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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.

“Let’s do this, Texas” — Lone Star bartenders came ready for battle and brotherhood at annual spirits festival in New Orleans

USBG midnight toast
Texas bar peeps putting a Lone Star stamp on Bourbon Street at Tales of the Cocktail 2015.

THEY CAME, they saw, they cocktailed – and by Sunday evening, Tales of the Cocktail 2015 had been conquered. Thousands of bartenders, bar owners, distillers, product reps and cocktail enthusiasts — a good portion of them from Texas — swarmed New Orleans’ French Quarter last week for the spirits industry’s biggest gathering, taking in five days’ worth of workshops, networking, tasting receptions, parties and spirit-paired dinners.

From brand-sponsored cocktail breakfasts to rum seminars to after-party confabs at favorites like Erin Rose (home of the Frozen Irish Coffee), there’s a lot to take in. But most of all, the festival is about camaraderie – a time for those who practice and support the cocktail craft to revel in each other’s knowledge, company and support. Bar staffs get better at their craft – by watching each other work, learning about new products and techniques, discovering the history behind what they do — and as a result, we, the consumers, get a better bar experience. It’s a win-win.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Tales’ tasting rooms promoted various brands — or entire spirits, like Thursday’s pisco party, which went all out to evoke Peru.

One big happy family. Except for one thing: While festival rivalries are never bitter, Texas members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild got word that heading into this year’s ritual midnight toast, another USBG chapter had Texas in its sights.

***

AMONG THE MANY traditions of Tales – which last year drew 18,000 people – is the USBG’s annual midnight toast, held on Thursday night of the festival outside the landmark Old Absinthe House, at Bienville and Bourbon streets.

The toast is a quick but raucous affair, a celebration of unity, but of course, Texas can’t help but go big. And having been late to the cocktail game behind places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago – a deficit Lone Star State cities have since made long strides toward closing – maybe there was a little something to prove as the 2014 toast approached.

Either way, forces aligned: With a Texas-staffed event simultaneously happening at a two-story venue across the street, “there were, like, Texas fight songs and Texas flags waving from up on the railing,” remembers Dallas’ Chase Streitz, Bulldog gin’s Texas ambassador. “It was like Texas Mardi Gras for 15 minutes.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Will Croxville of Dallas’ Proof + Pantry offers a hearty welcome during his guest stint at an Edrington Scotch whisky party at New Orleans’ Bourbon Cowboy.

“Texas is kind of the underdog of Tales,” said Alex Fletcher, bar manager at Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “So it was kind of, like…. You know. Texas style.”

It was all over quickly. But rumors soon began that a Texan had thrown a rival chapter flag to the ground, and naturally its owners were not amused. When Travis Tober, beverage director at Austin’s VOX Table, heard they were going to come out swinging this year, Texans decided it was time to rally.

***

TEXAS’ MARK ON TALES is huge, given the state’s size and proximity to New Orleans. Festival founder Ann Tuennerman says representation likely lags only behind New York and California, but this year marked the fourth in a row that a Texas-run party helped kick off the week – and as far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s still Tales’ only state-specific event.

Houston cocktail enthusiasts Michelle Mata, Teddy Bucher and Laura Villafranca were making their second, fourth and sixth Tales visits, respectively. At a dinner at famed Commander’s Palace to showcase Maker’s Mark’s new Cask Strength bourbon, the state went four-for-four, with one table seating a Houston-based rep for Beam Suntory spirits, a wine enthusiast from Austin and a pair of spirits writers from San Antonio and Dallas.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Hey, House of Angostura Orange is the New Black pool party: You’ve got balls.

One morning in the festival’s pop-up bookstore, bartenders Christian Armando (of Uptown’s Standard Pour) and Austin Gurley (of Plano’s Whiskey Cake) browsed the festival’s ever-increasing stock of spirits-related books and cocktail enhancers, from ginger-turmeric bitters to smoke-and-salt bitters to a $75 bottle of truffle bitters.

And the weather was scorching hot – which made the lavish pool parties thrown by spirits producers such as Trinidad-based House of Angostura – all the more welcome. As an attendee from Austin posted on Facebook: “Never in my life have I felt more confident in my decision to pack 8 undershirts.”

***

THE RALLY PLAN was this: To meet at Thursday night’s High West whiskey-sponsored barbecue dinner at One Eyed Jacks on nearby Toulouse Street. Chris Furtado, High West’s Texas rep, had brought a backpack brimming with Texas flags, ready to distribute. From there the group would move on to Erin Rose, and finally to the Old Absinthe House. “I’m sure I’ll be hoarse by the end of the night,” Furtado said. “I’ve heard they (the other chapter members) have a chant. We’re not that organized.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Accoutrements of drinkdom in Don Julio’s Airstream Speakeasy at the Diageo House Party.

He had big hopes, though, expecting other Texas-based liquor reps and distributors and hordes of bartenders. But by 10:30 p.m., when it was time to move on to Erin Rose, there was just him and a pair of Texas supporters from Reston, Va.

Outside Erin Rose, the passing minutes brought only a trickle, and by 11:15, Furtado seemed concerned.

At last, a handful of others showed, including Austin’s Tober, USBG Austin chapter president Jessica Sanders, North Texas chapter president Brian McCullough and Julian Pagan of The Mitchell in Dallas.

