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Smoke gets in your drink: Mezcal is having its moment and you should enjoy it

Mexican Sugar
Mexican Sugar’s Benito Juarez: A cocktail worthy of the name.

In case you hadn’t noticed, mezcal is having a moment. The once misunderstood Mexican spirit has been seeping into the mainstream at a pace that has revved up in recent years, riding a craft-cocktail wave that has seen imbibers clamor for more and better ingredients.

For a spirit that at one time was known mostly as “that bottle with the worm in it,” this cousin of tequila has not only come a long way, but, it turns out, is way more interesting: a markedly smoky concoction that rewarded early adopters with broad (and wormless) expressions deriving from its ability to be cultivated from a range of Mexican agave plants. (Tequila, on the other hand, can only come from blue agave.)

“It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails.”

— Bartender Moses Guidry, of Twenty Seven’s Smoke Ring

The plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens prior to fermentation, producing the spirit’s smoky influence that for many first-timers presents a line in the sand. But the days when mezcal cocktails were found only in mixology dens are over; I knew the U.S. had reached a milestone when, several years ago, I saw a mezcal-tinged cocktail appear on the menu at P.F. Chang’s. Now you’ll find mezcal cocktails everywhere from Pappasito’s to Frisco’s 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House.

Many of those drinks, like the ones first rolled out even in craft-cocktail bars, have eased mezcal onto unfamiliar palates by placing it alongside tequila, like a kid brother riding sidecar. But drinks putting mezcal front and center are getting easier and easier to find.

Here are some of my favorites thus far in 2015.

BENITO JUAREZ, Mexican Sugar (pictured above)

In Oaxaca, where most mezcal is produced, the traditional way of consuming the artisan spirit is in small cups flanked by orange wedges and a spice mix of sea salt, crushed chilies and the ground remains of toasted moth larvae that feed on the agave plant. The combo is a mouth-pleasing explosion of smoke, citrus, heat, nuttiness and saltiness – and Plano’s Mexican Sugar pays homage to the tradition with this excellent blend – named after Mexico’s beloved former president – of mezcal, chipotle puree, orange, lime, honey and orange liqueur, slapped with a splotch of imported sal de gusano.

Laura Ball, Origin
The Mexican Martini showed how well agave spirits and Yellow Chartreuse play together.

MEXICAN MARTINI, Origin

Alas, this one is no longer on the menu at the Knox-Henderson restaurant, but ask for it and you might get lucky.

Agave spirits and herbal Yellow Chartreuse liqueur are swell buddies and play nice here in Laura Ball’s south-of-the-border creation, along with lemon, agave, jalapeno and apricot liqueur. It’s sweet and piquant, tantalizing you with its boozy charms before fading away in a haze of spice and smoke.

Hector Zavala, Henry's Majestic
Doing things the Old-Fashioned way is a fine approach for mezcal.

MEZCAL OLD-FASHIONED, Henry’s Majestic

Hector Zavala has learned a thing or two in his many years as a bar back for luminaries such as 86 Co. co-founder Jason Kosmas, not the least of which that the classic Old Fashioned packs a kick in any language. Now bartending at the Knox-Henderson one-two punch of Henry’s Majestic and Atwater Alley, the Torreon, Mexico-born Zavala subs Wahaka mezcal for whiskey with a bit of agave syrup and bitters, and his handiwork lets the spirit announce itself like a poncho’d Clint Eastwood waltzing through your whistle’s saloon doors.

Creighten Brown, Tate's
More layers than an enchilada casserole: Mr. Brown Goes to Oaxaca takes you places.

MR. BROWN GOES TO OAXACA, Tate’s

Mixmaster Creighten Brown’s deceivingly demure doozy may look like a mere wallflower in its Uptown surroundings, but it’ll impress your taste buds with its flavorful gift of gab. Supplementing mezcal with bittersweet Grand Poppy, dry vermouth, Hellfire bitters and chocolate bitters, this off-menu creation cuts through the smoke with floral and citrus swirls while the bitters offer lingering complexity.

Moses Guidry, Twenty Seven
Mezcal boldly steps in for pisco in Twenty Seven’s weekend tipple.

SMOKE RING, Twenty Seven

At Deep Ellum’s Twenty Seven, Moses Guidry’s frothy Smoke Ring is basically a mezcal Pisco Sour, subbing the smoky spirit for tamer Peruvian brandy alongside tequila, simple syrup, lime, cucumber, egg white and a sprinkling of Peychaud’s bitters. “It’s just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven’t had it or think it’s too intense in other cocktails,” says Guidry, who’ll you find behind the bar on Saturdays.

Gabe Sanchez, Black Swan Saloon
Remember that scene in True Romance where Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper face off? This is that scene in a cocktail.

TRUE ROMANCE, Black Swan Saloon

At this Deep Ellum fixture, Gabe Sanchez’s riveting play on the Copper Cocktail gives mezcal the starring role over rum with a supporting cast of herbal Yellow Chartreuse, bitter Averna, lime and a bit of Szechuan pepper tincture. While the mixture might sound overpowering, the end result nicely shapes the best of each ingredient into something unique and memorable.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oak
Reith: Taking things up a notch at Oak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DFW reclaims its craft mojo: The best in cocktails 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. NOGAHOLIC, Juli Naida (Barter, Uptown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barter eggnog flight
The Nogaholic: Eggnog impersonator.

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

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

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

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

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