The idea behind Dallas’ Network Bar is simple. It’s a craft-cocktail bar where you network. The members-only concept from Phil Romano and Stuart Fitts, which targets career-minded professionals, opens Monday at Trinity Groves.
Granted, there are networking happy hours you could attend for free, so why would you shell out $500 to $1,000 to become a member of Network Bar?
Here are five possible reasons.
1.Because of the networking, of course.
Yes, you could do your networking in a place meant for drinking. But here, you can do your drinking in a place meant for networking. According to its website, Network Bar “takes networking and social interaction to another level.”
Members must be recommended by other members and have their applications approved by a committee; those sought are described as “eager, ever curious, always-on-the-hunt individuals (who) thrive on new ideas and problem solving…. They must have a purpose.” In other words, not your garden-variety professionals!
Membership is $500 for those 30 and younger. If you’re older than that, it’s $1,000. As of Friday, membership was up to 217, said the bar’s Stayci Runnels.
Not a member? You can still get in as a member’s guest or, like at your gym, tour the place under the watchful eye of a membership team representative.
2. Because there’s an app for that.
Yes, this club comes with its own mobile app. Once inside the club, members can then peer into the app to see who else is checked in – and then reach out to make connections and exchange digital business cards. Networking!
3. Because of the atmosphere and membership benefits.
Check out those handsome leather chairs. Those brawny barstools, that stylish wood paneling and dim lighting. This place is elegant AF. Cool photographs of wild animals, in soft sepia and stately black and white, gaze at you from the walls, along with a big bison head. Is this not a place you want to freely roam? It’s like you’re in Wayne Manor.
In addition to the expansive old-lodge-y setting, there’s a private meeting room. Otherwise, classy red drapes can be drawn to make public seating clusters more secluded. And the website promises activities such as wine tastings, a lecture/workshop series and fireside chats.
4. Because of the cocktails.
The bar’s drink menu features original cocktails from James Slater, described on Network Bar’s website as “one of the best mixologists in the world.” Lofty praise, indeed, but Slater is indeed no slouch, having previously helmed bars at Knife, Spoon, Oak, Quill and most recently, Idle Rye. (He also created two of my favorite cocktails of 2014.) “This place is different than any place I’ve ever worked,” Slater says; his drink menu will feature 15 cocktails priced from $13-$15, including a frozen rose cocktail and half-dozen barrel-aged ones.
“I’m putting my heart and soul into it,” Slater says.
You may also catch a glimpse of a curious vessel resembling a small silver chalice. What is that, you might (rightfully) wonder? The answer may or may not be the most lavish cocktail in Texas, an off-menu, super-premium concoction featuring a high-end tequila and a dusting of gold flakes.
5. Because of the brain food.
“The Network Bar is committed to nourishing your network as well as your brain,” the website says. That means food and drinks that the club declares will amp up your memory, focus and productivity – think green smoothies, lean proteins and cold-pressed juices. And then think some more.
But really, Network Bar is about rubbing shoulders in a setting designed for that purpose. “You can come in here and talk ideas, make connections, whatever,” says general manager Josh Laudan. “It’s like LinkedIn, but with cocktails. It’s a very unique concept as far as this industry goes.”
Visit Industry Alley these days and you might notice a couple of new faces roaming the bar: Marty Reyes and his wife Jen, who goes by the catchy moniker Jen Ann Tonic.
Known around town for their occasional “Swizzle Luau Lounge” pop-ups, the jaunty tikiphiles and bar-culture enthusiasts have taken up temporary residence in the Cedars neighborhood watering hole. They’re filling in for owner Charlie Papaceno, elder statesman of the Dallas cocktail scene, who’s taking a two-month sabbatical to be with his 91-year-old father in rural New York.
“My dad is having some health issues and I’m going up there to care for him,” said Papaceno, who opened the low-key, classics-minded cocktail bar after leaving the venerable Windmill Lounge in late 2014. “He can’t be alone if we want to keep him in his house.”
While he’s gone, Papaceno is leaving his bar in the hands of the Reyes tiki tandem and bar manager Mike Steele.
