Four years ago, the annual, bar-industry-driven fundraiser for Triggers’s Toys was a modest Christmas-season party at The Standard Pour, with 50 bartenders in Santa hats raining cocktails upon their mirthful elf minions. These days… well, look at it: Repositioned in the expansive savanna of Klyde Warren Park, this benefit behemoth, now dubbed the Ultimate Cocktail Experience, last year raised more than $200,000 and aims to exceed that this time around. Naturally.
The 2017 version of the Ultimate Cocktail Experience is set to go down on Saturday, Sept. 30, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. There will be food trucks and a charity casino area. Tickets, which range from $65 to $125 for VIP status, are available here. Or you can get your tickets for $80 at the door.
This big boy pop-up is the brainchild of Bryan Townsend, vice president and sales director for spirits producer The 86 Co., who a decade ago was a corporate wonk who didn’t like his job very much. In 2008, he left his job and began to focus on other things – including his dog, Trigger.
One day he was a Grapevine hospital with his newly trained dog when he met a nurse distressed about a young girl who’d been in therapy for a year, unable to socialize with others. Townsend suggested that maybe the girl would like to give Trigger a treat.
The girl did, and Townsend wondered if she might follow the dog through one of the hospital’s children’s ward play tunnels. Then that happened too. The nurse retrieved the girl’s mother. “It was the first time she’d ever crawled,” Townsend remembered.
Inspired by the experience, Townsend launched Trigger’s Toys, a nonprofit that provides toys, therapy aids and financial assistance to hospitalized kids and their families. That’s the organization at the heart of the revelry that now includes bartenders, brand reps and spirits distributors from Texas and beyond who come to lend their shaking, stirring hands.
Recast as a global throwdown, the Ultimate Cocktail Experience puts forward six unique bar “concepts,” each representing a different part of the world with drinks to match. This year’s showcased locales are Mexico City, London, New Orleans, Hong Kong, Havana and Casablanca, and each station’s drink lineup will include a classic drink and a non-alcoholic selection.
In the mix this year are bartenders Ash Hauserman of New York’s Havana-themed Blacktail, named Best New American Bar at this summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, and Iain Griffiths of London’s Dandelyan, which won the honor of the world’s best cocktail bar.
This year’s teams, classic drinks and team captains are as follows:
Casablanca (Mule): captain Andrew Stofko (Hot Joy, Uptown)
Let’s say you are the type of diner who confidently fords a robata grill menu, stoutly navigating the fare only to break into a paralytic stupor at the sight of an extensive sake list. Faced with a noodle bowl of unfamiliar terms, you might very well leap into the abyss of a random choice or opt for a safer fallback (“Sapporo, please!”) — but wouldn’t life be one less mystery burdened if you knew what all those enigmatic terms meant?
Fortunately for you, George Kaiho is here to help. The resident bar manager at mezcal/sherry bar Jettison in Oak Cliff, Kaiho has been moderating a series of sake tastings every other Sunday at Deep Ellum’s Niwa Japanese BBQ, sharing his love and considerable knowledge of Japan’s brewed, rice-based alcohol with anyone who will listen. (Niwa’s next sake tasting will be Sunday, Aug. 6.)
This is the way to explore sake: In dribs and drabs, with an experienced tour guide leading the way. Niwa’s tastings begin with a thin spiral-ring booklet called “A Guide To Tasting Sake.” Inside is a detailed description of sake production along with a map of the 47 prefectures of Japan. And because one is never too old for sticker books, attendees also receive a baggie of stickers with photos of the five premium sakes to be sampled and background on each; these can be applied to pages in the booklet with space for notes about each sake’s first impressions, tasting notes, pairing ideas and more.
Each sake – all of them registering about 15 percent alcohol – is paired with a small bite. At Niwa’s inaugural sake tasting in late June, first up was the Daku Nigori, nigori meaning a sake left partially unfiltered; with a milky, porridge-like texture, it’s best served chilled. Offering notes of grape, berry, banana and pear, the Daku was paired with a Wagyu short rib deviled egg, a rich contrast to its viscous, syrupy sweetness.
