Category Archives: Fort Worth

Best cocktails 2017: DFW’s revitalized scene shows it can handle the (low) proof

Kyle Hilla, Chad Solomon, Brittany Day, Austin Gurley, Gabe Sanchez
Some of the year’s best, clockwise from upper left: Kyle Hilla’s Undercut; Chad Solomon’s Screwpine Fix; Hugo Osorio’s Big Stick Mojito; Brittany Day’s Prolific Poet; Austin Gurley’s Smokey Bandit; Gabe Sanchez’s Calvados Sidecar.

As 2017 got underway, it wasn’t insane to wonder if the local craft-cocktail scene had lost its mojo despite its expanding influence around the region. Sure, Hide had just opened in Deep Ellum, with its fancypants behind-the-scenes gadgetry elevating its ambitious alchemy, and well-etched torchbearers like The Standard Pour, Atwater Alley, Bolsa, Jettison, Black Swan, Bowen House, Thompson’s Bookstore and Industry Alley (to name a few) powered on, doing what they do.

But even as cocktail lists sprouted like bluebonnets throughout North Texas – in Frisco, in Lewisville, in Trophy Club, for god’s sakes – too many of the area’s proliferating iterations emerged uninspired or even unhinged, seemingly designed more to ride the trend than to propel it forward. Overall, creativity seemed stifled by malaise. Had things finally peaked?

Then July brought Shoals, the soulful, back-to-basics cocktail lounge in Deep Ellum, and Fair Park’s Las Almas Rotas, whose heartfelt ambience admirably sated Dallas’ growing thirst for mezcal. And as the year pulled to a close, Bourbon & Banter appeared down the rabbit hole of downtown Dallas’ Statler Hotel, sprinkling its craft savvy with photogenic dashes of Wonderland whimsy.

Scott Jenkins, Nick Backlund
Hide, Deep Ellum’s science-y cocktail lab, gave life to some of 2017’s best cocktails.

DFW did get its groove back, and then decided to make a night of it. In 2017, a wave of low-proof cocktails met the need for an evening’s worth of social nectars without the boozy kick that might send one home early. Low-alcohol cocktails dotted menus at Hide, Uptown’s Standard Pour and sherry-focused Jettison in Oak Cliff; Yayoi, in Plano, made its Wasabi Bloody Mary with Japanese shochu, while Bourbon & Banter’s excellent Undercut put Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur, in the spotlight.

Hide also blazed tasty trails with savory cocktails, employing mushrooms in its magnificent Champion, bananas in its Tally Man and chicken stock in – well, more on that later. At Bourbon & Banter, Kyle Hilla topped two of his stellar cocktails with small spoonfuls of savory goodness. Meanwhile, green chilies surfaced as a popular flavor as bartenders toyed with a pair of newly arrived ingredients, poblano-driven Ancho Reyes Verde and St. George’s multi-peppered green chile vodka;  elsewhere, Hatch green chile syrup ignited Skyler Chastain’s Santa Fe Smash at The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station.

Sprezza
Sprezza’s Julieta. Get to it, Romeo.

Ever-flourishing agave-based spirits drove some of the year’s best drinks. Smoky mezcal danced with Ancho Reyes Verde and lemon liqueur in Brittany Day’s Prolific Poet at Thompson’s Bookstore in Fort Worth; at High and Tight in Deep Ellum, it partnered with cinnamon-infused whiskey to amp up the smoke in Austin Gurley’s solid Smokey Bandit. And at East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Brad Bowden flexed aged tequila’s guns in Dirty D’s Thang, his tribute to an aging dive-bar ladies man in long-ago New Orleans.

Gin sparkled in Sprezza’s Julieta in Oak Lawn, in George Kaiho’s Sylvan at Oak Cliff’s Jettison and in Chad Solomon’s remarkable Screwpine Fix at downtown’s Midnight Rambler, where it was infused with lemongrass and paired with Bolivian pisco. And Robbie Call used Gracias A Dios’ agave-based gin and his own vanilla-spiced tonic for a smoky Spanish Gin Tonic, a short-lived gem at since-shuttered Filament in Deep Ellum.

Finally, the force was strong in 2017’s classic covers, with solid spins on drinks like the Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Bijou, Last Word and Pina Colada. At Black Swan, Gabe Sanchez’s Calvados-anchored Sidecar was a thing of beauty; Scandinavian aquavit fancied up The Keeper’s gimlet in Plano; and at the Theodore in NorthPark Center, Hugo Osorio’s falernum-spiked Bee’s Knees and Big Stick Mojito, juiced up with raspberry coulis, were as pretty as they were delicious.

