Tag Archives: brian mccullough

As DFW’s craft-cocktail universe continued to expand in 2016, these stars shone brightest

Bartender Jordan Gantenbein's delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath -- aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry -- was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.
Bartender Jordan Gantenbein’s delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath — featuring aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry — was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.

One evening last month, having somehow wandered far beyond my urban comfort zone, I stopped in for a drink at Rye, a bustling bistro just off the square in McKinney. No, not McKinney Avenue, the trendy SMU hang in Uptown where, not surprisingly, some of DFW’s best cocktail joints have clustered in the last five years – but McKinney, the fast-growing former farm center 45 minutes north of Dallas.

Surely, I thought, even at this suburban outpost, I could score a decent gin and tonic. Maybe even an Old Fashioned. But as I scanned bar manager Manny Casas’ drink list, I found myself eyeballing anything-but-rural components: Mole bitters; gomme syrup; aloe liqueur; Fernet Francisco; honey-blessed Barr Hill gin. And then I noticed the small barrel to my left, which – as I would soon discover – harbored a terrific barrel-aged variation on the classic Negroni. My cocktail destinations had grown by one.

It’s more challenging than ever to keep up with the constantly expanding universe of cocktails in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the area’s farthest reaches, and in places that five years ago would have been content to serve simple mixed drinks, you can now order a Sazerac, or a Last Word, and avoid the indignity of blank stares or massive shade.

Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, of course, and pretty surroundings alone do not a great cocktail bar make. DFW’s craft cocktail landscape in 2016 wasn’t without its casualties – notably Knox-Henderson’s Hibiscus, whose small but well-informed bar program enjoyed a loyal following, and noble but aborted ventures like Frisco’s Vicini and, in Lower Greenville, Knuckle Sandwich and Remedy, destined to close by year’s end.

But from straight-up cocktail joints like Oak Cliff’s Jettison and clubby enclaves like Quill in the Design District to cocktail-minded restaurants like East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Uptown’s Next Door and Quarter Bar in (gulp) Trophy Club, the boozy buffet available to cocktail drinkers showed few signs of abating. (And Hide in Deep Ellum and Frisco’s Bottled in Bond are still to come.)

At their very best, these spots echo – and often are part of – fine restaurants, serving up not just great drinks but a successful mix of efficient, attentive and consistent service; fresh ingredients attuned to the passing seasons; an energizing and welcoming vibe; the ability to cater to tastes simple and complex; and a savvy and innovative staff behind the bar.

Here, in alphabetical order, were my favorite 15 craft-cocktail spots in 2016.

Abacus
Bartender Jason Long shaking things up at Abacus.

ABACUS

Most come to the highly regarded Knox-Henderson restaurant for its fine dining – but personally, I never make it past the classy, comfortable bar and its black-clad crew of Jordan Gantenbein, Jason Long and John Campbell. Abacus’ thoughtful and playful drink list is a standout from season to season – Gantenbein’s Rosemary Wreath (pictured at top) was a wintry thing of beauty – but the off-road adventures are equally delicious and fun, as in Long’s recent mix of mezcal, cinnamon syrup and amaro.

Atwater Alley
A dark, intimate atmosphere accents Atwater’s speakeasy character.

ATWATER ALLEY

A couple of years have passed since Henry’s Majestic, at this once-cursed location on McKinney in Knox-Henderson, unveiled the speakeasy pearl buried within its oyster depths. Named for the nondescript thoroughfare from which it’s accessed, Atwater is a two-story, dimly lit sanctuary swathed in senatorial wood, where bartenders like Ricky Cleva (and the occasional guest bartender) let their talents run wild like wildebeests in the nighttime streets. Jumanji!

Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.
Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.

