Could Dale DeGroff have imagined that, some 25 years after he began squeezing fresh citrus and making simple syrups in the service of better cocktails, he’d be among the elder statesmen of a 20,000-strong spirits festival? Yet there he was – King Cocktail! – with his signature wry smile, at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone, flaming orange peels and cranking out drinks like a champ at Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits festival that last weekend concluded its 15th run.
A bartenders’ walking tour: That’s how all this started. Back then a lot of people still thought of bartending as a temporary gig you did on the way to something else – but the spirits industry is now a $25 billion-dollar beast, and Tales is likewise a juggernaut, with people traveling to New Orleans from 40 countries for five days of booze-related workshops, career advice, happy hours, tastings, competitions, parties, bonding and networking. What was once a manageable, almost intimate gathering of industry professionals riding a wave of love for the craft and quality ingredients has, in some eyes, become too big for its own good, an overcrowded, over-the-top party of sold-out seminars, ever-accumulating wristbands and fewer one-on-one opportunities.
“Tales has become, to me, more about learning one-on-on through networking than in seminars,” said Brittany Koole, a bar manager and consultant in Houston.
It didn’t help that the stretch of Bourbon Street normally frequented by Tales-goers was a war zone of giant potholes, wire fencing and bulldozers. “I didn’t feel the same connection with the area,” said Justin Kallhoff of Dallas event space DEC on Dragon, who spent more time off the strip and less time dealing with the big parties.
Just the same, Tales carried on, the thus-far clear leader in the spirit-festival world. As usual, attendees this year included a good number of Texans – bartenders, bartenders-turned-spirits-reps, bar owners, bar suppliers, bar goers and those who chronicle it all.
So there were Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who staffed a table at Saturday’s mezcal tasting room at the Monteleone. And Campari America rep Chase Streitz and Megan McClinton of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, were among those who joined Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller for Wild Turkey, for dinner and whiskey at Cochon. “I was lucky enough to get to pour Jimmy a glass, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Streitz, formerly of Bulldog Gin, The Standard Pour and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.
Cazadores Tequila partnered with the Bartender Boxing Organization to sponsor a battle between Houston and Los Angeles bartenders that culminated at Tales. And in a bowling event pitting bartenders from 14 cities against each other in the lanes, Team Texas took second only to Miami.
Major spirits companies, small-batch distillers and beverage-related producers also come to Tales to build or bolster brand recognition. But possibly the fastest growing group of attendees might be people who just like consuming and learning about spirits and the various things made with them – people like Jean Verhaar of Houston. “We are what you call cocktail enthusiasts,” she said, at the festival with pal Pam Stevens of New Orleans.
On Thursday, Steve and Beverly Davis of Mobile, Alabama, roamed a tasting room dedicated to pisco, the clear brandy native to Peru and Chile. “A little waitress at Galatoire’s told us about (Tales) some years ago,” Beverly said. The two have been coming ever since with friends John and Sue Lawyer.
“It’s just fun,” Sue Lawyer said. “There’s no purpose to it but to learn and have a good time.” She ducked over to one drink station where DeGroff, now widely considered the godfather of the modern cocktail renaissance, was busy making Algeria cocktails for the masses.
It was at New York’s Rainbow Room that DeGroff built a following by reviving classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails in the 1980s, a gig he landed a few years after being hired by restaurateur Joe Baum, the man behind the Four Seasons and other fine dining establishments; the Alegria – pisco, Cointreau and apricot brandy – was among the cocktails featured at Baum’s La Fonda del Sol in the 1960s, at a time when anything not a Manhattan or Martini was rare. Now DeGroff had revived it as the Algeria, with his own twist, for the pisco event. “Because (Baum) was my mentor,” he said.
Brands found clever ways to promote themselves, crafting whimsical and interactive tasting rooms, throwing happy hours, offering special product unveilings or cocktail-paired dinners – or, in the case of Amaro Montenegro, the excellent Italian bitter liqueur, having its master botanist demonstrate its 132-year-old production process using herbs and spices, an alembic, a boiler and a macerating device.
Jagermeister, the ubiquitous digestif now angling for a piece of the craft-cocktail craze, recruited Gaz Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, for a happy hour at Fritzel’s, the Bourbon Street jazz pub where LSU students made Jager popular in the late 1980s. And then threw a huge party afterward. And there was Diageo, the giant spirits company behind brands like Tanqueray and Don Julio, scoring Snoop Dogg for its own beats-heavy Friday night bash.
Workshops this year included explorations of ingredients like grains and bitter gentian in spirits and liqueurs; the use of technology such as centrifuges behind the bar; and the rising popularity of umami flavor and low-proof drinks.
Cocktails were plentiful, served mostly in small plastic Tales cups, and it was wise to heed the oft-quoted Tales adage “you don’t have to finish that” while collecting grab-and-go bottled water along the way. That said, I did find the bottom of a few superior creations –my favorites being Laura Bellucci’s House of the Rind, a dessert-like mix of Earl-Grey-infused honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and citrus-chamomile bitters served at Sunday’s “Legs and Eggs” burlesque brunch at SoBou; and from Aaron Polsky of Los Angeles’ Harvard and Stone, the Precious Punch served at Thursday’s pisco tasting room, featuring pisco acholado, apricot liqueur and amaro.
Camaraderie is what keeps people coming back to Tales, and festival vets saw old friends while newbies made new ones. Second-timer Ashley Williams, a Bols Genever ambassador who tends bar at Filament in Dallas, was looking forward to being in New Orleans and meeting fellow ambassadors. What had she learned from her first go-round?
“Pace yourself,” she said. “You don’t have to do everything. There’s so much going on. Take some time to just go sit in a park.”
Being in the French Quarter, amid the stilt-walkers and human statues and little kids drumming on plastic buckets, it was also worth revisiting gems like the rotating Carousel Bar, grabbing a frozen Irish Coffee at classic haunt Erin Rose or nestling in at the French 75 Bar at historic restaurant Arnaud’s, which recently won the James Beard award for bar program of the year.
