Category Archives: Competitions and Honors

7th Annual margarita fest offered a sweet answer to sour weather

Mellow Mushroom
Pouring Mellow Mushroom’s honey-ginger habanero margarita at Margarita Meltdown 2017.

It’s been just over a week since the 7th annual Margarita Meltdown, a sold-out, five-hour party featuring more than two dozen Margarita variations from all around the Dallas-Fort Worth area – which could be why I’m barely getting around to recapping the whole thing.

A sample scorecard: Each sample-size margarita meant crossing another box off the chart.

Armed with score sheets like big coffee-club cards, we and our fellow festival goers sloshed through the West End grounds on the drizzly last Sunday of May and lined up for sample-size margaritas from places like The Theodore, Mellow Mushroom, Renfield’s Corner and Y.O. Steakhouse (which marked its territory with a longhorn skull and fake Saguaro cactus). There were mango-papaya margaritas, cucumber margaritas, pickled beet margaritas and honey-ginger habanero margaritas. Aside from Lekka’s snow-cone-style version, they came in little cups – the kind salad dressing comes in with a to-go salad – festooned with rose petals, rimmed with chili salt, or in The Standard Pour’s case, garnished with watermelon radish and vegetable ash.

Austin Millspaugh
The Standard Pour crew knocks out pickled beet margaritas.

Attendees had a sought-after tool at their disposal: one wooden coin, to deposit into the “tip jar” of their favorite overall margarita, with prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250 awarded to the first-, second- and third-place drink makers.

My favorite of the day was the blood-orange margarita from Cassidy’s, in Fort Worth, a Texas two-step primped with Solerno blood orange liqueur and a chewy piece of candied blood orange sunbathing in the cup. The drink, followed by the sugary punch of the candied fruit, was a winner – and not just with me: It turned out to be the people’s choice as top margarita, joining previous champs Pie 314 of Lewisville, Whiskey Cake of Plano, and Dallas’ Asador, Iron Cactus, Savor Gastropub and Soleo.

The Renfield’s Corner’s team handing out berry-powered “Purple Jesus” margaritas.

Coming in second was the pineapple-jalapeno margarita from Frankie’s Downtown, while third place went to Rj Mexican Cuisine’s blueberry-basil translation. The people had spoken. The people were feeling pretty good. So even though we may never know who created the original margarita, it’s safe to say its legacy is alive and well.

Dallas Margarita Competition gives 30-plus bartenders a chance to show they’re worth their salt

The classic Margarita. Image courtesy of LetsGetTwisted.com

In Texas, no drink says summer is almost here better than a Margarita. And in Dallas, nothing puts an exclamation point on the thought like the 7th annual Dallas Margarita Competition, happening this Sunday in the city’s West End District.

Ah, the Margarita. The classic mix of tequila, orange liqueur and lime, rimmed with kosher salt, is among the most legendary and debated of cocktails, with more than a few origin stories to its credit. Rather than try to figure out which one to believe, the Dallas Margarita Competition offers you the opportunity to decide which of the 30-plus versions of the drink you’re going to try. Which will be the best? That’s for you to decide.

At the 2013 event, Armando Guillen and Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour battled the crush in Bishop Arts.

That’s right: At the Dallas Margarita Competition, which runs from 4 to 9 p.m., you are the judge. Your $40 ticket ($50 at the door) gets you samples of Margarita variations created by more than 30 DFW bartenders, along with a scoring card and a wooden chip with which to cast your ballot. (Don’t wait too late, though, or your vote won’t count at all!) The top three bartenders will win prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250, respectively.

Previous first-place winners of the previously named Margarita Meltdown have included Lewisville’s Pie 314, Plano’s Whiskey Cake, and Dallas’ Asador, Iron Cactus, Savor Gastropub and Soleo.

The event will include food and retail vendors, and a DJ. Tickets are available here, but first one to email me at typewriterninja@gmail.com with the year of the very first Margarita Meltdown wins a free pair!

 

Standard Pour bartender wins local cocktail battle, will represent DFW at national competition

Espolon Cocktail Fight 2016
Dallas’ Jorge Herrera takes on Fort Worth’s Amber Davidson in the final round of DFW’s Espolon competition.

For a lot of people, the idea of making a few drinks brings to mind mixing a little vodka with soda over ice, but for the craft bartenders who strutted their stuff before the judges earlier this week, it meant much, much more – firing up an original cocktail and then knocking out a dozen tequila classics, all within minutes. And with flair, to boot.

Espolon's annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District's DEC On Dragon.
Espolon’s annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District’s DEC On Dragon.

