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

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

The demands of the local craft-cocktail scene are too much for one country to handle, and the luckier we all are for that: 2016 was the year that Mexico, Spain and Italy came to the rescue. You could almost sense the year’s cocktail vibes being garnished with a neat little Luxardo cherry as north Oak Cliff’s Jettison opened in October, capping a year in which mezcal tilted even more mainstream, bitter liqueurs took center stage and sherry quietly earned a place at the table.

All three claimed territory on cocktail menus as bartenders became not only more versatile with each but confident that their patrons would drink them, too. Sherry popped up in drinks from heavyweights Knox-Henderson’s Victor Tangos, Abacus and Atwater Alley to newcomers like Oak Lawn’s Sprezza, Uptown’s Next Door and Flora Street Café, in the Arts District. Nowhere, though, was the Spanish fortified wine wielded more freely than in the dark confines of Jettison, where George Kaiho’s cocktail list spotlights sherry and mezcal – and occasionally coffee, as in his wonderful Good Morning Jerez. Spirits writer Warren Bobrow, who blogs at The Cocktail Whisperer, predicts sherry cocktails will be a national trend in 2017 – so way to go, DFW. You’re ahead of the game.

That wasn’t all 2016 had in store: Cachaca, the national spirit of Brazil, had a starring role in at least half a dozen spring menu highlights around town; banana, typically maligned and eschewed as a flavor in cocktails, enjoyed a solid summer run (as in the Magilla Gorilla at Deep Ellum’s Brick and Bones, made with banana-infused rye); and cognac, typically relegated to Sidecar status, tried on some new outfits  – as in Andrew Stofko’s tasty Cobra Kai at Victor Tangos, which put cognac front and center backed by sherry(!), dry vermouth, fuji apple syrup and bitter amaro.

Some of the year’s strongest overall drink lineups lay in typical strongholds like Midnight Rambler, Parliament and The People’s Last Stand, but the bar team at Knox-Henderson’s Abacus quietly made noise while The Cedars Social, the landmark lounge just south of downtown, showed solid signs of returning to top-tier status.

Among the year’s highlights: At Henry’s Majestic, Alex Fletcher’s Salt Lake Suburb – rye, apple shrub and soda – was a feat of simplicity; at Italian restaurant Sprezza, Daniel Zapata’s Aperrat Sour mined Aperol’s citrus-floral radiance. At Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, former lead barman Michael Reith smashed a home run with his strawberries-and-bourbon Louisville Slugger; and at Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., Chad Yarbrough’s Bow Street Bouncer elegantly echoed a classic Boulevardier with Irish whiskey, Lillet Blanc, aperitif wine and bitter Suze.

My tastes are my own, of course. I love the juniper of gin and the smoke of mezcal, the warm comfort of whiskey and the bittersweet beauty of Italian amaros; I’m drawn to flavor combinations that lure me down rabbit holes I haven’t been before and favor any drink offering a mouthful of an experience, where every ingredient, down to the garnish, is discernible or enhancing in some way.

Here were my favorite 15 craft cocktails of 2015.

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

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

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

This is dessert in a glass for people who love Old Fashioneds. As a craft bartender, one is practically required to go through a Cynar phase, and as Sturdivant, Cedars Social’s bar manager, went through his, he knew how well the Italian bitter played with coffee. Challenged by a European guest’s veteran palate, Sturdivant devised this drink late one evening; you can guess the time. He mixed bitter Cynar with vanilla syrup, Suze and bourbon-y Sheep’s Dip Scotch, garnishing it with a rolled lemon peel filled with burnt coffee beans that sit right up in your nose as you sip. The result evokes chocolate cake with a slight bitter finish and almost clings to your tongue, the beans guiding your senses. “The chocolate versus bitter versus strong Old-Fashioned-style drink kind of goes in and out as you smell the coffee,” Sturdivant says. “I like drinks that change flavors as they sit.”

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

14. PUSH IT (Seth Brammer, Filament)

Gin, Cocchi Rosa, lemon, pink peppercorn, sea salt

As I wrote in March, Cocchi Rosa, the lush and rosy vermouth variation from the fine folks at Cocchi, is one of the best things you’ll ever put in your mouth. Flowery and fruity with the slightest hint of bitter, it’s a sensational sipper on its own, but beverage manager Brammer’s creation subtly backed it with gin’s botanical notes and a splash of lemon to round it out. Served in a Collins glass with floating peppercorns and a rim of fine sea salt, it was playful and beautiful to look at – but those little pink globules were more than decorative, adding a floral pop of their own. If Tom Collins and sangria had a little garden rendezvous, this would be the result.

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

13. SCARLET GAEL (Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus)

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

The constantly evolving menu at Abacus featured a number of hits from Gantenbein, from Smoke On The Water, his shishito-infused tequila gem, to the whimsical Apple Of My Eye (featuring gelatinized apple pucker) and beautifully seasonal Rosemary Wreath. The Scarlet Gael emerged as my favorite, a drink he initially made for a Scotch-paired dinner and then put on the menu. Smoky and light with a soft citrus finish, it’s a marriage of Ardbeg’s peatiness and the soft sweetness of honey, hibiscus and vanilla, a trio of tiny rosebuds atop the froth.

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

12. RIO JULEP (Spencer Shelton, Bolsa)

Aged cachaca, Cynar, grapefruit bitters, salt dash

A sudden influx of Avua cachaca graced Dallas early in the year, and no one embraced the Brazilian sugar-cane spirit more enthusiastically than Bolsa’s Shelton. Inspired by local bartender Daniel Guillen’s Cynar Julep and notions of Southern monkey bread, he crafted a Boulevardier riff subbing Amburana, Avua’s aged cachaca, for bourbon; Cynar for Campari; and grapefruit bitters and mint for sweet vermouth, to accent the herbaceousness. His creation earned him a nod in Saveur magazine. As I noted in April, Shelton wanted to show how bready, nutty Amburana could shine despite its seemingly delicate character. “The first time I tasted this, I thought it would get lost in a cocktail,” he says. “But no – it has this really interesting way of sitting on top and being predominant.”

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

11. MAYAHUEL’S AWAKENING (Austin Gurley, High and Tight)

Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon

Fans of Mexican café de olla know the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip. This was not that drink – but as I wrote in May, it could have been its boozy cousin. “It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” says Gurley, who blended concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee with fruity reposado tequila, smoky mezcal and rich brown-sugar simple syrup, completing the salute to its stovetop Mexican relative with a dash of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters, with its notes of cinnamon and vanilla. Served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar, it was a perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name (say it “ma-ya-WELL)” recalls the Aztec goddess of fertility and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born.

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

10. SAVE THE DATE (Ashley Williams, Boulevardier)

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

As cachaca danced its way through Dallas last spring, it was Avua’s aged Amburana that shone brightest with its full-bodied cinnamon grape-y-ness. Williams, now at Filament, mixed the nutty, bready spirit with savory tamarind concentrate, bittersweet Meletti amaro, egg white, lemon and Angostura bitters for a wonderfully balanced variation on a Pisco Sour. The cachaca refused to be buried, dominating the finish with a hint of bitter Meletti. Lavishly presented with a radiant and aromatic flower resting atop the foam amid swirls of Angostura, it was one I could have enjoyed all night.

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

9. NOTATORONTO (Jesse Powell, Parliament)

Rye, banana liqueur, Fernet Vallet

Powell, a crowd favorite at busy Parliament, is used to pouring shots of whiskey or bitter Fernet for visiting bartenders, but as he briefly obsessed over Giffard’s lovely Banane du Bresil liqueur, he decided to try something different. “I thought – what do I like to drink, cocktail-wise, with Fernet?” he says, and the answer was a Toronto, a mix of Canadian whiskey, Fernet, simple syrup and bitters. Eventually he came up with this blend of Tennessee’s Dickel rye, Banane du Bresil and Mexican Fernet. Perfectly calibrated to meld whiskey power with banana sweet, it’s like a Toronto – but not.