Around the festival’s midway point came the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s beloved annual Thursday midnight toast, on which Texas naturally has put its stamp over the years with waving Lone Star flags and choruses of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” This year’s spectacle was a bit more subdued, given that the whole shebang had to be relocated from construction-torn Bourbon Street to the second-floor confines of Bourbon Cowboy Too. Nevertheless, Texas endured – and somehow so did Tales, which will power on to see another year.
In the movies, Elm Street might be the stuff of nightmares, but in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood, it’s become a cocktail drinker’s reverie. With a growing list of newcomers now riding alongside the unflappable Black Swan Saloon, this hopping stone’s-throw stretch between Good-Latimer and Malcolm X is a destination fit to spend a Saturday afternoon and evening while catching a show nearby.
Here are five drinks, at five different spots, that you could potentially have – or share! – while you’re at it.
PINA COLADA NO. 2 – at Armoury DE
Start at Armoury, because the place opens at 4. Share a duck-heart appetizer with your pal and pair it with the Pina Colada No. 2. This tangy tiki tipple comes from barman Cody Yarbrough, who was browsing through 1895, the excellent olive oil/vinegar shop newly opened a couple blocks away on Main, when he discovered the store’s coconut balsamic. “I tried it and I was, like, we have to do something with this,” Yarbrough said. The PC#2 is the result, a mouthparty of Brazilian cachaca, lime, orgeat and soda, plus that delicious coconut balsamic, garnished with a flamed pineapple.
THE DELIGHT – at Hide
Head to Hide, the cocktail lab near Malcolm X where the bar peeps get all NASA on your cocktails, producing drinks that are more delicious than gimmicky. Spirits are “milk washed” and relieved of their harshness; citrus juices are clarified for a pure veneer; soda and tonic water are eschewed in favor of a lighter-handed carbonating device. And because it’s still early, you’ll want the aperitif-style Delight, a low-proof bittersweet ballet of Aperol and Cynar tamed with grapefruit and elderflower. The cocktail is whirled in a Perlini device for a delicate carbonation; the fizz curls up on the roof of your mouth like a cat settling onto a sunny windowsill.
SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ – at Brick and Bones
By now you’re getting ravenous, and the duck hearts at Armoury barely sated your appetite. You want to some more grub before showtime, so look no further than across the street to Brick and Bones, which serves up some pretty fantastic fried chicken. The drinks at this joint all recall old cartoon characters, some more obscure than others. Try the Slowpoke Rodriguez, named for Speedy Gonzales’ acceleration-challenged cousin – a flavor fest of hibiscus-infused tequila with a sweet-tart mix of amaretto and blood orange liqueur and a splash of jalapeno syrup for spice. “It’s like a Margarita without the acid,” says bartender Dre Cantu.
SMOKEY BANDIT – at High and Tight
The show is over, and you and your concert ears are ready to start winding down. Head over to High and Tight, whose back entrance you’ll find in the parking lot adjoining Armoury – and have Austin Gurley’s hardy Smokey Bandit, in which cinnamon-spiced bourbon meets hickory-smoked Cynar 70, doubles down on the smoke with a bit of mezcal and goes deep with a power-boost of chocolate bitters and anise-y Pernod. The drink is garnished with a twinkle of star anise. “The idea was to be boozy and complex, but approachable,” Gurley says. Mr. Bandit, you may approach the bench.
PINEAPPLE RUM OLD FASHIONED – at Black Swan
Finally, it’s time for, you guessed it…. your nightcap on Elm Street. Pay a visit to Deep Ellum’s craft-cocktail old-timer, the Black Swan Saloon, just a door to the west. Inside this discreet dive-bar-style hideout, proprietor Gabe Sanchez’s Pineapple Rum Old Fashioned is a tropical tri-rum-virate, with Plantation’s aged pineapple rum the star of the show. While the idea of pineapple rum might sound contrived, it’s actually got centuries-old roots, as cocktail historian David Wondrich told the New York Times: “It was a thing distillers used to do. It was done in the island. They’d soak pineapple in the barrel; it gave the rum a sweetness and richness. It was not wildly popular, but you’d see it.” Now you can, too, with Sanchez’s elegant drink a fitting sign-off before your ride home.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with the year of the very first Margarita Meltdown wins a free pair!
When it comes to benefit events involving cocktails, there’s always room for one more. This weekend, Dallas’ Industry Alley is pulling off what perhaps no other local cocktail bar has done by throwing two benefit events on consecutive nights.
On Sunday, a team of bartenders from Uptown’s Standard Pour will be slinging drinks at the Cedars District bar, all for a good cause: All of the night’s tips will benefit Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.
“The Standard Pour Takeover” runs from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday at Industry Alley, just one night after the bar hosts a pair of pop-up dinners from two teams of Dallas chefs, also to benefit Scottish Rite.
Standard Pour bartenders Austin Millspaugh, Christian Rodriguez and Jorge Herrera started the takeover events as a way of both promoting their bar and giving back, and they hope to make it a monthly thing. Last month’s inaugural benefit takeover, at Deep Ellum’s High and Tight and sponsored by Avion tequila and St. Germain elderflower liqueur, benefited the Dallas office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“It’s, like, paying it forward,” Millspaugh said. “And people get to experience different venues.”
Sunday’s event will be sponsored by Remy Cointreau, so look for cocktails featuring Mount Gay Rum, Botanist Gin and, of course, Cointreau.
The demands of the local craft-cocktail scene are too much for one country to handle, and the luckier we all are for that: 2016 was the year that Mexico, Spain and Italy came to the rescue. You could almost sense the year’s cocktail vibes being garnished with a neat little Luxardo cherry as north Oak Cliff’s Jettison opened in October, capping a year in which mezcal tilted even more mainstream, bitter liqueurs took center stage and sherry quietly earned a place at the table.
All three claimed territory on cocktail menus as bartenders became not only more versatile with each but confident that their patrons would drink them, too. Sherry popped up in drinks from heavyweights Knox-Henderson’s Victor Tangos, Abacus and Atwater Alley to newcomers like Oak Lawn’s Sprezza, Uptown’s Next Door and Flora Street Café, in the Arts District. Nowhere, though, was the Spanish fortified wine wielded more freely than in the dark confines of Jettison, where George Kaiho’s cocktail list spotlights sherry and mezcal – and occasionally coffee, as in his wonderful Good Morning Jerez. Spirits writer Warren Bobrow, who blogs at The Cocktail Whisperer, predicts sherry cocktails will be a national trend in 2017 – so way to go, DFW. You’re ahead of the game.
