Category Archives: Exotic tales of adventure

A no-bull experiment: Three Cedars-area bars to launch inaugural Running of the Bulls

Pamplona comes to Dallas, sorta.

It is said that the tradition dates back to the early 14th century, and its participants are known for something resembling cojones. The famed Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, held during the nine-day festival of Sanfermines, is the best known of such rituals, in which young, white-clad daredevils in red bandanas dash through the streets just ahead of six rampaging toros.

Of course you’ve thought about doing it. But maybe you’ve been unnerved by the airfares, or possibly it the fact that the event prohibits participation by anyone under the influence of alcohol.

My friends, Dallas has got you covered.

Imagine this on the streets of Dallas, except with roller derby girls and beer. (Image from TravelGenius.com)

Prepare to showcase your derring-do on Sunday, July 16, when the inaugural Cedars Running of the Bulls goes down with a three-venue trot just south of downtown. The event, dreamed up by Industry Alley proprietor Charlie Papaceno, kicks off with a pep rally from 4 to 6 p.m. at Lee Harvey’s.

There, intrepid imbibers will receive their customary red bandanas before the less-than-half-mile run gets underway, with Dallas’ own flat-track roller derby girls, the Derby Devils, playing the part of the minatory beasts. Mac’s Southside and Industry Alley, both on Lamar, are the final destinations. Expect the Easy Slider food truck and drink specials sponsored by Tullamore Dew, along with plenty of Topo Chico.

Industry Alley
Charlie Papaceno of Industry Alley.

As its Facebook page puts it, the event is a way to “celebrate the spirit of our unique neighborhood,”  carving out a niche in the same way that Oak Cliff has earned a claim to Bastille Day. Though reception to the idea was lukewarm at a Cedars merchant meeting, Papaceno said, he and managers of the other two bars decided to push forward with the idea on their own.

Sometimes, you just gotta take the bull by the horns.

The Singapore Sling: Two Dallas bars give the much-maligned drink a classic retelling

Over the years, the Singapore Sling came to be known as a tropical drink along the lines of this one from Dallas barman Lucky Campbell.
Over the years, the Singapore Sling came to be known as a tropical drink like this one from Dallas barman Lucky Campbell.  Its origins are nowhere as sweet — but arguably just as delicious.

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.”

Ingredients
1 oz London dry gin
1 oz cherry brandy
1 oz Benedictine
1 oz lime
3 d Angostura bitters
Club soda
Instructions
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.”

Industry Alley's Singapore Sling is barman Charlie Papaceno's slightly tweaked version of what's believed to be the drink's original recipe.
At Industry Alley, Charlie Papaceno’s slightly tweaked version of what’s believed to be the drink’s original recipe is suitable for colder weather.

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
Angostura bitters
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.”

Midnight Rambler's play on the Straits Sling, the Solomon Sling is served with a shot of mezcal and a beer.
Midnight Rambler’s play on the Straits Sling, the Solomon Sling, is served “Gonzo-style” with a shot of mezcal and a beer.

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.

Sling made: Gin, lime, Benedictine, Cherry Heering and a few dashes of bitters.
Sling made: Gin, lime, Benedictine, Cherry Heering and a few dashes of bitters, topped with Topo Chico.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When cucumbers fly: Hendrick’s Gin’s most unusual form of air transport comes to Texas

Hendrick's Gin
Hendrick’s Gin’s X-111 Flying Cucumber Airship. Because the skies must be tamed with produce.

Much is inherently ridiculous about the notion of a flying cucumber, and yet such concerns did little to deter Hendrick’s, the decidedly unusual Scotland-based gin, from conceiving just such a thing to loose upon the nation’s skies. That’s just how Hendrick’s rolls.

“Just as we applied the taste of CUCUMBER to GIN,” the Hendrick’s literature boasted in typical circus-sideshow fashion, “we are now applying the CUCUMBER’S AERODYNAMIC SHAPE to FLIGHT.”

Flying Cucumber
Part of Hendrick’s’ characteristically vintage setup as we prepared to take flight.

This weekend, the marvelous X-111 Flying Cucumber Airship found its way to Houston’s Ellington Field, a military and public airport on the city’s periphery, where members of the cocktail literati were afforded this most peculiar form of transport.

Arriving by Hendrick’s shuttle from a safe measure beyond, we intrepid travelers were deposited on the field at a pop-up parlor echoing Hendrick’s’ old-timey vibe with vintage furniture, trunks and an antique automobile with a pullout bar.

But there could be no doubt that it was the 130-foot dirigible in the distance that had captured our fascination. Cleverly wrapped in dark green vinyl to recall the familiar produce that is one of gin’s besties, it sported a single eye, the symbol of Hendrick’s Gin’s so-called Society of the Unusual.

