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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.

Stir-crazy: Dallas drink crafters lately on the move

 

Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek
She’s over here: Lauren Festa, now at The Mansion.

Bar peeps are on the move again.

If you’ve been looking for Lauren Festa, who until recently was working mushroom and elderflower wonders at FT33, she’s now overseeing the bar program at The Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek. It’s a much-heralded place in Dallas bar lore, having been presided over by some of the city’s most respected mixerati – names like Michael Martensen, Lucky Campbell and Rocco Milano. “An opportunity like this doesn’t come around very often,” Festa said just before leaving FT33 – and spied not long ago, the hospitality-minded bartender seemed content to have ditched the chain mail of her former Design District home for the proper vest of her dark, new Uptown den. She was expecting to roll out her new cocktail menu by last week.

Spoon Bar & Kitchen
From Knife to Spoon: Bartender James Slater

Another new lineup of libations is up and running at Spoon Bar & Kitchen, where James Slater is the new bar program manager. When chef John Tesar opened Knife in the Palomar Hotel space where Central 214 used to be, Slater was among the bartenders who made the jump. The understated Panamanian is an able bar man and now has a chance to make his mark at Tesar’s acclaimed seafood restaurant in North Dallas.

After a nice stint with Rocco Milano at Barter, Stephen Halpin has joined the crew at Parliament, the craft-cocktail pearl that itinerant barman Eddie “Lucky” Campbell has spent the last year or so forming in Uptown’s State and Allen area. Formerly of Whiskey Cake, the Irish-born Halpin has proven himself an adept mixologist and should find a worthy challenge in Parliament’s extensive tome of tipples when the bar opens this week.

Parliament
He’s a member of Parliament now: Bartender Stephen Halpin.

Joining Halpin at Parliament is Will Croxville, fresh from Libertine Bar and a stretch last year with the celebrated Bar Smyth. Croxville has the distinction of preparing to adjust his schedule around the nearly simultaneous openings of two highly anticipated Dallas bars: He’ll also be doing time at Proof + Pantry, Michael Martensen’s long-awaited spot in the Arts District, which officially opens Wednesday.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the absence of another bearded chap at Barter; Brad Bowden, a veteran of The People’s Last Stand, says that’s because he’s lying in wait for his new gig at Midnight Rambler at the Joule Hotel. The coming speakeasy-style bar is the venture of Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, whose Cuffs and Buttons cocktail consulting firm has put its stamp on many a bar program throughout the Dallas area.

Midnight Rambler
Ramblin’ Man: Brad Bowden, formerly of Barter, is on his way downtown.

In other news, Chase Streitz, the former bar manager at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, has been spotted behind the bar at The Standard Pour (where Cody Sharp, former sous chef at the excellent Casa Rubia in Trinity Groves, has taken over the kitchen). And finally, when we last saw Matt Perry, he was making the most of the tiny bar space at Belly & Trumpet, Apheleia Restaurant Group’s restaurant in Uptown; after the briefest of cameos at Oak – one of Apheleia’s two Design District restaurants – he’s now behind the better-than-average bar at Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane.

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.

 

And so it begins: Tales of the Cocktail 2014 kicks off in New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Dallas’ Mate Hartai, second from left, and Brian McCullough, second from right, doin’ Texas proud at the Texas Tailgate Party that kicked off Tales of the Cocktail 2013.

NEW ORLEANS — It’s that time again – time to let the good times roll, time to learn about agricole, time to sip some Aperol. You know what I mean: It’s time for Tales of the Cocktail 2014.

The nation’s most ginormous industry event for bartenders, bar owners, spirits makers, liquor reps, enthusiasts and the wretched chroniclers of said shenanigans is upon us for its 12th year in that most perfect of cities, New Orleans.

Oh, New Orleans: You complete me. You are the primordial jambalaya from whose loins sprang the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre’, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz, the insufferable Hurricane.

