Category Archives: Spirits and liqueurs

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.

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7th Annual margarita fest offered a sweet answer to sour weather

Mellow Mushroom
Pouring Mellow Mushroom’s honey-ginger habanero margarita at Margarita Meltdown 2017.

It’s been just over a week since the 7th annual Margarita Meltdown, a sold-out, five-hour party featuring more than two dozen Margarita variations from all around the Dallas-Fort Worth area – which could be why I’m barely getting around to recapping the whole thing.

A sample scorecard: Each sample-size margarita meant crossing another box off the chart.

Armed with score sheets like big coffee-club cards, we and our fellow festival goers sloshed through the West End grounds on the drizzly last Sunday of May and lined up for sample-size margaritas from places like The Theodore, Mellow Mushroom, Renfield’s Corner and Y.O. Steakhouse (which marked its territory with a longhorn skull and fake Saguaro cactus). There were mango-papaya margaritas, cucumber margaritas, pickled beet margaritas and honey-ginger habanero margaritas. Aside from Lekka’s snow-cone-style version, they came in little cups – the kind salad dressing comes in with a to-go salad – festooned with rose petals, rimmed with chili salt, or in The Standard Pour’s case, garnished with watermelon radish and vegetable ash.

Austin Millspaugh
The Standard Pour crew knocks out pickled beet margaritas.

Attendees had a sought-after tool at their disposal: one wooden coin, to deposit into the “tip jar” of their favorite overall margarita, with prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250 awarded to the first-, second- and third-place drink makers.

My favorite of the day was the blood-orange margarita from Cassidy’s, in Fort Worth, a Texas two-step primped with Solerno blood orange liqueur and a chewy piece of candied blood orange sunbathing in the cup. The drink, followed by the sugary punch of the candied fruit, was a winner – and not just with me: It turned out to be the people’s choice as top margarita, joining previous champs Pie 314 of Lewisville, Whiskey Cake of Plano, and Dallas’ Asador, Iron Cactus, Savor Gastropub and Soleo.

The Renfield’s Corner’s team handing out berry-powered “Purple Jesus” margaritas.

Coming in second was the pineapple-jalapeno margarita from Frankie’s Downtown, while third place went to Rj Mexican Cuisine’s blueberry-basil translation. The people had spoken. The people were feeling pretty good. So even though we may never know who created the original margarita, it’s safe to say its legacy is alive and well.

Dallas Margarita Competition gives 30-plus bartenders a chance to show they’re worth their salt

The classic Margarita. Image courtesy of LetsGetTwisted.com

In Texas, no drink says summer is almost here better than a Margarita. And in Dallas, nothing puts an exclamation point on the thought like the 7th annual Dallas Margarita Competition, happening this Sunday in the city’s West End District.

Ah, the Margarita. The classic mix of tequila, orange liqueur and lime, rimmed with kosher salt, is among the most legendary and debated of cocktails, with more than a few origin stories to its credit. Rather than try to figure out which one to believe, the Dallas Margarita Competition offers you the opportunity to decide which of the 30-plus versions of the drink you’re going to try. Which will be the best? That’s for you to decide.

At the 2013 event, Armando Guillen and Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour battled the crush in Bishop Arts.

That’s right: At the Dallas Margarita Competition, which runs from 4 to 9 p.m., you are the judge. Your $40 ticket ($50 at the door) gets you samples of Margarita variations created by more than 30 DFW bartenders, along with a scoring card and a wooden chip with which to cast your ballot. (Don’t wait too late, though, or your vote won’t count at all!) The top three bartenders will win prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250, respectively.

Previous first-place winners of the previously named Margarita Meltdown have included Lewisville’s Pie 314, Plano’s Whiskey Cake, and Dallas’ Asador, Iron Cactus, Savor Gastropub and Soleo.

The event will include food and retail vendors, and a DJ. Tickets are available here, but first one to email me at typewriterninja@gmail.com with the year of the very first Margarita Meltdown wins a free pair!