That wasn’t all 2016 had in store: Cachaca, the national spirit of Brazil, had a starring role in at least half a dozen spring menu highlights around town; banana, typically maligned and eschewed as a flavor in cocktails, enjoyed a solid summer run (as in the Magilla Gorilla at Deep Ellum’s Brick and Bones, made with banana-infused rye); and cognac, typically relegated to Sidecar status, tried on some new outfits – as in Andrew Stofko’s tasty Cobra Kai at Victor Tangos, which put cognac front and center backed by sherry(!), dry vermouth, fuji apple syrup and bitter amaro.
Some of the year’s strongest overall drink lineups lay in typical strongholds like Midnight Rambler, Parliament and The People’s Last Stand, but the bar team at Knox-Henderson’s Abacus quietly made noise while The Cedars Social, the landmark lounge just south of downtown, showed solid signs of returning to top-tier status.
Among the year’s highlights: At Henry’s Majestic, Alex Fletcher’s Salt Lake Suburb – rye, apple shrub and soda – was a feat of simplicity; at Italian restaurant Sprezza, Daniel Zapata’s Aperrat Sour mined Aperol’s citrus-floral radiance. At Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, former lead barman Michael Reith smashed a home run with his strawberries-and-bourbon Louisville Slugger; and at Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., Chad Yarbrough’s Bow Street Bouncer elegantly echoed a classic Boulevardier with Irish whiskey, Lillet Blanc, aperitif wine and bitter Suze.
My tastes are my own, of course. I love the juniper of gin and the smoke of mezcal, the warm comfort of whiskey and the bittersweet beauty of Italian amaros; I’m drawn to flavor combinations that lure me down rabbit holes I haven’t been before and favor any drink offering a mouthful of an experience, where every ingredient, down to the garnish, is discernible or enhancing in some way.
Here were my favorite 15 craft cocktails of 2015.
15. TEN MINUTES TILL MIDNIGHT (Mike Sturdivant, The Cedars Social)
This is dessert in a glass for people who love Old Fashioneds. As a craft bartender, one is practically required to go through a Cynar phase, and as Sturdivant, Cedars Social’s bar manager, went through his, he knew how well the Italian bitter played with coffee. Challenged by a European guest’s veteran palate, Sturdivant devised this drink late one evening; you can guess the time. He mixed bitter Cynar with vanilla syrup, Suze and bourbon-y Sheep’s Dip Scotch, garnishing it with a rolled lemon peel filled with burnt coffee beans that sit right up in your nose as you sip. The result evokes chocolate cake with a slight bitter finish and almost clings to your tongue, the beans guiding your senses. “The chocolate versus bitter versus strong Old-Fashioned-style drink kind of goes in and out as you smell the coffee,” Sturdivant says. “I like drinks that change flavors as they sit.”
14. PUSH IT (Seth Brammer, Filament)
Gin, Cocchi Rosa, lemon, pink peppercorn, sea salt
As I wrote in March, Cocchi Rosa, the lush and rosy vermouth variation from the fine folks at Cocchi, is one of the best things you’ll ever put in your mouth. Flowery and fruity with the slightest hint of bitter, it’s a sensational sipper on its own, but beverage manager Brammer’s creation subtly backed it with gin’s botanical notes and a splash of lemon to round it out. Served in a Collins glass with floating peppercorns and a rim of fine sea salt, it was playful and beautiful to look at – but those little pink globules were more than decorative, adding a floral pop of their own. If Tom Collins and sangria had a little garden rendezvous, this would be the result.
The constantly evolving menu at Abacus featured a number of hits from Gantenbein, from Smoke On The Water, his shishito-infused tequila gem, to the whimsical Apple Of My Eye (featuring gelatinized apple pucker) and beautifully seasonal Rosemary Wreath. The Scarlet Gael emerged as my favorite, a drink he initially made for a Scotch-paired dinner and then put on the menu. Smoky and light with a soft citrus finish, it’s a marriage of Ardbeg’s peatiness and the soft sweetness of honey, hibiscus and vanilla, a trio of tiny rosebuds atop the froth.
12. RIO JULEP (Spencer Shelton, Bolsa)
Aged cachaca, Cynar, grapefruit bitters, salt dash
A sudden influx of Avua cachaca graced Dallas early in the year, and no one embraced the Brazilian sugar-cane spirit more enthusiastically than Bolsa’s Shelton. Inspired by local bartender Daniel Guillen’s Cynar Julep and notions of Southern monkey bread, he crafted a Boulevardier riff subbing Amburana, Avua’s aged cachaca, for bourbon; Cynar for Campari; and grapefruit bitters and mint for sweet vermouth, to accent the herbaceousness. His creation earned him a nod in Saveur magazine. As I noted in April, Shelton wanted to show how bready, nutty Amburana could shine despite its seemingly delicate character. “The first time I tasted this, I thought it would get lost in a cocktail,” he says. “But no – it has this really interesting way of sitting on top and being predominant.”
11. MAYAHUEL’S AWAKENING (Austin Gurley, High and Tight)
Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon
Fans of Mexican café de olla know the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip. This was not that drink – but as I wrote in May, it could have been its boozy cousin. “It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” says Gurley, who blended concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee with fruity reposado tequila, smoky mezcal and rich brown-sugar simple syrup, completing the salute to its stovetop Mexican relative with a dash of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters, with its notes of cinnamon and vanilla. Served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar, it was a perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name (say it “ma-ya-WELL)” recalls the Aztec goddess of fertility and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born.
As cachaca danced its way through Dallas last spring, it was Avua’s aged Amburana that shone brightest with its full-bodied cinnamon grape-y-ness. Williams, now at Filament, mixed the nutty, bready spirit with savory tamarind concentrate, bittersweet Meletti amaro, egg white, lemon and Angostura bitters for a wonderfully balanced variation on a Pisco Sour. The cachaca refused to be buried, dominating the finish with a hint of bitter Meletti. Lavishly presented with a radiant and aromatic flower resting atop the foam amid swirls of Angostura, it was one I could have enjoyed all night.
