For any serious Dallas cocktail fan, the crew behind the bar Sunday would have looked familiar – Austin Millspaugh, Jorge Herrera and Christian Rodriguez, the popular Thursday night crew from The Standard Pour in Uptown – jostling shakers, swirling liquids, torching lemon peels and working the room in their dapper TSP uniforms. It was a practiced environment for the TSP crew, but a typical Uptown crowd this was not. A glimpse outside made it clear: They weren’t in Dallas anymore.
Chinatown was a half-mile away; the Transamerica Pyramid a few blocks beyond that. Five miles to the west, the Golden Gate Bridge. On Sunday, the Standard Pour team – which in recent months has made a habit of doing guest pop-ups at other bars – took things to a whole new level, bringing their traveling “TSP Takeover” to Pacific Cocktail Haven, or PCH, one of San Francisco’s newer cocktail joints.
“We’re going into a West Coast stronghold,” Millspaugh had said before the trip, aware that the city, along with New York, had forged the beginnings of today’s craft-cocktail revival. “We have to bring our A-game.”
And that they did, with a six-drink lineup sponsored by Pernod Ricard USA. As with their previous pop-ups at Dallas’ Industry Alley and High & Tight, it was all for charity – with Planned Parenthood the recipient of this night’s proceeds.
Though PCH has hosted guest bartenders before, “we’ve never had a team take over the bar,” said Kevin Diedrich, PCH’s operating partner. The bar, typically closed on Sundays, had opened for this special event. “It’s a cool way to share what we do, but also for them to share with they do. We went through the drink list this afternoon. There’s some cool flavors. They’re pushing the boundaries.”
There was Rodriguez’ tropical Bad and Boujee, a mix of tequila, horchata, lime, cinnamon-vanilla syrup, Topo Chico and tiki bitters.
Herrera’s Tourist Trap was a crowd favorite featuring Irish whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, bittersweet liqueur, sweet vermouth and a tobacco tincture.
Millspaugh, meanwhile, in typical Millspaughian fashion, had concocted the cocktail equivalent of caramel-truffle popcorn with his disorientingly delicious Light, Camera, Action – an ensemble of Irish whiskey, nutty Oloroso sherry, popcorn liquid, dehyrdrated foie gras and black truffle salt.
“It’s weird,” said one woman, a Stanford University instructor. “I feel like I’m drinking a movie.”
The TSP team showcased Texas hospitality and flair, with Millspaugh at one point grating dehydrated foie gras directly into a woman’s mouth. He, Herrera and Rodriguez have drawn a loyal following on Thursdays at The Standard Pour, which has made a habit of trying not to be a standard bar.
Last year, the McKinney Avenue venue featured a weekly series of guest crews from other Dallas bars; a weekly event felt like too much, so as 2017 rolled around they brainstormed. What if the TSP team spent one night a month working at other bars, they thought? “We’re just trying to get our names out there,” Rodriguez says.
Their first “takeover” took place at Knox-Henderson’s Atwater Alley, after which Herrera proposed the idea of doing it all for a good cause. April’s event at Industry Alley, sponsored by Remy Cointreau, benefited Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, while proceeds from their March pop-up at Deep Ellum’s High & Tight, sponsored by Avion tequila and St. Germain, went to the Dallas office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Each event raised $1,300 or more for charity.
They recently met Jessamine McClellan, the San Francisco-based national brand ambassador for Redbreast Irish whiskey, and told her about the project, pitching the idea of taking their show on the road. She suggested the idea to Diedrich, who agreed to host the TSP crew. The Standard Pour offered to partially subsidize their trip, and the deal was done.
“The idea is, one, to showcase the place we work at, and two, to give back,” Millspaugh said. “It’s, like, paying it forward.”
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.
One evening last month, having somehow wandered far beyond my urban comfort zone, I stopped in for a drink at Rye, a bustling bistro just off the square in McKinney. No, not McKinney Avenue, the trendy SMU hang in Uptown where, not surprisingly, some of DFW’s best cocktail joints have clustered in the last five years – but McKinney, the fast-growing former farm center 45 minutes north of Dallas.
Surely, I thought, even at this suburban outpost, I could score a decent gin and tonic. Maybe even an Old Fashioned. But as I scanned bar manager Manny Casas’ drink list, I found myself eyeballing anything-but-rural components: Mole bitters; gomme syrup; aloe liqueur; Fernet Francisco; honey-blessed Barr Hill gin. And then I noticed the small barrel to my left, which – as I would soon discover – harbored a terrific barrel-aged variation on the classic Negroni. My cocktail destinations had grown by one.
