The Pisco Mercenaries want your love. More to the point, they want you to learn to love pisco, the national spirit of Peru – so much so that they’ve put aside their differences in pursuit of that higher goal.
On Monday, you’ll have a chance to see what eight local bartenders can do with the light-colored brandy when the group holds its second pisco cocktail competition at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The Pisco Mercenaries are four Peruvian-born gents: Neighborhood Services’ Ivan Rimach; Daniel Guillen and brother Armando, most recently of Parliament and The Standard Pour; and food and beverage consultant Pablo Valqui. They represent four pisco brands eyeing major inroads in the U.S., a market even the Peruvian government supports going after. But rather than fight each other for market share, the brands are joining forces to raise pisco’s profile as a whole.
Through this ongoing series of competitions, they hope to demonstrate pisco’s versatility and earn it a place on bartenders’ shelves. “This is our way of introducing it to the U.S. market and showing there’s way more things you can do with it,” says pisco mercenary Armando Guillen, who is on his way to London after a stint as bar manager at Uptown’s Standard Pour.
The group held a Pisco Sour competition at the Westin Park Central in February. Monday’s contest, set for 6 p.m. at Dallas’ Crowne Plaza Hotel, will feature variations on the classic Pisco Punch. In addition to their cocktails, bartenders will be judged on presentation, use of Peruvian ingredients and the stories behind their concoctions.
The classic Pisco Punch came to life during the go-for-broke days of the Gold Rush in San Francisco, where pisco shipments arrived on South American cargo ships that regularly posted up in the Bay, as author Guillermo Toro-Liro has noted. That made pisco easier to get at the time than whiskey, which had to be brought in by wagon from the Eastern U.S.
No one knows for sure exactly what comprised Duncan Nicol’s recipe that rose to popularity at San Francisco’s Bank Exchange Saloon, but today it’s evolved as a tropical blend of pisco, pineapple, citrus and sweetener. A supposed secret ingredient, which may or may not have been cocaine, has been lost to the ages – but for that reason, it’s an openly malleable cocktail.
Monday’s competitors include Andres Zevallos of Rapscallion; Ricky Cleva of Henry’s Majestic; Chris Dempsey of the Four Seasons; Jorge Herrera of The Standard Pour; Ryan Kinkade of TBD; Justin Payne of The Theodore; Cody Riggs of The Mitchell; and Chad Yarbrough of Armoury D.E.
The winners of Monday’s contest – both a judges’ and a people’s choice – will win cash and the chance to compete in a fifth and final round planned for November. That winner will be on his or her way to Peru, which according to Pisco Porton rep Michael Turley boasts 300 distilleries and 471 registered brands – the most popular of them being Queirolo, the one you’ll find even at Peruvian gas stations.
If the February competition is any indication, you’ll be in for a treat: That event offered the chance to sample various piscos on their own or in mini-versions of the competing cocktails, and to crown a people’s choice winner.
Tim Newtown, of Henry’s Majestic, employed chirimoya, a Peruvian highlands fruit, in his cocktail, while Quill’s James Slater tipped his cap to Peru’s Japanese influences with additions of sencha tea and yuzu citrus.
Ida Claire’s Alexandrea Rivera dropped a hint of Malbec into her pisco drink, while Parliament’s Drew Garison accented his concoction with muddled grapes and a ginger-saffron marmalade.
In the end, though, it was Bolsa’s bar manager Spencer Shelton who the judges crowned winner. (Full disclosure: I was among the panel.) Shelton’s garden-fresh “Cease Fire,” made with mellow-earthy Cuatro Gallos quebranta pisco and a bit of the Italian bitter liqueur Cynar, included lemon, bell pepper, fennel, dill, Peruvian yellow chili pepper and Peruvian olive brine. Or as he described it: “Peruvian cuisine in a cocktail.”
Unlike most, Shelton skipped the drink’s signature egg white, which provides lightness and a silky texture. That’s where the olive brine came in: “The brine adds viscosity and mouthfeel,” he explained. An olive branch garnish added the final touch, signifying the unity of the four pisco brands; he served it with tapenade and plantain chips.
Peruvian yellow pepper and olive brine? That brought a smile to pisco mercenary Rimach, who dreams of a day when pisco is a staple spirit behind the bar along with gin and whiskey and vodka and rum. The Pisco Mercenaries partnership, he hopes, is just the start.
