The Pisco Mercenaries want your love. More to the point, they want you to learn to love pisco, the national spirit of Peru – so much so that they’ve put aside their differences in pursuit of that higher goal.
On Monday, you’ll have a chance to see what eight local bartenders can do with the light-colored brandy when the group holds its second pisco cocktail competition at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The Pisco Mercenaries are four Peruvian-born gents: Neighborhood Services’ Ivan Rimach; Daniel Guillen and brother Armando, most recently of Parliament and The Standard Pour; and food and beverage consultant Pablo Valqui. They represent four pisco brands eyeing major inroads in the U.S., a market even the Peruvian government supports going after. But rather than fight each other for market share, the brands are joining forces to raise pisco’s profile as a whole.
Through this ongoing series of competitions, they hope to demonstrate pisco’s versatility and earn it a place on bartenders’ shelves. “This is our way of introducing it to the U.S. market and showing there’s way more things you can do with it,” says pisco mercenary Armando Guillen, who is on his way to London after a stint as bar manager at Uptown’s Standard Pour.
The group held a Pisco Sour competition at the Westin Park Central in February. Monday’s contest, set for 6 p.m. at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel, will feature variations on the classic Pisco Punch. In addition to their cocktails, bartenders will be judged on presentation, use of Peruvian ingredients and the stories behind their concoctions.
The classic Pisco Punch came to life during the go-for-broke days of the Gold Rush in San Francisco, where pisco shipments arrived on South American cargo ships that regularly posted up in the Bay, as author Guillermo Toro-Liro has noted. That made pisco easier to get at the time than whiskey, which had to be brought in by wagon from the Eastern U.S.
No one knows for sure exactly what comprised Duncan Nicol’s recipe that rose to popularity at San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon, but today it’s evolved as a tropical blend of pisco, pineapple, citrus and sweetener. A supposed secret ingredient, which may or may not have been cocaine, has been lost to the ages – but for that reason, it’s an openly malleable cocktail.
Monday’s competitors include Andres Zevallos of Rapscallion; Ricky Cleva of Henry’s Majestic; Chris Dempsey of the Four Seasons; Jorge Herrera of The Standard Pour; Ryan Kinkade of TBD; Justin Payne of The Theodore; Cody Riggs of The Mitchell; and Chad Yarbrough of Armoury D.E.
The winners of Monday’s contest – both a judges’ and a people’s choice – will win cash and the chance to compete in a fifth and final round planned for November. That winner will be on his or her way to Peru, which according to Pisco Porton rep Michael Turley boasts 300 distilleries and 471 registered brands – the most popular of them being Queirolo, the one you’ll find even at Peruvian gas stations.
If the February competition is any indication, you’ll be in for a treat: That event offered the chance to sample various piscos on their own or in mini-versions of the competing cocktails, and to crown a people’s choice winner.
Tim Newtown, of Henry’s Majestic, employed chirimoya, a Peruvian highlands fruit, in his cocktail, while Quill’s James Slater tipped his cap to Peru’s Japanese influences with additions of sencha tea and yuzu citrus.
Ida Claire’s Alexandrea Rivera dropped a hint of Malbec into her pisco drink, while Parliament’s Drew Garison accented his concoction with muddled grapes and a ginger-saffron marmalade.
In the end, though, it was Bolsa’s bar manager Spencer Shelton who the judges crowned winner. (Full disclosure: I was among the panel.) Shelton’s garden-fresh “Cease Fire,” made with mellow-earthy Cuatro Gallos quebranta pisco and a bit of the Italian bitter liqueur Cynar, included lemon, bell pepper, fennel, dill, Peruvian yellow chili pepper and Peruvian olive brine. Or as he described it: “Peruvian cuisine in a cocktail.”
Unlike most, Shelton skipped the drink’s signature egg white, which provides lightness and a silky texture. That’s where the olive brine came in: “The brine adds viscosity and mouthfeel,” he explained. An olive branch garnish added the final touch, signifying the unity of the four pisco brands; he served it with tapenade and plantain chips.
Peruvian yellow pepper and olive brine? That brought a smile to pisco mercenary Rimach, who dreams of a day when pisco is a staple spirit behind the bar along with gin and whiskey and vodka and rum. The Pisco Mercenaries partnership, he hopes, is just the start.
“When you have more variety, it’s easier for people to understand and enjoy something,” Rimach says. “We’re trying to create a whole new category.”