BLACK SWAN SALOON

Black Swan is a craft-cocktail lover’s dive bar, where barman Gabe Sanchez makes it look easy, firing volleys of classic and original drinks at the eager Deep Ellum hordes while somehow creating a backyard post-BBQ atmosphere. Among DFW’s early craft-cocktail spots, the Swan’s speakeasy vibe (there’s no signage outside) is captured in the image of Clint Eastwood above the back bar: anonymous and enigmatic, rough around the edges, coolly efficient. No drink list here; just tell Sanchez what you’re in the mood for or point at one of his latest jarred infusions, and let your Drink With No Name come riding into town.

Still creating after all these years: Bolsa's bar was among DFW's early craft cocktail practitioners.
Still creating after all these years: Bolsa’s bar was among DFW’s early craft cocktail practitioners. (Photo courtesy of Bolsa Restaurant)

BOLSA

Among DFW’s earliest craft-cocktail purveyors, the modestly sized bar-in-the-round at this Bishop Arts mainstay is going strong under lead barman Spencer Shelton, whose wonky spirits wisdom continues to fuel Bolsa’s culture of experimentation. The well-honed southside outpost, with a bold seasonal drink menu – take Shelton’s smoky bitter Mi Alma Rota, featuring mezcal and Fernet – is a last-stop refuge for neighborhood regulars and others looking for uncommon spirits and across-the-board creativity.

The clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown's Bowen House.
The clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown’s Bowen House.

BOWEN HOUSE

The place is gorgeous, dah-ling. But owner Pasha Heidari’s homey hideaway a stone’s throw from the madness of Uptown’s McKinney Avenue has finally settled into a groove nice enough to match its elegant Prohibition-Era character, what with its turn-of-the-century library and great-granddad’s framed pictures on the wall. A viable drink list now complements the able bar squad’s ability to craft something to your own tastes, and a sickle-shaped bar counter promotes interaction.

Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social's latest resurrection is divine.
Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social’s latest resurrection is divine.

THE CEDARS SOCIAL

Look who’s back. Once the shining light in Dallas’ budding craft drink scene, The Cedars Social’s nationally acclaimed promise imploded in what I simply refer to as The Great Unpleasantness, thereafter plummeting off the craft-cocktail radar. Several iterations later, barman Mike Sturdivant is at the helm, and things are looking bright again: Along with Dallas pastry chef Annika Loureiro, he’s crafted a refreshingly original drink menu – including the Soju Spice, which makes excellent use of the Korean rice-based spirit – while staying true to pre- and Prohibition-era classics.

Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way.
Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way. (Photo courtesy of Industry Alley Bar)

INDUSTRY ALLEY BAR

When Charlie Papaceno left the Windmill Lounge in late 2014, among his goals in opening Industry Alley was to recreate the lounge’s come-as-you-are vibe. In that he has succeeded, creating a down-home atmosphere that’s a favorite for Cedars-area locals and industry regulars alike. You won’t find fireworks, fancy syrups, infusions or house-made bitters here – just the makings of a good time and classic cocktails like the legendary Singapore Sling.

Oak Cliff, Sylvan Thirty
Jettison’s cozy space in Oak Cliff adjoins the most recent of Houndstooth Coffee’s four locations.

JETTISON

The latest addition to Oak Cliff is a welcome one, especially for imbibers of sherry, the Spanish fortified wine, and mezcal, the smoky agave spirit mostly from Oaxaca. Discreetly nestled within the Sylvan Thirty complex next to Houndstooth Coffee, whose owner, Sean Henry, launched Jettison as his initial cocktail venture, it’s a sleek and shadowy hidey-hole where barman George Kaiho crafts excellent classic twists like the Red Headed Oaxacan, a play on the Penicillin fielding both tequila and mezcal along with honeyed ginger syrup, lemon and a float of Scotch.

Dallas cocktails
Midnight Rambler: Setting the pace in Dallas-Fort Worth’s craft-cocktail scene.

MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

This rock-and-roll hideaway in the underbelly of downtown Dallas’ Joule Hotel is truly a gem — and it keeps getting better, with its lush and well-structured space equipped to manage the peaks and valleys of hotel and weekend crowds. The long-awaited project from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, which opened just over two years ago, is purposely efficient, lavishly designed and wholly adventurous, driven by Solomon’s bordering-on-geeky cocktail-science know-how: Witness the Pinetop Perker, which graced the spring menu, a woodsy wallop of genever, aquavit, pine, lemon, egg white, apple schnapps and a perfume-like “alpine woodland essence” spritzed onto a dehydrated lemon wheel.

If it's gin and whiskey beauty you seek, venture to The Mitchell.
If the beauty of whiskey and gin you seek, venture to The Mitchell.

THE MITCHELL

What if there were a place where you could pluck away the plumage of more involved libations and jump directly into the embrace of your whiskey or gin without feeling like a vegan at a Vegas buffet? Well, my friends, The Mitchell is your place: The stately space in the former home of Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Chesterfield in downtown Dallas boasts 50 kinds of gin and a hundred different whiskeys, the better to meet your martini, Old Fashioned or straight-up sipping requirements. And the glassware is beautiful too.

Bartender Jesse Powell dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.
Bartender Jesse Powell, dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.

PARLIAMENT

Comfortably nestled within the labyrinth of Uptown apartments off raucous McKinney Avenue, Lucky Campbell’s gem of a bar can often be as busy as its 100-plus drink list. Just the same, the well-trained crew, featuring the occasional visiting star bartender, keeps the crowds soused and entertained from behind the horseshoe-shaped bar, whether the vibe is loud or laid-back. With concoctions like Jesse Powell’s unnamed mix of aged tequila, sweet potato truffle syrup, sherry, apple and cinnamon, Parliament is a first-rate cocktail den with Cheers-style ease, a special combination indeed.

Rock steady: The People's Last Stand.
Rock steady: The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station.

THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND

The Mockingbird Station stalwart is still going strong in its second-level space, churning out an ever-changing list of libations behind a veteran bar team led by general manager Devin McCullough. The drinks are original and varied – and occasionally playful, as in the wintry Petra at Night, a hot rum cider mix served with apple slices and mini wafers, and Mr. Joe Black, an equally snack-y blend of rye and cold-brew coffee featuring blackberries, brown sugar and cayenne-sugared pecans. “Everybody’s got their little side munch going on,” McCullough said.

Brian McCullough's battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.
Brian McCullough’s battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.

THE STANDARD POUR

Just up the street from Parliament, the McKinney Avenue landmark remains, as I described it last year, a craft-cocktail battleship – built to weather weekend barrages of bar hoppers but equally effective quietly docked on a Tuesday eve. A crew staffed by talents like Austin Millspaugh and Jorge Herrera helps take the sting out of former lead barman Christian Armando’s departure, pumping out a stream of solid originals as well as the ubiquitous Moscow Mules. Like Parliament and Industry Alley, Brian McCullough’s stalwart staple maintains a homey vibe whether rafting calm stream or raging river.

Bars of the Year 2013
A wry, loose attitude and remarkable consistency define this craft-cocktail institution on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue.

THE USUAL

While the cheeky drink menu has barely changed, the bartenders at this seemingly never-understaffed Magnolia Avenue haven in Fort Worth are more than handy with the palette of potions behind the bar. I said this last year, and it holds true today: More than anything, what impresses about The Usual – among DFW’s pioneering craft-cocktail joints – is that I have yet to have a drink there that didn’t qualify as a success, which is something I can’t say about that many places.