“When you have more variety, it’s easier for people to understand and enjoy something,” Rimach says. “We’re trying to create a whole new category.”
CASTLE HILLS – OK, maybe Castle Hills isn’t really that far away. On a good day you can get here in less than a half-hour. Sandwiched between Lewisville, The Colony, Carrollton and West Plano, its regal label is intentional, with a 30-mph main drag dubbed King Arthur Boulevard and the sprawling development of king-sized homes described on its web site as “a majestic, 2,600-acre master-planned community.”
It’s not the kind of outpost you’d expect to find a great cocktail, and yet, the very thought of being 25 miles north of downtown Dallas might make you pine for one. It’s a royal paradox.
Well, you’re in luck: With the opening of TBD Kitchen, Sean Conner’s latest venture (in partnership with Daniel Guillen), you and the villagers of Castle Hills now have two quality drinking establishments from which to choose.
TBD Kitchen, next door to Conner’s Pie 314, is the latest step in Daniel Guillen’s ongoing pilgrimage to promote Latin traditions via drink and food. Five of TBD’s nine house cocktails got test runs at the various pop-up events, seminars and South American-styled dinners that Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni, has been throwing around the DFW area in the last year.
Along with a bold selection of agave spirits and rums, those drinks complement a menu highlighting $2 street tacos. (Also, if anyone asks whether you want the off-menu chicharrones, say yes.) The décor is hip Mexican, with Day of the Dead skulls, Mexican movie posters and kitschy candles from Target. Cushy, bendy barstools are modeled after seats on bass boats.
“It’s not like Dallas here,” Guillen says. “It’s a whole different beast. People here have money, but they want comfort food.”
Situated at the Castle Hills Village Shops, nestled deep in the thicket of $500,000-plus homes, Conner has accommodated those tastes, offering quality pizza and now tacos, with decent cocktails to boot. “There’s three kinds of food that people eat all the time,” says Conner, among Dallas-Fort Worth’s pioneering craft-cocktail bartenders. “And these are two of them.”
But are the people of Castle Hills ready for cocktails like the Chamoyada, a drink inspired by Guillen’s visits to the fruterias of Oak Cliff, or the Pachamama, featuring Peruvian brandy and not one, but two, Italian bitter liqueurs?
Or what about the Bolivar Old Fashioned, a nod to the influential Venezuelan leader, which mixes five rums, Angostura bitters infused with tobacco leaves and Brazilian coffee beans? The nicely conceived drink did well on a recent night, perhaps because of Guillen’s piece de resistance, a coconut water ice cube that gradually sweetens the drink as it’s savored.
Guillen says TBD actually stands for Tacos, Burritos and Daisies — the Daisy being a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation. A daily Daisy will be a staple of Guillen’s offerings. And in the (warmer) future, Guillen envisions half-price rum nights with cigars and dominoes, Cuban-style, on the patio.
As TBD was being built out, Guillen did a smart thing: He worked the bar at Pie 314. That earned him a familiarity with local residents that will serve him as he aims to nudge less adventurous palates into unfamiliar territory. “If you like Balvenie,” Guillen told one guest as he slid forward a bottle of Cartavio XO, “this is a Peruvian rum. It’s finished in sherry casks, just like Balvenie is.” The guy was inspired to give it a try.
A couple at the bar was impressed with Guillen’s Margarita Pa’Llevar (Margarita to-go), whose presentation mimics the street-ready drinks served in plastic bags in certain South America countries. It was among the drinks Guillen featured with chef David Anthony Temple at a South American dinner earlier this year, sipped through a straw coated with chamoy – fruit pulp flavored with lime and chile – for some added kick.
So maybe he’ll earn the keys to the kingdom just yet. “People are like, ‘Why here?’” Guillen says. “Even I don’t know. We were just given the chance, so we’re going to roll with it.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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?”
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.)
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.”
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.
What most people know of South American drinking culture typically boils down to a handful of things – cachaca and the Caiparinha cocktail, pisco and the Pisco Sour.
