Could Dale DeGroff have imagined that, some 25 years after he began squeezing fresh citrus and making simple syrups in the service of better cocktails, he’d be among the elder statesmen of a 20,000-strong spirits festival? Yet there he was – King Cocktail! – with his signature wry smile, at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone, flaming orange peels and cranking out drinks like a champ at Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits festival that last weekend concluded its 15th run.
A bartenders’ walking tour: That’s how all this started. Back then a lot of people still thought of bartending as a temporary gig you did on the way to something else – but the spirits industry is now a $25 billion-dollar beast, and Tales is likewise a juggernaut, with people traveling to New Orleans from 40 countries for five days of booze-related workshops, career advice, happy hours, tastings, competitions, parties, bonding and networking. What was once a manageable, almost intimate gathering of industry professionals riding a wave of love for the craft and quality ingredients has, in some eyes, become too big for its own good, an overcrowded, over-the-top party of sold-out seminars, ever-accumulating wristbands and fewer one-on-one opportunities.
“Tales has become, to me, more about learning one-on-on through networking than in seminars,” said Brittany Koole, a bar manager and consultant in Houston.
It didn’t help that the stretch of Bourbon Street normally frequented by Tales-goers was a war zone of giant potholes, wire fencing and bulldozers. “I didn’t feel the same connection with the area,” said Justin Kallhoff of Dallas event space DEC on Dragon, who spent more time off the strip and less time dealing with the big parties.
Just the same, Tales carried on, the thus-far clear leader in the spirit-festival world. As usual, attendees this year included a good number of Texans – bartenders, bartenders-turned-spirits-reps, bar owners, bar suppliers, bar goers and those who chronicle it all.
So there were Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who staffed a table at Saturday’s mezcal tasting room at the Monteleone. And Campari America rep Chase Streitz and Megan McClinton of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, were among those who joined Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller for Wild Turkey, for dinner and whiskey at Cochon. “I was lucky enough to get to pour Jimmy a glass, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Streitz, formerly of Bulldog Gin, The Standard Pour and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.
Cazadores Tequila partnered with the Bartender Boxing Organization to sponsor a battle between Houston and Los Angeles bartenders that culminated at Tales. And in a bowling event pitting bartenders from 14 cities against each other in the lanes, Team Texas took second only to Miami.
Major spirits companies, small-batch distillers and beverage-related producers also come to Tales to build or bolster brand recognition. But possibly the fastest growing group of attendees might be people who just like consuming and learning about spirits and the various things made with them – people like Jean Verhaar of Houston. “We are what you call cocktail enthusiasts,” she said, at the festival with pal Pam Stevens of New Orleans.
On Thursday, Steve and Beverly Davis of Mobile, Alabama, roamed a tasting room dedicated to pisco, the clear brandy native to Peru and Chile. “A little waitress at Galatoire’s told us about (Tales) some years ago,” Beverly said. The two have been coming ever since with friends John and Sue Lawyer.
“It’s just fun,” Sue Lawyer said. “There’s no purpose to it but to learn and have a good time.” She ducked over to one drink station where DeGroff, now widely considered the godfather of the modern cocktail renaissance, was busy making Algeria cocktails for the masses.
It was at New York’s Rainbow Room that DeGroff built a following by reviving classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails in the 1980s, a gig he landed a few years after being hired by restaurateur Joe Baum, the man behind the Four Seasons and other fine dining establishments; the Alegria – pisco, Cointreau and apricot brandy – was among the cocktails featured at Baum’s La Fonda del Sol in the 1960s, at a time when anything not a Manhattan or Martini was rare. Now DeGroff had revived it as the Algeria, with his own twist, for the pisco event. “Because (Baum) was my mentor,” he said.
Brands found clever ways to promote themselves, crafting whimsical and interactive tasting rooms, throwing happy hours, offering special product unveilings or cocktail-paired dinners – or, in the case of Amaro Montenegro, the excellent Italian bitter liqueur, having its master botanist demonstrate its 132-year-old production process using herbs and spices, an alembic, a boiler and a macerating device.