The all-around craft-cocktail chops at The Standard Pour can be lost in the timid tastes of the partying Uptown throngs that fill its McKinney Avenue environs every weekend. But delve deep into the drink menu and you’ll find a solid lineup of classics and bar originals both – including this one from Armando Guillen.
Guillen, who heads TSP”s bar program, has been a longtime stalwart of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene, a frequent competition winner and, most recently, is among CultureMap’s nominees for its bartender-of-the-year award. He designed this drink, he says, at the behest of San Diego’s renowned Polite Provisions for an event sponsored by El Silencio mezcal.
NAME: The Whisperer
KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Fiery citrus
WHAT’S IN IT: El Silencio mezcal, peach liqueur, honey, lime, salt, Scrappy’s “Firewater” bitters, spiced rim.
WHY IT WORKS: The Whisperer is a smoky play on the classic Margarita, capped with a spicy supernova kick. Bartender Armando Guillen, who manages The Standard Pour’s bar program, aimed to create a Trojan horse of mezcal, another agave-based spirit that, while on the rise, many have yet to embrace. He dipped into the bartender’s crowd-pleasing arsenal of friendly flavors – “peach, strawberry and pineapple; that’s the trifecta,” he says – and chose peach because it pairs well with mezcal’s earthy, smoky qualities.
To sweeten it up, he chose honey over simple syrup for its earthier flavor and added a pinch of salt to round it out. A dash of habanero-based Firewater bitters lends a not-so-subtle scorch of heat. “You’ve got smoke, earth, spice and fruit, everything mezcal needs to have,” Guillen says. And it’s true: In Mexico, mezcal is usually sipped straight, with accompaniments of orange slice and sal de gusano – a blend of chile powder, sea salt and the ground remains of roasted moth larvae that feed on agave plants – that offer a similar combination of flavor.
Guillen serves the Whisperer in a coupe, half-coating it with an appropriately smoky-spicy mix of cayenne powder, sea salt, chili powder and smoked paprika. With a final lime-wheel garnish, the result is a visually striking bouquet of lemon yellow, lime green and rusty red. On the tongue, its spicy edge suddenly slashes through its citrus-y sweetness, planting a lasting burn on the lips that leaves you wanting more.
The name? Yes, a nod to the El Silencio brand name – but really a reflection of Guillen’s sly intentions. “It’s like,” he says, a cupped hand covering his lips as he slips into a whisper, “ `Hey – you should drink mezcal.’ ”
Next Sunday, Dec. 13, you’ve got the chance to give and get at the same time. It’s a pre-Christmas miracle.
The 5th annual Trigger’s Toys Fantasy Draft Main Event takes place Dec. 13, with five all-star teams of bartenders and industry professionals staffing five tongue-in-cheek pop-up bars under one roof. Tito Beveridge himself, of Tito’s Vodka, will be there. The entire team of New York-based The 86 Co, will be there. YOU SHOULD BE THERE.
Twenty-five bucks in advance gets you in the door at Henry’s Majestic in Knox-Henderson, plus two drink tickets. (You can also buy tickets at the door for $30.) Then, wherever you want to cut loose and drop your dough is your choice: Will it be Chubbies, the dive bar, or yacht club bar Billion $ Baby? Karaoke bar Liquid Courage, or disco bar Studio Zoom Zoom? Or do you just want a place where you can call your own drink? Then it’s TOGA for you.
The best thing is, it’s all for a good cause. What cause might that be? Gather ’round and listen, boys and girls.
Bryan Townsend was at a hospital in Grapevine with his newly trained dog when he met a nurse distressed over a young girl who’d been in therapy for a year, unable to socialize with others. “She’s not getting any better,” the nurse said.
Townsend himself had been stuck for a while, in a corporate job where he wasn’t very happy. In 2008, he left and began focusing on other things. His dog, Trigger, was one of them.
He told the nurse: Maybe she’d like to give Trigger a treat?
The girl did.
“Then I wondered if she’d follow Trigger through a tunnel,” Townsend said. “And she did. The nurse went and got the girl’s mom; it was the first time she’d ever crawled.”
“I truly believe we’re all in the world to do something better.” – Bryan Townsend, The 86 Co.
Inspired by the experience, Townsend – now a vice president and sales director for spirits outfit The 86 Co. – launched Trigger’s Toys, a nonprofit that provides toys, therapy aids and financial assistance for hospitalized kids and their families.
“It instantly changed this girl’s life just because I was throwing treats for my dog,” Townsend says.
