Visit Industry Alley these days and you might notice a couple of new faces roaming the bar: Marty Reyes and his wife Jen, who goes by the catchy moniker Jen Ann Tonic.
Known around town for their occasional “Swizzle Luau Lounge” pop-ups, the jaunty tikiphiles and bar-culture enthusiasts have taken up temporary residence in the Cedars neighborhood watering hole. They’re filling in for owner Charlie Papaceno, elder statesman of the Dallas cocktail scene, who’s taking a two-month sabbatical to be with his 91-year-old father in rural New York.
“My dad is having some health issues and I’m going up there to care for him,” said Papaceno, who opened the low-key, classics-minded cocktail bar after leaving the venerable Windmill Lounge in late 2014. “He can’t be alone if we want to keep him in his house.”
While he’s gone, Papaceno is leaving his bar in the hands of the Reyes tiki tandem and bar manager Mike Steele.
The Reyeses say they’re humbled by the chance to oversee a place helping to infuse new life into the area and don’t plan to alter the laid-back, jukebox-and-pool-table feel that’s made it a bar-industry favorite. However, an actual kitchen is on the way along with a seasonal drink lineup, and an off-menu tiki selection may find its way into existence for those who carry the torch.
Papaceno hit the road Tuesday on his way to Warwick, the town where he grew up, and says he’ll be with his ailing dad through the holidays, at least.
“It’ll be nice to spend the last days of his life with him,” he said. “There’s been too many years apart for too many fathers and sons.”
Here’s some Halloween weekend activity that won’t have you saying Boo.
Monday’s event at Victor Tangos is the highlight, and the costume party/cocktail fest doubles as a charity effort, with proceeds benefiting Dallas CASA, an agency that helps abused and neglected children find safe and permanent homes.
The longtime Knox-Henderson craft-cocktail den is teaming up with Brian Floyd of The Barman’s Fund, a national organization of bartenders who hold monthly events to benefit worthwhile causes and donate their night’s tips to the proceeds.
The Victor Tangos party features an all-star cast of Dallas bar industry pioneers, including five members of the original teams at milestone craft-cocktail joints Bar Smyth and/or The Cedars Social, both of which earned national acclaim: Michael Martensen, Mate Hartai, Josh Hendrix, Julian Pagan and Omar YeeFoon.
Joining them will be Victor Tangos vet Emily Arseneau, Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour, Midnight Rambler’s Zach Smigiel and spirits distributor Kristen Holloway.
The fun gets underway at 7 p.m. with drink specials, with tracks spun by DJ Bryan C and prizes to be awarded for the best, most outlandish and most inappropriate costumes.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, the classic Windmill Lounge on Maple Avenue will hold its annual Halloween bash with drink specials, a midnight costume parade and contest ($100 for first place!) and DJs Chris Rose and Genova providing the beats.
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.
FROM A LOFTY outdoor suite at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the elusive Rocco Milano is taking in FC Dallas’ home opener against Philadelphia. He has a cocktail in hand – and the fact that the venue even sells them says a lot about how far craft-cocktail culture has come.
You remember Rocco. As Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene blossomed in the early 2010s, Milano was among its luminaries, emerging from the Mansion at Turtle Creek to preside over well-regarded bar programs at Private/Social and Barter in Uptown. Then, with Barter’s sudden closing, he vanished, leaving a trail of mystery. What is Rocco up to, people wondered? Has anyone heard from Rocco?
Everyone may be about to. Along with partners Patrick Halbert – owner of P/S and Barter, which operated successively in a space off McKinney Avenue – and Andrew Gill, Halbert’s cousin, Milano has been crafting a line of bottled cocktails, hoping to join a growing playing field.
Their venture, called On The Rocks, or OTR, has been building a buzz; FC Dallas is the team’s first major client, with four OTR cocktails now sold in the stadium’s suite-exclusive Jack Daniels Lounge. (Other, less potent OTR drinks are available on the concourse to general ticket holders.)
This week, On The Rocks scored 11 medals at the esteemed San Francisco World Spirits Competition – including two gold, four silver and five bronze. But OTR’s sights are set much higher, with the group sweet-talking several major airlines to get their drinks onboard national and international flights.
Here in the suite with Milano are partners Halbert and Gill, along with other OTR staffers and people like industry consultant Steve Ousley. “What they’re doing is really innovative,” Ousley says of OTR. “It’s like, how do we execute a crafted cocktail and bring it to consumers really quick? This is in a bottle, and that’s about as quick and convenient as we can deliver it.”
As the brand name implies, the beverages are meant to be served over ice. But with bottled cocktails a relatively new concept, kinks remain: As the match gets underway, an OTR team member arrives fresh from the lounge, where he’s just ordered the bottled Aviation. “They poured it wrong,” he tells Milano; the server poured the liquid straight into a glass, he says, with no ice.
