Category Archives: The maturing scene

With dedicated bars, mezcal’s missionaries hope to convert Dallas tastes

Dallas mezcaleria
Spreading the gospel: A trio of Oak Cliff friends are looking to share the love.

First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal’s pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight – as some believe it should always be – and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.

Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?

A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so – and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as “that bottle with the worm in it.”

Las Almas Rotas
Bar manager Daniel Ferrin making a round of cocktails at a soft opening event at Las Almas Rotas.

Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal’s virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled “Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead.”

When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they’d built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit — even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.

Las Almas Rotas
How it all began — with informal tastings like this one at the Kvetkos’ Oak Cliff home. Clockwise from top, Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko.

“We’re hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in,” says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker’s Mark. “Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits.”

Leigh Kvetko
An image of a tobala-variety agave plant, the work of Leigh Kvetko, graces the door at Las Almas Rotas.

Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant – but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.

“There’s an immense amount of genetic diversity,” panelist Ivan Suldana, author of “The Anatomy of Mezcal,” told an audience at 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. “We’re talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit.”

Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. “Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different,” he says.

Mezcal’s production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal’s distinctive flavors remember their conversion.

Mezcal Cartel
A typical table spread at one of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel’s at-home tastings.

For Samuels, that moment came at Austin’s Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. “That was my first experience,” said Samuels, who’s been tending bar at Oak Cliff’s Bar Belmont throughout the last year. “I didn’t really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, ‘We need a good room to drink mezcal in.’ That led to this.”

Las Almas Rotas – “the broken souls” – will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you’ll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum. “It’s kind of an homage to our speakeasy,” Samuels says. “Just straight spirits and Topo Chico.”

Mauricio Garriegos and Daniel Zapata
Bartenders Garriegos and Zapata keeping it real at Santos y Pecadores, the twice-weekly mezcal pop-up at Uptown’s Bowen House.

Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown’s Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores (“saints and sinners”) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.

Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.

“We want people to get in love with mezcal,” says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. “It’s, like, with Mexican food. People think they’re eating real Mexican food but it’s actually Tex-Mex.”

Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.

Mezcal Cartel
Informal dinner-table gatherings eventually led to this now-closed underground tasting room on Davis Street.

Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel,” of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.

“We basically created a room that we would want to drink in,” Shad Kvetko says.

For their mezcaleria’s actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.

LAS ALMAS ROTAS, 3615 PARRY AVE, DALLAS.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

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.

As DFW’s craft-cocktail universe continued to expand in 2016, these stars shone brightest

Bartender Jordan Gantenbein's delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath -- aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry -- was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.
Bartender Jordan Gantenbein’s delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath — featuring aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry — was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.

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.

Abacus
Bartender Jason Long shaking things up at Abacus.

ABACUS

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.

Atwater Alley
A dark, intimate atmosphere accents Atwater’s speakeasy character.

ATWATER ALLEY

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!

Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.
Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.

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.

Still creating after all these years: Bolsa's bar was among DFW's early craft cocktail practitioners.
Still creating after all these years: Bolsa’s bar was among DFW’s early craft cocktail practitioners. (Photo courtesy of Bolsa Restaurant)

BOLSA

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 clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown's Bowen House.
The clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown’s Bowen House.

BOWEN HOUSE

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.

Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social's latest resurrection is divine.
Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social’s latest resurrection is divine.

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.

Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way.
Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way. (Photo courtesy of Industry Alley Bar)

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.

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

JETTISON

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.

Dallas cocktails
Midnight Rambler: Setting the pace in Dallas-Fort Worth’s craft-cocktail scene.

MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

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.

If it's gin and whiskey beauty you seek, venture to The Mitchell.
If the beauty of whiskey and gin you seek, venture to The Mitchell.

THE MITCHELL

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.

Bartender Jesse Powell dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.
Bartender Jesse Powell, dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.

PARLIAMENT

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.

Rock steady: The People's Last Stand.
Rock steady: The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station.

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.

Brian McCullough's battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.
Brian McCullough’s battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.