 

Bourbon pride: In Louisville, bartenders embrace the spirit that calls Kentucky home

Proof on Main, Louisville
At Louisville’s artsy Proof on Main, the spice-forward False Flattery.

If you’re headed to Louisville for next weekend’s 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, you’ve probably got whiskey on your mind. But while the city and its signature brown spirit have become synonymous, Louisville’s craft-cocktail scene is having a moment, too.

No doubt, Louisville is a straight-ahead bourbon town, and visitors will find expressions here they won’t find anywhere else. Things could get even better, with the state considering legislation that would let anyone sell old unopened whiskey bottles to bars or restaurants. If it passes, some cool vintage stuff could be showing up soon on (or off) menus.

“There are probably more bottles of bourbon tucked away in attics in Kentucky than anyplace else in the world,” Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It just stands to reason, because we are the birthplace of bourbon and we have been producing the great majority of the world’s bourbon for now over 200 years.”

Kentucky whiskey
Whiskeys like Old Forester have made the Louisville area the heart of American distilling.

But the city hasn’t missed out on the craft-cocktail boom, and you’ll find plenty more than Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours. Plus, bars here stay open until 4 a.m.

“The city has evolved a lot,” says Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which stocks about 400 bourbons, some for sale by the bottle. “It’s incredibly more advanced than it was when I moved here 12 years ago.”

The rise of the region’s whiskey visibility and the city’s cocktails scene has been a symbiotic one, says Brian Elliott, master distiller at Four Roses Bourbon. When he was a kid, Louisville wasn’t widely known for much beyond the University of Louisville Cardinals and that big horse race at Churchill Downs. That began to change in the mid-1990s as foodie culture took root nationwide and the craft-cocktail renaissance bubbled in the wings. As tastes changed and chefs and bartenders answered consumer demands for authentic, quality ingredients, Kentucky whiskey offered Louisville homegrown artistry.

“At the same time that people started caring about the craftsmanship of their cocktails, bartenders were looking for quality ingredients and the story behind them,” Elliott says. The same had happened with food, and whiskey was prized as a local product. “It’s such a part of the culture here that inevitably it became kind of a centerpiece of cocktails and food.”

Brown Hotel, Louisville
At Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel, the famous Hot Brown is big enough for two.

Cocktails, marinades, glazes, dessert syrups– any way you can utilize whiskey has been tried.

“Now the scene in Louisville is remarkable,” he says. “I don’t think you can think about Louisville without thinking about the food scene, and that goes hand in hand with the cocktail scene.”

Four Roses’ Kentucky roots date back to 1888; the brand was one of a half-dozen allowed to be sold during Prohibition for medicinal purposes. “You could actually get a prescription,” Elliott says. For what? “Well….that was probably more about your relationship with your physician than anything.”

After Prohibition, Four Roses became the top-selling bourbon in the U.S., and the brand was purchased by Seagram’s, in Canada. While the company kept exporting Four Roses’ original recipe to Europe and Japan, it remade a Canadian-style blended whiskey for the U.S. That continued until 2001, when Japan’s Kirin bought the brand and reinstituted the original style.

Meta, Louisville
Meta’s Normandy Invasion: Apple brandy, bonded bourbon, simple syrup, absinthe and three types of bitters.

You’ll now find Four Roses in cocktails like the Petal Pusher at Martini Italian Bistro, in East Louisville. But it’s also among the local whiskeys on the shelves of cocktail bars like Meta, a Daniel-Craig-cool industrial-style hang (next to a downtown strip joint) with marble counters and original drinks traced to their classic influences: For example, try the Northern Lights, featuring un-aged brandy from locally distilled Copper & Kings along with bourbon-barreled gin, Yellow Chartreuse and dandelion bitters; underneath that you’ll find the classic from which the drink gets its inspiration, the Alaska.