Milano’s eyes widen. “It’s called On The Rocks!” he says, incredulously.
IMAGINE THIS: You’re on a plane from Dallas to New York. You’ve ordered a cocktail – not the standard one-and-one mixed drink, like a gin and tonic or a whiskey and coke – but an actual cocktail. Maybe it’s a Mai Tai, or a Cosmopolitan. The flight attendant shows up and cracks open a 100-milliliter bottle, drops a napkin on your tray and a cup with a scoop of ice. Then you’re handed the bottle, to dispense as you please.
“It’s just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”
This is what Rocco Milano has been up to.
While a bottled cocktail can’t fully match the punch and zip of one freshly made, OTR’s concoctions taste remarkably like the real deal – a threshold the team has worked hard to meet. Though the airline dream is still just that, it’s one the OTR team hopes to make a reality, as early as this year, having been in talks, they say, with Hawaiian, Alaska and Virgin Airlines.
Airline cocktails are no rye-in-the-sky illusion, though it’s still relatively uncharted territory: In 2014, Virgin tapped Austin Cocktails’ low-cal “Vodka Cucumber Mojito;” more interestingly, Alaska Airlines teamed with Seattle-based Sun Liquor to let passengers make cocktails at their seats using Sun spirits and recipes (a squeeze of lime, a bit of vodka and a pour of ginger ale, and voila! You sort of have a Moscow Mule).
Bottled cocktails are further out of the gate, though quality varies widely. Acclaimed Chicago barman Charles Joly has been producing his Canada-based Crafthouse line – which also scored well in San Francisco – since 2013. There are others sprinkled around the U.S., and around the world. But no other brand in the category did as well in this year’s San Francisco competition as OTR, which won a third of all medals given and was the only U.S.-based company to take gold.
The OTR brand features three cocktail lines – a signature line with classics like the Margarita and Cosmo; a tropical line sporting rummy drinks old and new; and a craft line which “is where we get really weird and esoteric,” Milano says. That category includes the Smoking Pepper, which fans of Milano might recall from Private/Social as the drink actually served in a hollowed-out bell pepper; Milano has recreated a bottled version.
While their ingredients don’t necessarily mirror fresh cocktails (to account for items, like juices, with a short shelf life), OTR’s drinks are nonetheless all-natural, with no preservatives, additives or artificial flavors. All are either 20 or 35 percent alcohol, using real spirits procured from bulk purveyors, whether whiskey, rum or barrel-aged gin.
Take the Spiced Pear cocktail. “There’s some amazing spiced pear in there, and some nice Darjeeling tea,” Milano says. “It’s done with the barrel-aged London Dry gin, so you’re gonna get some cool wood notes, but it’s still gin. The acid is Meyer lemon, which just adds a beautiful pop to it, and then a little bit of allspice.”
The Rye Old Fashioned is a standout – “pretty much our crowd-pleaser,” Halbert says. There’s a Moscow Mule, and a Daiquiri; a Mai Tai and a Blackberry Bramble.
The bottle’s logo design is a nod to its ice intentions, with the lower half of “OTR” submerged in illustrated cubes.
“And it’s the same regardless of who pours it,” Milano says. “Everything you need is in this drink.”
IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be this way. The three had originally planned to focus on a fledgling distillery operation once Barter had closed. But as Virgin Airlines made its debut at Love Field in late 2014, a handful of Virgin execs came to Barter to celebrate. One of them, Milano says, told him something to the effect of, “These drinks are so good, I wish we could have them on our planes.”
“And Pat was like, `Well, shit – let’s put them in a bottle,’” Milano says. Not knowing how serious the execs were, they didn’t get their hopes up. “People say a lot of things,” Milano says.
Months later, he says, the Virgin guys called to check in. That led to more serious talks, then intros to other airlines and a crash course in bottled-cocktail science. By last year’s end they’d invested half a million into the venture, mostly on inventory and legal and consultant fees, and crafted close to 40 different cocktails.
At the time, they had 90,000 200-milliliter bottles sitting in a warehouse, with 300,000 half that size on the way. The bottles conform to federally approved sizes for alcohol sales; meanwhile, some cocktails had to contain particular ingredients to fit official government definitions. For example, according to the feds, a Margarita must include triple sec, and OTR’s Rye Old-Fashioned is described as such because the government’s definition of the classic drink calls for bourbon.
The group’s office, near Love Field, evokes a cohabitation of chemistry grad students who inherited their parents’ excess furniture. Remnants of Private/Social and Barter comprise the minimal décor or lie strewn throughout – the hanging wicker chairs, the randy sofa pillows, the curtain of metal string that once separated P/S’ bar from the dining area. “We obviously didn’t spend any money on the finish-out,” Halbert laughs.
