Step past the industrial park-like façade of 4 Kahunas in Arlington and you’ll find yourself in the likes of something the Dallas-Fort Worth area hasn’t had in some time: A real live tiki joint, one that even the most ardent tikiphile can enjoy.
“I never thought I’d work in a place where patrons were battling with little pirate ships and shark mouths,” said bar manager Brad Bowden of one evening’s crowd. “They were like little kids.“
With a four-page tiki drink menu backed by a thatched-roof bar, island-inspired wall art and a soundtrack infused with surf and exotica, 4 Kahunas embraces the tiki aesthetic with a fervor not seen in DFW since the days of Trader Vic’s.
Tiki-philes know that its culture extends far beyond cocktails, but ever since Vic’s sailed off into the horizon, those who’ve carry a torch for tiki have only marginally seen their daiquiri dreams fulfilled, from Proper’s ongoing three-month “tiki pop-up” in Fort Worth to, in Dallas, a short-lived tiki reboot of Sunset Lounge in 2013 and the confused clubbiness of Pilikia.
Otherwise, tiki has been relegated to a random once-a-week or off-menu exercise, with its fruity coconut libations periodically surfacing at places like Lower Greenville’s Rapscallion, East Dallas’ Lounge Here and The People’s Last Stand in Mockingbird Station.
Now, in a budding commercial complex behind a stretch of Division Street car dealerships in Arlington, 4 Kahunas – which marked its grand opening on Sunday – has planted its tiki flag, with a modest but lovingly appointed space with a half-dozen or so stools at the bar, a couple of high-tops and several large booths.
“I’ve had more people ask for Singapore Slings here in Arlington than I ever did in Dallas,” Bowden says – and the tiki classic isn’t even on the menu. “I had no idea there was so much interest in the Mid Cities.”
Among the drink’s fans is Marc Davis, a Hawaiian-born Filipino/Pacific-Islander who runs a local food truck called Smoke and Pickle. Having stumbled onto 4 Kahunas while seeking a parking spot at Arlington’s 4thof July celebration, he was suddenly gripped by memories of his island upbringing and his dad’s love for Singapore Slings and Marlboros. “I like the low-key vibe,” he says.
Tiki’s laid-back Polynesian flavor flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, with Trader Vic’s and its Zombies and Mai Tais leading the way. Though the trend would fizzle within a few decades, the ongoing re-emergence of craft cocktails revived interest in its tropical tipples, with places like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and PKNY in New York among the first to resuscitate its rummy riches.
Several years ago, on a visit to Vegas,4 Kahunas co-owners J.P. Hunter and Chris Powell visited the venerable Frankie’s Tiki Room, and it was enough to revive Hunter’s California childhood memories – the L.A. beaches, the plastic monkey cocktail garnishes his mom would give him off her drinks.
Hunter, a University of Texas-Arlington grad nearing retirement in the construction business in Houston, was already eyeing a third act. Why not do something he really enjoyed? He and Powell recruited two other college friends as investors, their four caricatured faces now represented by large carved wooden tiki heads behind the bar.
“Our only missing link was a bar manager,” Hunter says. “And lo and behold, there’s Brad.”
Bowden, already spinning tiki classics and variations at Lounge Here in East Dallas, was more than ready to crank out Painkillers and Headhunters (as well as my personal tiki favorite, the flaming-lime-boat-topped Jet Pilot). With Bowden on board, 4 Kahunas quietly opened on June 9, but it wasn’t long before word spread among fanatical tikiphiles, never mind the out-of-the-way location.
“We’ve already had people coming in from Chicago, Atlanta, Florida,” Hunter says.
It’s a decidedly unchain-y place in a bar-and-grill-leaning city that Hunter says finally has greater ambitions – and affordable Arlington represented a chance to be part of a scene that’s just starting to grow. Says Hunter: “The train is just leaving the station.”
The idea behind Dallas’ Network Bar is simple. It’s a craft-cocktail bar where you network. The members-only concept from Phil Romano and Stuart Fitts, which targets career-minded professionals, opens Monday at Trinity Groves.