It’s more challenging than ever to keep up with the constantly expanding universe of cocktails in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the area’s farthest reaches, and in places that five years ago would have been content to serve simple mixed drinks, you can now order a Sazerac, or a Last Word, and avoid the indignity of blank stares or massive shade.
Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, of course, and pretty surroundings alone do not a great cocktail bar make. DFW’s craft cocktail landscape in 2016 wasn’t without its casualties – notably Knox-Henderson’s Hibiscus, whose small but well-informed bar program enjoyed a loyal following, and noble but aborted ventures like Frisco’s Vicini and, in Lower Greenville, Knuckle Sandwich and Remedy, destined to close by year’s end.
But from straight-up cocktail joints like Oak Cliff’s Jettison and clubby enclaves like Quill in the Design District to cocktail-minded restaurants like East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Uptown’s Next Door and Quarter Bar in (gulp) Trophy Club, the boozy buffet available to cocktail drinkers showed few signs of abating. (And Hide in Deep Ellum and Frisco’s Bottled in Bond are still to come.)
At their very best, these spots echo – and often are part of – fine restaurants, serving up not just great drinks but a successful mix of efficient, attentive and consistent service; fresh ingredients attuned to the passing seasons; an energizing and welcoming vibe; the ability to cater to tastes simple and complex; and a savvy and innovative staff behind the bar.
Here, in alphabetical order, were my favorite 15 craft-cocktail spots in 2016.
Most come to the highly regarded Knox-Henderson restaurant for its fine dining – but personally, I never make it past the classy, comfortable bar and its black-clad crew of Jordan Gantenbein, Jason Long and John Campbell. Abacus’ thoughtful and playful drink list is a standout from season to season – Gantenbein’s Rosemary Wreath (pictured at top) was a wintry thing of beauty – but the off-road adventures are equally delicious and fun, as in Long’s recent mix of mezcal, cinnamon syrup and amaro.
A couple of years have passed since Henry’s Majestic, at this once-cursed location on McKinney in Knox-Henderson, unveiled the speakeasy pearl buried within its oyster depths. Named for the nondescript thoroughfare from which it’s accessed, Atwater is a two-story, dimly lit sanctuary swathed in senatorial wood, where bartenders like Ricky Cleva (and the occasional guest bartender) let their talents run wild like wildebeests in the nighttime streets. Jumanji!
BLACK SWAN SALOON
Black Swan is a craft-cocktail lover’s dive bar, where barman Gabe Sanchez makes it look easy, firing volleys of classic and original drinks at the eager Deep Ellum hordes while somehow creating a backyard post-BBQ atmosphere. Among DFW’s early craft-cocktail spots, the Swan’s speakeasy vibe (there’s no signage outside) is captured in the image of Clint Eastwood above the back bar: anonymous and enigmatic, rough around the edges, coolly efficient. No drink list here; just tell Sanchez what you’re in the mood for or point at one of his latest jarred infusions, and let your Drink With No Name come riding into town.
Among DFW’s earliest craft-cocktail purveyors, the modestly sized bar-in-the-round at this Bishop Arts mainstay is going strong under lead barman Spencer Shelton, whose wonky spirits wisdom continues to fuel Bolsa’s culture of experimentation. The well-honed southside outpost, with a bold seasonal drink menu – take Shelton’s smoky bitter Mi Alma Rota, featuring mezcal and Fernet – is a last-stop refuge for neighborhood regulars and others looking for uncommon spirits and across-the-board creativity.
The place is gorgeous, dah-ling. But owner Pasha Heidari’s homey hideaway a stone’s throw from the madness of Uptown’s McKinney Avenue has finally settled into a groove nice enough to match its elegant Prohibition-Era character, what with its turn-of-the-century library and great-granddad’s framed pictures on the wall. A viable drink list now complements the able bar squad’s ability to craft something to your own tastes, and a sickle-shaped bar counter promotes interaction.
THE CEDARS SOCIAL
Look who’s back. Once the shining light in Dallas’ budding craft drink scene, The Cedars Social’s nationally acclaimed promise imploded in what I simply refer to as The Great Unpleasantness, thereafter plummeting off the craft-cocktail radar. Several iterations later, barman Mike Sturdivant is at the helm, and things are looking bright again: Along with Dallas pastry chef Annika Loureiro, he’s crafted a refreshingly original drink menu – including the Soju Spice, which makes excellent use of the Korean rice-based spirit – while staying true to pre- and Prohibition-era classics.