On a typical day, the heavy-duty table at center is slathered with bottles, beakers, notebooks and vintage cocktail tomes. “We have graduated cylinders, pipettes, even scales that measure to 1/16 of a gram,” Milano says.
And the nearby fridge is filled not with beer and lunchmeats but scores of bottles spanning a range of concentrated flavors. “You can get flavors of anything,” Milano says. There’s butter, truffle, lemon zest, even something called cloud. Not all of it is good. They went through 60 flavors of lime before finding one they liked.
Their bottled Margarita was the most challenging in terms of achieving the right balance of spirit, acidity and sweetness. It took a month to perfect. Whenever they thought they had it down, they’d run to Albertson’s, buy some limes and fire up a fresh drink for comparison’s sake.
“That was the standard,” Milano says. “I didn’t even have a juicer; I had an elbow. I wasn’t even gonna get pith off the lime, just boom – squeeze it in there. And if it didn’t compare to that, then we just started over.”
In the end, their bottled version turned out to be a mix of aged tequila, lime, orange and agave.
On the other hand, their Aviation took them all of 15 minutes. “That had everything to do with the violet extract,” Milano says. “But just like with a real Aviation, you can easily add too much and screw it up.”
Their experience with bars and restaurants has proved valuable. “We’re not guys in lab coats,” Milano says. “We know what a Margarita should taste like.”
Still, a guy in a lab coat comes in handy. To that end, OTR hired Illinois-based food science consultant Dave Wengerhof to assist them with the chemistry of it all. Their aim is to make the drinks taste freshly made even after sitting on a shelf for a year. They test their wares against heat and cold. “It’s not how it tastes when we make it,” Milano says. “It’s how it tastes when you drink it.”
Late last year, they took some of their bottled cocktails to Portland’s Clyde Common, base of renowned bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and ordered the actual versions to see how they measured up. They were especially pleased with their Aviation, and along with Milano’s Smoking Pepper, the drink was among OTR’s two gold-medal winners this week.
Their 11-medal showing was not necessarily what they expected so early on. When the results were announced, “the room just erupted,” Milano says. And they’re just getting started.
For OTR, it seems, the sky really may be the limit.
CASTLE HILLS – OK, maybe Castle Hills isn’t really that far away. On a good day you can get here in less than a half-hour. Sandwiched between Lewisville, The Colony, Carrollton and West Plano, its regal label is intentional, with a 30-mph main drag dubbed King Arthur Boulevard and the sprawling development of king-sized homes described on its web site as “a majestic, 2,600-acre master-planned community.”
It’s not the kind of outpost you’d expect to find a great cocktail, and yet, the very thought of being 25 miles north of downtown Dallas might make you pine for one. It’s a royal paradox.
Well, you’re in luck: With the opening of TBD Kitchen, Sean Conner’s latest venture (in partnership with Daniel Guillen), you and the villagers of Castle Hills now have two quality drinking establishments from which to choose.
TBD Kitchen, next door to Conner’s Pie 314, is the latest step in Daniel Guillen’s ongoing pilgrimage to promote Latin traditions via drink and food. Five of TBD’s nine house cocktails got test runs at the various pop-up events, seminars and South American-styled dinners that Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni, has been throwing around the DFW area in the last year.
Along with a bold selection of agave spirits and rums, those drinks complement a menu highlighting $2 street tacos. (Also, if anyone asks whether you want the off-menu chicharrones, say yes.) The décor is hip Mexican, with Day of the Dead skulls, Mexican movie posters and kitschy candles from Target. Cushy, bendy barstools are modeled after seats on bass boats.
“It’s not like Dallas here,” Guillen says. “It’s a whole different beast. People here have money, but they want comfort food.”
Situated at the Castle Hills Village Shops, nestled deep in the thicket of $500,000-plus homes, Conner has accommodated those tastes, offering quality pizza and now tacos, with decent cocktails to boot. “There’s three kinds of food that people eat all the time,” says Conner, among Dallas-Fort Worth’s pioneering craft-cocktail bartenders. “And these are two of them.”
But are the people of Castle Hills ready for cocktails like the Chamoyada, a drink inspired by Guillen’s visits to the fruterias of Oak Cliff, or the Pachamama, featuring Peruvian brandy and not one, but two, Italian bitter liqueurs?
Or what about the Bolivar Old Fashioned, a nod to the influential Venezuelan leader, which mixes five rums, Angostura bitters infused with tobacco leaves and Brazilian coffee beans? The nicely conceived drink did well on a recent night, perhaps because of Guillen’s piece de resistance, a coconut water ice cube that gradually sweetens the drink as it’s savored.
Guillen says TBD actually stands for Tacos, Burritos and Daisies — the Daisy being a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation. A daily Daisy will be a staple of Guillen’s offerings. And in the (warmer) future, Guillen envisions half-price rum nights with cigars and dominoes, Cuban-style, on the patio.
