milano says. “But just like with a real Aviation, you can easily add too much and screw it up.”

Their experience with bars and restaurants has proved valuable. “We’re not guys in lab coats,” Milano says. “We know what a Margarita should taste like.”

Still, a guy in a lab coat comes in handy. To that end, OTR hired Illinois-based food science consultant Dave Wengerhof to assist them with the chemistry of it all. Their aim is to make the drinks taste freshly made even after sitting on a shelf for a year. They test their wares against heat and cold. “It’s not how it tastes when we make it,” Milano says. “It’s how it tastes when you drink it.”

Late last year, they took some of their bottled cocktails to Portland’s Clyde Common, base of renowned bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and ordered the actual versions to see how they measured up. They were especially pleased with their Aviation, and along with Milano’s Smoking Pepper, the drink was among OTR’s two gold-medal winners this week.

Their 11-medal showing was not necessarily what they expected so early on. When the results were announced, “the room just erupted,” Milano says. And they’re just getting started.

For OTR, it seems, the sky really may be the limit.

TBD Kitchen opens in Castle Hills: Are suburbanites ready for Latin cocktails?

TBD Kitchen
Bartender Daniel Guillen, now dropping drinks and knowledge in faraway suburbia.

 

CASTLE HILLS – OK, maybe Castle Hills isn’t really that far away. On a good day you can get here in less than a half-hour. Sandwiched between Lewisville, The Colony, Carrollton and West Plano, its regal label is intentional, with a 30-mph main drag dubbed King Arthur Boulevard and the sprawling development of king-sized homes described on its web site as “a majestic, 2,600-acre master-planned community.”

Castle Hills
TBD Kitchen, Guillen’s latest venture with owner Sean Conner at the Village Shops in Castle Hills.

It’s not the kind of outpost you’d expect to find a great cocktail, and yet, the very thought of being 25 miles north of downtown Dallas might make you pine for one. It’s a royal paradox.

Well, you’re in luck: With the opening of TBD Kitchen, Sean Conner’s latest venture (in partnership with Daniel Guillen), you and the villagers of Castle Hills now have two quality drinking establishments from which to choose.

TBD Kitchen, next door to Conner’s Pie 314, is the latest step in Daniel Guillen’s ongoing pilgrimage to promote Latin traditions via drink and food. Five of TBD’s nine house cocktails got test runs at the various pop-up events, seminars and South American-styled dinners that Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni, has been throwing around the DFW area in the last year.

Castle Hills, Daniel Guillen
The Daisy — a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation — is a TBD staple.

Along with a bold selection of agave spirits and rums, those drinks complement a menu highlighting $2 street tacos. (Also, if anyone asks whether you want the off-menu chicharrones, say yes.) The décor is hip Mexican, with Day of the Dead skulls, Mexican movie posters and kitschy candles from Target. Cushy, bendy barstools are modeled after seats on bass boats.

“It’s not like Dallas here,” Guillen says. “It’s a whole different beast. People here have money, but they want comfort food.”

Situated at the Castle Hills Village Shops, nestled deep in the thicket of $500,000-plus homes, Conner has accommodated those tastes, offering quality pizza and now tacos, with decent cocktails to boot. “There’s three kinds of food that people eat all the time,” says Conner, among Dallas-Fort Worth’s pioneering craft-cocktail bartenders. “And these are two of them.”

Daniel Guillen
Guillen’s mission to bring Latin cocktails to the masses continues at TBD Kitchen.

But are the people of Castle Hills ready for cocktails like the Chamoyada, a drink inspired by Guillen’s visits to the fruterias of Oak Cliff, or the Pachamama, featuring Peruvian brandy and not one, but two, Italian bitter liqueurs?

Or what about the Bolivar Old Fashioned, a nod to the influential Venezuelan leader, which mixes five rums, Angostura bitters infused with tobacco leaves and Brazilian coffee beans? The nicely conceived drink did well on a recent night, perhaps because of Guillen’s piece de resistance, a coconut water ice cube that gradually sweetens the drink as it’s savored.