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.

Bars of the Year 2013
A wry, loose attitude and remarkable consistency define this craft-cocktail institution on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue.

THE USUAL

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.

Victor Tangos restaurant in Dallas. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)
Lively and inventive, Victor Tangos still makes craft-cocktailers’ hearts skip a beat. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)

VICTOR TANGOS

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.

TBD Kitchen opens in Castle Hills: Are suburbanites ready for Latin cocktails?

TBD Kitchen
Bartender Daniel Guillen, now dropping drinks and knowledge in faraway suburbia.

 

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.”

Castle Hills
TBD Kitchen, Guillen’s latest venture with owner Sean Conner at the Village Shops in Castle Hills.

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.

Castle Hills, Daniel Guillen
The Daisy — a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation — is a TBD staple.

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.”

Daniel Guillen
Guillen’s mission to bring Latin cocktails to the masses continues at TBD Kitchen.

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.

TBD Kitchen
These guys: Conner, a veteran of Victor Tango’s and Whiskey Cake, with partner Daniel Guillen.

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.”

Fortified by rising U.S. sales, pisco has a new backer — the Peruvian government — and Texas is its number-one target

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
At last month’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, bartender Jim Kearns’ of New York’s Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley used pisco in his slightly spicy Tierra D’Oro.

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.

Pisco Porton Dallas tour
This week, at Dallas’ Midnight Rambler, Pisco Porton’s Johnny Schuler led a session for local bartenders on Peruvian’s national spirit.

“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.)

Takes of the Cocktail 2015
Pisco supporters include pioneering bar man and personality Tony Abou-Ganim, who dished out his Pisco Punch variation at Tales of the Cocktail last month.

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.”

Pisco Porton Tour, Dallas
At Stop No. 3 of Schuler’s Dallas tour, bartender Daniel Guillen’s outstanding Brujeria featured Pisco Porton, mezcal, apricot liqueur, lime, cinnamon and torched rosemary.

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.

Pisco Porton Dallas Tour
Schuler, left, at Dallas’ Stephan Pyles with Henry’s Majestic bar manager Alex Fletcher.

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.

Johnny Schüler
Attendees of Schuler’s five-stop Dallas visit could ride along on Pisco Porton’s increasingly lively rented coach.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
At last month’s pisco tasting room, Peru’s trade commission went all-out to evoke Peruvian flavor.

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.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Peru’s pisco tasting room included a photo station where attendees could don traditional garb.

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.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Peru: Showing some national spirit.

Smoke gets in your drink: Mezcal is having its moment and you should enjoy it

Mexican Sugar
Mexican Sugar’s Benito Juarez: A cocktail worthy of the name.

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.

Laura Ball, Origin
The Mexican Martini showed how well agave spirits and Yellow Chartreuse play together.

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.

Hector Zavala, Henry's Majestic
Doing things the Old-Fashioned way is a fine approach for mezcal.

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.

Creighten Brown, Tate's
More layers than an enchilada casserole: Mr. Brown Goes to Oaxaca takes you places.

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.

Moses Guidry, Twenty Seven
Mezcal boldly steps in for pisco in Twenty Seven’s weekend tipple.

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.

Gabe Sanchez, Black Swan Saloon
Remember that scene in True Romance where Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper face off? This is that scene in a cocktail.

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.

 

At South American-themed cocktail dinner, Peruvian bartender will showcase the character of his continent

Daniel Guillen
This swig of rum, served with lime, salt and coffee, will be among the surprises unveiled at Wednesday’s dinner.

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.”

Proof + Pantry
Guillen, formerly of La Duni and now doing time at Proof + Pantry, has a wealth of South American knowledge to share.

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.

Doors open for dinner at 6 with an aperitif to start. Reservations can be made via credit card at rsvp@twentysevendallas.com.

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.

 

Twenty Seven’s cocktail game: Whatever it is, that thing put a spell on me

Moses Guidry, Twenty Seven
Hey. Smoke Ring: Let me stand next to your fire.