Granted, there are networking happy hours you could attend for free, so why would you shell out $500 to $1,000 to become a member of Network Bar?
Here are five possible reasons.
1.Because of the networking, of course.
Yes, you could do your networking in a place meant for drinking. But here, you can do your drinking in a place meant for networking. According to its website, Network Bar “takes networking and social interaction to another level.”
Members must be recommended by other members and have their applications approved by a committee; those sought are described as “eager, ever curious, always-on-the-hunt individuals (who) thrive on new ideas and problem solving…. They must have a purpose.” In other words, not your garden-variety professionals!
Membership is $500 for those 30 and younger. If you’re older than that, it’s $1,000. As of Friday, membership was up to 217, said the bar’s Stayci Runnels.
Not a member? You can still get in as a member’s guest or, like at your gym, tour the place under the watchful eye of a membership team representative.
2. Because there’s an app for that.
Yes, this club comes with its own mobile app. Once inside the club, members can then peer into the app to see who else is checked in – and then reach out to make connections and exchange digital business cards. Networking!
3. Because of the atmosphere and membership benefits.
Check out those handsome leather chairs. Those brawny barstools, that stylish wood paneling and dim lighting. This place is elegant AF. Cool photographs of wild animals, in soft sepia and stately black and white, gaze at you from the walls, along with a big bison head. Is this not a place you want to freely roam? It’s like you’re in Wayne Manor.
In addition to the expansive old-lodge-y setting, there’s a private meeting room. Otherwise, classy red drapes can be drawn to make public seating clusters more secluded. And the website promises activities such as wine tastings, a lecture/workshop series and fireside chats.
4. Because of the cocktails.
The bar’s drink menu features original cocktails from James Slater, described on Network Bar’s website as “one of the best mixologists in the world.” Lofty praise, indeed, but Slater is indeed no slouch, having previously helmed bars at Knife, Spoon, Oak, Quill and most recently, Idle Rye. (He also created two of my favorite cocktails of 2014.) “This place is different than any place I’ve ever worked,” Slater says; his drink menu will feature 15 cocktails priced from $13-$15, including a frozen rose cocktail and half-dozen barrel-aged ones.
“I’m putting my heart and soul into it,” Slater says.
You may also catch a glimpse of a curious vessel resembling a small silver chalice. What is that, you might (rightfully) wonder? The answer may or may not be the most lavish cocktail in Texas, an off-menu, super-premium concoction featuring a high-end tequila and a dusting of gold flakes.
5. Because of the brain food.
“The Network Bar is committed to nourishing your network as well as your brain,” the website says. That means food and drinks that the club declares will amp up your memory, focus and productivity – think green smoothies, lean proteins and cold-pressed juices. And then think some more.
But really, Network Bar is about rubbing shoulders in a setting designed for that purpose. “You can come in here and talk ideas, make connections, whatever,” says general manager Josh Laudan. “It’s like LinkedIn, but with cocktails. It’s a very unique concept as far as this industry goes.”
Thompson’s Bookstore. Proper. The Usual. Basement Lounge.
You may have noticed that Fort Worth has a cocktail scene. And while it’s not nearly on the scale of Dallas’ ever-expanding arena, DFW’s western half does have one thing the Big D does not: A cocktail week.
The second annual Fort Worth Cocktail Week kicks off Saturday, even bigger and tastier than its predecessor. Each of six nights’ worth of events will be complemented by chef-designed dishes, with a portion of each night’s proceeds going to charity.
While billed as “a celebration of our city’s booming craft-cocktail scene,” the week – which runs through next Friday, Oct. 20 – is also a tribute to the kinship between chefs and craft bartenders, both of whom prize fresh and local ingredients and attention to detail and history.
The week will feature a repeat of last year’s five signature ticketed events in addition to one newcomer: Saturday’s “Sips” event, which will highlight before- and after-dinner drinks and cocktails. That event will join a lineup that already spotlights tiki drinks, bourbon, gin, vodka, agave spirits and Texas-based spirits.