Jorge Herrera is on his way to New York City because he managed to make the whole thing look easy. A veteran of Plano’s Mexican Sugar who joined The Standard Pour in Uptown earlier this year, Herrera took top prize at Monday’s Espolón Cocktail Fight for the right to represent the DFW area at the tequila brand’s national finals in November.

Held at the DEC on Dragon, the event – part culinary competition, part WWF – was a raucous, “luchador-style” affair pitting Dallas drink slingers against their Fort Worth brethren.

Here, in photos, are some of the highlights.

In the first matchup, Devin “El Guapo” McCullough of The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station, took on Amber “Waves of Pain” Davidson of Fort Worth’s Bird Cafe. Contestants had two minutes to set up their stations and three minutes to prepare their original cocktails for the judges.

Espolon contest round 1
McCullough and Davidson, going mano a mano before the thunderous crowd. Both of their cocktails — McCullough’s coffee-inflected Milkman and Davidson’s black-salt-rimmed Pearls and Spice — earned them passage into the second round.

Next up was Jonathan “Manila Killa” Garcia, also of The People’s Last Stand, against Jermey “Big Jerm” Elliott of Citizen, in Uptown. Garcia appeared in a conical hat while Elliott fired up the crowd by stripping down to shorts and a tank top.

Espolon contest round 2
Elliott crafting his cocktail, A Mexican at Lumpinee, featuring curry powder and Thai basil/pineapple syrup, in the contest’s second matchup.

 

 

 

 

With competitors taking the stage with painted faces, or in skimpy or outlandish outfits, supporters embraced the costumed spirit of things and advantaged the nearby photo booth.

The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.
The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.

The third matchup pitted Cody Barboza, of Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., against Jason Pollard of The Usual, in Fort Worth. Both Barboza’s mescal-fueled El Rico and Pollard’s One Hour Break — which leaned savory with Averna and molé bitters — earned second-round status.

Cody Barboza, Armoury D.E.
Barboza’s El Rico cocktail, which paired Espolon reposado with mezcal, fruit and jalapeño with a chocolate/salt rim.

In the fourth duel, Brittany “B-Day” Day of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, faced off against Geovanni “Geo” Alafita of Knife, near Mockingbird Station. Day’s Smoke In The Morning went smoky-sweet with mezcal, maple syrup and Allspice Dram while Alafita’s preciously presented Rosario combined tequila with mildly bitter Aperol, cilantro and jalapeño.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise, from upper left: Day, of Thompson’s; Alafita’s Rosario; Alafita pouring his drink; Day’s Smoke In The Morning, after a drink or two.

In addition to taste, presentation and how well the tequila shone through, contestants were judged on showmanship. In addition to yours truly, the panel included chef Nick Walker of The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Bonnie Wilson Coetzee of FrontBurner Restaurants and Frederick Wildman brand ambassador Austin Millspaugh.

Walker, Wilson Coetzee, Millspaugh
Three of the night’s judges: Walker, of The Mansion, FrontBurner’s Coetzee and Millspaugh, of Frederick Wildman distributors.

The fifth and final first-round match was easily the most entertaining as the typically understated Jorge “Don Juan” Herrera of The Standard Pour took the platform with a lovely lady on each arm in his duel against Sean “McDoozy” McDowell of Thompson’s. But Herrera put some shine on his show by completing his deceptively simple drink with plenty of time to spare, then lighting up a cigar and preening before the crowd as McDowell continued to race against the clock.

Herrera’s Carolina cocktail was lush with cigar-infused Grand Marnier, while McDowell’s tart Trade With Mexico bundled both Espolón blanco and reposado with tea and homemade ginger beer. Both advanced to the second round.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise from upper left, McDowell’s Trade with Mexico; the two rivals take the stage; Herrera’s Big Daddy strut; Herrera’s Carolina cocktail; the competitors in action.

In the second round, the top six contestants each had to crank out 10 El Diablos — a lesser known tequila classic featuring reposado tequila, créme de cassis, lime and ginger beer — within a few minutes’ time.

Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas' Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.
Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas’ Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.

Herrera’s and Davidson’s were dubbed mas macho by the judges and both advanced to the final round, where each had to craft a Margarita using Espolón blanco, a Paloma with Espolón reposado and an Old Fashioned with Espolón añejo — again, within a few minutes.

A taste of each drink, then the judges conferred, taking into account the entire night. It was Herrera’s performance that was judged best overall, which means he’ll be competing at Espolón’s national finals in early November.

