For any serious Dallas cocktail fan, the crew behind the bar Sunday would have looked familiar – Austin Millspaugh, Jorge Herrera and Christian Rodriguez, the popular Thursday night crew from The Standard Pour in Uptown – jostling shakers, swirling liquids, torching lemon peels and working the room in their dapper TSP uniforms. It was a practiced environment for the TSP crew, but a typical Uptown crowd this was not. A glimpse outside made it clear: They weren’t in Dallas anymore.
Chinatown was a half-mile away; the Transamerica Pyramid a few blocks beyond that. Five miles to the west, the Golden Gate Bridge. On Sunday, the Standard Pour team – which in recent months has made a habit of doing guest pop-ups at other bars – took things to a whole new level, bringing their traveling “TSP Takeover” to Pacific Cocktail Haven, or PCH, one of San Francisco’s newer cocktail joints.
“We’re going into a West Coast stronghold,” Millspaugh had said before the trip, aware that the city, along with New York, had forged the beginnings of today’s craft-cocktail revival. “We have to bring our A-game.”
And that they did, with a six-drink lineup sponsored by Pernod Ricard USA. As with their previous pop-ups at Dallas’ Industry Alley and High & Tight, it was all for charity – with Planned Parenthood the recipient of this night’s proceeds.
Though PCH has hosted guest bartenders before, “we’ve never had a team take over the bar,” said Kevin Diedrich, PCH’s operating partner. The bar, typically closed on Sundays, had opened for this special event. “It’s a cool way to share what we do, but also for them to share with they do. We went through the drink list this afternoon. There’s some cool flavors. They’re pushing the boundaries.”
There was Rodriguez’ tropical Bad and Boujee, a mix of tequila, horchata, lime, cinnamon-vanilla syrup, Topo Chico and tiki bitters.
Herrera’s Tourist Trap was a crowd favorite featuring Irish whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, bittersweet liqueur, sweet vermouth and a tobacco tincture.
Millspaugh, meanwhile, in typical Millspaughian fashion, had concocted the cocktail equivalent of caramel-truffle popcorn with his disorientingly delicious Light, Camera, Action – an ensemble of Irish whiskey, nutty Oloroso sherry, popcorn liquid, dehyrdrated foie gras and black truffle salt.
“It’s weird,” said one woman, a Stanford University instructor. “I feel like I’m drinking a movie.”
The TSP team showcased Texas hospitality and flair, with Millspaugh at one point grating dehydrated foie gras directly into a woman’s mouth. He, Herrera and Rodriguez have drawn a loyal following on Thursdays at The Standard Pour, which has made a habit of trying not to be a standard bar.
Last year, the McKinney Avenue venue featured a weekly series of guest crews from other Dallas bars; a weekly event felt like too much, so as 2017 rolled around they brainstormed. What if the TSP team spent one night a month working at other bars, they thought? “We’re just trying to get our names out there,” Rodriguez says.
Their first “takeover” took place at Knox-Henderson’s Atwater Alley, after which Herrera proposed the idea of doing it all for a good cause. April’s event at Industry Alley, sponsored by Remy Cointreau, benefited Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, while proceeds from their March pop-up at Deep Ellum’s High & Tight, sponsored by Avion tequila and St. Germain, went to the Dallas office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Each event raised $1,300 or more for charity.
They recently met Jessamine McClellan, the San Francisco-based national brand ambassador for Redbreast Irish whiskey, and told her about the project, pitching the idea of taking their show on the road. She suggested the idea to Diedrich, who agreed to host the TSP crew. The Standard Pour offered to partially subsidize their trip, and the deal was done.
“The idea is, one, to showcase the place we work at, and two, to give back,” Millspaugh said. “It’s, like, paying it forward.”
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.”
It’s a scene still in the nest, but you wouldn’t know it from the mob scene at Maison Artemisia, an old-timey-chic urban hideaway in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood. As befits the global metropolis of 8.8 million, the bar’s three-deep lines are plush with people from all over – but on this night, many are in Mexico City for the most recent episode in a series of cocktail and spirits conferences set in places around the world.
Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) – the spirits-minded juggernaut behind the eponymous annual festival every summer in New Orleans – came to Mexico last week, its latest push to highlight up-and-coming mixology markets worldwide as the U.S.-led craft-cocktail renaissance continues to chart new terrain. It’s called Tales of the Cocktail on Tour, and like a pared-down version of its mammoth mothership in NOLA, the bartender-oriented event is a mix of workshops, distillery tours, networking, distributor-sponsored brunches and parties and the chance to visit the bars leading the local charge.
“We pick markets that we see bubbling up and shine a spotlight on them,” said TOTC founder Anne Tuennerman. “When we say we’re going to a city, people think, there must be something going on there.”