Organizers are partnering with local arts and nonprofit organizations like Fort Worth Opera, The Cliburn and Amphibian Stage Productions, each of which will receive part of the ticket proceeds from one of the week’s events. Tickets are available here.
Here’s a list of the week’s events:
Saturday, Oct. 14: “Sips,” 5-8 p.m. at Proper, 409 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $20
The evening will highlight aperitifs and digestifs, from cognacs to Italian bitter liqueurs, “in an indulgent celebration of exquisite before- and after-dinner libations.” Drinks will be complemented by dishes from Fixture owner and chef Ben Merritt, two-time winner of Fort Worth magazine’s Top Chef competition.
Monday, Oct. 16: Texas Spirits Tasting Party, 6-9 p.m. at Mopac Event Center, 1615 Rogers Road. Tickets: $15-20
This showcase of Lone Star State spirits will feature bites from chef Nico Sanchez (Meso Maya, Taqueria La Ventana), whose latest concept, TorTaco, recently opened in Fort Worth.
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Bourbon Bash, 6-9 p.m. at Thompson’s Bookstore, 900 Houston St. Tickets: $15-20
Bourbons will be the star of this Old World-themed evening at Thompson’s downtown, whether alone or in cocktails. Samples of harder-to-find whiskeys will also be available for an extra charge. The evening’s food will come from chef David Hollister (Yucatan Taco Stand, Gas Monkey Bar and Grill).
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Tiki Drink Rum Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Usual, 1408 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $15-20
A night focusing on the resurgent tropical cocktail trend will be paired with dishes from chef Juan Rodriguez of Magdalena’s Supper Club.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Bartenders Without Borders, 6-9 p.m. at Salsa Limon Distrito, 5012 White Settlement Road. Tickets: $15-20
Agave-based spirits like mezcal and tequila will anchor the evening, including small-batch selections. Chef Keith Grober, former head chef at Rodeo Goat, will provide Mexican street-style food.
Friday, Oct. 20: Gin vs. Vodka Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Foundry District, 2624 Weisenberger St. Tickets: $15-20
Advertised as “a bare-knuckle brawl for the soul of the martini,” this evening will showcase the history, flavors and versatility of the classic clear spirits. Chef Stefan Rishel, head chef at Texas Bleu in Keller, will provide the munchies.
First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal’s pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight – as some believe it should always be – and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.
Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?
A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so – and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as “that bottle with the worm in it.”
Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal’s virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled “Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead.”
When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they’d built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit — even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.
“We’re hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in,” says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker’s Mark. “Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits.”
Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant – but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.
“There’s an immense amount of genetic diversity,” panelist Ivan Suldana, author of “The Anatomy of Mezcal,” told an audience at 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. “We’re talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit.”
Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. “Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different,” he says.
Mezcal’s production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal’s distinctive flavors remember their conversion.
For Samuels, that moment came at Austin’s Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. “That was my first experience,” said Samuels, who’s been tending bar at Oak Cliff’s Bar Belmont throughout the last year. “I didn’t really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, ‘We need a good room to drink mezcal in.’ That led to this.”
Las Almas Rotas – “the broken souls” – will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you’ll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum. “It’s kind of an homage to our speakeasy,” Samuels says. “Just straight spirits and Topo Chico.”
Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown’s Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores (“saints and sinners”) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.
Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.
“We want people to get in love with mezcal,” says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. “It’s, like, with Mexican food. People think they’re eating real Mexican food but it’s actually Tex-Mex.”
Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.
Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel,” of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.
“We basically created a room that we would want to drink in,” Shad Kvetko says.
For their mezcaleria’s actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.
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.
One evening last month, having somehow wandered far beyond my urban comfort zone, I stopped in for a drink at Rye, a bustling bistro just off the square in McKinney. No, not McKinney Avenue, the trendy SMU hang in Uptown where, not surprisingly, some of DFW’s best cocktail joints have clustered in the last five years – but McKinney, the fast-growing former farm center 45 minutes north of Dallas.