The Reyeses say they’re humbled by the chance to oversee a place helping to infuse new life into the area and don’t plan to alter the laid-back, jukebox-and-pool-table feel that’s made it a bar-industry favorite. However, an actual kitchen is on the way along with a seasonal drink lineup, and an off-menu tiki selection may find its way into existence for those who carry the torch.
Papaceno hit the road Tuesday on his way to Warwick, the town where he grew up, and says he’ll be with his ailing dad through the holidays, at least.
“It’ll be nice to spend the last days of his life with him,” he said. “There’s been too many years apart for too many fathers and sons.”
First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal’s pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight – as some believe it should always be – and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.
Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?
A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so – and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as “that bottle with the worm in it.”
Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal’s virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled “Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead.”
When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they’d built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit — even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.
“We’re hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in,” says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker’s Mark. “Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits.”
Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant – but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.
“There’s an immense amount of genetic diversity,” panelist Ivan Suldana, author of “The Anatomy of Mezcal,” told an audience at 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. “We’re talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit.”
Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. “Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different,” he says.
Mezcal’s production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal’s distinctive flavors remember their conversion.
For Samuels, that moment came at Austin’s Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. “That was my first experience,” said Samuels, who’s been tending bar at Oak Cliff’s Bar Belmont throughout the last year. “I didn’t really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, ‘We need a good room to drink mezcal in.’ That led to this.”
Las Almas Rotas – “the broken souls” – will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you’ll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum. “It’s kind of an homage to our speakeasy,” Samuels says. “Just straight spirits and Topo Chico.”
Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown’s Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores (“saints and sinners”) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.
Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.
“We want people to get in love with mezcal,” says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. “It’s, like, with Mexican food. People think they’re eating real Mexican food but it’s actually Tex-Mex.”
Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.
Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel,” of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.
“We basically created a room that we would want to drink in,” Shad Kvetko says.
For their mezcaleria’s actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.
In the movies, Elm Street might be the stuff of nightmares, but in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood, it’s become a cocktail drinker’s reverie. With a growing list of newcomers now riding alongside the unflappable Black Swan Saloon, this hopping stone’s-throw stretch between Good-Latimer and Malcolm X is a destination fit to spend a Saturday afternoon and evening while catching a show nearby.
Here are five drinks, at five different spots, that you could potentially have – or share! – while you’re at it.
PINA COLADA NO. 2 – at Armoury DE
Start at Armoury, because the place opens at 4. Share a duck-heart appetizer with your pal and pair it with the Pina Colada No. 2. This tangy tiki tipple comes from barman Cody Yarbrough, who was browsing through 1895, the excellent olive oil/vinegar shop newly opened a couple blocks away on Main, when he discovered the store’s coconut balsamic. “I tried it and I was, like, we have to do something with this,” Yarbrough said. The PC#2 is the result, a mouthparty of Brazilian cachaca, lime, orgeat and soda, plus that delicious coconut balsamic, garnished with a flamed pineapple.
THE DELIGHT – at Hide
Head to Hide, the cocktail lab near Malcolm X where the bar peeps get all NASA on your cocktails, producing drinks that are more delicious than gimmicky. Spirits are “milk washed” and relieved of their harshness; citrus juices are clarified for a pure veneer; soda and tonic water are eschewed in favor of a lighter-handed carbonating device. And because it’s still early, you’ll want the aperitif-style Delight, a low-proof bittersweet ballet of Aperol and Cynar tamed with grapefruit and elderflower. The cocktail is whirled in a Perlini device for a delicate carbonation; the fizz curls up on the roof of your mouth like a cat settling onto a sunny windowsill.
SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ – at Brick and Bones
By now you’re getting ravenous, and the duck hearts at Armoury barely sated your appetite. You want to some more grub before showtime, so look no further than across the street to Brick and Bones, which serves up some pretty fantastic fried chicken. The drinks at this joint all recall old cartoon characters, some more obscure than others. Try the Slowpoke Rodriguez, named for Speedy Gonzales’ acceleration-challenged cousin – a flavor fest of hibiscus-infused tequila with a sweet-tart mix of amaretto and blood orange liqueur and a splash of jalapeno syrup for spice. “It’s like a Margarita without the acid,” says bartender Dre Cantu.