We know her as NOLA, and she is among America’s craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud’s French 75, Antoine’s Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it’s not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here. That’s not to say there aren’t some great new cocktail bars in NOLA: Cure, Bellocq and Cane and Table have earned much national acclaim.

I’ll hope to visit them if I can find the time. That’s because this five-day festival can be grueling, chock full as it is with workshops, happy hours, competitions, spirit-paired dinners, tastings, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions, huge parties and… even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one’s resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if you aren’t careful – including “whiskey dialogues,” seminars about how to launch a spirits line or about the Chinese spirit baijiu, tips for bartenders charged with making drinks in front of TV cameras and advanced bartender trainings.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The William Grant & Sons party at last year’s Tales conference, complete with the Hendrick’s Gin cannon at right.

This is my third year at Tales and I’ll be bringing you dispatches from the front lines where members of Texas’ bartending community are representing the Lone Star State, many for the first time – including Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Barter’s Stephen Halpin, The Standard Pour’s Christian Armando, Absolut Vodka rep Ashley Williams (formerly behind the bar at Boulevardier) and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, whose victory in a recent Jefferson Bourbon competition earned him the trip here (I was among the contest’s judges). Most of the action will be going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, home to the revolving Carousel Bar.

The festival kicks off with Wednesday morning’s Texas Tiki Throwdown, because obviously nobody knows how to throw a party like Texas, and the ensuing days will feature other Texas bar peeps along the way: Former Dallas luminary Jason Kosmas will wax proud about his popular new line of spirits; Bonnie Wilson – here with her flock of Fork It Over Restaurants staffers – will churn out cocktails for an Anchor Distilling Co. shindig; Austin’s Chris Bostick will compete at Wednesday’s Battle of the Sexes bartender competition. Also, because this is New Orleans, there will be beignets.

I asked a few TOTC veterans to offer tips for festival first-timers and for their can’t-miss destinations while in New Orleans.

BRIAN McCULLOUGH, The Standard Pour – 6th time at Tales

The Standard Pour
Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour in Uptown.

SURVIVAL TIPS: One, eat when you see food. Two, drink when you see water. Three, sleep when you can. And four, you don’t have to finish that.

MUST-DO’S: You’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t go to Frenchman Street.  Café Le Monde, for sure. Port of Call for a cheeseburger. And the alligator cheesecake at Jackamo’s – the tables are all uneven, but the food is absolutely astounding.

BONNIE WILSON, Fork It Over Restaurants (Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar, et al.) — 4th time at Tales

Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)
Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Everything in moderation. You can go down and have things be crazy, or you can go down and have it be a fun educational event. Be moderate about it. Do everything you want to do, but just control yourself.

MUST-DO’S: I always go to Mother’s for the Ferdy’s special. That’s 100 percent a must. They do this stuff called debris. It’s a ham and roast beef sandwich with basically the juices, the pan drippings, all the goodness, spices and fat and everything.

MATE HARTAI, The Cold Standard – 3rd time at Tales

Libertine Bar
Dallas’ Mate Hartai. (Photo by Jason Raney)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Lots of (dehydration preventative) Pedialyte. And cardio.

MUST-DO’S: Get out of the French Quarter. Check out the architecture. I’m from Hungary, and this place reminds me of Europe. I’ve been to New York and San Francisco, all the supposed European cities, and this city makes me more homesick to be in than anywhere else.

BRAD BOWDEN, Barter – 3rd time at Tales

Barter
Brad Bowden, lately of Uptown’s Barter.

SURVIVAL TIP: Nothing good happens after 5 AM.

MUST-DO’S: Mad Hatter. I always try to stop in and get myself a hat. And the Erin Rose – I always go there and get one of those Bailey’s drinks they have there. (Erin Rose is renowned for their frozen Irish Coffee.)

Victor Tango's
High West’s Chris Furtado and Remy Cointreau’s Emily Perkins showing off their skin art at Dallas’ Victor Tango’s.