Surely, I thought, even at this suburban outpost, I could score a decent gin and tonic. Maybe even an Old Fashioned. But as I scanned bar manager Manny Casas’ drink list, I found myself eyeballing anything-but-rural components: Mole bitters; gomme syrup; aloe liqueur; Fernet Francisco; honey-blessed Barr Hill gin. And then I noticed the small barrel to my left, which – as I would soon discover – harbored a terrific barrel-aged variation on the classic Negroni. My cocktail destinations had grown by one.
It’s more challenging than ever to keep up with the constantly expanding universe of cocktails in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the area’s farthest reaches, and in places that five years ago would have been content to serve simple mixed drinks, you can now order a Sazerac, or a Last Word, and avoid the indignity of blank stares or massive shade.
Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, of course, and pretty surroundings alone do not a great cocktail bar make. DFW’s craft cocktail landscape in 2016 wasn’t without its casualties – notably Knox-Henderson’s Hibiscus, whose small but well-informed bar program enjoyed a loyal following, and noble but aborted ventures like Frisco’s Vicini and, in Lower Greenville, Knuckle Sandwich and Remedy, destined to close by year’s end.
But from straight-up cocktail joints like Oak Cliff’s Jettison and clubby enclaves like Quill in the Design District to cocktail-minded restaurants like East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Uptown’s Next Door and Quarter Bar in (gulp) Trophy Club, the boozy buffet available to cocktail drinkers showed few signs of abating. (And Hide in Deep Ellum and Frisco’s Bottled in Bond are still to come.)
At their very best, these spots echo – and often are part of – fine restaurants, serving up not just great drinks but a successful mix of efficient, attentive and consistent service; fresh ingredients attuned to the passing seasons; an energizing and welcoming vibe; the ability to cater to tastes simple and complex; and a savvy and innovative staff behind the bar.
Here, in alphabetical order, were my favorite 15 craft-cocktail spots in 2016.
Most come to the highly regarded Knox-Henderson restaurant for its fine dining – but personally, I never make it past the classy, comfortable bar and its black-clad crew of Jordan Gantenbein, Jason Long and John Campbell. Abacus’ thoughtful and playful drink list is a standout from season to season – Gantenbein’s Rosemary Wreath (pictured at top) was a wintry thing of beauty – but the off-road adventures are equally delicious and fun, as in Long’s recent mix of mezcal, cinnamon syrup and amaro.
A couple of years have passed since Henry’s Majestic, at this once-cursed location on McKinney in Knox-Henderson, unveiled the speakeasy pearl buried within its oyster depths. Named for the nondescript thoroughfare from which it’s accessed, Atwater is a two-story, dimly lit sanctuary swathed in senatorial wood, where bartenders like Ricky Cleva (and the occasional guest bartender) let their talents run wild like wildebeests in the nighttime streets. Jumanji!
BLACK SWAN SALOON
Black Swan is a craft-cocktail lover’s dive bar, where barman Gabe Sanchez makes it look easy, firing volleys of classic and original drinks at the eager Deep Ellum hordes while somehow creating a backyard post-BBQ atmosphere. Among DFW’s early craft-cocktail spots, the Swan’s speakeasy vibe (there’s no signage outside) is captured in the image of Clint Eastwood above the back bar: anonymous and enigmatic, rough around the edges, coolly efficient. No drink list here; just tell Sanchez what you’re in the mood for or point at one of his latest jarred infusions, and let your Drink With No Name come riding into town.
Among DFW’s earliest craft-cocktail purveyors, the modestly sized bar-in-the-round at this Bishop Arts mainstay is going strong under lead barman Spencer Shelton, whose wonky spirits wisdom continues to fuel Bolsa’s culture of experimentation. The well-honed southside outpost, with a bold seasonal drink menu – take Shelton’s smoky bitter Mi Alma Rota, featuring mezcal and Fernet – is a last-stop refuge for neighborhood regulars and others looking for uncommon spirits and across-the-board creativity.