The intent is to showcase each city’s potential for distributors and brand ambassadors and to enrich the local soil of knowledge with the wisdom and talents of industry veterans and experts like tiki writer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Esquire columnist David Wondrich. In turn, visiting bartenders gain insight into local ingredients and methods to take back home. Sponsor companies build brand loyalty. Ultimately, the rest of us get to drink better drinks in more places. Everybody wins.
The Tales on Tour gatherings are held in successive years before moving on to a new city, leaving the young bird to fly on its own. Mexico City is the third city to fall into the TOTC spotlight; Vancouver and Buenos Aires were before that. “What’s really cool is to see these cities after Tales has been there once,” said bar consultant Don Lee of Cocktail Kingdom, an online bar-implements and spirits literature seller. “They’re excited to grow.”
Having Tales come to Vancouver “was huge,” said bartender Dani Tatarin of the city’s Keefer Bar. “It gave us an extra push of publicity that people could see, and it highlighted the talents of people in the industry. Since then, we’ve kind of nurtured it along.”
The Mexico City attendees came from all over, from locals like Carlos Mendoza and Mauricio Hernandez of Podcast Borracho (“Drunken Podcast”) to a sizable posse from Guadalajara. There were bartenders from Austin, Key West, Miami, New York and Bellevue, Wash., cocktail writers from Seattle and Paris; groupies from Boston. Others came from countries like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia and Australia.
One afternoon, we piled into coaches for a tour of Bacardi’s Mexico plant in Cuautitlan Izcalli, an hour away from central Mexico City toward the state of Queretaro. Along the way, we rolled past graffiti’d embankments, homes with rooftop clotheslines and sprawling hillside communities before reaching the plant, where we found music, a carnivore’s lunch and, of course, mojitos and Cuba Libres. My favorite of the batch was La Familia, a well-rounded rumba of Bacardi, orange juice, Fino Sherry and sweet vermouth served in a coupe with a side of gooey, delicious chocolate-glazed popcorn or a slab of chocolate. It was a pleasingly perfect match.
In the facility’s musty, sweetly aromatic barrel storage warehouse, overhead misters moistened the air – and our hair. “It smells so good in here,” said bartender Juan Carlos Machuca of Guadalajara, where he’s creating cocktails for a new restaurant.
The next day brought a lineup of workshops and discussions, from the merits of sugar and modern bar technique to the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and the “dark ages” of mixology (1958-1977), when convenience and quantity bested style and substance. “The Margarita suffered tremendously in the 1970s,” said writer Berry. “The blender was basically The Devil back then. It made life easier for bartenders.”
Each night brought chances to sample Mexico City’s fairly new but mostly impressive craft-cocktail culture, sprouting primarily in the trendy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods. (That’s also true for mezcalerias, such as La Nacional and Sobrinos, that specialize in tequila’s smokier cousin.) Spirits like Diplomatico Rum and Chivas Regal sponsored special menus during Tales’ run and bartenders from around the world came to help staff the busy bar nights. In general, drinks ran about $6-12 U.S.
“Designer cocktails are still a very small niche,” said a local food and drink blogger who goes by the handle Gastronauta. “It’s growing, but slowly.”
In addition to Maison Artemisia and pair of rogue visits to mezcalerias, I was only to get to barely a half-dozen spots on Tales’ itinerary, including Baltra and Bar Lilit. These were my three favorites:
LICORERIA LIMANTOUR, the city’s first real craft-cocktail bar when it opened three years ago. Next door to mezcal-minded Sobrinos in the Roma area, its two floors of well-crafted cocktails and dark elegance overlook busy Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Visiting mixologist Sebastian Gans’ of Paris’ Candelaria made one of my favorite cocktails of the week, the apricot-shaded Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, yellow lime and ginger. Even the shot-sized sangrita Gans made to complement a bit of straight tequila was outstanding, with mango, tomato, coriander, lime and chipotle.
JULES’ BASEMENT, in the ritzy Polanco neighborhood, is a nicely conceived speakeasy below a Mexican restaurant accessed by what at first looks to be the door of the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. (There is a large, suited doorman outside. And a small hostess.) If you’re lucky enough to be on the list, the door will open, and the sound of thumping bass will signal the dark otherworld below. Down the stairs and you’re in a low-ceilinged, dance club atmosphere where able bartenders crank out house drinks and classics like the Cucaracha, Old Cuban and Mary Pickford. Overall, not typically my scene, but the drinks were well executed and the service was top-notch.
