There’s a built-in air of exclusivity that comes with opening a pricy membership-only bar, but the people behind Dallas’ Network Bar – which recently launched at Trinity Groves – seem determined not to let that affect perception of their drink prices. And in fact, the cocktails on bar manager James Slater’s well constructed menu do ring in at a respectable $13, which is on the low high-end of what you’ll find around town. (For comparison, drinks at Five Sixty, at Reunion Tower, run $16 apiece.) And there’s a $7 cocktail happy hour.
But there’s one drink you won’t find on Network Bar’s menu that puts even the high high-end libations to shame. Forget that $30 fishbowl Margarita you’re dunking your snout into – and meet the Golden Dawn, which at $150 is decidedly a fancydrank splurge and like the bar itself, a hidden gem that only those willing to fork over the dough can try. (I had the pleasure of accompanying my Dallas Morning News colleague Tiney Ricciardi for a tasting. She wrote about it here.)
The good news is, like many of the drinks on Slater’s menu, the Golden Dawn is pretty delicious – and not just because it makes Gran Patron Burdeos, a so-called “luxury anejo tequila” – the star of the show. You could probably count on one finger the reasons you’d actually mix a spirit like this into a cocktail, and this would be it. Slater’s Golden Dawn, served in what looks like a silver, leaf-laden chalice, expertly layers the aged tequila’s vanilla/raisin nuances with a lovely balance of bittersweet French Amer aperitif, blood-orange liqueur and a touch of absinthe.
But slow down there, tiger. Before you can plant your lips on this baby, Slater amps up the spectacle with a few poofs of homemade perfume around the glass – even the stem, so that the experience extends to your fingers – and a final sprinkling of gold flakes.
It’s a big show, of course, which you might expect in a cocktail this expensive – and a good way, as all eyes drift to the what-the-heck-is-going-on-over-there pageant unfolding before you, to set yourself apart from not just a good chunk of cash but from your fellow hobnobbing professionals who, like you, have paid $500 to $1,000 for a year’s Network Bar membership.
Raise that chalice proudly, O intrepid overlord – and whatever you do, don’t chug.
The idea behind Dallas’ Network Bar is simple. It’s a craft-cocktail bar where you network. The members-only concept from Phil Romano and Stuart Fitts, which targets career-minded professionals, opens Monday at Trinity Groves.
Granted, there are networking happy hours you could attend for free, so why would you shell out $500 to $1,000 to become a member of Network Bar?
Here are five possible reasons.
1.Because of the networking, of course.
Yes, you could do your networking in a place meant for drinking. But here, you can do your drinking in a place meant for networking. According to its website, Network Bar “takes networking and social interaction to another level.”
Members must be recommended by other members and have their applications approved by a committee; those sought are described as “eager, ever curious, always-on-the-hunt individuals (who) thrive on new ideas and problem solving…. They must have a purpose.” In other words, not your garden-variety professionals!
Membership is $500 for those 30 and younger. If you’re older than that, it’s $1,000. As of Friday, membership was up to 217, said the bar’s Stayci Runnels.
Not a member? You can still get in as a member’s guest or, like at your gym, tour the place under the watchful eye of a membership team representative.
2. Because there’s an app for that.
Yes, this club comes with its own mobile app. Once inside the club, members can then peer into the app to see who else is checked in – and then reach out to make connections and exchange digital business cards. Networking!
3. Because of the atmosphere and membership benefits.
Check out those handsome leather chairs. Those brawny barstools, that stylish wood paneling and dim lighting. This place is elegant AF. Cool photographs of wild animals, in soft sepia and stately black and white, gaze at you from the walls, along with a big bison head. Is this not a place you want to freely roam? It’s like you’re in Wayne Manor.
In addition to the expansive old-lodge-y setting, there’s a private meeting room. Otherwise, classy red drapes can be drawn to make public seating clusters more secluded. And the website promises activities such as wine tastings, a lecture/workshop series and fireside chats.
4. Because of the cocktails.
The bar’s drink menu features original cocktails from James Slater, described on Network Bar’s website as “one of the best mixologists in the world.” Lofty praise, indeed, but Slater is indeed no slouch, having previously helmed bars at Knife, Spoon, Oak, Quill and most recently, Idle Rye. (He also created two of my favorite cocktails of 2014.) “This place is different than any place I’ve ever worked,” Slater says; his drink menu will feature 15 cocktails priced from $13-$15, including a frozen rose cocktail and half-dozen barrel-aged ones.