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

8. COGNAC BIJOU (Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour)

Cognac, sweet vermouth, Green Chartreuse, root beer bitters, black truffle salt

Millspaugh is a cocktail explorer’s bartender, thoughtful and learned with something new always up his sleeve to drop on bold palates. Some of his finest 2016 creations were ultimately too adventurous to make it onto menus in original form, while others – like the one incorporating cuttlefish ink – were just too exotic for their own good. But when Millspaugh hits, it’s a thing of beauty – as in his Cure What Ails Ya, a cross between a classic Penicillin and a sangrita, on Standard Pour’s current menu. My favorite of his creations was this play on the classic Bijou, which subbed Cognac for gin and rounded it out with a well-conceived touch of earthy sarsaparilla flavor.

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

7. MADAME HUMMINGBIRD (Lauren Festa, Flora Street Café)

Vodka, Hum, honey-piquillo syrup

Way back when Rocco Milano helmed the bar at Private/Social, may it rest in peace, he introduced me to Hum, a remarkably profuse hibiscus cordial offering notes of cardamom, clove, ginger and kaffir lime. A love affair was born; I couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and though the fling finally ran its course, it’s always good to see an old flame. That’s how the crafty Festa, at Stephen Pyles’ new downtown restaurant, lured me in; her flower-garnished cocktail lets sturdy Absolut Elyx act as handler, reining in Hum’s exuberance, but the real dash of brilliance is the chili syrup, which adds a welcome jolt of heat. “Hum and heat go well together,” Festa says. “It brings out the spices.” Or as my buddy Tim said after trying it: “You don’t even remember what it is that you’re experiencing. All you know is that there’s a perfect storm.”

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

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

Cognac, persimmon shrub, citrus, clove dust

What do you do when your chef hauls in 80 pounds’ worth of foraged persimmons? Well, if you’re Alex Fletcher, you think on it a bit, make a shrub and craft my favorite Sidecar variation ever. Fletcher’s Southpaw Streetcar lets you roll along in tangy persimmon sweetness when suddenly, BAM! A burst of clove hits your tongue to bathe you in winter-fire goodness. Sugar-plum visions dance in your head; in the distance, you hear the jingling of sleigh bells and the sound of muffled hoofbeats in snow – and wait, is that Nana calling? Are the tamales steamed and ready? Oh wait – that’s just Fletcher, asking if everything’s OK and why your eyes have been closed for the last 10 minutes.

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

5. AGAVE TEMPTRESS (Ricky Cleva, Atwater Alley)

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

Cleva was on fire in 2016; his Montenegro-fronted Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and Japanese-Scotch-based Drunken Angel could easily have made this list. His Agave Temptress was my favorite of all; as winter headed into spring, he’d already been making wintery cognac and spring-evocative mezcal cocktails each featuring cinnamon and lemon, and he figured, why not combine the two spirits? As he quickly found out, it’s because they don’t easily play well together, but as he toyed with adding other ingredients he gradually hit upon a perfect mix, adding muddled strawberry for sweetness and a bit of bitter Campari to dry it out. The result? Tamed smoke and bitter, anchored by caramel-apple cognac; a sprig of slapped thyme atop the drink added a defining touch of spring fragrance.

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

4. GRAPES THREE WAYS (Annika Loureiro, The Cedars Social)

Pisco, genever, grilled-grape syrup, lemon, port

Put a crafty bartender and a talented pastry chef together and you’ve got magic. (See Rocco Milano and Matt Medling, Private/Social, c. 2011.) Last summer, pastry chef Loureiro, in whose dream world the dessert and cocktail stations would exist side by side, had already paired grape-y Pisco Porton with malty Bols genever when, inspired by bar manager Mike Sturdivant, she amped up the grape with a patio-ready spritzer in mind. First she reflected the distilled grape by grilling fresh Concords and making a syrup – then, after adding some lemon to accentuate the sweetness topped it off with raisin-y tawny port. “We wanted those tannins in there, so you really got the full flavor of grape,” she says. The drink is a wave of tangy, smoky grape, a hefty sangria with the hue of strawberry tea; if grapes you like, this is your drink.

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

3. TIGER STYLE (Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler)

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

Chad Solomon’s seasonal drink menus are thoughtfully thematic and often exotic, and he was on fire this year; his Coconut Cooler, a gin-and-sherry blend sweetened with Southeast Asian pandan, was a spring highlight and offered a small preview of what was to come – a powerhouse summer menu of “gritty tiki” drinks reflecting Asian, African and South American influences. The Filipino-Indonesian-accented Tiger Style was my favorite, a seemingly light mix of Batavia Arrack (an Asian-style rum), passionfruit-y calamansi, palm sugar and Indonesian pippali that nonetheless packed a punch. A spritz of Indonesian cassia aromatics atop a dehydrated lime pulled you into the drink’s creamy orange-spice lushness, countered by the peppery pippali tincture’s gradual trail of heat. “The more you drink it, the more your lips tingle,” Solomon said, quite accurately. “It takes you into the exotic, and intentionally so.”

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

2. SEPPUKU REALE (Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos)

Amaro Montenegro, Gran Classico, furikake syrup, lemon, nori, furikake

Amaro Montenegro may be my favorite of the Italian bitter liqueurs; it leans toward sweet and herbal with the bitter only evident in tow. Stofko won a local Montenegro contest with this bold cocktail, crafting an unexpected taste detour to create one of the more interesting drinks I’ve ever enjoyed. Aiming to subdue Montenegro’s sweetness with an umami-ness he knew he’d like, Stofko crafted a syrup from furikake, a Japanese spice mix of sesame seed, seaweed (nori), sea salt and bonito flakes; upped the bitter component with Gran Classico; then added some lemon to round it out. The citrus, however, made the drink unpleasantly dark, so Stofko went all-in and added a bit of squid ink to turn it Guinness-black. The garnish was his piece-de-resistance – a sprinkling of roasted sesame seeds on a skiff of seaweed, floating atop the sea of dark; bring it to your nose and the aroma portended savory Japanese. “It just wakes up your palate,” Stofko says. Instead, you got something completely different: A bewitching bittersweet taste tempered with savory nuttiness. “That’s umami in a glass,” Stofko says. “I’m just glad (former GM) Matt (Ragan) let me put it on the menu.”

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

1. ROME IS BURNING (Robbie Call, Vicini)

China-China, mezcal, Meletti, Herbsaint

Ah, Vicini. We were just getting to know you. The Frisco-based Italian restaurant’s all-too-brief run may have been a flash in the risotto pan, but it was long enough for Call to have some fun behind the stick. One slow Sunday, the lanky Tate’s veteran, who now heads the bar at Oak Lawn’s Madrina, answered the call for something bitter and smoky. This was the luscious result – a rush of French and Italian bitter liqueurs anchored by mezcal and a rounding touch of Herbsaint, bitter orange and chocolate-caramel grounded in depths of smoke and anise. Simply garnished with an orange peel, it was everything I wanted in a glass, a mirepoix of worldly influences. “I’m a big fan of letting amaro drive the car and having the mezcal creep in,” Call says. So am I, Robbie. So am I.

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.

2014: It was the best of times, it was the thirst of times

Michael Martensen, Abacus
An unforgettable cocktail launched an unforgettable year: Martensen’s Apple Boilermaker.

It was the best of times, it was the thirst of times, and 2014’s constantly unfolding craft-cocktail kaleidoscope unfurled a spirited array of events for DFW’s imbiberati. Here’s a look back at the year’s top stories:

Abacus
Campbell and Martensen: Spittin’ spirited rhymes at Abacus for all too brief a time.

JANUARY: Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Michael Martensen together behind the bar at Abacus

From darkness, light: For a brief but glorious time, the chaos set in motion by Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s displacement from the late Chesterfield and Michael Martensen’s abrupt exit, along with his bar team, from Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social actually set the stage for two of the city’s most talented and influential bar men to pair up behind the bar at Abacus. The two have a longstanding rivalry – “I’m Seabiscuit and he’s War Admiral,” Campbell once told me. “I’m hard working, and he’s a fucking genetic miracle” – that continued to unfold at Abacus to customers’ benefit, especially late, once the kitchen had closed. One evening we rolled in and the two went back and forth like b-boys, throwing down cocktail creations to put each other’s to shame until Martensen slipped off to a corner to focus on a bit of handiwork. “What’s he doing over there?” Campbell wondered with his sly smile. Martensen emerged with what you see at top: A frothy apple boilermaker made with Deep Ellum Blonde, Cointreau, apple brandy, whole egg and a hollowed-out half-eggshell cupping a whiskey shot. Boss.