Espolon contest 2016
Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, embraces Herrera as the bartender is named winner of Espolon’s DFW contest.

 

Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, said he had no doubt that the Uptown bar’s attention to efficiency on busy weekend nights helped prepare Herrera for the competition’s fast-paced demands.

Between that and Herrera’s previous training at FrontBurner, which owns Mexican Sugar, “he’s been working toward winning this ever since he started working here,” McCullough said.

To watch a normally subdued guy transform into the very picture of confidence made him proud.

“Seeing him do that was like seeing him come out of his shell,” McCullough said.

 

Barrels of fun: Campari competition shows tasty things come to those who wait

Mike Steele, Industry Alley
At Industry Alley, Mike Steele’s barrel-aged Sir Reginald, among the competition’s nine entries.

More than a month has passed since Dallas’ last two cocktail competitions, both coincidentally arranged for the same day in June. While a few ingredients may have been pre-prepared a day or three ahead, the bartenders at both the “Disaronno Mixing Star” contest (won by Smoke’s Mandy Meggs) and the subsequent Pisco Mercenaries’ “Pisco Punch Duel” (won by Rapscallion’s Andres Zevallos) pretty much shook or stirred their cocktails up in real time.

Last week, though, brought a different sort of beverage bout, one that deliciously demonstrated how patience and ingenuity can create liquid gold. The Campari Barrel-Aged Cocktail Competition, organized by local rep Chase Streitz, showed how barrel-aging smooths out liquor’s hard edges while adding beautiful depths of flavor; mixtures are conceived and left to age for weeks in a barrel, the wooden cocoon from which will hopefully emerge a beautiful butterfly of a drink.

Robbie Call, Madrina
At Madrina, Robbie Call pours his beer-enhanced Frenchie cocktail, the base of which was barrel-aged.

The rules were this: Contestants had up to six weeks to age their cocktail in a 5-liter barrel. Each was to be built on a base of Bulldog gin, a London Dry-style spirit featuring several influences not typically seen in gins – lotus leaf, poppy and the lychee-like dragon eye fruit. The final presentation could include no more than seven ingredients, one of which had to be the Italian bitter liqueur Campari or one of its products.

In all, nine bartenders fielded entries. Some concoctions had entered the barrel fully assembled and then reappeared, transformed; others, like Robbie Call’s Frenchie, went into the barrel in partial form and were enhanced with other ingredients before serving.

Call, the bar manager at Madrina, poured out his bright barrel-aged mix of gin, Aperol and herbal-sweet Dolin Genepy and shook it with lemon, simple and egg white; that was then strained into a half-glass of Duvel beer.

The result craftily utilized the egg white, which sat atop the cocktail and gave it the appearance of a frothy summer ale. “It makes a great foam,” said visiting judge Amanda Olig, of Denver’s Meadowlark Kitchen. “It looks like the head on a beer.”

Peter Novotny, Armoury D.E.
Novotny’s Sancho cocktail, at Armoury D.E.

Another notable was Peter Novotny’s Sancho, a play on the classic Martinez and a recent addition to the specials board at Deep Ellum’s Armoury. Featuring gin, orange bitters, roasted-black-pepper-infused cherry liqueur and dry vermouth infused with the cherry-vanilla influence of tonka beans, its unaged version was pleasantly sweet and worth drinking on its own. (One judge, in fact, preferred it over the aged one.)

The barrel-aged drink was boozy and winter-ready, illustrating how the process can take a drink from sunny-weather refresher to winter warmer.

All of the entries evidenced the undeniable influence of wood. These were vigorous barrels. “You’re not going to get rid of the taste of the wood,” said Dee Sweis, who tends bar at The People’s Last Stand. “That’s the whole point of barrel-aging.”

A few bartenders got a rein on those woodsy depths by pre-treating their barrels: For his Churchill Negroni, Michael Reith of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen in Knox-Henderson poured sweet Spanish sherry into his barrel and rotated it daily for a week before replacing it with his classic Negroni combination of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.

Michael Reith, Sissy's Southern Kitchen
Reith rotated his barrel for a week with sweet sherry before setting his Negroni to age.

But Reith also elaborately pre-spiced his gin with goodies including clove, coriander, star anise and dried fruits, his overall goal being to evoke sherry and tobacco, two of Winston Churchill’s favorite ingredients. “Rather than actually using tobacco, I wanted to hit those notes,” he said.

The result was luscious and beautiful, and it took second in the judging. Parliament’s Drew Garison took third with his Summer in SoHo, a mix of pear and white-peppercorn-infused gin, apricot liqueur, Aperol and lavender bitters.