The place is gorgeous, dah-ling. But owner Pasha Heidari’s homey hideaway a stone’s throw from the madness of Uptown’s McKinney Avenue has finally settled into a groove nice enough to match its elegant Prohibition-Era character, what with its turn-of-the-century library and great-granddad’s framed pictures on the wall. A viable drink list now complements the able bar squad’s ability to craft something to your own tastes, and a sickle-shaped bar counter promotes interaction.
THE CEDARS SOCIAL
Look who’s back. Once the shining light in Dallas’ budding craft drink scene, The Cedars Social’s nationally acclaimed promise imploded in what I simply refer to as The Great Unpleasantness, thereafter plummeting off the craft-cocktail radar. Several iterations later, barman Mike Sturdivant is at the helm, and things are looking bright again: Along with Dallas pastry chef Annika Loureiro, he’s crafted a refreshingly original drink menu – including the Soju Spice, which makes excellent use of the Korean rice-based spirit – while staying true to pre- and Prohibition-era classics.
INDUSTRY ALLEY BAR
When Charlie Papaceno left the Windmill Lounge in late 2014, among his goals in opening Industry Alley was to recreate the lounge’s come-as-you-are vibe. In that he has succeeded, creating a down-home atmosphere that’s a favorite for Cedars-area locals and industry regulars alike. You won’t find fireworks, fancy syrups, infusions or house-made bitters here – just the makings of a good time and classic cocktails like the legendary Singapore Sling.
The latest addition to Oak Cliff is a welcome one, especially for imbibers of sherry, the Spanish fortified wine, and mezcal, the smoky agave spirit mostly from Oaxaca. Discreetly nestled within the Sylvan Thirty complex next to Houndstooth Coffee, whose owner, Sean Henry, launched Jettison as his initial cocktail venture, it’s a sleek and shadowy hidey-hole where barman George Kaiho crafts excellent classic twists like the Red Headed Oaxacan, a play on the Penicillin fielding both tequila and mezcal along with honeyed ginger syrup, lemon and a float of Scotch.
This rock-and-roll hideaway in the underbelly of downtown Dallas’ Joule Hotel is truly a gem — and it keeps getting better, with its lush and well-structured space equipped to manage the peaks and valleys of hotel and weekend crowds. The long-awaited project from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, which opened just over two years ago, is purposely efficient, lavishly designed and wholly adventurous, driven by Solomon’s bordering-on-geeky cocktail-science know-how: Witness the Pinetop Perker, which graced the spring menu, a woodsy wallop of genever, aquavit, pine, lemon, egg white, apple schnapps and a perfume-like “alpine woodland essence” spritzed onto a dehydrated lemon wheel.
What if there were a place where you could pluck away the plumage of more involved libations and jump directly into the embrace of your whiskey or gin without feeling like a vegan at a Vegas buffet? Well, my friends, The Mitchell is your place: The stately space in the former home of Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Chesterfield in downtown Dallas boasts 50 kinds of gin and a hundred different whiskeys, the better to meet your martini, Old Fashioned or straight-up sipping requirements. And the glassware is beautiful too.
Comfortably nestled within the labyrinth of Uptown apartments off raucous McKinney Avenue, Lucky Campbell’s gem of a bar can often be as busy as its 100-plus drink list. Just the same, the well-trained crew, featuring the occasional visiting star bartender, keeps the crowds soused and entertained from behind the horseshoe-shaped bar, whether the vibe is loud or laid-back. With concoctions like Jesse Powell’s unnamed mix of aged tequila, sweet potato truffle syrup, sherry, apple and cinnamon, Parliament is a first-rate cocktail den with Cheers-style ease, a special combination indeed.
THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND
The Mockingbird Station stalwart is still going strong in its second-level space, churning out an ever-changing list of libations behind a veteran bar team led by general manager Devin McCullough. The drinks are original and varied – and occasionally playful, as in the wintry Petra at Night, a hot rum cider mix served with apple slices and mini wafers, and Mr. Joe Black, an equally snack-y blend of rye and cold-brew coffee featuring blackberries, brown sugar and cayenne-sugared pecans. “Everybody’s got their little side munch going on,” McCullough said.
THE STANDARD POUR
Just up the street from Parliament, the McKinney Avenue landmark remains, as I described it last year, a craft-cocktail battleship – built to weather weekend barrages of bar hoppers but equally effective quietly docked on a Tuesday eve. A crew staffed by talents like Austin Millspaugh and Jorge Herrera helps take the sting out of former lead barman Christian Armando’s departure, pumping out a stream of solid originals as well as the ubiquitous Moscow Mules. Like Parliament and Industry Alley, Brian McCullough’s stalwart staple maintains a homey vibe whether rafting calm stream or raging river.
While the cheeky drink menu has barely changed, the bartenders at this seemingly never-understaffed Magnolia Avenue haven in Fort Worth are more than handy with the palette of potions behind the bar. I said this last year, and it holds true today: More than anything, what impresses about The Usual – among DFW’s pioneering craft-cocktail joints – is that I have yet to have a drink there that didn’t qualify as a success, which is something I can’t say about that many places.
Another of DFW’s initial craft-cocktail practitioners, this Henderson Avenue landmark found its footing again under beloved general manager Matt Ragan. Though Ragan recently departed, the cocktail program remains in the able hands of bar manager Andrew Stofko, one of the city’s most exciting young talents; among Stofko’s 2016 creations was The Dread Pirate Roberts, whose intricate mix of Brazilian cachaca, grapefruit liqueur, bitter Suze, lemon, cinnamon syrup, Angostura and hopped grapefruit bitters was wonderfully reminiscent of tart apple pie.
Runners-up: Armoury DE, Flora Street Café, Lounge Here, Small Brewpub, Thompson’s Bookstore.
CASTLE HILLS – OK, maybe Castle Hills isn’t really that far away. On a good day you can get here in less than a half-hour. Sandwiched between Lewisville, The Colony, Carrollton and West Plano, its regal label is intentional, with a 30-mph main drag dubbed King Arthur Boulevard and the sprawling development of king-sized homes described on its web site as “a majestic, 2,600-acre master-planned community.”
It’s not the kind of outpost you’d expect to find a great cocktail, and yet, the very thought of being 25 miles north of downtown Dallas might make you pine for one. It’s a royal paradox.
Well, you’re in luck: With the opening of TBD Kitchen, Sean Conner’s latest venture (in partnership with Daniel Guillen), you and the villagers of Castle Hills now have two quality drinking establishments from which to choose.
TBD Kitchen, next door to Conner’s Pie 314, is the latest step in Daniel Guillen’s ongoing pilgrimage to promote Latin traditions via drink and food. Five of TBD’s nine house cocktails got test runs at the various pop-up events, seminars and South American-styled dinners that Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni, has been throwing around the DFW area in the last year.
Along with a bold selection of agave spirits and rums, those drinks complement a menu highlighting $2 street tacos. (Also, if anyone asks whether you want the off-menu chicharrones, say yes.) The décor is hip Mexican, with Day of the Dead skulls, Mexican movie posters and kitschy candles from Target. Cushy, bendy barstools are modeled after seats on bass boats.
“It’s not like Dallas here,” Guillen says. “It’s a whole different beast. People here have money, but they want comfort food.”
Situated at the Castle Hills Village Shops, nestled deep in the thicket of $500,000-plus homes, Conner has accommodated those tastes, offering quality pizza and now tacos, with decent cocktails to boot. “There’s three kinds of food that people eat all the time,” says Conner, among Dallas-Fort Worth’s pioneering craft-cocktail bartenders. “And these are two of them.”
But are the people of Castle Hills ready for cocktails like the Chamoyada, a drink inspired by Guillen’s visits to the fruterias of Oak Cliff, or the Pachamama, featuring Peruvian brandy and not one, but two, Italian bitter liqueurs?