BAR FELINA: If I lived here, this low-key but classy refuge sited in the quirky, subdued Hipodromo neighborhood near Condesa would be my hang. There, Minneapolis transplant Jane Soli-Holt could be credited for one of the best Old Fashioneds I’ve had in some time – a beautifully presented Almond Old Fashioned made with Angostura 1919 rum, almond-cinnamon syrup, orange-allspice bitters, Angostura bitters and a thin curl or two of mulato pepper. Its sweetness spoke of depth rather than cloyingness. The bar’s casual vibe was accented by a DJ spinning classic vinyl dorm-room-style. It was more of a den in which to enjoy fine drinks and talk about big ideas than a place to see and be seen.
Beyond that, Mexico City itself was a sensory delight, from its plentiful in-city parks to the magnificence of the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the grandiosity of Plaza de la Constitucion. I enjoyed one of the best street-taco experiences ever at hole-in-the-wall Los Cocuyos, no doubt just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy and inexpensive to get around; Uber operates in Mexico City now along with worthwhile competitors, such as Yaxi. I loved how street-crossing was a constant game of Frogger, as equally well played by the elderly as the young; cars and people move in closer proximity on busy city streets than we are used to here. And one of the finest views in the city can be had from an eighth-floor café in the Sears Department store.
But for cocktail fans, it’s good to know that you can visit the city and find a decent drink, a situation that in Tales’ wake seems only destined to improve.
“You have no idea how important this is to us,” said Philippe Zaigue, Mexico brand ambassador for Havana Club rum. “It’s allowed us to communicate to the world what we’re doing. And, it will give us the feedback we need to make things better.”
I’ve got time to spare, so as I’ve been known to do on lazy afternoons, I’m sitting at a bar having a classic Negroni, and not a bad one at that: This mix of Old Raj gin, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Campari is just the tonic to get me through the rest of my day.
The drink menu is admirable, with two dozen decent cocktails to enjoy on its granite-countertopped bar – including a Sazerac, Pisco Sour, Caipirinha, Pimm’s Cup, Moscow Mule, a Daiquiri laced with Strega and 10 drinks featuring Colorado-based spirits like Leopold’s gin or Stranahan’s whiskey. But here’s where it gets weird: The ceiling is a hundred feet overhead, and in the distance, monitors flash the details of arriving and departing flights. No, it’s not your typical cocktail joint, and it’s in one of the last places you’d look for such a thing – on the upper level of Denver International Airport’s Concourse B.
Lounge 5280 is a traveling cocktail fan’s dream come true, one of the country’s few authentic craft-cocktail bars actually based in an airport. Naturally, the menu features the classic Aviation, while behind the bar spirits like Averna and Nolet’s gin offer promise. There’s even a rotating barrel-aged cocktail. Did I mention this is at an airport? “Nobody makes drinks like we do at the airport,” bartender Jony Castaneda told me during my visit last October. “We’re the only one who muddles and does things like that.”
And yet: Does this not make so much sense? Think about it: You’re finally through security. The car is parked, the shuttle taken, the last-minute worries dealt with: Where did you put your ID? What’s your flight number again? You’ve endured the humorless cattle-herd gauntlet of shoes-off, laptops-out, liquids-gone, everything-out-of-your-pockets mayhem, and if there’s one thing you could use right now, dammit, it’s a decent drink.
But unless you’ve got access to an exclusive club like American Express’ Centurion Lounge, good luck finding one at an airport. “It’s almost the last frontier,” said Jacob Briars, Bacardi Rum’s education director, at a workshop dedicated to the topic at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) conference in New Orleans. (The panelists also listed their top 10 airport bars worldwide: See their list at the end of this post.)
Things weren’t always that bad. Back in the days of Pan Am and such, airports and airplanes were posh places to be. The idea of air travel was exciting and glamorous, the relaxing and service-oriented prelude to the destinations that waited. Not everybody could do it: Air travel was linked with affluence and passengers pampered by fashion-model stewardesses. “No wonder people dressed up to fly,” said Charlotte Voisey, portfolio ambassador for liquor giant William Grant & Sons USA, at the same workshop. “They were used to that kind of thing on the ground.”
But as airlines and airports tussled for business and as realities of global instability prompted restrictive security measures, that culture gradually devolved. Getting from one’s car to the boarding gate is now an obstacle course of stress, and concourse options — including liquor — typically hover near lowest common denominator. “Part of the problem is that expectations are so low,” says Dallas’ Chris Furtado, Texas manager for Utah-based High West distillery, recalling his own air-travel experiences. “You just find the least obnoxious thing you can (on the shelf), and that’s what you’re going to order…. It’s a shame, because if there’s ever a time you need a good drink, it’s at the airport.”