The showdown was barely a half-hour away.

***

THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY is now a $23 billion beast. The category made up 35 percent of alcohol sales last year, a slow but steady rise from 29 percent in 2000, with new products coming out all the time.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Making music at the House of Angostura’s Orange is the New Black pool party.

So you can’t blame brands for going all-out to win favor. On top of dozens of Tales tasting rooms, spirit portfolio giants William Grant & Sons, Diageo and Bacardi are known for extravagant parties with multiple drink stations churning out brand-specific cocktails amid the sensory smorgasbord.

Rutte, a Holland-based line of vodka and gins, made its official U.S. launch with a presentation led by master distiller Myriam Hendrickx and packets of the many botanicals that go into its products – juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom and, interestingly, nuts, which influence its genever (gin’s European precursor). Then came another party, with more drinks handed out, and oysters done Dutch: On the half-shell, with a splash of gin.

With so much liquor flowing freely, it’s wise to heed the words of advice that preface many a festival: You don’t have to finish that. In other words, unless a cocktail is truly special, a taste is enough. Then set it aside. There will always be another one.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Herbs, nuts and botanicals: Spirit makings utilized by Holland-based Rutte, which just launched in the U.S.

That said, among the drinks I actually got the chance to try, these were my top four. I might have even have had one or two of them twice.

SWEET AND DANDY (by Kellie Thorn, Empire State South, Atlanta)

This sublimely bittersweet gem from Alameda, Calif.-based St. George Spirits – of which I am a loyal fan – featured its California Citrus vodka, Suze bitter liqueur, vanilla liqueur, lemon, green tea syrup and orange peel. I arrived late to the St. George tasting, so I only got to try it because publicist Ellie Winters was nice enough to share hers with me. And thank the heavens for that.

SOLERA PINA (Lynette Marrero, Zacapa Rum)

OK, it was crazy hot at Diageo’s annual House Party, held at the city’s Contemporary Arts Warehouse, and between that and the killer 80s-cover band onstage, it somehow seemed OK to fall for a snow-cone cocktail. Featuring Zacapa rum along with amantillado sherry, macadamia nut syrup and pineapple, its icy crunch was gloriously enhanced with a sprinkling of Marrero’s vanilla-infused salt.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Yes, one of my favorite festival cocktails was a snow cone. I’m not ashamed. Zacapa’s Solera Pina.

TIERRA D’ORO (Jim Kearns, Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, Greenwich Village, New York); and

MACHO PUNCH (Tony Abou-Ganim, The Modern Mixologist)

At Thursday’s packed Peruvian pisco tasting room, at least a half-dozen versions of the classic Pisco Punch were on display, and these two were absolutely standout: Kearns’ Tierra D’Oro spiced up Pisco Porton with lime, aji Amarillo (a Peruvian chili) syrup, passion fruit syrup, guava puree and classic pineapple, gorgeously presented with an edible flower garnish.

Meanwhile, the gregarious Abou-Ganim mixed Macchu Pisco with floral Yellow Chartreuse, pineapple gomme syrup, lime and lemon and a garnish of pineapple and pineapple-ginger foam to sweet, refreshing effect.

***

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Texas bartenders stage a huge last-minute rally — including, at rear, Dallas’ Brian McCullough and Austin’s Travis Tober.

THINGS WERE LOOKING shaky as the Texans headed into battle a couple of blocks away. But as the group neared the intersection of Bourbon and Bienville, a critical mass began to form, constellations of others joining in along the way as they closed in.

“Let’s do this, Texas!” Tober yelled.

The avenue was a gumbo of Bourbon Streeters and festival-goers, but little Lone Star flags were already waving en masse as beads rained off the balconies. A bigger flag drew a lineup of Texans for selfies and, as midnight drew near, the throng broke into a loud, proud group-sing of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

The big showdown – well, it never materialized. If the rumors had ever been true, the evidence was nowhere to be seen or heard. “I don’t know what happened,” Furtado said. “We owned it.”

And then it was over once again, and the festival rolled on. San Francisco’s ABV bar reigned victorious at Tales’ annual Bar Fight (which went international this year) and won Best New American Bar at Saturday’s annual Spirited Awards, Denver’s Williams & Graham was named Best American Cocktail Bar and New York’s Ivy Mix was named best bartender.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Among the shirt on display at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival.

Sunday’s annual picnic rewarded those who went the distance, but for many, Tales was a beatdown and done before they knew it – with great memories tinged with realizations of how much they had yet to learn or regrets over missed opportunities.

“New Orleans, you were a whirlwind romance this year,” Austin’s Sanders posted on Facebook. “Can’t believe I have to leave already!”

And from Whiskey Cake’s Gurley: “Well, that was an experience. Tales of the Cocktail, you win this time. Back to Dallas.”

If there was ever a time to celebrate the Negroni, National Negroni Week is it

National Negroni Week
It’s National Negroni Week. Why aren’t you celebrating?

The Negroni is among the most perfect of cocktails, a happy triumvirate of gin, sweet vermouth and the Italian bitter liqueur Campari that appeals to the bittersweet lover in you. It works as a handy aperitif or a dependable go-to, and it’s got some legs: The recipe dates back to at least the 1950s, though its rumored origins trace back to 1919, when the Italian Count Negroni asked for a variation on the Americano to be made with gin instead of club soda.