Daniel Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni restaurants and one of Dallas’ more innovative bar talents, is on a mission to change that. For several years, driven by a notion that has since become a passion, the Peruvian-born bar man has been researching South American cocktail tradition; with his departure from La Duni, he’s ready to spring his knowledge loose upon the world in a series of events that will roll out in the coming weeks.
Your first chance to experience the fruits of his obsession will be Wednesday, when Guillen pairs up with Twenty Seven chef David Anthony Temple for a six-course dinner titled “The South American Gentleman’s Companion,” named after Charles Baker’s legendary cocktail tome of 1951.
The event will be a tour de force for the 27-year-old Guillen, who puts as much thought into presenting his cocktails as he does into making them. We’re talking about drinks served in everything from tin cans to test tubes – but as always, there is method to his madness: In addition to showcasing the continent’s drinking traditions, he’s equally amped about reflecting South American street culture.
“It’s what you see when you go out of the house and grab your first bus to work,” said Guillen, who you’ll now find occasionally behind the bar at Proof + Pantry, in the Arts District. “Street cart vendors, little candy carts near the schools – you can apply those things and come up with something off the charts.”
Guillen’s libations will be paired with Chef DAT’s Latin-inspired fare, including BBQ’s gnocchi, roasted cabrito, coconut-encrusted cod and smoked duck breast tostadas.
The 7 pm reservations-only dinner is limited to 35 people and will take place at Twenty Seven, 2901 Elm Street in Deep Ellum. Price is $120 plus gratuity.
Can’t make dinner? You can still sample a lineup of South American-inspired cocktails and other surprises at a public post-dinner reception at 10 pm, with special prices for dinner guests. Think Argentinian Boilermakers, a South American Old Fashioned and Guillen’s celebrated Rosemary’s Affair, which earned him regional honors from Bombay Sapphire gin and was among my favorite cocktails of 2013.
DALLAS – Early last summer, in the private parlor at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, five weathered books spread out on a vintage trunk – among them Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946), Robert H. Loeb Jr.’s Nip Ahoy! (1954) and Obispo y Monserrate’s Bar La Florida Cocktails (1937). “Please be careful,” said Emily Perkins, regional rep for Collectif 1806, a project of Remy Cointreau USA. “They’re very old.”
With the seeming ubiquity of craft cocktails these days, it’s worth remembering that the scene is less revolution than revival: The practice dates back more than a century, and while there’s plenty to appreciate about craft cocktails – the culinary parallels, a culture of hospitality, their ability to take the edge off a day – one of the things I personally love about them is the history that serves as their base. When you make a proper Old Fashioned or Aviation, in other words, you’re building something that someone made pretty much exactly the same way a hundred years or more before. While the tools, technology and the range and quality of ingredients have all since improved, the drinks that have come and gone have left an enduring canon of classics, and the craft at heart is the very one conducted for decades upon decades.
That’s a notion thoughtful bartenders appreciate, and it’s something that Remy Cointreau, the U.S. branch of the French distiller known for its eponymous orange liqueur, has seized upon in a welcome and opportune way. The company has gradually compiled an archive of 250 vintage cocktail volumes, and for the past year, Dallas has been lucky to be among a small circuit of cities in which books are periodically presented for perusal through Cointreau’s bartender education and support arm, Collectif 1806. (Other cities include Miami, San Francisco, Chicago and New York.)
In addition to Sissy’s, Dallas “book club” events have been held at Barter in Uptown, Meddlesome Moth in the Design District and most recently, Abacus in Knox-Henderson.
The evening hours passed at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen as the select group took turns poring through the quaint and dated pages. Smartphones snapped photos of recipes, illustrations or inspiring prose. “I’m such a sucker for vintage illustrations,” Perkins said. “I love the books with the crazy drawings and the old ads.”
Meanwhile, five rounds of cocktails appeared, one from each book – including the sweet, mild Honeysuckle, from Angostura-Wuppermann’s Professional Mixing Guide (1941); the luscious Ian’s Fizz, from Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (1947); from Bar La Florida Cocktails, the lesser-known classic Brandy Daisy.
“I love old books,” said Julie Brown, who tends bar at nearby Hibiscus. “Trader Vic’s is, like, every bartender’s first book.”
