Tag Archives: Barter

With bottled cocktails, acclaimed bar man Rocco Milano finds his new venture is on the rocks

Among the OTR collection: The Aviation, Cosmopolitan and Mango Daiquiri
Shaken, stirred — or bottled? OTR’s Mango Daiquiri, Cosmopolitan and award-winning Aviation.

FROM A LOFTY outdoor suite at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the elusive Rocco Milano is taking in FC Dallas’ home opener against Philadelphia. He has a cocktail in hand – and the fact that the venue even sells them says a lot about how far craft-cocktail culture has come.

You remember Rocco. As Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene blossomed in the early 2010s, Milano was among its luminaries, emerging from the Mansion at Turtle Creek to preside over well-regarded bar programs at Private/Social and Barter in Uptown. Then, with Barter’s sudden closing, he vanished, leaving a trail of mystery. What is Rocco up to, people wondered? Has anyone heard from Rocco?

Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.
Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.

Everyone may be about to. Along with partners Patrick Halbert – owner of P/S and Barter, which operated successively in a space off McKinney Avenue – and Andrew Gill, Halbert’s cousin, Milano has been crafting a line of bottled cocktails, hoping to join a growing playing field.

Their venture, called On The Rocks, or OTR, has been building a buzz; FC Dallas is the team’s first major client, with four OTR cocktails now sold in the stadium’s suite-exclusive Jack Daniels Lounge. (Other, less potent OTR drinks are available on the concourse to general ticket holders.)

This week, On The Rocks scored 11 medals at the esteemed San Francisco World Spirits Competition – including two gold, four silver and five bronze. But OTR’s sights are set much higher, with the group sweet-talking several major airlines to get their drinks onboard national and international flights.

Several of OTR's bottled cocktails are now available at Toyota Stadium's Jack Daniels Lounge.
Several of OTR’s bottled cocktails are sold at the stadium’s Jack Daniels Lounge.

Here in the suite with Milano are partners Halbert and Gill, along with other OTR staffers and people like industry consultant Steve Ousley. “What they’re doing is really innovative,” Ousley says of OTR. “It’s like, how do we execute a crafted cocktail and bring it to consumers really quick? This is in a bottle, and that’s about as quick and convenient as we can deliver it.”

As the brand name implies, the beverages are meant to be served over ice. But with bottled cocktails a relatively new concept, kinks remain: As the match gets underway, an OTR team member arrives fresh from the lounge, where he’s just ordered the bottled Aviation. “They poured it wrong,” he tells Milano; the server poured the liquid straight into a glass, he says, with no ice.

Milano’s eyes widen. “It’s called On The Rocks!” he says, incredulously.

***

IMAGINE THIS: You’re on a plane from Dallas to New York. You’ve ordered a cocktail – not the standard one-and-one mixed drink, like a gin and tonic or a whiskey and coke – but an actual cocktail. Maybe it’s a Mai Tai, or a Cosmopolitan. The flight attendant shows up and cracks open a 100-milliliter bottle, drops a napkin on your tray and a cup with a scoop of ice. Then you’re handed the bottle, to dispense as you please.

“It’s just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

This is what Rocco Milano has been up to.

While a bottled cocktail can’t fully match the punch and zip of one freshly made, OTR’s concoctions taste remarkably like the real deal – a threshold the team has worked hard to meet. Though the airline dream is still just that, it’s one the OTR team hopes to make a reality, as early as this year, having been in talks, they say, with Hawaiian, Alaska and Virgin Airlines.

The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)
The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)

Airline cocktails are no rye-in-the-sky illusion, though it’s still relatively uncharted territory: In 2014, Virgin tapped Austin Cocktails’ low-cal “Vodka Cucumber Mojito;” more interestingly, Alaska Airlines teamed with Seattle-based Sun Liquor to let passengers make cocktails at their seats using Sun spirits and recipes (a squeeze of lime, a bit of vodka and a pour of ginger ale, and voila! You sort of have a Moscow Mule).

Bottled cocktails are further out of the gate, though quality varies widely. Acclaimed Chicago barman Charles Joly has been producing his Canada-based Crafthouse line – which also scored well in San Francisco – since 2013. There are others sprinkled around the U.S., and around the world. But no other brand in the category did as well in this year’s San Francisco competition as OTR, which won a third of all medals given and was the only U.S.-based company to take gold.

The OTR brand features three cocktail lines – a signature line with classics like the Margarita and Cosmo; a tropical line sporting rummy drinks old and new; and a craft line which “is where we get really weird and esoteric,” Milano says. That category includes the Smoking Pepper, which fans of Milano might recall from Private/Social as the drink actually served in a hollowed-out bell pepper; Milano has recreated a bottled version.

The team's Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR's "crowd-pleaser"
The team’s Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR’s “crowd-pleaser”

While their ingredients don’t necessarily mirror fresh cocktails (to account for items, like juices, with a short shelf life), OTR’s drinks are nonetheless all-natural, with no preservatives, additives or artificial flavors. All are either 20 or 35 percent alcohol, using real spirits procured from bulk purveyors, whether whiskey, rum or barrel-aged gin.

Take the Spiced Pear cocktail. “There’s some amazing spiced pear in there, and some nice Darjeeling tea,” Milano says. “It’s done with the barrel-aged London Dry gin, so you’re gonna get some cool wood notes, but it’s still gin. The acid is Meyer lemon, which just adds a beautiful pop to it, and then a little bit of allspice.”

The Rye Old Fashioned is a standout – “pretty much our crowd-pleaser,” Halbert says. There’s a Moscow Mule, and a Daiquiri; a Mai Tai and a Blackberry Bramble.

The bottle’s logo design is a nod to its ice intentions, with the lower half of “OTR” submerged in illustrated cubes.

“And it’s the same regardless of who pours it,” Milano says. “Everything you need is in this drink.”

**

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be this way. The three had originally planned to focus on a fledgling distillery operation once Barter had closed. But as Virgin Airlines made its debut at Love Field in late 2014, a handful of Virgin execs came to Barter to celebrate. One of them, Milano says, told him something to the effect of, “These drinks are so good, I wish we could have them on our planes.”

“And Pat was like, `Well, shit – let’s put them in a bottle,’” Milano says. Not knowing how serious the execs were, they didn’t get their hopes up. “People say a lot of things,” Milano says.

Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR's cocktail creations. Here, Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR's offices.
Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR’s cocktail creations. Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR’s offices in December.

Months later, he says, the Virgin guys called to check in. That led to more serious talks, then intros to other airlines and a crash course in bottled-cocktail science. By last year’s end they’d invested half a million into the venture, mostly on inventory and legal and consultant fees, and crafted close to 40 different cocktails.

At the time, they had 90,000 200-milliliter bottles sitting in a warehouse, with 300,000 half that size on the way. The bottles conform to federally approved sizes for alcohol sales; meanwhile, some cocktails had to contain particular ingredients to fit official government definitions. For example, according to the feds, a Margarita must include triple sec, and OTR’s Rye Old-Fashioned is described as such because the government’s definition of the classic drink calls for bourbon.

The group’s office, near Love Field, evokes a cohabitation of chemistry grad students who inherited their parents’ excess furniture. Remnants of Private/Social and Barter comprise the minimal décor or lie strewn throughout – the hanging wicker chairs, the randy sofa pillows, the curtain of metal string that once separated P/S’ bar from the dining area. “We obviously didn’t spend any money on the finish-out,” Halbert laughs.