INDUSTRY ALLEY BAR
When Charlie Papaceno left the Windmill Lounge in late 2014, among his goals in opening Industry Alley was to recreate the lounge’s come-as-you-are vibe. In that he has succeeded, creating a down-home atmosphere that’s a favorite for Cedars-area locals and industry regulars alike. You won’t find fireworks, fancy syrups, infusions or house-made bitters here – just the makings of a good time and classic cocktails like the legendary Singapore Sling.
The latest addition to Oak Cliff is a welcome one, especially for imbibers of sherry, the Spanish fortified wine, and mezcal, the smoky agave spirit mostly from Oaxaca. Discreetly nestled within the Sylvan Thirty complex next to Houndstooth Coffee, whose owner, Sean Henry, launched Jettison as his initial cocktail venture, it’s a sleek and shadowy hidey-hole where barman George Kaiho crafts excellent classic twists like the Red Headed Oaxacan, a play on the Penicillin fielding both tequila and mezcal along with honeyed ginger syrup, lemon and a float of Scotch.
This rock-and-roll hideaway in the underbelly of downtown Dallas’ Joule Hotel is truly a gem — and it keeps getting better, with its lush and well-structured space equipped to manage the peaks and valleys of hotel and weekend crowds. The long-awaited project from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, which opened just over two years ago, is purposely efficient, lavishly designed and wholly adventurous, driven by Solomon’s bordering-on-geeky cocktail-science know-how: Witness the Pinetop Perker, which graced the spring menu, a woodsy wallop of genever, aquavit, pine, lemon, egg white, apple schnapps and a perfume-like “alpine woodland essence” spritzed onto a dehydrated lemon wheel.
What if there were a place where you could pluck away the plumage of more involved libations and jump directly into the embrace of your whiskey or gin without feeling like a vegan at a Vegas buffet? Well, my friends, The Mitchell is your place: The stately space in the former home of Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Chesterfield in downtown Dallas boasts 50 kinds of gin and a hundred different whiskeys, the better to meet your martini, Old Fashioned or straight-up sipping requirements. And the glassware is beautiful too.
Comfortably nestled within the labyrinth of Uptown apartments off raucous McKinney Avenue, Lucky Campbell’s gem of a bar can often be as busy as its 100-plus drink list. Just the same, the well-trained crew, featuring the occasional visiting star bartender, keeps the crowds soused and entertained from behind the horseshoe-shaped bar, whether the vibe is loud or laid-back. With concoctions like Jesse Powell’s unnamed mix of aged tequila, sweet potato truffle syrup, sherry, apple and cinnamon, Parliament is a first-rate cocktail den with Cheers-style ease, a special combination indeed.
THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND
The Mockingbird Station stalwart is still going strong in its second-level space, churning out an ever-changing list of libations behind a veteran bar team led by general manager Devin McCullough. The drinks are original and varied – and occasionally playful, as in the wintry Petra at Night, a hot rum cider mix served with apple slices and mini wafers, and Mr. Joe Black, an equally snack-y blend of rye and cold-brew coffee featuring blackberries, brown sugar and cayenne-sugared pecans. “Everybody’s got their little side munch going on,” McCullough said.
THE STANDARD POUR
Just up the street from Parliament, the McKinney Avenue landmark remains, as I described it last year, a craft-cocktail battleship – built to weather weekend barrages of bar hoppers but equally effective quietly docked on a Tuesday eve. A crew staffed by talents like Austin Millspaugh and Jorge Herrera helps take the sting out of former lead barman Christian Armando’s departure, pumping out a stream of solid originals as well as the ubiquitous Moscow Mules. Like Parliament and Industry Alley, Brian McCullough’s stalwart staple maintains a homey vibe whether rafting calm stream or raging river.
While the cheeky drink menu has barely changed, the bartenders at this seemingly never-understaffed Magnolia Avenue haven in Fort Worth are more than handy with the palette of potions behind the bar. I said this last year, and it holds true today: More than anything, what impresses about The Usual – among DFW’s pioneering craft-cocktail joints – is that I have yet to have a drink there that didn’t qualify as a success, which is something I can’t say about that many places.
Another of DFW’s initial craft-cocktail practitioners, this Henderson Avenue landmark found its footing again under beloved general manager Matt Ragan. Though Ragan recently departed, the cocktail program remains in the able hands of bar manager Andrew Stofko, one of the city’s most exciting young talents; among Stofko’s 2016 creations was The Dread Pirate Roberts, whose intricate mix of Brazilian cachaca, grapefruit liqueur, bitter Suze, lemon, cinnamon syrup, Angostura and hopped grapefruit bitters was wonderfully reminiscent of tart apple pie.