My tastes are my own, of course. I love the botanicals of gin and the smoke of mezcal, the warm comfort of whiskey and the bittersweet beauty of European amari; I’m drawn to flavor combinations that lure me to unfamiliar territory and drinks that go down like great train rides, where every ingredient is visible along the way.

Here were my 15 favorite cocktails of 2017.

Jason Long, Abacus
Long’s lush La Joya showed you can still count on Abacus.
  1. LA JOYA (Jason Long, Abacus)

Tequila reposado, Green Chartreuse, sweet vermouth, Port, orange bitters

At this cozy upscale lounge welcoming patrons of the celebrated Knox-Henderson restaurant, Long’s agave-driven play on a classic Bijou (French for “jewel”) was a bouquet of caramel, grape-y sweetness. Eager to make a drink honoring a tequila-loving colleague, Long tinkered with the floral Bijou, subbing smooth, aged tequila for gin plus a touch of Port. The name is the classic’s Spanish translation and an equally perfect gift for somebody special.

Jeremy Koeninger, Parliament
When you needed to cool off in Uptown, it was time to go Due South. (Photo by SungJoon Bruce Koo)
  1. DUE SOUTH (Jeremy Koeninger, Parliament)

Rum, coconut, pineapple, orange, jalapeno, nutmeg

At Parliament, Koeninger put a Texas spin on the tropical Painkiller, itself a spin on the Pina Colada. “I wanted something a little less tiki,” he says. “And being from Texas, I like the combination of spicy and sweet.” So he added jalapeno and called it the Due South for the happy coincidence that any south-of-the-border spirit works as well as rum – except for, apparently, cachaca. (What up, Brazil?) Pisco in particular is fantastic. As you might expect, it’s a great warm-weather refresher, with its creamy pineapple, cool citrus and nutty spice, with some lingering heat on the tongue to boot.

  1. MAMBO MORADO (Jonathan Garcia, Jose)

Blueberry/lavender-infused sotol, sunflower seed orgeat, lime, Campari, Crème de Violette

The drinks at this Highland Park gem naturally lean agave, and Garcia drew upon a pisco-based concoction he’d made for a local competition and funked it up by subbing little-known sotol, distilled in Chihuahua from desert Spoon, an agave cousin. Hacienda de Chihuahua’s delicately smoky sotol gets the tiki snow cone treatment here, draped it in floral, fruity and slightly nutty tones with a splash of bitter Campari to rein in the sweetness.

James Slater, Network Bar
At members-only Network Bar, James Slater’s Malta was berry berry good.
  1. MALTA (James Slater, Network Bar)

Fernet, Amer Gingembre, turbinado syrup, blackberries

A few years ago when Slater was helming the bar at Spoon (now closed), he wowed with an off-the-cuff, darkly bittersweet creation he ultimately named Blue Moon, and he’s been riffing on it ever since. Though he’s since left his brief post as bar director for the members-only club at Trinity Groves, his latest spin on the drink was a winner: Still mining the bitter mint depths of Fernet, it subbed blackberries for blue and a ginger-forward bitter liqueur for less aggressive Averna, taming Fernet’s harshness while retaining its flavor; gorgeous Amer Gingembre does the same with ginger. Think of the Malta as a boozy berry detox juice with a dollop of licorice-like sweetness.

Hugo Osorio, The Theodore
New Orleans meets Oaxaca in Osorio’s classic spin, and now I can’t wait to have a chicken mole po’boy.
  1. MEZCAL SAZERAC (Hugo Osorio, The Theodore)

Mezcal, tawny port, Peychaud’s bitters, tiki bitters, absinthe

It was actually Sam Gillespie of The Mitchell, in downtown Dallas, who recently introduced me to the notion of a Sazerac built on smoky mezcal rather than the classic rye or cognac. His simple switch of spirit was solid and satisfying – but then, the very next day, I happened to drop by the Theodore, the NorthPark Center lair where barman Hugo Osorio has been unspooling impressive off-menu creations in his spare time. When I asked for something new, he said: “How about a mezcal Sazerac?” Osorio made the drink his own by adding the wintry cinnamon spice of tiki bitters and replacing sugar with a bit of sweet tawny port, serving up a spectacular sipper for the season.

Jesse Powell, Parliament
At Parliament, Jesse Powell’s Osage County is built on childhood memories.
  1. OSAGE COUNTY (Jesse Powell, Parliament)

Sarsaparilla/vanilla-infused rum, Mexican fernet, demerara syrup, lime, cola, absinthe

God bless Jesse Powell’s grandparents in small-town Osage County, Oklahoma, for supplying him with all the sarsaparilla sweets a little boy could eat, because otherwise we might never have had this bodacious burst of root beer candy in a glass. When Powell visited them again not so long ago, “they had the same exact candy, and I was like, I want to come back and make a cocktail like that.” The infused rum pairs with earthy fernet and cola to echo herbal vanilla root beer with a hint of licorice and a drink that makes you feel like a kid in a candy store.