Libertine Bar
Libertine’s influential former head barman doing his thing.

MAY: Mate Hartai says goodbye to The Libertine Bar

For years, Hartai — chief barman at Remedy, opening tonight –was synonymous with the Libertine, which he helped transform from solid neighborhood bar to a den of craft-cocktail prowess and innovation. But after five years at the Libertine, Hartai decided it was finally time to move on to other things – namely The Cold Standard, the craft ice business he’s been shaping for some time – and most recently, Remedy, the new Lower Greenville project from HG Sply owner Elias Pope.

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

JULY: Texas Tiki Throwdown at Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans

The DFW presence at the spirit industry’s biggest annual gathering has gotten larger and larger, with dozens of bartenders and spirit reps on hand for 2014’s event. Among the festival’s kickoff happenings was the Texas Tiki Throwdown, where DFW drink-slingers went mano-a-mano with others from Houston, Austin and San Antonio. It’s fair to say everyone left the conference room with Lone Stars in their eyes.

Driftwood
Um, this.

JULY: Driftwood introduces an oyster shooter flight

They say the world is your oyster, but sometimes oysters are your world: This little bit of brilliance from Oak Cliff’s disappointingly defunct seafood establishment briefly brightened up my existence. Four oysters on the half-shell, each shell filled upon consumption with one of four spirits or liqueurs: Manzanilla sherry, mezcal, single malt whiskey and Pernod. Let bivalves be bivalves!

Hendrick's Gin
Out of the wilderness, a mysterious elixir.

AUGUST: Hendricks Gin’s Kanaracuni unveiling

Dallas was one of a handful of cities this summer in which Hendricks Gin chosed to unveil its rare Kanaracuni gin, a single-batch production made from a plant culled from the Venezuelan rainforest. Hendricks knows how to put on an event, and the fancifully exotic tasting, conducted at the Dallas Zoo, did not disappoint: Bordering on elaborate fantasy, it featured tales of adventure and large insects and finally samples of the amazing kumquat-flavored gin, which in intentionally ephemeral fashion shall never be seen again.

Proof + Pantry
Josh Maceachern, among Michael Martensen’s reunited bartending crew at Proof + Pantry.

AUGUST: Parliament and Proof + Pantry open

As noted above, Lucky Campbell and Michael Martensen’s longstanding rivalry can occasionally reach ridiculous proportions, so it was only logical that their two long-awaited projects would open on the same night — Parliament in Uptown, and Proof + Pantry in the Arts District. (“How ridiculous is that?” Campbell told me a couple of nights before the big event.) Both have met expectations, garnering local and national acclaim.

Dallas cocktails
Everything is illuminated: The new gem in Dallas’ cocktail scene.

OCTOBER: Midnight Rambler opens

Behind their Cuffs and Buttons consulting enterprise, cocktail masters Chad Solomon and Christy Pope have long been influences in DFW’s drinking scene, but it wasn’t until this fall that Midnight Rambler, the bar the two have long dreamed of opening, launched at the Joule Hotel. The swanky subterranean palace and its lineup of well-conceived libations take the city to another level, marking another step in its craft-cocktail evolution.

Windmill Lounge
Venerable barman Charlie Papaceno: No longer tilting at the Windmill.

NOVEMBER: Charlie Papaceno leaves the Windmill Lounge

After nine years at the landmark lounge he co-founded with Louise Owens, Papaceno left the venerable dive spot to pursue plans to open a new bar in Dallas’ Cedars neighborhood. One of the scene’s elder statesmen, Papaceno’s bespectacled mug was a steady presence behind the bar at Windmill, which became an early haven for Dallas’ budding craft-bartender scene and went on to garner national attention – including a nod as one of Esquire’s best American bars.

Henry's Majestic
Slinging tiki drinks at one of five pop-up bars at Henry’s epic Trigger’s Toys benefit. (Mary Christine Szefzyk)

DECEMBER: Trigger’s Toys annual benefit event featuring five pop-up bars

I was crushed to miss this epic event, which made use of the long-unused warren of space at recently opened Henry’s Majestic in the Knox-Henderson area. Five pop-up bars featuring teams of bartenders from DFW and beyond went all out to raise money for a Dallas charity serving hospitalized kids. From sports bar and tiki bar to country saloon and nightclub, it was a raucous party that garnered $100,000 for the cause.

IMG_20141025_152349

ONGOING: Collectif 1806’s bartender book club events

The bartender education and support arm of Remy Cointreau USA, helmed locally by Emily Perkins, has helped remind that the whole craft-cocktail thing is less revolution than revival. At its periodic exclusive book club gatherings, bartenders page through some of Cointreau’s extensive collection of vintage cocktail tomes, perusing recipes and gleaning old knowledge and then passing the reaped benefits along to consumers. Everybody wins.

DFW reclaims its craft mojo: The best in cocktails 2014

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

I see you, 2014. You didn’t have it easy. Not only did you have much to live up to after a year that saw DFW’s craft-cocktail scene garner national attention, but you had to do so on the heels of events that threatened to knock the wheels off the whole thing.

A year later, DFW’s mojo is back. Because beyond all the drama, a critical mass of cocktail ninjas just kept doing their thing, widespread seeds of creativity that found new places to grow and blossom, while others were enriched by the newfound talent beside them.

It was a banner year for veggies: At Victor Tango’s, former bar chief Alex Fletcher used pea-infused Old Tom gin prepared sous-vide-style for his refreshing Swee’Pea, while over at The Ranch at Las Colinas, Robin Milton’s Maverick combined roasted corn with tequila and spicy Ancho Reyes liqueur for a nice salsa-in-a-glass effect. At LARK on the Park, Matt Orth’s Hanging in the Garden served up a nom-nom liquid salad of mint, basil and cherry tomato, while Anthony Polo’s Scallywag was a scallion-laced standout at The People’s Last Stand.

Other highlights included Jason Long’s apricot-tamed Summer in Manhattan at Abacus, which appealed to both genders by giving the classic cocktail a luscious fruity smoothness. At Meddlesome Moth, bar manager Lauren Loiselle kicked another classic up a notch with her barrel-aged Negroni. And Charlie Papaceno, formerly of the Windmill Lounge, juiced up bourbon with coffee to make his energizing Kentucky Eye Opener.

I could go on. A few of these drinks are still available; some, being seasonal or dependent on a limited supply of house-made ingredients, are not; some were bartender’s creations built totally off-menu. And at least one place, regrettably, has closed (at least temporarily). But that’s the nature of the biz: Sands shift, talent moves on. As always, it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.

With that, here are my favorite 15 cocktails of 2014.

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

15. WHAT ABOUT BOB?, Michael Reith (Windmill Lounge, Oak Lawn)

Here’s a drink that’s easy to fall for, playing as it does on seasonal flavors. To be more exact, Reith’s radiant refresher at Oak Lawn’s Windmill Lounge pairs bourbon with the holiday’s New England influences: “I get a lot of people who come in here from Boston, or New Hampshire,” he says, “so I was thinking, what could I make them?” Maple and cranberry came to mind – “I was trying to evoke cranberry sauce, but in a good way,” he says – as did the spices of mulled cider.  The result, named for the Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy set in New Hampshire, supplements Angel’s Envy bourbon with lemon, cranberry juice and maple syrup, plus nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, topped with a fragrant sprig of rosemary.

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

14. SMOKING GARDEN, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)

Matt Orth likes his herbs. This beauty appeared way back in January, when Orth had some house-made Thai-chili-infused St. Germain (an elderflower liqueur) on his hands. He shook that with basil, lime, slightly aged tequila, ginger liqueur and herbaceous Green Chartreuse, capping it with a smoked sprig of rosemary to wow the nose. The spicy bouquet offered pleasant heat and a sweet, sweeping floral finish, a garden-fresh treat for the senses.