On a typical day, the heavy-duty table at center is slathered with bottles, beakers, notebooks and vintage cocktail tomes. “We have graduated cylinders, pipettes, even scales that measure to 1/16 of a gram,” Milano says.

And the nearby fridge is filled not with beer and lunchmeats but scores of bottles spanning a range of concentrated flavors. “You can get flavors of anything,” Milano says. There’s butter, truffle, lemon zest, even something called cloud. Not all of it is good. They went through 60 flavors of lime before finding one they liked.

"Just crack and pour," Milano says. "That's the beauty of OTR, brother."
“Just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

Their bottled Margarita was the most challenging in terms of achieving the right balance of spirit, acidity and sweetness. It took a month to perfect. Whenever they thought they had it down, they’d run to Albertson’s, buy some limes and fire up a fresh drink for comparison’s sake.

“That was the standard,” Milano says. “I didn’t even have a juicer; I had an elbow. I wasn’t even gonna get pith off the lime, just boom – squeeze it in there. And if it didn’t compare to that, then we just started over.”

In the end, their bottled version turned out to be a mix of aged tequila, lime, orange and agave.

On the other hand, their Aviation took them all of 15 minutes. “That had everything to do with the violet extract,” Milano says. “But just like with a real Aviation, you can easily add too much and screw it up.”

Their experience with bars and restaurants has proved valuable. “We’re not guys in lab coats,” Milano says. “We know what a Margarita should taste like.”

Still, a guy in a lab coat comes in handy. To that end, OTR hired Illinois-based food science consultant Dave Wengerhof to assist them with the chemistry of it all. Their aim is to make the drinks taste freshly made even after sitting on a shelf for a year. They test their wares against heat and cold. “It’s not how it tastes when we make it,” Milano says. “It’s how it tastes when you drink it.”

Late last year, they took some of their bottled cocktails to Portland’s Clyde Common, base of renowned bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and ordered the actual versions to see how they measured up. They were especially pleased with their Aviation, and along with Milano’s Smoking Pepper, the drink was among OTR’s two gold-medal winners this week.

Their 11-medal showing was not necessarily what they expected so early on. When the results were announced, “the room just erupted,” Milano says. And they’re just getting started.

For OTR, it seems, the sky really may be the limit.

Follow the bouncing bartender: Nine craft-cocktail moves you should know about

Hops and Hominy, Cafe du Nord
Unfortunately for Dallas, Meddlesome Moth’s Loiselle has taken her talents to ‘Frisco. Um, the one in California. Shown here at San Fransciso’s Hops and Hominy, she’s now at Cafe du Nord.

We all know that the people who make your cocktails can be right up there with your doctor, your shrink, your spiritual leader and your favorite podcast host when it comes to simple week-to-week survival. Sometimes they’re kind of all of those things rolled into one, except that they can also knock out a good drink – which might make them the most important people of all.

So when the best of them move on to new places, you want to know. Here’s a roundup of some of Dallas’ craft-cocktail peeps who’ve found new digs.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Don’t start freakin’ if you haven’t seen Eakin: He’s over at soon-to-open Rapscallion.

If you haven’t seen Eddie Eakin mixing things up at Bishop Arts’ Boulevardier lately, it’s for good reason: The buff barman has been busy readying beverage operations at soon-to-open Rapscallion, the new Lower Greenville venture from the folks behind Boulevardier.

With Eakin at the helm and one wall pretty much entirely devoted to bar space and storage, you know it’s going to be serious.

In Eakin’s absence, former Meddlesome Moth mixmaster Austin Millspaugh has stepped in to fill the void. The man who once incorporated foie gras into a cocktail is now overseeing Boulevardier’s bar program and is already in full tinker mode; if your tastes lean toward bitter, try his smoked Negroni with Fernet, thyme and Green Chartreuse. His ambitious alchemy should be interesting to watch as the year goes on.

Boulevardier, Dallas
Millspaugh: Your new master of ceremonies at Boulevardier.

Oak, in the Design District, is another place to put on your radar: The high-end restaurant has gotten double-barrel-serious about its cocktail program by bringing on both Michael Reith and James Slater, who between them produced three of my favorite cocktails of 2014.

One night, Reith was working his last night at the venerable Windmill Lounge in T-shirt and jeans, and the next he was pouring fancydranks in Oak’s signature white button-down shirt, black pants and tie. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s going to be a chance to shine again.”

Spoon Bar & Kitchen
Done with the utensils: After gigs at Knife and Spoon, Slater is now at Oak.

Slater, formerly of Spoon, is likewise happy about the move; the dynamic duo have already put their formidable imprint on Oak’s cocktail menu with classic variations that include a killer Negroni and an Old Fashioned made with Old Tom gin. Though the two are different in style, their philosophies are simpatico, and the Panamanian-born Slater aims to inspire patrons to consider them as much of an accompaniment to dinner as wine.

“We’re going to change the bar program,” Slater says. “We’re like Batman and Robin.”

Oak
Reith: Taking things up a notch at Oak.

Meanwhile, it’s been six weeks since the much decorated Daniel Guillen left La Duni, for … well, for what no one was exactly sure – but after more than nine years with the operation, whose cocktail operations had become synonymous with his name, it was time to make a change.

It turns out there was a beast waiting to explode: The proudly Peruvian-born bartender has been unleashing his passions for Central and South American drink culture at places like Proof + Pantry and pop-up events – like next week’s cocktail dinner with Chef David Anthony Temple at Twenty Seven.

Proof + Pantry
Guillen, here at Proof + Pantry, is loosing Latin libations on Dallas after his long stint at La Duni.

“Most bartenders focus on classic American cocktails, maybe a few from Europe,” Guillen says. “In my case, that doesn’t make sense. I would be one of many. So I thought, what can I bring to the table?” Look for more of the same while he and cocktail guru Sean Conner, he of the metroplex’s northern hinterlands, work on an upcoming project set to launch this fall.

At Blind Butcher, Ian Reilly is putting his own spin on things after joining the meat-forward establishment a couple months ago. “He’s the shit,” a departing and obviously happy patron says one evening. “He educates you and he makes you a badass drink.”

Reilly’s variation on the Old Fashioned, which he calls the Hubris, features whiskey with a hops-based syrup, because, “If I had to envision something that men here would want to drink – guys on the prowl, out celebrating, maybe going from beer to cocktails – what better way than to use hops as the sweetener?”

Blind Butcher
The Beard and the Butcher: Reilly, now pouring on Lower Greenville.

It’s one way that the bearded bar man is easing his way in at a place that has carved out a niche on busy Lower Greenville. “The formula here is working,” says Reilly, formerly of Bowl & Barrel and The People’s Last Stand. “I don’t want to stomp on that.”

Barter’s closing in January dispersed a number of souls to the winds – and one of them was the understated Creighten Brown, who has resurfaced at Tate’s in Uptown. (Juli Naida, as noted in 2014’s end-of-year post, has joined Mate Hartai’s team at Remedy.)

Tate's Uptown
Mr. Brown is back Uptown, at Tate’s.