EMILY PERKINS, Remy Cointreau brand rep, Dallas – 2nd time at Tales

SURVIVAL TIPS: Just let it wash over you. But be responsible. And be careful; it’s easy to forget that New Orleans can be a dangerous place.

MUST-DO’S: Domelise’s, for the po-boy sandwich.

CHRIS FURTADO, Texas rep for Utah’s High West Distillery

SURVIVAL TIPS:

* Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

• Take time to eat. Often.  When dashing from seminar to event to party, sometimes meals fall to the side.  You are doing yourself a disservice both physically and culturally.

• Don’t book yourself solid; leave some time free.  A lot of cool stuff will come up that you didn’t know about.

• Be ready for rain. It’s New Orleans, it’s the summer.  It’s not a question of if but when.

MUST-DO’S:

* The U.S. Bartenders Guild toast at The Old Absinthe House – Thursday at midnight.  There’s something cool about seeing the street packed with bartenders raising their glasses in the air and yelling cheers.

* Have a Lucky Dog. Get a slice of pizza also.  Skip the Hand Grenade (drink) though.

* The Alibi is a great late-night spot.  It’s where local service industry peeps go to unwind.

 

Tiki brunch: Why not? Barter dares to ask

Barter, Dallas
Tiki: It’s not not-for-breakfast anymore. The Polynesian Pearl Diver’s Punch, from Don The Beachcomber.

Peanut butter and chocolate. Chicken and waffles. John Denver and the Muppets. So wrong and yet: so right.

Well, here’s another contender: Brunch and tiki cocktails. Wait, what?

Hold on: Hear Barter’s Rocco Milano out.

“Brunch really lends itself to the tiki experience,” Milano says. While traditional brunch cocktails like Bellinis and Mimosas are marked by fruit and effervescence, tiki drinks likewise complement breakfast-y foods with fresh juices and refreshing, vibrant flavors. “They sparkle and pop in the same way,” Milano says.

If that’s about all the convincing you need to try a Mai Tai with your eggs Benedict, then you’re in luck: Barter debuted its tiki brunch this weekend, and it’s a welcome wrinkle to the whole morning-after routine.

Tiki brunch at Barter, Dallas

Despite its “Dallas cuisine” theme, both Milano, Barter’s beverage director, and bartender Brad Bowden had been looking for a good reason to launch a tiki brunch menu at the newly opened restaurant. They spent hours scouring old cocktail books for viable recipes, and among their research materials was a recently published tome of tiki-dom, Beachbum Jerry’s Potions of the Caribbean. Inside, they found a reproduction of a 1940s-era tiki menu from an old Dallas hotel – drinks like the Navy Grog, Bird of Paradise, Samoan Fog Cutter and Polynesian Pearl Diver’s Punch. “We were kind of blown away by that,” Bowden says.

That, plus the fact that patio weather is just around the corner, was all the inspiration they needed. All four cocktails are among a half-dozen on the new brunch menu. (And at $7 apiece, not a bad deal.)

Barter, Dallas
Ice, ice, baby: The Navy Grog and Hula Girl are among Barter’s tiki brunch lineup

Tiki cocktails flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, a California-born craze popularized by bars like Trader Vic’s that gave us fruity rum classics like the aforementioned Mai Tai and the Zombie. Though tiki would fizzle within a few decades, the re-emergence of craft-cocktail culture revived interest in the trend; places like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and New York’s PKNY breathed life back into a genre borne of rum, brandy, fruit juice and kitsch, giving tiki drinks a modest, if still mostly a niche, footing.

Tiki reappeared in Dallas a couple of years ago, with The People’s Last Stand crushing ice and whipping up flaming punch bowls on Sundays; meanwhile, the now-defunct Chesterfield had a handful of Polynesian tipples submerged in its menu’s oceanic depths. Early last year, the resuscitated Sunset Lounge on Ross Avenue became the first of the area’s new craft-cocktail bars to embrace a full-on tiki identity.