Scott Jenkins, Hide
At Hide, Jenkins’ Winner Winner was chicken soup for the cocktail soul.
  1. WINNER WINNER (Scott Jenkins, Hide)

Ford’s gin, chicken broth, clarified lemon, thyme

Why did the imbiber cross the road? To get to this drink at Hide. Though the bar’s beverage director, Scott Jenkins, is a fan of savory cocktails, he knows consumers don’t always warm to the idea. But once the menu’s magnificent mushroom-driven Champion earned a following, he knew he had license to do more. One day, as he was looking for something to complement gin and thyme, a thought occurred: What about chicken stock? “I gave it a try,” he said, “and I was, like, yeah. It’s got that saltiness.” Before you pooh-pooh the idea, know that Brits drink something called a Bullshot, a Bloody Mary alter-ego mix of vodka and beef consommé. (Midnight Rambler’s Pho King Champ shot is not far off, either, with a little oloroso sherry thrown in.) In Jenkins’ yummy Winner Winner, the broth grows more robust as you drink – offering a much-needed remedy for flu season.

Brick and Bones
Its namesake might not have the fastest run in the west, but Brick and Bones’ Slowpoke Rodriguez is a rush of sweet and heat.
  1. SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ (Dre Cantu, Brick and Bones)

Hibiscus-infused tequila, blood orange liqueur, amaretto, jalapeno syrup

All the drinks at Brick and Bones are named for occasionally obscure cartoon characters, and this one pays homage to Speedy Gonzales’ acceleration-challenged cousin. While its namesake might be slow, this drink is a carefree rush of floral sweet with a dash of heat, with exuberant hibiscus the life of the party. With citrus-y blood orange liqueur and sweet amaretto, “it’s like a Margarita without the acid,” Cantu says.

Michael Sturdivant, The Cedars Social
Sturdivant draws on Angus Winchester’s No. 4 and takes it up a notch.
  1. NO. 5 (Michael Sturdivant, The Cedars Social)

Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, celery heart, lemon, honey, burnt Green Chartreuse

At The Cedars Social, the pioneering craft-cocktail joint just south of downtown, bar manager Sturdivant is always up for a challenge. For a good while, the bar menu featured a terrific drink called the No. 4, a creation of former Tanqueray Gin rep Angus Winchester. “People would order it all the time,” Sturdivant says. Then, this year, “I was trying to impress a girl at the bar who ordered one, and I told her I could do one better.” His botanical re-do, poured over flamed floral Chartreuse, is somewhere between the original and the classic Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon and honey): On the palate, it’s candied lemon tailgated by a mambo of lush botanicals, aromatic sweet celery and a pleasant, lingering burn.

Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour
At Standard Pour, Millspaugh’s Fleur de Feu is like an after-dinner treat  around the campfire.
  1. FLEUR DE FEU (Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour)

St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Ancho Reyes Verde, Angostura bitters, cream

Austin Millspaugh, you so cray. This creamy off-menu knockout at Uptown’s Standard Pour, with a name that means “flower of fire,” is a low-proof treat, a deceptively sweet drink that actually turns out to be more savory. After the first three ingredients are mixed and poured into a nifty Nick and Nora glass, Millspaugh tops it all with a thin layer of cream, then torches it for a burnt marshmallow effect and a stunning contrast between the foamy top and wine-clear body below. “You think it’s going to be sweet,” he says. “But your notions are debunked the second you sip it.” The creamy fats add texture and depth to a beautiful mix of floral and spicy flavors with smoky overtones.

Kyle Hilla, Bourbon & Banter
Hilla merged two of his favorite ingredients — Suze and turmeric — in Bourbon & Banter’s savory Rat Tail.
  1. RAT TAIL (Kyle Hilla, Bourbon & Banter)

Tequila, mezcal, Suze, lime, agave syrup, turmeric

A fan of the bitter spice turmeric, Hilla wanted to feature it in a cocktail at the speakeasy-style bar where each of his house cocktails features  a little razzle-dazzle. He muddled actual turmeric root rather than using the familiar powder, but its tannic earthiness was too overwhelming for tequila, and smoky mezcal was too strong, so he went half and half and added bitter Suze for some botanicals. As with all the bar’s hairstyle-themed drinks, Hilla put some thought into the Rat Tail’s picture-perfect presentation, serving it in a capita and capping it with a spoonful of avocado, cilantro and Basque Espelette pepper, whose mix of flavors both complement and counter. Marked by turmeric’s orange-yellow hue, it drinks like an earthy, slightly bitter Margarita.