As TBD was being built out, Guillen did a smart thing: He worked the bar at Pie 314. That earned him a familiarity with local residents that will serve him as he aims to nudge less adventurous palates into unfamiliar territory. “If you like Balvenie,” Guillen told one guest as he slid forward a bottle of Cartavio XO, “this is a Peruvian rum. It’s finished in sherry casks, just like Balvenie is.” The guy was inspired to give it a try.
A couple at the bar was impressed with Guillen’s Margarita Pa’Llevar (Margarita to-go), whose presentation mimics the street-ready drinks served in plastic bags in certain South America countries. It was among the drinks Guillen featured with chef David Anthony Temple at a South American dinner earlier this year, sipped through a straw coated with chamoy – fruit pulp flavored with lime and chile – for some added kick.
So maybe he’ll earn the keys to the kingdom just yet. “People are like, ‘Why here?’” Guillen says. “Even I don’t know. We were just given the chance, so we’re going to roll with it.”
Bartenders are a mobile bunch, so it’s rare that a name becomes as synonymous as a place as Kyle Hilla’s did at Bolsa.
Friday was Hilla’s last day at the Oak Cliff restaurant, marking the end of a seven-year run that saw him rise from server to bartender to manager of Bolsa’s vaunted bar program, among the pioneering establishments of DFW’s craft-cocktail scene.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Hilla said at the end of his busy final night, after the place had pretty much emptied out.
The talented barman is on his way to NorthPark Center, where he’ll be heading up the bar at The Theodore, the new venture from the owners of Bolsa, nearby Bolsa Mercado, Chicken Scratch and The Foundry. In his stead, the gifted Spencer Shelton will be assuming Bolsa’s bar reins.
Like many a bartender, Hilla didn’t set out to pour drinks. Instead, he tired of a retail manager position (“To this day, I’m still the youngest store manager in Dollar General history,” he said) and aimed to head back to school. In the meantime, he figured, he’d be a server. That eventually brought him to Bolsa, where then-bar-managers Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Dub Davis kept prodding the Boy Wonder to get behind the bar. He resisted – until the night Campbell asked him to help make drinks at an art gallery special event.
“I had the time of my life,” he said. Two days later, he was walking the aisles of a Kroger store with now-wife Jessica and realized he’d been transformed. “Everything I saw in the store, I was like, `Hmm, what can I make a cocktail with?’ “
Hilla embraced the jigger and shaker, and in the ensuing years, as the cocktail scene began to grow, both Davis and Campbell (and Jason Kosmas, who had left New York’s Employees Only to raise a family in Texas) departed for other projects. In 2010, Hilla took over the bar.
He further streamlined the program, making his cheerful, quip-smart presence a Bolsa mainstay, along with attentive service and creative mixology. “People before me laid an amazing foundation,” he said. “I just focused it.”
Campbell and Kosmas had created one of the bar’s best-known features, the weekly cocktail challenge on Wednesdays in which two bartenders would face off, creating cocktails based on a pair of customer-chosen ingredients and let the night’s sales dictate a winner. Those ingredients occasionally verged on the ridiculous, stretching bartenders’ talents and imaginations to extremes – for instance, banana ketchup. “Think about that, buddy,” he nodded with a wry smile. (He made a Bloody Mary.) “There was a time when I hated Wednesdays.”
Others included oysters, black garlic or Pop Rocks. “Pop Rocks were terrible,” he said.
Eventually, Hilla rescheduled the challenges to just the first Wednesday of each month, and his final match – against bartender Marcos Hernandez – took place on September 3. Hilla drew saffron and tangerines, Hernandez got plums and blood orange. It was Hernandez who late last year conceived a drink that paired the bitter Italian liqueur Cynar’s artichoke flavor notes with the smokiness of toasted mesquite chips. But it was Hilla who eventually named it, calling it the Imenta.
“When we first came out with it,” Hernandez said, “it was the Oaky Smoky Arthichoke-y.”
“And that’s why we started requiring drug tests at work,” Hilla cracked.
In his seven years at Bolsa, Hilla has gotten to know a few people. “I know 99 percent of the people who come in here,” he said as the minutes ticked down on Friday night’s last shift, and he hopes some of his regulars follow him to The Theodore, set to open late next month at NorthPark. He told one pair of retiree regulars, “Y’all just need to become mall walkers. I’ll tell you what – I’ll invent a drink called the Mall Walker just for you.”
Moving on and up is the next logical step for Hilla, but it’s hard to see familiar traditions end. Bolsa was among my first cocktail finds when I moved to Dallas five years ago, so for my last Hilla-made drink there, I asked for something bitter/sweet to commemorate the moment. He produced a blend of bourbon and Cynar goodness and made clear that in spite of the change, he and Jessica won’t be forgetting Oak Cliff anytime soon.