Victor Tangos restaurant in Dallas. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)
Lively and inventive, Victor Tangos still makes craft-cocktailers’ hearts skip a beat. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)

VICTOR TANGOS

Another of DFW’s initial craft-cocktail practitioners, this Henderson Avenue landmark found its footing again under beloved general manager Matt Ragan. Though Ragan recently departed, the cocktail program remains in the able hands of bar manager Andrew Stofko, one of the city’s most exciting young talents; among Stofko’s 2016 creations was The Dread Pirate Roberts, whose intricate mix of Brazilian cachaca, grapefruit liqueur, bitter Suze, lemon, cinnamon syrup, Angostura and hopped grapefruit bitters was wonderfully reminiscent of tart apple pie.

Runners-up: Armoury DE, Flora Street Café, Lounge Here, Small Brewpub, Thompson’s Bookstore.

Halloween party, at least for a night, raises classic Dallas cocktail team from the dead

 

Victor Tangos, where Monday's Halloween bash benefits a good cause. Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.
Victor Tangos, where Monday’s Halloween bash benefits a good cause. Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.

Here’s some Halloween weekend activity that won’t have you saying Boo.

Monday’s event at Victor Tangos is the highlight, and the costume party/cocktail fest doubles as a charity effort, with proceeds benefiting Dallas CASA, an agency that helps abused and neglected children find safe and permanent homes.

Bar Smyth
Josh Hendrix and Omar YeeFoon, behind the bar at since-closed Bar Smyth. Now spirits ambassadors, both will be pouring at the Victor Tangos event.

The longtime Knox-Henderson craft-cocktail den is teaming up with Brian Floyd of The Barman’s Fund, a national organization of bartenders who hold monthly events to benefit worthwhile causes and donate their night’s tips to the proceeds.

The Victor Tangos party features an all-star cast of Dallas bar industry pioneers, including five members of the original teams at milestone craft-cocktail joints Bar Smyth and/or The Cedars Social, both of which earned national acclaim: Michael Martensen, Mate Hartai, Josh Hendrix, Julian Pagan and Omar YeeFoon.

Joining them will be Victor Tangos vet Emily Arseneau, Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour, Midnight Rambler’s Zach Smigiel and spirits distributor Kristen Holloway.

The fun gets underway at 7 p.m. with drink specials, with tracks spun by DJ Bryan C and prizes to be awarded for the best, most outlandish and most inappropriate costumes.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the classic Windmill Lounge on Maple Avenue will hold its annual Halloween bash with drink specials, a midnight costume parade and contest ($100 for first place!) and DJs Chris Rose and Genova providing the beats.

The Windmill's Halloween party gets underway at 9 p.m. (Image courtesy of Windmill Lounge)
The Windmill’s Halloween party gets underway at 9 p.m. (Image courtesy of Windmill Lounge)

Both events are free.

Victor Tangos, 3001 N. Henderson, Dallas.

Windmill Lounge, 5320 Maple Avenue, Dallas.

Standard Pour bartender wins local cocktail battle, will represent DFW at national competition

Espolon Cocktail Fight 2016
Dallas’ Jorge Herrera takes on Fort Worth’s Amber Davidson in the final round of DFW’s Espolon competition.

For a lot of people, the idea of making a few drinks brings to mind mixing a little vodka with soda over ice, but for the craft bartenders who strutted their stuff before the judges earlier this week, it meant much, much more – firing up an original cocktail and then knocking out a dozen tequila classics, all within minutes. And with flair, to boot.

Espolon's annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District's DEC On Dragon.
Espolon’s annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District’s DEC On Dragon.

Jorge Herrera is on his way to New York City because he managed to make the whole thing look easy. A veteran of Plano’s Mexican Sugar who joined The Standard Pour in Uptown earlier this year, Herrera took top prize at Monday’s Espolón Cocktail Fight for the right to represent the DFW area at the tequila brand’s national finals in November.

Held at the DEC on Dragon, the event – part culinary competition, part WWF – was a raucous, “luchador-style” affair pitting Dallas drink slingers against their Fort Worth brethren.

Here, in photos, are some of the highlights.