On the top prize, though, we all agreed on an unlikely source: Renfield’s Corner, the high-volume party den in Uptown where Rogher Jeri’s sultry Bulldog and Zen, playing off the gin’s Eastern and Western influences, was all at once thoughtfully presented, bold and well-conceived. He combined the spirit with dry vermouth, a touch of ginger liqueur and herbal Yellow Chartreuse, and a vinegary lemon-lavender shrub. Halfway through the aging process, he added a jalapeño oleo saccharum, a classic sugar oil typically extracted from citrus.

What made Jeri’s effort so intriguing is that in unaged form, there was nothing special about the drink. It was both blond and bland, a little cloudy in appearance, an ugly duckling loosed into the world. But it returned a swan: Tart and nicely balanced, with a handsome amber hue and a just-right singe of jalapeno, which can often be overdone. It was a startling metamorphosis.

Rogher Jeri, Renfield's Corner
Jeri’s remarkable Bulldog and Zen.

“It’s like a wasabi burn,” said judge Austin Millspaugh, local rep for liquor distributor Frederick Wildman and Sons, as he sipped. “It clears your nose and then dies off.”

“It travels through your palate and, just as it starts to heat up, it sweetens,” Streitz added.

To top it off, Jeri gave a nod to the gin’s signature ingredients by garnishing the drink with a lavender stem and a lotus flower sculpted from a jalapeno. It was exquisite. Or as judge Pezhmon Sabet, secretary of the the U.S. Bartender’s Guild’s North Texas chapter, said: “That’s a badass drink.”

Was it Churchill who said good things come to those who wait?

Ever tried pisco? Cocktail event Monday gives you a dozen ways to try

If February's Pisco Sour competition offers any clues, you're in for a treat Monday.
If February’s Pisco Sour competition offers any clues, you’re in for a treat Monday. 

The Pisco Mercenaries want your love. More to the point, they want you to learn to love pisco, the national spirit of Peru – so much so that they’ve put aside their differences in pursuit of that higher goal.

On Monday, you’ll have a chance to see what eight local bartenders can do with the light-colored brandy when the group holds its second pisco cocktail competition at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel.

The Pisco Mercenaries are four Peruvian-born gents: Neighborhood Services’ Ivan Rimach; Daniel Guillen and brother Armando, most recently of Parliament and The Standard Pour; and food and beverage consultant Pablo Valqui. They represent four pisco brands eyeing major inroads in the U.S., a market even the Peruvian government supports going after. But rather than fight each other for market share, the brands are joining forces to raise pisco’s profile as a whole.

Queirolo and Intipalka will be among the pisco brands represented at Monday's competition.
Queirolo and Intipalka will be among the pisco brands represented at Monday’s competition.

Through this ongoing series of competitions, they hope to demonstrate pisco’s versatility and earn it a place on bartenders’ shelves. “This is our way of introducing it to the U.S. market and showing there’s way more things you can do with it,” says pisco mercenary Armando Guillen, who is on his way to London after a stint as bar manager at Uptown’s Standard Pour.

The group held a Pisco Sour competition at the Westin Park Central in February. Monday’s contest, set for 6 p.m. at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel, will feature variations on the classic Pisco Punch. In addition to their cocktails, bartenders will be judged on presentation, use of Peruvian ingredients and the stories behind their concoctions.

The classic Pisco Punch came to life during the go-for-broke days of the Gold Rush in San Francisco, where pisco shipments arrived on South American cargo ships that regularly posted up in the Bay, as author Guillermo Toro-Liro has noted. That made pisco easier to get at the time than whiskey, which had to be brought in by wagon from the Eastern U.S.

Tim Newtown of Henry's Majestic pours his chirimoya-inflected drink at February's event.
Tim Newtown of Henry’s Majestic pours his chirimoya-inflected drink at February’s event.

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.

Monday’s competitors include Andres Zevallos of Rapscallion; Ricky Cleva of Henry’s Majestic; Chris Dempsey of the Four Seasons; Jorge Herrera of The Standard Pour; Ryan Kinkade of TBD; Justin Payne of The Theodore; Cody Riggs of The Mitchell; and Chad Yarbrough of Armoury D.E.

The winners of Monday’s contest – both a judges’ and a people’s choice – will win cash and the chance to compete in a fifth and final round planned for November. That winner will be on his or her way to Peru, which according to Pisco Porton rep Michael Turley boasts 300 distilleries and 471 registered brands – the most popular of them being Queirolo, the one you’ll find even at Peruvian gas stations.