9. NOTATORONTO (Jesse Powell, Parliament)
Rye, banana liqueur, Fernet Vallet
Powell, a crowd favorite at busy Parliament, is used to pouring shots of whiskey or bitter Fernet for visiting bartenders, but as he briefly obsessed over Giffard’s lovely Banane du Bresil liqueur, he decided to try something different. “I thought – what do I like to drink, cocktail-wise, with Fernet?” he says, and the answer was a Toronto, a mix of Canadian whiskey, Fernet, simple syrup and bitters. Eventually he came up with this blend of Tennessee’s Dickel rye, Banane du Bresil and Mexican Fernet. Perfectly calibrated to meld whiskey power with banana sweet, it’s like a Toronto – but not.
8. COGNAC BIJOU (Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour)
Cognac, sweet vermouth, Green Chartreuse, root beer bitters, black truffle salt
Millspaugh is a cocktail explorer’s bartender, thoughtful and learned with something new always up his sleeve to drop on bold palates. Some of his finest 2016 creations were ultimately too adventurous to make it onto menus in original form, while others – like the one incorporating cuttlefish ink – were just too exotic for their own good. But when Millspaugh hits, it’s a thing of beauty – as in his Cure What Ails Ya, a cross between a classic Penicillin and a sangrita, on Standard Pour’s current menu. My favorite of his creations was this play on the classic Bijou, which subbed Cognac for gin and rounded it out with a well-conceived touch of earthy sarsaparilla flavor.
7. MADAME HUMMINGBIRD (Lauren Festa, Flora Street Café)
Vodka, Hum, honey-piquillo syrup
Way back when Rocco Milano helmed the bar at Private/Social, may it rest in peace, he introduced me to Hum, a remarkably profuse hibiscus cordial offering notes of cardamom, clove, ginger and kaffir lime. A love affair was born; I couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and though the fling finally ran its course, it’s always good to see an old flame. That’s how the crafty Festa, at Stephen Pyles’ new downtown restaurant, lured me in; her flower-garnished cocktail lets sturdy Absolut Elyx act as handler, reining in Hum’s exuberance, but the real dash of brilliance is the chili syrup, which adds a welcome jolt of heat. “Hum and heat go well together,” Festa says. “It brings out the spices.” Or as my buddy Tim said after trying it: “You don’t even remember what it is that you’re experiencing. All you know is that there’s a perfect storm.”
What do you do when your chef hauls in 80 pounds’ worth of foraged persimmons? Well, if you’re Alex Fletcher, you think on it a bit, make a shrub and craft my favorite Sidecar variation ever. Fletcher’s Southpaw Streetcar lets you roll along in tangy persimmon sweetness when suddenly, BAM! A burst of clove hits your tongue to bathe you in winter-fire goodness. Sugar-plum visions dance in your head; in the distance, you hear the jingling of sleigh bells and the sound of muffled hoofbeats in snow – and wait, is that Nana calling? Are the tamales steamed and ready? Oh wait – that’s just Fletcher, asking if everything’s OK and why your eyes have been closed for the last 10 minutes.
Cleva was on fire in 2016; his Montenegro-fronted Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and Japanese-Scotch-based Drunken Angel could easily have made this list. His Agave Temptress was my favorite of all; as winter headed into spring, he’d already been making wintery cognac and spring-evocative mezcal cocktails each featuring cinnamon and lemon, and he figured, why not combine the two spirits? As he quickly found out, it’s because they don’t easily play well together, but as he toyed with adding other ingredients he gradually hit upon a perfect mix, adding muddled strawberry for sweetness and a bit of bitter Campari to dry it out. The result? Tamed smoke and bitter, anchored by caramel-apple cognac; a sprig of slapped thyme atop the drink added a defining touch of spring fragrance.
4. GRAPES THREE WAYS (Annika Loureiro, The Cedars Social)
Pisco, genever, grilled-grape syrup, lemon, port
Put a crafty bartender and a talented pastry chef together and you’ve got magic. (See Rocco Milano and Matt Medling, Private/Social, c. 2011.) Last summer, pastry chef Loureiro, in whose dream world the dessert and cocktail stations would exist side by side, had already paired grape-y Pisco Porton with malty Bols genever when, inspired by bar manager Mike Sturdivant, she amped up the grape with a patio-ready spritzer in mind. First she reflected the distilled grape by grilling fresh Concords and making a syrup – then, after adding some lemon to accentuate the sweetness topped it off with raisin-y tawny port. “We wanted those tannins in there, so you really got the full flavor of grape,” she says. The drink is a wave of tangy, smoky grape, a hefty sangria with the hue of strawberry tea; if grapes you like, this is your drink.
Chad Solomon’s seasonal drink menus are thoughtfully thematic and often exotic, and he was on fire this year; his Coconut Cooler, a gin-and-sherry blend sweetened with Southeast Asian pandan, was a spring highlight and offered a small preview of what was to come – a powerhouse summer menu of “gritty tiki” drinks reflecting Asian, African and South American influences. The Filipino-Indonesian-accented Tiger Style was my favorite, a seemingly light mix of Batavia Arrack (an Asian-style rum), passionfruit-y calamansi, palm sugar and Indonesian pippali that nonetheless packed a punch. A spritz of Indonesian cassia aromatics atop a dehydrated lime pulled you into the drink’s creamy orange-spice lushness, countered by the peppery pippali tincture’s gradual trail of heat. “The more you drink it, the more your lips tingle,” Solomon said, quite accurately. “It takes you into the exotic, and intentionally so.”
2. SEPPUKU REALE (Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos)
Amaro Montenegro, Gran Classico, furikake syrup, lemon, nori, furikake
Amaro Montenegro may be my favorite of the Italian bitter liqueurs; it leans toward sweet and herbal with the bitter only evident in tow. Stofko won a local Montenegro contest with this bold cocktail, crafting an unexpected taste detour to create one of the more interesting drinks I’ve ever enjoyed. Aiming to subdue Montenegro’s sweetness with an umami-ness he knew he’d like, Stofko crafted a syrup from furikake, a Japanese spice mix of sesame seed, seaweed (nori), sea salt and bonito flakes; upped the bitter component with Gran Classico; then added some lemon to round it out. The citrus, however, made the drink unpleasantly dark, so Stofko went all-in and added a bit of squid ink to turn it Guinness-black. The garnish was his piece-de-resistance – a sprinkling of roasted sesame seeds on a skiff of seaweed, floating atop the sea of dark; bring it to your nose and the aroma portended savory Japanese. “It just wakes up your palate,” Stofko says. Instead, you got something completely different: A bewitching bittersweet taste tempered with savory nuttiness. “That’s umami in a glass,” Stofko says. “I’m just glad (former GM) Matt (Ragan) let me put it on the menu.”