John Ruiz, Hide
It’s high time we had more low-proof cocktails like Hide’s No Scurvy Here.
  1. NO SCURVY HERE (John Ruiz, Hide)

Suze, Italicus, orange, lemon, egg white, maple, eucalyptus tincture

Texas this year saw the coming of Italicus, a lovely bergamot-forward liqueur from Italy, and in this low-proof libation it pairs with Suze, an equally lovely French gentian liqueur. Ruiz initially set out to produce a Suze “sour” – a category of cocktail built on spirit, citrus and sweetener –and when bar manager Scott Jenkins brought Italicus to the shelf, Ruiz had his tools in place. With a few tweaks brainstormed with his colleagues, Ruiz’s result is soft bitter orange: Bittersweet bergamot and sweet maple balance Suze’s earthy bitterness with the abundant citrus – hence the name – playing off the drink’s orange notes.

Chad Yarbrough, Armoury DE
If your mouth likes pina coladas and getting caught in a rain of fizzy tang, Yarbrough’s Colada No. 2 is your escape.
  1. COLADA NO. 2 (Chad Yarbrough, Armoury)

Cachaca, lime, orgeat, soda, coconut balsamic

This tangy tiki tipple, an obvious nod to its classic predecessor, was conceived as Yarbrough was browsing 1890 Marketplace, the most excellent olive oil and vinegar shop that at the time had just opened a few blocks away on Main in Deep Ellum. Having discovered the shop’s coconut balsamic vinegar, “I tried it and I was, like, we have to do something with this,” he said. Thus was born the Colada No. 2, a sweet and nutty mouthparty tempered by a tantalizing tang. Tangs a lot, Mr. Yarbrough. Tangs a lot.

Deep Ellum
This ain’t rocket science: Hide’s Delight is perfect for your afternoon.
  1. DELIGHT (Scott Jenkins, Hide)

Aperol, Cynar, clarified grapefruit, elderflower liqueur

Nothing at Hide is simple. They just make it look that way. Mostly when you’re not looking, spirits are “milk washed” and relieved of their harshness, citrus juices are clarified for a pure veneer and soda and tonic water are eschewed in favor of a lighter-handed carbonating device. The radiant Delight – Jenkins’ low-proof, bittersweet ballet of Italian aperitifs tamed with soft grapefruit and elderflower – is perfectly crisp and flavorful, whirled in a Perlini device for a delicate fizz that curls up on the roof of your mouth like a cat settling onto a sunny windowsill.

Jeff Trevino, LARK on the Park
This time around, Johnnie gets the Last Word.
  1. JOHNNIE’S WORD (Jeff Trevino, LARK on the Park)

Johnnie Walker Triple Grain Blended Scotch, Yellow Chartreuse, apricot liqueur, lemon

For a time, LARK drifted into a bit of a tailspin, but with Trevino at the helm, the drinks, at least, have regained their footing. This was the finest of his new additions to the menu, a play on the Last Word – a classic which, full disclosure, I adore – that drinks like candied apricot in a glass. Trevino says when he first tasted the fruity, spicy notes in this American-oak-aged whiskey, part of Johnnie Walker’s Blenders’ Batch series, “I immediately thought of apricot,” he said. “We didn’t have anything on the menu that was like a Last Word, so I built it that way.” With whiskey standing in for gin, lemon for lime, Yellow Chartreuse for Green and apricot liqueur for maraschino, it’s a handsome, honey-gold humdinger with bold autumn flair.

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Fort Worth’s Whiskey Ranch is a whiskey wonderland — and a boon for Texas spirits

Whiskey Ranch sits on the grounds of the former Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. (Photo  courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

Five miles southeast of downtown Fort Worth, on a course where golf greats Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned the game, something cool is happening in the world of whiskey.

A spiffy archway off Mitchell Road marks the new portal to what was once the Glen Garden Country Club, a 112-acre property soon to be reborn as Whiskey Ranch. The handsome new development, which opens in mid-November, is the expanded operation of Fort Worth-based Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., producer of TX Whiskey and, more recently, TX Bourbon.

Whiskey Ranch, though, is much more than a distillery – and it could portend the emergence of this juicy cut ofTexas, from Fort Worth down to Hill Country and the Houston area, as a distillery-rich region along the lines of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Texas, after all, is one of the nation’s largest consumers of whiskey; why shouldn’t it be made here?

“It’s more than likely going to become a beacon of whiskey tourism,” says Nico Martini of Dallas-based Bar Draught, a cocktails-on-tap startup. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this part of the world becomes a known whiskey region.”