If the February competition is any indication, you’ll be in for a treat: That event offered the chance to sample various piscos on their own or in mini-versions of the competing cocktails, and to crown a people’s choice winner.

Each competing bartender made mini versions of their drinks for attendees.
Each competing bartender made mini versions of their drinks for attendees.

Tim Newtown, of Henry’s Majestic, employed chirimoya, a Peruvian highlands fruit, in his cocktail, while Quill’s James Slater tipped his cap to Peru’s Japanese influences with additions of sencha tea and yuzu citrus.

Ida Claire’s Alexandrea Rivera dropped a hint of Malbec into her pisco drink, while Parliament’s Drew Garison accented his concoction with muddled grapes and a ginger-saffron marmalade.

In the end, though, it was Bolsa’s bar manager Spencer Shelton who the judges crowned winner. (Full disclosure: I was among the panel.) Shelton’s garden-fresh “Cease Fire,” made with mellow-earthy Cuatro Gallos quebranta pisco and a bit of the Italian bitter liqueur Cynar, included lemon, bell pepper, fennel, dill, Peruvian yellow chili pepper and Peruvian olive brine. Or as he described it: “Peruvian cuisine in a cocktail.”

Shelton Spencer, Bolsa
Spencer Shelton’s winning cocktail at February’s contest, the Cease Fire.

Unlike most, Shelton skipped the drink’s signature egg white, which provides lightness and a silky texture. That’s where the olive brine came in: “The brine adds viscosity and mouthfeel,” he explained. An olive branch garnish added the final touch, signifying the unity of the four pisco brands; he served it with tapenade and plantain chips.

Peruvian yellow pepper and olive brine? That brought a smile to pisco mercenary Rimach, who dreams of a day when pisco is a staple spirit behind the bar along with gin and whiskey and vodka and rum. The Pisco Mercenaries partnership, he hopes, is just the start.

“When you have more variety, it’s easier for people to understand and enjoy something,” Rimach says. “We’re trying to create a whole new category.”

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.

Shaped by father’s legacy, Dallas bartender headed to New York to compete on the national stage

The Standard Pour
Christian Armando Guillen of Dallas’ Standard Pour, among a handful of U.S. bartenders competing in Wednesday’s Disaronno contest.

If you’ve ever seen bartender Christian Armando Guillen in action, you know how passionate he is about his craft – confident in manner, slightly intense with a burnish of flair. As lead barman at The Standard Pour in Uptown, he’s largely learned the ropes through observation and curiosity, with a particular talent for reining in sweeter flavors.

That has served him well, as he now has his first chance to compete on the national stage. Guillen, a 25-year-old native of Peru who came to Dallas 10 years ago (along with brother Daniel, another accomplished Dallas bartender), is headed to New York City today as the South Central regional winner of Disaronno’s Mixing Star International competition.

Guillen’s “Latino’s Legacy” cocktail was named the best submission among the region encompassing Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. He’ll go up against a half-dozen other regional champs for the chance to represent the U.S. in global competition — and to attend this summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans.

Produced in Saronno, Italy (hence the name), Disaronno’s recipe is said to trace back to 1525, but it’s not an ingredient typically found on craft-cocktail menus. “It’s kind of the underdog of Italian liqueurs,” Guillen says.

The Mixing Star competition asks bartenders to create their version of the Disaronno Sour, a simple mix of Disaronno, simple syrup and lemon wildly popular in the 1970s (when simple and lemon would most likely have been some sort of sweet-and-sour mix). But the classic Amaretto Sour – which famed Portland mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler effectively fancies up with egg white and a bit of bourbon – has fallen by the wayside in today’s craft-cocktail renaissance, with bartenders generally shying away from sweeter liqueurs.

Some of that is reputation, since amaretto is known for its almond-sweet character. As a result, Disaronno is in the midst of a purposeful reinvention, attempting to shed its amaretto associations in hopes of reaching a more youthful audience. Sweet it is, though, with a syrupy texture: Britain’s Whiskey Exchange describes it as “showing marzipan or Battenburg cake flavors on the palate… This is definitely for anyone with a sweet tooth.”

However, Guillen is skilled at taming sweeter flavors and has found a way to harness Disaronno’s nutty properties toward good use. His winning drink merges Morgenthaler’s Amaretto Sour with the classic Godfather (basically Scotch and amaretto), outfitting a base of Cutty Sark Scotch whiskey with a healthy layer of Disaronno, lemon, orgeat, egg white, an apricot-vanilla-clove tincture and ornately applied Angostura bitters.

