Category Archives: Downtown

Massive charity pop-up back for sixth time to help hospitalized kids

The Ultimate Cocktail Experience, coming soon to a Klyde Warren Park near you. (Photo by Don Mamone)

Oh, Cocktails for a Cause. My, how you’ve grown.

Four years ago, the annual, bar-industry-driven fundraiser for Triggers’s Toys was a modest Christmas-season party at The Standard Pour, with 50 bartenders in Santa hats raining cocktails upon their mirthful elf minions. These days… well, look at it: Repositioned in the expansive savanna of Klyde Warren Park, this benefit behemoth, now dubbed the Ultimate Cocktail Experience, last year raised more than $200,000 and aims to exceed that this time around. Naturally.

The 2017 version of the Ultimate Cocktail Experience is set to go down on Saturday, Sept. 30, from 6:30 to 10 p.m.  There will be food trucks and a charity casino area. Tickets, which range from $65 to $125 for VIP status, are available here. Or you can get your tickets for $80 at the door.

This big boy pop-up is the brainchild of Bryan Townsend, vice president and sales director for spirits producer The 86 Co., who a decade ago was a corporate wonk who didn’t like his job very much. In 2008, he left his job and began to focus on other things – including his dog, Trigger.

One day he was a Grapevine hospital with his newly trained dog when he met a nurse distressed about a young girl who’d been in therapy for a year, unable to socialize with others. Townsend suggested that maybe the girl would like to give Trigger a treat.

The girl did, and Townsend wondered if she might follow the dog through one of the hospital’s children’s ward play tunnels. Then that happened too. The nurse retrieved the girl’s mother. “It was the first time she’d ever crawled,” Townsend remembered.

Inspired by the experience, Townsend launched Trigger’s Toys, a nonprofit that provides toys, therapy aids and financial assistance to hospitalized kids and their families. That’s the organization at the heart of the revelry that now includes bartenders, brand reps and spirits distributors from Texas and beyond who come to lend their shaking, stirring hands.

A scene from 2016’s Ultimate Cocktail Experience at Klyde Warren Park. (Photo by Don Mamone)

Recast as a global throwdown, the Ultimate Cocktail Experience puts forward six unique bar “concepts,” each representing a different part of the world with drinks to match. This year’s showcased locales are Mexico City, London, New Orleans, Hong Kong, Havana and Casablanca, and each station’s drink lineup will include a classic drink and a non-alcoholic selection.

In the mix this year are bartenders Ash Hauserman of New York’s Havana-themed Blacktail, named Best New American Bar at this summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, and Iain Griffiths of London’s Dandelyan, which won the honor of the world’s best cocktail bar.

This year’s teams, classic drinks and team captains are as follows:

  • Casablanca (Mule): captain Andrew Stofko (Hot Joy, Uptown)
  • Havana (Daiquiri): captain Ravinder Singh (Rapscallion, Lower Greenville)
  • Hong Kong (Rob Roy): captain Robbie Call (most recently of Filament, Deep Ellum)
  • London (Gin & Tonic): captain Omar Yeefon (Shoals Sound & Service, Deep Ellum)
  • Mexico City (Margarita): captains Brad Hensarling (The Usual, Fort Worth) and Megan McClinton (Thompson’s, Fort Worth)
  • New Orleans (Sazerac): captain Keisha Cooper (Shoals Sound & Service, Deep Ellum)

For more information about Trigger’s Toys or to donate, visit www.triggerstoys.org.

Don’t Tell Supper Club aims to make cocktails a feast for your senses

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Don’t Tell’s Green Eggs and Ham. I would drink it on a boat.

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.”

It may look plain on the outside, but inside it’s a sensory wonderland.

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.

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Houghton’s vodka and fruit puree-powered Contortionist is sprinkled with Pop Rocks.

“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.

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Houghton’s Bumbledypeg, a twist on the classic Bee’s Knees designed for a friend who’s allergic to honey.

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.

DON’T TELL SUPPER CLUB, 2026 Commerce Street, Dallas.

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

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

The Singapore Sling is the Rashomon of cocktails: Everyone remembers it differently. Like a rumor that starts at one side of the table and wildly mutates by the time it comes back round again, it’s a tasty tale whose twists and turns vary depending on who’s doing the telling.

How is it still considered a classic?