Kaiho, who was born in Dallas but grew up in Japan, explained that while sake’s quality and diversity are similar to wine, it ‘s better compared to beer, being less affected by climate than by the production process itself. “Wine is about what happens in the vineyard,” he said. “This is more like a beer. It’s about what happens along the way.”
Cheap sakes abound, but it’s premium sakes that are on the rise, one of the main characteristics being the degree to which the rice is polished, or washed, since the grains’ exterior layers offer less desirable flavors to the final product. To be called premium, a sake’s grains must have been polished down by at least 30 percent. “Ginjo” sake has been 40 percent polished, “Daiginjo” 50 percent.
Our second sake was Otokoyama’s Tokubetsu (special) Junmai from Hokkaido prefecture, one of Japan’s northernmost breweries, founded in 1661. While some producers add alcohol to sakes to bypass the lengthy fermentation process, a junmai sake is free of such chicanery; made with snowmelt well water, ours was dry with apple notes and it paired well with the starch of spicy fries and wasabi aioli.
Next up, the Kirinzan Classic, immediately distinguished by a funky, yeasty aroma. Its watery, nearly flavorless taste blossomed into an apple/pear finish; Kaiho speculated that yeasts were likely added during production with a neutral spirit added to halt fermentation. (Trickery! See above paragraph.) It coupled nicely with a salty kara-age chicken.
Fourth up was Masumi’s highly drinkable Karakuchi Kiippon, a junmai ginjo (no added alcohol, 40 percent polished) made with soft mountainous water from Japan’s alpine Nagano region. (The Coors of Japan!) Kaiho said this particular sake, served with sashimi, was a favorite when he worked at Tei-An, where tables of buoyant imbibers would order bottle after bottle. Pleasantly refreshing with a clean, cucumber-y taste, our glass at Niwa was appropriately flanked by a crab cucumber roll.
Our final pour was Kirinzan’s Junmai Ginjo. The brewery, founded in 1843, gets both its water and rice from Niigata prefecture, and Kirinzan is a so-called zizake (local) sake consumed largely by local inhabitants. Sweet and clean with a lovely floral character, it was paired with sushi.
At the moment, Niwa offers the tastings for a generous $20-$25, a bargain compared to the pricey sake dinners Kaiho oversaw when he worked at Tei-An. The booklets have enough pages to accommodate multiple visits. “If you come to four or five, you’ll end up with a good book of sakes you can keep to yourself,” Kaiho said. (Actually, two tastings was enough to fill up my booklet, but I’ll not quibble with a pleasant buzz and a good time, provided the math isn’t torpedoing my wallet.)
And anyway, “the goal here is not to make money,” said restaurant owner Jimmy Niwa. “It’s to show people what sake is all about.”
And that right there should be reason enough to give sake’s goodness a try, for goodness’ sake.
If you’re headed to Louisville for next weekend’s 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, you’ve probably got whiskey on your mind. But while the city and its signature brown spirit have become synonymous, Louisville’s craft-cocktail scene is having a moment, too.
No doubt, Louisville is a straight-ahead bourbon town, and visitors will find expressions here they won’t find anywhere else. Things could get even better, with the state considering legislation that would let anyone sell old unopened whiskey bottles to bars or restaurants. If it passes, some cool vintage stuff could be showing up soon on (or off) menus.
“There are probably more bottles of bourbon tucked away in attics in Kentucky than anyplace else in the world,” Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It just stands to reason, because we are the birthplace of bourbon and we have been producing the great majority of the world’s bourbon for now over 200 years.”
But the city hasn’t missed out on the craft-cocktail boom, and you’ll find plenty more than Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours. Plus, bars here stay open until 4 a.m.
“The city has evolved a lot,” says Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which stocks about 400 bourbons, some for sale by the bottle. “It’s incredibly more advanced than it was when I moved here 12 years ago.”
The rise of the region’s whiskey visibility and the city’s cocktails scene has been a symbiotic one, says Brian Elliott, master distiller at Four Roses Bourbon. When he was a kid, Louisville wasn’t widely known for much beyond the University of Louisville Cardinals and that big horse race at Churchill Downs. That began to change in the mid-1990s as foodie culture took root nationwide and the craft-cocktail renaissance bubbled in the wings. As tastes changed and chefs and bartenders answered consumer demands for authentic, quality ingredients, Kentucky whiskey offered Louisville homegrown artistry.