Or what about the Bolivar Old Fashioned, a nod to the influential Venezuelan leader, which mixes five rums, Angostura bitters infused with tobacco leaves and Brazilian coffee beans? The nicely conceived drink did well on a recent night, perhaps because of Guillen’s piece de resistance, a coconut water ice cube that gradually sweetens the drink as it’s savored.
Guillen says TBD actually stands for Tacos, Burritos and Daisies — the Daisy being a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation. A daily Daisy will be a staple of Guillen’s offerings. And in the (warmer) future, Guillen envisions half-price rum nights with cigars and dominoes, Cuban-style, on the patio.
As TBD was being built out, Guillen did a smart thing: He worked the bar at Pie 314. That earned him a familiarity with local residents that will serve him as he aims to nudge less adventurous palates into unfamiliar territory. “If you like Balvenie,” Guillen told one guest as he slid forward a bottle of Cartavio XO, “this is a Peruvian rum. It’s finished in sherry casks, just like Balvenie is.” The guy was inspired to give it a try.
A couple at the bar was impressed with Guillen’s Margarita Pa’Llevar (Margarita to-go), whose presentation mimics the street-ready drinks served in plastic bags in certain South America countries. It was among the drinks Guillen featured with chef David Anthony Temple at a South American dinner earlier this year, sipped through a straw coated with chamoy – fruit pulp flavored with lime and chile – for some added kick.
So maybe he’ll earn the keys to the kingdom just yet. “People are like, ‘Why here?’” Guillen says. “Even I don’t know. We were just given the chance, so we’re going to roll with it.”
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.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, mezcal is having a moment. The once misunderstood Mexican spirit has been seeping into the mainstream at a pace that has revved up in recent years, riding a craft-cocktail wave that has seen imbibers clamor for more and better ingredients.
For a spirit that at one time was known mostly as “that bottle with the worm in it,” this cousin of tequila has not only come a long way, but, it turns out, is way more interesting: a markedly smoky concoction that rewarded early adopters with broad (and wormless) expressions deriving from its ability to be cultivated from a range of Mexican agave plants. (Tequila, on the other hand, can only come from blue agave.)
“It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails.”
— Bartender Moses Guidry, of Twenty Seven’s Smoke Ring
The plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens prior to fermentation, producing the spirit’s smoky influence that for many first-timers presents a line in the sand. But the days when mezcal cocktails were found only in mixology dens are over; I knew the U.S. had reached a milestone when, several years ago, I saw a mezcal-tinged cocktail appear on the menu at P.F. Chang’s. Now you’ll find mezcal cocktails everywhere from Pappasito’s to Frisco’s 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House.
Many of those drinks, like the ones first rolled out even in craft-cocktail bars, have eased mezcal onto unfamiliar palates by placing it alongside tequila, like a kid brother riding sidecar. But drinks putting mezcal front and center are getting easier and easier to find.
Here are some of my favorites thus far in 2015.
BENITO JUAREZ, Mexican Sugar (pictured above)
In Oaxaca, where most mezcal is produced, the traditional way of consuming the artisan spirit is in small cups flanked by orange wedges and a spice mix of sea salt, crushed chilies and the ground remains of toasted moth larvae that feed on the agave plant. The combo is a mouth-pleasing explosion of smoke, citrus, heat, nuttiness and saltiness – and Plano’s Mexican Sugar pays homage to the tradition with this excellent blend – named after Mexico’s beloved former president – of mezcal, chipotle puree, orange, lime, honey and orange liqueur, slapped with a splotch of imported sal de gusano.
MEXICAN MARTINI, Origin
Alas, this one is no longer on the menu at the Knox-Henderson restaurant, but ask for it and you might get lucky.
Agave spirits and herbal Yellow Chartreuse liqueur are swell buddies and play nice here in Laura Ball’s south-of-the-border creation, along with lemon, agave, jalapeno and apricot liqueur. It’s sweet and piquant, tantalizing you with its boozy charms before fading away in a haze of spice and smoke.