1. ROME IS BURNING (Robbie Call, Vicini)
China-China, mezcal, Meletti, Herbsaint
Ah, Vicini. We were just getting to know you. The Frisco-based Italian restaurant’s all-too-brief run may have been a flash in the risotto pan, but it was long enough for Call to have some fun behind the stick. One slow Sunday, the lanky Tate’s veteran, who now heads the bar at Oak Lawn’s Madrina, answered the call for something bitter and smoky. This was the luscious result – a rush of French and Italian bitter liqueurs anchored by mezcal and a rounding touch of Herbsaint, bitter orange and chocolate-caramel grounded in depths of smoke and anise. Simply garnished with an orange peel, it was everything I wanted in a glass, a mirepoix of worldly influences. “I’m a big fan of letting amaro drive the car and having the mezcal creep in,” Call says. So am I, Robbie. So am I.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
THEY CAME, they saw, they cocktailed – and by Sunday evening, Tales of the Cocktail 2015 had been conquered. Thousands of bartenders, bar owners, distillers, product reps and cocktail enthusiasts — a good portion of them from Texas — swarmed New Orleans’ French Quarter last week for the spirits industry’s biggest gathering, taking in five days’ worth of workshops, networking, tasting receptions, parties and spirit-paired dinners.
From brand-sponsored cocktail breakfasts to rum seminars to after-party confabs at favorites like Erin Rose (home of the Frozen Irish Coffee), there’s a lot to take in. But most of all, the festival is about camaraderie – a time for those who practice and support the cocktail craft to revel in each other’s knowledge, company and support. Bar staffs get better at their craft – by watching each other work, learning about new products and techniques, discovering the history behind what they do — and as a result, we, the consumers, get a better bar experience. It’s a win-win.
One big happy family. Except for one thing: While festival rivalries are never bitter, Texas members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild got word that heading into this year’s ritual midnight toast, another USBG chapter had Texas in its sights.
AMONG THE MANY traditions of Tales – which last year drew 18,000 people – is the USBG’s annual midnight toast, held on Thursday night of the festival outside the landmark Old Absinthe House, at Bienville and Bourbon streets.
The toast is a quick but raucous affair, a celebration of unity, but of course, Texas can’t help but go big. And having been late to the cocktail game behind places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago – a deficit Lone Star State cities have since made long strides toward closing – maybe there was a little something to prove as the 2014 toast approached.
Either way, forces aligned: With a Texas-staffed event simultaneously happening at a two-story venue across the street, “there were, like, Texas fight songs and Texas flags waving from up on the railing,” remembers Dallas’ Chase Streitz, Bulldog gin’s Texas ambassador. “It was like Texas Mardi Gras for 15 minutes.”
“Texas is kind of the underdog of Tales,” said Alex Fletcher, bar manager at Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “So it was kind of, like…. You know. Texas style.”
It was all over quickly. But rumors soon began that a Texan had thrown a rival chapter flag to the ground, and naturally its owners were not amused. When Travis Tober, beverage director at Austin’s VOX Table, heard they were going to come out swinging this year, Texans decided it was time to rally.
TEXAS’ MARK ON TALES is huge, given the state’s size and proximity to New Orleans. Festival founder Ann Tuennerman says representation likely lags only behind New York and California, but this year marked the fourth in a row that a Texas-run party helped kick off the week – and as far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s still Tales’ only state-specific event.
Houston cocktail enthusiasts Michelle Mata, Teddy Bucher and Laura Villafranca were making their second, fourth and sixth Tales visits, respectively. At a dinner at famed Commander’s Palace to showcase Maker’s Mark’s new Cask Strength bourbon, the state went four-for-four, with one table seating a Houston-based rep for Beam Suntory spirits, a wine enthusiast from Austin and a pair of spirits writers from San Antonio and Dallas.
One morning in the festival’s pop-up bookstore, bartenders Christian Armando (of Uptown’s Standard Pour) and Austin Gurley (of Plano’s Whiskey Cake) browsed the festival’s ever-increasing stock of spirits-related books and cocktail enhancers, from ginger-turmeric bitters to smoke-and-salt bitters to a $75 bottle of truffle bitters.
And the weather was scorching hot – which made the lavish pool parties thrown by spirits producers such as Trinidad-based House of Angostura – all the more welcome. As an attendee from Austin posted on Facebook: “Never in my life have I felt more confident in my decision to pack 8 undershirts.”
THE RALLY PLAN was this: To meet at Thursday night’s High West whiskey-sponsored barbecue dinner at One Eyed Jacks on nearby Toulouse Street. Chris Furtado, High West’s Texas rep, had brought a backpack brimming with Texas flags, ready to distribute. From there the group would move on to Erin Rose, and finally to the Old Absinthe House. “I’m sure I’ll be hoarse by the end of the night,” Furtado said. “I’ve heard they (the other chapter members) have a chant. We’re not that organized.”
He had big hopes, though, expecting other Texas-based liquor reps and distributors and hordes of bartenders. But by 10:30 p.m., when it was time to move on to Erin Rose, there was just him and a pair of Texas supporters from Reston, Va.
Outside Erin Rose, the passing minutes brought only a trickle, and by 11:15, Furtado seemed concerned.
At last, a handful of others showed, including Austin’s Tober, USBG Austin chapter president Jessica Sanders, North Texas chapter president Brian McCullough and Julian Pagan of The Mitchell in Dallas.
The showdown was barely a half-hour away.
THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY is now a $23 billion beast. The category made up 35 percent of alcohol sales last year, a slow but steady rise from 29 percent in 2000, with new products coming out all the time.