“At the same time that people started caring about the craftsmanship of their cocktails, bartenders were looking for quality ingredients and the story behind them,” Elliott says. The same had happened with food, and whiskey was prized as a local product. “It’s such a part of the culture here that inevitably it became kind of a centerpiece of cocktails and food.”
Cocktails, marinades, glazes, dessert syrups– any way you can utilize whiskey has been tried.
“Now the scene in Louisville is remarkable,” he says. “I don’t think you can think about Louisville without thinking about the food scene, and that goes hand in hand with the cocktail scene.”
Four Roses’ Kentucky roots date back to 1888; the brand was one of a half-dozen allowed to be sold during Prohibition for medicinal purposes. “You could actually get a prescription,” Elliott says. For what? “Well….that was probably more about your relationship with your physician than anything.”
After Prohibition, Four Roses became the top-selling bourbon in the U.S., and the brand was purchased by Seagram’s, in Canada. While the company kept exporting Four Roses’ original recipe to Europe and Japan, it remade a Canadian-style blended whiskey for the U.S. That continued until 2001, when Japan’s Kirin bought the brand and reinstituted the original style.
You’ll now find Four Roses in cocktails like the Petal Pusher at Martini Italian Bistro, in East Louisville. But it’s also among the local whiskeys on the shelves of cocktail bars like Meta, a Daniel-Craig-cool industrial-style hang (next to a downtown strip joint) with marble counters and original drinks traced to their classic influences: For example, try the Northern Lights, featuring un-aged brandy from locally distilled Copper & Kings along with bourbon-barreled gin, Yellow Chartreuse and dandelion bitters; underneath that you’ll find the classic from which the drink gets its inspiration, the Alaska.
A few blocks in one direction takes you to the regal Brown Hotel, where you can enjoy a Mint Julep in oaky opulence along with the famous Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with bacon, tomatoes, Pecorino Romano cheese and Mornay sauce developed in the 1920s to appease hangry wee-hour clubgoers. Head another direction and you’ll find the historic Seelbach Hilton hotel, which opened in 1905 and poured drinks for the likes of Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Not far away is the fascinating Proof on Main, a whimsically artful cocktail bar and restaurant attached to the renowned 21c Museum Hotel. (You’ll know it by the strawberry-pomegranate-themed Lincoln limo parked outside, and if not that, then the gold, four-story-high statue of David.) Look through a thoughtful drink menu bursting with fruit and herb and try the outstanding False Flattery (pictured at top) – a mix of ginger liqueur, Hum botanical liqueur, lime, simple, tiki bitters and mint. Then check out the contemporary art gallery in back while you sip.
A 2014 Imbibe magazine story traced the scene’s roots to long-gone pioneers like Meat and 732 Social, but those led to local granddaddies like the Silver Dollar, a Southern cocktail honkytonk rocking a former firehouse and once named one of the nation’s best whiskey bars by GQ magazine. But there’s other gems on the menu, too, like the Juke Box Mama, a bright blend of aquavit, Aperol, vanilla syrup, lemon and sparkling wine.
Farther out, in a developing area called NuLu, or New Louisville, is Garage Bar, an informal bourbon den housed in a former auto service garage and whipping up wood-fired pizza; a few minutes’ walk away on Market is Rye, where you can partner cocktails with lamb burgers and more from an internationally inspired menu.
I found one of my favorite Louisville spots in Butchertown, a historic neighborhood east of downtown. A stone’s throw from the Copper & Kings distillery, Lola is the cozy, late-night sister to the excellent Butchertown Grocery restaurant. Lola’s dimly lit, vintage vibe is backed by a refreshingly inventive cocktail menu; down some beignets or tasty mushroom fries and sip a Golden Porsche, featuring Copper & Kings brandy and absinthe, lemon and two Italian bitter liqueurs, or a luscious Lady Midnight (Old Forrester bourbon, bone-marrow-washed sherry, honey liqueur and mole bitters).