Cocktails at these events naturally showcase the Cointreau line of products, which includes The Botanist gin, Bruichladdich Scotch whisky and Mount Gay rum. In general, original recipes are adhered to as faithfully as possible, though they aren’t necessarily what Perkins would serve to modern palates. “You’d have to tinker,” she said. “Most (of the old drinks) are really tart; they’re not using a lot of sugar. Before the 1940s it was rare and expensive. People didn’t have access to a lot of sugar and ice. They were stronger, boozier drinks.”
Despite the light atmosphere, the books are handled with a level of care that sometimes surprises Perkins, who’d initially been reticent to release the rare volumes, some frail and plastic-sleeved, from her protective embrace. “It was hard to let go of that,” she said. But “when it comes to handling the books, there’s a lot of respect and decorum.”
That’s one reason attendance is limited, to weed out looky-loos in favor of more serious practitioners. You wouldn’t want just anyone getting their paws on Harry Johnson’s classic The New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (1900), for example, or V. B. Lewis’ The Complete Buffet Guide (1903). Some of the lucky few even receive access to Cointreau’s online archives. “A lot of these are what people call proprietary secrets,” Perkins says. “It’s supposed to be a tool for bartenders who really care. It’s Holy-Grail-type stuff.”
Those at Sissy’s included Matt Orth of LARK at the Park, Parliament’s Stephen Halpin, Lauren Festa of The Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek and High West brand ambassador Chris Furtado. There was also Parliament’s Daniel Charlie Ferrin, who was proud to already be in possession of Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide. “I bought it for $12 on Amazon,” he said. “Except the dust jacket is in pristine condition. It’s literally sitting in my car right now.”
In addition to the recipes, “I love the cartoons,” Ferrin said. He picked up the book and flipped open the cover to show an illustration of a bartender pouring liquid from one mixing glass into another. “In fact,” he said, “my next tattoo is going to be based on this one – except it’ll be a monkey, with a fez and a unicycle.”
The recipes are often preceded by wry insights or anecdotes. Introducing the rum-based Pikaki, the renowned Trader Vic wrote in his Book of Food and Drink (1946): “I’d save this one for my visiting great-aunt who, when approached as to her idea of a little before-dinner stimulant, shakes her finger at you reprovingly, ‘Well, just one.’ She’ll probably weaken and have two and go into dinner with her transformation askew.”
The books also recall a time of unabashedly flowery prose and titles – for instance, Charles H. Baker Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. 1 (Being An Exotic Cookery Book, or Around the World with Knife, Fork and Spoon).
So taken was I with the simple but noble sentiments of the finely distilled introduction to the Book of Food and Drink – which in 1946, was priced at $3.95 – that I tracked down my own copy of the book for my home stash. It reads: “Dedicated to those merry souls who make eating and drinking a pleasure; who achieve contentedness long before capacity; and who, whenever they drink, prove able to carry it, enjoy it, and remain gentlemen.”
“It’s dedicated to us,” Perkins said. “People who love to indulge in finer things – but it says never go overboard, treat people with respect. It’s idealistic and sweet.”
For this group, the books are more than novelty: They’re passed-down knowledge and perspective and a reminder that those who practice the craft today are part of something much bigger than themselves.
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.)
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 rosélately,” 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.
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.”
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.
They were here to win the war – for a country’s bragging rights, for a brand’s foothold in the marketplace. In recent weeks, a Delta Force of sales reps representing Peru’s Pisco Porton have stormed through Texas in a calculated push to promote their spirit as pisco’s popularity grows nationwide.
Leading the way was none other than Johnny Schuler, surely the only man in the world to have scored a Congressional Medal of Honor for promoting alcohol. For 30 years, the thick-haired restaurateur and distiller has circled the globe touting pisco, a brandy-like spirit produced primarily in Peru and Chile, both of which continue to tussle for the rights to claim pisco’s ancient heritage. Schuler even hosts a Peruvian TV show about pisco; in 2007 the nation’s government gave him a medal for his role in promoting a national icon.
More recently Schuler actually got into the pisco business, becoming master distiller of a new blend called Pisco Porton, produced at the country’s oldest distillery. Porton’s sales nearly tripled in 2012, according to Technonic, which sees the entire category ripe for more activity. Competitors include BarSol and Macchu Pisco.