Jagermeister, the ubiquitous digestif now angling for a piece of the craft-cocktail craze, recruited Gaz Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, for a happy hour at Fritzel’s, the Bourbon Street jazz pub where LSU students made Jager popular in the late 1980s. And then threw a huge party afterward. And there was Diageo, the giant spirits company behind brands like Tanqueray and Don Julio, scoring Snoop Dogg for its own beats-heavy Friday night bash.
Workshops this year included explorations of ingredients like grains and bitter gentian in spirits and liqueurs; the use of technology such as centrifuges behind the bar; and the rising popularity of umami flavor and low-proof drinks.
Cocktails were plentiful, served mostly in small plastic Tales cups, and it was wise to heed the oft-quoted Tales adage “you don’t have to finish that” while collecting grab-and-go bottled water along the way. That said, I did find the bottom of a few superior creations –my favorites being Laura Bellucci’s House of the Rind, a dessert-like mix of Earl-Grey-infused honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and citrus-chamomile bitters served at Sunday’s “Legs and Eggs” burlesque brunch at SoBou; and from Aaron Polsky of Los Angeles’ Harvard and Stone, the Precious Punch served at Thursday’s pisco tasting room, featuring pisco acholado, apricot liqueur and amaro.
Camaraderie is what keeps people coming back to Tales, and festival vets saw old friends while newbies made new ones. Second-timer Ashley Williams, a Bols Genever ambassador who tends bar at Filament in Dallas, was looking forward to being in New Orleans and meeting fellow ambassadors. What had she learned from her first go-round?
“Pace yourself,” she said. “You don’t have to do everything. There’s so much going on. Take some time to just go sit in a park.”
Being in the French Quarter, amid the stilt-walkers and human statues and little kids drumming on plastic buckets, it was also worth revisiting gems like the rotating Carousel Bar, grabbing a frozen Irish Coffee at classic haunt Erin Rose or nestling in at the French 75 Bar at historic restaurant Arnaud’s, which recently won the James Beard award for bar program of the year.
Around the festival’s midway point came the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s beloved annual Thursday midnight toast, on which Texas naturally has put its stamp over the years with waving Lone Star flags and choruses of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” This year’s spectacle was a bit more subdued, given that the whole shebang had to be relocated from construction-torn Bourbon Street to the second-floor confines of Bourbon Cowboy Too. Nevertheless, Texas endured – and somehow so did Tales, which will power on to see another year.
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.
15. TEN MINUTES TILL MIDNIGHT (Mike Sturdivant, The Cedars Social)
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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’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.”
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.”
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.
Boulevardier, in Oak Cliff, boasts a well-established tradition of supplementing its terrific bistro cuisine with a great selection of cocktails, including Eddie Eakin’s Steep Buzz – its Maker’s Mark version was the official cocktail of Chefs for Farmers 2013 – and its most impressive spin-off, last year’s autumn-spiced Buzz-Cat.
The bar at this Bishop Arts mainstay is deceptively small and craftily appointed, and it’s always worth checking out the daily mirror special for the staff’s latest whims, like this one from bartender Ashley Williams.
KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Orange spice
WHAT’S IN IT: Whiskey, dry curaçao, honey, orange acid, Chinese bitters, nutmeg
WHY IT WORKS: This is an orange-n-spice mashup, a mix of bourbon, citrus and cold-weather spices to usher you into spring. What sets this apart is orange acid, orange juice tarted up with citric and malic acid, an ingredient the restaurant always has on hand. Here it adds acidity and a nice shrub-like tang, negating the need to add lemon or lime to the drink so that the orange flavor can shine through.
Williams wanted to make a whiskey cocktail that wasn’t heavy on whiskey; in the Citrois, it serves as the sturdy undercarriage for a drink built like a sour (spirit, sweetener, the acidity of either lemon or lime and occasionally egg white). Instead, Williams began with the orange acid, which she correctly posited would pair well with honey and the cardamom-clove spice of Chinese bitters. After adding a splash of curacao for a boost of booze and even more orange flavor, she kept groovin’ on that orange spice riff by topping the drink with orange oils and a shaving of nutmeg. The result: Orange-y goodness with an edge.
The name? It’s a blend of citrus and trois, the French word for three. With the French-inspired restaurant’s cocktail packing three expressions of orange, it seems tres apropos, non?
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.
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