Christian Armando Guillen
In more ways than one, Guillen’s Latino’s Legacy lives up to its name.

Scotch is another ingredient fairly absent from cocktail menus, its smoky or peaty flavors often too strong for American drinkers. “That was a challenge on my part,” Guillen says. “I wanted to use something bartenders aren’t comfortable using.”

In his native Peru, his father always had a bottle of Scotch around the house that would appear at Christmas or birthday gatherings. Cutty Sark’s toffee and maple notes, he says, work well with the Disaronno, which in turn enhances the whiskey: The drink is sweet, but in an endearing and not saccharine way, with a pleasant texture and smooth, slightly nutty flavor.

As Guillen conceived his cocktail, his father was undergoing some major health issues in Peru that have weighed heavy on his son 3,000 miles away. That partly influenced the cocktail’s name: While it refers partly to the drink’s Italian influences, it also reflects Guillen’s Spanish European origins – and his father’s influence on his own life. “I am his heritage, his legacy,” he says. “Whatever I’m doing, I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Wednesday evening, Guillen will make three of his cocktails in 10 minutes for the New York judges at bar No. 8, presenting each with a very European board of Mascarpone cheese, Marcona almonds, prosciutto and orange blossom honey.

“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished,” he says. “It’s been more vision and passion than ambition. Everything follows. You’re going to deliver if you’re passionate enough.”

Guillen left for New York City today. “What a better opportunity than making my debut representing the place that saw me become who I am now doing what I love doing the most, bartending,” he said of his first-ever visit to the Big Apple. “Not gonna lie, I’m a bit nervous (weird right?) on how things will turn out in this national competition. I am sure of one thing though, I will do everything in my power to bring that victory home!”

Disaronno Mixing Star contest
Guillen’s winning cocktail: The full presentation.

TGI Fridays crowns its “World’s Greatest Bartender” at annual competition in Dallas

TGI Fridays
Maryland’s Ben Becker (visible onscreen at left) shakes things up for the judges.

They bounced shakers off forearms, caught glasses behind their backs and tossed liquor bottles around like jugglers’ pins. By night’s end, one of them had been crowned the best bartender of all — at least, that is, within the extensive, red-and-white-striped family of TGI Fridays, which held its 24th annual World Bartender Championship Thursday night at Dallas’ House of Blues. More than 8,000 TGI Fridays bartenders around the world had vied for the chance to be one of the night’s 10 finalists with a shot at the $10,000 top prize. The title-round air was abuzz, with the faces and names of the finalists plastered on walls, video screens and waveable flags for a wall-to-wall, cowbell-shaking crowd.

TGI Fridays’ horde-pleasing drinks – the global chain sells 3 million Long Island Teas a year – are well-known, but the Carrollton-based chain can also be credited with (or blamed for, depending) popularizing flair – the kind of theatrics associated with the Tom Cruise film Cocktail – when it started holding flair bartender contests in the mid-1980s.

TGI Fridays
The 10 finalists came from all over the world, including the U.K., Cyprus and the Philiippines.

While the World Bartender Championship, which started in 1991, emphasizes things like customer engagement, service and bartender knowledge (some of which had already been evaluated in a previous compulsory round) the practice of flair perseveres. Bryan Bonafacio of the Philippines sent a lime wedge airborne and caught it in a shaker behind his back before sliding it into a waiting cocktail. Fernando Soto of Illinois poured a drink into a glass that he’d perched on his forehead. Others pulled off moves too complicated to explain.

Along with lively banter (to that end, Peru’s Alexander Barrenechea was my favorite for his easy humor and likeability), some kept the bar-side judges entertained by putting them to work as drink shakers while they tended to other tasks, trying to stay within the given time limits. Each bartender had eight minutes to make five different drinks ordered from the company’s inventory of 100-plus cocktails, working to the sizzling guitars or thumpity-thump beats of their chosen playlists.

“It takes incredible discipline, focus and passion,” said Matt Durbin, the contest’s 1994 champ who is now TGI Fridays’ vice president of brand strategy and menu innovation. “We like to think that Fridays is the bedrock of bars. This allows us to recognize and celebrate our bartenders.”

TGI Fridays
Peru’s cheery Alexander Barrenechea had a certain air about him.

While flair is among the techniques bartenders can use to interact with guests, Durbin said judges prioritize “working flair,” moves that a bartender could actually incorporate into a busy shift rather than those unveiled for competition’s sake. The U.K.’s Russell Ward, for example, last year’s runner-up, was relatively no-frills compared to some but cranked out his drinks with smooth confidence, “You have to look like you do it every day,” he’d told me earlier. “Not like it’s just something you just practiced to do here.”