Runners-up: Armoury DE, Flora Street Café, Lounge Here, Small Brewpub, Thompson’s Bookstore.
In case you hadn’t noticed, mezcal is having a moment. The once misunderstood Mexican spirit has been seeping into the mainstream at a pace that has revved up in recent years, riding a craft-cocktail wave that has seen imbibers clamor for more and better ingredients.
For a spirit that at one time was known mostly as “that bottle with the worm in it,” this cousin of tequila has not only come a long way, but, it turns out, is way more interesting: a markedly smoky concoction that rewarded early adopters with broad (and wormless) expressions deriving from its ability to be cultivated from a range of Mexican agave plants. (Tequila, on the other hand, can only come from blue agave.)
“It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails.”
— Bartender Moses Guidry, of Twenty Seven’s Smoke Ring
The plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens prior to fermentation, producing the spirit’s smoky influence that for many first-timers presents a line in the sand. But the days when mezcal cocktails were found only in mixology dens are over; I knew the U.S. had reached a milestone when, several years ago, I saw a mezcal-tinged cocktail appear on the menu at P.F. Chang’s. Now you’ll find mezcal cocktails everywhere from Pappasito’s to Frisco’s 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House.
Many of those drinks, like the ones first rolled out even in craft-cocktail bars, have eased mezcal onto unfamiliar palates by placing it alongside tequila, like a kid brother riding sidecar. But drinks putting mezcal front and center are getting easier and easier to find.
Here are some of my favorites thus far in 2015.
BENITO JUAREZ, Mexican Sugar (pictured above)
In Oaxaca, where most mezcal is produced, the traditional way of consuming the artisan spirit is in small cups flanked by orange wedges and a spice mix of sea salt, crushed chilies and the ground remains of toasted moth larvae that feed on the agave plant. The combo is a mouth-pleasing explosion of smoke, citrus, heat, nuttiness and saltiness – and Plano’s Mexican Sugar pays homage to the tradition with this excellent blend – named after Mexico’s beloved former president – of mezcal, chipotle puree, orange, lime, honey and orange liqueur, slapped with a splotch of imported sal de gusano.
MEXICAN MARTINI, Origin
Alas, this one is no longer on the menu at the Knox-Henderson restaurant, but ask for it and you might get lucky.
Agave spirits and herbal Yellow Chartreuse liqueur are swell buddies and play nice here in Laura Ball’s south-of-the-border creation, along with lemon, agave, jalapeno and apricot liqueur. It’s sweet and piquant, tantalizing you with its boozy charms before fading away in a haze of spice and smoke.
MEZCAL OLD-FASHIONED, Henry’s Majestic
Hector Zavala has learned a thing or two in his many years as a bar back for luminaries such as 86 Co. co-founder Jason Kosmas, not the least of which that the classic Old Fashioned packs a kick in any language. Now bartending at the Knox-Henderson one-two punch of Henry’s Majestic and Atwater Alley, the Torreon, Mexico-born Zavala subs Wahaka mezcal for whiskey with a bit of agave syrup and bitters, and his handiwork lets the spirit announce itself like a poncho’d Clint Eastwood waltzing through your whistle’s saloon doors.
MR. BROWN GOES TO OAXACA, Tate’s
Mixmaster Creighten Brown’s deceivingly demure doozy may look like a mere wallflower in its Uptown surroundings, but it’ll impress your taste buds with its flavorful gift of gab. Supplementing mezcal with bittersweet Grand Poppy, dry vermouth, Hellfire bitters and chocolate bitters, this off-menu creation cuts through the smoke with floral and citrus swirls while the bitters offer lingering complexity.
SMOKE RING, Twenty Seven
At Deep Ellum’s Twenty Seven, Moses Guidry’s frothy Smoke Ring is basically a mezcal Pisco Sour, subbing the smoky spirit for tamer Peruvian brandy alongside tequila, simple syrup, lime, cucumber, egg white and a sprinkling of Peychaud’s bitters. “It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails,” says Guidry, who’ll you find behind the bar on Saturdays.
TRUE ROMANCE, Black Swan Saloon
At this Deep Ellum fixture, Gabe Sanchez’s riveting play on the Copper Cocktail gives mezcal the starring role over rum with a supporting cast of herbal Yellow Chartreuse, bitter Averna, lime and a bit of Szechuan pepper tincture. While the mixture might sound overpowering, the end result nicely shapes the best of each ingredient into something unique and memorable.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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