The talented tipple maker – whose Black Monk was also among my favorite cocktails last year – went from bar-back to bartender at Barter and is already hyped to be among Robbie Call’s team at Tate’s, along with Pro Contreras and Ryan Sanders. “The whole gang, man,” he says. “Good times, good times.”

Finally, Dallas recently bid farewell to two budding talents – Lauren Loiselle, who headed the bar program at Meddlesome Moth, and bartender Damon Bird of LARK at the Park. Both also figured prominently in my 2014 list but found themselves drawn to the Bay Area (and who can blame them?). “Two of our real good friends live in San Francisco,” Bird told me before they left. “We talked about it a long time and just decided to give it a go.”

Mikkeller Bar, San Francisco
The Bird has flown: Formerly at LARK, he’s now settling in at San Francisco’s Mikkeller Bar.

Leaving Dallas was bittersweet, but both are excited about their new opportunities: Loiselle has joined the bar team at Café Du Nord, the new venture from the owners of Trick Dog. The team knows what it’s doing: Trick Dog is among four finalists for Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, to be awarded next month. “I’m super stoked,” she says.

Bird, meanwhile, has nested at Mikkeller Bar, a beer-centric spot near Union Square featuring the best of brews from around the world. While he misses the craft-cocktail world, you can tell the easygoing drink-slinger has found his people. “This was my choice place,” he says.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified Tate’s Ryan Sanders as Ryan Frederick.

DFW reclaims its craft mojo: The best in cocktails 2014

Dallas
Clockwise, from upper left: Polo’s Scallywag, Papaceno’s Kentucky Eye Opener, Brown’s Peach Pisco Sour and Long’s Summer in Manhattan.

I see you, 2014. You didn’t have it easy. Not only did you have much to live up to after a year that saw DFW’s craft-cocktail scene garner national attention, but you had to do so on the heels of events that threatened to knock the wheels off the whole thing.

A year later, DFW’s mojo is back. Because beyond all the drama, a critical mass of cocktail ninjas just kept doing their thing, widespread seeds of creativity that found new places to grow and blossom, while others were enriched by the newfound talent beside them.

It was a banner year for veggies: At Victor Tango’s, former bar chief Alex Fletcher used pea-infused Old Tom gin prepared sous-vide-style for his refreshing Swee’Pea, while over at The Ranch at Las Colinas, Robin Milton’s Maverick combined roasted corn with tequila and spicy Ancho Reyes liqueur for a nice salsa-in-a-glass effect. At LARK on the Park, Matt Orth’s Hanging in the Garden served up a nom-nom liquid salad of mint, basil and cherry tomato, while Anthony Polo’s Scallywag was a scallion-laced standout at The People’s Last Stand.

Other highlights included Jason Long’s apricot-tamed Summer in Manhattan at Abacus, which appealed to both genders by giving the classic cocktail a luscious fruity smoothness. At Meddlesome Moth, bar manager Lauren Loiselle kicked another classic up a notch with her barrel-aged Negroni. And Charlie Papaceno, formerly of the Windmill Lounge, juiced up bourbon with coffee to make his energizing Kentucky Eye Opener.

I could go on. A few of these drinks are still available; some, being seasonal or dependent on a limited supply of house-made ingredients, are not; some were bartender’s creations built totally off-menu. And at least one place, regrettably, has closed (at least temporarily). But that’s the nature of the biz: Sands shift, talent moves on. As always, it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.

With that, here are my favorite 15 cocktails of 2014.

Michael Reith, Windmill Lounge
Alternately named Autumn at Lake Winnepesaukee, Reith’s seasonal treat is way more fun to drink than to say.

15. WHAT ABOUT BOB?, Michael Reith (Windmill Lounge, Oak Lawn)

Here’s a drink that’s easy to fall for, playing as it does on seasonal flavors. To be more exact, Reith’s radiant refresher at Oak Lawn’s Windmill Lounge pairs bourbon with the holiday’s New England influences: “I get a lot of people who come in here from Boston, or New Hampshire,” he says, “so I was thinking, what could I make them?” Maple and cranberry came to mind – “I was trying to evoke cranberry sauce, but in a good way,” he says – as did the spices of mulled cider.  The result, named for the Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy set in New Hampshire, supplements Angel’s Envy bourbon with lemon, cranberry juice and maple syrup, plus nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, topped with a fragrant sprig of rosemary.

Matt Orth, LARK on the Park
From its initial rosemary rush to its herbaceous conclusion, Orth’s spicy libation was one you’d want tiptoeing through your two lips.

14. SMOKING GARDEN, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)

Matt Orth likes his herbs. This beauty appeared way back in January, when Orth had some house-made Thai-chili-infused St. Germain (an elderflower liqueur) on his hands. He shook that with basil, lime, slightly aged tequila, ginger liqueur and herbaceous Green Chartreuse, capping it with a smoked sprig of rosemary to wow the nose. The spicy bouquet offered pleasant heat and a sweet, sweeping floral finish, a garden-fresh treat for the senses.

Lauren Festa, FT33
Festa’s Common Elder: A vodka concoction of surprising depth that made you respect your elder.

13. COMMON ELDER, Lauren Festa (FT33, Design District)

Yes, I typically avoid vodka, but such is the legerdemain of Lauren Festa, who before she moved on to helm the bar program at The Mansion at Turtle Creek was making magic at FT33 in the Design District. Festa grew up watching the Food Network instead of cartoons, so maybe that explains this deceptively tame mix of Hophead vodka, elderflower syrup, ginger liqueur, ginger and lemon – a drink that started out delicately tart and sweet and then, just as it seemed about to fade, unveiled a hoppy ending all dolled up in elderflower. And with a gorgeous elderflower garnish, it was a treat to look at, too.

Armando Guillen, The Standard Pour
Getting the Last Word: Guillen’s play on one of my favorite classics made an memorable statement.

12. SEVENTH SAMURAI, Armando Guillen (The Standard Pour, Uptown)

Last summer, Bombay Sapphire hosted a DFW regional competition at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye, part of its annual nationwide hunt for “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender.” After the contest, won by FrontBurner’s Bonnie Wilson, the festivities moved on to The Standard Pour down the street, where Guillen whipped up this little number that could have easily held its own at the event. Featuring his house-made hibiscus-lemongrass cordial – which he’s just replenished, so you can still enjoy this one – it’s a play on the classic Last Word’s mix of gin, sweet, citrus and Chartreuse. Its floral and citrus medley of Bombay Sapphire, Yellow Chartreuse and Asian yuzu juice, along with the cranberry-sauce-scented cordial and a shake of lavender bitters made a tantalizing statement that gave Guillen the last word after all.

James Slater, Spoon
Why Slater’s Blue Moon hit my eye like a big pizza pie: Its amari.

11. BLUE MOON, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)

The bar at Spoon – which closed this week, at least temporarily – was not as well stocked as its other craft-cocktail siblings, but luckily James Slater, who took over the program around mid-year, had license to play. One day, exploring a Korean grocery store, he found a jar of pulpy blueberry preserves. “You could see the blueberry skins inside,” he says. He bought a jar and experimented; lighter spirits failed aesthetically, creating a dirty water effect. This is where it gets Reese’s-Peanut-Butter-Cup-good: Right around the time that Slater was noodling something dark to cloak the pulp, I walked into Spoon seeking something dark and bitter. Slater mixed the blueberries with lemon and the only two bitter amari he had on hand, Averna and Fernet, to amazing effect; the end result, garnished with aromatic mint, tamed Fernet’s aggressive bitterness with velvety sweetness and just the right hint of tart.