Because despite its many tweaks – “The Singapore Sling has taken a lot of abuse over the years,” wrote tiki master Jeff Berry in his book Beachbum Berry Remixed – it’s managed to stay delicious no matter how it’s interpreted. Even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson considered it a favorite.

But somewhere along the line, the century-old drink attributed to bartender Ngiam Tong Boon of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel lost sight of its simpler beginnings, becoming a tropical mishmash of seven ingredients or more – and a headache for bartenders, which may be why you rarely see it on bar menus. “I remember Sasha (Petraske, founder of the classic New York City bar Milk and Honey) was not a fan,” says Chad Solomon of Dallas’ Midnight Rambler, who worked with the late cocktail legend. “But people loved drinking it. He was, like, ‘It’s got too many damn ingredients!’ ”

It’s a misfit of a drink, a gin-powered cocktail that muscled its way into the tiki canon through luck and guile, disguising itself in pineapple and grenadine. But while its more dignified origins faded in the process, two Dallas bars – Industry Alley and Midnight Rambler – are breathing new life into the Sleeping Beauty that’s been there all along.

**

Imagine two actor brothers born in close succession. They look just enough alike, and their names are similar enough, that they’re often confused with each other. The older brother teaches the younger one all he knows, but the younger brother’s easier disposition makes him more likable than his rugged, reserved sibling. And when the younger’s career veers from drama into comedy, making him a star, the family name rises to fame with him.

That seems to be the story of the Singapore Sling, whose sweeter flavors and catchier name propelled it through the thick and thin of cocktail lineage rather than its older brother, the Straits Sling. A sling is a type of drink, at its base a simple mix of spirit, sweetener and water. As cocktails historian David Wondrich observed in his book Imbibe!, it’s “a simple drink in the same way a tripod is a simple device: Remove one leg and it cannot stand, set it up properly and it will hold the whole weight of the world.”

The Straits Sling, born sometime in the late 1800s, was just that: A mix of gin (spirit), sweetener (Benedictine, a honey-sweet herbal liqueuer) and carbonated soda (water), plus lemon and bitters. But its defining flavor was cherry – in the form of kirsch, a dry cherry brandy.

The original Singapore Sling – at least as well as anyone can figure out – was basically the same drink, except that it used sweet cherry brandy instead of dry and subbed lime as the citrus. That’s the Singapore Sling you’ll get if you order the classic drink at Midnight Rambler in downtown Dallas, and a few dashes of Angostura make all the difference, giving depth to what would otherwise taste like an off-kilter black cherry soda.

Adam McDowell includes the mix in his entertaining and recently published Drinks: A User’s Guide, whose characterization is hard to argue with: “Here’s the correct recipe; ignore all other versions like the meaningless static they are.”

Ingredients
1 oz London dry gin
1 oz cherry brandy
1 oz Benedictine
1 oz lime
3 d Angostura bitters
Club soda
Instructions
Stir in a Collins glass. Garnish w/Maraschino cherries

 

You’ll also find the drink on the inaugural menu at Industry Alley just south of downtown, where owner Charlie Papaceno digs its less-is-more simplicity. “It’s like with French cooking: Here’s the mother sauce,” he says. “Here’s what we work from.”

But of course Papaceno had to tweak his version just a little. Rather than using equal parts, his recipe boosts the gin and tones down the liqueurs, with just a squeeze of lime. The drink is tart and a bit Scotchy thanks to its signature ingredient, Cherry Heering – not the summery cool pineapple drink the name usually calls to mind, but a leathery, autumn-ready gin-and-tonic.

“So, it’s like, to take it back,” Papaceno says. “Somehow it’s just gotten so tricked up.”

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

Until Wondrich tracked down the recipe above in a 1913 Singapore newspaper, no one really knew what the standard was for sure. By the late 1920s and early 1930s the rumor was a good ways down the table and already starting to morph; even the Raffles Hotel itself touted an “original” recipe in the 1930s with pineapple and grenadine, flowery additions that nonetheless endeared it to the wave of tiki that was just starting to emerge.

Before long the drink with the catchy name became a game of eeny meeny miny mo, something everyone did but felt free to put their own spin on. “Of all the recipes published for this drink, I have never seen any two that were alike,” wrote David Embury in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948).

Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947) included two versions; so did Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology (2003), listing the neglected Straits Sling recipe as “Singapore Sling #1” and offering a second that included triple sec.