In Twenty Seven, I found Nirvana. And the Doors, Joplin and Hendrix, too. The recently debuted Deep Ellum restaurant from “underground dinner” purveyor David Anthony Temple has been open barely a month, but it’s not just the food that may take a little piece of your heart.

Twenty Seven’s compact bar, with barely a handful of stools, assumes the spotlight late Saturdays when the place burns the midnight lamp as XXVII Antique, with live lounge music from 11:30 pm to 2 am. But with a solid, just-launched cocktail menu from bar manager Moses Guidry, it shouldn’t be overlooked anytime.

“It’s a classic cocktail menu to go with the mystique of the place, the energy,” says Guidry, who works most nights at the Front Room Tavern at the Hotel Lumen near SMU. “(Twenty Seven) definitely has that classic, speakeasy vibe.”

The restaurant operates Thursday through Saturday, with four tasting menus and two seating times nightly. The space nicely reflects Temple’s animated, stylishly gonzo personality, from the dining room’s vintage touches to the barrage of art paraphernalia honoring rock icons Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain – all lost to the world at age 27 – in the restrooms and adjacent corridor.

David Anthony Temple
Twenty Seven recalls the iconic rockers of the so-called 27 Club.

Aside from a classic Old Fashioned and a slightly altered Aviation, Guidry’s drinks are off the beaten path, appealing to the earnest imbiber. Vodka is nowhere to be seen. Instead, there are variations on lesser known gems like the martini-esque Ford Cocktail and the A La Louisiane, a cousin of the Vieux Carre.

Guidry’s Smoke Ring, an agave-based spin on the Pisco Sour, is especially notable. Subbing mezcal and tequila for milder pisco, it enlivens the standard mix of simple syrup, lime, egg white and bitters with bracing cucumber. Cool and smooth with the faintest bit of smoky heat, it’s offered with a swirl of Peychaud’s bitters and a sea-salt-sprinkled jalapeno coin to entertain the eyes and nose. “It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or who think it’s too intense in other cocktails they’ve tried,” Guidry says.

The hardy A La Louisiana is another standout, pumping up the rye quotient and adding chocolate bitters to A La Louisiane’s classic formula of Benedictine, sweet vermouth and a bit of absinthe. The shade of summer tea, it breathes of orange peel and cocoa, with a warm rye finish tame enough to break on through to most palates. “I’m not a bourbon drinker, but I could drink that,” said the foxy lady sitting to my right.

Moses Guidry, Twenty Seven
A La Lousiana: For the La. Woman in you.

Less successful during one visit was the Night Rider, a bold after-dinner-style cocktail that marries the herbaceous French bitter liqueur Suze with an espresso-infused Cynar (an Italian artichoke-flavored bitter) and an attending party of vermouth, orange juice, egg white, vanilla extract and chocolate bitters. However, its potential was lost in a purple haze of aggressive coffee.

The list also features the Ford’s Cocktail, a blend of the longstanding Ford and Vancouver cocktails, but done with Ford’s gin; meanwhile, the Aviation sports the sweet Luxardo cherry liqueur and eschews the usual lavender Crème de Violette altogether. In all, there are 10 drinks on the menu, but that will grow by several in the coming weeks and rotate when called for.

“We’re going to keep it seasonal,” Guidry says. “David’s got the freshest ingredients in the kitchen, so clearly we’re going to use those at the bar as well.”

The drink list currently stands at nine but in time will likely hover around a dozen.  Among the additions will be the Purple Reyes, which will light your whiskey fire with bourbon, ancho chile liqueur, Cynar, cherry liqueur and chocolate bitters.

Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

Twenty Seven
Bar manager Moses Guidry stirring up smoke.