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

13. COMMON ELDER, Lauren Festa (FT33, Design District)

Yes, I typically avoid vodka, but such is the legerdemain of Lauren Festa, who before she moved on to helm the bar program at The Mansion at Turtle Creek was making magic at FT33 in the Design District. Festa grew up watching the Food Network instead of cartoons, so maybe that explains this deceptively tame mix of Hophead vodka, elderflower syrup, ginger liqueur, ginger and lemon – a drink that started out delicately tart and sweet and then, just as it seemed about to fade, unveiled a hoppy ending all dolled up in elderflower. And with a gorgeous elderflower garnish, it was a treat to look at, too.

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

12. SEVENTH SAMURAI, Armando Guillen (The Standard Pour, Uptown)

Last summer, Bombay Sapphire hosted a DFW regional competition at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye, part of its annual nationwide hunt for “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender.” After the contest, won by FrontBurner’s Bonnie Wilson, the festivities moved on to The Standard Pour down the street, where Guillen whipped up this little number that could have easily held its own at the event. Featuring his house-made hibiscus-lemongrass cordial – which he’s just replenished, so you can still enjoy this one – it’s a play on the classic Last Word’s mix of gin, sweet, citrus and Chartreuse. Its floral and citrus medley of Bombay Sapphire, Yellow Chartreuse and Asian yuzu juice, along with the cranberry-sauce-scented cordial and a shake of lavender bitters made a tantalizing statement that gave Guillen the last word after all.

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

11. BLUE MOON, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)

The bar at Spoon – which closed this week, at least temporarily – was not as well stocked as its other craft-cocktail siblings, but luckily James Slater, who took over the program around mid-year, had license to play. One day, exploring a Korean grocery store, he found a jar of pulpy blueberry preserves. “You could see the blueberry skins inside,” he says. He bought a jar and experimented; lighter spirits failed aesthetically, creating a dirty water effect. This is where it gets Reese’s-Peanut-Butter-Cup-good: Right around the time that Slater was noodling something dark to cloak the pulp, I walked into Spoon seeking something dark and bitter. Slater mixed the blueberries with lemon and the only two bitter amari he had on hand, Averna and Fernet, to amazing effect; the end result, garnished with aromatic mint, tamed Fernet’s aggressive bitterness with velvety sweetness and just the right hint of tart.

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

10. HOUSE OF FRIENDS, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)

You get the sense that if Matt Orth weren’t busy making your bar experience all better at LARK that he’d be perfectly at home on the farm, tending to his herbs and vegetables and berries, pruning and snipping and tilling and picking and all that. From his Hanging In The Garden (noted above) to the blackberry-infused whiskey masterpiece he conceived for a Jameson competition a few months ago, he’s handy with the fruits of the earth. No wonder, then, that this delicately complex mix of tequila blanco, cilantro-infused dry vermouth, pear liqueur and sweetly herbaceous Yellow Chartreuse unfolds across the palate like a breeze on Sunnybrook Farm. Garnished with a bit of grapefruit zest, its initial agave flavor melds into cilantro, then embraces the sweet pear before waltzing away into the flowers.

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

9. NOGAHOLIC, Juli Naida (Barter, Uptown)

With barman extraordinaire Rocco Milano as her sensei, Juli Naida – on her way to join Mate Hartai at Remedy, officially opening today on Lower Greenville – has come a long way since her drink-slinging days at the Mason Bar. Responsible for a good portion of Barter’s current cocktail menu, she embraced Milano’s offhand suggestion of a seasonal eggnog-themed “flight” and created a series of killer cocktails to roll out in mini form. Her Nogaholic was the least dessert-y of the bunch, and to me the most delicious, evoking the flavors of eggnog sans dairy, eggs or cream: Naida dialed down Cruzan’s potent Black Strap rum with simple syrup and a tincture made with vanilla, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The result is wintry and belly-warming, nog without the density — or the animal products. As my friend Rachel described it: “It’s a vegan’s Christmas wish come true.”

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

8. SMOKY DAIQUIRI, Alex Fletcher (Victor Tango’s, Knox-Henderson)

Smoked beer. It’s a thing. A pretty funky thing, if you ask me, at least judging by the whiff I got of the German-made Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a neutral grain spirit that wormed its way into the primo lineup of beers that Victor Tango’s piled up in 2014. On its own, the malty rauchbier was earthy and harsh, almost nasty like a bad vegetable; the smell called to mind a college laundry room. So of course cocktail master Alex Fletcher – who has since taken over the bar at Henry’s Majestic – had to make a cocktail with it. “That’s what you’d want in that, though,” he said of his clever Smoky Daiquiri, which incorporated the beer into a simply presented daiquiri mix of Blackwell rum, sugar, lime and a pinch of salt. “That salty, spicy funk.” In the drink, the beer’s more off-putting traits vanished; what hit the palate instead was full-bodied lime and tamarind with a sweet tang that got even better as it warmed.

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

7. BENGAL LILY, Kevin Trevino (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)

It was the marvelous Madras curry syrup that really shone in this Indian-influenced creation from Kevin Trevino, Spoon’s former bar manager. One day Trevino – now a wine sales rep – saw the curry powder on Spoon’s kitchen shelf and decided to see what he could pull off. He combined his curry syrup with Tru Organic gin, some Fruitlab ginger liqueur and lemon; the gorgeously blonde cocktail welcomed with a zesty garam masala aroma, then smooth, lemony flavor with hints of ginger and an upper-lip-tingling curry heat. The Bengal refers to its Indian notes; Lily refers to a friend. “It’s got that beautiful Indian curry smell and a little bit of spiciness that burns on the back,” Trevino says. “Especially that ginger.” Tru dat.

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

6. TOP DOWN, Jordan Gantenbein (Abacus, Knox-Henderson)

Driving around with the top down – that’s what I thought summer was all about until I discovered Gantenbein’s wonderful play on the classic Sidecar. He tricked out cherry-wood-infused Cognac with seasonal Meyer lemon syrup, plus a bit of candied Meyer lemon and a Luxardo cherry garnish in a sugarcoated glass. The drink’s luscious lemon/cherry mouthfeel batted the two flavors around the tongue like a game of air hockey, with cherry emerging victorious. The result was a libation that singlehandedly redefined summer.

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

5. ONE MILLION IN UNMARKED BILLS, Pam Moncrief (The Usual, Fort Worth)

One evening at The Usual, I asked for my usual. Which was basically anything using a bitter liqueur. Moncrief – now at Fort Worth’s American F&B, had been working on a little something of her own off-menu, something motivated by a desire to appeal to cocktail newbies and broaden their tastes. But her blend of Ransom Old Tom gin, bitter-smooth Hungarian Zwack liqueur, Dolin Blanc vermouth and Benedictine honey liqueur can please even the heartiest cocktail fan with its well-rounded spicy depths – floral and grape giving way to a honey-bitter finish and a tang that lingers like nightclub ear. A dose of lemon oils atop gives it a nice citrus nose. “I just really enjoy herbaceousness,” Moncrief says. “Zwack and all those amaros are so herbaceous, and I feel like they don’t show up in cocktails enough.” And on that we would agree.

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

4. CAMARA LENTE, Damon Bird (LARK on the Park, downtown)

Take a sip of bartender Damon Bird’s barrel-aged concoction and you may find that your world has slowed to a Matrix-like sensory crawl. Maybe that’s because camara lente is sometimes interpreted as “slow motion,” or maybe it’s because this beautiful blend of mezcal, orange-y curacao, orange bitters and the bitter liqueurs Aperol and Fernet is just that good. Its mix of mellowed smoke and floral hints finish usher in a second wave of smoke and bittersweet, doused in a tobacco-leaf farewell. Bird first made it one night when he was slammed and somebody asked for “something with mezcal.” “The original version included simple syrup,” he says,” but with the barrel-aging, you don’t need it. It’s one of my few babies.”

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

3. ENIGMA, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)

Oh Spoon, we hardly knew ye. While chef John Tesar hopes to reopen the recently shuttered place in another location soon, Dallas’ fickle relationship with seafood casts more doubts than fishing lines. Its demise would be a shame, because under the guidance of Slater and former bar manager Trevino (see Nos. 7 and 11 above), the restaurant’s bar program quietly cranked out some of the area’s more creative and well-balanced drinks in 2014. Slater’s Enigma emerged as my favorite. Noticing that a pair of Angel’s Envy bourbons were finished in port barrels, Slater was intrigued by the combo: He mixed Rittenhouse rye and port with bittersweet Aperol; the result charts a path between two classics, the Manhattan and the Boulevardier, with hints of raisin and honey. A float of orange blossom adds both a perfume-y aroma and a softly sweet, linen finish. There’s no riddle or mystery here: It’s simply delicious.