Most people associate pisco with little more – okay, nothing more – than the classic (and delicious) Pisco Sour, made with simple syrup, lime, egg white and bitters. Schuler’s week-long mission was partly to change that. (Last year, La Duni’s Daniel Guillen – a Peruvian native – pursued a similar Dallas-based effort with his five-Thursdays-in-a-row Pisco Trail project.) Schuler’s strategy was to throw Porton’s resources at its most lucrative markets – Texas, New York, Florida and California, its four biggest U.S. customers. Porton reps were flown in from around the country; reinforcements would arrive the next week to hit Houston as well.
Schuler had a lot on his mind: The airline had twice lost his wife’s luggage, she was bugging him for his credit cards and on top of that the pisco competition was getting fierce.
But the lively pisco workshop he led at Victor Tango’s enervated him, and over the next few days he visited a number of Dallas cocktail joints to see what bartenders could do with his spirit. He was in a drink-buying mood, springing for most of their creations as he blazed through Trinity Groves’ Chino Chinatown, Oak Cliff’s Bolsa and a string of cocktail bars in Knox-Henderson.
Today’s piscos, unlike the harsh ancestors available in the past, generally have a bright, delicate grape-y taste, making them a versatile drink-worthy component. Peruvian pisco is also carefully regulated, as this 2011 New York Times article makes clear:
To be called pisco in Peru, the spirit must be made from grapes grown in designated coastal valleys from Lima south. There are 42 valleys, and 8 varietals, classified as aromatic, like muscatel or Italia, or nonaromatic, like quebranta, a high-yielding grape that is the most widely used. After the harvest, which runs from February to May, grapes are crushed and naturally fermented, then distilled in copper alembics, like Cognac. Pisco is also distilled to proof, meaning it is not diluted with water before bottling.
“I love pisco,” says Jacob Boger, bar manager at Origin Kitchen + Bar in Knox-Henderson. “It’s like brandy, except it uses a lot more of the must of the grape. It’s a clearer, brighter flavor.”
And Michael Martensen, formerly of Bar Smyth/The Cedars Social, says pisco punch will be on the drinks roster at Knife, chef John Tesar’s upcoming Palomar Hotel venture, where Martensen is helping to shape the bar program.
Schuler says the next step, once he’s convinced bars to stock pisco, is teaching bartenders what to do with it. And if it happens to be Porton they use, even better. Porton is his baby: Schuler and business partner William Kallop even designed Porton’s signature bottle itself on a cocktail napkin over a series of Whiskey Sours and Negronis, crafting its hefty, senatorial shape Frankenstein-style, with pieces pulled from what they admired on the bar shelves. I like the lip of this one. I like the shoulders of that one. Schuler’s once gave up a pair of prize socks to win over a client. (That was in Chicago, where the client admired Schuler’s outlandish stockings du jour so much that Porton rep Megan Clark laundered them and presented them to the client the next day.)
For me, the tour’s highlights were:
The Apprentice, a drink designed by Chicago-based Porton rep Natalia Cardenas. It’s a play on the classic Negroni, substituting pisco for gin along with Gran Classico and Carpano Antica.
At Chino Chinatown, Julian Pagan’s Neile Adams, which mixed pisco with Lillet Blanc, Aperol, sweet grapefruit oil and bitters.
At Porch in Knox-Henderson, Beau Taylor’s Porton Morado (with an assist from Andrew Lostetter), with chicho morado (a Peruvian drink made with purple corn), lime, egg white, Velvet Falernum and bitters.
At Gemma, Ruben Bundy’s concoction of pisco, crème de violette, lime and simple.
“Pisco is becoming a multi-cocktail spirit,” Schuler said, and based on the evidence, he was right. “There’s nobody who loves pisco more than I do.”
A great cocktail should take you on a little journey, and one benefit of DFW’s thriving craft-drink culture is the growing number of bar-peeps able to put you aboard that flavor train. The year 2013 was a highlight reel of riches: There was Amber West’s Wild Weeds – a Scotch-and-beer blend rimmed with smoked-almond salt – at Central 214; Chase Streitz’s nectarine-and-Fresno-chile-syrup-influenced Honey Bee Sting at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen; and the just-right, savory bacon-infused bourbon goodness – not an easy feat to pull off – that Tamsin Gray (now at Barter) achieved with the Bull Lejeune at Ser.