SMOKEY BANDIT – at High and Tight
The show is over, and you and your concert ears are ready to start winding down. Head over to High and Tight, whose back entrance you’ll find in the parking lot adjoining Armoury – and have Austin Gurley’s hardy Smokey Bandit, in which cinnamon-spiced bourbon meets hickory-smoked Cynar 70, doubles down on the smoke with a bit of mezcal and goes deep with a power-boost of chocolate bitters and anise-y Pernod. The drink is garnished with a twinkle of star anise. “The idea was to be boozy and complex, but approachable,” Gurley says. Mr. Bandit, you may approach the bench.
PINEAPPLE RUM OLD FASHIONED – at Black Swan
Finally, it’s time for, you guessed it…. your nightcap on Elm Street. Pay a visit to Deep Ellum’s craft-cocktail old-timer, the Black Swan Saloon, just a door to the west. Inside this discreet dive-bar-style hideout, proprietor Gabe Sanchez’s Pineapple Rum Old Fashioned is a tropical tri-rum-virate, with Plantation’s aged pineapple rum the star of the show. While the idea of pineapple rum might sound contrived, it’s actually got centuries-old roots, as cocktail historian David Wondrich told the New York Times: “It was a thing distillers used to do. It was done in the island. They’d soak pineapple in the barrel; it gave the rum a sweetness and richness. It was not wildly popular, but you’d see it.” Now you can, too, with Sanchez’s elegant drink a fitting sign-off before your ride home.
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.”
Sean Henry has already made a name for himself in the coffee world. Now he’s ready to try his hand at cocktails.
Jettison, an espresso shot of a bar at the flourishing Sylvan Thirty complex in Oak Cliff, will specialize in two undersung heroes of the backbar, sherry and mezcal – while still showcasing the drink (coffee) that got Henry this far in the first place.
Currently in soft opening, the subtly chic digs adjoin Houndstooth Coffee, the fourth and most recent of Henry’s Austin-based coffeehouse locations. The space is accessible both from the café and from a second entrance from outside.
The bar program is headed by George Kaiho, a veteran of both Tei-An and Parliament, with cocktails featuring fresh takes on both mezcal, the smoky spirit derived from Mexican agave, and sherry, the Spanish fortified wine.
Take the Red-Headed Oaxacan, Kaiho’s play on the modern classic Penicillin, which subs mezcal and tequila for base Scotch (with a crafty float of Caol Ila 12), honeys up the ginger syrup and caps it with a rim of Himalayan salt, a common sidekick to agave spirits.
Or the sublime Good Morning Jerez, an addictively peppy blend of sweet East India Solera sherry, cold brew and cinnamon syrup that’ll have you wishing you’d started ordering it earlier in the evening.
The mezcal Negroni ups the spirit and switches dry vermouth for sweet, while another twist on a classic, the BLVD, is a wake-up call of rye, espresso vermouth and two Italian bitter liqueurs, Campari and Averna.
Jettison, which will mark its grand opening on Oct. 21, isn’t looking to be the premier carrier of either mezcal or sherry, just to have a solid and well-curated supply of each.
And a series of intimate Monday-night, drink-paired “pop-up suppers” kicked off last week with a mezcal-themed event, with several more to come – a French-themed wine dinner featuring chef Julien Eelsen of Whisk Crepes Cafe on Oct. 10, an Italian vermouth dinner on Oct. 17 with former Filament chef Cody Sharp; and a Spanish sherry dinner, also chef’d by Sharp, on Oct. 24.
Jettison will no doubt draw a good part of its clientele from the Sylvan Thirty apartment complex just across the parking lot and from nearby neighbors like Teresa, an Oxford, England-born patron who complimented Henry on the vibe of the place.
“It’s bloody good,” she told him. ”I like the aesthetic here. You’ve got what they call ‘a keen eye.’ ”
But if those of you further flung need another bullet point to make the drive down I-30, consider Henry’s bar snack, doughnut segments – not only a playful alternative to nuts but a perfect complement to coffee that Henry may or may not continue.