Matt Orth, LARK on the Park
Orth’s green bartender thumb delivered again on this concoction that deserves to be served at farmer’s markets everywhere.

10. HOUSE OF FRIENDS, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)

You get the sense that if Matt Orth weren’t busy making your bar experience all better at LARK that he’d be perfectly at home on the farm, tending to his herbs and vegetables and berries, pruning and snipping and tilling and picking and all that. From his Hanging In The Garden (noted above) to the blackberry-infused whiskey masterpiece he conceived for a Jameson competition a few months ago, he’s handy with the fruits of the earth. No wonder, then, that this delicately complex mix of tequila blanco, cilantro-infused dry vermouth, pear liqueur and sweetly herbaceous Yellow Chartreuse unfolds across the palate like a breeze on Sunnybrook Farm. Garnished with a bit of grapefruit zest, its initial agave flavor melds into cilantro, then embraces the sweet pear before waltzing away into the flowers.

Juli Naida, Barter
Using her noggin: Naida’s creation offered the eggnog experience in a manner even a vegan could love.

9. NOGAHOLIC, Juli Naida (Barter, Uptown)

With barman extraordinaire Rocco Milano as her sensei, Juli Naida – on her way to join Mate Hartai at Remedy, officially opening today on Lower Greenville – has come a long way since her drink-slinging days at the Mason Bar. Responsible for a good portion of Barter’s current cocktail menu, she embraced Milano’s offhand suggestion of a seasonal eggnog-themed “flight” and created a series of killer cocktails to roll out in mini form. Her Nogaholic was the least dessert-y of the bunch, and to me the most delicious, evoking the flavors of eggnog sans dairy, eggs or cream: Naida dialed down Cruzan’s potent Black Strap rum with simple syrup and a tincture made with vanilla, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The result is wintry and belly-warming, nog without the density — or the animal products. As my friend Rachel described it: “It’s a vegan’s Christmas wish come true.”

Alex Fletcher, Victor Tango's
The Smoky Daiquiri seriously made me want to see what Fletcher, now at Henry’s Majestic, could do with a sow’s ear.

8. SMOKY DAIQUIRI, Alex Fletcher (Victor Tango’s, Knox-Henderson)

Smoked beer. It’s a thing. A pretty funky thing, if you ask me, at least judging by the whiff I got of the German-made Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a neutral grain spirit that wormed its way into the primo lineup of beers that Victor Tango’s piled up in 2014. On its own, the malty rauchbier was earthy and harsh, almost nasty like a bad vegetable; the smell called to mind a college laundry room. So of course cocktail master Alex Fletcher – who has since taken over the bar at Henry’s Majestic – had to make a cocktail with it. “That’s what you’d want in that, though,” he said of his clever Smoky Daiquiri, which incorporated the beer into a simply presented daiquiri mix of Blackwell rum, sugar, lime and a pinch of salt. “That salty, spicy funk.” In the drink, the beer’s more off-putting traits vanished; what hit the palate instead was full-bodied lime and tamarind with a sweet tang that got even better as it warmed.

Kevin Trevino, Spoon
Currying my favor with its skillful use of Indian influences: Trevino’s Bengal Lily.

7. BENGAL LILY, Kevin Trevino (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)

It was the marvelous Madras curry syrup that really shone in this Indian-influenced creation from Kevin Trevino, Spoon’s former bar manager. One day Trevino – now a wine sales rep – saw the curry powder on Spoon’s kitchen shelf and decided to see what he could pull off. He combined his curry syrup with Tru Organic gin, some Fruitlab ginger liqueur and lemon; the gorgeously blonde cocktail welcomed with a zesty garam masala aroma, then smooth, lemony flavor with hints of ginger and an upper-lip-tingling curry heat. The Bengal refers to its Indian notes; Lily refers to a friend. “It’s got that beautiful Indian curry smell and a little bit of spiciness that burns on the back,” Trevino says. “Especially that ginger.” Tru dat.

Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus
Fittingly, the top’s always down on a Sidecar, Gantenbein’s inspiration for this deliciously summery cocktail.

6. TOP DOWN, Jordan Gantenbein (Abacus, Knox-Henderson)

Driving around with the top down – that’s what I thought summer was all about until I discovered Gantenbein’s wonderful play on the classic Sidecar. He tricked out cherry-wood-infused Cognac with seasonal Meyer lemon syrup, plus a bit of candied Meyer lemon and a Luxardo cherry garnish in a sugarcoated glass. The drink’s luscious lemon/cherry mouthfeel batted the two flavors around the tongue like a game of air hockey, with cherry emerging victorious. The result was a libation that singlehandedly redefined summer.

Pam Moncrief, The Usual
Moncrief’s use of Ransom Old Tom gin inspired my name for this fantastic floral foray.

5. ONE MILLION IN UNMARKED BILLS, Pam Moncrief (The Usual, Fort Worth)

One evening at The Usual, I asked for my usual. Which was basically anything using a bitter liqueur. Moncrief – now at Fort Worth’s American F&B, had been working on a little something of her own off-menu, something motivated by a desire to appeal to cocktail newbies and broaden their tastes. But her blend of Ransom Old Tom gin, bitter-smooth Hungarian Zwack liqueur, Dolin Blanc vermouth and Benedictine honey liqueur can please even the heartiest cocktail fan with its well-rounded spicy depths – floral and grape giving way to a honey-bitter finish and a tang that lingers like nightclub ear. A dose of lemon oils atop gives it a nice citrus nose. “I just really enjoy herbaceousness,” Moncrief says. “Zwack and all those amaros are so herbaceous, and I feel like they don’t show up in cocktails enough.” And on that we would agree.

Damon Bird, LARK on the Park
Bird’s barrel-aged bit of brilliance takes the edge off mezcal to smoky, bittersweet effect.

4. CAMARA LENTE, Damon Bird (LARK on the Park, downtown)

Take a sip of bartender Damon Bird’s barrel-aged concoction and you may find that your world has slowed to a Matrix-like sensory crawl. Maybe that’s because camara lente is sometimes interpreted as “slow motion,” or maybe it’s because this beautiful blend of mezcal, orange-y curacao, orange bitters and the bitter liqueurs Aperol and Fernet is just that good. Its mix of mellowed smoke and floral hints finish usher in a second wave of smoke and bittersweet, doused in a tobacco-leaf farewell. Bird first made it one night when he was slammed and somebody asked for “something with mezcal.” “The original version included simple syrup,” he says,” but with the barrel-aging, you don’t need it. It’s one of my few babies.”

James Slater, Spoon
The only mystery here is whether we’ll ever get to enjoy this marvelous cocktail again.