Barter, Dallas
The Samoan Fog Cutter: A lot of good stuff going on here.

Barter’s mini tiki production gives the often-underappreciated cocktail genre a new stage, one worth adding to your brunch tryout roster. The rummy Navy Grog and acai-liqueur-based Hula Girl, with their flamboyant ice cones, are solid; and I grew to love the heady Samoan Fog Cutter, with its aggressive mix of brandy, sherry and a trio of rums. But the star of the bunch may be Bowden’s favorite, the Polynesian Pearl Diver’s Punch, which requires a pre-assembled “Pearl Diver’s mix” of clarified butter, allspice dram, cinnamon and vanilla syrups. Tasted alone, the goopy mix has a candy-corn-like taste, but it gives the cocktail – including three rums, orange and lime, plus the nutty, spiced-citrus liqueur Velvet Falernum – admirable depth.

The drink is also referenced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, though it technically wasn’t invented until 70-plus years after the movie’s time period at the pioneering Polynesian-themed Hollywood bar, Don The Beachcomber. But apparently even Quentin Tarantino knows a good drink when he sees one, and now, 70-plus more years after its invention, you can judge for yourself. It won’t be served up in a coconut, but isn’t that a minor quibble when you can pair rum with your breakfast hash?

BARTER, 3232 McKinney Ave., Dallas. 214-969-6898. Brunch starting at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Down and Dirty on the Boulevard: Gettin’ our picnic on at Chefs for Farmers 2013

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Boulevardier’s Eddie Eakin knocking out Maker’s 46 cocktails at Chefs for Farmers 2013.

Hey, Chefs For Farmers: You can tell everybody this is your song, because last weekend I was reminded like a big slap in the face how wonderful life is when you’re in the world. Or in Dallas, anyway.

Yep: Four days later, I’m still recovering from the Elton-John-esque epicness that was Chefs For Farmers 2013, which brought more than a thousand of my fellow food and drink aficionados to Dallas’ Robert E. Lee Park to basically form obstacles between my appetite and all the tasty consumables that were there to be had.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Cafe Momentum’s smoked bison tamale with fig mole, among Sunday’s culinary bounty.

 

 

 

 

 

Not that it mattered. I realized that by the end of the all-afternoon event that I had partaken of cow, pig, bison, duck, rabbit and boar, not to mention a bit of chicken liver spread. (Thanks to a late dinner at Nora, I managed to add lamb to the day’s lineup, too.) As CraveDFW’s Steven Doyle put it, there were a lot of critters in my belly.

Little of the fare could be called average. Far more of it ranged from very good to outstanding, from Parigi’s wild boar Bolognese (my personal fave) to the short-rib soup from The Mansion At Turtle Creek (fab) to the euphoria-inducing maple-pecan-bacon ice cream (!!!) from Jack Perkins of Maple and Motor and Slow Bone BBQ. Dude, Sweet Chocolate’s drinking chocolate with carrot-lemon foam was a standout, too.

But there were drinks, too, which is what had initially drawn your intrepid cocktails scribe to the picnic-blanket-and-revelry-covered scene. Boulevardier’s Eddie Eakin, High West Distillery’s Chris Furtado and Ten Bells Tavern’s Greg Matthews cranked out Maker’s 46 magic – including Eakin’s Steep Buzz, which married the Kentucky bourbon with  Earl Grey honey syrup, ginger liqueur, lemon and apple bitters. “I’ve never made a thousand cocktails at once before,” Eakin said, managing not to seem overwhelmed.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Ryan Sumner and Julian Pagan of Cedars Social, craftily engineering a good time for all.

The drinks poured forth from nearby fellow libationists, including Cedars Social’s Julian Pagan and Ryan Sumner, Central 214’s Amber West, Abacus’ Lucky Campbell and The People’s Last Stand’s Brad Bowden. I had to give my nod to the Autumn’s Apple cocktail from The Standard Pour’s Christian Armando and Brian McCullough, a spicy medley of Patron Reposado, cinnamon syrup, lemon, apple cider and Angostura bitters.

