Tag Archives: Austin Gurley

Nightcap on Elm Street: Five drinks you should have in Deep Ellum

Five bars with a stone’s throw of each other on Elm Street are winning at craft cocktails.

In the movies, Elm Street might be the stuff of nightmares, but in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood, it’s become a cocktail drinker’s reverie. With a growing list of newcomers now riding alongside the unflappable Black Swan Saloon, this hopping stone’s-throw stretch between Good-Latimer and Malcolm X is a destination fit to spend a Saturday afternoon and evening while catching a show nearby.

Here are five drinks, at five different spots, that you could potentially have – or share! – while you’re at it.

Hide Dallas
If you like Pina Coladas, get yourself over to Armoury D.E. for a tangy translation.

PINA COLADA NO. 2 – at Armoury DE

Start at Armoury, because the place opens at 4. Share a duck-heart appetizer with your pal and pair it with the Pina Colada No. 2.  This tangy tiki tipple comes from barman Cody Yarbrough, who was browsing through 1895, the excellent olive oil/vinegar shop newly opened a couple blocks away on Main, when he discovered the store’s coconut balsamic. “I tried it and I was, like, we have to do something with this,” Yarbrough said. The PC#2 is the result, a mouthparty of Brazilian cachaca, lime, orgeat and soda, plus that delicious coconut balsamic, garnished with a flamed pineapple.

Deep Ellum
Hide’s Delight, perfect for your afternoon.

THE DELIGHT – at Hide

Head to Hide, the cocktail lab near Malcolm X where the bar peeps get all NASA on your cocktails, producing drinks that are more delicious than gimmicky. Spirits are “milk washed” and relieved of their harshness; citrus juices are clarified for a pure veneer; soda and tonic water are eschewed in favor of a lighter-handed carbonating device. And because it’s still early, you’ll want the aperitif-style Delight, a low-proof bittersweet ballet of Aperol and Cynar tamed with grapefruit and elderflower. The cocktail is whirled in a Perlini device for a delicate carbonation; the fizz curls up on the roof of your mouth like a cat settling onto a sunny windowsill.

Brick and Bones
You can take your time with Brick and Bones’ Slowpoke Rodriguez.

SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ – at Brick and Bones

By now you’re getting ravenous, and the duck hearts at Armoury barely sated your appetite. You want to some more grub before showtime, so look no further than across the street to Brick and Bones, which serves up some pretty fantastic fried chicken. The drinks at this joint all recall old cartoon characters, some more obscure than others. Try the Slowpoke Rodriguez, named for Speedy Gonzales’ acceleration-challenged cousin – a flavor fest of hibiscus-infused tequila with a sweet-tart mix of amaretto and blood orange liqueur and a splash of jalapeno syrup for spice. “It’s like a Margarita without the acid,” says bartender Dre Cantu.

Austin Gurley, High and Tight
Smoke gets in your ice: Austin Gurley’s Smokey Bandit.

SMOKEY BANDIT – at High and Tight

The show is over, and you and your concert ears are ready to start winding down. Head over to High and Tight, whose back entrance you’ll find in the parking lot adjoining Armoury – and have Austin Gurley’s hardy Smokey Bandit, in which cinnamon-spiced bourbon meets hickory-smoked Cynar 70, doubles down on the smoke with a bit of mezcal and goes deep with a power-boost of chocolate bitters and anise-y Pernod. The drink is garnished with a twinkle of star anise. “The idea was to be boozy and complex, but approachable,” Gurley says. Mr. Bandit, you may approach the bench.

Gabe Sanchez, Black Swan
Pineapple rum: One of those things you wanted but didn’t know you wanted.

PINEAPPLE RUM OLD FASHIONED – at Black Swan

Finally, it’s time for, you guessed it…. your nightcap on Elm Street. Pay a visit to Deep Ellum’s craft-cocktail old-timer, the Black Swan Saloon, just a door to the west. Inside this discreet dive-bar-style hideout, proprietor Gabe Sanchez’s Pineapple Rum Old Fashioned is a tropical tri-rum-virate, with Plantation’s aged pineapple rum the star of the show. While the idea of pineapple rum might sound contrived, it’s actually got centuries-old roots, as cocktail historian David Wondrich told the New York Times: “It was a thing distillers used to do. It was done in the island. They’d soak pineapple in the barrel; it gave the rum a sweetness and richness. It was not wildly popular, but you’d see it.” Now you can, too, with Sanchez’s elegant drink a fitting sign-off before your ride home.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here were my favorite 15 craft cocktails of 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