Last year’s Trigger’s Toys event, including sponsorships, raised about $100,000 for the cause. This year’s total is already at $87,000. “That’s the most we’ve had going in,” said Ariana Hajibashi, who’s handling publicity for the event.
Among the projects past funds have benefited include therapeutic equipment, Christmas toys and construction of a courtyard at Our Children’s House, a facility for children with special healthcare needs at Baylor Scott & White in Carrollton.
Sunday’s event runs from 8 pm until midnight-ish, with stacks upon stacks of participating bartenders coming from all over Texas. There’ll even be a couple from Oklahoma City.
This year’s bartending team captains are Ida Claire’s Bonnie Wilson, Parliament’s Stephen Halpin, Leonard Oliver of Austin’s VOX Table, Juli Naida of HG Sply Co. and Armando Guillen of The Standard Pour.
Each bar team is going all out, as usual: Tito Beveridge will be slinging with the Chubbies team, while Studio Zoom Zoom is gathering short rah-rah videos from classic bars around the world, including New York’s Employees Only and Pegu Club and The Violet Hour in Chicago – each of which will play disco music for an hour at their respective establishments in support.
“I truly believe we’re all in this world to do something better,” Townsend says.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
They came to do battle with guava and chili, with basil and peppers and passionfruit puree. Slinging their drinks in shot-sized portions, they implored the parched and perspiring throngs to cast votes in their favor, each angling for the $1,000 crown of Margarita Meltdown 2013.
The third annual event pitched its tents in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District Sunday, and if you came to knock down a little tequila, it did not disappoint: Around 30 restaurants offered their own spin on the classic Margarita, cranking out mini-cocktails dressed oh so many different ways — punched up with pineapple, couched in horchata, spiced with serrano chile.
Everybody started with a common ingredient: Milagro tequila blanco. Plano’s Whiskey Cake, which took last year’s title with bartender Bonnie Wilson’s frozen “Push-Up” Margarita, made another strong push this year with a drink served not in a glass but in a plastic squirt gun. They ran out within two hours.
Here’s how it all worked: Checklists were distributed. Have a mini-Margarita, cross the place off your list. Then vote – via text – for your favorite four. The machinations were a mystery, and voting continued for an hour past its scheduled cut-off point. Then again, the queues moved slowly; I still managed to sample 18 Margaritas in all, from Oak Cliff Social Club’s grapefruit and Squirt-splashed version to the tasty peach margarita pitched up by Cyclone Anaya’s of Oak Lawn.
Sunset Lounge embraced the tiki with a “Zombie-rita” partied up with Bacardi 151 rum, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Velvet Falernum, Angostura bitters, cinnamon syrup and lime, grapefruit and pineapple juice.
“This is the longest line I’ve had to wait in,” a girl complained as she waited to try the Standard Pour booth, where bartender Armando Guillen shook up batches of his special Margarita blend in real time. “It’d better be f-ing worth it.”
And it was: Guillen’s drink featured orange-tea-infused tequila, ginger and passionfruit purees, blood orange bitters and a five-chili balsamic reduction – sweetly alluring with lots of character.
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen – Armando’s brother – also scored with his Bohemia Margarita, flavored with Becherovka (a Czech herbal liqueur), lime and a house-made cordial of cucumber, pepper and star anise, finished off with a Tajin chile-lime powder rim.
So did Asador, whose fruity watermelon and basil version shone with subtle heat, making use of sambal (a Southeast Asian chili sauce) and a ginger/sea salt foam. Another stand-out: The Lucky One, from the just-opened Mutts Canine Cantina, dolled up with a strawberry, cucumber and rosemary shrub for some balsamic beauty. (Though my companion Rachel cleverly suggested sprucing it up even more with a Pop-Rock rim.)
DaLat came prepared to serve up 2,300 of its spectacular “Vietnamese Margaritas,” which were really not Margaritas at all, but with their prune-candy and chili-flaked lime one-two punch kept the booth’s lines long and lingering.
The best of the bunch? For one, Mesomaya’s avocado-pineapple Margarita made with Cointreau – always a plus in my book – and laced with Tajin. “It’s mellow and yellow,” my worthy sidekick said.
My favorite, though, was “The People’s Last Pequin,” from The People’s Last Stand, a complex punch incorporating smoked strawberries, honey agave and two infused tequilas – one with chile pequin, the other with vanilla bean – and, naturally, Cointreau. The rim was a mix of lime zest, smoked sea salt and guajillo chili. All-around goodness.