Take the time to get to the other side of the freeway and you’ll find the quirky Louis’ The Ton, with some of the best cocktail names in town – take Life in the Shruburbs, or Not Drunk, Just Buzzed. Or head a few miles southeast of downtown to Germantown, where the speakeasy-style Mr. Lee’s Lounge has a reputation for Southern hospitality and sparse illumination; table servers are beckoned via little lights on the wall.
For fine Southern dining and great cocktails, head to Jack Fry’s, in the Highlands, or Bourbon’s Bistro, in the historic Clifton neighborhood adjacent to Butchertown. As always, it comes back to bourbon.
“Any bartender in this city worth their salt is going to be heavy on bourbon,” Haymarket’s Landan says. “Just like anyone in London is going to know their gin drinks, or someone in Mexico City can talk about agave…. That’s what’s going to set us apart from anywhere else in America.”
The Singapore Sling is the Rashomon of cocktails: Everyone remembers it differently. Like a rumor that starts at one side of the table and wildly mutates by the time it comes back round again, it’s a tasty tale whose twists and turns vary depending on who’s doing the telling.
How is it still considered a classic?
Because despite its many tweaks – “The Singapore Sling has taken a lot of abuse over the years,” wrote tiki master Jeff Berry in his book Beachbum Berry Remixed – it’s managed to stay delicious no matter how it’s interpreted. Even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson considered it a favorite.
But somewhere along the line, the century-old drink attributed to bartender Ngiam Tong Boon of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel lost sight of its simpler beginnings, becoming a tropical mishmash of seven ingredients or more – and a headache for bartenders, which may be why you rarely see it on bar menus. “I remember Sasha (Petraske, founder of the classic New York City bar Milk and Honey) was not a fan,” says Chad Solomon of Dallas’ Midnight Rambler, who worked with the late cocktail legend. “But people loved drinking it. He was, like, ‘It’s got too many damn ingredients!’ ”
It’s a misfit of a drink, a gin-powered cocktail that muscled its way into the tiki canon through luck and guile, disguising itself in pineapple and grenadine. But while its more dignified origins faded in the process, two Dallas bars – Industry Alley and Midnight Rambler – are breathing new life into the Sleeping Beauty that’s been there all along.
Imagine two actor brothers born in close succession. They look just enough alike, and their names are similar enough, that they’re often confused with each other. The older brother teaches the younger one all he knows, but the younger brother’s easier disposition makes him more likable than his rugged, reserved sibling. And when the younger’s career veers from drama into comedy, making him a star, the family name rises to fame with him.
That seems to be the story of the Singapore Sling, whose sweeter flavors and catchier name propelled it through the thick and thin of cocktail lineage rather than its older brother, the Straits Sling. A sling is a type of drink, at its base a simple mix of spirit, sweetener and water. As cocktails historian David Wondrich observed in his book Imbibe!, it’s “a simple drink in the same way a tripod is a simple device: Remove one leg and it cannot stand, set it up properly and it will hold the whole weight of the world.”
The Straits Sling, born sometime in the late 1800s, was just that: A mix of gin (spirit), sweetener (Benedictine, a honey-sweet herbal liqueuer) and carbonated soda (water), plus lemon and bitters. But its defining flavor was cherry – in the form of kirsch, a dry cherry brandy.
The original Singapore Sling – at least as well as anyone can figure out – was basically the same drink, except that it used sweet cherry brandy instead of dry and subbed lime as the citrus. That’s the Singapore Sling you’ll get if you order the classic drink at Midnight Rambler in downtown Dallas, and a few dashes of Angostura make all the difference, giving depth to what would otherwise taste like an off-kilter black cherry soda.
Adam McDowell includes the mix in his entertaining and recently published Drinks: A User’s Guide, whose characterization is hard to argue with: “Here’s the correct recipe; ignore all other versions like the meaningless static they are.”
1 oz London dry gin
1 oz cherry brandy
1 oz Benedictine
1 oz lime
3 d Angostura bitters
Stir in a Collins glass. Garnish w/Maraschino cherries
You’ll also find the drink on the inaugural menu at Industry Alley just south of downtown, where owner Charlie Papaceno digs its less-is-more simplicity. “It’s like with French cooking: Here’s the mother sauce,” he says. “Here’s what we work from.”