As consummate bar man Rocco Milano once said, “It’s a drink that’s greater than the sum of its parts, because they have an amplifying effect.”

That they do. Master bartender Gary Regan calls the Negroni one of the world’s finest drinks. “The balance is of primary importance in a Negroni,” he writes in The Joy of Mixology. “Using equal parts of each ingredient is absolutely necessary to achieve perfection.”

It’s also a drink that oh so willingly lends itself to multiple variations. Sub mezcal for gin and you’ve got a smoky Negroni; use bourbon and you’ve got a Boulevardier. Fancy up your sweet vermouth with Carpano Antica for some extra zing. And so on. It’s a versatile vehicle for your whims.

Which is all the more reason to celebrate the currently ongoing National Negroni Week, as proclaimed by Imbibe magazine. And it’s for a good cause – participating bars are offering the classic drink at special prices this week, with the proceeds benefiting the charity or cause of their choice: At Dallas’ Black Swan Saloon, it’s the ALS Association’s Texas chapter; at Henry’s Majestic, it’s Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. Other participating bars include Proof + Pantry, Dish Preston Hollow, Twenty Seven, Victor Tango’s, Nickel and Rye, Libertine Bar and HG Sply Co.

Get over there and try the Negroni or some variation therein. (At Henry’s Majestic, cocktail guru Alex Fletcher cooked up a Campari infused with dried currant and golden raisin, for example.)  Personally, I recommend having one on the rocks with an orange twist and a dash of Pacific Ocean.

Salut!

From Mexico, with larvae: Sal de gusano is worming its way into Dallas’ mezcal

Atwater Alley
Like moths to a flame: A Mexican tradition finds its way to Dallas.

So, you’ve wowed your Fireball-drinking buddies with your superior knowledge of mezcal, tequila’s smoky and more exotic cousin. You’ve earned serious props for your appreciation of mezcal’s Scotch-like acquired taste. But dude: if you really want to prove yourself mas macho, try drinking mezcal the way it’s done in Oaxaca – with worm salt.

Among the benefits of the ongoing craft-cocktail renaissance has been the rising availability of mezcal, distilled from Mexico’s native maguey plant, a form of agave. Generations-old methods of artisan production  – in which the plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens before the fermentation process, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor – have spawned hundreds of choices, many of which you can now find in the U.S.

Typically it’s imbibed straight. Picture a tiny cup or shot of your beloved mezcal, served alongside a small plate of orange slices. Garnish those slices with a sprinkling of sal de gusano – a rust-colored powder of sea salt, ground chilies and the crushed remains of agave worms. Better yet, dip a slice into a bowl of the powder itself.

While you grimace, consider this: Despite the name, the worms aren’t actually worms. They’re the larvae of moths that start feeding on the hearts and leaves of the agave plant as soon as they’re born. In other words, they are living the life. Their brief and blissfully unaware existence comes to an end in late summer, when – in accordance with centuries-old tradition – they’re gathered up, dried in the sun and toasted, then pulverized along with sea salt and chilies to become the magical mix now before you.

Proof + Pantry
These larvae sacrificed themselves for your mezcal enjoyment. Don’t disappoint them.

Back to your plate. Take a bite of powdered orange and your mouth explodes with sweet citrus, faint heat and a wallop of salt. It’s a zesty complement to the swig of smoky mezcal you’re about to inhale. But wait: There’s another flavor there, too, almost paprika-esque. It’s lovely and rounds out the mezcal perfectly.

“It’s savory,” says bartender Hector Zavala of Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “It has that flavor of umami.”

Yes, a bit of the worm-salt experience and you might just be calling for your mommy. But insect consumption is a longtime tradition in resource-challenged Oaxaca, where critters like grubs and crickets provide a cheap and plentiful source of protein. (I once sampled a plate of not-so-bad dried crickets at a Oaxacan hole-in-the-wall in Phoenix, sautéed with lime and chili and served with a side of tortillas. The biggest issue – the little legs that get caught between your teeth.)

Atwater Alley
Bartender Zavala’s spice powders, made from moth larvae and grasshoppers.

A few weeks ago, Zavala scored a shipment of sal de gusano from Mexican producer Gran Mitla; he’s now dishing it up Oaxaca-style at Henry’s Majestic and its speakeasy sidekick, Atwater Alley. (Appropriately, he serves it with Wahaka’s reposado mezcal, which incorporates the same agave worm.) At Uptown’s upscale Mexican place Komali, bar manager Leann Berry is pondering serving her recently obtained sal de gusano with mezcal flights, while you can also find it at Proof + Pantry in the Arts District, socked away in a Hefty bag labeled “grub salt.”

Zavala, of Henry’s Majestic, comes from the same small town in Mexico as fellow bartender Luis Sifuentes; they lived two miles apart but never met until they came to Dallas. Now both are among the badass bar crew assembled at Henry’s by beverage director Alex Fletcher. “Alex has a lot of trust in us,” says Zavala, who along with sal de gusano also procured a milder, sweeter powder of ground-up grasshoppers called sal de chapulin. “He lets us experiment and come up with our own ideas.”

Fletcher finds the whole thing intriguing. “(Hector) brought those in to play with,” he says, wheels already turning. “I think doing a worm-salt, citrus-based mezcal cocktail would be fantastic.”

