Thompson’s Bookstore. Proper. The Usual. Basement Lounge.
You may have noticed that Fort Worth has a cocktail scene. And while it’s not nearly on the scale of Dallas’ ever-expanding arena, DFW’s western half does have one thing the Big D does not: A cocktail week.
The second annual Fort Worth Cocktail Week kicks off Saturday, even bigger and tastier than its predecessor. Each of six nights’ worth of events will be complemented by chef-designed dishes, with a portion of each night’s proceeds going to charity.
While billed as “a celebration of our city’s booming craft-cocktail scene,” the week – which runs through next Friday, Oct. 20 – is also a tribute to the kinship between chefs and craft bartenders, both of whom prize fresh and local ingredients and attention to detail and history.
The week will feature a repeat of last year’s five signature ticketed events in addition to one newcomer: Saturday’s “Sips” event, which will highlight before- and after-dinner drinks and cocktails. That event will join a lineup that already spotlights tiki drinks, bourbon, gin, vodka, agave spirits and Texas-based spirits.
Organizers are partnering with local arts and nonprofit organizations like Fort Worth Opera, The Cliburn and Amphibian Stage Productions, each of which will receive part of the ticket proceeds from one of the week’s events. Tickets are available here.
Here’s a list of the week’s events:
Saturday, Oct. 14: “Sips,” 5-8 p.m. at Proper, 409 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $20
The evening will highlight aperitifs and digestifs, from cognacs to Italian bitter liqueurs, “in an indulgent celebration of exquisite before- and after-dinner libations.” Drinks will be complemented by dishes from Fixture owner and chef Ben Merritt, two-time winner of Fort Worth magazine’s Top Chef competition.
Monday, Oct. 16: Texas Spirits Tasting Party, 6-9 p.m. at Mopac Event Center, 1615 Rogers Road. Tickets: $15-20
This showcase of Lone Star State spirits will feature bites from chef Nico Sanchez (Meso Maya, Taqueria La Ventana), whose latest concept, TorTaco, recently opened in Fort Worth.
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Bourbon Bash, 6-9 p.m. at Thompson’s Bookstore, 900 Houston St. Tickets: $15-20
Bourbons will be the star of this Old World-themed evening at Thompson’s downtown, whether alone or in cocktails. Samples of harder-to-find whiskeys will also be available for an extra charge. The evening’s food will come from chef David Hollister (Yucatan Taco Stand, Gas Monkey Bar and Grill).
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Tiki Drink Rum Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Usual, 1408 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $15-20
A night focusing on the resurgent tropical cocktail trend will be paired with dishes from chef Juan Rodriguez of Magdalena’s Supper Club.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Bartenders Without Borders, 6-9 p.m. at Salsa Limon Distrito, 5012 White Settlement Road. Tickets: $15-20
Agave-based spirits like mezcal and tequila will anchor the evening, including small-batch selections. Chef Keith Grober, former head chef at Rodeo Goat, will provide Mexican street-style food.
Friday, Oct. 20: Gin vs. Vodka Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Foundry District, 2624 Weisenberger St. Tickets: $15-20
Advertised as “a bare-knuckle brawl for the soul of the martini,” this evening will showcase the history, flavors and versatility of the classic clear spirits. Chef Stefan Rishel, head chef at Texas Bleu in Keller, will provide the munchies.
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.”
It all started with hair – Noelle Hendrix’s hair in particular. The Dallas private chef has the kind of eye-catching dreadlocks that invite teasing from fellow chefs, who would joke about taking their knives to it – maybe for charity.
Teasing turned to brainstorming and then into action, and on Saturday you’ll be able to reap the results when Industry Alley, in the Cedars, hosts a pop-up dinner showcasing a semi-supergroup of Dallas chefs. Proceeds will fund Hendrix’s “$10K for Kids” effort to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The cash-only event, which goes from 6 p.m. until the grub runs out, will feature four of Dallas’ top chefs, each offering a specialty dish for just $10. Doors open at 4. Early arrival is advised.