Until next year, Chefs For Farmers, when I’m counting on one of those excellent chefs to bring some goat to the party. Don’t go breakin’ my heart.

Chefs For Farmers 2013
Chef David Anthony Temple got into the fun with attendee Sheila Abbott.

 

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Christian Armando of Standard Pour doing double-duty.
Event program
Chefs For Farmers 2013
CraveDFW’s Steven Doyle awards me my Maker’s Mark pin.

Doing it the Old Fashioned way: Dallas bartenders face off at whiskey competition

By Charlie Tips Ferrin, Smyth
This apple-walnut Old Fashioned earned 2nd-place honors.

“We’re kind of scrunched for space, but I’m doing the best I can,” Ryan Sumner said as he kicked off the Clyde May’s Whiskey Old-Fashioned competition at The People’s Last Stand with a version featuring apple bitters, demerara syrup and the French bitter Suze.

Consider this post Old-Fashionably late: It’s been a couple of weeks since 16 bartenders vied for the top prize of $500, each with up to six minutes to make and present their drink for the judges. Clyde May’s was the vehicle here, an apple-ish, bordering-on-caustic whiskey with some colorful moonshine roots, and each contestant spun a different version of the cocktail stalwart while adhering to its traditional mix of whiskey, sweetener, bitters and water.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
Chase Streitz of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, serving up his twist on the classic cocktail.

Cinnamon, vanilla, peach and, of course, apple were popular flavors. One of my favorite versions came from Greg Matthews of Oak Cliff’s Ten Bells Tavern, who froze Mudsmith Coffee’s steeped coffee into cubes and punctuated his whiskey concoction with a vanilla sugar made with Mexican vanilla beans, hazelnut bitters and a vanilla/hazelnut garnish.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
The vanilla-accented version from Ten Bells’ Greg Matthews featured coffee ice cubes.

La Duni’s Daniel Guillen shone, too, gussying up his Old Fashioned with sherry, Campari and a roasted red pepper and pecan jam. And Smyth’s Charlie Tips Ferrin, like his compatriot Sumner, served his summery green apple/walnut drink in little mason jars – “in the spirit of the moonshine that it came from,” he said.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
Ryan Fussell of Ruth’s Chris Steak House prepares his drink’s fig garnish.

Brad Bowden of The People’s Last Stand infused his whiskey with smoked peaches, while Ryan Fussell of Ruth’s Chris Steak House strived to use ingredients that would have been available in the 1800s, when the classic cocktail was born. He topped it with a warm fig garnish. (“Figs are badass,” pronounced photographer Mary Szefcyk, clearly impressed with the choice.)

Brad Bowden of The People's Last Stand infused Clyde Mays with smoked peaches for his entry.
Brad Bowden of The People’s Last Stand infused whiskey with smoked peaches for his entry.

In the end it was Smyth’s Omar YeeFoon who walked away with top honors, flavoring his version with Plantation 5-year-old rum, Angostura and tiki bitters, cane syrup and a light dash of orange oils.  With Ferrin placing second and Sumner taking third, it was a Smyth sweep, which if nothing else proved the speakeasy boys could come through in scrunch time.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
Smyth’s Omar YeeFoon with the double-stir on his way to the evening’s top honors.

And if you’d like to see Smyth’s Ryan Sumner explain the method behind his Old Fashioned twist, here’s a link to my YouTube video:

Old Fashioned variation, from Smyth’s Ryan Sumner

Put me in coach: The report from Dallas’ inaugural cocktail bus tour

Central 214
Central 214’s red-sorrel-accented Last Monkey Standing, one of last week’s cocktail bus tour highlights. (Marc Ramirez)

“There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody…. You’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.”