Fort Worth, Firestone & Robertson
The facility’s dramatic, 50-foot-high copper column still is fully visible. (Photo courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

Owners Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson conceived Whiskey Ranch not just as a place to make spirits but as a showcase to illuminate the production process, a site for charity and private events and a sampling area, all amid a still functional, par-68 golf course.

Showcase the process it does, with its radiant centerpiece a 50-foot-tall, Louisville-made column still, as well as massive fermenters that can be viewed up close and from a second-level vantage point.

Now, those who tour Firestone & Robertson’s primary distillery will find it nestled in a pastoral setting beyond a guard gate, abutted by a courtyard, retail center, tasting room and special-events space with a sweeping patio overlooking the golf course’s 18th hole.

In terms of property and capacity, the two say, it will be the largest whiskey distillery west of the Mississippi. And to their knowledge, the only distillery on a full-fledged golf course.

Says Robertson: “It’s kind of a whiskey wonderland.”

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
Co-founder Troy Robertson of Firestone & Robertson heads through the site’s “barrel breezeway” to the Ranch House’s elegant event space.

A PLAN BEGINS

The pair’s plans began to bubble five years ago after they, along with master distiller Rob Arnold, launched their palate-friendly TX Whiskey at 901 Vickery, their original, pot-still operation in Fort Worth’s Hospital District that they simply call “The 901.” Anticipating the need for more capacity to feed the spirit’s growing popularity, they also noticed a market for tours and special events. The idea of a multi-dimensional facility was born.

“We really wanted to share the process,” Firestone says, noting two factors that differentiate whiskey from, say, vodka – an aging component, and thus a need for storage space and more capital. “Whiskey making is really a mystery to a lot of people.”

A map showing the new entrance to the Whiskey Ranch grounds, off Mitchell Road in Fort Worth. (Map provided by Bread and Butter PR, for Whiskey Ranch)

Their eyes fell upon the former golf course, sprawling over the bluff in a modest residential area southeast of the city. Though fallen into neglect and shrouded by a half-century of overgrowth after closing in late 2014, it seemed perfect for their vision.

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, early opposition arose from some residents fearful of what an alcohol-driven development might bring. Ultimately, though, the city approved the plan.

Firestone & Robertson, Fort Worth
Tours will end in the facility’s Tavern Room, where guests can sample the whiskeys and admire golf memorabilia.

In shaping their vision, Robertson and Firestone took cues from model Kentucky distilleries – the campus feel of Maker’s Mark, the vintage style of Woodford Reserve. Wanting to preserve as much of Glen Gardens’ history as possible, they garnished the tasting room with golf memorabilia and evoked the stone and wood design of the original clubhouse in the grand patio outside.

They also wanted to echo the feel of The 901, whose design incorporates reclaimed materials “partly out of necessity and partly because we liked the look,” Robertson says.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
Co-founder Robertson with the TX pour in the facility’s tasting room.

TAPPING INTO THE SENSES

At the new facility, visitors will enter the “Ranch House” foyer, with wainscoting fashioned from repurposed pallets and a mosaic made from the brand’s signature boot-leather bottle tops.

That leads into a rustic retail area and further into what looks to be the classic rickhouse setting of a barrel-aging warehouse. The rows of empty barrels are actually a facsimile of what’s inside the distillery’s working barrel barn, an obsidian-tinted building a stone’s throw away that looks vaguely like a dormitory. It’s the first of five they’ve got planned on the site, ultimately creating room for 20,000 53-gallon barrels.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
A patio adjoining the tasting room and special-event space overlooks the golf course’s 18th hole. (Photo courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

Firestone and Robertson created the smaller copy, which they call the “barrel breezeway,” since fire codes prohibit large numbers of people from wandering the real thing, Partway through the barrel-lined corridor, a right turn takes you into the chandeliered Oak Room, a special-event space with concrete floors and room for 180 people. More space is available on the patio outside, where two large fireplaces complete the lodge-like setting.

Just inside, through another door, is the so-called “Tavern Room,” where the near-daily tours will end and guests can sample TX whiskeys and cocktails made with them by a staff bartender.

Early on, as 16 months of construction and landscaping began, Firestone and Robertson noticed something as the overgrowth was cleared away: There on the horizon, at the edge of a sea of treetops, was downtown Fort Worth. “We realized we were on this bluff with an incredible view of the city,” Firestone said. “At night, it’s electric.”

That distant skyline view is now the focal point of the courtyard, which stretches from the Ranch House to the Stillhouse. Inside, behind a pair of two-story doors, is the dramatic column still that will allow for continuous production at the facility. Made by Louisville’s Vendome, the copper contraption is a distillery rarity in that it’s fully visible, with a window allowing guests to peer into its bulbous base.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
The focus of the courtyard: the Fort Worth skyline view to the northwest.