“We just closed on a house here,” he said. “I’ll always be a part of this community.”
Milk & Honey appeared on New York’s Lower East Side in 1999, when today’s rocketing craft cocktail renaissance was practically still on the launchpad. The proprietor was a debonair young gent named Sasha Petraske, who in deference to his mostly residential-area neighbors instituted a number of features that would be copied by other cocktail spots in years to come: A speakeasy-style unmarked location and entrance (to be inconspicuous). A reservations-only policy (to avoid lines of people outside). A no-standing policy at the bar (to quell hooliganism). And because Petraske was a decorum-minded soul, rules of behavior to maintain civility (for instance, asking men to remove their hats and not hit on women).
Other practices would follow, also to become cocktail-bar staples – things like hand-carved ice, an adherence to jiggers and water served with cucumber slices. “If he didn’t outright originate (those practices), he was the most successful champion of them early on,” said Chad Solomon, who along with fellow New York ex-pat Christy Pope now runs Midnight Rambler in downtown Dallas.
And so it was with much sadness that the craft-cocktail world absorbed the news that Petraske had died Friday of unknown causes in Hudson, N.Y., as reported by The New York Times. He was just 42.
Both Solomon and Pope got to know Petraske well, having worked at Milk & Honey in the early 2000s; both bartended and worked as servers in the intimate, 34-seat, candle-lit venue to which customers had to be buzzed in. Petraske had flown in for Midnight Rambler’s grand opening in October 2014, and the two were among the attendees’ at Petraske’s recent wedding.
“Shock doesn’t even cover it,” Solomon said Friday. “It’s a very sad day.”
Even more than his contribution to cocktail culture, Solomon said, Petraske stood out for his generosity and decency. “He was always self-aware, always about becoming a better man,” he said.
Petraske helped launch a number of prominent bars and, in partnership with others, created stalwart spots like Greenwich Village’s Little Branch, Queens’ Dutch Kills and Varnish in Los Angeles. Such was his sway that when San Antonio’s Bohanan’s Prime Steaks & Seafood sought to overhaul its bar in hopes of revitalizing the city’s Riverwalk area, Petraske was brought in to train the staff. He would go on to become a co-founder of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference and was among the New York City bartenders featured in the 2013 documentary Hey Bartender.
His reservations-only and no-standing policies would be adopted by places like Dallas’ Bar Smyth (now closed), while Denver’s Green Russell has been among the bars that similarly posted rules of decorum for their customers. Meanwhile, speakeasy-style entrances, hand-carved ice and cucumber water are everywhere.
While the original Milk & Honey had closed, Petraske was planning to reopen at a new location.
“He was never content to leave things static,” Solomon said. “He was always looking to improve. His influence cannot be overstated.”
HEY, TEXAS: Peru Wants You. It wants you to love pisco the way it loves pisco. It wants pisco to roll off your tongue as readily as whiskey or tequila, to be pressed into duty among your home bar’s loyal soldiers, to pepper the ranks of cocktail lists from Dallas to San Antonio. It wants thoughts of pisco to hover at happy hour like unmarked helicopters in your head.
We’re a long way from that now. But the South American brandy is on the rise in the U.S., with American imports of Peruvian pisco more than doubling from 2010 to 2014. That’s enough to inspire Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism to mount an all-out campaign to promote pisco in the States, with Texas its number-one target.
“It’s, like, its own country,” says Erick Aponte, trade commissioner of the ministry’s Miami office. “It’s a combination of sophisticated, chic markets. We’re hoping to take advantage of the enormous potential Texas has as a market for Peru’s pisco.”
In fact, until Aponte counseled otherwise, officials had initially considered making Chicago the third stop on a recent pisco promotion tour that included New York City and New Orleans. “I was, like, ‘No – let’s go to North Texas,’ ” Aponte says.
That’s what brought a small delegation to Dallas’ Midnight Rambler early last month for a reception celebrating the Texas debut of two Peruvian piscos, La Diablada and Macchu Pisco. “I like to think of pisco as the other aromatic white spirit,” says Rambler co-owner Chad Solomon – gin being the other.
Pisco, a brandy with 16th-century roots, is made from freshly pressed stemless grapes, a clear cousin of Cognac and Armagnac. (The Peruvian distinction matters because pisco is made in both Peru and Chile, both of whom claim to have invented it and have more or less agreed to disagree. Or at least to not be in the same room together.)
Pisco’s popularity is up even in Peru, part of a growing embrace of gastronomy and consumption of healthy, quality ingredients – the same type of foodie movement that inspired America’s cocktail renaissance. “People are understanding that pisco is part of that,” says BarSol Pisco founder Diego Loret De Mola.