Guillen says TBD actually stands for Tacos, Burritos and Daisies — the Daisy being a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation. A daily Daisy will be a staple of Guillen’s offerings. And in the (warmer) future, Guillen envisions half-price rum nights with cigars and dominoes, Cuban-style, on the patio.

TBD Kitchen
These guys: Conner, a veteran of Victor Tango’s and Whiskey Cake, with partner Daniel Guillen.

As TBD was being built out, Guillen did a smart thing: He worked the bar at Pie 314. That earned him a familiarity with local residents that will serve him as he aims to nudge less adventurous palates into unfamiliar territory. “If you like Balvenie,” Guillen told one guest as he slid forward a bottle of Cartavio XO, “this is a Peruvian rum. It’s finished in sherry casks, just like Balvenie is.” The guy was inspired to give it a try.

A couple at the bar was impressed with Guillen’s Margarita Pa’Llevar (Margarita to-go), whose presentation mimics the street-ready drinks served in plastic bags in certain South America countries. It was among the drinks Guillen featured with chef David Anthony Temple at a South American dinner earlier this year, sipped through a straw coated with chamoy – fruit pulp flavored with lime and chile – for some added kick.

So maybe he’ll earn the keys to the kingdom just yet. “People are like, ‘Why here?’” Guillen says. “Even I don’t know. We were just given the chance, so we’re going to roll with it.”

Fortified by rising U.S. sales, pisco has a new backer — the Peruvian government — and Texas is its number-one target

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
At last month’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, bartender Jim Kearns’ of New York’s Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley used pisco in his slightly spicy Tierra D’Oro.

HEY, TEXAS: Peru Wants You. It wants you to love pisco the way it loves pisco. It wants pisco to roll off your tongue as readily as whiskey or tequila, to be pressed into duty among your home bar’s loyal soldiers, to pepper the ranks of cocktail lists from Dallas to San Antonio. It wants thoughts of pisco to hover at happy hour like unmarked helicopters in your head.

We’re a long way from that now. But the South American brandy is on the rise in the U.S., with American imports of Peruvian pisco more than doubling from 2010 to 2014. That’s enough to inspire Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism to mount an all-out campaign to promote pisco in the States, with Texas its number-one target.

Pisco Porton Dallas tour
This week, at Dallas’ Midnight Rambler, Pisco Porton’s Johnny Schuler led a session for local bartenders on Peruvian’s national spirit.

“It’s, like, its own country,” says Erick Aponte, trade commissioner of the ministry’s Miami office. “It’s a combination of sophisticated, chic markets. We’re hoping to take advantage of the enormous potential Texas has as a market for Peru’s pisco.”

In fact, until Aponte counseled otherwise, officials had initially considered making Chicago the third stop on a recent pisco promotion tour that included New York City and New Orleans. “I was, like, ‘No – let’s go to North Texas,’ ” Aponte says.

That’s what brought a small delegation to Dallas’ Midnight Rambler early last month for a reception celebrating the Texas debut of two Peruvian piscos, La Diablada and Macchu Pisco. “I like to think of pisco as the other aromatic white spirit,” says Rambler co-owner Chad Solomon – gin being the other.

Pisco, a brandy with 16th-century roots, is made from freshly pressed stemless grapes, a clear cousin of Cognac and Armagnac. (The Peruvian distinction matters because pisco is made in both Peru and Chile, both of whom claim to have invented it and have more or less agreed to disagree. Or at least to not be in the same room together.)

Takes of the Cocktail 2015
Pisco supporters include pioneering bar man and personality Tony Abou-Ganim, who dished out his Pisco Punch variation at Tales of the Cocktail last month.

Pisco’s popularity is up even in Peru, part of a growing embrace of gastronomy and consumption of healthy, quality ingredients – the same type of foodie movement that inspired America’s cocktail renaissance. “People are understanding that pisco is part of that,” says BarSol Pisco founder Diego Loret De Mola.