For a lot of people, the idea of making a few drinks brings to mind mixing a little vodka with soda over ice, but for the craft bartenders who strutted their stuff before the judges earlier this week, it meant much, much more – firing up an original cocktail and then knocking out a dozen tequila classics, all within minutes. And with flair, to boot.
Jorge Herrera is on his way to New York City because he managed to make the whole thing look easy. A veteran of Plano’s Mexican Sugar who joined The Standard Pour in Uptown earlier this year, Herrera took top prize at Monday’s Espolón Cocktail Fight for the right to represent the DFW area at the tequila brand’s national finals in November.
Held at the DEC on Dragon, the event – part culinary competition, part WWF – was a raucous, “luchador-style” affair pitting Dallas drink slingers against their Fort Worth brethren.
Here, in photos, are some of the highlights.
In the first matchup, Devin “El Guapo” McCullough of The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station, took on Amber “Waves of Pain” Davidson of Fort Worth’s Bird Cafe. Contestants had two minutes to set up their stations and three minutes to prepare their original cocktails for the judges.
Next up was Jonathan “Manila Killa” Garcia, also of The People’s Last Stand, against Jermey “Big Jerm” Elliott of Citizen, in Uptown. Garcia appeared in a conical hat while Elliott fired up the crowd by stripping down to shorts and a tank top.
With competitors taking the stage with painted faces, or in skimpy or outlandish outfits, supporters embraced the costumed spirit of things and advantaged the nearby photo booth.
The third matchup pitted Cody Barboza, of Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., against Jason Pollard of The Usual, in Fort Worth. Both Barboza’s mescal-fueled El Rico and Pollard’s One Hour Break — which leaned savory with Averna and molé bitters — earned second-round status.
In the fourth duel, Brittany “B-Day” Day of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, faced off against Geovanni “Geo” Alafita of Knife, near Mockingbird Station. Day’s Smoke In The Morning went smoky-sweet with mezcal, maple syrup and Allspice Dram while Alafita’s preciously presented Rosario combined tequila with mildly bitter Aperol, cilantro and jalapeño.
In addition to taste, presentation and how well the tequila shone through, contestants were judged on showmanship. In addition to yours truly, the panel included chef Nick Walker of The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Bonnie Wilson Coetzee of FrontBurner Restaurants and Frederick Wildman brand ambassador Austin Millspaugh.
The fifth and final first-round match was easily the most entertaining as the typically understated Jorge “Don Juan” Herrera of The Standard Pour took the platform with a lovely lady on each arm in his duel against Sean “McDoozy” McDowell of Thompson’s. But Herrera put some shine on his show by completing his deceptively simple drink with plenty of time to spare, then lighting up a cigar and preening before the crowd as McDowell continued to race against the clock.
Herrera’s Carolina cocktail was lush with cigar-infused Grand Marnier, while McDowell’s tart Trade With Mexico bundled both Espolón blanco and reposado with tea and homemade ginger beer. Both advanced to the second round.
In the second round, the top six contestants each had to crank out 10 El Diablos — a lesser known tequila classic featuring reposado tequila, créme de cassis, lime and ginger beer — within a few minutes’ time.
Herrera’s and Davidson’s were dubbed mas macho by the judges and both advanced to the final round, where each had to craft a Margarita using Espolón blanco, a Paloma with Espolón reposado and an Old Fashioned with Espolón añejo — again, within a few minutes.
A taste of each drink, then the judges conferred, taking into account the entire night. It was Herrera’s performance that was judged best overall, which means he’ll be competing at Espolón’s national finals in early November.
Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, said he had no doubt that the Uptown bar’s attention to efficiency on busy weekend nights helped prepare Herrera for the competition’s fast-paced demands.
Between that and Herrera’s previous training at FrontBurner, which owns Mexican Sugar, “he’s been working toward winning this ever since he started working here,” McCullough said.
To watch a normally subdued guy transform into the very picture of confidence made him proud.
“Seeing him do that was like seeing him come out of his shell,” McCullough said.
If you’re familiar with Dallas’ music scene, you might have caught Mwanza “Wanz” Dover singing lead for the band Black Dotz or spinning records at venues such as Midnight Rambler, Nova, Red Light and the Double Wide.