14. PUSH IT (Seth Brammer, Filament)

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

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

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

13. SCARLET GAEL (Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus)

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

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

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

12. RIO JULEP (Spencer Shelton, Bolsa)

Aged cachaca, Cynar, grapefruit bitters, salt dash

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. SAVE THE DATE (Ashley Williams, Boulevardier)

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

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

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

9. NOTATORONTO (Jesse Powell, Parliament)

Rye, banana liqueur, Fernet Vallet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vodka, Hum, honey-piquillo syrup

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

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

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

Cognac, persimmon shrub, citrus, clove dust

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

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

5. AGAVE TEMPTRESS (Ricky Cleva, Atwater Alley)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. TIGER STYLE (Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler)

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

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

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

2. SEPPUKU REALE (Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos)

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

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

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

1. ROME IS BURNING (Robbie Call, Vicini)

China-China, mezcal, Meletti, Herbsaint

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

Cocktail of the Week: Let the Mayahuel’s Awakening be your tasters’ choice

Austin Gurley, High and Tight
Among the perks of visiting High and Tight is this coffee-powered gem from Austin Gurley.

High and Tight, in Deep Ellum, is among the newcomers to the craft-cocktail scene, one of the stars that make up the several-star constellation that includes adjacent Armoury D.E., Black Swan Saloon and Brick and Bones across the street.

Of course, none of the other bars can boast an adjoining barber shop (hence the name of the place, which refers to a certain cut) and while High and Tight’s cocktail list is fully legit, it’s the seasonal board to the right of the bar that you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Which is where you’ll find this gem, which is a perfect way to mark Cinco de Mayo, if you’re into that sort of thing.

COCKTAIL OF THE WEEK: Mayahuel’s Awakening

SOURCE: Austin Gurley, High and Tight

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Mexican coffee

WHAT’S IN IT: Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon

WHY IT WORKS: Because if you’ve ever had Mexican café de olla, you’d be well acquainted with the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip.

This is not that drink – but it could be its long-lost boozy cousin. The traditional sipper is prepared stovetop, dissolving brown sugar and cinnamon in boiling water with ground coffee, letting the mixture steep and then straining it into your favorite vessel.

These are the roots of the Mayahuel’s Awakening. (Pronounce it “ma-ya-WELL.”)

“It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” Gurley says.

He’d been pondering an approachable tequila-forward cocktail, and when he stumbled onto a tasty brand of concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee that he thought would pair well with agave, the game was on: A quarter-ounce of the concentrate did the trick, providing strong coffee flavor without drowning out the tequila flavor.

Gurley used reposado tequila for its aged softness and fruity overtones, added a bit of smoky mezcal to offset the coffee’s bitterness and some brown-sugar simple syrup for richness. Finally, he tied it all together with the cinnamon, vanilla and orange-peel notes of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters.

The cocktail is served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar. The result? A perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name salutes the Aztec goddess of fertility – and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born. And as Henry Rollins once said, “What goes best with a cup of coffee? Another cup.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

The showdown was barely a half-hour away.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLERA PINA (Lynette Marrero, Zacapa Rum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Let’s do this, Texas!” Tober yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Venezuelan jungle, a most unique gin — and a rare tasting experience for Dallas

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

Whether the whole thing was for real it was hard to tell, but it’s fair to say we wanted it to be. As Dallas bartender Stephen Halpin would later put it, the lines between fairy tale and fact were “bewitchingly blurred.” What were the chances that Hendrick’s Gin’s master distiller and global ambassador would be dispatched into the Venezuelan jungle in search of a unique ingredient with which to produce a spirit that would never see mass production?

“This was an experiment,” said David Piper, the Scotland-based company’s global ambassador. “A little bit of an indulgence.”

So began the saga of Hendrick’s’ so-called Perilous Botanical Quest, a zesty tale of pluck and determination spun early this month for two dozen DFW-area bartenders and spirit enthusiasts at, fittingly, the Dallas Zoo.In a setting of artificial moss, magnifying glasses, mini-globes and creepy-crawly things under glass – a most exotic and scientific atmosphere indeed – containers of crispy edible mealworms and crickets offered themselves for the taking, the former echoing corn nuts, the latter salty sunflower seed shells. It all fit the brand’s cheeky, carnival-esque vibe.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Adventurous tales require adventurous snacks.