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

2. BLACK MONK, Creighten Brown (Barter, Uptown)

Speaking of mysteries, I pretty much went bonkers trying to figure out the enigmatic flavor in this fine cocktail. Many a sip later, I still don’t know the answer: It’s a smoky-flavored drink that’s tricky to pin down, greater than the sum of its parts: Brown took a tincture that bar manager Rocco Milano made with tonka bean, vanilla bean and lemongrass and added it to Jameson Black Barrel Reserve Irish Whiskey, bittersweet Averna, the honey-ish Benedictine and a bit of rye-and-sarsaparilla-flavored basement bitters. Every time I tried it, the image of shoe leather popped into my head, but in a most comforting way: The flavors dancing across my tongue included molasses, root beer, pecan pie, cooked honey, even smoky flan. It’s not for everyone – one taster described it as Chloraseptic – but if you enjoy a good cigar, this one is a winner.

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

1. DAMNED AND DETERMINED, Brad Bowden (Parliament, Uptown)

Bowden, formerly of Barter and The People’s Last Stand, was never much for Ancho Reyes, the ancho-chile-flavored liqueur that became my crush of 2014, following in the footsteps of botanical Hum and bitter Suze. But when the slightly spicy, vanilla-tinged blend became a Best New Product finalist at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, Bowden knew he had to do something. Damned and determined was he: Ancho’s bite made it a natural fit for tequila or mezcal, “but that’s what everyone else was doing,” he says (accurately). Instead, Bowden looked to his preferred spirit, rum, and what he devised is essentially a tiki drink, adding sweetly vegetal Green Chartreuse to Papa’s Pilar blonde – “Rum and Green Chartreuse go together like nobody’s business,” he says – along with egg white and a tropical pineapple-vanilla syrup. The egg white gives the ancho a soft bed to lie on; the syrup binds it all together. A last flourish of Angostura bitters atop and you’ve got yourself a magic carpet ride, frothy and floral with a sweet and spicy descent. While he also does a mezcal variation that he calls Aztec Brutality, the original rum version, held aloft on Pilar blonde’s creamy-smooth texture, is a year-topping keeper.

***

HONORABLE MENTIONS NOT NOTED ABOVE: 1874 (Erikah Lushaj, Bowen House); 1919 (Josh Uecker, Blind Butcher); Apples and Oranges (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier); Ascension Hook (Matt Orth, LARK); El Guapo (Brian Williams, The Establishment); High Ryse (John Campbell, Abacus); Imenta (Marcos Hernandez, Bolsa); Nicaraguan Breakfast (Carlo Duncan, Parliament); Peach Pisco Sour (Creighten Brown, Barter); Soul Clap (Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, Midnight Rambler); Velvet Smoke (Juli Naida, Barter);   .

And of course, a hearty thank you to those who accompanied me on my outings, without whom I could never have sampled this many cocktails.

Cointreau’s bartender book club puts history into glasses and craft-cocktailing into perspective

Collectif 1806
Vintage cocktail books — and drinks — from the legendary Trader Vic, at a Cointreau event earlier this year at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.

DALLAS – Early last summer, in the private parlor at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, five weathered books spread out on a vintage trunk – among them Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946), Robert H. Loeb Jr.’s Nip Ahoy! (1954) and Obispo y Monserrate’s Bar La Florida Cocktails (1937). “Please be careful,” said Emily Perkins, regional rep for Collectif 1806, a project of Remy Cointreau USA. “They’re very old.”

Collectif 1806
The Thistle, from the 1924 book “Carlo’s Cocktails,” at Dallas’ Meddlesome Moth.

With the seeming ubiquity of craft cocktails these days, it’s worth remembering that the scene is less revolution than revival: The practice dates back more than a century, and while there’s plenty to appreciate about craft cocktails – the culinary parallels, a culture of hospitality, their ability to take the edge off a day – one of the things I personally love about them is the history that serves as their base. When you make a proper Old Fashioned or Aviation, in other words, you’re building something that someone made pretty much exactly the same way a hundred years or more before. While the tools, technology and the range and quality of ingredients have all since improved, the drinks that have come and gone have left an enduring canon of classics, and the craft at heart is the very one conducted for decades upon decades.

That’s a notion thoughtful bartenders appreciate, and it’s something that Remy Cointreau, the U.S. branch of the French distiller known for its eponymous orange liqueur, has seized upon in a welcome and opportune way. The company has gradually compiled an archive of 250 vintage cocktail volumes, and for the past year, Dallas has been lucky to be among a small circuit of cities in which books are periodically presented for perusal through Cointreau’s bartender education and support arm, Collectif 1806. (Other cities include Miami, San Francisco, Chicago and New York.)

Collectif 1806
Perkins checks out one of the classic tomes with barman Matt Orth of LARK at the Park at Meddlesome Moth’s book club event.

In addition to Sissy’s, Dallas “book club” events have been held at Barter in Uptown, Meddlesome Moth in the Design District and most recently, Abacus in Knox-Henderson.

The evening hours passed at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen as the select group took turns poring through the quaint and dated pages. Smartphones snapped photos of recipes, illustrations or inspiring prose. “I’m such a sucker for vintage illustrations,” Perkins said. “I love the books with the crazy drawings and the old ads.”

Meanwhile, five rounds of cocktails appeared, one from each book – including the sweet, mild Honeysuckle, from Angostura-Wuppermann’s Professional Mixing Guide (1941); the luscious Ian’s Fizz, from Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947); from Bar La Florida Cocktails, the lesser-known classic Brandy Daisy.

“I love old books,” said Julie Brown, who tends bar at nearby Hibiscus. “Trader Vic’s is, like, every bartender’s first book.”

Collectif 1806
At Barter, the Orange Bloom, from the second printing of the United Kingdom Bartender’s Guide (1955). Only 5,000 copies were printed.

Cocktails at these events naturally showcase the Cointreau line of products, which includes The Botanist gin, Bruichladdich Scotch whisky and Mount Gay rum. In general, original recipes are adhered to as faithfully as possible, though they aren’t necessarily what Perkins would serve to modern palates. “You’d have to tinker,” she said. “Most (of the old drinks) are really tart; they’re not using a lot of sugar. Before the 1940s it was rare and expensive. People didn’t have access to a lot of sugar and ice. They were stronger, boozier drinks.”

Despite the light atmosphere, the books are handled with a level of care that sometimes surprises Perkins, who’d initially been reticent to release the rare volumes, some frail and plastic-sleeved, from her protective embrace. “It was hard to let go of that,” she said. But “when it comes to handling the books, there’s a lot of respect and decorum.”

Collectif 1806
At Barter’s event, Harry Johnson’s classic New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (1900), Lucius Beebe’s Stork Club Bar Book (1946) and Ted Shane’s Authentic and Hilarious Bar Guide (1953).

That’s one reason attendance is limited, to weed out looky-loos in favor of more serious practitioners. You wouldn’t want just anyone getting their paws on Harry Johnson’s classic The New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (1900), for example, or V. B. Lewis’ The Complete Buffet Guide (1903). Some of the lucky few even receive access to Cointreau’s online archives. “A lot of these are what people call proprietary secrets,” Perkins says. “It’s supposed to be a tool for bartenders who really care. It’s Holy-Grail-type stuff.”

Those at Sissy’s included Matt Orth of LARK at the Park, Parliament’s Stephen Halpin, Lauren Festa of The Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek and High West brand ambassador Chris Furtado. There was also Parliament’s Daniel Charlie Ferrin, who was proud to already be in possession of Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. “I bought it for $12 on Amazon,” he said. “Except the dust jacket is in pristine condition. It’s literally sitting in my car right now.”

Collectif 1806
A sample illustration from Ted Shane’s cheeky 1953 volume.

In addition to the recipes, “I love the cartoons,” Ferrin said. He picked up the book and flipped open the cover to show an illustration of a bartender pouring liquid from one mixing glass into another. “In fact,” he said, “my next tattoo is going to be based on this one – except it’ll be a monkey, with a fez and a unicycle.”