Ken Kesey, as quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

***

So, here’s how things went on Dallas’ first-ever cocktail bus tour: Festively. By 7:05, two dozen imbibers were on the bus, a dazzling white coach and our carriage for the evening. Already, at The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station, the evening’s initial libation had been sampled, some flouncy red thing with gin and Campari and watermelon and rhubarb liqueur.

For $60 apiece, the inaugural “chartered bus tour of some serious libations” would ferry us to six craft-cocktail bars from Uptown to Cedars to Deep Ellum. As you might expect, the evening’s mood was progressively buoyant; few cared that the excursion was less an actual “tour” than a series of stops via luxury taxi.

For one glorious moment, Tate's Dallas' Robbie Call was on the bus -- and then he was not
For one glorious moment, Tate’s Dallas’ Robbie Christian was on the bus — and then he was not. (Marc Ramirez)

It was a group primed for fun, but not one of people looking to fog up their night in clouds of vodka and Red Bull. Those on board were willing to be led down new paths — believers in, or at least curious about, the concept of craft cocktails with their artisan ingredients, fresh-squeezed juices and creative depths. As former Private/Social barman Rocco Milano once described an evening of imbibement to local cocktail enthusiast Manny Mendoza, who’s working on a documentary about the Dallas cocktail scene: “You’re going to be inebriated at the end of the night. The difference is in how you get there.”

Wise words indeed. But to get there you had to be on the bus, and so we were. The idea was to showcase Dallas’ craft-cocktail diversity; not everyone had been to all six spots and certainly not all in one night. First came the Palomar Hotel’s Central 214, where we enjoyed bartender Amber West’s Last Monkey Standing – a bouquet of Monkey Shoulder blended scotch, Lillet Rose, chamomile, lemongrass syrup, lemon and a touch of red sorrel from Tom Spicer’s gardens.

Cocktail fan Manny Mendoza enjoys the Last Monkey Standing at tour stop No. 2, Central 214
Cocktail fan Manny Mendoza enjoys the Last Monkey Standing at tour stop No. 2, Central 214 (Marc Ramirez)

Then, back on the bus. “Everybody here?” asked tour host and mastermind Alex Fletcher, general manager at The People’s Last Stand. Hmmm. He paused. “OK,” he said, “if you’re not here, raise your hands!”

Havoc.

At Uptown’s The Standard Pour we encountered the Mexican Standoff – a tequila-and-mezcal concoction from Pozo, TSP’s sister-establishment next door and one of my favorite tastes of the night – before hoofing it down the street to Tate’s, tour stop No. 4.

Standard Pour's Brian McCullough, cranking out Mexican Standoffs.
Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, cranking out Mexican Standoffs. (Marc Ramirez)

Levity ruled the occasion, thankfully never descending into sloppiness. “I’m surprised at how calm everybody is,” said tour co-host Brad Bowden, also of The People’s Last Stand. “I thought there’d be a lot of drunk people walking around.”

The bars themselves, too, performed admirably, firing up twenty-something drinks in quick fashion and keeping us on schedule, and somehow the bus we managed to collect a bartender or two, as well as CraveDFW’s Steven Doyle, along the way.

At Stop No. 4, tour-goers had a choice -- a basil gimlet or this bit of Scotch beauty
At Stop No. 4, tour-goers had a choice — a basil gimlet or this bit of Scotch beauty. (Marc Ramirez)

After Deep Ellum’s divey Black Swan came the pioneering Cedars Social south of downtown, where bartender Julian Pagan wowed with his tiki-esque Yacht Rock: “It’s Sailor Jerry rum, Velvet Falernum, cinnamon syrup, lime, and… yeah.” Yeah!

The Cedars Social's Yacht Rock cocktail. (Marc Ramirez)
The Cedars Social’s Yacht Rock cocktail. (Marc Ramirez)

By the time the call came to head back to The People’s Last Stand for a nightcap and munchies, we were having trouble corralling even our hosts. Personally, I’d love to see more tour-like features in something like this – more info about the bars we visited, for instance, or the Dallas scene itself, but all in all, it had been a good night. Fletcher figured he’d be lucky to break even with the trial-run event; it was more about getting people out of their cocktail comfort zones.