The mysterious gin – dubbed Kanaracuni – was labeled with clinical small-batch simplicity. As we explored our fantastical surroundings, a concoction was prepared – a mix of caramelized pineapple and peppercorn to which was added cinnamon, lemon, vanilla liqueur and finally gin. The drinks were served in distinctive gourds with metal tea straws, the kind with enlarged, enclosed ends with small holes to strain out leaves.

A short film delivered the thrilling narrative: The intrepid Hendrick’s team, joined by practiced explorer Charles Brewer-Carias and botanist Francisco Delascio, set deep into the Guayana Highlands, into an area “nestled among vertiginous crags and protected by ancient spirits” and hostile wilds teeming with what Piper not so fondly remembered as “lots of nasty little stinging things.” With them they had a baby 10-litre copper still, a small ice machine and generator, spices, freeze-dried cucumber and, judging from the final frames, at least one incredibly sturdy martini glass.

Hendrick's Kanaracuni gin
Caramelizing pineapple and peppercorn for the first cocktail.

They were seeking an ingredient to complement Hendrick’s’ floral, green and spicy profile. The team befriended natives of the village Kanaracuni, a small-statured tribe with four-foot blowpipes who introduced them to local herbs and spices – many of them “mesmerizingly pungent, but not quite right,” said Piper, looking like a pith-helmeted Bradley Cooper.

Then, on the seventh day, they found scorpion tail – a leafy plant drunk in tea form by the locals as a digestive aid. (The same Venezuelan plant appears to be described in a 1968 article by researcher John H. Masters in The Journal of the Lepidopterists Society.) The taste was just what master distiller Lesley Gracie, a wee fairy godmother with a youthful smile and a mile-long mane of hair, was looking for. “We rubbed it in our hands,” she said. “It was very green, almost cucumber. I knew it would fit the profile…. I don’t think we could have picked anything better to strike all the cues.”

Hendrick's Gin
Through the looking glass: A cocktail served in a tiny gourd with a metal tea straw.

There in the jungle, Gracie produced a trial distillate, quickly deemed a success. She then made nearly 9 liters of concentrated scorpion’s tail, which with some difficulty the team managed to transport back to Europe. That became 350 liters of gin. “That’s all we have of this Kanaracuni,” Piper said.

As the film came to a close, we were treated to small samples of the prize distillate. No doubt the story’s allure added to its appeal, but it was lovely – the familiar Hendrick’s taste, less juniper-heavy than other gins and rife with floral and cucumber notes, but with a little extra, something like the tangerine-y sweet-and-sour taste of kumquat.

Then came a Kanaracuni martini. Eyes widened: Could this be for real, considering how little of this there was to go around? Dallas was one of only a select handful of cities on this tour, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Boston. But that wasn’t all: The Hendrick’s team then turned over to the group their bar setups – including a bottle or two of Kanaracuni – for our own experimentation.

“There’s very little of this gin,” Piper said. “It’s best to keep it as pure as possible. But the more you play with it, the more remarkable things it does.”

Hendrick's Gin
Creating a buzz: The rare liquid was unveiled in the most exotic of atmospheres.

That Hendrick’s would create such a rare spirit just to showcase the brand’s pursuit of new flavors “was an extremely cool move,” said Tate’s bartender Austin Gurley. And to choose DFW as one of few venues to unveil it was an honor, too. “Dallas has stepped up in the cocktail world,” he said.

None of us were botanically informed enough at the time to ask whether this elusive Venezuelan plant was the same scorpion tail wildflower found throughout Florida and southern Texas. Maybe climatic differences make that a moot point, anyway. Yet despite the proclamation that Kanaracuni would never be available for retail, one had to think Hendrick’s would ultimately decide whether to produce more based on how it was received during this exclusive tour. Wouldn’t they?

Hendrick's Gin
Bartender Juli Naida of Barter enjoys a gourd drink now and then.

But I later found an October 2013 article from London’s Daily Telegraph that detailed the same jungle narrative and noted that Gracie was then working on the final recipe for a small batch that would be available in 2014. A short time earlier, at London Cocktail Week, Hendricks’ Britain ambassador Duncan McRae had said the entire batch would be drunk during a series of special events the next year.“There is something quite special about a drink made in a finite quantity being entirely consumed over a short period,” McRae said then. “Once it’s been drunk, it will be gone forever.”

And if that’s truly the case, we had been part of a real adventure indeed.

Gin
The makings of a uniquely mystical and improbable tasting event at the Dallas Zoo.