Hendrick's Gin
Eye in the sky: The symbol of Hendrick’s Gin’s Society of the Unusual goes airborne.

Approaching storm clouds offered an air of adventure as well as a good amount of wind, requiring the blimp to be tethered by the nose to a large mast, lest it be disastrously swept away. I could only imagine that, should the craft tragically go down during my ride, that at least my obituary would be mildly hilarious.

Meanwhile, a Hendrick’s-attired crew attended urgently to the airship, wresting it into position with ropes and sheer brute strength as we took turns being ushered in groups of one to three into the surprisingly small cab.

I was lucky enough to ride alone with pilot Cesar Mendez, a Kerrville native who splits cucumber-flying duties with fellow pilot Charlie Smith. Theirs is a rare skill indeed: “There’s actually more astronauts in the world than people who can fly these things,” said Jim Ryan, Hendrick’s Gin’s U.S. brand ambassador.

Hendrick's Gin
The skipper, brave and sure: Cesar Mendez, Flying Cucumber pilot.

A wave of Mendez’s hand and the crew freed the ropes from their mighty grips, and off we sailed into the heavens. A pair of wheels to either side of him controlled our lift and descent, while pedals, or rudders, at his feet controlled direction.

Our ascent was casual and, as Hendrick’s would put it, civilized, a series of plodding front-to-back tilts that gradually took us up and forward, like a great whale rising from its oceanic depths. “We’re slow and low,” Mendez said. “We’re never really in a hurry.”

Hendrick's Gin
Our cruising altitude of 1,000 feet was perfectly acceptable for a flying cucumber.

The airfield and its surrounding greenbelts and neighborhoods opened up before us. Within a few minutes, we had reached our comfort zone of 1,000 feet, a height that not only allows those on the ground to take in the airship’s signature artwork but keeps the flying cucumber safely away from other air traffic or flying produce.

It was about this time that I remembered that I was terrified of heights. The fact that I was next to an open window from which my cell phone could easily spill until it fell, fell, fell indistinguishably to the ground 80 stories below, was no help, nor were the cab’s forward tilts that practically shoved my altitudinous predicament in my face.

Hendrick's Gin
The fearless crew prepares to haul in the descending airship.

Yes, I was in a real pickle. I’m not gonna lie: My hands had gone clammy and my heart was racing. I did what I normally do in such situations: I went into reporter mode, tossing a few questions at the Mendez and focusing on jotting down the answers until I realized that in actuality, the 35-mph ride was remarkably smooth. And enjoyable, too, despite the lack of beverage service, or more to the point, gin-and-tonic service.

Before long we were moving in for our landing as the crack Hendrick’s crew lined up in inverted-V formation, prepared to haul us home and toward welcome refreshment.

Houston was the fourth stop on the cucumber’s 13-city tour that includes Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, New York and Chicago. Next would be South Florida. Dallas had originally been on Hendrick’s’ schedule but unfortunately had to be scrubbed because of inclement weather.

“Everything is susceptible to weather conditions,” Mendez said. “That’s just part of the experience of flying in a cucumber.”

Flying Cucumber
At last, the beverage cart arrives.

 

From Mexico, with larvae: Sal de gusano is worming its way into Dallas’ mezcal

Atwater Alley
Like moths to a flame: A Mexican tradition finds its way to Dallas.

So, you’ve wowed your Fireball-drinking buddies with your superior knowledge of mezcal, tequila’s smoky and more exotic cousin. You’ve earned serious props for your appreciation of mezcal’s Scotch-like acquired taste. But dude: if you really want to prove yourself mas macho, try drinking mezcal the way it’s done in Oaxaca – with worm salt.

Among the benefits of the ongoing craft-cocktail renaissance has been the rising availability of mezcal, distilled from Mexico’s native maguey plant, a form of agave. Generations-old methods of artisan production  – in which the plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens before the fermentation process, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor – have spawned hundreds of choices, many of which you can now find in the U.S.

Typically it’s imbibed straight. Picture a tiny cup or shot of your beloved mezcal, served alongside a small plate of orange slices. Garnish those slices with a sprinkling of sal de gusano – a rust-colored powder of sea salt, ground chilies and the crushed remains of agave worms. Better yet, dip a slice into a bowl of the powder itself.

While you grimace, consider this: Despite the name, the worms aren’t actually worms. They’re the larvae of moths that start feeding on the hearts and leaves of the agave plant as soon as they’re born. In other words, they are living the life. Their brief and blissfully unaware existence comes to an end in late summer, when – in accordance with centuries-old tradition – they’re gathered up, dried in the sun and toasted, then pulverized along with sea salt and chilies to become the magical mix now before you.