And that was just fine with Calissa Gentry, a Cedars Social regular who’d taken the tour with friends Elaine Lagow and Genevieve Neyens. “We usually like vodka on the rocks,” she said. “But because we go to Cedars, we try new things.”

Trying new things was the reason Lagow was on the tour, too. “I’d do it again in a minute,” she said.

"By the way, guys, great idea," said bartender Danno O'Keefe. "I hate you, because I didn't think of it first." (Marc Ramirez)
“By the way, guys, great idea,” said bartender Danno O’Keefe. “I hate you, because I didn’t think of it first.” (Marc Ramirez)
Night-night: Genevieve Neyens smooches pal Elaine at tour's end. (Marc Ramirez)
At night’s end, smooches: Genevieve Neyens bids pal Elaine Lagow farewell. (Marc Ramirez)
Central 214's bartender extraordinaire Amber West hopped aboard the tour at Stop No. 2 (Manny Mendoza)
Central 214’s bartender extraordinaire Amber West hopped aboard the tour at Stop No. 2. (Manny Mendoza)

National cocktail conference gets a Lone Star welcome

Shiner Beer at Tales of the Cocktail
The fancydranks of Texas strutted their Lone Star stuff at Tuesday’s kickoff event

You could say that Texas did itself proud in New Orleans yesterday, but then again pride in Texas has never been in short supply. Anyone taking in Tuesday’s festivities in front of the venerable Hotel Monteleone would have seen a state standing as one, with two dozen bartenders and liquor promoters firing a collective bar gun of Lone Star hospitality.

The “Texas Tailgate” — among the kickoff events for the 11th annual Tales of the Cocktail conference — served up a double-digit selection of punch-cooler cocktails, plus a handful of Texas distillers and brewers offering samples of their work. Breaking a sweat in the NOLA humidity, they poured: Charlie Papaceno of Windmill Lounge, Creighten Brown of the late Private/Social, Sean Conner of Plano’s Whiskey Cake and a smattering of representatives from the Cedars Social and Bar Smyth.

Mate' Hartai -- of Dallas' Libertine Bar and Bar Smyth -- and Whiskey Cake's Sean Conner beat a punch-cooler drum roll
Mate’ Hartai — of Dallas’ Libertine Bar and Bar Smyth — and Whiskey Cake’s Sean Conner beat a punch-cooler drum roll
McCullough's tequila-fueled Garden District Punch was among the event's highlights
Brian McCullough’s tequila-fueled Garden District Punch was among the day’s highlights

There was the bourbon-fired Leather Face Mask, from Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch in Las Colinas; the tiki-ish Paradise Dream from Republic Distributing’s Chris Furtado, made with Mount Gay small-batch Black Barrel rum; and coolers of Shiner beer. Brisket was served. Austin’s Treaty Oak distillery handed out sips of two limited-release products – Red Handed Bourbon and Antique Reserve Gin – scheduled to be available by year’s end.

“Every good party needs a good kickoff before the festivities,” said Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, president of the North Texas chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. “We’re just celebrating what we do in Texas.”

And apparently, that’s good times and drinks: McCullough’s Garden District Punch was among the day’s best concoctions, a tart and refreshing burst of Dulce Vida tequila blanco, watermelon, raspberry, strawberry, lemongrass, jalapeno and red wine vinegar.

The 'Texas Tailgate' welcomed early conference-goers outside the Hotel Monteleone, TOTC headquarters
The ‘Texas Tailgate’ welcomed early conference-goers outside the Hotel Monteleone, TOTC headquarters

Suddenly, Papaceno’s voice boomed, as if over a megaphone: “WE HAVE EIGHT MINUTES UNTIL THESE COCKTAILS SHUT DOWN, SO PLEASE, DRINK HEARTILY WITHIN THOSE EIGHT MINUTES.”