That’s what a post on the site Mezcalistas.com suggests. In fact, its play on the classic Margarita is basically the orange-slice tradition rolled into a drink, replacing tequila and lime with mezcal and orange juice and then serving it in a worm-salt-rimmed glass.

Atwater Alley
At Atwater Alley, a worm-salt-rimmed cocktail from bartender Sifuentes.

At Atwater Alley, Sifuentes gave the cocktail concept a go, too, mixing mild Wahaka mezcal with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and a bit of bitter Averna. Worm salt lined the glass. It was a respectable blend, but it could just be that the spices’ jaw-punch of salinity is too aggressive to play well in cocktails, at least in significant quantity. Still, there’s nothing wrong with having it the traditional way. Sometimes simplicity is best.

Maybe food is the most logical complement of all. In Austin, you’ll find worm-salt-accompanied mezcal at Takoba, along with slices of Oaxacan cheese. And at The Pastry War in Houston, you can get mezcal with a straight-up side of toasted grasshoppers. If that makes you shudder, start slow – with a bit of worm salt.

“Psychologically, that’s a hump I had to get over,” said Proof + Pantry bartender Mike Steele. “But it’s pretty good stuff.”

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.

Henry’s Majestic unveils a forgotten hideaway just in time for Sunday’s benefit bash

Henry's Majestic
Henry’s Majestic, transformed: There’s more than meets the eye.

Oh, Alex Fletcher. You sneaky little dude.

There are so many reasons why you should drag yourself to tonight’s benefit bash for Trigger’s Toys at Henry’s Majestic in Knox-Henderson – the five pop-up bars, for instance, and the fact that the whole thing benefits hospitalized kids. But here’s one more: Mr. Fletcher is about to play the little ace that he’s been holding up his sleeve.

Some were surprised when the craft-cocktail wunderkind announced he was leaving venerable Victor Tango’s, and the bar program he’d helped lift to new heights, for Henry’s, the latest venture in the curiously unfertile space at McKinney and Monticello.

True, he’d known owners Jim and Cindy Hughes of Bread Winners Cafe since his days at the cafe’s adjoining Quarter Bar in Uptown. But still… “It’s more of a leap forward for me,” he told me just after the announcement. “It’s going to open some doors.”

Apparently those doors were more than figurative, because now it all makes sense: At Henry’s, just like a Transformer, there’s more than meets the eye. Turns out there’s an unused nook or cranny or two that have been ripe for the renovating, and the space once home to Cretia’s and Acme F&B has been – surprise! – a rabbit warren of bar potential.

Henry's Majestic
Do not play poker with this man: Head barman Alex Fletcher expressing himself at Henry’s Majestic.

Welcome to Atwater Alley, a long narrow corridor behind Henry’s kitchen – accessible on the Monticello Avenue side – that leads to a cozy, two-story den falling somewhere between modern Victorian and Old West saloon. Though larger, the dimly lit upstairs area is especially submarine-snug. And both stately back bars are a throwback; Fletcher thinks the upper one was actually shipped in from The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. But incredibly, the space has sat here apparently unused for a decade — if it was ever used at all.

“This is kind of why I joined this whole team,” the typically understated Fletcher says. “I knew there was something really cool back here. I was like, `Oh, okay.’ It’s like a playground.”

It took a little work to revive, but the area is now ready to house two of tonight’s benefit pop-ups – the & and & cocktail lounge and the Booty Bar and Half-Mast Tiki Lounge. (The other three will be in Henry’s main bar area.)

For those unfortunate enough to miss tonight’s event, Fletcher plans to keep Atwater Alley going from here on out every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. “It’s a great little space,” he says.

Coming soon: Five pop-up bars all under one roof — and it’s all for charity

The Standard Pour
Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla, left, is all smiles as the pop-up bar “draft” gets underway in preparation for Sunday’s annual fundraiser.

As Ryan Fussell of Fort Worth’s Bird Café put it, it was a veritable who’s-who of craft bartenders, dozens of them assembled on a weekday afternoon for the first of several steps toward a purpose greater than themselves. The site was Uptown’s Standard Pour, where five boards had been posted above the bar, each topped with the name of a trusty tipple maker.

Yes, there’s a story there, but here’s what you really need to know: That on Sunday, Dec. 14, five teams of drink-slingers will face off at Henry’s Majestic as part of the Trigger’s Toys Fantasy Draft Main Event – not only for your imbibing pleasure but for the benefit of Trigger’s Toys, a Dallas charity serving hospitalized kids and their families.

As if that’s not enough reason to get yourself over there, consider this: The agency’s third annual fundraiser will feature five pop-up bars of varying tongue-in-cheek themes, and if you’re wondering how Henry’s – the recently opened Knox-Henderson gastropub in the space once occupied by Acme F&B – is going to pull that off, you’re going to have come see for yourself the little ace that bar manager Alex Fletcher has been hiding up his sleeve.

The Standard Pour
Your five pop-up bar captains: Campbell, Sanders, Orth, Moore, Hilla. Yup, it’s going to be a party.