So who won? Well, does it really matter? Suffice it to say that the victorious cocktail was the one drink that both my companion and I tossed away without finishing, so horrendous was its assault upon our palates. And in case we thought we were mistaken, the guy behind us practically spit his out. Who knows: Maybe we got a bad batch. But really, by the time the results were announced, spirits were high, and this small but populous stretch of Bishop Arts had gotten its club vibe on, with booming beats and dancing in the streets, so for all anyone cared – except for a contingent of disappointed bartenders – the Sonic down the street could have been named winner and the party would have gone on. And it did. Dallas, I salute you.
Hibiscus’ Peruvian Fix was among the stand-outs of the five-week series.
MY FRIENDS, this blog can sometimes be a grueling enterprise. In those moments I find myself re-energized by my sworn duty to my readers, and that, no doubt, is what powered me through five straight Thursdays of pisco sampling. Somebody had to do it.
Now I bring you the highlights of that brave mission, the best of a barrage of pisco cocktails fired up by some of Dallas’ ace bartenders.
First, a little catch-up: Not long ago, I told you about The Trail Project, Daniel Guillen’s crusade to showcase lesser-known spirits via a series of “bar crawls” through various Dallas neighborhoods. The idea, developed with Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, is to introduce or reacquaint bartenders with spirits they may then decide to add to their shelves: The spirits become part of their repertoire, an ingredient to which adventurous patrons can be wooed; the brand gets marketed; everybody wins.
At Bar Smyth, bartender Josh Hendrix does the pisco thing his way.
The first series, sponsored by Pisco Porton – pisco, like Cognac, is a grapey eau de vie, native mostly to Peru – began with a walkable stretch of bars along Henderson; the next week, we’d moved to Uptown. Next came the Northpark/Mockingbird Station/Knox area, the Design District and Oak Cliff areas and finally a motley bunch of orphan bars stretching from Henderson to the Crescent to Oak Lawn. In all, more than 25 bars took part, amazing considering the number of quality spots not even on the list, such as The Cedars Social, Black Swan Saloon, Whiskey Cake and the Libertine. There were surprises – bars I didn’t expect much from made solid showings, and vice versa – and some non-surprises (many many variations on the Pisco Sour); all together, we probably each tasted about 60 cocktails.
Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 favorites from along the way.
1. The as-yet anonymous second drink that Ashley Williams served us at Oak Cliff’s Boulevardier, featuring Pisco Porton, DeKuyper O3 liqueur, Cherry Heering, lemon and a float of Montelobos mescal.
2. At The Dram on Henderson, Jasin Burt’s mix of Pisco Porton, Dolin Rouge vermouth, chocolate bitters and vanilla extract – a drink I dubbed Down With The Brown – complex and grapey sweet, with a nice chocolate finish.
Ashley Williams puts Boulevardier on the list with her as-yet unnamed creation.
3. I dug the drink called the Hawaiian Room, a bit of whimsy from Sunset Lounge’s Nico Ponce, with Pisco Porton, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, applejack, lemon and pineapple. Served in a coupe with banana leaf protruding like a feather, it was again on the sweet side, but well-rounded: A refreshing iced tea with a vanilla-wafer finish.
4. At the Standard Pour, the Incan Resemblance, from Guillen’s brother Armando, was one of the series’ most original and beautiful looking drinks. (The same goes for the epically named cocktail from his SP colleague McCullough, Pisco Kid Rides Again Into The Fiery Sunset.) Guillen’s drink featured Pisco Porton, puree made from chirimoya (a Peruvian fruit), elderflower liqueur, ginger foam, Thai basil, Peychaud’s bitters and lavender bitters. A garnishing bundle of lavender leaves were rolled into a lemon peel papoose, evoking an Incan headdress. It was stunningly creative, with a smooth strawberry taste.
The Incan Resemblance, from Standard Pour’s Armando Guillen.
5. It was practically midnight when we reached Tate’s on the Uptown leg of the so-called Pisco Trail, and head barman J.W. Tate obliged our tastes with an excellent digestif he called Muy Criollo, or Very Creole. “The word “Creole” is used in a very different way in Peru,” Tate told us. “It refers to a spirited way of life, similar to the way we’d say gusto, or the French joie de vivre.” He made his drink with pisco, Bonal bitter liqueur and three kinds of shrub, including habanero. It was arresting, a sipping drink for night’s end, with a pleasantly mild kick of spice in the finish.