La Duni’s stalwart Lemon 43 spoke to my inner adolescent with its lemon fruit-gem sweetness, while Belly & Trumpet’s Scorched Belly cocktail (pictured at right) was certainly one of the year’s prettier drinks. Last summer at Bar Smyth, former bar chief Michael Martensen introduced me to the excellent Smoky Negroni, a twist on the classic cocktail (attributed to Austin’s Rob Pate) that subs mezcal for gin. Asian flavors surprised, too: At Bowl & Barrel, former bar manager Ian Reilly – now at Chino Chinatown – cleverly used hoisin sauce in a pisco-based drink called the Passerine, while Victor Tango’s Alex Fletcher incorporated miso into his gin-fueled Art of War.
I could go on. Some of my year’s favorite drinks are still on menus, some aren’t; some never were. Some can be rekindled from memory at their original locations, some have been lost to posterity. As the last year has shown us, places close, others open, sands shift. But it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.
My tastes are partial to the bitter and the botanical – show me a bottle of Suze behind the bar and I’m in – and classic browns like the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac. That said, here are my 15 favorite DFW cocktail discoveries of 2013.
Campbell’s hiring at the five-star restaurant showed that Abacus was as serious about its cocktails as it was about its food. This was among the first of his new additions to the menu, a gorgeous concoction of bourbon and muddled blackberries, full-bodied and smooth with echoes of grape that give this luscious drink cache beyond whiskey’s typically male demographic. “It’s delicious,” my friend Susan said after a sip or two. “I think a girl who doesn’t like whiskey would still like this.” Not to mention a boy who likes whiskey, too.
14. DOUBLE UNDER, H&G Sply (Emily Perkins via Jacob Wallace)
Who doesn’t love beets? Okay, a lot of people doesn’t love beets. But properly speaking, for those of us who do, this splash of refreshment ably answers the call – a simple mix of lively beet-infused tequila, lime and rosemary syrup. Perkins – now with Remy Cointreau – modified this creation by Portland’s Jacob Wallace for H&G’s drink list, toying with the proportions; “it’s supposed to be an earthier Margarita that never feels out of season,” she says. The taste is sour beet moxie and tangy lime, with a slight hint of herb. Unabashedly red with a flirty half-skirt of glittery salt, it sure is purdy to look at, too.
13. NEGRONI VARIATION, Lark on the Park (Matt Orth)
One benefit of the classic Negroni – equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and bitter Campari – is that it lends itself to modification: Sub mezcal for gin, as mentioned above, and you still have a formidable drink. Around the time Lark on the Park opened last spring, I was bouncing around town seeing what bartenders were doing with Suze – the herbal French bitter that had become my latest crush – and asked bar manager Orth what he could come up with. This was his second concoction – a honey-gold, bitter/botanical flourish of Suze, Gran Classico and Art in the Age’s Sage spirit, marked by a leafy, sage finish.
12. LAST NIGHT IN PERU, Victor Tango’s (Alex Fletcher)
Last summer, Fletcher, the new bar manager at Victor Tango’s, traveled to Peru to more fully explore the world of pisco (a light-shaded brandy) and came back inspired by a raisin-syrup-enhanced drink he had on his last night there. “This is my tribute to that,” he says. Employing a perfectly highlighted date syrup instead, this butterscotch-hued drink – with pisco, lime, egg white and Peruvian bitters – has a gentle, fruity sweetness that can shine all year long.
11. TWO THIRTY, Bar Smyth (Mike Steele)
In the days that followed Bar Smyth’s much-anticipated opening last March, bartender Mike Steele – whose creations twice landed in my list of 2012’s favorite cocktails – served up this doozy that he’d been working on for some time. With two ounces of Eagle Rare bourbon, ¾ of Gran Classico, ½ apiece of Pedro Ximenez sherry and Carpano Antica and a dash or two of celery bitters, it’s a linebacker of a drink, chocolate-y and mildly sweet, something you’d want to sip in front of the fire. In the version pictured above, I subbed the more maple-forward Angel’s Envy for the nutty Eagle Rare and echoed PX sherry’s raisin notes with Lustau’s East India Solero, and it was still terrific. Use mezcal in place of the bourbon, as Steele also did, and you have the Dos Y Media.