So on this afternoon, the gathered bartenders were at The Standard Pour for the “fantasy draft” that would produce the five teams of 13, along with bar concepts and sponsored spirit lineups. Organizer David Alan, the Austin-based Tipsy Texan himself, was here with his team, the lot of them dressed like referees. Actually, it wasn’t so much a draft as a draw, with each captain – Parliament’s Lucky Campbell, Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla, Knife’s Charlie Moore, LARK at the Park’s Matt Orth and, from Austin, Drink.Well’s Jessica Sanders – picking names out of a bowl to compile their teams.  While most of the crews represent the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a number are coming in from elsewhere to aid the cause from places like Austin, San Antonio, San Diego and Los Angeles.

The Standard Pour
Knife’s Moore, left, meets outside The Standard Pour with members of his team, including Windmill Lounge’s Reith, Windmill co-founder Charlie Papaceno and Proof + Pantry’s Hendrix.

Dang, my team looks good,” Moore crowed after drawing Fletcher’s name from the batch, adding to a lineup that already included Bolsa’s Spencer Shelton, Proof + Pantry’s Josh Hendrix and Michael Reith of the Windmill Lounge. “That’s it! It’s over. Everybody go home.”“Stacks on stacks,” Hendrix added.Your pop-up bar lineup will include a sports bar, honky-tonk saloon, nightclub, tiki bar and, of course, bespoke cocktail lounge.  Each ephemeral entity is already being promoted on Facebook and other social media, and you’ll find them here:

Burning Saddle Saloon: https://www.facebook.com/burningsaddledallas

Red Card Sports Bar: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Red-Card/597869657005457

Klub Dreemz: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Klub-Dreemz/628717833906094

Booty Bar and Half Mast Tiki Lounge: https://www.facebook.com/bootybartiki

The & and &: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-And-/317489505118782

The event runs from 8 pm to midnight at Henry’s Majestic, 4900 McKinney in Dallas. Pre-purchased tickets on Eventbrite (available here) are $20, which includes two drinks. You can also buy tickets at the door for $10, then spring for your drinks inside.

The Standard Pour
LARK’s Matt Orth, center, meets with his “drafted” team at The Standard Pour. The nightclub-themed pop-up will be called Klub Dreemz.

Along with donations from sponsoring spirit producers, last year’s bash at The Standard Pour pulled in a whopping $45,000 for Trigger’s Toys, which in addition to financial aid provides kids with toys and therapy aids. With the help of the bartenders giving their time on Sunday, founder Bryan Townsend – who named the agency for his dog after seeing the animal’s positive effect on a child in need of therapy – hopes to take that to new levels.

“Not only are you changing this industry,” an emotional Townsend told the group. “What we’re doing today will change lives.”

 

Amid the mayhem, camaraderie: Texas weathers the Tales of the Cocktail storm

Tales of the Cocktail's Absolut Welcome Party
At Tales of the Cocktail’s opening party, the great Dale DeGroff crooned Sinatra-style standards.

NEW ORLEANS — Here in the city that sets the standard for revelry, you never know what you might see: A Santa Claus in shorts, random people on stilts, or perhaps a llama. Add to that the loosely organized mayhem that is Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s largest national gathering, and you‘ve got “Rum Institute” class sessions, tasting stations disguised as giant Cointreau bottles and sponsored parties teeming with booze and spectacle.

Exhibit A: Absolut Vodka’s Wednesday-night welcome bash at Mardi Gras World, a circus-themed soiree featuring drink-slinging midway characters, Andy Warhol lookalikes in various sizes and craft-cocktail founding father Dale DeGroff crooning jazzy standards in the garden of gigantic floats. Or: the acrobat-dotted William Grant & Sons-sponsored party at Lakefront Airport, a restored art-deco edifice where I’m 85 percent sure I saw a camel.

Clockwise, from upper left: Esquire's David Wondrich at a Tales workshop; The Old Absinthe House; French Quarter llama sighting; The 86 Co.'s Jason Kosmas; Italian amaro producer Orietta Varnelli; a freakin' camel; a TOTC cocktail.
Clockwise, from upper left: Esquire’s David Wondrich at a TOTC workshop; The Old Absinthe House; French Quarter llama sighting; The 86 Co.’s Jason Kosmas; Italian amaro producer Orietta Varnelli; a freakin’ camel; a TOTC cocktail.

This was the 12th annual TOTC gathering; nearly 23,000 people attended last year. The whole experience can be a bit much, a day-to-day beatdown so grueling that it’s tempting to keep score. “Goodnight NOLA, you’re a worthy adversary,” went Dallas’ Trina Nishimura’s fifth-night post on Facebook. “This round however, goes to me.” (Her final score: NOLA 2, Trina 2, draw 1.) But the frenzy couldn’t obscure the little things that make the annual festival special: The random run-ins with friends not seen since last year, the face-to-face encounters with people known only through social media, the new friends made over spirited dinners and Thursday’s massive midnight toast outside the Old Absinthe House by members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. The days were sprinkled with seminars on topics like bitters, a history of women working behind the bar or the Chinese spirit baijiu, but it was also worth taking a breather to browse the event’s bitters-and-book store or the Cocktail Kingdom-run shop with its gold-plated jiggers and beautifully reproduced vintage tomes like “Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual – Or: How To Mix Drinks of the Present Style” (1900 edition).

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
DFW’s Bonnie Wilson held down one of Anchor Distilling’s tasting stations.