A few blocks in one direction takes you to the regal Brown Hotel, where you can enjoy a Mint Julep in oaky opulence along with the famous Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with bacon, tomatoes, Pecorino Romano cheese and Mornay sauce developed in the 1920s to appease hangry wee-hour clubgoers. Head another direction and you’ll find the historic Seelbach Hilton hotel, which opened in 1905 and poured drinks for the likes of Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

21c Museum Hotel, Louisville
At Proof on Main, you can sip on cocktails while enjoying contemporary art.

Not far away is the fascinating Proof on Main, a whimsically artful cocktail bar and restaurant attached to the renowned 21c Museum Hotel. (You’ll know it by the strawberry-pomegranate-themed Lincoln limo parked outside, and if not that, then the gold, four-story-high statue of David.) Look through a thoughtful drink menu bursting with fruit and herb and try the outstanding False Flattery (pictured at top) – a mix of ginger liqueur, Hum botanical liqueur, lime, simple, tiki bitters and mint. Then check out the contemporary art gallery in back while you sip.

A 2014 Imbibe magazine story traced the scene’s roots to long-gone pioneers like Meat and 732 Social, but those led to local granddaddies like the Silver Dollar, a Southern cocktail honkytonk rocking a former firehouse and once named one of the nation’s best whiskey bars by GQ magazine. But there’s other gems on the menu, too, like the Juke Box Mama, a bright blend of aquavit, Aperol, vanilla syrup, lemon and sparkling wine.

Farther out, in a developing area called NuLu, or New Louisville, is Garage Bar, an informal bourbon den housed in a former auto service garage and whipping up wood-fired pizza; a few minutes’ walk away on Market is Rye, where you can partner cocktails with lamb burgers and more from an internationally inspired menu.

Lola, Louisville
The Lady Midnight, featuring a bone-marrow-washed sherry, is among the invention cocktails on Lola’s drink menu.

I found one of my favorite Louisville spots in Butchertown, a historic neighborhood east of downtown. A stone’s throw from the Copper & Kings distillery, Lola is the cozy, late-night sister to the excellent Butchertown Grocery restaurant. Lola’s dimly lit, vintage vibe is backed by a refreshingly inventive cocktail menu; down some beignets or tasty mushroom fries and sip a Golden Porsche, featuring Copper & Kings brandy and absinthe, lemon and two Italian bitter liqueurs, or a luscious Lady Midnight (Old Forrester bourbon, bone-marrow-washed sherry, honey liqueur and mole bitters).

Take the time to get to the other side of the freeway and you’ll find the quirky Louis’ The Ton, with some of the best cocktail names in town – take Life in the Shruburbs, or Not Drunk, Just Buzzed. Or head a few miles southeast of downtown to Germantown, where the speakeasy-style Mr. Lee’s Lounge has a reputation for Southern hospitality and sparse illumination; table servers are beckoned via little lights on the wall.

For fine Southern dining and great cocktails, head to Jack Fry’s, in the Highlands, or Bourbon’s Bistro, in the historic Clifton neighborhood adjacent to Butchertown. As always, it comes back to bourbon.

“Any bartender in this city worth their salt is going to be heavy on bourbon,” Haymarket’s Landan says. “Just like anyone in London is going to know their gin drinks, or someone in Mexico City can talk about agave…. That’s what’s going to set us apart from anywhere else in America.”

Louisville whiskey
A welcome gift at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel honors the region’s whiskey traditions. Plus chocolate.

Dig Houndstooth? Try Jettison — Oak Cliff’s new sherry and mezcal bar — on for size

Jettison, Oak Cliff
A good reason to start drinking early: Jettison’s Good Morning Jerez mixes sherry and spiced syrup with cold brew coffee.

Sean Henry has already made a name for himself in the coffee world. Now he’s ready to try his hand at cocktails.