Last fall, as the Dallas Observer reported, he took a dive off a stage and hurt himself; what he thought was a minor ailment turned out to be a much more serious intestinal injury. He made it to the hospital just in time for emergency surgery that apparently saved his life. Further hospitalization and another surgery would follow.
The trouble is, like a lot of people who make their living as creative types, he has no medical insurance. And so, on Sunday, Midnight Rambler — among the finest of the city’s craft-cocktail joints — will hold “Ramble For A Cause,” a DJ-driven night of music to benefit Dover and help pay what bar co-owner Christy Pope describes as “a mounting stack of medical bills.”
The event, which runs from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., is sponsored by Hochstadter’s Slow & Low rye whiskey and Four Corners Brewery. There will be drink specials and prize raffles, and proceeds will help pay Wanz’s medical bills. DJ’s will include Travis Box, Gabriel Mendoza, Jeff Paul and Marcos Prado and Dover himself.
The all-around craft-cocktail chops at The Standard Pour can be lost in the timid tastes of the partying Uptown throngs that fill its McKinney Avenue environs every weekend. But delve deep into the drink menu and you’ll find a solid lineup of classics and bar originals both – including this one from Armando Guillen.
Guillen, who heads TSP”s bar program, has been a longtime stalwart of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene, a frequent competition winner and, most recently, is among CultureMap’s nominees for its bartender-of-the-year award. He designed this drink, he says, at the behest of San Diego’s renowned Polite Provisions for an event sponsored by El Silencio mezcal.
NAME: The Whisperer
KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Fiery citrus
WHAT’S IN IT: El Silencio mezcal, peach liqueur, honey, lime, salt, Scrappy’s “Firewater” bitters, spiced rim.
WHY IT WORKS: The Whisperer is a smoky play on the classic Margarita, capped with a spicy supernova kick. Bartender Armando Guillen, who manages The Standard Pour’s bar program, aimed to create a Trojan horse of mezcal, another agave-based spirit that, while on the rise, many have yet to embrace. He dipped into the bartender’s crowd-pleasing arsenal of friendly flavors – “peach, strawberry and pineapple; that’s the trifecta,” he says – and chose peach because it pairs well with mezcal’s earthy, smoky qualities.
To sweeten it up, he chose honey over simple syrup for its earthier flavor and added a pinch of salt to round it out. A dash of habanero-based Firewater bitters lends a not-so-subtle scorch of heat. “You’ve got smoke, earth, spice and fruit, everything mezcal needs to have,” Guillen says. And it’s true: In Mexico, mezcal is usually sipped straight, with accompaniments of orange slice and sal de gusano – a blend of chile powder, sea salt and the ground remains of roasted moth larvae that feed on agave plants – that offer a similar combination of flavor.
Guillen serves the Whisperer in a coupe, half-coating it with an appropriately smoky-spicy mix of cayenne powder, sea salt, chili powder and smoked paprika. With a final lime-wheel garnish, the result is a visually striking bouquet of lemon yellow, lime green and rusty red. On the tongue, its spicy edge suddenly slashes through its citrus-y sweetness, planting a lasting burn on the lips that leaves you wanting more.
The name? Yes, a nod to the El Silencio brand name – but really a reflection of Guillen’s sly intentions. “It’s like,” he says, a cupped hand covering his lips as he slips into a whisper, “ `Hey – you should drink mezcal.’ ”
FROM A LOFTY outdoor suite at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the elusive Rocco Milano is taking in FC Dallas’ home opener against Philadelphia. He has a cocktail in hand – and the fact that the venue even sells them says a lot about how far craft-cocktail culture has come.
You remember Rocco. As Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene blossomed in the early 2010s, Milano was among its luminaries, emerging from the Mansion at Turtle Creek to preside over well-regarded bar programs at Private/Social and Barter in Uptown. Then, with Barter’s sudden closing, he vanished, leaving a trail of mystery. What is Rocco up to, people wondered? Has anyone heard from Rocco?