The recipes are often preceded by wry insights or anecdotes. Introducing the rum-based Pikaki, the renowned Trader Vic wrote in his Book of Food and Drink (1946): “I’d save this one for my visiting great-aunt who, when approached as to her idea of a little before-dinner stimulant, shakes her finger at you reprovingly, ‘Well, just one.’ She’ll probably weaken and have two and go into dinner with her transformation askew.”

The books also recall a time of unabashedly flowery prose and titles – for instance, Charles H. Baker Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. 1 (Being An Exotic Cookery Book, or Around the World with Knife, Fork and Spoon).

Collectif 1806
The Gin Fix cocktail, from The Complete Buffet Guide, (1903), at Meddlesome Moth.

So taken was I with the simple but noble sentiments of the finely distilled introduction to the Book of Food and Drink – which in 1946, was priced at $3.95 – that I tracked down my own copy of the book for my home stash. It reads: “Dedicated to those merry souls who make eating and drinking a pleasure; who achieve contentedness long before capacity; and who, whenever they drink, prove able to carry it, enjoy it, and remain gentlemen.”

“It’s dedicated to us,” Perkins said. “People who love to indulge in finer things – but it says never go overboard, treat people with respect. It’s idealistic and sweet.”

For this group, the books are more than novelty: They’re passed-down knowledge and perspective and a reminder that those who practice the craft today are part of something much bigger than themselves.

Collectif 1806
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen was classically philosophical about the event: “You cannot live if you do not eat,” he said. “And you cannot live if you do not have knowledge.”

 

One last look at 2013: The year’s best in Dallas cocktails

 

Matt Perry, Belly & Trumpet
Belly & Trumpet’s Scorched Belly: Among 2013’s more noteworthy cocktails.

A great cocktail should take you on a little journey, and one benefit of DFW’s thriving craft-drink culture is the growing number of bar-peeps able to put you aboard that flavor train. The year 2013 was a highlight reel of riches: There was Amber West’s Wild Weeds – a Scotch-and-beer blend rimmed with smoked-almond salt – at Central 214; Chase Streitz’s nectarine-and-Fresno-chile-syrup-influenced Honey Bee Sting at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen; and the just-right, savory bacon-infused bourbon goodness – not an easy feat to pull off – that Tamsin Gray (now at Barter) achieved with the Bull Lejeune at Ser.

La Duni’s stalwart Lemon 43 spoke to my inner adolescent with its lemon fruit-gem sweetness, while Belly & Trumpet’s Scorched Belly cocktail (pictured at right) was certainly one of the year’s prettier drinks. Last summer at Bar Smyth, former bar chief Michael Martensen introduced me to the excellent Smoky Negroni, a twist on the classic cocktail (attributed to Austin’s Rob Pate) that subs mezcal for gin. Asian flavors surprised, too: At Bowl & Barrel, former bar manager Ian Reilly – now at Chino Chinatown – cleverly used hoisin sauce in a pisco-based drink called the Passerine, while Victor Tango’s Alex Fletcher incorporated miso into his gin-fueled Art of War.

I could go on. Some of my year’s favorite drinks are still on menus, some aren’t; some never were. Some can be rekindled from memory at their original locations, some have been lost to posterity. As the last year has shown us, places close, others open, sands shift. But it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.

My tastes are partial to the bitter and the botanical – show me a bottle of Suze behind the bar and I’m in – and classic browns like the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac. That said, here are my 15 favorite DFW cocktail discoveries of 2013.

Eddie "Lucky" Campbell, Abacus
The Blackberry Smash: One more reason things are looking up at Abacus.

15. BLACKBERRY SMASH, Abacus (Eddie “Lucky” Campbell)

Campbell’s hiring at the five-star restaurant showed that Abacus was as serious about its cocktails as it was about its food. This was among the first of his new additions to the menu, a gorgeous concoction of bourbon and muddled blackberries, full-bodied and smooth with echoes of grape that give this luscious drink cache beyond whiskey’s typically male demographic. “It’s delicious,” my friend Susan said after a sip or two. “I think a girl who doesn’t like whiskey would still like this.” Not to mention a boy who likes whiskey, too.

Jacob Wallace/Emily Perkins, H&G Sply
Mad beetz: H&G Sply’s refreshingly vegetal Double Under

14. DOUBLE UNDER, H&G Sply (Emily Perkins via Jacob Wallace)

Who doesn’t love beets? Okay, a lot of people doesn’t love beets. But properly speaking, for those of us who do, this splash of refreshment ably answers the call – a simple mix of lively beet-infused tequila, lime and rosemary syrup. Perkins – now with Remy Cointreau – modified this creation by Portland’s Jacob Wallace for H&G’s drink list, toying with the proportions; “it’s supposed to be an earthier Margarita that never feels out of season,” she says. The taste is sour beet moxie and tangy lime, with a slight hint of herb. Unabashedly red with a flirty half-skirt of glittery salt, it sure is purdy to look at, too.

Matt Orth, Lark on the Park
Keeping things in proportion: Suze leads the way in this twist on the classic cocktail.

13. NEGRONI VARIATION, Lark on the Park (Matt Orth)

One benefit of the classic Negroni – equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and bitter Campari – is that it lends itself to modification: Sub mezcal for gin, as mentioned above, and you still have a formidable drink. Around the time Lark on the Park opened last spring, I was bouncing around town seeing what bartenders were doing with Suze – the herbal French bitter that had become my latest crush – and asked bar manager Orth what he could come up with. This was his second concoction – a honey-gold, bitter/botanical flourish of Suze, Gran Classico and Art in the Age’s Sage spirit, marked by a leafy, sage finish.

Alex Fletcher, Victor Tango's
You have no idea how lucky Dallas is that Alex Fletcher didn’t leave Peru a day earlier until you’ve had this drink.

12. LAST NIGHT IN PERU, Victor Tango’s (Alex Fletcher)

Last summer, Fletcher, the new bar manager at Victor Tango’s, traveled to Peru to more fully explore the world of pisco (a light-shaded brandy) and came back inspired by a raisin-syrup-enhanced drink he had on his last night there. “This is my tribute to that,” he says. Employing a perfectly highlighted date syrup instead, this butterscotch-hued drink – with pisco, lime, egg white and Peruvian bitters – has a gentle, fruity sweetness that can shine all year long.

Mike Steele, Bar Smyth
Bitter/sweet legacy: Former Dallas bartender Mike Steele is now in Denver, but left us with this gem.

11. TWO THIRTY, Bar Smyth (Mike Steele)

In the days that followed Bar Smyth’s much-anticipated opening last March, bartender Mike Steele – whose creations twice landed in my list of 2012’s favorite cocktails – served up this doozy that he’d been working on for some time. With two ounces of Eagle Rare bourbon, ¾ of Gran Classico, ½ apiece of Pedro Ximenez sherry and Carpano Antica and a dash or two of celery bitters, it’s a linebacker of a drink, chocolate-y and mildly sweet, something you’d want to sip in front of the fire. In the version pictured above, I subbed the more maple-forward Angel’s Envy for the nutty Eagle Rare and echoed PX sherry’s raisin notes with Lustau’s East India Solero, and it was still terrific. Use mezcal in place of the bourbon, as Steele also did, and you have the Dos Y Media.

Omar YeeFoon, Bar Smyth
For too short a time, we sipped our cares away with this caraway-flavored goodness from Omar YeeFoon.

10. BAD SEED, Bar Smyth (Omar YeeFoon)

Maybe I actually waltzed into the menu-less Knox-Henderson speakeasy and asked for something with Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway-flavored liqueur. (Doubtful.) Or maybe it was something that YeeFoon just happened to be playing with that day. (More like it.) Whatever the case, this inventive drink to which he added Averna, egg white, lemon and a creative splash of root beer and toasted sesame seeds caught my fancy for its frothy off-beat nuttiness. YeeFoon is no longer at Bar Smyth, so I don’t know whether this is still part of his repertoire, but the next time you see him around town it’s worth checking out.

Gabe Sanchez, Black Swan Saloon
Go fig or don’t go at all: Black Swan’s Vieux Carre.