“The Singapore Sling is a perfect example of the kind of drinks that came from outside the world of tiki establishments and took up residence on tiki menus everywhere,” wrote San Francisco bar owners Martin and Rebecca Cate in Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (2016). The legendary Trader Vic, they wrote, included it on his first menu under the category, “Drinks I Have Gathered from the Four Corners of the Globe.”

Here’s a typically involved recipe, the one I favored for a while, from The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy (2011):

2 oz. pineapple
1 ½ oz gin
½ oz Cherry Heering
½ oz grenadine (I use pomegranate molasses)
¼ oz Cointreau
¼ oz Benedictine
¼ oz lime
Angostura bitters
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled Collins glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cherry and a slice of pineapple.

 

Yep, that’s a lot of moving parts for one drink. No wonder Wondrich once wrote: “The Singapore Sling is one of those complicated drinks that taste better when you don’t have to make them.”

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

But, you might be saying, what about the Straits Sling? Isn’t it being neglected all over again?

Not anymore, thanks to Midnight Rambler, where mixmaster Solomon has revived his own version of the drink with a wry literary nod.

Even before he began learning the craft, Solomon had the Singapore Sling on his radar after reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in high school. “(Thompson) was describing sitting poolside at his hotel with a Singapore Sling, a side of mezcal and a beer chaser,” Solomon said. “I was, like — what’s a Singapore Sling?”

Then Solomon happened into the budding cocktail renaissance underway in New York City in the early years of the millennium, working at classic bars like Milk and Honey and the Pegu Club. In 2004, Ted Haigh gave a nod to the drier Straits Sling in his book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails – “but if you make it as Ted as written,” Solomon says, “it’s a terrible drink. Virtually undrinkable.”

Egged on by cocktails writer Martin Douderoff, one of his Pegu Club regulars, Solomon decided to see how he could improve on the drink while keeping its historical accuracy. By early 2006, he’d hit on a Benedictine-less version that used both dry and sweet cherry brandies – kirsch and Cherry Heering. It appeared on the Pegu Club menu later that year as the Solomon Sling.

Late this summer, as Solomon prepared Midnight Rambler’s fall menu, he knew he wanted to incorporate seasonal stone-fruit flavors, but not in an overly sweet way. When one of his bartenders suggested he reincarnate the Solomon Sling, he thought,“Okay. But let’s have some fun with it: Let’s serve it Hunter S. Thompson style and miniaturize it.’”

And that’s how you’ll find it on Rambler’s current menu – served “Gonzo-style” and slightly downsized with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony. It’s a delicate drink, slightly sweet with a lush cherry finish – and did I mention it comes with a side of mezcal and a Miller High Life pony?

The sibling slings are finally having their day, and there’s little to fear or loathe about it.

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

DMA exhibit to showcase cocktail culture history — through its barware

Dallas Museum of Art
Did someone say cocktails? Among the collection of vintage barware at the DMA exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art)

So….. that cocktail you’re holding in your hand? Your great-great-grandfather might have drunk the very same thing.

That historical connection is one of the great charms of the modern craft-cocktail renaissance, and now, thanks to the Dallas Museum of Art, you might even get to see the very shaker the old guy’s drink got made in. (OK, the chances are wee, but you get the point.)

Dallas Museum of Art
“Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail” features nearly 60 vintage and modern cocktail items. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art)

Later this month, the DMA will open “Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail,” a yearlong exhibit tracing the development of cocktails from the late 19th century to their modern-day renaissance, as well as the wares used to prepare and serve them.

The collection goes on display Nov. 18 and features nearly 60 items ranging from 19th century punch bowls and early 20th-century decanters to Prohibition-era shakers and modern designer barware.

The exhibit also spans craft-cocktail culture’s long and glorious history, starting with the punchbowl potions of colonial times and, long before fedoras were a thing, the 1862 publishing of storied bartender Jerry Thomas’ How To Mix Drinks: Or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion – the first printed compilation of cocktail recipes.

Opening night will bring an appearance by Dale DeGroff, another storied bartender whose attention to fresh ingredients and classic techniques at New York’s Rainbow Room throughout the 1990s are pretty much why you can find a properly made Sazerac even in select dive bars today. The godfather of the modern cocktail revival, DeGroff (a.k.a. “King Cocktail”) will addfress the current scene and its centuries-old roots.

As cocktails rose in popularity, so too did the tools needed to make them, and they got fancier and cleverer as time went on.