Everyone may be about to. Along with partners Patrick Halbert – owner of P/S and Barter, which operated successively in a space off McKinney Avenue – and Andrew Gill, Halbert’s cousin, Milano has been crafting a line of bottled cocktails, hoping to join a growing playing field.
Their venture, called On The Rocks, or OTR, has been building a buzz; FC Dallas is the team’s first major client, with four OTR cocktails now sold in the stadium’s suite-exclusive Jack Daniels Lounge. (Other, less potent OTR drinks are available on the concourse to general ticket holders.)
This week, On The Rocks scored 11 medals at the esteemed San Francisco World Spirits Competition – including two gold, four silver and five bronze. But OTR’s sights are set much higher, with the group sweet-talking several major airlines to get their drinks onboard national and international flights.
Here in the suite with Milano are partners Halbert and Gill, along with other OTR staffers and people like industry consultant Steve Ousley. “What they’re doing is really innovative,” Ousley says of OTR. “It’s like, how do we execute a crafted cocktail and bring it to consumers really quick? This is in a bottle, and that’s about as quick and convenient as we can deliver it.”
As the brand name implies, the beverages are meant to be served over ice. But with bottled cocktails a relatively new concept, kinks remain: As the match gets underway, an OTR team member arrives fresh from the lounge, where he’s just ordered the bottled Aviation. “They poured it wrong,” he tells Milano; the server poured the liquid straight into a glass, he says, with no ice.
Milano’s eyes widen. “It’s called On The Rocks!” he says, incredulously.
IMAGINE THIS: You’re on a plane from Dallas to New York. You’ve ordered a cocktail – not the standard one-and-one mixed drink, like a gin and tonic or a whiskey and coke – but an actual cocktail. Maybe it’s a Mai Tai, or a Cosmopolitan. The flight attendant shows up and cracks open a 100-milliliter bottle, drops a napkin on your tray and a cup with a scoop of ice. Then you’re handed the bottle, to dispense as you please.
“It’s just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”
This is what Rocco Milano has been up to.
While a bottled cocktail can’t fully match the punch and zip of one freshly made, OTR’s concoctions taste remarkably like the real deal – a threshold the team has worked hard to meet. Though the airline dream is still just that, it’s one the OTR team hopes to make a reality, as early as this year, having been in talks, they say, with Hawaiian, Alaska and Virgin Airlines.
Airline cocktails are no rye-in-the-sky illusion, though it’s still relatively uncharted territory: In 2014, Virgin tapped Austin Cocktails’ low-cal “Vodka Cucumber Mojito;” more interestingly, Alaska Airlines teamed with Seattle-based Sun Liquor to let passengers make cocktails at their seats using Sun spirits and recipes (a squeeze of lime, a bit of vodka and a pour of ginger ale, and voila! You sort of have a Moscow Mule).
Bottled cocktails are further out of the gate, though quality varies widely. Acclaimed Chicago barman Charles Joly has been producing his Canada-based Crafthouse line – which also scored well in San Francisco – since 2013. There are others sprinkled around the U.S., and around the world. But no other brand in the category did as well in this year’s San Francisco competition as OTR, which won a third of all medals given and was the only U.S.-based company to take gold.
The OTR brand features three cocktail lines – a signature line with classics like the Margarita and Cosmo; a tropical line sporting rummy drinks old and new; and a craft line which “is where we get really weird and esoteric,” Milano says. That category includes the Smoking Pepper, which fans of Milano might recall from Private/Social as the drink actually served in a hollowed-out bell pepper; Milano has recreated a bottled version.
While their ingredients don’t necessarily mirror fresh cocktails (to account for items, like juices, with a short shelf life), OTR’s drinks are nonetheless all-natural, with no preservatives, additives or artificial flavors. All are either 20 or 35 percent alcohol, using real spirits procured from bulk purveyors, whether whiskey, rum or barrel-aged gin.
Take the Spiced Pear cocktail. “There’s some amazing spiced pear in there, and some nice Darjeeling tea,” Milano says. “It’s done with the barrel-aged London Dry gin, so you’re gonna get some cool wood notes, but it’s still gin. The acid is Meyer lemon, which just adds a beautiful pop to it, and then a little bit of allspice.”