So you can’t blame brands for going all-out to win favor. On top of dozens of Tales tasting rooms, spirit portfolio giants William Grant & Sons, Diageo and Bacardi are known for extravagant parties with multiple drink stations churning out brand-specific cocktails amid the sensory smorgasbord.
Rutte, a Holland-based line of vodka and gins, made its official U.S. launch with a presentation led by master distiller Myriam Hendrickx and packets of the many botanicals that go into its products – juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom and, interestingly, nuts, which influence its genever (gin’s European precursor). Then came another party, with more drinks handed out, and oysters done Dutch: On the half-shell, with a splash of gin.
With so much liquor flowing freely, it’s wise to heed the words of advice that preface many a festival: You don’t have to finish that. In other words, unless a cocktail is truly special, a taste is enough. Then set it aside. There will always be another one.
That said, among the drinks I actually got the chance to try, these were my top four. I might have even have had one or two of them twice.
SWEET AND DANDY (by Kellie Thorn, Empire State South, Atlanta)
This sublimely bittersweet gem from Alameda, Calif.-based St. George Spirits – of which I am a loyal fan – featured its California Citrus vodka, Suze bitter liqueur, vanilla liqueur, lemon, green tea syrup and orange peel. I arrived late to the St. George tasting, so I only got to try it because publicist Ellie Winters was nice enough to share hers with me. And thank the heavens for that.
SOLERA PINA (Lynette Marrero, Zacapa Rum)
OK, it was crazy hot at Diageo’s annual House Party, held at the city’s Contemporary Arts Warehouse, and between that and the killer 80s-cover band onstage, it somehow seemed OK to fall for a snow-cone cocktail. Featuring Zacapa rum along with amantillado sherry, macadamia nut syrup and pineapple, its icy crunch was gloriously enhanced with a sprinkling of Marrero’s vanilla-infused salt.
TIERRA D’ORO (Jim Kearns, Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, Greenwich Village, New York); and
MACHO PUNCH (Tony Abou-Ganim, The Modern Mixologist)
At Thursday’s packed Peruvian pisco tasting room, at least a half-dozen versions of the classic Pisco Punch were on display, and these two were absolutely standout: Kearns’ Tierra D’Oro spiced up Pisco Porton with lime, aji Amarillo (a Peruvian chili) syrup, passion fruit syrup, guava puree and classic pineapple, gorgeously presented with an edible flower garnish.
Meanwhile, the gregarious Abou-Ganim mixed Macchu Pisco with floral Yellow Chartreuse, pineapple gomme syrup, lime and lemon and a garnish of pineapple and pineapple-ginger foam to sweet, refreshing effect.
THINGS WERE LOOKING shaky as the Texans headed into battle a couple of blocks away. But as the group neared the intersection of Bourbon and Bienville, a critical mass began to form, constellations of others joining in along the way as they closed in.
“Let’s do this, Texas!” Tober yelled.
The avenue was a gumbo of Bourbon Streeters and festival-goers, but little Lone Star flags were already waving en masse as beads rained off the balconies. A bigger flag drew a lineup of Texans for selfies and, as midnight drew near, the throng broke into a loud, proud group-sing of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
The big showdown – well, it never materialized. If the rumors had ever been true, the evidence was nowhere to be seen or heard. “I don’t know what happened,” Furtado said. “We owned it.”
And then it was over once again, and the festival rolled on. San Francisco’s ABV bar reigned victorious at Tales’ annual Bar Fight (which went international this year) and won Best New American Bar at Saturday’s annual Spirited Awards, Denver’s Williams & Graham was named Best American Cocktail Bar and New York’s Ivy Mix was named best bartender.
Sunday’s annual picnic rewarded those who went the distance, but for many, Tales was a beatdown and done before they knew it – with great memories tinged with realizations of how much they had yet to learn or regrets over missed opportunities.
“New Orleans, you were a whirlwind romance this year,” Austin’s Sanders posted on Facebook. “Can’t believe I have to leave already!”
And from Whiskey Cake’s Gurley: “Well, that was an experience. Tales of the Cocktail, you win this time. Back to Dallas.”
I see you, 2014. You didn’t have it easy. Not only did you have much to live up to after a year that saw DFW’s craft-cocktail scene garner national attention, but you had to do so on the heels of events that threatened to knock the wheels off the whole thing.
A year later, DFW’s mojo is back. Because beyond all the drama, a critical mass of cocktail ninjas just kept doing their thing, widespread seeds of creativity that found new places to grow and blossom, while others were enriched by the newfound talent beside them.
It was a banner year for veggies: At Victor Tango’s, former bar chief Alex Fletcher used pea-infused Old Tom gin prepared sous-vide-style for his refreshing Swee’Pea, while over at The Ranch at Las Colinas, Robin Milton’s Maverick combined roasted corn with tequila and spicy Ancho Reyes liqueur for a nice salsa-in-a-glass effect. At LARK on the Park, Matt Orth’s Hanging in the Garden served up a nom-nom liquid salad of mint, basil and cherry tomato, while Anthony Polo’s Scallywag was a scallion-laced standout at The People’s Last Stand.
Other highlights included Jason Long’s apricot-tamed Summer in Manhattan at Abacus, which appealed to both genders by giving the classic cocktail a luscious fruity smoothness. At Meddlesome Moth, bar manager Lauren Loiselle kicked another classic up a notch with her barrel-aged Negroni. And Charlie Papaceno, formerly of the Windmill Lounge, juiced up bourbon with coffee to make his energizing Kentucky Eye Opener.
I could go on. A few of these drinks are still available; some, being seasonal or dependent on a limited supply of house-made ingredients, are not; some were bartender’s creations built totally off-menu. And at least one place, regrettably, has closed (at least temporarily). But that’s the nature of the biz: Sands shift, talent moves on. As always, it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.
With that, here are my favorite 15 cocktails of 2014.
15. WHAT ABOUT BOB?, Michael Reith (Windmill Lounge, Oak Lawn)
Here’s a drink that’s easy to fall for, playing as it does on seasonal flavors. To be more exact, Reith’s radiant refresher at Oak Lawn’s Windmill Lounge pairs bourbon with the holiday’s New England influences: “I get a lot of people who come in here from Boston, or New Hampshire,” he says, “so I was thinking, what could I make them?” Maple and cranberry came to mind – “I was trying to evoke cranberry sauce, but in a good way,” he says – as did the spices of mulled cider. The result, named for the Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy set in New Hampshire, supplements Angel’s Envy bourbon with lemon, cranberry juice and maple syrup, plus nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, topped with a fragrant sprig of rosemary.