MEZCAL OLD-FASHIONED, Henry’s Majestic
Hector Zavala has learned a thing or two in his many years as a bar back for luminaries such as 86 Co. co-founder Jason Kosmas, not the least of which that the classic Old Fashioned packs a kick in any language. Now bartending at the Knox-Henderson one-two punch of Henry’s Majestic and Atwater Alley, the Torreon, Mexico-born Zavala subs Wahaka mezcal for whiskey with a bit of agave syrup and bitters, and his handiwork lets the spirit announce itself like a poncho’d Clint Eastwood waltzing through your whistle’s saloon doors.
MR. BROWN GOES TO OAXACA, Tate’s
Mixmaster Creighten Brown’s deceivingly demure doozy may look like a mere wallflower in its Uptown surroundings, but it’ll impress your taste buds with its flavorful gift of gab. Supplementing mezcal with bittersweet Grand Poppy, dry vermouth, Hellfire bitters and chocolate bitters, this off-menu creation cuts through the smoke with floral and citrus swirls while the bitters offer lingering complexity.
SMOKE RING, Twenty Seven
At Deep Ellum’s Twenty Seven, Moses Guidry’s frothy Smoke Ring is basically a mezcal Pisco Sour, subbing the smoky spirit for tamer Peruvian brandy alongside tequila, simple syrup, lime, cucumber, egg white and a sprinkling of Peychaud’s bitters. “It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails,” says Guidry, who’ll you find behind the bar on Saturdays.
TRUE ROMANCE, Black Swan Saloon
At this Deep Ellum fixture, Gabe Sanchez’s riveting play on the Copper Cocktail gives mezcal the starring role over rum with a supporting cast of herbal Yellow Chartreuse, bitter Averna, lime and a bit of Szechuan pepper tincture. While the mixture might sound overpowering, the end result nicely shapes the best of each ingredient into something unique and memorable.
What most people know of South American drinking culture typically boils down to a handful of things – cachaca and the Caiparinha cocktail, pisco and the Pisco Sour.
Daniel Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni restaurants and one of Dallas’ more innovative bar talents, is on a mission to change that. For several years, driven by a notion that has since become a passion, the Peruvian-born bar man has been researching South American cocktail tradition; with his departure from La Duni, he’s ready to spring his knowledge loose upon the world in a series of events that will roll out in the coming weeks.
Your first chance to experience the fruits of his obsession will be Wednesday, when Guillen pairs up with Twenty Seven chef David Anthony Temple for a six-course dinner titled “The South American Gentleman’s Companion,” named after Charles Baker’s legendary cocktail tome of 1951.
The event will be a tour de force for the 27-year-old Guillen, who puts as much thought into presenting his cocktails as he does into making them. We’re talking about drinks served in everything from tin cans to test tubes – but as always, there is method to his madness: In addition to showcasing the continent’s drinking traditions, he’s equally amped about reflecting South American street culture.
“It’s what you see when you go out of the house and grab your first bus to work,” said Guillen, who you’ll now find occasionally behind the bar at Proof + Pantry, in the Arts District. “Street cart vendors, little candy carts near the schools – you can apply those things and come up with something off the charts.”
Guillen’s libations will be paired with Chef DAT’s Latin-inspired fare, including BBQ’s gnocchi, roasted cabrito, coconut-encrusted cod and smoked duck breast tostadas.
The 7 pm reservations-only dinner is limited to 35 people and will take place at Twenty Seven, 2901 Elm Street in Deep Ellum. Price is $120 plus gratuity.
Can’t make dinner? You can still sample a lineup of South American-inspired cocktails and other surprises at a public post-dinner reception at 10 pm, with special prices for dinner guests. Think Argentinian Boilermakers, a South American Old Fashioned and Guillen’s celebrated Rosemary’s Affair, which earned him regional honors from Bombay Sapphire gin and was among my favorite cocktails of 2013.
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