Jettison, an espresso shot of a bar at the flourishing Sylvan Thirty complex in Oak Cliff, will specialize in two undersung heroes of the backbar, sherry and mezcal – while still showcasing the drink (coffee) that got Henry this far in the first place.

Currently in soft opening, the subtly chic digs adjoin Houndstooth Coffee, the fourth and most recent of Henry’s Austin-based coffeehouse locations. The space is accessible both from the café and from a second entrance from outside.

Oak Cliff, Sylvan Thirty
The cozy space adjoins the most recent of Houndstooth Coffee’s four locations.

The bar program is headed by George Kaiho, a veteran of both Tei-An and Parliament, with cocktails featuring fresh takes on both mezcal, the smoky spirit derived from Mexican agave, and sherry, the Spanish fortified wine.

Take the Red-Headed Oaxacan, Kaiho’s play on the modern classic Penicillin, which subs mezcal and tequila for base Scotch (with a crafty float of Caol Ila 12), honeys up the ginger syrup and caps it with a rim of Himalayan salt, a common sidekick to agave spirits.

Or the sublime Good Morning Jerez, an addictively peppy blend of sweet East India Solera sherry, cold brew and cinnamon syrup that’ll have you wishing you’d started ordering it earlier in the evening.

The mezcal Negroni ups the spirit and switches dry vermouth for sweet, while another twist on a classic, the BLVD, is a wake-up call of rye, espresso vermouth and two Italian bitter liqueurs, Campari and Averna.

George Kaiho
A play on the classic Boulevardier, the BLVD is one of several Jettison cocktails that incorporate coffee.

Jettison, which will mark its grand opening on Oct. 21, isn’t looking to be the premier carrier of either mezcal or sherry, just to have a solid and well-curated supply of each.

And a series of intimate Monday-night, drink-paired “pop-up suppers” kicked off last week with a mezcal-themed event, with several more to come – a French-themed wine dinner featuring chef Julien Eelsen of Whisk Crepes Cafe on Oct. 10, an Italian vermouth dinner on Oct. 17 with former Filament chef Cody Sharp; and a Spanish sherry dinner, also chef’d by Sharp, on Oct. 24.

Tickets are available here.

Jettison will no doubt draw a good part of its clientele from the Sylvan Thirty apartment complex just across the parking lot and from nearby neighbors like Teresa, an Oxford, England-born patron who complimented Henry on the vibe of the place.

Jettison, Oak Cliff
Jettison bar manager Kaiho at work.

“It’s bloody good,” she told him. ”I like the aesthetic here. You’ve got what they call ‘a keen eye.’ ”

But if those of you further flung need another bullet point to make the drive down I-30, consider Henry’s bar snack, doughnut segments – not only a playful alternative to nuts but a perfect complement to coffee that Henry may or may not continue.

“I don’t see why not,” he says.

Standard Pour bartender wins local cocktail battle, will represent DFW at national competition

Espolon Cocktail Fight 2016
Dallas’ Jorge Herrera takes on Fort Worth’s Amber Davidson in the final round of DFW’s Espolon competition.

For a lot of people, the idea of making a few drinks brings to mind mixing a little vodka with soda over ice, but for the craft bartenders who strutted their stuff before the judges earlier this week, it meant much, much more – firing up an original cocktail and then knocking out a dozen tequila classics, all within minutes. And with flair, to boot.

Espolon's annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District's DEC On Dragon.
Espolon’s annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District’s DEC On Dragon.

Jorge Herrera is on his way to New York City because he managed to make the whole thing look easy. A veteran of Plano’s Mexican Sugar who joined The Standard Pour in Uptown earlier this year, Herrera took top prize at Monday’s Espolón Cocktail Fight for the right to represent the DFW area at the tequila brand’s national finals in November.

Held at the DEC on Dragon, the event – part culinary competition, part WWF – was a raucous, “luchador-style” affair pitting Dallas drink slingers against their Fort Worth brethren.

Here, in photos, are some of the highlights.