14. SMOKING GARDEN, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)
Matt Orth likes his herbs. This beauty appeared way back in January, when Orth had some house-made Thai-chili-infused St. Germain (an elderflower liqueur) on his hands. He shook that with basil, lime, slightly aged tequila, ginger liqueur and herbaceous Green Chartreuse, capping it with a smoked sprig of rosemary to wow the nose. The spicy bouquet offered pleasant heat and a sweet, sweeping floral finish, a garden-fresh treat for the senses.
13. COMMON ELDER, Lauren Festa (FT33, Design District)
Yes, I typically avoid vodka, but such is the legerdemain of Lauren Festa, who before she moved on to helm the bar program at The Mansion at Turtle Creek was making magic at FT33 in the Design District. Festa grew up watching the Food Network instead of cartoons, so maybe that explains this deceptively tame mix of Hophead vodka, elderflower syrup, ginger liqueur, ginger and lemon – a drink that started out delicately tart and sweet and then, just as it seemed about to fade, unveiled a hoppy ending all dolled up in elderflower. And with a gorgeous elderflower garnish, it was a treat to look at, too.
12. SEVENTH SAMURAI, Armando Guillen (The Standard Pour, Uptown)
Last summer, Bombay Sapphire hosted a DFW regional competition at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye, part of its annual nationwide hunt for “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender.” After the contest, won by FrontBurner’s Bonnie Wilson, the festivities moved on to The Standard Pour down the street, where Guillen whipped up this little number that could have easily held its own at the event. Featuring his house-made hibiscus-lemongrass cordial – which he’s just replenished, so you can still enjoy this one – it’s a play on the classic Last Word’s mix of gin, sweet, citrus and Chartreuse. Its floral and citrus medley of Bombay Sapphire, Yellow Chartreuse and Asian yuzu juice, along with the cranberry-sauce-scented cordial and a shake of lavender bitters made a tantalizing statement that gave Guillen the last word after all.
11. BLUE MOON, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
The bar at Spoon – which closed this week, at least temporarily – was not as well stocked as its other craft-cocktail siblings, but luckily James Slater, who took over the program around mid-year, had license to play. One day, exploring a Korean grocery store, he found a jar of pulpy blueberry preserves. “You could see the blueberry skins inside,” he says. He bought a jar and experimented; lighter spirits failed aesthetically, creating a dirty water effect. This is where it gets Reese’s-Peanut-Butter-Cup-good: Right around the time that Slater was noodling something dark to cloak the pulp, I walked into Spoon seeking something dark and bitter. Slater mixed the blueberries with lemon and the only two bitter amari he had on hand, Averna and Fernet, to amazing effect; the end result, garnished with aromatic mint, tamed Fernet’s aggressive bitterness with velvety sweetness and just the right hint of tart.
10. HOUSE OF FRIENDS, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)
You get the sense that if Matt Orth weren’t busy making your bar experience all better at LARK that he’d be perfectly at home on the farm, tending to his herbs and vegetables and berries, pruning and snipping and tilling and picking and all that. From his Hanging In The Garden (noted above) to the blackberry-infused whiskey masterpiece he conceived for a Jameson competition a few months ago, he’s handy with the fruits of the earth. No wonder, then, that this delicately complex mix of tequila blanco, cilantro-infused dry vermouth, pear liqueur and sweetly herbaceous Yellow Chartreuse unfolds across the palate like a breeze on Sunnybrook Farm. Garnished with a bit of grapefruit zest, its initial agave flavor melds into cilantro, then embraces the sweet pear before waltzing away into the flowers.
9. NOGAHOLIC, Juli Naida (Barter, Uptown)
With barman extraordinaire Rocco Milano as her sensei, Juli Naida – on her way to join Mate Hartai at Remedy, officially opening today on Lower Greenville – has come a long way since her drink-slinging days at the Mason Bar. Responsible for a good portion of Barter’s current cocktail menu, she embraced Milano’s offhand suggestion of a seasonal eggnog-themed “flight” and created a series of killer cocktails to roll out in mini form. Her Nogaholic was the least dessert-y of the bunch, and to me the most delicious, evoking the flavors of eggnog sans dairy, eggs or cream: Naida dialed down Cruzan’s potent Black Strap rum with simple syrup and a tincture made with vanilla, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The result is wintry and belly-warming, nog without the density — or the animal products. As my friend Rachel described it: “It’s a vegan’s Christmas wish come true.”
8. SMOKY DAIQUIRI, Alex Fletcher (Victor Tango’s, Knox-Henderson)
Smoked beer. It’s a thing. A pretty funky thing, if you ask me, at least judging by the whiff I got of the German-made Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a neutral grain spirit that wormed its way into the primo lineup of beers that Victor Tango’s piled up in 2014. On its own, the malty rauchbier was earthy and harsh, almost nasty like a bad vegetable; the smell called to mind a college laundry room. So of course cocktail master Alex Fletcher – who has since taken over the bar at Henry’s Majestic – had to make a cocktail with it. “That’s what you’d want in that, though,” he said of his clever Smoky Daiquiri, which incorporated the beer into a simply presented daiquiri mix of Blackwell rum, sugar, lime and a pinch of salt. “That salty, spicy funk.” In the drink, the beer’s more off-putting traits vanished; what hit the palate instead was full-bodied lime and tamarind with a sweet tang that got even better as it warmed.
7. BENGAL LILY, Kevin Trevino (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
It was the marvelous Madras curry syrup that really shone in this Indian-influenced creation from Kevin Trevino, Spoon’s former bar manager. One day Trevino – now a wine sales rep – saw the curry powder on Spoon’s kitchen shelf and decided to see what he could pull off. He combined his curry syrup with Tru Organic gin, some Fruitlab ginger liqueur and lemon; the gorgeously blonde cocktail welcomed with a zesty garam masala aroma, then smooth, lemony flavor with hints of ginger and an upper-lip-tingling curry heat. The Bengal refers to its Indian notes; Lily refers to a friend. “It’s got that beautiful Indian curry smell and a little bit of spiciness that burns on the back,” Trevino says. “Especially that ginger.” Tru dat.