The Lone Star State was well represented. It was Texas, of course, that kicked off the jauntiness with Wednesday morning’s Tiki Throwdown at host Hotel Monteleone. The next day, Bonnie Wilson, beverage program manager forFrontburner’s Fork It Over Restaurants – think Plano’s Whiskey Cake or The Ranch at Las Colinas – crafted mini cocktails for the sampling hordes at one of numerous drink stations in Anchor Distilling’s tasting room. Later that afternoon, Austin’s Chris Bostick represented not just Texas but an entire gender at a Battle of the Sexes event sponsored by Mandarine Napoleon. And that night, Dallas’ Brad Bowden (Barter) and Christian Armando (The Standard Pour) were among the many visiting bartenders getting behind the stick at festival-related parties popping up at French Quarter-area locations.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
In case you ever wondered what a Rum Institute looks like. Presented by Angostura.

Austin-via-Dallas resident Jason Kosmas, the easygoing co-founder of legendary New York bar Employees Only and one of the driving forces behind Dallas’ now thriving craft-cocktail scene, took some time to talk up The 86 Co., the fledgling spirits line he started with fellow EO barman Dushan Zaric and liquor ambassador Simon Ford. He held afternoon court at New Orleans’ Gravier Street Social, describing his products like a proud daddy recounting his 3-year-old’s budding sports prowess. “If it wasn’t for Tales, I don’t think we would have had the resources and relationships to take it to the next level,” he said.

Friday night would bring yet another party, this one sponsored by The 86 Co. – the annual bar battle pitting half a dozen bars from around the country against each other in a raucous atmosphere to see who could best handle the pressure, evoke their home environment and make the best set of cocktails. In short: To see who was mas macho. As with last year’s event — at which Dallas’ late Bar Smyth made an admirable showing — the throwdown was promoted boxing-style, this time with fancy posters and clever profile cards proclaiming each bar’s staff, fighting styles and words of warning to the competition. In addition to the Tiki Throwdown team, the night’s powerful Texas showing included at least a half-dozen Dallas-based state beverage reps; bartenders Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, Barter’s Stephen Halpin and Brad Bowden, Libertine’s Will Croxville and Driftwood’s Ryan Sumner; even cocktail gadabout Sean Reardon.

Upstairs, Houston bartending luminary Bobby Heugel poured mezcal. Vegas-based “Modern Mixologist” and author Tony Abou-Ganim singlehandedly lit up an entire corner of the dark room with his big-time smile. There was New York’s Julie Reiner, co-founder of the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club – but wait, who was that once again behind the bar at The 86 Co.’s  station? None other than Dallas’ own Omar YeeFoon, the former Bar Smyth/Cedars Social cocktail magician who joined The 86 Co. as Texas state brand ambassador earlier this year.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
Bar Fight Club, clockwise from upper left: Trick Dog’s drink menu; The Williams & Graham team; Texas’ Brian McCullough and Jason Kosmas; New York’s NoMad squad; happy revelers; the guys from Herbs & Rye; Dallas’ Omar YeeFoon; The menu from Boston’s Backbar; Bar Fight Club 2014’s poster.

My favorite sips of the evening, aside from the chicory-syrup-enhanced Milk Punch Hurricane poured at Boston’s Backbar, leaned toward the trending mezcal, including Vegas-based Herbs and Rye’s brilliant Smoking Mirrors – a spicy, sweet and smoky mix mining Fernet and pineapple syrup – and Denver stalwart Williams & Graham’s voluptuous Gold Digger, which matched the smoky agave spirit with Pierre Ferrand dry curacao and two kinds of sherry.

San Francisco’s Trick Dog would take the judges’ top prize, boosted by its carnival theme and cocktail-filled watermelons suspended in mini hammocks for midair imbibing through tiny spouts. Williams & Graham’s team – whose lead man, Sean Kenyon, would earn Tales’ nod as American Bartender of the Year, worked hard to recreate the bar’s library-esque atmosphere. A guy from New York’s NoMad climbed atop the bar and rained shots of premium mezcal into willing mouths, while Backbar was fronted in part by a fierce and impressively bearded madman with habanero eyes. Los Angeles’ Harvard & Stone was back there in a corner somewhere, out-crazied by the adjacent team from Herbs and Rye with its gaudy chandeliers and a leopard-bikini’ed woman the size of a Galliano bottle primping atop the bar, which in turn inspired Seattle bar man Rocky Yeh to peel off his shirt, leap aboard and let out his best beastly roar.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
You’ll have whatever he makes you. At Boston’s Backbar station at Fight Club 2014.

Could that have been what ultimately earned Herbs and Rye the People’s Choice award? Who knows, but it was that kind of night. It was that kind of week. And for a community whose living revolves around giving guests a great experience, a time to soak in camaraderie and a great experience for themselves.

“I’m Dallas bound,” wrote TOTC first-timer Lauren Spore, a cocktail waitress at Southlake’s Brio Tuscan Grille, in a Facebook post when it was all over. “But thank you to everyone I met, the new friends I made and the old friends who helped make this even more amazing. This has been one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life and to all the people who made it happen, thank you.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
Words can’t even: The Absolut Welcome Party at Mardi Gras World.

 

And so it begins: Tales of the Cocktail 2014 kicks off in New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Dallas’ Mate Hartai, second from left, and Brian McCullough, second from right, doin’ Texas proud at the Texas Tailgate Party that kicked off Tales of the Cocktail 2013.