3. ENIGMA, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)

Oh Spoon, we hardly knew ye. While chef John Tesar hopes to reopen the recently shuttered place in another location soon, Dallas’ fickle relationship with seafood casts more doubts than fishing lines. Its demise would be a shame, because under the guidance of Slater and former bar manager Trevino (see Nos. 7 and 11 above), the restaurant’s bar program quietly cranked out some of the area’s more creative and well-balanced drinks in 2014. Slater’s Enigma emerged as my favorite. Noticing that a pair of Angel’s Envy bourbons were finished in port barrels, Slater was intrigued by the combo: He mixed Rittenhouse rye and port with bittersweet Aperol; the result charts a path between two classics, the Manhattan and the Boulevardier, with hints of raisin and honey. A float of orange blossom adds both a perfume-y aroma and a softly sweet, linen finish. There’s no riddle or mystery here: It’s simply delicious.

Creigten Brown, Barter
The Black Monk’s aromas and flavors led me away on multiple meditative journeys, and still I remain unknowing of all its seductive secrets.

2. BLACK MONK, Creighten Brown (Barter, Uptown)

Speaking of mysteries, I pretty much went bonkers trying to figure out the enigmatic flavor in this fine cocktail. Many a sip later, I still don’t know the answer: It’s a smoky-flavored drink that’s tricky to pin down, greater than the sum of its parts: Brown took a tincture that bar manager Rocco Milano made with tonka bean, vanilla bean and lemongrass and added it to Jameson Black Barrel Reserve Irish Whiskey, bittersweet Averna, the honey-ish Benedictine and a bit of rye-and-sarsaparilla-flavored basement bitters. Every time I tried it, the image of shoe leather popped into my head, but in a most comforting way: The flavors dancing across my tongue included molasses, root beer, pecan pie, cooked honey, even smoky flan. It’s not for everyone – one taster described it as Chloraseptic – but if you enjoy a good cigar, this one is a winner.

Brad Bowden, Parliament
Sugar and spice and everything nice: Bowden’s divergent path showed once and for all quien es mas Ancho.

1. DAMNED AND DETERMINED, Brad Bowden (Parliament, Uptown)

Bowden, formerly of Barter and The People’s Last Stand, was never much for Ancho Reyes, the ancho-chile-flavored liqueur that became my crush of 2014, following in the footsteps of botanical Hum and bitter Suze. But when the slightly spicy, vanilla-tinged blend became a Best New Product finalist at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, Bowden knew he had to do something. Damned and determined was he: Ancho’s bite made it a natural fit for tequila or mezcal, “but that’s what everyone else was doing,” he says (accurately). Instead, Bowden looked to his preferred spirit, rum, and what he devised is essentially a tiki drink, adding sweetly vegetal Green Chartreuse to Papa’s Pilar blonde – “Rum and Green Chartreuse go together like nobody’s business,” he says – along with egg white and a tropical pineapple-vanilla syrup. The egg white gives the ancho a soft bed to lie on; the syrup binds it all together. A last flourish of Angostura bitters atop and you’ve got yourself a magic carpet ride, frothy and floral with a sweet and spicy descent. While he also does a mezcal variation that he calls Aztec Brutality, the original rum version, held aloft on Pilar blonde’s creamy-smooth texture, is a year-topping keeper.

***

HONORABLE MENTIONS NOT NOTED ABOVE: 1874 (Erikah Lushaj, Bowen House); 1919 (Josh Uecker, Blind Butcher); Apples and Oranges (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier); Ascension Hook (Matt Orth, LARK); El Guapo (Brian Williams, The Establishment); High Ryse (John Campbell, Abacus); Imenta (Marcos Hernandez, Bolsa); Nicaraguan Breakfast (Carlo Duncan, Parliament); Peach Pisco Sour (Creighten Brown, Barter); Soul Clap (Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, Midnight Rambler); Velvet Smoke (Juli Naida, Barter);   .

And of course, a hearty thank you to those who accompanied me on my outings, without whom I could never have sampled this many cocktails.

Leave it to Barter: A lineup of libations to wrap your holiday noggin around

Barter eggnog flight
Barter’s Juli Naida applying the torch to one of her nog-out drinks.

If you’re like me, the sight of retailers setting out their Christmas merchandise two weeks before Thanksgiving makes you want to gouge out your eyes. But go figure: The folks at Barter in Uptown have figured out a way to break through my grumpy bah-humbuggery, and they’ve done it by highlighting the best thing about holiday season: The eggnog.

A few weeks ago, Barter bar manager Rocco Milano approached bartender Juli Naida with a peculiar notion. The results are even more than he’d hoped for. “This is all her,” he says.

And what is this? An eggnog flight, my friends. A set of mini-drinks evoking the festive holiday beverage. It’s a pre-Christmas miracle!

Best of all, they’re delicious, from the awesomely named Sweet Chai of Mine – which blends tequila, chai tea, honey and agave – to the creamy-rich If Elvis Nogged, an explosion of Irish whiskey, peanut butter, banana liqueur and vanilla pudding mix. Another is fashioned after lemon meringue pie, with a limoncello whipped-cream topping that Naida flames like a brulee. All either taste like eggnog or incorporate egg whites for a frothy eggnog texture.

Barter eggnog flight
The Nogaholic: Eggnog impersonator.

My favorite of the bunch is the Nogaholic, a dark martini-style drink that mirrors eggnog’s flavor with no egg or cream whatsoever. Instead there’s Cruzan Black Strap rum, simple syrup and a house-made tincture of vanilla, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. “I wanted something sweet,” Naida says. “You can hit the eggnog notes without using any egg.”

Under Milano’s tutelage, Naida has quickly and quietly grown into a real talent behind the bar, and while he provided her with background on some of the spirits she was considering – for instance, the Black Strap rum in the Nogalicious – the recipes are straight from her own noggin. “She has the vision to do stuff like that,” Milano says.

For inspiration, Naida looked around her – to fellow bartender Creighten Brown, for instance, whose favorite smoothie involves peanut butter and banana; and to a non-drinking friend who turned her on to chai. The lemon-meringue one came to her, um, in a dream. “That’s where I completely nerded out,” she says. “It’s embarrassing.”

The $15 flight is arranged from lighter to bolder flavors. The drinks are so rich that you might want to consider sharing them with a date. One may even be inspired, after sampling the flight, to order one as a full $12 cocktail. I’m just saying.

Cointreau’s bartender book club puts history into glasses and craft-cocktailing into perspective

Collectif 1806
Vintage cocktail books — and drinks — from the legendary Trader Vic, at a Cointreau event earlier this year at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.

DALLAS – Early last summer, in the private parlor at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, five weathered books spread out on a vintage trunk – among them Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946), Robert H. Loeb Jr.’s Nip Ahoy! (1954) and Obispo y Monserrate’s Bar La Florida Cocktails (1937). “Please be careful,” said Emily Perkins, regional rep for Collectif 1806, a project of Remy Cointreau USA. “They’re very old.”

Collectif 1806
The Thistle, from the 1924 book “Carlo’s Cocktails,” at Dallas’ Meddlesome Moth.

With the seeming ubiquity of craft cocktails these days, it’s worth remembering that the scene is less revolution than revival: The practice dates back more than a century, and while there’s plenty to appreciate about craft cocktails – the culinary parallels, a culture of hospitality, their ability to take the edge off a day – one of the things I personally love about them is the history that serves as their base. When you make a proper Old Fashioned or Aviation, in other words, you’re building something that someone made pretty much exactly the same way a hundred years or more before. While the tools, technology and the range and quality of ingredients have all since improved, the drinks that have come and gone have left an enduring canon of classics, and the craft at heart is the very one conducted for decades upon decades.