But of course Papaceno had to tweak his version just a little. Rather than using equal parts, his recipe boosts the gin and tones down the liqueurs, with just a squeeze of lime. The drink is tart and a bit Scotchy thanks to its signature ingredient, Cherry Heering – not the summery cool pineapple drink the name usually calls to mind, but a leathery, autumn-ready gin-and-tonic.
“So, it’s like, to take it back,” Papaceno says. “Somehow it’s just gotten so tricked up.”
Until Wondrich tracked down the recipe above in a 1913 Singapore newspaper, no one really knew what the standard was for sure. By the late 1920s and early 1930s the rumor was a good ways down the table and already starting to morph; even the Raffles Hotel itself touted an “original” recipe in the 1930s with pineapple and grenadine, flowery additions that nonetheless endeared it to the wave of tiki that was just starting to emerge.
Before long the drink with the catchy name became a game of eeny meeny miny mo, something everyone did but felt free to put their own spin on. “Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike,” wrote David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).
Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947) included two versions; so did Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology (2003), listing the neglected Straits Sling recipe as “Singapore Sling #1” and offering a second that included triple sec.
“The Singapore Sling is a perfect example of the kind of drinks that came from outside the world of tiki establishments and took up residence on tiki menus everywhere,” wrote San Francisco bar owners Martin and Rebecca Cate in Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016). The legendary Trader Vic, they wrote, included it on his first menu under the category, “Drinks I Have Gathered from the Four Corners of the Globe.”
Here’s a typically involved recipe, the one I favored for a while, from The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy (2011):
2 oz. pineapple
1 ½ oz gin
½ oz Cherry Heering
½ oz grenadine (I use pomegranate molasses)
¼ oz Cointreau
¼ oz Benedictine
¼ oz lime
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Collins glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cherry and a slice of pineapple.
Yep, that’s a lot of moving parts for one drink. No wonder Wondrich once wrote: “The Singapore Sling is one of those complicated drinks that taste better when you don’t have to make them.”
But, you might be saying, what about the Straits Sling? Isn’t it being neglected all over again?
Not anymore, thanks to Midnight Rambler, where mixmaster Solomon has revived his own version of the drink with a wry literary nod.
Even before he began learning the craft, Solomon had the Singapore Sling on his radar after reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in high school. “(Thompson) was describing sitting poolside at his hotel with a Singapore Sling, a side of mezcal and a beer chaser,” Solomon said. “I was, like — what’s a Singapore Sling?”
Then Solomon happened into the budding cocktail renaissance underway in New York City in the early years of the millennium, working at classic bars like Milk and Honey and the Pegu Club. In 2004, Ted Haigh gave a nod to the drier Straits Sling in his book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails – “but if you make it as Ted as written,” Solomon says, “it’s a terrible drink. Virtually undrinkable.”
Egged on by cocktails writer Martin Douderoff, one of his Pegu Club regulars, Solomon decided to see how he could improve on the drink while keeping its historical accuracy. By early 2006, he’d hit on a Benedictine-less version that used both dry and sweet cherry brandies – kirsch and Cherry Heering. It appeared on the Pegu Club menu later that year as the Solomon Sling.
Late this summer, as Solomon prepared Midnight Rambler’s fall menu, he knew he wanted to incorporate seasonal stone-fruit flavors, but not in an overly sweet way. When one of his bartenders suggested he reincarnate the Solomon Sling, he thought,“Okay. But let’s have some fun with it: Let’s serve it Hunter S. Thompson style and miniaturize it.’”
And that’s how you’ll find it on Rambler’s current menu – served “Gonzo-style” and slightly downsized with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony. It’s a delicate drink, slightly sweet with a lush cherry finish – and did I mention it comes with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony?
The sibling slings are finally having their day, and there’s little to fear or loathe about it.
Now, it’s back for another run: The 5th annual Trigger’s Toys cocktail bash, billed as “The Ultimate Cocktail Experience,” is projected to be the biggest ever – with ailing kids as the beneficiary.
The yearly pop-up, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 5, has moved to Klyde Warren Park, showing how far the annual benefit event has come after stints at The Standard Pour in Uptown and Henry’s Majestic in Knox-Henderson.