Dallas Museum of Art
Cocktail culture’s modern reboot has inspired a new wave of designer barware. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art)

In an article about the exhibit, Samantha Robinson, the DMA’s interim assistant curator of decorative arts, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that silver was among the primary materials for luxury barware, especially in the prosperous 1920s, when speakeasies flourished in defiance of Prohibition.

Given drinking’s underground nature at the time, shakers took on seemingly whimsical shapes – like penguins, or lighthouses – to mask their actual utility.

(The coolest thing about the story, by the way, is learning that Robinson is a fan of the Aviation, though I prefer mine with crème de violette – as it should be.)

Starting around the 1960s, cocktails fell out of favor and plummeted to truly awful depths of neglect. The current reboot, rooted in the late 1990s, has inspired a new wave of cocktail artistry, including designer shakers and martini glasses, some of which will also be on display.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 12, 2017.

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Bigger venue means higher hopes for annual charity cocktail bash

This year's benefit cocktail event aims to be the largest ever.
This year’s benefit cocktail event aims to be the largest ever.

It’s the fete that launched a thousand sips.

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:

africatrigger

AFRICA: Rafiki’s

Captain: Bryan Dalton, Mexican Sugar, Plano

asiatrigger

ASIA: Kamikaze

Captain: Kiyoko Kinoshita, Midnight Rambler, Dallas

europetrigger

EUROPE: Mad Hatter’s Cocktail Emporium

Captain: Jenny Park, Filament, Dallas

northamtrigger

NORTH AMERICA: New World Carnival

Captain: Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos, Dallas

southamtrigger

SOUTH AMERICA: Dr, Amazon’s Apothecary

Captain: Ravinder Singh, Rapscallion, Dallas

 

For more information, or to donate to Trigger’s Toys, go here.

What you should be drinking now: Midnight Rambler’s magnificent tiki mashup

 

Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler
The Tiger Style is a blast of creamy orange spice, among a stellar lineup described as “gritty tiki.”

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.

Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler
Despite its delicate looks, the Neon Lilikoi is a passionfruit thundercat waiting to pounce.

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.

Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler
The lingering taste of poblano puts a hellfire finish on the Purgatory Lost.

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.

Co-owner, Midnight Rambler
Solomon on a rare night of bar duty, pouring Tiger Style.

“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.”

Wild things, you make my heart sing.

Ever tried pisco? Cocktail event Monday gives you a dozen ways to try

If February's Pisco Sour competition offers any clues, you're in for a treat Monday.
If February’s Pisco Sour competition offers any clues, you’re in for a treat Monday. 

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.

Queirolo and Intipalka will be among the pisco brands represented at Monday's competition.
Queirolo and Intipalka will be among the pisco brands represented at Monday’s competition.

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.

Tim Newtown of Henry's Majestic pours his chirimoya-inflected drink at February's event.
Tim Newtown of Henry’s Majestic pours his chirimoya-inflected drink at February’s event.

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.

Each competing bartender made mini versions of their drinks for attendees.
Each competing bartender made mini versions of their drinks for attendees.

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.”

Shelton Spencer, Bolsa
Spencer Shelton’s winning cocktail at February’s contest, the Cease Fire.

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.”

Talkin’ ’bout the Midnight Rambler, Dallas’ ambitious new cocktail arrival

Dallas cocktails
Everything is illuminated: The new gem in Dallas’ cocktail scene.

With a month gone by since the jewel that is Midnight Rambler beamed into downtown, it’s hard to believe it was barely a year ago that the Dallas cocktail scene seemed lost in free-fall… To recap: Everything was going just fine – better than fine, actually, with two notable spots, Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social, getting national acclaim, and then – Bam! Both places were suddenly gut-punched with the overnight departure of Michael Martensen and his top-notch bartending posse. Meanwhile, Eddie “Lucky” Campbell, an equally well-known luminary behind the stick, was still bouncing around after leaving the failed Chesterfield downtown. Sure, both said they had projects in the works, but DELAYS. The imbiberati were verklempt.

Dallas cocktails
More of these? Okay then.

Then, on one night in August, everything was illuminated: Parliament, Campbell’s carefully polished Uptown gem, and Proof + Pantry, Martensen’s much anticipated Arts District venture, opened on the same night with his crafty little bartenders all in a row. This fall, The Bourbon Review named The Standard Pour among its top 60 bourbon bars in America.