6. At Bowl and Barrel, Ian Reilly found a way to incorporate hoisin, an Asian plum sauce he came across in the kitchen, in a fabulous drink he called the Passerine. Figuring the hoisin would go well with other Asian flavors, he mixed it with Hum, a feisty liqueur strong with ginger and kaffir lime, and pisco, lime, Yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters. It was brilliant tang and sweetness, all in one.
A mango-jalapeno cocktail from The Kennedy Room’s Joseph Buenrostro, among the few to embrace heat in his pisco creations.
7. Hibiscus, on the first week’s itinerary, had to pull out at the 11th hour. After it was reset for week five, Bartender Grant Parker atoned for the wait with the beautiful and delicious Peruvian Fix, a bouquet of pisco, pineapple syrup, lime, mint, simple and most significantly, jalapeno-infused Green Chartreuse. It was lovely, with a slight kick – not too spicy, not too sweet, all the flavors exhibiting perfectly. Parker was among the bartending minority who’d worked with pisco before. “One woman came in once and put me through hell,” he said. “She had me make, like nine Pisco Sours.”
8. It’s fair to say that Sunset Lounge’s Nico Ponce, spurred on by news that the bar preceding his in week number two had turned out two pisco drinks, was a little motivated. He sent out a volley of at least seven pisco-based cocktails, all of them variations on the tiki drinks that are the trademark of the fledgling Ross Avenue bar. His Pisco Mai Tai was, yes, on the candy-sweet side, but oh so good: pisco, lime, orange Curacao and a bit of almond syrup.
The Pisco Mai Tai, one of Sunset Lounge’s numerous tiki variations.
9. At Marquee Grill & Bar, Andrew Lostester made the tantalizing Pisco Star using a housemade syrup made with grapefruit, cinnamon and star anise. That was shaken with pisco, lime and seasonally fresh grapefruit, then topped with soda; it had a creamy mouthfeel with a citrusy finish, the perfect match for appetizers drenched in rich sauce.
10. It’s no fluke that Guillen himself ended up on this list; being Peruvian, he’s well versed in pisco and he raised his chances by offering up three drinks to sample at Northpark’s La Duni. His second effort, called the San Isidro, was money: pisco, Grand Marnier, lemon, maple syrup, peach puree, Angostura bitters and a housemade apricot-nectarine bitters. Topped with mint and a dried apricot lounging atop a tiny ice-bowl float, the result was all-up-in-your-face apricot with a double-barreled peach-maple sweetness.
The trail master himself, La Duni’s Guillen, scores with the San Isidro.
If you’re keeping score by neighborhood, that makes Uptown/Arts District the winner of the first Trail Project series, at least in my book. The more notable point is, there’s a whole passel of bartenders out there who now know how to throw down with pisco, and the person who benefits is you: Get out there and try some of these drinks soon.
Guillen’s plan is to launch a whole new series of bar crawls built around a second spirit, so stay tuned either here or on my Twitter feed at @typewriterninja #trailproject.
Trail participants strike a pose with the raspberry-infused X Factor, one of several solid pisco cocktails from Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla.
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen has a passion he needs to share.
I have seen pisco gone tiki and pisco gone Southern and pisco show grace under pressure. I have seen pisco gone wild, hooking up with a variety of unlikely dance partners: watermelon, smoked balsamic, Champagne, hefeweizen, chocolate bitters, balsamic puree…. and this was all in the span of two nights.
Who knew pisco had it in her? Yes, pisco, the diaphanous Peruvian (and occasionally Chilean) brandy dating to the 16th century. When you think of it in a cocktail, you think of the Pisco Sour, and then… um, the Pisco Punch, and… well, who really thinks about pisco anyway?
Daniel Guillen does. He’s the 24-year-old beverage director at La Duni, and having been bitten by the craft-cocktail bug, he wanted to get other bartenders excited about lesser known spirits and liqueurs. Being Peruvian, he wanted to start off with pisco, and to show that there was more to this smooth, sweet eau de vie than the Pisco Sour.
With the help of Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough – president of the North Texas chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild – he came up with an idea: a weekly series of neighborhood-themed bar crawls, where bartenders at each stop would showcase the featured spirit in a different cocktail or three.
A Pisco Porton cocktail at Joyce and Gigi’s.
Tonight, the third leg of the Pisco Trail continues, and you’re invited. Never had pisco before? Pisco Porton, the project’s initial sponsor, wants to make sure you have your chance.