Where New Jersey’s Ram Ong fell on the spectrum was unclear. Like Ward, he was in the final round for the third time, and aside from bringing his own pineapple juice – in a pineapple, of course – he pulled off my favorite move of the night, catching a bottle of Grand Marnier tossed overhead on one forearm while balancing a second Grand Marnier bottle on the other forearm. But Ong’s theatrics undermined him in the end, his time elapsing before he could finish building his final cocktail.

TGI Fridays
Fans came from all over to support their favorite drink-slingers.

Meanwhile, Stavros Loumis of Cyprus, another third-timer who entered the evening in first place after a stellar effort in the compulsory round, saved a Cuba Libre order for last, starting the drink with just over a minute left in his session. Earlier, he’d told how a twist of lime elevated a simple rum and Coke into the classic cocktail, and now, as the seconds ticked away, he dared to position an ice-filled glass atop the flat end of a bar spoon, balancing the spoon’s other end on his forearm before pouring rum into the glass and finishing with time to spare.

In the end, third place went to the energetic, engaging Bonafacio, who may have coined the phrase “Don’t you panic; it’s organic;” while second again went to the U.K.’s Ward, who was also voted the fan favorite. Stavros was named champ, taking home a propeller-shaped trophy in addition to the prize money.

The annual competition also raises money for hunger-relief agency Feeding America, and TGI Fridays presented the organization with a $200,000 check midway through the final round.

World Bartending Championship
Stavros Loumis took home top prize, so maybe Cyprus is where you should order your next Grey Goose Cooler.

The Dallas Museum of Art’s cocktail contest: Calling all mixology Michelangelos

 

Matt Talbert
When it comes to cocktails, I am all about life imitating art. And vice versa. (Image courtesy of artist Matt Talbert)

Do you fancy yourself a Cointreau Renoir? A Picasso of Prosecco? Or do Salvador’s surrealist images simply drive you to drink?

Then you’re in luck: Tonight, the Dallas Museum of Art is kicking off its first-ever Creative Cocktail Contest.

At stake is a DMA partnership – and the chance to be featured at the museum’s Late Night event in January. The museum’s Late Night series takes place on the third Friday of each month.

Here’s how the contest works: Go check out the museum. Choose a work of art from the collection that, um, touches you. Maybe it’s the drawings of Robert Rauschenberg, or the Big Apple photography of Berenice Abbott, or as is currently on exhibit, the modernist jewelry of Art Smith. (By the way, am I the only one who finds it confusing when guys named Art actually do art?) Whatever.

Then, once you’ve pinpointed your mixology muse, come up with an original cocktail recipe inspired by this artistic work. Create a name for your drink – maybe Nighthawk, or Rumbrandt, or Bourbon Landscape. Use your imagination.

Finally, submit your cocktail recipe, and the name of the artwork that inspired you, to publicprograms@DMA.org by 5 pm Monday, Dec. 1.

Then, wait a month as DMA staff – those lucky art types! – and the museum’s executive chef – ahem –  test the recipes. Because that’s what good art museum staffers do. A winner and four finalists will be named on Jan. 5.

The contest is a precursor to the next installment of the museum’s Fresh Ink series, which features authors and their newly published books. Tim Federle, author of the book Tequila Mockingbird, will be at January’s Late Night event to promote his new book, Hickory Daiquiri Dock: Cocktails With A Nursery Rhyme Twist.

“We wanted our visitors to get involved in this fun way,” said Stacey Lizotte, the DMA’s head of adult programming and multimedia services. “January is also our birthday month and we treat it as a birthday celebration. Why not toast the museum with some fun cocktails?”

In addition to receiving a DMA partnership, the contest winner will have his or her drink featured as the main drink on the Atrium’s special menu at DMA’s January Late Night event. Each finalist will also get a special menu nod and a signed copy of Tequila Mockingbird.

“We’re excited to see our visitors’ creativity,” Lizotte said. “The entire collection is open to them. Whatever work of art will inspire a great cocktail.”

What are you waiting for? You have nothing Toulouse-Lautrec.

Contestants must be at least 21 years old. Full contest details are available here.

And if your creative muse just isn’t speaking to you and you just want to see some cocktail-related art, you can always check out California artist Matt Talbert’s cool assortment of cocktail-related art, where I found the image above.