But while pisco is making big strides, the 1.7 million cases sold last year are still a trickle among the $23 billion flood of spirits sold nationwide. “It’s not even to the stage where mezcal was a few years ago,” says John Garrett of Irving-based distributor Victory. “Pisco is a long row to hoe.”
Peru has some work to do, then – a state full of bartenders and consumers to rev up and educate. For that it will need a point man, a firebrand: Someone to plant the seeds of inspiration. Someone to champion the cause.
Someone like Johnny Schuler.
YOU THINK YOU can keep up with this man? Forget about it. You can’t keep up with this man. “I love to drink,” says Johnny Schuler, the sonorous, ebullient master distiller of Pisco Porton, Peru’s largest exporter to the U.S. “And I do it with regularity.”
He has to. As the nation’s unofficial pisco ambassador, the larger-than-life TV host is constantly on the campaign trail. This week, on a trip that coincided with Peruvian Independence Day, he came to Texas and beat a 10-hour, Pisco Porton-laden path through central Dallas that tested the gaudy dress socks he’s fond of wearing.
As a young man in Peru he worked for his father, unimpressed with the cheap pisco served in his dad’s restaurant. But one day, a friend introduced him to the goods made by local artisan producers, and he couldn’t believe his taste buds.
This wasn’t pisco. This couldn’t be pisco. It tasted too good. Since that night, he says, he’s never drunk anything but and has spent his life promoting the spirit, and in 2010 he launched Pisco Porton with the help of a Houston-based backer, the two devising Porton’s muscular signature bottle one night over rounds of whiskey sours.
Tuesday’s five-stop tour kicked off with a two-hour pisco workshop at Midnight Rambler before an increasingly lively rented coach hauled attendees toward pisco receptions at The Mansion at Turtle Creek and then Stephan Pyles downtown, followed by a pisco-paired Peruvian dinner at Victor Tango’s in Knox-Henderson. A late-night pisco happy hour capped things off at The Dram, across the street.
The idea was to promote the spirit’s versatility by showcasing its use in cocktails and ability to be paired with food. At the opening workshop, attendees got a taste of Pisco Porton’s pepper-raisin flagship expression and banana-peel-scented Caravedo, one of the distillery’s newest releases. They learned that there are three types of pisco, made from eight possible grape varieties, a palette that opens realms of flavor possibility.
Schuler’s presentation extolled pisco’s lightly nuanced character and the stricter rules that Peruvian producers play by since pisco was declared a national heritage in 1991 – forbidden, for example, to use oak to add character or water to lower the proof, methods used by many other spirit producers.
Pisco is made in five coastal Peruvian states whose environmental conditions, nestled against the towering Andes mountain range and set off from the Amazon jungles, benefit from a greenhouse effect creating overpoweringly sweet grapes.
“But that is what gives us the alcohol,” Schuler says. Like his own distillery, whose modern design evokes the centuries-old hacienda operation it succeeds and lets gravity drive the distillation process, it’s nature at work.
“This is the miracle that makes pisco happen,” he says.
In Peru, pisco is kind of a big deal. The country has a National Pisco Day, and a National Pisco Sour Day; in 2007, the government awarded Schuler its Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts to promote the spirit. He’s a master storyteller, and his passion for his product is evident, with pronouncements occasionally pouring from his lips in Vicente Fernandez-like growls.
The results show in his much-decorated portfolio; Caravedo, a 100-percent quebranta grape product that goes down velvety smooth with lingering chocolate notes, recently won an unprecedented four gold medals in Peruvian pisco competition.
“My pride – I’m sorry, it overflows,” he says. “But I will make the best pisco in the world.”
Meaning, he thinks the best is still to come.
THE PISCO PUNCH came to life in San Francisco, of all places, during the go-for-broke days of the Gold Rush. Pisco was easier to get than whiskey, which had to be brought in by wagon from the Eastern U.S; pisco arrived on South American cargo ships that regularly posted up in the Bay.
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.
That made it the perfect drink du jour at last month’s pisco tasting room at New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail festival, the spirits industry’s largest annual gathering.
Sponsored by the Peruvian trade office, the packed event featured seven Peruvian piscos and differing spins on the drink applied by American mixmasters who’ve climbed aboard the pisco train. For example, a supremely refreshing version from Tony Abou-Ganim (aka “The Modern Mixologist”) featured Macchu Pisco, floral Yellow Chartreuse and a pineapple-ginger foam garnish. Meanwhile, bar man Jim Kearns, of New York’s Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, expertly paired Pisco Porton with aji amarillo (a Peruvian chili), passion fruit syrup and a guava puree.
The commission went all-out to evoke Peruvian flavor in the party surroundings, with artifacts, Peruvian cookies ordered from a baker in Miami and replicated artworks from the Cuzco School of Art. Attendees lined up to take photos in Peruvian garb.