That’s a notion thoughtful bartenders appreciate, and it’s something that Remy Cointreau, the U.S. branch of the French distiller known for its eponymous orange liqueur, has seized upon in a welcome and opportune way. The company has gradually compiled an archive of 250 vintage cocktail volumes, and for the past year, Dallas has been lucky to be among a small circuit of cities in which books are periodically presented for perusal through Cointreau’s bartender education and support arm, Collectif 1806. (Other cities include Miami, San Francisco, Chicago and New York.)

Collectif 1806
Perkins checks out one of the classic tomes with barman Matt Orth of LARK at the Park at Meddlesome Moth’s book club event.

In addition to Sissy’s, Dallas “book club” events have been held at Barter in Uptown, Meddlesome Moth in the Design District and most recently, Abacus in Knox-Henderson.

The evening hours passed at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen as the select group took turns poring through the quaint and dated pages. Smartphones snapped photos of recipes, illustrations or inspiring prose. “I’m such a sucker for vintage illustrations,” Perkins said. “I love the books with the crazy drawings and the old ads.”

Meanwhile, five rounds of cocktails appeared, one from each book – including the sweet, mild Honeysuckle, from Angostura-Wuppermann’s Professional Mixing Guide (1941); the luscious Ian’s Fizz, from Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947); from Bar La Florida Cocktails, the lesser-known classic Brandy Daisy.

“I love old books,” said Julie Brown, who tends bar at nearby Hibiscus. “Trader Vic’s is, like, every bartender’s first book.”

Collectif 1806
At Barter, the Orange Bloom, from the second printing of the United Kingdom Bartender’s Guide (1955). Only 5,000 copies were printed.

Cocktails at these events naturally showcase the Cointreau line of products, which includes The Botanist gin, Bruichladdich Scotch whisky and Mount Gay rum. In general, original recipes are adhered to as faithfully as possible, though they aren’t necessarily what Perkins would serve to modern palates. “You’d have to tinker,” she said. “Most (of the old drinks) are really tart; they’re not using a lot of sugar. Before the 1940s it was rare and expensive. People didn’t have access to a lot of sugar and ice. They were stronger, boozier drinks.”

Despite the light atmosphere, the books are handled with a level of care that sometimes surprises Perkins, who’d initially been reticent to release the rare volumes, some frail and plastic-sleeved, from her protective embrace. “It was hard to let go of that,” she said. But “when it comes to handling the books, there’s a lot of respect and decorum.”

Collectif 1806
At Barter’s event, Harry Johnson’s classic New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (1900), Lucius Beebe’s Stork Club Bar Book (1946) and Ted Shane’s Authentic and Hilarious Bar Guide (1953).

That’s one reason attendance is limited, to weed out looky-loos in favor of more serious practitioners. You wouldn’t want just anyone getting their paws on Harry Johnson’s classic The New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (1900), for example, or V. B. Lewis’ The Complete Buffet Guide (1903). Some of the lucky few even receive access to Cointreau’s online archives. “A lot of these are what people call proprietary secrets,” Perkins says. “It’s supposed to be a tool for bartenders who really care. It’s Holy-Grail-type stuff.”

Those at Sissy’s included Matt Orth of LARK at the Park, Parliament’s Stephen Halpin, Lauren Festa of The Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek and High West brand ambassador Chris Furtado. There was also Parliament’s Daniel Charlie Ferrin, who was proud to already be in possession of Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. “I bought it for $12 on Amazon,” he said. “Except the dust jacket is in pristine condition. It’s literally sitting in my car right now.”

Collectif 1806
A sample illustration from Ted Shane’s cheeky 1953 volume.

In addition to the recipes, “I love the cartoons,” Ferrin said. He picked up the book and flipped open the cover to show an illustration of a bartender pouring liquid from one mixing glass into another. “In fact,” he said, “my next tattoo is going to be based on this one – except it’ll be a monkey, with a fez and a unicycle.”

The recipes are often preceded by wry insights or anecdotes. Introducing the rum-based Pikaki, the renowned Trader Vic wrote in his Book of Food and Drink (1946): “I’d save this one for my visiting great-aunt who, when approached as to her idea of a little before-dinner stimulant, shakes her finger at you reprovingly, ‘Well, just one.’ She’ll probably weaken and have two and go into dinner with her transformation askew.”

The books also recall a time of unabashedly flowery prose and titles – for instance, Charles H. Baker Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. 1 (Being An Exotic Cookery Book, or Around the World with Knife, Fork and Spoon).

Collectif 1806
The Gin Fix cocktail, from The Complete Buffet Guide, (1903), at Meddlesome Moth.

So taken was I with the simple but noble sentiments of the finely distilled introduction to the Book of Food and Drink – which in 1946, was priced at $3.95 – that I tracked down my own copy of the book for my home stash. It reads: “Dedicated to those merry souls who make eating and drinking a pleasure; who achieve contentedness long before capacity; and who, whenever they drink, prove able to carry it, enjoy it, and remain gentlemen.”

“It’s dedicated to us,” Perkins said. “People who love to indulge in finer things – but it says never go overboard, treat people with respect. It’s idealistic and sweet.”

For this group, the books are more than novelty: They’re passed-down knowledge and perspective and a reminder that those who practice the craft today are part of something much bigger than themselves.

Collectif 1806
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen was classically philosophical about the event: “You cannot live if you do not eat,” he said. “And you cannot live if you do not have knowledge.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Texas Tiki Week is almost over. Why are you still sitting there?

Barter, Uptown
Tiki yourself to Barter for this Tradewinds cocktail-for-two before Texas Tiki Week goes away forever, or at least until next year.

Texas Tiki Week has been stomping through town, and if you want to get your boozy coconut on, there’s still two days left to go.

Already the week has brought a Mount Gay Rum-sponsored tiki dinner at Victor Tango’s, an Uptown tiki bar crawl and a Papa’s Pilar Rum-sponsored party at the Windmill Lounge – which not only featured the tropical-style drinks associated with the California-born genre but the meaty handiwork of barman Charlie Papaceno, who produced for the peckish late-night masses (in the words of bartender Trina Nishimura) an eye-popping “deconstructed, reconstructed Spam-ham.”

Thursday’s Uptown tiki crawl breezed through five McKinney Avenue-area destinations – Barter, Nickel & Rye, Bowen House, Tate’s and The Standard Pour –with each featuring their own umbrella- and flower-topped tiki spins (all of which should be available through the weekend). My favorites: Erikah Lushaj’s “1874” cocktail at Bowen House, a smoky-sweet mix of Brugal silver, Galliano, vanilla and smoked pineapple puree; and Mike Hamilton’s Timebomb at Nickel & Rye, which paired Brugal 1888 aged rum with peach liqueur and Hum, a botanical spirit for which I’ve been known to carry a tiki torch from time to time.

Bowen House
Bowen House’s 1874 cocktail made me want to party like it was 1874.

But wait, you say. What good does this do me, the thirsty reader, who also wishes to partake in such tropical revelry?

Simmer down: Here is your remedy. Friday night brings tiki revelry to Knife, where Omar YeeFoon and Michael Martensen will be doing it up with The 86 Co.’s Cana Brava rum.

