Category Archives: Why doesn’t this happen more often

With dedicated bars, mezcal’s missionaries hope to convert Dallas tastes

Dallas mezcaleria
Spreading the gospel: A trio of Oak Cliff friends are looking to share the love.

First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal’s pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight – as some believe it should always be – and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.

Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?

A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so – and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as “that bottle with the worm in it.”

Las Almas Rotas
Bar manager Daniel Ferrin making a round of cocktails at a soft opening event at Las Almas Rotas.

Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal’s virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled “Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead.”

When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they’d built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit — even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.

Las Almas Rotas
How it all began — with informal tastings like this one at the Kvetkos’ Oak Cliff home. Clockwise from top, Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko.

“We’re hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in,” says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker’s Mark. “Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits.”

Leigh Kvetko
An image of a tobala-variety agave plant, the work of Leigh Kvetko, graces the door at Las Almas Rotas.

Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant – but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.

“There’s an immense amount of genetic diversity,” panelist Ivan Suldana, author of “The Anatomy of Mezcal,” told an audience at 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. “We’re talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit.”

Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. “Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different,” he says.

Mezcal’s production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal’s distinctive flavors remember their conversion.

Mezcal Cartel
A typical table spread at one of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel’s at-home tastings.

For Samuels, that moment came at Austin’s Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. “That was my first experience,” said Samuels, who’s been tending bar at Oak Cliff’s Bar Belmont throughout the last year. “I didn’t really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, ‘We need a good room to drink mezcal in.’ That led to this.”

Las Almas Rotas – “the broken souls” – will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you’ll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum. “It’s kind of an homage to our speakeasy,” Samuels says. “Just straight spirits and Topo Chico.”

Mauricio Garriegos and Daniel Zapata
Bartenders Garriegos and Zapata keeping it real at Santos y Pecadores, the twice-weekly mezcal pop-up at Uptown’s Bowen House.

Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown’s Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores (“saints and sinners”) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.

Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.

“We want people to get in love with mezcal,” says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. “It’s, like, with Mexican food. People think they’re eating real Mexican food but it’s actually Tex-Mex.”

Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.

Mezcal Cartel
Informal dinner-table gatherings eventually led to this now-closed underground tasting room on Davis Street.

Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel,” of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.

“We basically created a room that we would want to drink in,” Shad Kvetko says.

For their mezcaleria’s actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.

LAS ALMAS ROTAS, 3615 PARRY AVE, DALLAS.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Into the lime light: Dallas bartenders giving Green Chartreuse her chance to shine

LARK on the Park
Sweet, wonderful you: Green Chartreuse, stepping into the spotlight.

Stand back: The green genie is having her moment. Her radiance is typically loosed in increments — too much and she overwhelms with her blossomy, 110-proof lushness. You know her as Green Chartreuse – a crucial player in such classics as the Bijou and the Last Word, but never, ever the star (though she manages to steal the show anyway with her presence alone). Her true identity has been kept secret for more than 400 years, closely guarded by the French Carthusian monks who’ve been crafting this gem, and her milder yellow sister, for nearly three centuries.

But now. Now. The emerald tiger is running free. At least four Dallas-area bartenders have thrust this mystery mix of 130 herbs, plants and flowers into the spotlight. The seeds were planted last year when Victor Tango’s’ Alex Fletcher – then bar manager at The People’s Last Stand – gave us the luscious One Smashed Monk, among my favorite cocktails of 2013, accessorizing Chartreuse with lime, simple syrup and Thai basil.

The Chartreuse-based cocktails that have sprung up around town since early this year are similarly paired with citrus and sweetener in succulent variations that play well with the liqueur’s flowery, vegetal essence, one a friend described “like wonderful, toasted hay, with the freshness of grass.” All are worth trying – and it’s worth asking for a solo audience with the queen herself, or if you can find it, Green Chartreuse’s extra-aged VEP version.

Grant Parker, Hibiscus
God bless the monks and their monk-y meditation for making this drink possible at Hibiscus.

THE FRUITS OF CONTEMPLATION – Hibiscus

With spring in the air, Grant Parker, lead barman at this Henderson Avenue mainstay, wanted to put a tiki drink on the menu. Rum, however, was out of the question; it’s just not something his clientele goes for. He considered doing a swizzle, some crushed-ice thing with lime and pineapple; then he added a boost of falernum, a rum-based syrup. All of a sudden, Green Chartreuse seemed like a natural fit. “These ingredients go together perfectly,” he says, and he’s not kidding. It’s big, boozy and beautiful, just like the liqueur.