“I’m putting my heart and soul into it,” Slater says.
You may also catch a glimpse of a curious vessel resembling a small silver chalice. What is that, you might (rightfully) wonder? The answer may or may not be the most lavish cocktail in Texas, an off-menu, super-premium concoction featuring a high-end tequila and a dusting of gold flakes.
5. Because of the brain food.
“The Network Bar is committed to nourishing your network as well as your brain,” the website says. That means food and drinks that the club declares will amp up your memory, focus and productivity – think green smoothies, lean proteins and cold-pressed juices. And then think some more.
But really, Network Bar is about rubbing shoulders in a setting designed for that purpose. “You can come in here and talk ideas, make connections, whatever,” says general manager Josh Laudan. “It’s like LinkedIn, but with cocktails. It’s a very unique concept as far as this industry goes.”
I’ve just sipped from a glass brimming with vodka, fruit puree, lemon and champagne on crushed ice, and the crackle of Pop Rocks is still rocketing around my tongue.
“This is going to be a full sensory experience,” James Hamous says, casting a nod at the room as he takes it all in. “Not the humdrum of your typical restaurant.”
Do tell, sir!
Actually it’s the Don’t Tell Supper Club we’re in, but it’s clear from our grand surroundings that the folks behind the curtain want the place to be anything but a secret. The décor is whimsical bordering on outlandish, with designer mirrors, slanted shelves, an array of sexy crossed legs along a wall and a stack of books behind the bar that transform into a flock of flying seagulls.
At Don’t Tell, already in soft opening but which officially launches its dinner menu July 27, it’s going to be all about the show, stage and all. The place transforms from dinner club to nightclub at 11 p.m. and will be open three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, with former Top Chef contestant Tre Wilcox the architect du cuisine.
“It’s going to be socially interactive,” says general manager Hamous, also co-owner of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who prefers to describes his role at Don’t Tell as “facilitator of entertainment” and then, on second thought, as “director of crazy.” He’s thinking maybe geishas in the future, or mermaids in a ginormous water tank.
Yup. It’s going to be that kind of place – a cabaret of contortionists, aerialists and dance revues wriggling and prancing as you devour another forkful of lamb, the sort of spectacle you might find in such clubs in Amsterdam, Miami or New York City.
Likewise, the showy ‘tude infuses the drink menu from bar manager Sam Houghton, formerly of Dragonfly at Hotel Zaza and The Standard Pour. Think dry ice, smoke and fanciful touches like those Pop Rocks in the so-called Contortionist, added, as the drink list says, “to bring the party to your mouth!” (Exclamation point not mine.)
The tiki-esque Trainspotting includes four syringes of rum piercing its icy depths, to be injected upon serving into the highball of orange, lime, pineapple and coconut.
The Most Unusual Tea, a name playing off the brand phrase for Hendricks Gin, is poured from a beaker into a tea cup that bubbles smoke rings like a magic potion of gin, lime, basil and citrus-chamomile bitters.
One standout is the Green Eggs and Ham (pictured above), a cool mix of tequila, egg white, jalapeno/cucumber puree, St. Germain and spicy Firewater tincture. With a slice of candied bacon crawling from the lime-green surf over the rim of the coupe, I would drink it on a boat, or with a goat. The name even references “Sam I am” Houghton herself.
My favorite may be the Bumbledypeg, whose name recalls mumbledypeg, the old-timey childhood game played with a pocketknife; Houghton says she wanted to make a Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon and honey syrup) for a friend who’s allergic to honey. Her version nicely substitutes almond-y orgeat for honey, but the coup de grace that graces the coupe (boom!) is a Bit-O-Honey speared with a tiny plastic sword.
Drink prices are expected to hover around $12, with many echoing the venue’s theatrical theme: “They’re things that alter and play with your senses,” Hamous says.
One evening last month, having somehow wandered far beyond my urban comfort zone, I stopped in for a drink at Rye, a bustling bistro just off the square in McKinney. No, not McKinney Avenue, the trendy SMU hang in Uptown where, not surprisingly, some of DFW’s best cocktail joints have clustered in the last five years – but McKinney, the fast-growing former farm center 45 minutes north of Dallas.