Ultimately, whether Peru’s efforts will bear fruit depend on continued interest in craft cocktails and, obviously, building an American taste for the product. As for cocktails, Victory’s Garrett thinks the simpler, the better. “Not everybody wants to deal with egg whites and all that,” he says. “What about a pisco and tonic? Let’s dumb it down.”
For Schuler and his proud compatriots, it’s not just a matter of business. It’s a matter of pride. “We can make Peru be known through a glass of pisco,” says BarSol’s Loret. “I don’t sell pisco; I sell Peru.”
We all know that the people who make your cocktails can be right up there with your doctor, your shrink, your spiritual leader and your favorite podcast host when it comes to simple week-to-week survival. Sometimes they’re kind of all of those things rolled into one, except that they can also knock out a good drink – which might make them the most important people of all.
So when the best of them move on to new places, you want to know. Here’s a roundup of some of Dallas’ craft-cocktail peeps who’ve found new digs.
If you haven’t seen Eddie Eakin mixing things up at Bishop Arts’ Boulevardier lately, it’s for good reason: The buff barman has been busy readying beverage operations at soon-to-open Rapscallion, the new Lower Greenville venture from the folks behind Boulevardier.
With Eakin at the helm and one wall pretty much entirely devoted to bar space and storage, you know it’s going to be serious.
In Eakin’s absence, former Meddlesome Moth mixmaster Austin Millspaugh has stepped in to fill the void. The man who once incorporated foie gras into a cocktail is now overseeing Boulevardier’s bar program and is already in full tinker mode; if your tastes lean toward bitter, try his smoked Negroni with Fernet, thyme and Green Chartreuse. His ambitious alchemy should be interesting to watch as the year goes on.
Oak, in the Design District, is another place to put on your radar: The high-end restaurant has gotten double-barrel-serious about its cocktail program by bringing on both Michael Reith and James Slater, who between them produced three of my favorite cocktails of 2014.
One night, Reith was working his last night at the venerable Windmill Lounge in T-shirt and jeans, and the next he was pouring fancydranks in Oak’s signature white button-down shirt, black pants and tie. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s going to be a chance to shine again.”
Slater, formerly of Spoon, is likewise happy about the move; the dynamic duo have already put their formidable imprint on Oak’s cocktail menu with classic variations that include a killer Negroni and an Old Fashioned made with Old Tom gin. Though the two are different in style, their philosophies are simpatico, and the Panamanian-born Slater aims to inspire patrons to consider them as much of an accompaniment to dinner as wine.
“We’re going to change the bar program,” Slater says. “We’re like Batman and Robin.”
Meanwhile, it’s been six weeks since the much decorated Daniel Guillen left La Duni, for … well, for what no one was exactly sure – but after more than nine years with the operation, whose cocktail operations had become synonymous with his name, it was time to make a change.
It turns out there was a beast waiting to explode: The proudly Peruvian-born bartender has been unleashing his passions for Central and South American drink culture at places like Proof + Pantry and pop-up events – like next week’s cocktail dinner with Chef David Anthony Temple at Twenty Seven.
“Most bartenders focus on classic American cocktails, maybe a few from Europe,” Guillen says. “In my case, that doesn’t make sense. I would be one of many. So I thought, what can I bring to the table?” Look for more of the same while he and cocktail guru Sean Conner, he of the metroplex’s northern hinterlands, work on an upcoming project set to launch this fall.
At Blind Butcher, Ian Reilly is putting his own spin on things after joining the meat-forward establishment a couple months ago. “He’s the shit,” a departing and obviously happy patron says one evening. “He educates you and he makes you a badass drink.”
Reilly’s variation on the Old Fashioned, which he calls the Hubris, features whiskey with a hops-based syrup, because, “If I had to envision something that men here would want to drink – guys on the prowl, out celebrating, maybe going from beer to cocktails – what better way than to use hops as the sweetener?”
It’s one way that the bearded bar man is easing his way in at a place that has carved out a niche on busy Lower Greenville. “The formula here is working,” says Reilly, formerly of Bowl & Barrel and The People’s Last Stand. “I don’t want to stomp on that.”
Barter’s closing in January dispersed a number of souls to the winds – and one of them was the understated Creighten Brown, who has resurfaced at Tate’s in Uptown. (Juli Naida, as noted in 2014’s end-of-year post, has joined Mate Hartai’s team at Remedy.)
The talented tipple maker – whose Black Monk was also among my favorite cocktails last year – went from bar-back to bartender at Barter and is already hyped to be among Robbie Call’s team at Tate’s, along with Pro Contreras and Ryan Sanders. “The whole gang, man,” he says. “Good times, good times.”
Finally, Dallas recently bid farewell to two budding talents – Lauren Loiselle, who headed the bar program at Meddlesome Moth, and bartender Damon Bird of LARK at the Park. Both also figured prominently in my 2014 list but found themselves drawn to the Bay Area (and who can blame them?). “Two of our real good friends live in San Francisco,” Bird told me before they left. “We talked about it a long time and just decided to give it a go.”