6. TOP DOWN, Jordan Gantenbein (Abacus, Knox-Henderson)
Driving around with the top down – that’s what I thought summer was all about until I discovered Gantenbein’s wonderful play on the classic Sidecar. He tricked out cherry-wood-infused Cognac with seasonal Meyer lemon syrup, plus a bit of candied Meyer lemon and a Luxardo cherry garnish in a sugarcoated glass. The drink’s luscious lemon/cherry mouthfeel batted the two flavors around the tongue like a game of air hockey, with cherry emerging victorious. The result was a libation that singlehandedly redefined summer.
5. ONE MILLION IN UNMARKED BILLS, Pam Moncrief (The Usual, Fort Worth)
One evening at The Usual, I asked for my usual. Which was basically anything using a bitter liqueur. Moncrief – now at Fort Worth’s American F&B, had been working on a little something of her own off-menu, something motivated by a desire to appeal to cocktail newbies and broaden their tastes. But her blend of Ransom Old Tom gin, bitter-smooth Hungarian Zwack liqueur, Dolin Blanc vermouth and Benedictine honey liqueur can please even the heartiest cocktail fan with its well-rounded spicy depths – floral and grape giving way to a honey-bitter finish and a tang that lingers like nightclub ear. A dose of lemon oils atop gives it a nice citrus nose. “I just really enjoy herbaceousness,” Moncrief says. “Zwack and all those amaros are so herbaceous, and I feel like they don’t show up in cocktails enough.” And on that we would agree.
4. CAMARA LENTE, Damon Bird (LARK on the Park, downtown)
Take a sip of bartender Damon Bird’s barrel-aged concoction and you may find that your world has slowed to a Matrix-like sensory crawl. Maybe that’s because camara lente is sometimes interpreted as “slow motion,” or maybe it’s because this beautiful blend of mezcal, orange-y curacao, orange bitters and the bitter liqueurs Aperol and Fernet is just that good. Its mix of mellowed smoke and floral hints finish usher in a second wave of smoke and bittersweet, doused in a tobacco-leaf farewell. Bird first made it one night when he was slammed and somebody asked for “something with mezcal.” “The original version included simple syrup,” he says,” but with the barrel-aging, you don’t need it. It’s one of my few babies.”
3. ENIGMA, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
Oh Spoon, we hardly knew ye. While chef John Tesar hopes to reopen the recently shuttered place in another location soon, Dallas’ fickle relationship with seafood casts more doubts than fishing lines. Its demise would be a shame, because under the guidance of Slater and former bar manager Trevino (see Nos. 7 and 11 above), the restaurant’s bar program quietly cranked out some of the area’s more creative and well-balanced drinks in 2014. Slater’s Enigma emerged as my favorite. Noticing that a pair of Angel’s Envy bourbons were finished in port barrels, Slater was intrigued by the combo: He mixed Rittenhouse rye and port with bittersweet Aperol; the result charts a path between two classics, the Manhattan and the Boulevardier, with hints of raisin and honey. A float of orange blossom adds both a perfume-y aroma and a softly sweet, linen finish. There’s no riddle or mystery here: It’s simply delicious.
2. BLACK MONK, Creighten Brown (Barter, Uptown)
Speaking of mysteries, I pretty much went bonkers trying to figure out the enigmatic flavor in this fine cocktail. Many a sip later, I still don’t know the answer: It’s a smoky-flavored drink that’s tricky to pin down, greater than the sum of its parts: Brown took a tincture that bar manager Rocco Milano made with tonka bean, vanilla bean and lemongrass and added it to Jameson Black Barrel Reserve Irish Whiskey, bittersweet Averna, the honey-ish Benedictine and a bit of rye-and-sarsaparilla-flavored basement bitters. Every time I tried it, the image of shoe leather popped into my head, but in a most comforting way: The flavors dancing across my tongue included molasses, root beer, pecan pie, cooked honey, even smoky flan. It’s not for everyone – one taster described it as Chloraseptic – but if you enjoy a good cigar, this one is a winner.
1. DAMNED AND DETERMINED, Brad Bowden (Parliament, Uptown)
Bowden, formerly of Barter and The People’s Last Stand, was never much for Ancho Reyes, the ancho-chile-flavored liqueur that became my crush of 2014, following in the footsteps of botanical Hum and bitter Suze. But when the slightly spicy, vanilla-tinged blend became a Best New Product finalist at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, Bowden knew he had to do something. Damned and determined was he: Ancho’s bite made it a natural fit for tequila or mezcal, “but that’s what everyone else was doing,” he says (accurately). Instead, Bowden looked to his preferred spirit, rum, and what he devised is essentially a tiki drink, adding sweetly vegetal Green Chartreuse to Papa’s Pilar blonde – “Rum and Green Chartreuse go together like nobody’s business,” he says – along with egg white and a tropical pineapple-vanilla syrup. The egg white gives the ancho a soft bed to lie on; the syrup binds it all together. A last flourish of Angostura bitters atop and you’ve got yourself a magic carpet ride, frothy and floral with a sweet and spicy descent. While he also does a mezcal variation that he calls Aztec Brutality, the original rum version, held aloft on Pilar blonde’s creamy-smooth texture, is a year-topping keeper.
HONORABLE MENTIONS NOT NOTED ABOVE: 1874 (Erikah Lushaj, Bowen House); 1919 (Josh Uecker, Blind Butcher); Apples and Oranges (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier); Ascension Hook (Matt Orth, LARK); El Guapo (Brian Williams, The Establishment); High Ryse (John Campbell, Abacus); Imenta (Marcos Hernandez, Bolsa); Nicaraguan Breakfast (Carlo Duncan, Parliament); Peach Pisco Sour (Creighten Brown, Barter); Soul Clap (Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, Midnight Rambler); Velvet Smoke (Juli Naida, Barter); .
And of course, a hearty thank you to those who accompanied me on my outings, without whom I could never have sampled this many cocktails.
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