In the first matchup, Devin “El Guapo” McCullough of The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station, took on Amber “Waves of Pain” Davidson of Fort Worth’s Bird Cafe. Contestants had two minutes to set up their stations and three minutes to prepare their original cocktails for the judges.

Espolon contest round 1
McCullough and Davidson, going mano a mano before the thunderous crowd. Both of their cocktails — McCullough’s coffee-inflected Milkman and Davidson’s black-salt-rimmed Pearls and Spice — earned them passage into the second round.

Next up was Jonathan “Manila Killa” Garcia, also of The People’s Last Stand, against Jermey “Big Jerm” Elliott of Citizen, in Uptown. Garcia appeared in a conical hat while Elliott fired up the crowd by stripping down to shorts and a tank top.

Espolon contest round 2
Elliott crafting his cocktail, A Mexican at Lumpinee, featuring curry powder and Thai basil/pineapple syrup, in the contest’s second matchup.

 

 

 

 

With competitors taking the stage with painted faces, or in skimpy or outlandish outfits, supporters embraced the costumed spirit of things and advantaged the nearby photo booth.

The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.
The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.

The third matchup pitted Cody Barboza, of Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., against Jason Pollard of The Usual, in Fort Worth. Both Barboza’s mescal-fueled El Rico and Pollard’s One Hour Break — which leaned savory with Averna and molé bitters — earned second-round status.

Cody Barboza, Armoury D.E.
Barboza’s El Rico cocktail, which paired Espolon reposado with mezcal, fruit and jalapeño with a chocolate/salt rim.

In the fourth duel, Brittany “B-Day” Day of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, faced off against Geovanni “Geo” Alafita of Knife, near Mockingbird Station. Day’s Smoke In The Morning went smoky-sweet with mezcal, maple syrup and Allspice Dram while Alafita’s preciously presented Rosario combined tequila with mildly bitter Aperol, cilantro and jalapeño.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise, from upper left: Day, of Thompson’s; Alafita’s Rosario; Alafita pouring his drink; Day’s Smoke In The Morning, after a drink or two.

In addition to taste, presentation and how well the tequila shone through, contestants were judged on showmanship. In addition to yours truly, the panel included chef Nick Walker of The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Bonnie Wilson Coetzee of FrontBurner Restaurants and Frederick Wildman brand ambassador Austin Millspaugh.

Walker, Wilson Coetzee, Millspaugh
Three of the night’s judges: Walker, of The Mansion, FrontBurner’s Coetzee and Millspaugh, of Frederick Wildman distributors.

The fifth and final first-round match was easily the most entertaining as the typically understated Jorge “Don Juan” Herrera of The Standard Pour took the platform with a lovely lady on each arm in his duel against Sean “McDoozy” McDowell of Thompson’s. But Herrera put some shine on his show by completing his deceptively simple drink with plenty of time to spare, then lighting up a cigar and preening before the crowd as McDowell continued to race against the clock.

Herrera’s Carolina cocktail was lush with cigar-infused Grand Marnier, while McDowell’s tart Trade With Mexico bundled both Espolón blanco and reposado with tea and homemade ginger beer. Both advanced to the second round.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise from upper left, McDowell’s Trade with Mexico; the two rivals take the stage; Herrera’s Big Daddy strut; Herrera’s Carolina cocktail; the competitors in action.

In the second round, the top six contestants each had to crank out 10 El Diablos — a lesser known tequila classic featuring reposado tequila, créme de cassis, lime and ginger beer — within a few minutes’ time.

Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas' Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.
Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas’ Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.

Herrera’s and Davidson’s were dubbed mas macho by the judges and both advanced to the final round, where each had to craft a Margarita using Espolón blanco, a Paloma with Espolón reposado and an Old Fashioned with Espolón añejo — again, within a few minutes.

A taste of each drink, then the judges conferred, taking into account the entire night. It was Herrera’s performance that was judged best overall, which means he’ll be competing at Espolón’s national finals in early November.