Proof + Pantry
These larvae sacrificed themselves for your mezcal enjoyment. Don’t disappoint them.

Back to your plate. Take a bite of powdered orange and your mouth explodes with sweet citrus, faint heat and a wallop of salt. It’s a zesty complement to the swig of smoky mezcal you’re about to inhale. But wait: There’s another flavor there, too, almost paprika-esque. It’s lovely and rounds out the mezcal perfectly.

“It’s savory,” says bartender Hector Zavala of Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “It has that flavor of umami.”

Yes, a bit of the worm-salt experience and you might just be calling for your mommy. But insect consumption is a longtime tradition in resource-challenged Oaxaca, where critters like grubs and crickets provide a cheap and plentiful source of protein. (I once sampled a plate of not-so-bad dried crickets at a Oaxacan hole-in-the-wall in Phoenix, sautéed with lime and chili and served with a side of tortillas. The biggest issue – the little legs that get caught between your teeth.)

Atwater Alley
Bartender Zavala’s spice powders, made from moth larvae and grasshoppers.

A few weeks ago, Zavala scored a shipment of sal de gusano from Mexican producer Gran Mitla; he’s now dishing it up Oaxaca-style at Henry’s Majestic and its speakeasy sidekick, Atwater Alley. (Appropriately, he serves it with Wahaka’s reposado mezcal, which incorporates the same agave worm.) At Uptown’s upscale Mexican place Komali, bar manager Leann Berry is pondering serving her recently obtained sal de gusano with mezcal flights, while you can also find it at Proof + Pantry in the Arts District, socked away in a Hefty bag labeled “grub salt.”

Zavala, of Henry’s Majestic, comes from the same small town in Mexico as fellow bartender Luis Sifuentes; they lived two miles apart but never met until they came to Dallas. Now both are among the badass bar crew assembled at Henry’s by beverage director Alex Fletcher. “Alex has a lot of trust in us,” says Zavala, who along with sal de gusano also procured a milder, sweeter powder of ground-up grasshoppers called sal de chapulin. “He lets us experiment and come up with our own ideas.”

Fletcher finds the whole thing intriguing. “(Hector) brought those in to play with,” he says, wheels already turning. “I think doing a worm-salt, citrus-based mezcal cocktail would be fantastic.”

That’s what a post on the site Mezcalistas.com suggests. In fact, its play on the classic Margarita is basically the orange-slice tradition rolled into a drink, replacing tequila and lime with mezcal and orange juice and then serving it in a worm-salt-rimmed glass.

Atwater Alley
At Atwater Alley, a worm-salt-rimmed cocktail from bartender Sifuentes.

At Atwater Alley, Sifuentes gave the cocktail concept a go, too, mixing mild Wahaka mezcal with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and a bit of bitter Averna. Worm salt lined the glass. It was a respectable blend, but it could just be that the spices’ jaw-punch of salinity is too aggressive to play well in cocktails, at least in significant quantity. Still, there’s nothing wrong with having it the traditional way. Sometimes simplicity is best.

Maybe food is the most logical complement of all. In Austin, you’ll find worm-salt-accompanied mezcal at Takoba, along with slices of Oaxacan cheese. And at The Pastry War in Houston, you can get mezcal with a straight-up side of toasted grasshoppers. If that makes you shudder, start slow – with a bit of worm salt.

“Psychologically, that’s a hump I had to get over,” said Proof + Pantry bartender Mike Steele. “But it’s pretty good stuff.”

From the Venezuelan jungle, a most unique gin — and a rare tasting experience for Dallas

Hendrick's Gin
Out of the jungle, a mysterious elixir.

Whether the whole thing was for real it was hard to tell, but it’s fair to say we wanted it to be. As Dallas bartender Stephen Halpin would later put it, the lines between fairy tale and fact were “bewitchingly blurred.” What were the chances that Hendrick’s Gin’s master distiller and global ambassador would be dispatched into the Venezuelan jungle in search of a unique ingredient with which to produce a spirit that would never see mass production?

“This was an experiment,” said David Piper, the Scotland-based company’s global ambassador. “A little bit of an indulgence.”

So began the saga of Hendrick’s’ so-called Perilous Botanical Quest, a zesty tale of pluck and determination spun early this month for two dozen DFW-area bartenders and spirit enthusiasts at, fittingly, the Dallas Zoo.In a setting of artificial moss, magnifying glasses, mini-globes and creepy-crawly things under glass – a most exotic and scientific atmosphere indeed – containers of crispy edible mealworms and crickets offered themselves for the taking, the former echoing corn nuts, the latter salty sunflower seed shells. It all fit the brand’s cheeky, carnival-esque vibe.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Adventurous tales require adventurous snacks.