In the first matchup, Devin “El Guapo” McCullough of The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station, took on Amber “Waves of Pain” Davidson of Fort Worth’s Bird Cafe. Contestants had two minutes to set up their stations and three minutes to prepare their original cocktails for the judges.

Espolon contest round 1
McCullough and Davidson, going mano a mano before the thunderous crowd. Both of their cocktails — McCullough’s coffee-inflected Milkman and Davidson’s black-salt-rimmed Pearls and Spice — earned them passage into the second round.

Next up was Jonathan “Manila Killa” Garcia, also of The People’s Last Stand, against Jermey “Big Jerm” Elliott of Citizen, in Uptown. Garcia appeared in a conical hat while Elliott fired up the crowd by stripping down to shorts and a tank top.

Espolon contest round 2
Elliott crafting his cocktail, A Mexican at Lumpinee, featuring curry powder and Thai basil/pineapple syrup, in the contest’s second matchup.

 

 

 

 

With competitors taking the stage with painted faces, or in skimpy or outlandish outfits, supporters embraced the costumed spirit of things and advantaged the nearby photo booth.

The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.
The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.

The third matchup pitted Cody Barboza, of Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., against Jason Pollard of The Usual, in Fort Worth. Both Barboza’s mescal-fueled El Rico and Pollard’s One Hour Break — which leaned savory with Averna and molé bitters — earned second-round status.

Cody Barboza, Armoury D.E.
Barboza’s El Rico cocktail, which paired Espolon reposado with mezcal, fruit and jalapeño with a chocolate/salt rim.

In the fourth duel, Brittany “B-Day” Day of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, faced off against Geovanni “Geo” Alafita of Knife, near Mockingbird Station. Day’s Smoke In The Morning went smoky-sweet with mezcal, maple syrup and Allspice Dram while Alafita’s preciously presented Rosario combined tequila with mildly bitter Aperol, cilantro and jalapeño.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise, from upper left: Day, of Thompson’s; Alafita’s Rosario; Alafita pouring his drink; Day’s Smoke In The Morning, after a drink or two.

In addition to taste, presentation and how well the tequila shone through, contestants were judged on showmanship. In addition to yours truly, the panel included chef Nick Walker of The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Bonnie Wilson Coetzee of FrontBurner Restaurants and Frederick Wildman brand ambassador Austin Millspaugh.

Walker, Wilson Coetzee, Millspaugh
Three of the night’s judges: Walker, of The Mansion, FrontBurner’s Coetzee and Millspaugh, of Frederick Wildman distributors.

The fifth and final first-round match was easily the most entertaining as the typically understated Jorge “Don Juan” Herrera of The Standard Pour took the platform with a lovely lady on each arm in his duel against Sean “McDoozy” McDowell of Thompson’s. But Herrera put some shine on his show by completing his deceptively simple drink with plenty of time to spare, then lighting up a cigar and preening before the crowd as McDowell continued to race against the clock.

Herrera’s Carolina cocktail was lush with cigar-infused Grand Marnier, while McDowell’s tart Trade With Mexico bundled both Espolón blanco and reposado with tea and homemade ginger beer. Both advanced to the second round.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise from upper left, McDowell’s Trade with Mexico; the two rivals take the stage; Herrera’s Big Daddy strut; Herrera’s Carolina cocktail; the competitors in action.

In the second round, the top six contestants each had to crank out 10 El Diablos — a lesser known tequila classic featuring reposado tequila, créme de cassis, lime and ginger beer — within a few minutes’ time.

Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas' Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.
Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas’ Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.

Herrera’s and Davidson’s were dubbed mas macho by the judges and both advanced to the final round, where each had to craft a Margarita using Espolón blanco, a Paloma with Espolón reposado and an Old Fashioned with Espolón añejo — again, within a few minutes.

A taste of each drink, then the judges conferred, taking into account the entire night. It was Herrera’s performance that was judged best overall, which means he’ll be competing at Espolón’s national finals in early November.