Espolon contest 2016
Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, embraces Herrera as the bartender is named winner of Espolon’s DFW contest.

 

Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, said he had no doubt that the Uptown bar’s attention to efficiency on busy weekend nights helped prepare Herrera for the competition’s fast-paced demands.

Between that and Herrera’s previous training at FrontBurner, which owns Mexican Sugar, “he’s been working toward winning this ever since he started working here,” McCullough said.

To watch a normally subdued guy transform into the very picture of confidence made him proud.

“Seeing him do that was like seeing him come out of his shell,” McCullough said.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

The showdown was barely a half-hour away.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLERA PINA (Lynette Marrero, Zacapa Rum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Let’s do this, Texas!” Tober yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third time’s the charm: Front Burner’s Bonnie Wilson en route to Vegas to represent DFW in national cocktail competition

Frontburner
Wilson, DFW’s first female rep in the prestigious contest’s national finals. (Photo courtesy of Front Burner)

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – a pinch of this or a drop or a float of that – to turn a drink around. Heading into this summer’s Bombay Sapphire-sponsored “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender” competition in Dallas, Bonnie Wilson aimed to put a different spin on the gin.

Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based Front Burner Restaurants, was one of 10 finalists competing in the national contest’s Dallas-Fort Worth regional at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye. The victor would head to Las Vegas to face winners from 27 other U.S. markets in the finals, vying for a cover feature in GQ magazine.

One by one, the gin variations appeared before the judges – a drink inspired by Taiwanese bubble tea, another served up alongside a Venus flytrap, another with a smoked stalk of lemongrass for garnish. But when it was all over, it was Wilson’s so-called “Axl Rose” – a bouquet of Bombay Sapphire, Brut Rosé, strawberry syrup, lemon and rose water – that had taken top prize. (Full disclosure: I was among the event’s three judges.)

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender
The final touch on Wilson’s Axl Rose: A sugar-candy rose petal

This week, Wilson is Vegas-bound to compete in the finals, the first woman to have that honor for the DFW area. “I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I just want to make sure I represent our city well, that I represent myself and our brand and women well, all of those things. Most of all I just want to have fun.”

This was Wilson’s third attempt at the prestigious contest: Bartenders submit a recipe and a short essay, and a national panel whittles each market’s field down to 10. With her winning cocktail, she aimed for simplicity. “I’ve been obsessed with rosé lately,” she says, “so I wanted to do something around that.”

Citrus was a common flavor in the gin to play off of, but Sapphire’s floral aspects were often forgotten. That’s where the rose water came in, plus a self-made strawberry syrup to echo the flavors of the wine. The topper was the garnish: She worked with Front Burner’s pastry chef to produce a sugar-candy rose petal tinted with pomegranate juice. “We made about 60 of them over the course of two weeks to get the consistency I was happy with,” she says. “I think it came out really good.”

The national contest runs Monday through Thursday in three stages. After the 28 competitors present the cocktails that got them there, the field is whittled to about half. The survivors then face off in two further rounds, crafting entirely new cocktails featuring an ingredient to be specified by the judges.

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender contest
Sweet cocktail o’ mine: Wilson’s Axl Rose’.

Last year, DFW was represented by La Duni’s Daniel Guillen, who made it to the second round. Wilson has been prodding him for tips based on his experience. As far as being DFW’s first female representative in the nationals, she says, “we’ve just got to continue to elevate our diversity.”

That’s a priority for her at Front Burner, where she oversees bar operations for the corporation’s independent brands, including Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar and The Ranch at Las Colinas.  Menu development, special events and training are among her duties, but it’s the latter that lets her tap into her first love, customer interaction. “I can get behind the bar and make drinks for people,” she says.

Hospitality-minded people are the ones who catch her interest and attention. “You can teach somebody how to bartend and teach them about spirits, but you can’t teach the heart of it, the love of that interaction with the guest,” she says.