A walk upstairs lets visitors rise with the copper column and look into the fermenters and see the yeasty bubbling of the mash. The entire experience is meant to tap into the senses, with production “designed to operate completely while still having people around,” Robertson says. “Nothing’s in the back room, so to speak.”

Production at the new facility will be underway by December, taking advantage of four deep-water wells onsite. But Firestone and Robertson will continue to make whiskey and offer tours at The 901, where they’ll also experiment with potential new products.

Their vision, they say, has pretty much aged and turned out as planned. If anything, it’s grander than they imagined, but as Robertson puts it: “Our aspirations have always been to compete at the highest level with the biggest whiskey producers.”

WHISKEY RANCH, 2601 Whiskey Ranch Road, Fort Worth.

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From Italy to Mexico to Southeast Asia, global flavors marked 2016’s best in DFW cocktails

Some of 2016's best, clockwise from upper left: At Abacus, Gantenbein's Smoke on the Water; at Jettison, Kaiho's Good Morning Jerez; at Sprezza, Zapata's Aperrat Sour; and at Henry's Majestic, Fletcher's Salt Lake Suburb.
Some of 2016’s best, clockwise from upper left: At Abacus, Gantenbein’s Smoke on the Water; at Jettison, Kaiho’s Good Morning Jerez; at Sprezza, Zapata’s Aperrat Sour; and at Henry’s Majestic, Fletcher’s Salt Lake Suburb.

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.

Cedars Social
A better name than Eleven-Fifty: Mike Sturdivant’s coffee-bean-laced cocktail.

15. TEN MINUTES TILL MIDNIGHT (Mike Sturdivant, The Cedars Social)

Sheep’s Dip Scotch, Cynar, vanilla syrup, Suze, burnt coffee bean

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.”

Filament
In the garden of gin and vermouth: Filament’s Push It tiptoed through my two lips.

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.

Gantenbein's Scarlet Gael: Like drinking Scotch on a bed of pillows.
Gantenbein’s Scarlet Gael: Like drinking Scotch on a bed of pillows.

13. SCARLET GAEL (Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus)

Ardbeg 10-year Scotch, hibiscus tea syrup, honey, lime, vanilla tincture, egg white

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.

Spencer Shelton's Rio Julep, evoking memories of Southern monkey bread.
Spencer Shelton’s Rio Julep, evoking memories of Southern monkey bread.

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.”

Austin Gurley, High and Tight
Among the perks of Deep Ellum’s High and Tight was the coffee-powered Mayahuel’s Awakening.

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.

Boulevardier
Ashley Williams’ Save The Date was a delightful riff on the Pisco Sour.

10. SAVE THE DATE (Ashley Williams, Boulevardier)

Aged cachaca, tamarind concentrate, amaro, egg white, lemon, Angostura bitters

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.

Parliament
Jesse Powell’s banana-influenced rye cocktail is not a Toronto, but it smacks you like one.

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.

The Standard Pour
Austin Millspaugh’s Bijou variation was one of several innovative ways cognac found its way into DFW cocktails in 2016.

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.

Flora Street Cafe
At Flora Street Cafe, Festa’s Madame Hummingbird made Hum great again.

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.”

Henry's Majestic
Fletcher’s Sidecar variation is like sipping through a winter wonderland.

6. SOUTHPAW STREETCAR (Alex Fletcher, Henry’s Majestic)

Cognac, persimmon shrub, citrus, clove dust

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.

Atwater Alley
Cleve’s Agave Temptress: Making mezcal and cognac play nice together.

5. AGAVE TEMPTRESS (Ricky Cleva, Atwater Alley)

Mezcal, cognac, cinnamon, lemon, strawberry, Campari, thyme

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.

The Cedars Social
If you like grapes, this is your drink: Loureiro’s Grapes Three Ways.

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, Midnight Rambler
Solomon’s Tiger Style was a passionfruit wildcat from Midnight Rambler’s summer lineup of “gritty tiki.”

3. TIGER STYLE (Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler)

Batavia Arrack, calamansi, palm sugar, pippali, egg white, cassia aromatics

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.”

Victor Tangos
Stofko’s Guinness-black Seppuku Reale artfully merged Italian and Japanese influences.

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.”

Vicini
Call’s response to bitter and smoky: The marvelous Rome Is Burning.

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.

DFW reclaims its craft mojo: The best in cocktails 2014

Dallas
Clockwise, from upper left: Polo’s Scallywag, Papaceno’s Kentucky Eye Opener, Brown’s Peach Pisco Sour and Long’s Summer in Manhattan.

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.