NEW ORLEANS — It’s that time again – time to let the good times roll, time to learn about agricole, time to sip some Aperol. You know what I mean: It’s time for Tales of the Cocktail 2014.

The nation’s most ginormous industry event for bartenders, bar owners, spirits makers, liquor reps, enthusiasts and the wretched chroniclers of said shenanigans is upon us for its 12th year in that most perfect of cities, New Orleans.

Oh, New Orleans: You complete me. You are the primordial jambalaya from whose loins sprang the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre’, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz, the insufferable Hurricane.

We know her as NOLA, and she is among America’s craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud’s French 75, Antoine’s Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it’s not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here. That’s not to say there aren’t some great new cocktail bars in NOLA: Cure, Bellocq and Cane and Table have earned much national acclaim.

I’ll hope to visit them if I can find the time. That’s because this five-day festival can be grueling, chock full as it is with workshops, happy hours, competitions, spirit-paired dinners, tastings, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions, huge parties and… even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one’s resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if you aren’t careful – including “whiskey dialogues,” seminars about how to launch a spirits line or about the Chinese spirit baijiu, tips for bartenders charged with making drinks in front of TV cameras and advanced bartender trainings.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The William Grant & Sons party at last year’s Tales conference, complete with the Hendrick’s Gin cannon at right.

This is my third year at Tales and I’ll be bringing you dispatches from the front lines where members of Texas’ bartending community are representing the Lone Star State, many for the first time – including Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Barter’s Stephen Halpin, The Standard Pour’s Christian Armando, Absolut Vodka rep Ashley Williams (formerly behind the bar at Boulevardier) and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, whose victory in a recent Jefferson Bourbon competition earned him the trip here (I was among the contest’s judges). Most of the action will be going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, home to the revolving Carousel Bar.

The festival kicks off with Wednesday morning’s Texas Tiki Throwdown, because obviously nobody knows how to throw a party like Texas, and the ensuing days will feature other Texas bar peeps along the way: Former Dallas luminary Jason Kosmas will wax proud about his popular new line of spirits; Bonnie Wilson – here with her flock of Fork It Over Restaurants staffers – will churn out cocktails for an Anchor Distilling Co. shindig; Austin’s Chris Bostick will compete at Wednesday’s Battle of the Sexes bartender competition. Also, because this is New Orleans, there will be beignets.

I asked a few TOTC veterans to offer tips for festival first-timers and for their can’t-miss destinations while in New Orleans.

BRIAN McCULLOUGH, The Standard Pour – 6th time at Tales

The Standard Pour
Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour in Uptown.

SURVIVAL TIPS: One, eat when you see food. Two, drink when you see water. Three, sleep when you can. And four, you don’t have to finish that.

MUST-DO’S: You’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t go to Frenchman Street.  Café Le Monde, for sure. Port of Call for a cheeseburger. And the alligator cheesecake at Jackamo’s – the tables are all uneven, but the food is absolutely astounding.

BONNIE WILSON, Fork It Over Restaurants (Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar, et al.) — 4th time at Tales

Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)
Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Everything in moderation. You can go down and have things be crazy, or you can go down and have it be a fun educational event. Be moderate about it. Do everything you want to do, but just control yourself.

MUST-DO’S: I always go to Mother’s for the Ferdy’s special. That’s 100 percent a must. They do this stuff called debris. It’s a ham and roast beef sandwich with basically the juices, the pan drippings, all the goodness, spices and fat and everything.

MATE HARTAI, The Cold Standard – 3rd time at Tales

Libertine Bar
Dallas’ Mate Hartai. (Photo by Jason Raney)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Lots of (dehydration preventative) Pedialyte. And cardio.

MUST-DO’S: Get out of the French Quarter. Check out the architecture. I’m from Hungary, and this place reminds me of Europe. I’ve been to New York and San Francisco, all the supposed European cities, and this city makes me more homesick to be in than anywhere else.

BRAD BOWDEN, Barter – 3rd time at Tales

Barter
Brad Bowden, lately of Uptown’s Barter.

SURVIVAL TIP: Nothing good happens after 5 AM.

MUST-DO’S: Mad Hatter. I always try to stop in and get myself a hat. And the Erin Rose – I always go there and get one of those Bailey’s drinks they have there. (Erin Rose is renowned for their frozen Irish Coffee.)

Victor Tango's
High West’s Chris Furtado and Remy Cointreau’s Emily Perkins showing off their skin art at Dallas’ Victor Tango’s.

EMILY PERKINS, Remy Cointreau brand rep, Dallas – 2nd time at Tales

SURVIVAL TIPS: Just let it wash over you. But be responsible. And be careful; it’s easy to forget that New Orleans can be a dangerous place.

MUST-DO’S: Domelise’s, for the po-boy sandwich.

CHRIS FURTADO, Texas rep for Utah’s High West Distillery

SURVIVAL TIPS:

* Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

• Take time to eat. Often.  When dashing from seminar to event to party, sometimes meals fall to the side.  You are doing yourself a disservice both physically and culturally.

• Don’t book yourself solid; leave some time free.  A lot of cool stuff will come up that you didn’t know about.

• Be ready for rain. It’s New Orleans, it’s the summer.  It’s not a question of if but when.