Five teams of bartenders, distributors and brand ambassadors from around Texas will face off for charity, and under this year’s theme, “Cocktails Around The World,” each squad’s pop-up bar will represent a particular continent – North America, South America, Africa, Asia or Europe.
With this year’s larger venue, Trigger’s Toys founder Bryan Townsend hopes to raise as much as $300,000, more than three times the $130,000 raised at last year’s event. By 2020, he aims to offer a million Christmas-season care packages to needy area children.
“We’re offering a unique way for people to experience the talents of our service industry while giving back to their community,” said Townsend, who named the agency for his dog, Trigger, after seeing the animal’s positive effect on a child in need of therapy.
The annual event helps chronically sick kids and their families through financial assistance and supplemental programming.
This year’s event will run from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets, available here, are $65 or $125 for the VIP experience — including 6 p.m. entry.
Team captains and their logos (provided courtesy of Trigger’s Toys) are as follows:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
You don’t have to go all to Japan to find an izakaya, a gastropub-like gathering spot for those who love to drink shochu, the country’s national spirit. At least not this Sunday, when Dallas’ Industry Alley, Charlie Papaceno’s chill hang in the Cedars neighborhood, becomes a pop-up izakaya for the night.
It’s all part of the bar’s “1st Sunday Soiree,” a recently launched series of evenings featuring guest chefs and their gustatory goodies. The series kicked off last month with Small Brewpub’s Misti Norris, whose creative consumables were to die for; Justin Holt, sous chef at Lucia, will bust out an array of ramen, yakitori skewers and the Japanese delight known as Battleship Curry. The fare is cash only, with prices running from $2 to $10 from 8 p.m. until the food runs out. Try to remain civilized.
This time around, bar manager Mike Steele is getting into the fun, rounding out the izakaya theme with a mix of cocktails featuring shochu, a low-proof liquor distilled from stuff like rice, barley or sweet potatoes. As I wrote in The Dallas Morning News, it’s light and earthy, like a hoppy green tea.
In Japan, shochu is the featured spirit at izakayas, which evolved from sake shops that began adding seating so people could stay a while. While they still feature sake, beer, wine and whiskey, shochu is still the foundation; at 50-proof, it’s not as strong as most spirits but still brawnier than wine. Izakaya-style bars featuring American-oriented cocktails have blossomed throughout the country.
Steele and guest bartender Trina Nishimura — the two were among the original crew at Cedars Social, the influential craft-cocktail bar just down the street — will be serving up a mix of izakaya-style cocktails evoking both Japanese-style drinks (think low-proof) and cocktails adhering more to a Western philosophy. They’ll use ingredients like yuzu and matcha green tea syrup and stick to two kinds of shochu, one made from barley and the other from white sweet potatoes specifically produced for shochu. “Once you get that third or fourth sip and that shochu gets on the palate, then these other flavor profiles start coming through,” Steele says.
POP-UP IZAKAYA AT INDUSTRY ALLEY, 1713 S. Lamar, Dallas. Food is cash only. Starting at 8 p.m. until the food runs out.
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.
“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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
What most people know of South American drinking culture typically boils down to a handful of things – cachaca and the Caiparinha cocktail, pisco and the Pisco Sour.
Daniel Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni restaurants and one of Dallas’ more innovative bar talents, is on a mission to change that. For several years, driven by a notion that has since become a passion, the Peruvian-born bar man has been researching South American cocktail tradition; with his departure from La Duni, he’s ready to spring his knowledge loose upon the world in a series of events that will roll out in the coming weeks.
Your first chance to experience the fruits of his obsession will be Wednesday, when Guillen pairs up with Twenty Seven chef David Anthony Temple for a six-course dinner titled “The South American Gentleman’s Companion,” named after Charles Baker’s legendary cocktail tome of 1951.
The event will be a tour de force for the 27-year-old Guillen, who puts as much thought into presenting his cocktails as he does into making them. We’re talking about drinks served in everything from tin cans to test tubes – but as always, there is method to his madness: In addition to showcasing the continent’s drinking traditions, he’s equally amped about reflecting South American street culture.