The name refers to the lifestyle of the Carthusian monks themselves, who after being twice expelled now manage a peaceful existence at France’s Grande Chartreuse monastery despite the proximity of one of the world’s finest liqueurs. Or perhaps because of it. “Their whole lives are run by contemplation,” Parker says.

Sean Conner, for The Establishment
Chartreuse gets the mojito treatment at The Establishment.

GREEN DRANK – The Establishment

This one is sweet and light on its feet, as Green Chartreuse meets lime and simple syrup, accompanied by muddled mint and a float of soda for effervescence. “It’s built exactly like a mojito,” says creator Sean Conner, the former Whiskey Cake bar man who consulted on some of the Knox-Henderson restaurant’s drinks and whose new pizzeria, P1.E 3.14, debuts this week in Lewisville. “I’ve been making that for years, but I’ve never put it on the menu.” Though the drink just dashed off the Establishment’s cocktail menu, it’s still available by request.

Matt Ragan, Victor Tango's
Sometimes you just gotta write those dreams down. Lucky for you, Matt Ragan did.

THE NUN AND THE NYMPH – Victor Tango’s

General manager and beer nerd Matt Ragan says he woke up one morning with a burst of inspiration: “Oh! A Green Chartreuse Shandy. I want to drink one of those right now.”

He was referring to the summery libation that mixes a light beer with lemonade or ginger ale, a concept bartenders have run with by further adding gin and other ingredients. He immediately scrambled out of bed and over to Victor Tango’s on Henderson, where he started playing with the idea. His final version outfits Green Chartreuse with lemon, honey, some ginger for bite and a nice Belgian Wit beer spiced with coriander and orange peel.

The name is a play on the accompanying beer — Adelbert’s Naked Nun — and the “green fairy” nickname usually linked with absinthe.

Matt Orth, LARK on the Park
Enhancing Chartreuse’s mood with leafy substances at LARK on the Park.

CHARTREUSE AND TONIC – LARK on the Park

A simple gin and tonic is the drink of choice for Matt Orth, LARK’s bar manager, when he’s out on the town. Well, maybe that with a bit of Green Chartreuse on the side. The Chartreuse and tonic has been done before, but let’s be honest: It hasn’t been done enough, and in Dallas, it’s hardly been done at all. Orth is ready to change that with his viridescent, swizzle-esque mix of Green Chartreuse, tonic, lime and Thai basil (or even better, bay leaf), sprinkled with a few dashes of excellent lime and molasses bitters made in-house at the downtown restaurant. “I like to use crushed ice,” Orth says. “Because Green Chartreuse is just so big.”

LARK on the Park
The liqueur that gave the color its name. LARK’s Damon Bird pouring sample tastes of VEP.

You can find Chartreuse VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) at Boulevardier, Hibiscus, LARK on the Park and other clever establishments.

Go Irish: Tonight’s whiskey dinner at Barter is a celebration of Tullamore DEW

Whiskey cocktail dinner
Do the DEW — with dinner, too. (Image courtesy of Barter)

Whiskey fans: There’s still time to get your name on the list and do that other Dew — Tullamore DEW, that is — at tonight’s whiskey-themed dinner at Barter, in Uptown. On the docket: Four courses, plus four Tullamore DEW interpretations, for $55.

Your host for the evening:  Maurice “Mossie” Power, the Irish whiskey’s lively and ubiquitous Texas ambassador whose charm and joie de vivre somehow make him seem to be always having a better time than you are. Come. Learn his secrets. Have a sampling of the whiskey whose name comes from the Irish town in which it was once produced, plus the initials of one of its early managers, Daniel E. Williams.

Guests will kick off the evening at 6:30 p.m. with one of Barter’s newest cocktails, playfully named for Power and featuring Tullamore DEW in tandem with the fabulous Ancho Reyes, a Mexican-produced ancho-chile-spiced liqueur. Both are now part of the William Grant & Sons spirits family.

Seating is at 7 p.m. As of late last night, the dinner was about three-fourths full. For reservations, call 214-969-6898.

BARTER, 3232 McKinney Ave., Dallas.

 

Pairing spirits with dinner: More of that, please.

 

Whiskey Cake, Plano
Plays well with food: Last month’s whiskey-paired dinner at Plano’s Whiskey Cake.

More than three years later, the memories linger. Five courses at one of the city’s best restaurants, each paired with cocktails made by five of the city’s best bartenders, and all featuring Maker’s Mark whiskey.