9. FIGGY VIEUX CARRE, Black Swan Saloon (Gabe Sanchez)

It’s always fun to dip into Deep Ellum’s Black Swan and see what the heck bar man Gabe Sanchez is up to that night. Maybe he’s brewing coffee with bourbon – or maybe, as in this case, he’s taking a spoonful of fig jam and setting it afire. So taken was I with this element that I didn’t note at first the lineup of ingredients that would accompany it: Rye, Cognac, sweet vermouth, honey-sweet Benedictine – the classic Vieux Carre. This is Black Swan’s take on it, and cooking the jam reins in its sweetness (the drink has enough of that element already) and lets the wintry fig shine through.

Lee Heffter, Five Sixty
Find me at Five Sixty, and chances are I’ve become Comfortably Numb.

8. COMFORTABLY NUMB, Five Sixty (Lee Heffter)

There’s a lot going on in this drink, but that describes a good number of Lee Heffter’s drinks on the rotating menu at Five Sixty, the Wolfgang Puck Asian-themed restaurant atop Reunion Tower downtown. With Bulleit rye, Cointreau, simple syrup, lemon, Pernod, Peychaud’s bitters and a barspoon of cherry juice, it’s a one-two punch of tart cherry/orange and sweet licorice. If you ever wondered what would happen if a Sidecar crashed into a Sazerac, here’s your answer. You’re welcome.

Michael Reith, Nora
Michael Reith’s Fig Sidecar could be your main ride at Nora.

7. FIG SIDECAR, Nora (Michael Reith)

Speaking of figs and Sidecars: I was excited enough to learn that Nora – the excellent Afghan addition to Lower Greenville – was opening a rooftop bar area. But then bow-tied bar man Michael Reith laid this dollop of seasonal joy on me: A fig-and-winter-spice-infused Cognac to accompany the classic cocktail’s Cointreau and lemon. “I was looking for something wintry,” Reith said. “Once it gets cold outside, I love Cognac, which has that raisin taste. And Cognac and figs go together.” Yeah, like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong. The result is cool fireside comfort.

Eddie "Lucky" Campbell, Abacus
Campbell’s Anejo Flip: Caribbean pirates get a Texas twist.

6. ANEJO FLIP, Abacus (Eddie “Lucky” Campbell)

You probably haven’t heard of the Old Smugglers Awaken, a 200-year-old Havana slush of gin, egg, sugar, lemon and bitters that Campbell has included among his repertoire since his Bolsa days. Probably devised by Caribbean pirates — “Who else would be sitting around drink gin flips in Cuba?” he says — the drink was a favorite of one of Campbell’s patrons at the short-lived Chesterfield downtown until she began ordering a fizzy grapefruit tequila drink on the menu instead. “I thought – what if I combined them?” Campbell says, and this bootylicious treasure – which he dropped on me at his current station, Abacus – is the result: Anejo tequila, grapefruit, agave syrup, vanilla, whole egg and Angostura bitters. Served up in a martini glass with Abacus’ signature “A” stencil-sprayed atop, it’s deliciously creamy and sweet, with hints of warm, dark vanilla.

Josh MacEachern, Cedars Social/Belly & Trumpet
MacEachern’s I’ll Get To It: Try to get to it.

5. I’LL GET TO IT, The Cedars Social (Josh MacEachern)

During his days at The Cedars Social, MacEachern came up with this lovely off-menu blend of Cognac, Pedro Ximenez sherry, orange-y Grand Marnier, walnut tincture and Pernod. But while the easygoing bartender loves crafting drinks, he doesn’t like naming them, so when I’d drop in and request “that thing you made for me last time” and then ask when he was going to name it, his signature reply finally became its lasting moniker. The sippable tipple is a spin on the Sazerac, MacEachern’s favorite cocktail, and arose as he was pondering flavors that might pair well with orange. “I thought of walnut, and anise,” he says. “That’s the fun thing about cocktails – we’re basically building on what chefs have already given us.” You’ll currently find MacEachern pouring Fridays and Saturdays at Uptown’s Belly & Trumpet, where you can still savor the drink’s warm nuttiness and licorice finish.

Rocco Milano, Barter
I’ll have one of those: A cocktail finds new life at Barter.

4. REAL SLOW AND REAL LOW, Barter (Rocco Milano)

“You would think there’s no way that could all work together,” bar manager Rocco Milano said as he placed the bottles in front of me one by one at the late Private/Social (RIP): Slow and Low Rock & Rye (basically a pre-bottled Old Fashioned). Cointreau Noir. Peachy Crème de Peche. Hum, a botanical spirit distinguished by hibiscus, ginger and clove, among other flavors. And Luxardo maraschino liqueur. The ingredients would comprise one of the last drinks Milano — whose Fall Into A Glass was my favorite drink of 2012 — would pour for me there before it closed in July; back then he called it the I’ll Have One Of Those, but fortunately for us brave souls it has been reborn under its new identity at Barter, Milano’s new playground in Uptown, where it will likewise seduce you with fruity sweetness before wrapping you in its warm boa-constrictor grip.

Daniel Guillen, La Duni
Basic ingredients, intricate results: Rosemary’s Affair is one to remember.

3. ROSEMARY’S AFFAIR, La Duni (Daniel Guillen)

Here’s a cocktail that takes you from backyard garden to summer campfire on a magic carpet of licorice; it’s no wonder this cocktail earned Guillen, La Duni’s bar program manager, a slot repping North Texas in a national Bombay Sapphire-sponsored competition in Vegas. It’s not officially on La Duni’s menu, but track Guillen down and he’ll gladly make it for you, first dropping a sprig of fresh rosemary into a Collins glass, splashing it with absinthe and lighting it afire. Then he’ll douse it with enough ice to fill the glass to the brim and cover it with a coaster, capturing and taming the smoking rosemary’s savory flavor. Meanwhile, he’ll mix 2 ounces of Bombay Sapphire gin, ¾ ounce of orgeat, ½ ounce of Averna and a bit of lemon and lime, then pour the liquid over the rosemary-smoked ice. Swirl it in your mouth and you’ll find herb, citrus, smoke and probably the urge to order another.

Alex Fletcher, The People's Last Stand
Into the spotlight: A not-for-the-timid starring role for Green Chartreuse.

2. ONE SMASHED MONK, The People’s Last Stand (Alex Fletcher)

Ah, Green Chartreuse: My beloved Joan Allen of liqueurs. Forever a supporting actress in many a cocktail, never the star. Can she help it if she’s larger than life? See her shine in the classic Last Word – but then send her offstage. When Fletcher (now at Victor Tango’s) headed the bar program at The People’s Last Stand, he felt it was time to give this aggressively vegetal liqueur a starring role, and the tart, sweet, highly herbaceous result outdoes even The Bourne Supremacy: Its elemental mash-up of Green Chartreuse, lime and simple, spiced up with muddled Thai basil and sugar, might seem soft on the surface, but it packs a 110-proof punch. Just like Joan Allen.

Grant Parker, Hibiscus
It’s about the journey, not the destination: Grant Parker’s Amor Y Amargo.

1. AMOR Y AMARGO, Hibiscus (Grant Parker)

Grant Parker’s bar program at Hibiscus is one of the better ones in town, and this Sazerac-esque drink of incredible depth – not officially on the menu – reflects his alchemistic approach. After being blown away by a similar drink at New York’s bitters-focused Amor Y Amargo bar last summer, he wanted to try to replicate the cocktail’s blend of amaros (bittersweet herbal liqueurs). For a week straight he spent a couple of hours a day perfecting this mysterious and satisfying blend of four amaros, plus Peychaud’s bitters and Bittermen’s orange cream nitrate. There’s some Cynar in there, and Averna. Possibly some Amaro Montenegro. Or not. But it’s dark and voluptuous, a drink you’ll want to take a thousand sips of, letting the flavors lindy-hop across your tongue. Cherry. Citrus. Root beer. They’re all there. “It’s essentially an Amaro Sazerac,” he says. It’s amor (love) and amargo (bitter) in a glass. And it’s fabulous.

***

Honorable Mentions: Brown and Stirred (Grant Parker, Hibiscus); Caribbean Winter (Matt Orth, Lark on the Park); Chocolate Bullet (Bistro 31); Holy Grail (Michael Martensen, Driftwood); The Inquisition (Emily Perkins, Victor Tango’s); Scorched Belly (Matt Perry, Belly & Trumpet);  Steep Buzz (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier).