Surely, I thought, even at this suburban outpost, I could score a decent gin and tonic. Maybe even an Old Fashioned. But as I scanned bar manager Manny Casas’ drink list, I found myself eyeballing anything-but-rural components: Mole bitters; gomme syrup; aloe liqueur; Fernet Francisco; honey-blessed Barr Hill gin. And then I noticed the small barrel to my left, which – as I would soon discover – harbored a terrific barrel-aged variation on the classic Negroni. My cocktail destinations had grown by one.
It’s more challenging than ever to keep up with the constantly expanding universe of cocktails in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the area’s farthest reaches, and in places that five years ago would have been content to serve simple mixed drinks, you can now order a Sazerac, or a Last Word, and avoid the indignity of blank stares or massive shade.
Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, of course, and pretty surroundings alone do not a great cocktail bar make. DFW’s craft cocktail landscape in 2016 wasn’t without its casualties – notably Knox-Henderson’s Hibiscus, whose small but well-informed bar program enjoyed a loyal following, and noble but aborted ventures like Frisco’s Vicini and, in Lower Greenville, Knuckle Sandwich and Remedy, destined to close by year’s end.
But from straight-up cocktail joints like Oak Cliff’s Jettison and clubby enclaves like Quill in the Design District to cocktail-minded restaurants like East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Uptown’s Next Door and Quarter Bar in (gulp) Trophy Club, the boozy buffet available to cocktail drinkers showed few signs of abating. (And Hide in Deep Ellum and Frisco’s Bottled in Bond are still to come.)
At their very best, these spots echo – and often are part of – fine restaurants, serving up not just great drinks but a successful mix of efficient, attentive and consistent service; fresh ingredients attuned to the passing seasons; an energizing and welcoming vibe; the ability to cater to tastes simple and complex; and a savvy and innovative staff behind the bar.
Here, in alphabetical order, were my favorite 15 craft-cocktail spots in 2016.
Most come to the highly regarded Knox-Henderson restaurant for its fine dining – but personally, I never make it past the classy, comfortable bar and its black-clad crew of Jordan Gantenbein, Jason Long and John Campbell. Abacus’ thoughtful and playful drink list is a standout from season to season – Gantenbein’s Rosemary Wreath (pictured at top) was a wintry thing of beauty – but the off-road adventures are equally delicious and fun, as in Long’s recent mix of mezcal, cinnamon syrup and amaro.
A couple of years have passed since Henry’s Majestic, at this once-cursed location on McKinney in Knox-Henderson, unveiled the speakeasy pearl buried within its oyster depths. Named for the nondescript thoroughfare from which it’s accessed, Atwater is a two-story, dimly lit sanctuary swathed in senatorial wood, where bartenders like Ricky Cleva (and the occasional guest bartender) let their talents run wild like wildebeests in the nighttime streets. Jumanji!
BLACK SWAN SALOON
Black Swan is a craft-cocktail lover’s dive bar, where barman Gabe Sanchez makes it look easy, firing volleys of classic and original drinks at the eager Deep Ellum hordes while somehow creating a backyard post-BBQ atmosphere. Among DFW’s early craft-cocktail spots, the Swan’s speakeasy vibe (there’s no signage outside) is captured in the image of Clint Eastwood above the back bar: anonymous and enigmatic, rough around the edges, coolly efficient. No drink list here; just tell Sanchez what you’re in the mood for or point at one of his latest jarred infusions, and let your Drink With No Name come riding into town.
Among DFW’s earliest craft-cocktail purveyors, the modestly sized bar-in-the-round at this Bishop Arts mainstay is going strong under lead barman Spencer Shelton, whose wonky spirits wisdom continues to fuel Bolsa’s culture of experimentation. The well-honed southside outpost, with a bold seasonal drink menu – take Shelton’s smoky bitter Mi Alma Rota, featuring mezcal and Fernet – is a last-stop refuge for neighborhood regulars and others looking for uncommon spirits and across-the-board creativity.
The place is gorgeous, dah-ling. But owner Pasha Heidari’s homey hideaway a stone’s throw from the madness of Uptown’s McKinney Avenue has finally settled into a groove nice enough to match its elegant Prohibition-Era character, what with its turn-of-the-century library and great-granddad’s framed pictures on the wall. A viable drink list now complements the able bar squad’s ability to craft something to your own tastes, and a sickle-shaped bar counter promotes interaction.