This weekend, you’ve got two tiki brunches to choose from – Standard Pour will host one on Saturday from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm, while Barter will offer another on Sunday from 11:30 am to 2 pm. If you want to make a full night of it, there’s still a few seats left for Saturday’s Tiki Bus Tour, which will rumble to destinations including Bolsa, Driftwood and Dallas’ first renaissance-age tiki bar, Sunset Lounge. Tickets are $65 and can be reserved by emailing Steven Doyle at steven@cravedfw.com.

The week will culminate with a tiki luau at The Standard Pour, which knows a thing or two about throwing a party. Sponsored by Utah’s High West Distillery, the event will run from 6:30 to midnight. Price is $20 and includes roast pig and a cocktail.

Tiki on.

Nickel & Rye
Another Tiki Week hit: The explosive Timebomb at Nickel and Rye.

Dinners and drinks: Don’t mind if I do

Bolsa
Pisco: More versatile than you might think. Wednesday’s dinner at Barter will now demonstrate.

UPDATE, April 30: Barter has postponed its pisco dinner until late May. Stay tuned for updates.

Posted April 29: Hump Day is coming and the pantry is empty. What’s a person to do? A pair of drink-paired dinners on the schedule might help you make your decision.

First up, in Lower Greenville, is the Libertine Bar’s monthly beer dinner, which this month showcases the brews of Central Texas.  The five-course menu features items like Texas sturgeon and venison blood sausage, complemented by a beer lineup that includes Adelbert’s Flying Monk (Austin) and Rogness Rook (Pflugerville). Price is $60 and the full menu is available here.

If Peruvian brandy is more your thing, Barter in Uptown is offering a three-course meal paired with cocktails featuring Pisco Porton, which thanks to a big marketing push seems to be everywhere these days.  For $30, you’ll start with a welcome punch before noshing on drink-supplemented goodies like tuna crudo and banana-ginger empanadas.

Bar manager Rocco Milano knows the first thing — and probably the only thing — people think of when they hear pisco is a Pisco Sour and so he promises a Pisco-Sour-free drink lineup. “It’s a fun spirit that has totally been pigeonholed,” he says.

Reservations are required for both events.

LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-824-7900.

BARTER, 3232 McKinney Ave., Dallas. 214-969-6898.

 

Pass the peas: Bartenders embrace sous-vide, a chef’s technique, in pursuit of better cocktails

 

Victor Tango's
Vacuum-sealed ingredients: They’re not just for chefs anymore. Victor Tango’s lead barman Alex Fletcher.

The sugar peas were looking exceedingly delicious this spring, and right away Alex Fletcher knew it was time to take a stab at the idea that had been percolating inside for a year.

Fletcher, bar manager at Victor Tango’s in Knox-Henderson, had in mind a sugar-pea-infused gin, but he also knew that green vegetables tended to wilt in booze. “Like cucumbers — they’ll be good one day and then the next day, it’s like they’re pickled,” he says. “That’s gross. I learned that the hard way.”

Instead, he turned to one of the culinary world’s more modern trends: sous-vide (French for “under vacuum”), a vacuum-sealing method industrialized in the 1960s and then increasingly adopted by chefs like Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria and Dallas’ John Tesar as part of the molecular gastronomy movement.

Fletcher is among a handful of Dallas bartenders experimenting with the technique – in which ingredients are usually vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag – or its variations to create infusions or to enhance other cocktail ingredients, further fogging the lines between bar and kitchen.

Chefs typically cook ingredients in the bag, often at low heat for long periods of time, to juice up flavor and moistness. Bartenders do the same using bags or even mason jars kept in a water bath temperature-controlled with a sous-vide circulator. There’s also “Cryovacking,” as some call it, playing off the brand-name airtight plastic-bag manufacturer, which can be used to quickly infuse pressurized contents with added flavors or heighten flavors already present.

Victor Tango's
Who looks at this and thinks of a cocktail? Fortunately for Dallas, Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s.

That’s what Jacob Boger, lead barman at Knox-Henderson’s Origin Kitchen + Bar, was doing with lemons and limes and hoping to echo with strawberries earlier this month. He figured five minutes’ worth of pressure could help siphon sweetness from the not-quite-ripe strawberries. “Just the fact that they’re in their own juices, you know…. Maybe I’ll put some raw sugar in there to really draw it out. It’s an easy enough thing you can do to make a better drink.”

At Driftwood in Oak Cliff, bar manager Ryan Sumner is eyeing the method to create infused simple syrups, while Ian Reilly at Trinity Groves’ Chino Chinatown has made oleo saccharums, or sugared citrus oils, the same way. Meanwhile, at Barter, the wheels are always spinning. “We’re basically just playing the game, `Can we sous-vide it? Yes, we can,’” says the Uptown bar’s Stephen Halpin.

Hey, we’re all busy these days. So for bartenders, one of sous-vide’s advantages is the speed with which such ingredients can be ready for use depending on the desired flavor potency. Barter’s deliciously fruity Singapore Sling is made with gin heated at 62.5 degrees Centigrade along with pineapple, cucumber, white peppercorns and orange peel. But where a typical infusion might take 30 days of thumb-twiddling, Barter’s gin preparation, once bagged and sealed, can be ready in 90 minutes.

Put that in your agave pit and smoke it.

Barter’s Halpin also does a sous-vide gin infused with blood orange for an hour; the process allows him to incorporate the fruit’s flavorful zest, which wouldn’t work in a traditional infusion. “You can’t leave in too long,” he says. “It gets too bitter. You can’t dial that back.” The piquant mix shines in the bar’s off-menu Please Give Gin Another Chance, which Halpin offers to those who’ve felt burned by gin in the past.

As Nonstop Honolulu reported early last year, bartender Dave Newman of Honolulu’s Pint + Jigger has used sous-vide to evoke the effects of barrel aging, replacing the typical weeks-long oak-cask soak with bourbon and barrel wood chips sealed in mason jars kept in a 120-degree bath for two days. Does it work? The author thought so: “The sous vide cocktail was much smoother with an added oaky complexity that would normally require several weeks of barrel aging to achieve,” he concluded.

Victor Tango's
Fletcher uses Old Tom gin, sweeter and less botanical than London Dry. “Tanqueray is too hot,” he says.

In recent years, sous-vide or Cryovac cocktails have appeared elsewhere across the U.S. – at Seattle’s Tavern Law, San Diego’s Grant Grill, The Aviary in Chicago and Atlanta’s Seven Lamps, where bartender Arianne Fielder “hypothesized that slowly cooking the sugars in alcohol but not allowing the vapors to escape would make colors darker and flavors more intense,” according to an Eater Atlanta article. And three years ago, during his brief reign at Bailey’s Prime, Dallas’ Eddie “Lucky” Campbell featured cantaloupe-infused tequila made Cryovac-style in a cocktail called High Maintenance.

The more heat, the faster the infusion – but don’t get too excited yet: As Oregon bartender Ricky Gomez cautions, ingredients can give off different flavors at different temps. Other variables may also affect potency or longevity. Tweaking may be required.