Espolon contest 2016
Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, embraces Herrera as the bartender is named winner of Espolon’s DFW contest.

 

Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, said he had no doubt that the Uptown bar’s attention to efficiency on busy weekend nights helped prepare Herrera for the competition’s fast-paced demands.

Between that and Herrera’s previous training at FrontBurner, which owns Mexican Sugar, “he’s been working toward winning this ever since he started working here,” McCullough said.

To watch a normally subdued guy transform into the very picture of confidence made him proud.

“Seeing him do that was like seeing him come out of his shell,” McCullough said.

 

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.”

Cocktail of the Week: Let the Mayahuel’s Awakening be your tasters’ choice

Austin Gurley, High and Tight
Among the perks of visiting High and Tight is this coffee-powered gem from Austin Gurley.

High and Tight, in Deep Ellum, is among the newcomers to the craft-cocktail scene, one of the stars that make up the several-star constellation that includes adjacent Armoury D.E., Black Swan Saloon and Brick and Bones across the street.

Of course, none of the other bars can boast an adjoining barber shop (hence the name of the place, which refers to a certain cut) and while High and Tight’s cocktail list is fully legit, it’s the seasonal board to the right of the bar that you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Which is where you’ll find this gem, which is a perfect way to mark Cinco de Mayo, if you’re into that sort of thing.

COCKTAIL OF THE WEEK: Mayahuel’s Awakening

SOURCE: Austin Gurley, High and Tight

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Mexican coffee

WHAT’S IN IT: Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon

WHY IT WORKS: Because if you’ve ever had Mexican café de olla, you’d be well acquainted with the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip.

This is not that drink – but it could be its long-lost boozy cousin. The traditional sipper is prepared stovetop, dissolving brown sugar and cinnamon in boiling water with ground coffee, letting the mixture steep and then straining it into your favorite vessel.

These are the roots of the Mayahuel’s Awakening. (Pronounce it “ma-ya-WELL.”)

“It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” Gurley says.

He’d been pondering an approachable tequila-forward cocktail, and when he stumbled onto a tasty brand of concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee that he thought would pair well with agave, the game was on: A quarter-ounce of the concentrate did the trick, providing strong coffee flavor without drowning out the tequila flavor.

Gurley used reposado tequila for its aged softness and fruity overtones, added a bit of smoky mezcal to offset the coffee’s bitterness and some brown-sugar simple syrup for richness. Finally, he tied it all together with the cinnamon, vanilla and orange-peel notes of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters.

The cocktail is served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar. The result? A perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name salutes the Aztec goddess of fertility – and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born. And as Henry Rollins once said, “What goes best with a cup of coffee? Another cup.”

Cocktail of the Week: The Whisperer shrouds its message in a sneaky puff of smoke

Armando Guillen, Standard Pour
The cocktail Whisperer: Guillen’s Trojan horse of mezcal

The all-around craft-cocktail chops at The Standard Pour can be lost in the timid tastes of the partying Uptown throngs that fill its McKinney Avenue environs every weekend. But delve deep into the drink menu and you’ll find a solid lineup of classics and bar originals both – including this one from Armando Guillen.

Guillen, who heads TSP”s bar program, has been a longtime stalwart of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene, a frequent competition winner and, most recently, is among CultureMap’s nominees for its bartender-of-the-year award. He designed this drink, he says, at the behest of San Diego’s renowned Polite Provisions for an event sponsored by El Silencio mezcal.

NAME: The Whisperer

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Fiery citrus

WHAT’S IN IT: El Silencio mezcal, peach liqueur, honey, lime, salt, Scrappy’s “Firewater” bitters, spiced rim.