The Rye Old Fashioned is a standout – “pretty much our crowd-pleaser,” Halbert says. There’s a Moscow Mule, and a Daiquiri; a Mai Tai and a Blackberry Bramble.
The bottle’s logo design is a nod to its ice intentions, with the lower half of “OTR” submerged in illustrated cubes.
“And it’s the same regardless of who pours it,” Milano says. “Everything you need is in this drink.”
IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be this way. The three had originally planned to focus on a fledgling distillery operation once Barter had closed. But as Virgin Airlines made its debut at Love Field in late 2014, a handful of Virgin execs came to Barter to celebrate. One of them, Milano says, told him something to the effect of, “These drinks are so good, I wish we could have them on our planes.”
“And Pat was like, `Well, shit – let’s put them in a bottle,’” Milano says. Not knowing how serious the execs were, they didn’t get their hopes up. “People say a lot of things,” Milano says.
Months later, he says, the Virgin guys called to check in. That led to more serious talks, then intros to other airlines and a crash course in bottled-cocktail science. By last year’s end they’d invested half a million into the venture, mostly on inventory and legal and consultant fees, and crafted close to 40 different cocktails.
At the time, they had 90,000 200-milliliter bottles sitting in a warehouse, with 300,000 half that size on the way. The bottles conform to federally approved sizes for alcohol sales; meanwhile, some cocktails had to contain particular ingredients to fit official government definitions. For example, according to the feds, a Margarita must include triple sec, and OTR’s Rye Old-Fashioned is described as such because the government’s definition of the classic drink calls for bourbon.
The group’s office, near Love Field, evokes a cohabitation of chemistry grad students who inherited their parents’ excess furniture. Remnants of Private/Social and Barter comprise the minimal décor or lie strewn throughout – the hanging wicker chairs, the randy sofa pillows, the curtain of metal string that once separated P/S’ bar from the dining area. “We obviously didn’t spend any money on the finish-out,” Halbert laughs.
On a typical day, the heavy-duty table at center is slathered with bottles, beakers, notebooks and vintage cocktail tomes. “We have graduated cylinders, pipettes, even scales that measure to 1/16 of a gram,” Milano says.
And the nearby fridge is filled not with beer and lunchmeats but scores of bottles spanning a range of concentrated flavors. “You can get flavors of anything,” Milano says. There’s butter, truffle, lemon zest, even something called cloud. Not all of it is good. They went through 60 flavors of lime before finding one they liked.
Their bottled Margarita was the most challenging in terms of achieving the right balance of spirit, acidity and sweetness. It took a month to perfect. Whenever they thought they had it down, they’d run to Albertson’s, buy some limes and fire up a fresh drink for comparison’s sake.
“That was the standard,” Milano says. “I didn’t even have a juicer; I had an elbow. I wasn’t even gonna get pith off the lime, just boom – squeeze it in there. And if it didn’t compare to that, then we just started over.”
In the end, their bottled version turned out to be a mix of aged tequila, lime, orange and agave.
On the other hand, their Aviation took them all of 15 minutes. “That had everything to do with the violet extract,” Milano says. “But just like with a real Aviation, you can easily add too much and screw it up.”
Their experience with bars and restaurants has proved valuable. “We’re not guys in lab coats,” Milano says. “We know what a Margarita should taste like.”
Still, a guy in a lab coat comes in handy. To that end, OTR hired Illinois-based food science consultant Dave Wengerhof to assist them with the chemistry of it all. Their aim is to make the drinks taste freshly made even after sitting on a shelf for a year. They test their wares against heat and cold. “It’s not how it tastes when we make it,” Milano says. “It’s how it tastes when you drink it.”
Late last year, they took some of their bottled cocktails to Portland’s Clyde Common, base of renowned bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and ordered the actual versions to see how they measured up. They were especially pleased with their Aviation, and along with Milano’s Smoking Pepper, the drink was among OTR’s two gold-medal winners this week.
Their 11-medal showing was not necessarily what they expected so early on. When the results were announced, “the room just erupted,” Milano says. And they’re just getting started.
For OTR, it seems, the sky really may be the limit.
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