The scene was Seattle’s Spur Gastropub, and the chefs were rocking it as usual. (Example: sous vide pork belly with sunchokes and Bing cherries – whut whut?) The all-star bartender lineup cranked out an assembly line of original cocktails like the Pine Box, with its grilled-pineapple garnish. There was even some Maker’s 46, which was about to hit the market in summer 2010. We were a happy bunch.

I moved to Dallas soon afterward, and since then I’ve been to barely a handful of spirit or cocktail-themed dinners, though not for lack of want. Last month some friends and I hit a Hudson Whiskey-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake in Plano. And as I do every time I go to one of these events, I wondered: Why doesn’t this happen more often?

Wine and beer dinners have long been a thing, but bartenders like J.W. Tate – formerly of Tate’s Dallas – at first faced resistance to the notion of making a one-stop night of cocktails and food. That’s starting to change as DFW’s cocktail culture comes of age – a welcome and logical step in the scene’s continuing evolution.

Tate’s offered two spirits-paired dinners before J.W. left Dallas earlier this year to head up a company venture in Winston-Salem, N.C., and places like Dallas’ Libertine Bar and La Duni have experimented with the idea too. “People are trying it,” says Libertine’s Mate Hartai. “It’s just going to take a while for the wheels to hit the ground.”

Seattle
Among a cocktail dinner’s challenges: Quickly producing drinks en masse. At Seattle’s Spur, an assembly line of bartenders churn out pairings for a Maker’s Mark dinner.

One reason for the slow going is that these dinners — which generally run from $35 to $100 — aren’t easy to pull off. Cocktails are time-intensive and demand smaller groups; achieving drink consistency can be difficult when produced in a bunch. And the kind of patron who embraces the idea of a cocktail dinner isn’t going to tolerate pre-batched drinks.

On the other hand, the ever-broadening assortment of quality spirits, cordials and apertifs give bartenders a grand palette to work from.

“It’s rewarding when you do it right,” Hartai says. “But it’s much more difficult than people think.”

***

The glasses are set, pretty orbs in a row, when a legion of Sazeracs appear in our midst. The classic cocktail is the evening’s first volley at last month’s Hudson-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake. The Plano restaurant’s dinner showcased the Hudson line’s various incarnations, from its New York Corn Whiskey, well paired with chef Brent Hammer’s charred octopus; and Four Grain Bourbon, solidly supporting an extraordinary, In-N-Out-inspired dry-aged-sirloin burger; and more.

Whiskey Cake, Plano
Whiskey Cake’s Hudson dinner kicked off with a classic Sazerac.

Sean Conner, Whiskey Cake’s beverage director, tackles pairings the way he does cocktails, dissecting courses’ flavor profiles to match. “Certain things go with blackberry or cinnamon or basil,” he says. “It takes six weeks to plan out four or five different cocktails and make them really special.”

Pairing cocktails with food offers some of the same challenges that went into creating, say, sweet-and-sour chicken, with its mix of sweet and savory. “You try to figure out how someone else solved that puzzle,” says Libertine’s Hartai. “To me, that’s really fun. It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.”

Last year, when Tate’s offered a cocktail-paired dinner with chef DAT (David Anthony Temple), “DAT sent over a menu, and I riffed on that,” Tate says. “We talked a bit, and I threw out a cocktail menu, and we each made changes as it got closer…. It’s a lot like making music, with two people jamming – you throw something out there and the other person runs with it, and five weeks later you’ve got something.”

When Temple said he was doing garlic soup, Tate immediately thought of Campari and came up with a drink called the Italian Resistance. On its own, the drink’s various elements struggled to mingle, but fared much better as a pairing. Similarly, a chanterelle-and-pink-peppercorn-infused vodka drink went nicely with Temple’s speck and arugula salad but its savory character made it less pleasurable as a stand-alone cocktail.

The bar’s whiskey-themed dinner in April was a treat, pairing peppery Buffalo Trace Single Oak Barrel whiskey, for instance, with corn soup with fried pig ear, parsley crème fraiche and house-made hot sauce.

J.W. Tate, formerly of Tate's Dallas, among spirit-paired dinners' early adopters.
J.W. Tate, formerly of Tate’s Dallas, which was among spirit-paired dinners’ early adopters.

And last year, at Libertine’s whiskey-and-beer-paired dinner featuring three Scotches and two hefty beers, Hartai wanted to echo the flavors of Lagavulin. “I sat down with the chef and said, `I need smoke, earth and some kind of heat.’ He did a mushroom compote with this awesome smoked-pork thing and some vinegary thing for a kick. It took the whiskey apart into its larger flavor components.”