THE CEDARS SOCIAL
Look who’s back. Once the shining light in Dallas’ budding craft drink scene, The Cedars Social’s nationally acclaimed promise imploded in what I simply refer to as The Great Unpleasantness, thereafter plummeting off the craft-cocktail radar. Several iterations later, barman Mike Sturdivant is at the helm, and things are looking bright again: Along with Dallas pastry chef Annika Loureiro, he’s crafted a refreshingly original drink menu – including the Soju Spice, which makes excellent use of the Korean rice-based spirit – while staying true to pre- and Prohibition-era classics.
INDUSTRY ALLEY BAR
When Charlie Papaceno left the Windmill Lounge in late 2014, among his goals in opening Industry Alley was to recreate the lounge’s come-as-you-are vibe. In that he has succeeded, creating a down-home atmosphere that’s a favorite for Cedars-area locals and industry regulars alike. You won’t find fireworks, fancy syrups, infusions or house-made bitters here – just the makings of a good time and classic cocktails like the legendary Singapore Sling.
The latest addition to Oak Cliff is a welcome one, especially for imbibers of sherry, the Spanish fortified wine, and mezcal, the smoky agave spirit mostly from Oaxaca. Discreetly nestled within the Sylvan Thirty complex next to Houndstooth Coffee, whose owner, Sean Henry, launched Jettison as his initial cocktail venture, it’s a sleek and shadowy hidey-hole where barman George Kaiho crafts excellent classic twists like the Red Headed Oaxacan, a play on the Penicillin fielding both tequila and mezcal along with honeyed ginger syrup, lemon and a float of Scotch.
This rock-and-roll hideaway in the underbelly of downtown Dallas’ Joule Hotel is truly a gem — and it keeps getting better, with its lush and well-structured space equipped to manage the peaks and valleys of hotel and weekend crowds. The long-awaited project from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, which opened just over two years ago, is purposely efficient, lavishly designed and wholly adventurous, driven by Solomon’s bordering-on-geeky cocktail-science know-how: Witness the Pinetop Perker, which graced the spring menu, a woodsy wallop of genever, aquavit, pine, lemon, egg white, apple schnapps and a perfume-like “alpine woodland essence” spritzed onto a dehydrated lemon wheel.
What if there were a place where you could pluck away the plumage of more involved libations and jump directly into the embrace of your whiskey or gin without feeling like a vegan at a Vegas buffet? Well, my friends, The Mitchell is your place: The stately space in the former home of Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Chesterfield in downtown Dallas boasts 50 kinds of gin and a hundred different whiskeys, the better to meet your martini, Old Fashioned or straight-up sipping requirements. And the glassware is beautiful too.
Comfortably nestled within the labyrinth of Uptown apartments off raucous McKinney Avenue, Lucky Campbell’s gem of a bar can often be as busy as its 100-plus drink list. Just the same, the well-trained crew, featuring the occasional visiting star bartender, keeps the crowds soused and entertained from behind the horseshoe-shaped bar, whether the vibe is loud or laid-back. With concoctions like Jesse Powell’s unnamed mix of aged tequila, sweet potato truffle syrup, sherry, apple and cinnamon, Parliament is a first-rate cocktail den with Cheers-style ease, a special combination indeed.
THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND
The Mockingbird Station stalwart is still going strong in its second-level space, churning out an ever-changing list of libations behind a veteran bar team led by general manager Devin McCullough. The drinks are original and varied – and occasionally playful, as in the wintry Petra at Night, a hot rum cider mix served with apple slices and mini wafers, and Mr. Joe Black, an equally snack-y blend of rye and cold-brew coffee featuring blackberries, brown sugar and cayenne-sugared pecans. “Everybody’s got their little side munch going on,” McCullough said.
THE STANDARD POUR
Just up the street from Parliament, the McKinney Avenue landmark remains, as I described it last year, a craft-cocktail battleship – built to weather weekend barrages of bar hoppers but equally effective quietly docked on a Tuesday eve. A crew staffed by talents like Austin Millspaugh and Jorge Herrera helps take the sting out of former lead barman Christian Armando’s departure, pumping out a stream of solid originals as well as the ubiquitous Moscow Mules. Like Parliament and Industry Alley, Brian McCullough’s stalwart staple maintains a homey vibe whether rafting calm stream or raging river.