Participating chefs include John Tesar of Knife, Oak and adjoining Quill, Graham Dodds of Wayward Sons, LUCK’s Daniel Pittman and Kitchen LTO’s Nick Amoriello. So while it’s all for a good cause, this is clearly a chance to benefit your belly as well. Behold the choices: Beef cheek on creamy polenta (Tesar); lamb, pork or beef brisket tacos (Pittman); venison tartare (Amoriello); or strawberry shortcake (Dodds).
Bar owner Charlie Papaceno will be offering a pair of cocktails created especially for the event, each of them a nod to Danny Thomas, the actor, singer and comedian who founded St. Jude in 1962 to treat and research catastrophic childhood disease. Make Room for Daddy – the name of the sitcom Thomas starred in from 1953-65 – is an old-fashioned mix of Old Forester bourbon and Lebanese 7-spice syrup, while That Girl – the name of the series starring Thomas’ daughter, Marlo – features tequila, triple sec, cranberry and Champagne.
There’ll also be live music, plus a handful of raffles and silent auction items – including Hendrix’s signature dreadlocks, which can be had for $1,000. “The money goes to the kids, and the scissors go in the winner’s hands,” she says. “Otherwise, they’ll stick around and be ready to cut next year.”
This is the latest in a series of pop-up dinners at Industry Alley, which has also featured chefs such as Small Brewpub’s Misti Norris and Lucia’s Justin Holt. But it’s the first to fund a cause, or to have anything to do with hair.
You may have heard about Filament, and by that I don’t mean the little thin fibers found in certain organic structures. No, this would be the new, industrial chic restaurant from FT-33 chef/owner Matt McCallister in Deep Ellum that’s garnered wide acclaim, including a glowing, four-star review from The Dallas Morning News’ Leslie Brenner.
The cocktails at Filament are well conceived and solid across the board, but for me the star of the bunch is this festive refresher from beverage program manager Seth Brammer.
NAME: Push It
KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Flowers
WHAT’S IN IT: Gin, Cocchi Rosa, citrus, pink peppercorn, sea salt
WHY IT WORKS: Cocchi Rosa, the lush and rosy vermouth variation from the fine folks at Cocchi, is one of the best things you’ll ever put in your mouth. Flowery and fruity with the slightest hint of bitter, it’s a sensational sipper on its own; go get yourself a bottle right this minute. I’ll wait.
Okay, so: In Filament’s Push It, the Cocchi Rosa is subtly supported by gin’s botanical notes with a splash of lemon to round it out. Served in a Collins glass with floating peppercorns and a rim of fine sea salt, it’s playful and spontaneous, and while it’s beautiful to look at, those little pink globules are more than decorative, adding a floral pop of their own. The drink is served with a straw but I enjoy it most from the glass, where the random salt-and-pepper mix unleashes a tango on your tongue. Basically, if Tom Collins and sangria had a little rendezvous in the garden, this is what would happen. Enjoy.
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.
That name: It’s hard to wrap your mind around. Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Or is it Chris Ruth’s Steak House? Or wait a minute – was it the Steak House that Chris Ruth built?
No matter what it is, the place has longevity – 50 years of it, in fact. This year, Ruth’s Chris Steak House hit the half-century mark – and the national restaurant chain’s milestone means your good fortune.
Get ready for the 1965 Cocktail Dinner Party, a celebration of the New Orleans-based institution’s 50th anniversary. On Thursday, Aug. 20, Ruth’s Chris Steak House will offer a five-course dinner at 99 nationwide locations, including sites in North Dallas and Fort Worth.
There will be drinks, the type of which Don Draper would approve — modern renditions of classics like the Gin and Tonic, the Gimlet and the Manhattan. They’ll accompany dishes like seared jumbo sea scallops, grilled ginger shrimp and, naturally, filet mignon. The full menu is available here.
Tickets are $90 plus gratuity. Reservations are required, and participants are invited to share their experience on social media with the hashtag #ThisIsHowItsDone.
RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE
North Dallas location: 17840 Dallas Parkway. 972-250-2244.
Fort Worth location: 813 Main Street, 817-348-0080
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
They bounced shakers off forearms, caught glasses behind their backs and tossed liquor bottles around like jugglers’ pins. By night’s end, one of them had been crowned the best bartender of all — at least, that is, within the extensive, red-and-white-striped family of TGI Fridays, which held its 24th annual World Bartender Championship Thursday night at Dallas’ House of Blues. More than 8,000 TGI Fridays bartenders around the world had vied for the chance to be one of the night’s 10 finalists with a shot at the $10,000 top prize. The title-round air was abuzz, with the faces and names of the finalists plastered on walls, video screens and waveable flags for a wall-to-wall, cowbell-shaking crowd.
TGI Fridays’ horde-pleasing drinks – the global chain sells 3 million Long Island Teas a year – are well-known, but the Carrollton-based chain can also be credited with (or blamed for, depending) popularizing flair – the kind of theatrics associated with the Tom Cruise film Cocktail – when it started holding flair bartender contests in the mid-1980s.
While the World Bartender Championship, which started in 1991, emphasizes things like customer engagement, service and bartender knowledge (some of which had already been evaluated in a previous compulsory round) the practice of flair perseveres. Bryan Bonafacio of the Philippines sent a lime wedge airborne and caught it in a shaker behind his back before sliding it into a waiting cocktail. Fernando Soto of Illinois poured a drink into a glass that he’d perched on his forehead. Others pulled off moves too complicated to explain.
Along with lively banter (to that end, Peru’s Alexander Barrenechea was my favorite for his easy humor and likeability), some kept the bar-side judges entertained by putting them to work as drink shakers while they tended to other tasks, trying to stay within the given time limits. Each bartender had eight minutes to make five different drinks ordered from the company’s inventory of 100-plus cocktails, working to the sizzling guitars or thumpity-thump beats of their chosen playlists.
“It takes incredible discipline, focus and passion,” said Matt Durbin, the contest’s 1994 champ who is now TGI Fridays’ vice president of brand strategy and menu innovation. “We like to think that Fridays is the bedrock of bars. This allows us to recognize and celebrate our bartenders.”
While flair is among the techniques bartenders can use to interact with guests, Durbin said judges prioritize “working flair,” moves that a bartender could actually incorporate into a busy shift rather than those unveiled for competition’s sake. The U.K.’s Russell Ward, for example, last year’s runner-up, was relatively no-frills compared to some but cranked out his drinks with smooth confidence, “You have to look like you do it every day,” he’d told me earlier. “Not like it’s just something you just practiced to do here.”
Where New Jersey’s Ram Ong fell on the spectrum was unclear. Like Ward, he was in the final round for the third time, and aside from bringing his own pineapple juice – in a pineapple, of course – he pulled off my favorite move of the night, catching a bottle of Grand Marnier tossed overhead on one forearm while balancing a second Grand Marnier bottle on the other forearm. But Ong’s theatrics undermined him in the end, his time elapsing before he could finish building his final cocktail.
Meanwhile, Stavros Loumis of Cyprus, another third-timer who entered the evening in first place after a stellar effort in the compulsory round, saved a Cuba Libre order for last, starting the drink with just over a minute left in his session. Earlier, he’d told how a twist of lime elevated a simple rum and Coke into the classic cocktail, and now, as the seconds ticked away, he dared to position an ice-filled glass atop the flat end of a bar spoon, balancing the spoon’s other end on his forearm before pouring rum into the glass and finishing with time to spare.
In the end, third place went to the energetic, engaging Bonafacio, who may have coined the phrase “Don’t you panic; it’s organic;” while second again went to the U.K.’s Ward, who was also voted the fan favorite. Stavros was named champ, taking home a propeller-shaped trophy in addition to the prize money.
The annual competition also raises money for hunger-relief agency Feeding America, and TGI Fridays presented the organization with a $200,000 check midway through the final round.
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