“It’s what you see when you go out of the house and grab your first bus to work,” said Guillen, who you’ll now find occasionally behind the bar at Proof + Pantry, in the Arts District. “Street cart vendors, little candy carts near the schools – you can apply those things and come up with something off the charts.”
Guillen’s libations will be paired with Chef DAT’s Latin-inspired fare, including BBQ’s gnocchi, roasted cabrito, coconut-encrusted cod and smoked duck breast tostadas.
The 7 pm reservations-only dinner is limited to 35 people and will take place at Twenty Seven, 2901 Elm Street in Deep Ellum. Price is $120 plus gratuity.
Can’t make dinner? You can still sample a lineup of South American-inspired cocktails and other surprises at a public post-dinner reception at 10 pm, with special prices for dinner guests. Think Argentinian Boilermakers, a South American Old Fashioned and Guillen’s celebrated Rosemary’s Affair, which earned him regional honors from Bombay Sapphire gin and was among my favorite cocktails of 2013.
It’s a scene still in the nest, but you wouldn’t know it from the mob scene at Maison Artemisia, an old-timey-chic urban hideaway in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood. As befits the global metropolis of 8.8 million, the bar’s three-deep lines are plush with people from all over – but on this night, many are in Mexico City for the most recent episode in a series of cocktail and spirits conferences set in places around the world.
Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) – the spirits-minded juggernaut behind the eponymous annual festival every summer in New Orleans – came to Mexico last week, its latest push to highlight up-and-coming mixology markets worldwide as the U.S.-led craft-cocktail renaissance continues to chart new terrain. It’s called Tales of the Cocktail on Tour, and like a pared-down version of its mammoth mothership in NOLA, the bartender-oriented event is a mix of workshops, distillery tours, networking, distributor-sponsored brunches and parties and the chance to visit the bars leading the local charge.
“We pick markets that we see bubbling up and shine a spotlight on them,” said TOTC founder Anne Tuennerman. “When we say we’re going to a city, people think, there must be something going on there.”
The intent is to showcase each city’s potential for distributors and brand ambassadors and to enrich the local soil of knowledge with the wisdom and talents of industry veterans and experts like tiki writer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Esquire columnist David Wondrich. In turn, visiting bartenders gain insight into local ingredients and methods to take back home. Sponsor companies build brand loyalty. Ultimately, the rest of us get to drink better drinks in more places. Everybody wins.
The Tales on Tour gatherings are held in successive years before moving on to a new city, leaving the young bird to fly on its own. Mexico City is the third city to fall into the TOTC spotlight; Vancouver and Buenos Aires were before that. “What’s really cool is to see these cities after Tales has been there once,” said bar consultant Don Lee of Cocktail Kingdom, an online bar-implements and spirits literature seller. “They’re excited to grow.”
Having Tales come to Vancouver “was huge,” said bartender Dani Tatarin of the city’s Keefer Bar. “It gave us an extra push of publicity that people could see, and it highlighted the talents of people in the industry. Since then, we’ve kind of nurtured it along.”
The Mexico City attendees came from all over, from locals like Carlos Mendoza and Mauricio Hernandez of Podcast Borracho (“Drunken Podcast”) to a sizable posse from Guadalajara. There were bartenders from Austin, Key West, Miami, New York and Bellevue, Wash., cocktail writers from Seattle and Paris; groupies from Boston. Others came from countries like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia and Australia.
One afternoon, we piled into coaches for a tour of Bacardi’s Mexico plant in Cuautitlan Izcalli, an hour away from central Mexico City toward the state of Queretaro. Along the way, we rolled past graffiti’d embankments, homes with rooftop clotheslines and sprawling hillside communities before reaching the plant, where we found music, a carnivore’s lunch and, of course, mojitos and Cuba Libres. My favorite of the batch was La Familia, a well-rounded rumba of Bacardi, orange juice, Fino Sherry and sweet vermouth served in a coupe with a side of gooey, delicious chocolate-glazed popcorn or a slab of chocolate. It was a pleasingly perfect match.