While the cheeky drink menu has barely changed, the bartenders at this seemingly never-understaffed Magnolia Avenue haven in Fort Worth are more than handy with the palette of potions behind the bar. I said this last year, and it holds true today: More than anything, what impresses about The Usual – among DFW’s pioneering craft-cocktail joints – is that I have yet to have a drink there that didn’t qualify as a success, which is something I can’t say about that many places.
Another of DFW’s initial craft-cocktail practitioners, this Henderson Avenue landmark found its footing again under beloved general manager Matt Ragan. Though Ragan recently departed, the cocktail program remains in the able hands of bar manager Andrew Stofko, one of the city’s most exciting young talents; among Stofko’s 2016 creations was The Dread Pirate Roberts, whose intricate mix of Brazilian cachaca, grapefruit liqueur, bitter Suze, lemon, cinnamon syrup, Angostura and hopped grapefruit bitters was wonderfully reminiscent of tart apple pie.
Runners-up: Armoury DE, Flora Street Café, Lounge Here, Small Brewpub, Thompson’s Bookstore.
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:
Sean Henry has already made a name for himself in the coffee world. Now he’s ready to try his hand at cocktails.
Jettison, an espresso shot of a bar at the flourishing Sylvan Thirty complex in Oak Cliff, will specialize in two undersung heroes of the backbar, sherry and mezcal – while still showcasing the drink (coffee) that got Henry this far in the first place.
Currently in soft opening, the subtly chic digs adjoin Houndstooth Coffee, the fourth and most recent of Henry’s Austin-based coffeehouse locations. The space is accessible both from the café and from a second entrance from outside.
The bar program is headed by George Kaiho, a veteran of both Tei-An and Parliament, with cocktails featuring fresh takes on both mezcal, the smoky spirit derived from Mexican agave, and sherry, the Spanish fortified wine.
Take the Red-Headed Oaxacan, Kaiho’s play on the modern classic Penicillin, which subs mezcal and tequila for base Scotch (with a crafty float of Caol Ila 12), honeys up the ginger syrup and caps it with a rim of Himalayan salt, a common sidekick to agave spirits.
Or the sublime Good Morning Jerez, an addictively peppy blend of sweet East India Solera sherry, cold brew and cinnamon syrup that’ll have you wishing you’d started ordering it earlier in the evening.
The mezcal Negroni ups the spirit and switches dry vermouth for sweet, while another twist on a classic, the BLVD, is a wake-up call of rye, espresso vermouth and two Italian bitter liqueurs, Campari and Averna.
Jettison, which will mark its grand opening on Oct. 21, isn’t looking to be the premier carrier of either mezcal or sherry, just to have a solid and well-curated supply of each.
And a series of intimate Monday-night, drink-paired “pop-up suppers” kicked off last week with a mezcal-themed event, with several more to come – a French-themed wine dinner featuring chef Julien Eelsen of Whisk Crepes Cafe on Oct. 10, an Italian vermouth dinner on Oct. 17 with former Filament chef Cody Sharp; and a Spanish sherry dinner, also chef’d by Sharp, on Oct. 24.
Jettison will no doubt draw a good part of its clientele from the Sylvan Thirty apartment complex just across the parking lot and from nearby neighbors like Teresa, an Oxford, England-born patron who complimented Henry on the vibe of the place.
“It’s bloody good,” she told him. ”I like the aesthetic here. You’ve got what they call ‘a keen eye.’ ”
But if those of you further flung need another bullet point to make the drive down I-30, consider Henry’s bar snack, doughnut segments – not only a playful alternative to nuts but a perfect complement to coffee that Henry may or may not continue.
Ever since it burst onto the scene nearly two years ago, Midnight Rambler has regularly offered up one of the more ambitious cocktail rotations in Dallas. That can be largely credited to co-owner Chad Solomon, the New York City-trained bartender – and veteran of such places as the famed Milk & Honey and Pegu Club – whose bold and borderline geeky creations are always thoughtfully composed, conceived and curated.
Rambler’s glorious setting, in the lower level of the Joule Hotel, is stunning, and while I wasn’t blown away by the bar’s inaugural drink menu, Solomon’s lineups have proved increasingly sublime with each seasonal reboot.