Others cite her dedication to cultivating talent and encouraging other women to pursue similar paths. “She’s moving up, but she’s not forgetting us,” says Alexandrea Rivera, a bartender at The Ranch at Las Colinas. Adds fellow Ranch bartender Gabrielle Murray: “Everything Bonnie says, we just sponge up.”

Daniel Guillen
2013’s national finalists were featured in a GQ photo spread. That’s La Duni’s Daniel Guillen with the giant honey dipper.

Now, after winning the local Bombay Sapphire contest, Wilson says: “I’ve actually had women come to me who want to work for me. That’s super flattering, and inspiring.”

It was people like Sean Conner – whose Pie 314 pizzeria recently opened in Lewisville – and The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough who helped on her own learning path. And in particular, she credits Angel’s Envy bourbon rep Trina Nishimura with showing her how as a woman to negotiate a male-dominated world. Brands like Bacardi and Heaven Hill have given her valuable educational opportunities, but it’s her own company, she says, that has really challenged her recently. “Sometimes we have these amazing weeks, and we want to rest on our laurels and celebrate,” she says. “They always say, `Great job. How do we make it better?’ Everybody has pushed and encouraged me.”

Not bad for someone who never planned to make craft cocktails. But negative environments in previous workplaces spurred her to move onward, and she landed behind the bar with Conner at Whiskey Cake. “It was like a fated spiritual thing,” she says. “That’s exactly where I was supposed to be. It started me on this career that was like a dream. It’s been such a great ride and it keeps getting better and better.”

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – to be reminded that it’s not a dream at all.

Dallas bartenders help create a buzz at spirits industry’s annual festival in New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, all smiles amid the storm that was Texas Tiki Throwdown.

NEW ORLEANS — They came, they saw, they cocktailed. Never mind that it was 10:30 in the morning: That’s how Tales of the Cocktail rolls.

Naturally, no state was better qualified to kick things off than Texas, which launched the annual spirits industry’s opening salvo for the third straight year. The Texas Tiki Throwdown and its lively contingent of bar peeps representing Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio had transformed the chandeliered conference room of New Orleans’ stately Hotel Monteleone into a little tiki paradise, with thatched-roof huts, Hawaiian shirts and a makeshift parrot perched on the shoulder of Dallas ice master Mate Hartai.

It was the kind of atmosphere in which a woman with blue-green hair could tell you her name was Christa Monster and get away with it. The bartender from Houston’s Bar Boheme had won a Bacardi-sponsored competition to earn the trip to Tales, and her clever, crowd-pleasing Lady of Lake Laguna did not disappoint – a frozen blend of aged rum, coconut, orange soda, blue curacao and a spiced-peach-and-Sriracha puree that alternately offered ice and heat. “It’s like, not taking tiki too seriously,” she said.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
From upper left: The Texas crew; the TOTC logo in host Hotel Monteleone; Christa Monster’s Lady of Lake Laguna cocktails; Houston’s Ricardo Guzman; your guess is as good as mine.

Dallas was well represented, with seven bartenders stationed behind three tables knocking out drinks in all manner of tropical style. Along with Hartai, there was Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour, Bonnie Wilson of Fork It Over restaurants, Knife’s Charlie Moore and the soon-to-be crew of Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry: Julian Pagan, Trina Nishimura and the two Joshes, Hendrix and MacEachern.

“There’s too much to try this early in the morning,” said conference attendee Teddy Bucher, though that didn’t dissuade the Houston engineer, friends Laura Villafranca and Michelle Mata and the dozens of others mobbing the room from making a valiant effort.

Over in the Austin corner, David Alan, aka the Tipsy Texan, mined his own cocktail book for the Flor De Pina, a tequila concoction pairing tequila with St. Germain, while Houston’s Ricardo Guzman of the bar Trinity planted “KISS” cocktails on anyone lucky enough to try the mix of Veev, cinnamon syrup, lemon and pineapple.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
They’re from St. Louis.