2013 tried hard to be mean, but the scene in ’14 still looks keen: DFW’s best craft-cocktail bars

Windmill Lounge
Charlie Papaceno’s down-home Windmill Lounge: Still among Dallas’ standout craft-cocktail bars. (Marc Ramirez)

Oh, 2013. You hater. You tried so hard to suck. In the summer, just days after influential bar man Jason Kosmas announced he was taking his talents to Austin, you pulled the plug on my beloved Private/Social, where bar manager Rocco Milano had overseen one of the best cocktail programs in town. Then, last month, you shocked us with the sudden exit of Michael Martensen and his crew of highly talented bartenders from Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social, the two brightest stars in DFW’s craft-cocktail culture. With the unfolding of The Great Unpleasantness, a scene that had solidly come of age at last lost its innocence.

But hey, that’s part of growing up. And despite assertions to the contrary, craft cocktails as we head toward 2014 are alive and swell, showing no signs of peaking: Milano has resurfaced in a major way; Eddie “Lucky” Campbell is preparing to launch Parliament; Asian-Latin fusion restaurant Chino Chinatown has opened in Trinity Groves with Ian Reilly at the bar-program helm; Origin has restyled itself in Knox-Henderson with a promising drink lineup; and the Smyth/Cedars Social diaspora is sprinkling its goodies all over town.

Are you not entertained? To what do we owe this good fortune? It’s because we, my thirsty friends, have proven ourselves worthy. We’re a smarter bunch now when it comes to craft cocktails; our palates now welcome more flavor, complexity and originality. We like menus that mirror the season, varied but not overwhelming, with options both accessible and challenging. We want bartenders steeped in history and craft and eager to command the palettes of flavor at their disposal, ready to improvise when able. Is that asking too much?

No. And DFW has answered the call. Here are my top 10 spots as we head into 2014, in alphabetical order, BECAUSE.

ABACUS

Bars of the Year 2013
Bartender Jordan Gantenbein, one of Abacus’ signature Men in Black, pours out a line of 75’s. (Marc Ramirez)

OK, I’ll admit: I hadn’t set foot into Abacus since I first moved to Dallas three years ago – at least not until chef Ken Rathbun lured Lucky Campbell away from The Standard Pour in Uptown. Campbell, whose bumpy road has taken him from The Mansion at Turtle Creek to renown at Bolsa to the short, chaotic life of The Chesterfield and then to TSP, set about infusing Abacus’ solid martini-and-bubbly-focused menu with the Pacific Rim sensibilities that inform the five-star restaurant’s kitchen. The result: a boost of energy and derring-do behind the bar that have given Abacus’ Men in Black new street cred.

BARTER

Bars of the Year 2013
At the newly opened Barter, drink wizard Rocco Milano has a new workshop for his alchemy. (Marc Ramirez)

Where Rocco Milano goes, magic follows. The execution of Private/Social paved the way for a makeover of the Uptown space, and the results are terrific: The vibe is warm and woodsy, and the bar has been opened up to give Milano and his top-notch staff room to move more freely. The house cocktails are unsurprisingly great, but it’s the added features that really set Barter apart: Milano’s “book-of-the-month” set will feature selected drinks from different classic cocktail tomes every month; first up is David Embury’s 1948 classic, “The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks.” Add to that a mix of high-end choose-your-poison flights and an innovative series of pours that illustrate liqueurs in various stages, and you’ll see why Milano is the cocktail geek’s cocktail geek.

BLACK SWAN SALOON

Bars of the Year 2013
Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name presides over the bar with no sign — the shadowy Black Swan. (Marc Ramirez)

Gabe Sanchez’ one-ring circus in Deep Ellum has a cult following, and with good reason: He’s been quietly cranking out some of Dallas’ more original concoctions at this dimly lighted, low-key speakeasy with the badass vibe you’d expect from a bar in the city’s tattoo epicenter. The Swan’s staff now walk the tightrope without the net of a cocktail menu, playing to tastes and whatever Sanchez has cooked up that day. Smoked fig jam with rye? You’ll find that here.