MUST-DO’S:

* The U.S. Bartenders Guild toast at The Old Absinthe House – Thursday at midnight.  There’s something cool about seeing the street packed with bartenders raising their glasses in the air and yelling cheers.

* Have a Lucky Dog. Get a slice of pizza also.  Skip the Hand Grenade (drink) though.

* The Alibi is a great late-night spot.  It’s where local service industry peeps go to unwind.

 

Into the lime light: Dallas bartenders giving Green Chartreuse her chance to shine

LARK on the Park
Sweet, wonderful you: Green Chartreuse, stepping into the spotlight.

Stand back: The green genie is having her moment. Her radiance is typically loosed in increments — too much and she overwhelms with her blossomy, 110-proof lushness. You know her as Green Chartreuse – a crucial player in such classics as the Bijou and the Last Word, but never, ever the star (though she manages to steal the show anyway with her presence alone). Her true identity has been kept secret for more than 400 years, closely guarded by the French Carthusian monks who’ve been crafting this gem, and her milder yellow sister, for nearly three centuries.

But now. Now. The emerald tiger is running free. At least four Dallas-area bartenders have thrust this mystery mix of 130 herbs, plants and flowers into the spotlight. The seeds were planted last year when Victor Tango’s’ Alex Fletcher – then bar manager at The People’s Last Stand – gave us the luscious One Smashed Monk, among my favorite cocktails of 2013, accessorizing Chartreuse with lime, simple syrup and Thai basil.

The Chartreuse-based cocktails that have sprung up around town since early this year are similarly paired with citrus and sweetener in succulent variations that play well with the liqueur’s flowery, vegetal essence, one a friend described “like wonderful, toasted hay, with the freshness of grass.” All are worth trying – and it’s worth asking for a solo audience with the queen herself, or if you can find it, Green Chartreuse’s extra-aged VEP version.

Grant Parker, Hibiscus
God bless the monks and their monk-y meditation for making this drink possible at Hibiscus.

THE FRUITS OF CONTEMPLATION – Hibiscus

With spring in the air, Grant Parker, lead barman at this Henderson Avenue mainstay, wanted to put a tiki drink on the menu. Rum, however, was out of the question; it’s just not something his clientele goes for. He considered doing a swizzle, some crushed-ice thing with lime and pineapple; then he added a boost of falernum, a rum-based syrup. All of a sudden, Green Chartreuse seemed like a natural fit. “These ingredients go together perfectly,” he says, and he’s not kidding. It’s big, boozy and beautiful, just like the liqueur.

The name refers to the lifestyle of the Carthusian monks themselves, who after being twice expelled now manage a peaceful existence at France’s Grande Chartreuse monastery despite the proximity of one of the world’s finest liqueurs. Or perhaps because of it. “Their whole lives are run by contemplation,” Parker says.

Sean Conner, for The Establishment
Chartreuse gets the mojito treatment at The Establishment.

GREEN DRANK – The Establishment

This one is sweet and light on its feet, as Green Chartreuse meets lime and simple syrup, accompanied by muddled mint and a float of soda for effervescence. “It’s built exactly like a mojito,” says creator Sean Conner, the former Whiskey Cake bar man who consulted on some of the Knox-Henderson restaurant’s drinks and whose new pizzeria, P1.E 3.14, debuts this week in Lewisville. “I’ve been making that for years, but I’ve never put it on the menu.” Though the drink just dashed off the Establishment’s cocktail menu, it’s still available by request.

Matt Ragan, Victor Tango's
Sometimes you just gotta write those dreams down. Lucky for you, Matt Ragan did.

THE NUN AND THE NYMPH – Victor Tango’s

General manager and beer nerd Matt Ragan says he woke up one morning with a burst of inspiration: “Oh! A Green Chartreuse Shandy. I want to drink one of those right now.”

He was referring to the summery libation that mixes a light beer with lemonade or ginger ale, a concept bartenders have run with by further adding gin and other ingredients. He immediately scrambled out of bed and over to Victor Tango’s on Henderson, where he started playing with the idea. His final version outfits Green Chartreuse with lemon, honey, some ginger for bite and a nice Belgian Wit beer spiced with coriander and orange peel.

The name is a play on the accompanying beer — Adelbert’s Naked Nun — and the “green fairy” nickname usually linked with absinthe.

Matt Orth, LARK on the Park
Enhancing Chartreuse’s mood with leafy substances at LARK on the Park.

CHARTREUSE AND TONIC – LARK on the Park

A simple gin and tonic is the drink of choice for Matt Orth, LARK’s bar manager, when he’s out on the town. Well, maybe that with a bit of Green Chartreuse on the side. The Chartreuse and tonic has been done before, but let’s be honest: It hasn’t been done enough, and in Dallas, it’s hardly been done at all. Orth is ready to change that with his viridescent, swizzle-esque mix of Green Chartreuse, tonic, lime and Thai basil (or even better, bay leaf), sprinkled with a few dashes of excellent lime and molasses bitters made in-house at the downtown restaurant. “I like to use crushed ice,” Orth says. “Because Green Chartreuse is just so big.”

LARK on the Park
The liqueur that gave the color its name. LARK’s Damon Bird pouring sample tastes of VEP.

You can find Chartreuse VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) at Boulevardier, Hibiscus, LARK on the Park and other clever establishments.