Dallas’ cocktail mojo is flowing again, and Midnight Rambler immediately joins the dean’s list – a gorgeous space in the Joule Hotel that reveals itself in holy-moly fashion the moment you plunge into its subterranean home. From the pincushion lighting to the art-deco styling to the arcing, inverted hull of a ceiling with its sleek wooden beams, it’s if you’ve walked into…. New York. Which is no surprise, given the Big Apple origins of owners Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, whose New York-based beverage consulting firm, Cuffs & Buttons, has put its stamp on bars and hotels around the world.

Midnight Rambler has an art deco, midcentury-modern aesthetic that Solomon ascribes to David Lynch’s Silencio space in Paris and the hotel bar in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, minus Lloyd the bartender. Strategically placed curtains hide or reveal adjoining space based on volume, intending a sense of intimacy no matter what the crowd. The punch bowl display is a bling-y touch.

Dallas cocktails
Part of Midnight Rambler’s solid cocktail lineup.

This is what he and Pope have had in mind since – well, since those dark days of last autumn, but as already noted, these things take time. The wait has been worth it. “It’s pretty much exactly how we envisioned it,” Solomon said a few days before a glorious preopening-night party whose guest list included Manhattan mixology legends Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club and Cuffs & Buttons partner Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey (where Pope and Solomon once tended bar).

The lineup of thoughtfully conceived libations is ladled out by a relatively fresh crew of bartenders whom Solomon and Pope have molded to their well-honed specifications. Labeled vials of premixed cocktail portions sit on the backbar, awaiting call to duty: It’s all about efficiency and consistency, and save for the ample canon of classics with which humankind is blessed, few variations occur off-menu, which is okay-fine because it’s muy excelente. (Being at the Joule, it’s also pricy, with drinks ranging from $12-$15.) Creative, daring and amply sized, it features the orange-y, bourbon-based Soul Clap, the tart, poblano-kissed Wang Dang Dula and the clever Savory Hunter, whose lemongrass- and kaffir-lime infused gin, mixed with coconut and lime evoke the flavors of a delicious Thai tom kha gai soup. There’s a selection of group-friendly punches and a playful trio of shots, including a pho-themed one that incorporates beef stock.

Dallas cocktails
The bar’s midcentury modern aesthetic is “pretty much exactly how we envisioned it,” co-owner Chad Solomon says.

Midnight Rambler is also notable for what you don’t see: A backroom “lab” with nifty toys like refractometers, an evaporative still and a centrifuge, all employed in the making of cocktail ingredients. “We call it a lab, but we’re not back there experimenting all the time,” Solomon says. “It’s more like a flavor house. It’s our own dedicated flavor house.” Many drinks also include a touch of mineral saline – a bit of salt that as in food enhances and brings out other flavors; two drops is all it takes.

Nibbles come from CBD Provisions, up on the main level of The Joule – including charcuterie, a tilefish dip (the fish is smoked on the hotel rooftop), black-eyed pea hummus and a knockout burger. Fries are served in a Moscow Mule mug.

Despite the intense structure and pre-planning, the occasional drink can falter: The Sound System, for instance, which I initially loved for its bold and effective use of super-funky Hamilton pot-still rum, turns out to be fickle; inadequately stirred on a later visit, it was too heavy on the rum’s overripe banana flavor. The pre-prepared vials behind the bar can also visually take some of the appeal out of having your drink prepared to order; they’re more appreciated on a busy weekend night. About the only real minus for Midnight Rambler might be its location in the Joule, whose owner, Tim Headington, has enraged preservation architects with a record of destroying historic buildings, including the recent razing of two century-old structures across the street from the hotel, as noted in a scathing column by Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster in September. Likewise, those who support historic preservation efforts may want to consider whether they want to patronize the businesses within.

Midnight Rambler
The Savory Hunter: Refreshingly recalling your favorite Thai restaurant.

Otherwise, Midnight Rambler is a welcome and needed addition to the DFW cocktail scene. Solomon and Pope had initially considered Austin until the Joule opportunity fell into their laps; they’re now settled in Bishop Arts and have hatched something ambitious, adventurous and more glamorous than any serious cocktail bar Dallas has seen.

“It’s just another layer on top of what’s already here,” Solomon says. “This is next level. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with the best in Chicago and New York. But we’re here.”