CENTRAL 214

Bars of the Year 2013
At Central 214, cocktails are farm fresh, a reflection of Amber West’s enthusiasm for gardening. (Marc Ramirez)

Bar manager Amber West has been among the city’s under-sung cocktail heroes, avidly and expertly using seasonal ingredients in her creations. Example: The gin-based, garden-in-a-glass First Course, like so many of her cocktails, is as beautiful to behold as it is to imbibe, with flecks of Tom Spicer’s arugula dotting its translucent surface; her Honeysuckle Gimlet is another standout. Though she’s moving into more of a consulting role to focus on gardening, the cocktails at Central 214 — located inside Hotel Palomar off the Central Expressway — will continue to carry her imprint.

FIVE SIXTY

Best bars of 2013
The buttoned-up precision of Five Sixty: It ain’t cheap, but the drinks are most excellent. (Marc Ramirez)

The spinning modern-Asian-themed Wolfgang Puck restaurant at the top of Reunion Tower has more to offer than a fantastic view. Yes, you’ll have to endure a 45-second elevator ride and the beastly $16 price tag per cocktail, but the drinks are a journey in themselves. They’re part of a rotating series of libations designed by the chain’s Lee Hefter — bold, original and artfully presented, mirroring the restaurant’s sophisticated vibe. Try the gorgeous Fog Rolling Over Mount Fuji or the Locked and Loaded, both among my top cocktails of 2012.

HIBISCUS

Best bars of 2013
Bar manager Grant Parker has given Hibiscus one of the city’s better cocktail programs. (Sheila Abbott)

Seats at the bar are few at this Henderson Avenue mainstay, but they’re worth the wait to gain an audience with bar manager Grant Parker, whose behind-the-bar expertise continues to steadily lift Hibiscus to new mixology heights. Parker hopes to gradually expand the drink menu with more adventurous offerings, but for now try his play on the lesser-known classic Emerson (also among my top-rated  drinks of 2012) or the luscious, rye-based Brown and Stirred.

LARK ON THE PARK

Bars of the Year 2013
Damon Bird of Klyde Warren Park area’s Lark on the Park, a welcome newbie on the craft-cocktail scene. (Marc Ramirez)

This Klyde Warren Park newcomer is a solid playa in the craft-cocktail game, excelling at wintery drinks in particular, so now’s the time to go and warm up your belly. Bar manager Matt Orth and his crew respect seasonality and do nice spins on the classics, too; if you’re into Sazeracs or Negronis, ask for one of their variations and you won’t be disappointed.

THE STANDARD POUR

Bars of the Year 2013
One of the signature chalk murals at The Standard Pour, a Dallas craft-cocktail mainstay. (Marc Ramirez)

Stacked at Ground Zero of the madhouse Uptown scene, barman Brian McCullough’s strong crew is primed to feed the weekend’s party-minded mainstream tastes, armed with what must be the largest arsenal of Moscow Mule mugs outside of wherever it is Moscow Mule mugs come from. But take a closer look at the bar’s wide-ranging, Prohibition-Era-themed menu and you’ll find lots more than vodka. It also doesn’t hurt that the dark, vintage-lounge-style space exudes fun, or that its chalk-mural-adorned bar is often a refuge for displaced craft bartenders (see Abacus, Bar Smyth, The Cedars Social above).

THE USUAL

Bars of the Year 2013
A loose attitude and mad skillz mark this consistently good spot on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue. (Marc Ramirez)

I love this place, from its wry, respectable menu on up to its sleek, chill vibe and a team of able bartenders who never seem to be in short supply. The modest house drink list is nice – try the gin and apricot liqueur-fueled Parlor – but it’s the off-road adventures that are really fun; a spin on the classic Hanky Panky, for instance, or something using the most recent bottle on the shelf.