In the facility’s musty, sweetly aromatic barrel storage warehouse, overhead misters moistened the air – and our hair. “It smells so good in here,” said bartender Juan Carlos Machuca of Guadalajara, where he’s creating cocktails for a new restaurant.
The next day brought a lineup of workshops and discussions, from the merits of sugar and modern bar technique to the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and the “dark ages” of mixology (1958-1977), when convenience and quantity bested style and substance. “The Margarita suffered tremendously in the 1970s,” said writer Berry. “The blender was basically The Devil back then. It made life easier for bartenders.”
Each night brought chances to sample Mexico City’s fairly new but mostly impressive craft-cocktail culture, sprouting primarily in the trendy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods. (That’s also true for mezcalerias, such as La Nacional and Sobrinos, that specialize in tequila’s smokier cousin.) Spirits like Diplomatico Rum and Chivas Regal sponsored special menus during Tales’ run and bartenders from around the world came to help staff the busy bar nights. In general, drinks ran about $6-12 U.S.
“Designer cocktails are still a very small niche,” said a local food and drink blogger who goes by the handle Gastronauta. “It’s growing, but slowly.”
In addition to Maison Artemisia and pair of rogue visits to mezcalerias, I was only to get to barely a half-dozen spots on Tales’ itinerary, including Baltra and Bar Lilit. These were my three favorites:
LICORERIA LIMANTOUR, the city’s first real craft-cocktail bar when it opened three years ago. Next door to mezcal-minded Sobrinos in the Roma area, its two floors of well-crafted cocktails and dark elegance overlook busy Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Visiting mixologist Sebastian Gans’ of Paris’ Candelaria made one of my favorite cocktails of the week, the apricot-shaded Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, yellow lime and ginger. Even the shot-sized sangrita Gans made to complement a bit of straight tequila was outstanding, with mango, tomato, coriander, lime and chipotle.
JULES’ BASEMENT, in the ritzy Polanco neighborhood, is a nicely conceived speakeasy below a Mexican restaurant accessed by what at first looks to be the door of the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. (There is a large, suited doorman outside. And a small hostess.) If you’re lucky enough to be on the list, the door will open, and the sound of thumping bass will signal the dark otherworld below. Down the stairs and you’re in a low-ceilinged, dance club atmosphere where able bartenders crank out house drinks and classics like the Cucaracha, Old Cuban and Mary Pickford. Overall, not typically my scene, but the drinks were well executed and the service was top-notch.
BAR FELINA: If I lived here, this low-key but classy refuge sited in the quirky, subdued Hipodromo neighborhood near Condesa would be my hang. There, Minneapolis transplant Jane Soli-Holt could be credited for one of the best Old Fashioneds I’ve had in some time – a beautifully presented Almond Old Fashioned made with Angostura 1919 rum, almond-cinnamon syrup, orange-allspice bitters, Angostura bitters and a thin curl or two of mulato pepper. Its sweetness spoke of depth rather than cloyingness. The bar’s casual vibe was accented by a DJ spinning classic vinyl dorm-room-style. It was more of a den in which to enjoy fine drinks and talk about big ideas than a place to see and be seen.
Beyond that, Mexico City itself was a sensory delight, from its plentiful in-city parks to the magnificence of the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the grandiosity of Plaza de la Constitucion. I enjoyed one of the best street-taco experiences ever at hole-in-the-wall Los Cocuyos, no doubt just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy and inexpensive to get around; Uber operates in Mexico City now along with worthwhile competitors, such as Yaxi. I loved how street-crossing was a constant game of Frogger, as equally well played by the elderly as the young; cars and people move in closer proximity on busy city streets than we are used to here. And one of the finest views in the city can be had from an eighth-floor café in the Sears Department store.
But for cocktail fans, it’s good to know that you can visit the city and find a decent drink, a situation that in Tales’ wake seems only destined to improve.
“You have no idea how important this is to us,” said Philippe Zaigue, Mexico brand ambassador for Havana Club rum. “It’s allowed us to communicate to the world what we’re doing. And, it will give us the feedback we need to make things better.”
Booze news and adventures in cocktailing, based In Dallas, Texas, USA. By Marc Ramirez, your humble scribe and boulevardier. All content and photos mine unless otherwise indicated. http://typewriterninja.com