Houston Eaves of the always reliable Esquire Tavern was among those representing San Antonio, churning out an intriguing Tiki Tejano with tequila, carrot juice and crème de cacao, plus the pleasantly sweet Coyote’s Den, made with aquavit, acai-based Veev, orgeat, grapefruit, lemon, simple and Peychaud’s bitters.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Western, Brian McCullough’s contribution to the event.

McCullough’s standout cocktail, which he called simply The Western, gave Treaty Oak rum a little giddy-up with orgeat, yuzu juice, mint and Angostura bitters. One attendee, having made the rounds, walked up and proclaimed McCullough’s drink the best. That prompted some friendly joshing of the Joshes, Hendrix and Maceachern, who were serving up their drinks from a punchbowl at the next table.

“You’re gonna trust that palate?” countered Hendrix, whose Flashy Slang – a cherry-infused blend of Sailor Jerry spiced rum and citrus, would get support from another attendee, Dallas underground-dinner chef David Anthony Temple.

But it was all in fun anyway, a means to kick off the first of the festival’s five days of workshops, tasting rooms, trainings, dinners, parties and general mayhem.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Dallas crew, clockwise from upper right: Mate Hartai, Brian McCullough and Charlie Moore; Bonnie Wilson, Trina Nishimura and Julian Pagan; Josh MacEachern and Josh Hendrix.

“I’ve been coming to this (festival) for years,” said Houston’s Villafranca, a high school counselor who got into craft cocktails when the pioneering bar Anvil opened near her home. “I went in there, and it was like – oh my god. I trust them completely.”

Between the three friends, they’d been able to sample most of the four Texas cities’ creations.

“Houston was great,” Mata said. Then she whispered: “But I’m leaning toward Dallas.”

 

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.

 

Standard Pork: Uptown cocktail bar celebrates spring with a roast-pig luau

The Standard Pour
The Standard Pour makes some tropic thunder this weekend. (Image courtesy of The Standard Pour)

Spring: A time of renewal, of singing birds and blooming flowers, of tiki drinks and roasting pigs.

Yes, it’s spring luau time, and if you need any more explanation than that, here’s Brian McCullough.

“We just wanted to do something fun and cook a pig,” said McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour in Uptown. “It’s springtime and we figured this would be fun.”

And there you have it.  The party begins at 6 pm Sunday, April 27. There will be $5 drink specials. If you need more encouragement than that, I can’t help you.

THE STANDARD POUR, 2900 McKinney Ave., Dallas. 214-935-1370.

Drinking in the style of yesteryear: Get your glad rags on for a cause

Benefit party
Picture yourself walking around here with a cocktail in your early 20th-century best. (Courtesy of Dallas Heritage Village)

So. You’ve been looking to unleash your inner Bonnie or Clyde. Minus the bank robberies, and especially minus the fatal ambush. Really, it’s about the threads. And the giggle juice.

Well, now’s your chance, pal: History With a Twist is returning to Dallas Heritage Village on April 26. Be a wisehead and get over there.

The second annual event celebrates classic American cocktails and the style of the Prohibition Era. Vintage early 20th-century fashion is encouraged, so break out your jazz suits, your cloche hats and your fedoras, and take a stroll down the village’s throwback Main Street while tipping a few fancydranks from big-cheese bartenders Michael Martensen and Brian McCullough.

Hors d’oeuvres will be on hand, as will tunes from the Singapore Slingers, a small orchestra specializing in pre-swing American dance music. I’ve never heard them, but they sound swell. Also expect a silent auction, photo booth and vintage car show.

Tickets – available here – are $75 or $125 a couple, with proceeds benefiting the village’s historical education activities. The event runs from 7 to 11 p.m. It’s going to be hotsy-totsy.

DALLAS HERITAGE VILLAGE, 1515 S. Harwood, Dallas. 214-421-5141.

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.