Third time’s the charm: Front Burner’s Bonnie Wilson en route to Vegas to represent DFW in national cocktail competition

Frontburner
Wilson, DFW’s first female rep in the prestigious contest’s national finals. (Photo courtesy of Front Burner)

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – a pinch of this or a drop or a float of that – to turn a drink around. Heading into this summer’s Bombay Sapphire-sponsored “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender” competition in Dallas, Bonnie Wilson aimed to put a different spin on the gin.

Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based Front Burner Restaurants, was one of 10 finalists competing in the national contest’s Dallas-Fort Worth regional at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye. The victor would head to Las Vegas to face winners from 27 other U.S. markets in the finals, vying for a cover feature in GQ magazine.

One by one, the gin variations appeared before the judges – a drink inspired by Taiwanese bubble tea, another served up alongside a Venus flytrap, another with a smoked stalk of lemongrass for garnish. But when it was all over, it was Wilson’s so-called “Axl Rose” – a bouquet of Bombay Sapphire, Brut Rosé, strawberry syrup, lemon and rose water – that had taken top prize. (Full disclosure: I was among the event’s three judges.)

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender
The final touch on Wilson’s Axl Rose: A sugar-candy rose petal

This week, Wilson is Vegas-bound to compete in the finals, the first woman to have that honor for the DFW area. “I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I just want to make sure I represent our city well, that I represent myself and our brand and women well, all of those things. Most of all I just want to have fun.”

This was Wilson’s third attempt at the prestigious contest: Bartenders submit a recipe and a short essay, and a national panel whittles each market’s field down to 10. With her winning cocktail, she aimed for simplicity. “I’ve been obsessed with rosé lately,” she says, “so I wanted to do something around that.”

Citrus was a common flavor in the gin to play off of, but Sapphire’s floral aspects were often forgotten. That’s where the rose water came in, plus a self-made strawberry syrup to echo the flavors of the wine. The topper was the garnish: She worked with Front Burner’s pastry chef to produce a sugar-candy rose petal tinted with pomegranate juice. “We made about 60 of them over the course of two weeks to get the consistency I was happy with,” she says. “I think it came out really good.”

The national contest runs Monday through Thursday in three stages. After the 28 competitors present the cocktails that got them there, the field is whittled to about half. The survivors then face off in two further rounds, crafting entirely new cocktails featuring an ingredient to be specified by the judges.

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender contest
Sweet cocktail o’ mine: Wilson’s Axl Rose’.

Last year, DFW was represented by La Duni’s Daniel Guillen, who made it to the second round. Wilson has been prodding him for tips based on his experience. As far as being DFW’s first female representative in the nationals, she says, “we’ve just got to continue to elevate our diversity.”

That’s a priority for her at Front Burner, where she oversees bar operations for the corporation’s independent brands, including Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar and The Ranch at Las Colinas.  Menu development, special events and training are among her duties, but it’s the latter that lets her tap into her first love, customer interaction. “I can get behind the bar and make drinks for people,” she says.

Hospitality-minded people are the ones who catch her interest and attention. “You can teach somebody how to bartend and teach them about spirits, but you can’t teach the heart of it, the love of that interaction with the guest,” she says.

Others cite her dedication to cultivating talent and encouraging other women to pursue similar paths. “She’s moving up, but she’s not forgetting us,” says Alexandrea Rivera, a bartender at The Ranch at Las Colinas. Adds fellow Ranch bartender Gabrielle Murray: “Everything Bonnie says, we just sponge up.”

Daniel Guillen
2013’s national finalists were featured in a GQ photo spread. That’s La Duni’s Daniel Guillen with the giant honey dipper.

Now, after winning the local Bombay Sapphire contest, Wilson says: “I’ve actually had women come to me who want to work for me. That’s super flattering, and inspiring.”

It was people like Sean Conner – whose Pie 314 pizzeria recently opened in Lewisville – and The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough who helped on her own learning path. And in particular, she credits Angel’s Envy bourbon rep Trina Nishimura with showing her how as a woman to negotiate a male-dominated world. Brands like Bacardi and Heaven Hill have given her valuable educational opportunities, but it’s her own company, she says, that has really challenged her recently. “Sometimes we have these amazing weeks, and we want to rest on our laurels and celebrate,” she says. “They always say, `Great job. How do we make it better?’ Everybody has pushed and encouraged me.”

Not bad for someone who never planned to make craft cocktails. But negative environments in previous workplaces spurred her to move onward, and she landed behind the bar with Conner at Whiskey Cake. “It was like a fated spiritual thing,” she says. “That’s exactly where I was supposed to be. It started me on this career that was like a dream. It’s been such a great ride and it keeps getting better and better.”

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – to be reminded that it’s not a dream at all.