The able and willing complied. After all, it was barely 4 p.m.

“Yeah!” someone shouted. “Texas!”

“Texas has four little gems,” said Juan Pablo DeLoera, the state’s rep for Milagro Tequila, referring to the cities of Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio. “There’s a lot of talent and passion. It has the right to show what it’s made of.”

Brad Bowden of The People's Last Stand was one of a dozen-plus bartenders representing Dallas
Brad Bowden of The People’s Last Stand was one of a dozen-plus bartenders representing Dallas

Jason Kosmas is taking his talents to Austin

At Libertine Bar
Austin-bound badass Jason Kosmas, who leaves an indelible mark on Dallas’ cocktail culture. Monday, at Libertine Bar on Lower Greenville.

Bolsa, in Oak Cliff, was among the pioneers of Dallas’ early cocktail scene, and Standard Pour’s Eddie Campbell, who headed Bolsa’s bar program at the time, remembers the first Friday he ever worked there with a new guy from New York named Jason Kosmas.

It was 2011. Fridays were ridiculously busy, and that night was no different: people were shouting orders from three or four deep, and Campbell and his regular sidekick Johnny were getting killed. “Hey, should we check on the new guy?” Johnny asked.

Campbell had forgotten all about Kosmas amid the flurry, so the question threw him into a mild panic. He ran over to the other end of the bar and asked what he could do. Without an ounce of stress, Kosmas turned and said, “I think I’m okay.”

“And he was,” Campbell recalls. “Everybody on his side of the bar was happy, with a full drink — beautiful colors and garnishes…. every drink looked like a masterpiece. That’s when I realized: Jason Kosmas is a total badass.”

Kosmas is a total badass, but you would never know it from his demeanor. Co-founder and co-owner of New York City’s renowned Employees Only and one of the bartending luminaries behind new spirits line The 86 Co., Kosmas is one of the most humble, upbeat and likeable guys around. But if cocktail culture in Dallas has gone from practically zero to 60 in the last two years (and it has), it’s fair to say that Kosmas has been among those at the wheel.

Now Kosmas is taking his talents to Austin, which will no doubt benefit immensely from his arrival.

It’s difficult to fully capture the impact that Kosmas has had on Dallas since arriving here with his unflappable, affable scruffiness. You can talk about the places he worked at and helped put on the map early on (Bolsa, Windmill, Neighborhood Services Tavern) and the places he opened (Marquee) and the very many places he’s left his mark on (Malai Kitchen, The Greek, etc.), but for many in the scene, it’s his ready assistance and mentorship behind the scenes that resonate most powerfully.

“Gonna miss you J,” wrote The People’s Last Stand’s Brad Bowden on Facebook. “Thanks for all the advice and words of wisdom you have given me… meant a lot to me.”

Kosmas came to the Dallas area for both family reasons and business opportunities, and that’s what’s taking him deeper into the heart of Texas: The capital city is more centrally located, putting him in better touch with amped-up drinking cultures in Houston and San Antonio as well. Besides, he’s done what he can in Dallas, which has now eclipsed adolescence, a vibrant cocktail city ready to move forward on its own.

“What I can contribute is over,” he says. “There’s not a lot of challenges left for me here.”

Other people have helped make that happen too, and the city’s collaborative atmosphere has propelled it forward. Kosmas was instrumental in instilling that sense of teamwork.  “As time went on,” says Standard Pour’s Campbell, “we all got to know him better and realized what an incredibly nice guy he is, and watched as he offered help to anyone who wanted it. I’ve constantly been amazed at how easy he makes everything look.”

Kosmas, who has already been moving back and forth between the two cities, doesn’t plan to be a stranger here once he leaves for good, by week’s end.

In his own modest way, he wrote about his departure:  “I have been embraced and am grateful to have been a part of a rapidly growing restaurant community….  It is bittersweet. I feel so fortunate to have been able to watch the city change and play some small role in it.”