But while pisco is making big strides, the 1.7 million cases sold last year are still a trickle among the $23 billion flood of spirits sold nationwide. “It’s not even to the stage where mezcal was a few years ago,” says John Garrett of Irving-based distributor Victory. “Pisco is a long row to hoe.”

Peru has some work to do, then – a state full of bartenders and consumers to rev up and educate. For that it will need a point man, a firebrand: Someone to plant the seeds of inspiration. Someone to champion the cause.

Someone like Johnny Schuler.

**

YOU THINK YOU can keep up with this man? Forget about it. You can’t keep up with this man. “I love to drink,” says Johnny Schuler, the sonorous, ebullient master distiller of Pisco Porton, Peru’s largest exporter to the U.S. “And I do it with regularity.”

Pisco Porton Tour, Dallas
At Stop No. 3 of Schuler’s Dallas tour, bartender Daniel Guillen’s outstanding Brujeria featured Pisco Porton, mezcal, apricot liqueur, lime, cinnamon and torched rosemary.

He has to. As the nation’s unofficial pisco ambassador, the larger-than-life TV host is constantly on the campaign trail. This week, on a trip that coincided with Peruvian Independence Day, he came to Texas and beat a 10-hour, Pisco Porton-laden path through central Dallas that tested the gaudy dress socks he’s fond of wearing.

As a young man in Peru he worked for his father, unimpressed with the cheap pisco served in his dad’s restaurant. But one day, a friend introduced him to the goods made by local artisan producers, and he couldn’t believe his taste buds.

This wasn’t pisco. This couldn’t be pisco. It tasted too good. Since that night, he says, he’s never drunk anything but and has spent his life promoting the spirit, and in 2010 he launched Pisco Porton with the help of a Houston-based backer, the two devising Porton’s muscular signature bottle one night over rounds of whiskey sours.

Tuesday’s five-stop tour kicked off with a two-hour pisco workshop at Midnight Rambler before an increasingly lively rented coach hauled attendees toward pisco receptions at The Mansion at Turtle Creek and then Stephan Pyles downtown, followed by a pisco-paired Peruvian dinner at Victor Tango’s in Knox-Henderson. A late-night pisco happy hour capped things off at The Dram, across the street.

Pisco Porton Dallas Tour
Schuler, left, at Dallas’ Stephan Pyles with Henry’s Majestic bar manager Alex Fletcher.

The idea was to promote the spirit’s versatility by showcasing its use in cocktails and ability to be paired with food. At the opening workshop, attendees got a taste of Pisco Porton’s pepper-raisin flagship expression and banana-peel-scented Caravedo, one of the distillery’s newest releases. They learned that there are three types of pisco, made from eight possible grape varieties, a palette that opens realms of flavor possibility.

Schuler’s presentation extolled pisco’s lightly nuanced character and the stricter rules that Peruvian producers play by since pisco was declared a national heritage in 1991 – forbidden, for example, to use oak to add character or water to lower the proof, methods used by many other spirit producers.

Pisco is made in five coastal Peruvian states whose environmental conditions, nestled against the towering Andes mountain range and set off from the Amazon jungles, benefit from a greenhouse effect creating overpoweringly sweet grapes.

“But that is what gives us the alcohol,” Schuler says. Like his own distillery, whose modern design evokes the centuries-old hacienda operation it succeeds and lets gravity drive the distillation process, it’s nature at work.

“This is the miracle that makes pisco happen,” he says.

Johnny Schüler
Attendees of Schuler’s five-stop Dallas visit could ride along on Pisco Porton’s increasingly lively rented coach.

In Peru, pisco is kind of a big deal. The country has a National Pisco Day, and a National Pisco Sour Day; in 2007, the government awarded Schuler its Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts to promote the spirit. He’s a master storyteller, and his passion for his product is evident, with pronouncements occasionally pouring from his lips in Vicente Fernandez-like growls.