Until recently the best you could say about an airport cocktail was, “It was pretty good – for an airport bar.” Last year, when Esquire published a guide on “How To Navigate the Airport Bar,” the magazine offered this instruction: “You’re ordering a beer; maybe a Scotch, neat. Airport bartenders are not mixologists. They’re barely bartenders.” (The magazine also said: “There will be no ordering of poppers, jalapeno or otherwise.” Wise words, indeed.)
But as the taste for craft cocktails grows, spots like Denver’s Lounge 5280 are flying in the face of such perceptions. Not so much yet in Texas, where Bloody Marys, mimosas, sweet-and-sour-mix Margarita variations and fruity vodka concoctions are still the rule. (And demand for those pales next to mixed drinks like rum-and-cokes or plain old brew. “Beer is still the mother lode,” says spokeswoman Cynthia Vega of Dallas-Fort Worth International.)
This fall, however, will bring the opening of Wild Bleu Martini Bar at DFW’s revamped Terminal A, while last year, both DFW and Love Field welcomed Stephan Pyles’ Sky Canyon, a restaurant whose cocktail list is at least a baby step in the right direction. “People are sophisticated about their drinking now,” Sky Canyon bartender Jeff Landesberg told me as he built a drink with bourbon, Dr. Pepper and Benedictine, a honey-flavored liqueur. “You have to carry a lot more (stock) than you did before – like Benedictine.”
In choosing Wild Bleu, DFW’s Vega says, airport officials specifically eyed a cocktail bar, and while it remains to be seen whether the site will lean classic or cheesy, it does seem to signal that concessions directors have evolving tastes on their radars. “This is just the beginning of our efforts to offer a whole new category of drinks for our passengers,” said Zenola Campbell, the airport’s vice president for concessions.
Bassam Odeh, Wild Bleu’s co-owner, says the restaurant/bar will feature Mediterranean food to soak up its mixologist-designed martini selection. His business partner is former NFL player Ray Mickens; the two run other airport fast-food mainstays like Qdoba. When they told a few NFL wives about the martini lounge idea, Odeh said, “they were so excited. They said, `It’s about time someone opened an elegant bar in the airport.’ ”
So while American airport bars have a long way to go to rival places like Sweden’s Casa Bacardi, London-Heathrow’s Grey Goose Loft or the iconic Jet’s Bar in Belize, things are starting to take off. It might be too early to envision fresh-squeezed juices at DFW airports, but there’s light at the end of the runway.
“There’s just this recognition,” says DFW’s Vega, “that people value their time in the airport.”
TOP 10 AIRPORT BARS IN THE WORLD
Not every airport bar can be St. Maarten’s Island’s Sunset Bar & Grill., where topless women drink for free. And to be fair, the bar isn’t actually at Princess Juliana International Airport but on a white-sand beach at the end of the runway with landing jets passing just overhead.
But there’s no question that the quality of airport-based bars is on the rise. At last year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, dressed-for-the-part panelists Jacob Briars, education director for Bacardi Rum, Charlotte Voisey, portfolio ambassador for William Grant & Sons USA, and Doug Draper, director of adult beverage and bar development for HMS Host, concluded their seminar on airport bars with a list of their Top 10 airport craft-cocktail bars worldwide.
10. Buena Vista Cafe, SFO – at San Francisco International’s Terminal 3, “where you can get the one drink San Francisco is justifiably famous for,” Briars said, referring to the Irish Coffee.
8. Tortas Frontera, ORD – Rick Bayless’ Chicago restaurant has three outlets at O’Hare International Airport, featuring what the panelists called “an extraordinary selection of mescal.”
7. Little Ludlow, MEL – At Melbourne’s International Terminal, with a view of airplanes on the tarmac. “It’s quite comforting,” Briars said. “There’s a sense of motion. There’s (also) a weird mix of espresso martinis and classic cocktails.”
6. Blanco, PHX – at Terminal 4 of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. A local chain whose great Mexican food is supplemented with a terrific tequila selection.
5. 5280 Lounge, DEN – The panelists praised 5280 for ambience and its natural skylight.
4. Center Bar, ZRH – Another bar with a tarmac view, this beautifully designed bar in Zurich, Switzerland, features a standout whiskey selection.
3. Eyecon, CPH – In addition to cocktails featuring Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway-flavored spirit, Copenhagen’s cocktail gem also offers Scandinavian small bites.
2. Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, LHR – it’s a little unfair to include this on the list since it’s only open to Virgin business-class passengers or other premium card holders, “but to me, it’s the best airport bar in world,” Briars said. “They have an amazing staff, and fresh ingredients.”
1. One Flew South, ATL – the top spot is an oasis among Atlanta’s sprawling dump of an airport, the panelists said: With a modest and well-executed cocktail menu leaning toward brown spirits, “it’s actually a reason to go to Atlanta,” they said.
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