The current summer lineup is his best yet: It lassoes the ongoing tiki trend and wrenches it into dark and adventurous places, infusing the genre’s cheery Asian South Sea island vibe with hard edges and soulful energy tracing the global Ring of Fire and beyond.
“It’s a gritty tiki,” Solomon says. “We wanted to do something more global, with tropical regions around the world touched by colonialism, man-eating animals and African rhythms.”
In other words, this ain’t your daddy’s Mai Tai. This is dark spice and jungle heat fueled by a soundtrack of steel drums and surf guitars. Take the Samoan War Club, a mix of aged spiced Jamaican rum, agricole rum, West Indian bay leaf, lime sugar oil and the lime-almond influence of falernum, sweetened up with a rich syrup made from gula jawa. Made from coconut sap, it’s one of the world’s oldest sugars, Solomon says, with “sort of a meaty umami-ness.” The drink is also the menu’s most “woodsy,” making up for the absence of any whiskey cocktail in the lineup.
The Purgatory Lost is another standout, incorporating poblano for an appropriately hot finish; so, too is the Neon Lilikoi, a radiantly presented blended-Scotch beaut whose passionfruit rush is held in check with a hint of black cardamom tincture. While Asian flavors — criminally underused in cocktails — are prominent, as in the Savory Hunter, which incorporates lemongrass, cilantro and Thai chili, there are also nods to South America, Africa and the coffee-growing regions of Hawaii.
Make the rich Grasshopper-inspired Komodo Dragon your last drink of the night; its traditional mix of minty Fernet Menta and cacao is supplemented not with heavy cream but with coconut milk and a syrup made from tantalizingly sweet Southeast Asian pandan leaf.
But my favorite of the bunch is the Tiger Style, built on a platform of Batavia Arrack, a rum-like, sugar-cane-based spirit from Southeast Asia. Featuring calamansi (an acidic blend of citrus and kumquat), rich palm sugar, Indonesian black pepper tincture, egg white and earthy cassia spritzed atop a dehydrated lime, it’s a triumph of creamy orange spice dashed with a hint of Fireball cologne.
“It was, like, how do we put Indonesia and the Philippines into a glass?” Solomon says. “The more you drink it, the more your lips tingle.”
It’s a hefty, not dainty, drink, a psychedelic Snickerdoodle – or at least that’s what my quivering fingers wrote as I pearl-dove into the cocktail’s delicious depths.
“It takes you into the exotic,” Solomon says, “and intentionally so.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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?
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.”
High and Tight, in Deep Ellum, is among the newcomers to the craft-cocktail scene, one of the stars that make up the several-star constellation that includes adjacent Armoury D.E., Black Swan Saloon and Brick and Bones across the street.
Of course, none of the other bars can boast an adjoining barber shop (hence the name of the place, which refers to a certain cut) and while High and Tight’s cocktail list is fully legit, it’s the seasonal board to the right of the bar that you’ll want to keep an eye on.
Which is where you’ll find this gem, which is a perfect way to mark Cinco de Mayo, if you’re into that sort of thing.
COCKTAIL OF THE WEEK: Mayahuel’s Awakening
SOURCE: Austin Gurley, High and Tight
KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Mexican coffee
WHAT’S IN IT: Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon
WHY IT WORKS: Because if you’ve ever had Mexican café de olla, you’d be well acquainted with the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip.
This is not that drink – but it could be its long-lost boozy cousin. The traditional sipper is prepared stovetop, dissolving brown sugar and cinnamon in boiling water with ground coffee, letting the mixture steep and then straining it into your favorite vessel.
These are the roots of the Mayahuel’s Awakening. (Pronounce it “ma-ya-WELL.”)
“It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” Gurley says.
He’d been pondering an approachable tequila-forward cocktail, and when he stumbled onto a tasty brand of concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee that he thought would pair well with agave, the game was on: A quarter-ounce of the concentrate did the trick, providing strong coffee flavor without drowning out the tequila flavor.
Gurley used reposado tequila for its aged softness and fruity overtones, added a bit of smoky mezcal to offset the coffee’s bitterness and some brown-sugar simple syrup for richness. Finally, he tied it all together with the cinnamon, vanilla and orange-peel notes of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters.
The cocktail is served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar. The result? A perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name salutes the Aztec goddess of fertility – and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born. And as Henry Rollins once said, “What goes best with a cup of coffee? Another cup.”
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