WHY IT WORKS: The Whisperer is a smoky play on the classic Margarita, capped with a spicy supernova kick. Bartender Armando Guillen, who manages The Standard Pour’s bar program, aimed to create a Trojan horse of mezcal, another agave-based spirit that, while on the rise, many have yet to embrace. He dipped into the bartender’s crowd-pleasing arsenal of friendly flavors – “peach, strawberry and pineapple; that’s the trifecta,” he says – and chose peach because it pairs well with mezcal’s earthy, smoky qualities.

To sweeten it up, he chose honey over simple syrup for its earthier flavor and added a pinch of salt to round it out. A dash of habanero-based Firewater bitters lends a not-so-subtle scorch of heat. “You’ve got smoke, earth, spice and fruit, everything mezcal needs to have,” Guillen says. And it’s true: In Mexico, mezcal is usually sipped straight, with accompaniments of orange slice and sal de gusano – a blend of chile powder, sea salt and the ground remains of roasted moth larvae that feed on agave plants – that offer a similar combination of flavor.

Guillen serves the Whisperer in a coupe, half-coating it with an appropriately smoky-spicy mix of cayenne powder, sea salt, chili powder and smoked paprika. With a final lime-wheel garnish, the result is a visually striking bouquet of lemon yellow, lime green and rusty red. On the tongue, its spicy edge suddenly slashes through its citrus-y sweetness, planting a lasting burn on the lips that leaves you wanting more.

The name? Yes, a nod to the El Silencio brand name – but really a reflection of Guillen’s sly intentions. “It’s like,” he says, a cupped hand covering his lips as he slips into a whisper, “ `Hey – you should drink mezcal.’ ”

Ramen, curry and Japanese-style cocktails await you at Industry Alley’s pop-up izakaya

Industry Alley
A sampling of Sunday’s shochu-fueled libations. (Justin Holt photo)

You don’t have to go all to Japan to find an izakaya, a gastropub-like gathering spot for those who love to drink shochu, the country’s national spirit. At least not this Sunday, when Dallas’ Industry Alley, Charlie Papaceno’s chill hang in the Cedars neighborhood, becomes a pop-up izakaya for the night.

Go get skewered.
Go get skewered. (Steel Wright photo)

It’s all part of the bar’s “1st Sunday Soiree,” a recently launched series of evenings featuring guest chefs and their gustatory goodies. The series kicked off last month with Small Brewpub’s Misti Norris, whose creative consumables were to die for; Justin Holt, sous chef at Lucia, will bust out an array of ramen, yakitori skewers and the Japanese delight known as Battleship Curry. The fare is cash only, with prices running from $2 to $10 from 8 p.m. until the food runs out. Try to remain civilized.

This time around, bar manager Mike Steele is getting into the fun, rounding out the izakaya theme with a mix of cocktails featuring shochu, a low-proof liquor distilled from stuff like rice, barley or sweet potatoes. As I wrote in The Dallas Morning News, it’s light and earthy, like a hoppy green tea.

industry Alley
Steele at work at Industry Alley.

In Japan, shochu is the featured spirit at izakayas, which evolved from sake shops that began adding seating so people could stay a while. While they still feature sake, beer, wine and whiskey, shochu is still the foundation; at 50-proof, it’s not as strong as most spirits but still brawnier than wine. Izakaya-style bars featuring American-oriented cocktails have blossomed throughout the country.

Steele and guest bartender Trina Nishimura — the two were among the original crew at Cedars Social, the influential craft-cocktail bar just down the street — will be serving up a mix of izakaya-style cocktails evoking both Japanese-style drinks (think low-proof) and cocktails adhering more to a Western philosophy. They’ll use ingredients like yuzu and matcha green tea syrup and stick to two kinds of shochu, one made from barley and the other from white sweet potatoes specifically produced for shochu. “Once you get that third or fourth sip and that shochu gets on the palate, then these other flavor profiles start coming through,” Steele says.

POP-UP IZAKAYA AT INDUSTRY ALLEY, 1713 S. Lamar, Dallas. Food is cash only. Starting at 8 p.m. until the food runs out.