Michael Reith, Windmill Lounge
Alternately named Autumn at Lake Winnepesaukee, Reith’s seasonal treat is way more fun to drink than to say.

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.

Matt Orth, LARK on the Park
From its initial rosemary rush to its herbaceous conclusion, Orth’s spicy libation was one you’d want tiptoeing through your two lips.

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.

Lauren Festa, FT33
Festa’s Common Elder: A vodka concoction of surprising depth that made you respect your elder.

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.

Armando Guillen, The Standard Pour
Getting the Last Word: Guillen’s play on one of my favorite classics made an memorable statement.

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.

James Slater, Spoon
Why Slater’s Blue Moon hit my eye like a big pizza pie: Its amari.

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.

Matt Orth, LARK on the Park
Orth’s green bartender thumb delivered again on this concoction that deserves to be served at farmer’s markets everywhere.

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.

Juli Naida, Barter
Using her noggin: Naida’s creation offered the eggnog experience in a manner even a vegan could love.

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.”

Alex Fletcher, Victor Tango's
The Smoky Daiquiri seriously made me want to see what Fletcher, now at Henry’s Majestic, could do with a sow’s ear.

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.

Kevin Trevino, Spoon
Currying my favor with its skillful use of Indian influences: Trevino’s Bengal Lily.

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.

Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus
Fittingly, the top’s always down on a Sidecar, Gantenbein’s inspiration for this deliciously summery cocktail.

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.

Pam Moncrief, The Usual
Moncrief’s use of Ransom Old Tom gin inspired my name for this fantastic floral foray.

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.

Damon Bird, LARK on the Park
Bird’s barrel-aged bit of brilliance takes the edge off mezcal to smoky, bittersweet effect.

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.”

James Slater, Spoon
The only mystery here is whether we’ll ever get to enjoy this marvelous cocktail again.

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.

Creigten Brown, Barter
The Black Monk’s aromas and flavors led me away on multiple meditative journeys, and still I remain unknowing of all its seductive secrets.

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.

Brad Bowden, Parliament
Sugar and spice and everything nice: Bowden’s divergent path showed once and for all quien es mas Ancho.

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.

The funnest way to help veterans grow organic produce involves pumpkins and cocktails

Caledonia Spirits
Sweet on you: Caledonia incorporates raw honey into its distillation process.

It’s pumpkin-carving season and as long as you’re going to handle a big knife, you may as well do it with cocktails – and for a good cause, besides.

Fort Worth’s Pacific Table is teaming up with Caledonia Spirits to host a Halloween-themed happy hour and pumpkin-carving contest to benefit veteran-based farming programs, including Dallas’ Eat The Yard, a veteran-owned urban farm that I profiled in The Dallas Morning News last year.

The Oct. 30 event runs from 5:30 to 7:30, with $6 Halloween-y libations from bartender Maria Ortiz showcasing Caledonia’s Barr Hill vodka, gin and barrel-aged gin – for instance, the Pumpkin On A Hill, with vodka and house-made pumpkin-spice syrup. Vermont-based Caledonia, which made its Texas debut six months ago, incorporates raw honey in its distillation process.

For $12, you’ll get a pumpkin and carving tools — with a cocktail included. Or bring your own pumpkin and pay just $6 to enter the contest. (Prizes include dinner for two at the Pacific Northwest-themed restaurant.) Not into carving? Just come and enjoy the spectacle along with $6 cocktails — and maybe drop a little donation in the “Cash-O-Lantern.” So many options: The world is your pumpkin.

Reservations and Halloween costumes are encouraged but not required.

Oak Cliff-based Eat the Yard is a veteran-run urban farm that uses commercial properties, residential properties, community gardens and the occasional rooftop to sustainably grow organic produce.

PACIFIC TABLE, 1600 S. University #601, Fort Worth. 817-887-9995.

Dallas bartenders help create a buzz at spirits industry’s annual festival in New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, all smiles amid the storm that was Texas Tiki Throwdown.

NEW ORLEANS — They came, they saw, they cocktailed. Never mind that it was 10:30 in the morning: That’s how Tales of the Cocktail rolls.

Naturally, no state was better qualified to kick things off than Texas, which launched the annual spirits industry’s opening salvo for the third straight year. The Texas Tiki Throwdown and its lively contingent of bar peeps representing Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio had transformed the chandeliered conference room of New Orleans’ stately Hotel Monteleone into a little tiki paradise, with thatched-roof huts, Hawaiian shirts and a makeshift parrot perched on the shoulder of Dallas ice master Mate Hartai.