The results show in his much-decorated portfolio; Caravedo, a 100-percent quebranta grape product that goes down velvety smooth with lingering chocolate notes, recently won an unprecedented four gold medals in Peruvian pisco competition.

“My pride – I’m sorry, it overflows,” he says. “But I will make the best pisco in the world.”

Meaning, he thinks the best is still to come.

**

THE PISCO PUNCH came to life in San Francisco, of all places, during the go-for-broke days of the Gold Rush. Pisco was easier to get than whiskey, which had to be brought in by wagon from the Eastern U.S; pisco arrived on South American cargo ships that regularly posted up in the Bay.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
At last month’s pisco tasting room, Peru’s trade commission went all-out to evoke Peruvian flavor.

No one knows for sure exactly what comprised Duncan Nicol’s recipe that rose to popularity at San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon, but today it’s evolved as a tropical blend of pisco, pineapple, citrus and sweetener. A supposed secret ingredient, which may or may not have been cocaine, has been lost to the ages – but for that reason, it’s an openly malleable cocktail.

That made it the perfect drink du jour at last month’s pisco tasting room at New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail festival, the spirits industry’s largest annual gathering.

Sponsored by the Peruvian trade office, the packed event featured seven Peruvian piscos and differing spins on the drink applied by American mixmasters who’ve climbed aboard the pisco train. For example, a supremely refreshing version from Tony Abou-Ganim (aka “The Modern Mixologist”) featured Macchu Pisco, floral Yellow Chartreuse and a pineapple-ginger foam garnish. Meanwhile, bar man Jim Kearns, of New York’s Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, expertly paired Pisco Porton with aji amarillo (a Peruvian chili), passion fruit syrup and a guava puree.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Peru’s pisco tasting room included a photo station where attendees could don traditional garb.

The commission went all-out to evoke Peruvian flavor in the party surroundings, with artifacts, Peruvian cookies ordered from a baker in Miami and replicated artworks from the Cuzco School of Art. Attendees lined up to take photos in Peruvian garb.

Ultimately, whether Peru’s efforts will bear fruit depend on continued interest in craft cocktails and, obviously, building an American taste for the product. As for cocktails, Victory’s Garrett thinks the simpler, the better. “Not everybody wants to deal with egg whites and all that,” he says. “What about a pisco and tonic? Let’s dumb it down.”

For Schuler and his proud compatriots, it’s not just a matter of business. It’s a matter of pride. “We can make Peru be known through a glass of pisco,” says BarSol’s Loret. “I don’t sell pisco; I sell Peru.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Peru: Showing some national spirit.

Follow the bouncing bartender: Nine craft-cocktail moves you should know about

Hops and Hominy, Cafe du Nord
Unfortunately for Dallas, Meddlesome Moth’s Loiselle has taken her talents to ‘Frisco. Um, the one in California. Shown here at San Fransciso’s Hops and Hominy, she’s now at Cafe du Nord.

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.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Don’t start freakin’ if you haven’t seen Eakin: He’s over at soon-to-open Rapscallion.

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.

Boulevardier, Dallas
Millspaugh: Your new master of ceremonies at Boulevardier.

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.”

Spoon Bar & Kitchen
Done with the utensils: After gigs at Knife and Spoon, Slater is now at Oak.

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.”

Oak
Reith: Taking things up a notch at Oak.

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.

Proof + Pantry
Guillen, here at Proof + Pantry, is loosing Latin libations on Dallas after his long stint at La Duni.

“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?”

Blind Butcher
The Beard and the Butcher: Reilly, now pouring on Lower Greenville.

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.)

Tate's Uptown
Mr. Brown is back Uptown, at Tate’s.

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.”

Mikkeller Bar, San Francisco
The Bird has flown: Formerly at LARK, he’s now settling in at San Francisco’s Mikkeller Bar.

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.