WINDMILL LOUNGE

Bars of the Year 2013
Windmill’s Charlie Papaceno introduced me to Ancho Reyes, a newly released ancho-chile-based liqueur. (Marc Ramirez)

The godfather of them all. Charlie Papaceno and Louise Owens have been crafting cocktails since 2008 in this dive-y spot off a remote stretch of Maple Avenue. Jason Kosmas – the co-owner of New York City’s Employees Only and spirit line The 86 Co. – did time here after moving to Texas, and early adopters Campbell and Martensen threw down in friendly competition back when as well. It’s still a bartender’s bar; you’ll find a number of mixers bellied up here, drawn by the Windmill’s unpretentious atmosphere and the staff’s easygoing approach. But there’s skill here, too, and innovation; it was Charlie who introduced me recently to Ancho Reyes, a recently released ancho-chile liqueur, and the bar was listed among Esquire Magazine’s top bars of America earlier this year.

Looking forward to what 2014 may bring!

Honorable mentions: Bolsa, Victor Tango’s, Boulevardier

Ones to watch: Chino, Parliament, The Cedars Social

Holiday spirits: The buzz from Cocktails For A Cause 2013

Matt Orth, Lark on the Park
He’s making a drink, he’s shaking it twice. Doing good for goodness’ sake, at Cocktails for a Cause 2013. (Marc Ramirez)

Whatever you were up to Sunday night, it was likely nowhere near as fun as the scene that blazed at The Standard Pour in Uptown, where Santa came early in the form of 50-plus bartenders who rained cocktails upon their imbibing elf minions. Beneath the rapids of glittering tinsel, a DJ dropped beats for the wall-to-wall crowd there to support Cocktails For A Cause, the second annual event benefiting Trigger’s Toys, a Dallas charity serving hospitalized children.

In the wake of The Great Unpleasantness that in recent weeks has thrown two of Dallas’ nationally recognized establishments into uncertainty, this was a much-needed breath of fresh air: The mood was frothier than a Ramos Gin Fizz, and aside from holiday cheer it came from, more than anything, the palpable sense of community that often goes unnoticed beyond the confines of DFW’s mixology circles. Bartenders who’d missed out on last year’s event had clamored to volunteer at this year’s, and the end result was a Holly-Jolly-palooza of craft-cocktail talent. These were the men and women who, as Abacus’ Eddie “Lucky” Campbell would later put it, have changed the way that DFW drinks – among them Campbell himself in his signature fedora; Windmill Lounge’s Charlie Papaceno in a gold smoking jacket; Jason Kosmas of The 86 Co.; and several Santa-fied shakers including Barter’s Rocco Milano and Michael Martensen, formerly of Smyth and The Cedars Social.

Cocktails for a Cause 2013
Bartenders Michael Martensen and Rocco Milano (foreground) and Christian Armando (background) were among the event’s top-notch talent. (Marc Ramirez)

Combined with what sponsoring spirit makers had contributed, a whopping $45,000 was raised for the cause. “It’s still overwhelming to me,” said Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, who co-coordinated the event along with Whiskey Cake’s Sean Conner and Trigger’s Toys founder Bryan Townsend.

Actually, make that causes, plural: During the event, bartender Milano was informed that some of the proceeds would help defray expenses he and his girlfriend have accumulated in care of their months-old baby boy, who has been dealing with medical complications.

“Am I surprised? Yes,” Milano said. “Am I shocked? No. The greatest strength I always felt Dallas’ cocktail community has is a sense of family and unity.”

He was touched to receive such support, he said, despite his absence from the scene in recent months: Even as he made preparations to run the bar program at the just-opened Barter, he and his girlfriend were spending weeks upon weeks living in Ronald McDonald Houses in Fort Worth and Houston, where their son was receiving medical care.

“It’s a tremendous blessing, to be sure,” he said.

Hugs abounded, and then so did drinks and camaraderie; afterward, even as the post-club buzz fluffed up your senses and echoed in your ears, it was clear that something special had gone down.

“Last night might have been one of the best nights of my life,” wrote Townsend of Trigger’s Toys on his Facebook page. “… The overpowering support was just so profound I don’t know if it could ever be measured or explained unless you were there to see it for yourself…. We as a group and as a community did something bigger than ourselves, and it feels amazing.”

Cocktails for a Cause 2013
Even Austin’s Jason Kosmas, who helped put Dallas on the craft-cocktail map, came out to help with the cause. (Marc Ramirez)