It was the kind of atmosphere in which a woman with blue-green hair could tell you her name was Christa Monster and get away with it. The bartender from Houston’s Bar Boheme had won a Bacardi-sponsored competition to earn the trip to Tales, and her clever, crowd-pleasing Lady of Lake Laguna did not disappoint – a frozen blend of aged rum, coconut, orange soda, blue curacao and a spiced-peach-and-Sriracha puree that alternately offered ice and heat. “It’s like, not taking tiki too seriously,” she said.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
From upper left: The Texas crew; the TOTC logo in host Hotel Monteleone; Christa Monster’s Lady of Lake Laguna cocktails; Houston’s Ricardo Guzman; your guess is as good as mine.

Dallas was well represented, with seven bartenders stationed behind three tables knocking out drinks in all manner of tropical style. Along with Hartai, there was Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour, Bonnie Wilson of Fork It Over restaurants, Knife’s Charlie Moore and the soon-to-be crew of Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry: Julian Pagan, Trina Nishimura and the two Joshes, Hendrix and MacEachern.

“There’s too much to try this early in the morning,” said conference attendee Teddy Bucher, though that didn’t dissuade the Houston engineer, friends Laura Villafranca and Michelle Mata and the dozens of others mobbing the room from making a valiant effort.

Over in the Austin corner, David Alan, aka the Tipsy Texan, mined his own cocktail book for the Flor De Pina, a tequila concoction pairing tequila with St. Germain, while Houston’s Ricardo Guzman of the bar Trinity planted “KISS” cocktails on anyone lucky enough to try the mix of Veev, cinnamon syrup, lemon and pineapple.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
They’re from St. Louis.

Houston Eaves of the always reliable Esquire Tavern was among those representing San Antonio, churning out an intriguing Tiki Tejano with tequila, carrot juice and crème de cacao, plus the pleasantly sweet Coyote’s Den, made with aquavit, acai-based Veev, orgeat, grapefruit, lemon, simple and Peychaud’s bitters.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Western, Brian McCullough’s contribution to the event.

McCullough’s standout cocktail, which he called simply The Western, gave Treaty Oak rum a little giddy-up with orgeat, yuzu juice, mint and Angostura bitters. One attendee, having made the rounds, walked up and proclaimed McCullough’s drink the best. That prompted some friendly joshing of the Joshes, Hendrix and Maceachern, who were serving up their drinks from a punchbowl at the next table.

“You’re gonna trust that palate?” countered Hendrix, whose Flashy Slang – a cherry-infused blend of Sailor Jerry spiced rum and citrus, would get support from another attendee, Dallas underground-dinner chef David Anthony Temple.

But it was all in fun anyway, a means to kick off the first of the festival’s five days of workshops, tasting rooms, trainings, dinners, parties and general mayhem.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Dallas crew, clockwise from upper right: Mate Hartai, Brian McCullough and Charlie Moore; Bonnie Wilson, Trina Nishimura and Julian Pagan; Josh MacEachern and Josh Hendrix.

“I’ve been coming to this (festival) for years,” said Houston’s Villafranca, a high school counselor who got into craft cocktails when the pioneering bar Anvil opened near her home. “I went in there, and it was like – oh my god. I trust them completely.”

Between the three friends, they’d been able to sample most of the four Texas cities’ creations.

“Houston was great,” Mata said. Then she whispered: “But I’m leaning toward Dallas.”

 

Get your cocktail on at Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum

Enhance your art appreciation with a cocktail like this. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art)
Enhance your art appreciation with a cocktail like this. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art)

Cocktails, cocktails. They’re everywhere. Heck, even P.F. Chang’s has a pretty decent drink menu now. You might have thought museums were the one place that cocktails had missed, but you’d be wrong, because on Thursday, Aug. 15, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is offering an evening of fancy drinks, tasty bites and live music at its own Café Modern.

A solid slate of area bartenders will be on hand to create works that go not under glass but in your glass – from Fort Worth, Brad Hensarling of The Usual; and from Dallas, Mate Hartai of Libertine Bar and Bar Smyth, Emily Perkins of Victor Tango’s and Ten Bells Tavern’s Greg Matthews.

Their palette will consist of products from William Grant and Sons, including Hendrick’s Gin, Art in the Age, Reyka Vodka and Monkey Shoulder Whiskey. If you’d rather get your tipples from a punch bowl, you can try one of two cocktail punches made with Milagro Tequila or Solerno blood orange liqueur.

The museum has offered wine-based events in the past, but this time around, says district manager Sharon Whieldon of William Grant and Sons, “they were looking for something a little more engaging and cocktail-driven for their members.”

So maybe it’s not such a stretch, you know: Some cocktails are quite artful, and many are even classics.

Admission is $60, not including tax or tip. The event runs from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Make a reservation by calling the café at 817-840-2157.

CAFE MODERN, 3200 DARNELL STREET, FORT WORTH.