When Fletcher became bar manager at Victor Tango’s, he suddenly had access to a vacuum sealer at a neighboring restaurant. “My grandmother used to make English peas all the time, so I sometimes have a craving for them,” he says. “And whenever I have a craving for something, I try to make a cocktail out of it.”

He mixed a quarter-pound of slightly crushed peas with a half-bottle of gin. He chose Hayman’s Old Tom gin – the sweeter style of gin popular in 18th-century England before today’s more prevalent London Dry came along – for its more subtle botanicals. Into the bag they went, sealed tight – pooosh – with a Vac Master machine. “That’s the big boy of Cryovac machines,” he says. “It sucks all the air out of the bag.”

Victor Tango's
Fletcher gives the peas a mild crushing to release the juices from their shells.

Two hours later, the pea-infused, light-green gin was ready to go. And if peas in liquid form make you think of split-pea soup, then we’re all on the same page: The soup is usually boosted with pork flavor, so Fletcher made a genius move to complete the cocktail. He gathered up some tapioca maltodextrin, a light-as-air, fat-soluble starch that absorbs flavors but has no odor or flavor of its own. He then threw some of that into a food processor along with a little bacon fat and a pinch of salt… and out came a unicorn. Okay, not exactly, but if you can imagine bacon-flavored confectioner’s sugar, this was it.

His tasty Swee’Pea cocktail, now on Victor Tango’s’ spring menu, mixes the gin with lemon and demerara syrup, served up in a coupe rimmed with the bacon powder and garnished with a sugar pea.

Fletcher would eventually find his vacuum-sealer access limited, so for the time being he’s using extracted pea juice instead, not introducing it to the gin until ordered. Unfortunately, it lacks the vibrancy of his sous-vide version. But sometime this week, he says, he plans to get Victor Tango’s a vacuum-sealer of its own. When and if that happens, I’d highly recommend the Swee’Pea as a great way to round out your daily vegetable requirement.

Victor Tango's
Fletcher vacuum-seals the pea/gin mixture, starting the infusion process.
Victor Tango's
Fletcher strains the sugar-pea-infused gin from the bag.
Victor Tango's
Fletcher rims a coupe with his magic bacon-flavored powder.
Victor Tango's
Fletcher mixes the gin with lemon and demerara syrup.
Alex Fletcher, Victor Tango's
Garnished with a sugar pea, voila: The Swee’Pea cocktail, aka spring veggie goodness.

 

 

 

 

Why Irish guys are smiling: Nation’s whiskey on the rise

Texas ambassador, Tullamore DEW
Tullamore DEW’s Mossie Power preaches the Irish whiskey gospel at Uptown’s Barter.

A few days before St. Patrick’s Day weekend, Maurice “Mossie” Power bounced around the private dining room at Barter in light-footed stutter steps, sort of a cross between a ballroom dancer and R2D2. “I am the ultimate cliché for this week,” the Irish-born Texas ambassador for Tullamore DEW whiskey quipped, acknowledging his accent and ginger-colored hair for a modest audience gathered for the restaurant’s special four-course Tullamore DEW-paired dinner.

The night’s purpose was to push not only Power’s product, but Irish whiskey in general, which in case you hadn’t noticed is enjoying a major resurgence: According to The Wall Street Journal, the category that brought you bar-shot standards like Jameson and Bushmills is now the fastest growing portion of the U.S. spirits market, up 400 percent since 2002.

If it seems odd to call it a resurgence, consider this: Before Scotch and American bourbons ruled the scene, Irish whiskey was king. In the 1830s, Ireland fielded more than a hundred distilleries, making what was then considered the premium of whiskeys.

But the industry was stunted by a temperance movement, then walloped by the notorious famine of 1840; when Ireland kicked out the British (its number-two market) to gain independence and then lost its number-one market (the U.S.) to Prohibition, the Irish whiskey reign was officially over.

Now, Irish whiskeys have found new life, with micro-distilleries sprouting throughout Ireland and attempting to lift the category beyond its mere infantry status: Midleton, Connemara and Kilbeggan are earning space on bar shelves, whether it’s because clever marketers have seized on a humbled genre’s untapped potential or because consumers truly do appreciate a generally triple-distilled product that on the whole is smoother, fruitier and less peaty than other whiskeys.

Cosmo's Bar & Lounge
Irish whiskey: Still struggling to eclipse bar-shot status, like these poured by Ryan Maddon of Cosmo’s Bar & Lounge.

“For someone who’s used to bourbon, Irish whiskey is easier to adapt to,” said Izzy Delgado, bar manager at Mockingbird Station’s Trinity Hall. “It’s lighter, sweeter and easier to drink.” The Irish pub and restaurant has one of the largest selections of Irish whiskey around, which makes any resurgence hard to notice. “Pretty much when something is available, we go ahead and get it,” Delgado said.

Except for Tullamore DEW, Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour said he hasn’t seen much interest in Irish whiskey beyond Jameson, the world’s most popular brand. The resurgence is also not evident at Tate’s, whose solid whiskey lineup does include Ireland’s heavily promoted 2 Gingers but leans more toward Scotch and gems such as Indian-produced Amrut.

“I’m not the biggest Irish whiskey fan,” said Tate’s general manager Robbie Christian. “We haven’t really jumped on that bandwagon. There’s just so much better stuff out there.”

Nevertheless, the figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States speak for themselves, and Plano’s Whiskey Cake has gradually added several Irish whiskeys to its stock. “That is a market that is fixing to blow up,” said Sean Conner, the restaurant’s former bar manager.

Power, of Tullamore DEW — the capital letters are the initials of one of the whiskey’s early influential managers — says the category is still growing more than 20 percent annually. “Irish whiskey is definitely a category that everyone is revisiting,” he said.

It may say a lot that Barter certainly is, with the restaurant’s spring cocktails menu set to feature exclusively Irish whiskeys. “I completely buy into Irish whiskey coming back in a big way,” said Rocco Milano, Barter’s beverage director.

Milano poured a succession of barrel-aged Tipperary cocktails to kick off the restaurant’s Tullamore DEW dinner this week, which pleased Power to no end. “This is my favorite cocktail,” Power said. “When I go out, that’s what I order.” Typically the drink is two ounces of Irish whiskey plus a healthy bit of sweet vermouth and a splash of Green Chartreuse, but Milano subbed Dolin’s deliciously herbal Genepy des Alpes for the Chartreuse, with marvelous results.

The four-course dinner was paired with Tullamore DEW’s four variants – the original, the nutty 10-year, the toffee-ish 12-year and the spicy, 110-proof Phoenix special edition. Barter chef Andrew Dilda had asked Power what he would eat if he were out on the town in Ireland, and naturally the answer was pub food; that inspired the chef’s hearty and rustic menu, which included lamb potpie and a lamb-sausage stuffed rabbit wrapped in bacon.

With pop singers like Rihanna and Lady Gaga referencing Jameson in their lyrics and shows, the Irish whiskey comeback may be a young-professional-driven movement. In Uptown, the heart of that demographic for Dallas, whiskey-centric bar Nickel & Rye is pushing 2 Gingers specials as St. Patrick’s Day draws nigh. Just the same, bar manager Mike Hamilton said, “I don’t expect to sell much more than Jameson.”

Irish whiskey at Trinity Hall
A dram of atypically peaty Connemara 12 at Mockingbird Station’s Trinity Hall.