“Let’s have bartenders show how they can use pisco,” Guillen says. “Maybe instead of gin in a Negroni, or instead of vodka in a Cosmopolitan…. If mezcal is acceptable, I don’t see why pisco shouldn’t be.”
Parts of the Thursday night neighborhood crawls are even walkable. And anyway, the point is not to finish off every cocktail, but to sample, experience and move on.
Pisco Porton, the project’s initial sponsor.
The Pisco Trail series started two weeks ago in Knox-Henderson, then moved on to Uptown last week. This week the tour will target the North Park/Mockingbird Station area.
At Knox-Henderson’s Victor Tango, bartender Ivan Rimach made the tangy, refreshing Chilcano, a Peruvian cocktail little known in the U.S.: pisco, ginger soda, lime and bitters. “People would say it’s the Moscow Mule of Peru, but it’s really the Horse’s Neck of Peru,” Guillen said, citing a little known classic.
Next door, at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, beverage director Chase Streitz gave pisco a Southern spin, mixing it with Champagne and Chambord black raspberry liqueur in a sweet drink he called Pisco In The South.
“We really enjoyed trying a spirit we didn’t know anything about,” Streitz said. “We’d never worked with pisco before.”
“That’s the basis of this whole thing,” Guillen replied.
At Sunset Lounge, Nico Ponce’s Lani Hana.
Across the street was the Dram, where bartenders Jasin and Ryan each threw down a couple of impressive pisco variations, my favorite taste being the drink I dubbed Down With The Brown – a mix of pisco, vermouth, chocolate bitters and vanilla extract finished off with a flamed orange twist.
The Pisco Trail concluded its Knox-Henderson crawl at Porch and the Old Monk, then resumed last week in Uptown with stops at Joyce and Gigi’s, Sunset Lounge, P/S, Standard Pour and Tate’s.
At Sunset, Nico Ponce tossed out an insane barrage of at least a half-dozen tiki-themed pisco drinks to sample, including a pisco Mai Tai. Among my favorites was the Hawaiian Room, a blend of pisco, Applejack and Sailor Jerry spiced rum that started as sweet tea and finished like a vanilla wafer.
Guillen seemed pleased. “Before I hit this place, I never thought Pisco could go tiki,” he said. “Before we hit Sissy’s, I never thought it could go Southern.”
At P/S, a Pisco Sour transfoamed.
At P/S, head barman Rocco Milano started things off with the Pisco Espuma, a Pisco Sour in pressurized form spewed foam-like into a spoon. Then came the Peruvian Shandy, a group favorite in which he married pisco with lemon, simple syrup and Franconia Hefeweizen. “The acidity plays particularly well with the hefeweizen,” he said, “and helps the pisco come out in the finish.”
Standard Pour was an experience: Brian McCullough started with Pisco Kid Rides Again Into The Fiery Sunset, an elaborate production involving a cedar-chip-smoked coupe filled with pisco, pineapple shrub, smoked balsamic, lemon, Peychaud’s and egg white, followed by Armando Guillen’s (Daniel’s brother) drink, the Incan Resemblance, one of the most beautiful and tasty drinks on the tour.
At Tate’s, J.W. Tate dropped the perfect digestif with the Muy Criollo, mixing pisco with Bonal (a French aperitif wine) and three kinds of vinegary shrub.
Standard Pour’s McCullough employed cedar-chip-smoked coupes to make his epically named drink.
What Guillen hopes is that bartenders will learn to appreciate the products he hopes to showcase and start adding them to their inventories, and thus, their repertoire, which in turn will enrich the customer experience.
“I hope people will experience out-of-the-box cocktails instead of just the classics,” Guillen says. “That’s what bartenders get excited about. And if you’re adventurous, which you should be every time you go to a bar, you’re going to have a good experience.”
Join the tour tonight (Thursday 3/28) if you can. Stops are planned at La Duni Northpark starting at 7:30, with Bowl and Barrel, Central 214, The People’s Last Stand and Smyth to follow. I’ll hope to tweet as we go with the hashtag #piscotrail, so feel free to follow at @typewriterninja to figure out the tour’s whereabouts.
At the end of the series, I’ll post my favorite pisco cocktails from along the way.
Booze news and adventures in cocktailing, based In Dallas, Texas, USA. By Marc Ramirez, your humble scribe and boulevardier. All content and photos mine unless otherwise indicated. http://typewriterninja.com