More recently he did what he called an Italian dinner, but by dinner’s end he had unveiled it more precisely as a vermouth-paired dinner. “The whole point was to change people’s minds about vermouth,” he says. “By the end, people were drinking straight glasses of vermouth and saying, `This is great!’ Well, yeah, it is.”

Hartai likes to save a palate-testing curve ball for the last course. “I want to jar people, give them a reason to talk,” he says. “If you realize you’re putting together an experience aimed at creating lasting memories and challenging palates, you can make an awesome dinner.”

Tate's Dallas whiskey dinner
At Tate’s whiskey dinner, Buffalo Trace Single Oak Barrel was paired with this delicious corn soup with fried pig ear.
Whiskey Cake's dinner featured this tasty sirloin burger alongside Hudson's Four Grain Bourbon.
Whiskey Cake’s dinner featured this tasty treat alongside Hudson’s Four Grain Bourbon.

Looking for a cocktail or spirits-themed dinner? Contact these spots and see what’s on the schedule, or follow them on Facebook.

WHISKEY CAKE KITCHEN AND BAR, 3601 Dallas Parkway, Plano. 972-993-2253. Offers quarterly alcohol-paired dinners.

LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-824-7900. Does dinners monthly, generally beer.

LA DUNI LATIN KITCHEN, four locations in Dallas/Fairview. Offers cocktail-paired, three-course dinners. Join the restaurant’s “inner circle” at one of its locations or at www.laduni.com to advance notice of such events.

KOMALI, 4152 Cole Ave., Dallas. 214-252-0200. Offers occasional tequila- and mezcal-paired dinners.

Hudson Whiskey: It’s what’s for dinner.

The Hudson Whiskey collection. (Photo courtesy of Hudson Whiskey)
The Hudson Whiskey collection. (Photo courtesy of Hudson Whiskey)

In the category of Why Doesn’t This Happen More Often, cocktail-paired dinners is one of the top things on my list. I’ve attended several over the last two years, which for the same time period is fewer times than I’ve been to the dentist, or dropped everything to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on cable, and that’s just wrong.

Well, here comes Whiskey Cake to right the ship. On Monday, Oct. 28, the Plano restaurant and cocktail joint will host Carve and Craft, a five-course dinner highlighted by cocktails featuring the very excellent Hudson Whiskey collection. If you know nothing about Hudson, that’s not a problem: Gable Erenzo, the company’s owner, distiller and brand ambassador, will be on hand to fill in the blanks.

If you know nothing about Whiskey Cake, that’s an issue. The place emerged onto the scene about two years ago and was one of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s original craft cocktail bars. Its beverage program, still under the able leadership of Sean Conner, mirrors Whiskey Cake’s self-proclaimed “farm-to-kitchen” philosophy, with drinks incorporating items from the restaurant’s adjoining garden.

Plano's Whiskey Cake. (Photo courtesy of Whiskey Cake)
Plano’s Whiskey Cake, getting down with whiskey on Oct. 28. (Photo courtesy of Whiskey Cake)

From the looks of it, this dinner will not suck. (A menu preview is below.) The best part is, it’s only 35 bucks.

Capacity is limited to 60 and remaining availability is very limited. Call the restaurant to make a reservation, but if you don’t catch this one, there’s more good news: This won’t be your last chance. “We do dinners like this pretty much quarterly,” says Whiskey Cake’s marketing director Katie Allen.

The best way to keep tabs on the action, she says, is to follow the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the menu for the Oct. 28 dinner, which gets underway at 7 pm:

Course One: Hudson New York Corn

Charred octopus with green olive, chorizo, marble potato, and salsa verde

Course Two: Hudson Baby Bourbon

Cold smoked BBQ tuna ribs with marinated watermelon and jalapeno mint vinaigrette

Course Three: Hudson Four Grain Bourbon

Dry-aged sirloin, iceberg lettuce, vintage Irish cheddar, onion marmalade, 1000 island, 3 inch brioche bun

Course Four: Hudson Single Malt

Local sheep’s milk ricotta agnolotti with duck pancetta, black trumpet mushrooms, and horseradish on marrow bones

Course Five: Hudson Manhattan Rye

Cardamom doughnuts with roasted banana, sea salt pastry cream, and maple rye

WHISKEY CAKE, 3601 Dallas Parkway, Plano.  972-993-2253.

Come meet this guy: Hudson Whiskey's Gable Erenzo. (Photo courtesy of Hudson Whiskey)
Come meet this guy: Hudson Whiskey’s Gable Erenzo. (Photo courtesy of Hudson Whiskey)