The mysterious gin – dubbed Kanaracuni – was labeled with clinical small-batch simplicity. As we explored our fantastical surroundings, a concoction was prepared – a mix of caramelized pineapple and peppercorn to which was added cinnamon, lemon, vanilla liqueur and finally gin. The drinks were served in distinctive gourds with metal tea straws, the kind with enlarged, enclosed ends with small holes to strain out leaves.

A short film delivered the thrilling narrative: The intrepid Hendrick’s team, joined by practiced explorer Charles Brewer-Carias and botanist Francisco Delascio, set deep into the Guayana Highlands, into an area “nestled among vertiginous crags and protected by ancient spirits” and hostile wilds teeming with what Piper not so fondly remembered as “lots of nasty little stinging things.” With them they had a baby 10-litre copper still, a small ice machine and generator, spices, freeze-dried cucumber and, judging from the final frames, at least one incredibly sturdy martini glass.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Caramelizing pineapple and peppercorn for the first cocktail.

They were seeking an ingredient to complement Hendrick’s’ floral, green and spicy profile. The team befriended natives of the village Kanaracuni, a small-statured tribe with four-foot blowpipes who introduced them to local herbs and spices – many of them “mesmerizingly pungent, but not quite right,” said Piper, looking like a pith-helmeted Bradley Cooper.

Then, on the seventh day, they found scorpion tail – a leafy plant drunk in tea form by the locals as a digestive aid. (The same Venezuelan plant appears to be described in a 1968 article by researcher John H. Masters in The Journal of the Lepidopterists Society.) The taste was just what master distiller Lesley Gracie, a wee fairy godmother with a youthful smile and a mile-long mane of hair, was looking for. “We rubbed it in our hands,” she said. “It was very green, almost cucumber. I knew it would fit the profile…. I don’t think we could have picked anything better to strike all the cues.”

Hendrick's Gin
Through the looking glass: A cocktail served in a tiny gourd with a metal tea straw.

There in the jungle, Gracie produced a trial distillate, quickly deemed a success. She then made nearly 9 liters of concentrated scorpion’s tail, which with some difficulty the team managed to transport back to Europe. That became 350 liters of gin. “That’s all we have of this Kanaracuni,” Piper said.

As the film came to a close, we were treated to small samples of the prize distillate. No doubt the story’s allure added to its appeal, but it was lovely – the familiar Hendrick’s taste, less juniper-heavy than other gins and rife with floral and cucumber notes, but with a little extra, something like the tangerine-y sweet-and-sour taste of kumquat.

Then came a Kanaracuni martini. Eyes widened: Could this be for real, considering how little of this there was to go around? Dallas was one of only a select handful of cities on this tour, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Boston. But that wasn’t all: The Hendrick’s team then turned over to the group their bar setups – including a bottle or two of Kanaracuni – for our own experimentation.

“There’s very little of this gin,” Piper said. “It’s best to keep it as pure as possible. But the more you play with it, the more remarkable things it does.”

Hendrick's Gin
Creating a buzz: The rare liquid was unveiled in the most exotic of atmospheres.

That Hendrick’s would create such a rare spirit just to showcase the brand’s pursuit of new flavors “was an extremely cool move,” said Tate’s bartender Austin Gurley. And to choose DFW as one of few venues to unveil it was an honor, too. “Dallas has stepped up in the cocktail world,” he said.

None of us were botanically informed enough at the time to ask whether this elusive Venezuelan plant was the same scorpion tail wildflower found throughout Florida and southern Texas. Maybe climatic differences make that a moot point, anyway. Yet despite the proclamation that Kanaracuni would never be available for retail, one had to think Hendrick’s would ultimately decide whether to produce more based on how it was received during this exclusive tour. Wouldn’t they?

Hendrick's Gin
Bartender Juli Naida of Barter enjoys a gourd drink now and then.

But I later found an October 2013 article from London’s Daily Telegraph that detailed the same jungle narrative and noted that Gracie was then working on the final recipe for a small batch that would be available in 2014. A short time earlier, at London Cocktail Week, Hendricks’ Britain ambassador Duncan McRae had said the entire batch would be drunk during a series of special events the next year.“There is something quite special about a drink made in a finite quantity being entirely consumed over a short period,” McRae said then. “Once it’s been drunk, it will be gone forever.”

And if that’s truly the case, we had been part of a real adventure indeed.

Gin
The makings of a uniquely mystical and improbable tasting event at the Dallas Zoo.