Leaving Dallas was bittersweet, but both are excited about their new opportunities: Loiselle has joined the bar team at Café Du Nord, the new venture from the owners of Trick Dog. The team knows what it’s doing: Trick Dog is among four finalists for Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, to be awarded next month. “I’m super stoked,” she says.
Bird, meanwhile, has nested at Mikkeller Bar, a beer-centric spot near Union Square featuring the best of brews from around the world. While he misses the craft-cocktail world, you can tell the easygoing drink-slinger has found his people. “This was my choice place,” he says.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified Tate’s Ryan Sanders as Ryan Frederick.
They call Charlie Papaceno the godfather of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene. Ten years ago, he and then-wife Louise Owens opened the no-frills Windmill Lounge in Oak Lawn, unassumingly planting the local flag of an ongoing national renaissance on a nondescript stretch of Maple Avenue.
With the easygoing maestro at the helm, the low-key bar became a practice ground and hangout spot for the scene’s growing field of practitioners – pioneers like Jason Kosmas, Michael Martensen, Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Sean Conner. Its homey vibe and quality drinks earned the friendly dive a place in Esquire’s top U.S. bars of 2013.
“That was the place you’d go to see all your friends,” says Bonnie Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based FrontBurner Restaurants. “He nurtured a lot of us, and he was always willing to listen and guide us. We all learned from him.”
Now, the cocktail-community cache that Papaceno has earned is coming full circle. This time, it’s the godfather who is struggling: Late last year, Papaceno left the Windmill to launch his own bar, wanting to work on a new project. And then he found out he had Stage 4 cancer.
The #RallyForCharlie hashtag says it all: Charlie Pap has earned his support. The opportunities to help gets underway Thursday with cocktail specials at places like LARK on the Park and Black Swan Saloon to benefit the cause. But the major fundraising event happens Monday, when an “industry rally” is set for Industry Alley, Papaceno’s soon-to-open bar in the Cedars neighborhood.
“It’s awfully nice,” he says, sitting in the Lamar Avenue nightspot that’s still taking shape, with the lingering smell of fresh paint garnishing the air. “It’s humbling.”
“He nurtured a lot of us, and he was always willing to listen and guide us. We all learned from him.” — Bonnie Wilson, FrontBurner Restaurants
Monday’s cash-only event runs from 2 to 8. Twenty bucks gets you two drink tickets and pork tacos from a whole hog presented onsite. (Additional tickets can be purchased for $5 apiece.) Bartender-led teams of four will be pitted against each other in a giant game of Twister for the cause, and a silent auction will feature multicourse group dinners at places like FT33, Bolsa and Proof + Pantry.
For weeks, the ache in his ear and jaw wouldn’t go away. The first hospital visit revealed nothing. But when the pain got so bad he couldn’t sleep, he went back again; this time the tests showed he had, essentially, cancer of the tongue.
He’s been through radiation and chemo; he’s lost 30 pounds and is moving more slowly, but it hasn’t kept him from pursuing his goal. “I’m just working and trying to get better,” he says.
As a military veteran, the VA is covering his medical costs, but living expenses are another matter, especially if he’s left unable to work for a time.
Monday’s Industry Rally will showcase the bar he’s toiled to make real. It’s kind of two venues in one – an informal lounge as you enter, with a jukebox, sexy wall art and a bar with a heavy-duty zinc top and see-through panels underneath. In the rear is a cavernous, corrugated-metal-walled game room that will eventually feature pinball and pool tables. “It’s gonna be a split-personality kind of bar,” he says.
He’d originally wanted something much more intimate. “Then I saw this Quonset-hut backroom, and the office upstairs that’s like something out of some British gangster movie,” and he was sold.
A metal-gated courtyard alley winds toward the front door; hence the name. The “industry” part refers to the neighborhood’s history as an industrial area.
Nothing fancy here – no syrups, no tinctures, no shrubs. Except for Miller Lite ponies, all beers will come in a can. The cocktails will be classically simple. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t walk into a regular bar and be able to get a decent Manhattan or Old Fashioned,” Papaceno says. “It doesn’t have to be The Mansion but I don’t want to be a McDonald’s either. Something in the middle.”
So yeah, there won’t be any elaborate garnishes or a kitchen full of produce, but if he has his way, you’ll know you can walk in and get a quality drink in a comfortable atmosphere. It’s the kind of place he hopes people will go before or after the place they’re headed to that evening. Kind of like the Windmill – though he’s not looking to reinvent the place.
Industry Alley, he says, “is not a destination bar. It’s a hangout bar. Hopefully I can design a place that people can hang out in and feel comfortable.”
For Papaceno, that should be no struggle whatsoever.
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