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

Enjoy craft drinks, help make kids’ wishes come true at Sunday’s Cocktails For A Cause

Cocktails for a Cause: And a good one, at that.
Cocktails for a Cause: And a good one, at that.

It’s holiday season, and that means you’ve added a few more things on your to-do list.

  1. Give to charity
  2. Have a holiday cocktail or two

Well,  joy to your world: Now’s your chance to do both at once at the second annual Cocktails For A Cause, happening this Sunday at The Standard Pour in Uptown from 6 p.m. until close.  The evening’s “ultimate pop-up bar” will feature $10 cocktails made by a rotating, ridiculously rife assortment of local bartenders, with all proceeds going toward Trigger’s Toys, a charity benefiting hospitalized children.

The cool thing, says charity founder Bryan Townsend – who named the organization after his golden Lab – is that bartenders have been clamoring to join in on the reindeer games. “It’s been overwhelming, the response,” he says. “People were actually really upset that they missed out last year.”

And not just because they might have missed the inaugural event’s spectacle of bar man extraordinaire Michael Martensen in a Santa suit: No, this is a chance to help make children’s wishes come true, to help create awwwww moments like the night when Townsend and his pals get to deliver a truckload of toys to kids Baylor Medical Center. “My favorite night of the year,” Townsend says.

Last year’s event, which Townsend coordinated along with Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough and Sean Conner of Whiskey Cake in Plano, raised $17,000. He’s hoping that Sunday’s event, combined with what sponsors have already donated, will raise as much as $50,000 to help fund the charity’s efforts in the coming year.

And so, 45 of your favorite drink crafters will be taking turns behind the bar, which as you might guess is just about every bartender in Whoville. In addition to Conner, McCullough and Martensen, the lineup includes Abacus’ Lucky Campbell, Alex Fletcher and Chris Dempsey of Victor Tango’s, Central 214’s Amber West, Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla, Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas, Windmill’s Charlie Papaceno, a smattering of bar peeps from Fort Worth’s The Usual – the list goes on and you’ll be checking it twice to make sure you’re not just seeing things.

At Standard Pour
Brian McCullough, Mike Martensen and Charlie Papaceno will be among the all-star lineup at Sunday’s event.

“It gives us a chance to get together and have some fun and not compete,” Conner says. “To just throw out some really good drinks and raise money for the less fortunate around holiday time.”

They have fun. You drink craft cocktails from an all-star lineup of bartenders. Children’s wishes come true. Everybody wins.

THE STANDARD POUR, 2900 McKinney Avenue, Dallas. 214-935-1370.

 

Down and Dirty on the Boulevard: Gettin’ our picnic on at Chefs for Farmers 2013

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Boulevardier’s Eddie Eakin knocking out Maker’s 46 cocktails at Chefs for Farmers 2013.

Hey, Chefs For Farmers: You can tell everybody this is your song, because last weekend I was reminded like a big slap in the face how wonderful life is when you’re in the world. Or in Dallas, anyway.

Yep: Four days later, I’m still recovering from the Elton-John-esque epicness that was Chefs For Farmers 2013, which brought more than a thousand of my fellow food and drink aficionados to Dallas’ Robert E. Lee Park to basically form obstacles between my appetite and all the tasty consumables that were there to be had.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Cafe Momentum’s smoked bison tamale with fig mole, among Sunday’s culinary bounty.

 

 

 

 

 

Not that it mattered. I realized that by the end of the all-afternoon event that I had partaken of cow, pig, bison, duck, rabbit and boar, not to mention a bit of chicken liver spread. (Thanks to a late dinner at Nora, I managed to add lamb to the day’s lineup, too.) As CraveDFW’s Steven Doyle put it, there were a lot of critters in my belly.

Little of the fare could be called average. Far more of it ranged from very good to outstanding, from Parigi’s wild boar Bolognese (my personal fave) to the short-rib soup from The Mansion At Turtle Creek (fab) to the euphoria-inducing maple-pecan-bacon ice cream (!!!) from Jack Perkins of Maple and Motor and Slow Bone BBQ. Dude, Sweet Chocolate’s drinking chocolate with carrot-lemon foam was a standout, too.

But there were drinks, too, which is what had initially drawn your intrepid cocktails scribe to the picnic-blanket-and-revelry-covered scene. Boulevardier’s Eddie Eakin, High West Distillery’s Chris Furtado and Ten Bells Tavern’s Greg Matthews cranked out Maker’s 46 magic – including Eakin’s Steep Buzz, which married the Kentucky bourbon with  Earl Grey honey syrup, ginger liqueur, lemon and apple bitters. “I’ve never made a thousand cocktails at once before,” Eakin said, managing not to seem overwhelmed.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Ryan Sumner and Julian Pagan of Cedars Social, craftily engineering a good time for all.

The drinks poured forth from nearby fellow libationists, including Cedars Social’s Julian Pagan and Ryan Sumner, Central 214’s Amber West, Abacus’ Lucky Campbell and The People’s Last Stand’s Brad Bowden. I had to give my nod to the Autumn’s Apple cocktail from The Standard Pour’s Christian Armando and Brian McCullough, a spicy medley of Patron Reposado, cinnamon syrup, lemon, apple cider and Angostura bitters.

Until next year, Chefs For Farmers, when I’m counting on one of those excellent chefs to bring some goat to the party. Don’t go breakin’ my heart.

Chefs For Farmers 2013
Chef David Anthony Temple got into the fun with attendee Sheila Abbott.

 

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Christian Armando of Standard Pour doing double-duty.
Event program
Chefs For Farmers 2013
CraveDFW’s Steven Doyle awards me my Maker’s Mark pin.

Counting on Abacus: This five-star restaurant is ramping up its cocktails

Abacus' Blackberry Smash is among the acclaimed restaurant's new bar offerings.
Abacus’ Blackberry Smash is among the acclaimed restaurant’s new bar offerings.

AND JUST LIKE THAT, sweet things are already happening behind the bar at Abacus, the five-star fancypants restaurant that has long wowed critics with its Pacific Rim cuisine. The recent addition of bartender-slash-apothecary Lucky Campbell to its staff of able libationists was a sign that the Knox-Henderson landmark was ready to boost its bar program too.

Hint one that change is afoot: The barrel flanking one end of the swanky bar’s bottle stash. Mid-afternoon last Friday, that barrel was filled with Old Fashioneds and presumably destined to age, but by 10 p.m. Campbell was already positing that the bar had sold more Old Fashioneds in one night than in the past two months. By weekend’s end, he said, the barrel was nearly empty.

This is Abacus, people. Wine, Martinis and Champagne cocktails are the rule, right?

But witness the new, Asian-flavored menu (priced from $12-$14), set to roll out today: A deliciously gorgeous Blackberry Smash made with Maker’s Mark bourbon. A Brandy Stinger featuring Tempus Fugit’s top-notch crème de menthe. And preparing to float lava-lamp-style in the extremely dry, Champagne-driven Femme Fatale: pearls of effing Violette.

That’s right: little spheres of lavender-y Creme de Violette, one of Campbell’s lab projects. A jasmine-tea cordial and five-spice tincture are already bubbling in a back room, and even the Martini menu has been primped, with one knockout version offering Islay-Scotch-and-cracked-pepper blue cheese olives, stuffed in-house.

Said bartender Jordan Gantenbein: “I’ve been waiting three years to do this.”

The sensibilities that guide Abacus’ renowned kitchen are seeping into the dimly lit bar.  So it wasn’t surprising to find Chef de Cuisine Daniel Burr himself on a stool late one night, helping the black-clad bar samurai as they brainstormed an Asian-themed Margarita variation and suggesting matcha green tea powder as a component.

There are some real curiosities on the new menu, like the clever Banksy with “spray-paint spices,” a Yuzu Collins with Bing Cherry soda and the “Ninja Rita,” with its foam of Togarashi, a Japanese spice powder.

Abacus is having some fun now. This is a place worth keeping an eye on.

Lucky Campbell
Abacus’ grapefruity Rio Star is one of the standouts on its redone cocktail menu.