10. BAD SEED, Bar Smyth (Omar YeeFoon)
Maybe I actually waltzed into the menu-less Knox-Henderson speakeasy and asked for something with Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway-flavored liqueur. (Doubtful.) Or maybe it was something that YeeFoon just happened to be playing with that day. (More like it.) Whatever the case, this inventive drink to which he added Averna, egg white, lemon and a creative splash of root beer and toasted sesame seeds caught my fancy for its frothy off-beat nuttiness. YeeFoon is no longer at Bar Smyth, so I don’t know whether this is still part of his repertoire, but the next time you see him around town it’s worth checking out.
9. FIGGY VIEUX CARRE, Black Swan Saloon (Gabe Sanchez)
It’s always fun to dip into Deep Ellum’s Black Swan and see what the heck bar man Gabe Sanchez is up to that night. Maybe he’s brewing coffee with bourbon – or maybe, as in this case, he’s taking a spoonful of fig jam and setting it afire. So taken was I with this element that I didn’t note at first the lineup of ingredients that would accompany it: Rye, Cognac, sweet vermouth, honey-sweet Benedictine – the classic Vieux Carre. This is Black Swan’s take on it, and cooking the jam reins in its sweetness (the drink has enough of that element already) and lets the wintry fig shine through.
8. COMFORTABLY NUMB, Five Sixty (Lee Heffter)
There’s a lot going on in this drink, but that describes a good number of Lee Heffter’s drinks on the rotating menu at Five Sixty, the Wolfgang Puck Asian-themed restaurant atop Reunion Tower downtown. With Bulleit rye, Cointreau, simple syrup, lemon, Pernod, Peychaud’s bitters and a barspoon of cherry juice, it’s a one-two punch of tart cherry/orange and sweet licorice. If you ever wondered what would happen if a Sidecar crashed into a Sazerac, here’s your answer. You’re welcome.
7. FIG SIDECAR, Nora (Michael Reith)
Speaking of figs and Sidecars: I was excited enough to learn that Nora – the excellent Afghan addition to Lower Greenville – was opening a rooftop bar area. But then bow-tied bar man Michael Reith laid this dollop of seasonal joy on me: A fig-and-winter-spice-infused Cognac to accompany the classic cocktail’s Cointreau and lemon. “I was looking for something wintry,” Reith said. “Once it gets cold outside, I love Cognac, which has that raisin taste. And Cognac and figs go together.” Yeah, like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong. The result is cool fireside comfort.
6. ANEJO FLIP, Abacus (Eddie “Lucky” Campbell)
You probably haven’t heard of the Old Smugglers Awaken, a 200-year-old Havana slush of gin, egg, sugar, lemon and bitters that Campbell has included among his repertoire since his Bolsa days. Probably devised by Caribbean pirates — “Who else would be sitting around drink gin flips in Cuba?” he says — the drink was a favorite of one of Campbell’s patrons at the short-lived Chesterfield downtown until she began ordering a fizzy grapefruit tequila drink on the menu instead. “I thought – what if I combined them?” Campbell says, and this bootylicious treasure – which he dropped on me at his current station, Abacus – is the result: Anejo tequila, grapefruit, agave syrup, vanilla, whole egg and Angostura bitters. Served up in a martini glass with Abacus’ signature “A” stencil-sprayed atop, it’s deliciously creamy and sweet, with hints of warm, dark vanilla.
5. I’LL GET TO IT, The Cedars Social (Josh MacEachern)
During his days at The Cedars Social, MacEachern came up with this lovely off-menu blend of Cognac, Pedro Ximenez sherry, orange-y Grand Marnier, walnut tincture and Pernod. But while the easygoing bartender loves crafting drinks, he doesn’t like naming them, so when I’d drop in and request “that thing you made for me last time” and then ask when he was going to name it, his signature reply finally became its lasting moniker. The sippable tipple is a spin on the Sazerac, MacEachern’s favorite cocktail, and arose as he was pondering flavors that might pair well with orange. “I thought of walnut, and anise,” he says. “That’s the fun thing about cocktails – we’re basically building on what chefs have already given us.” You’ll currently find MacEachern pouring Fridays and Saturdays at Uptown’s Belly & Trumpet, where you can still savor the drink’s warm nuttiness and licorice finish.
4. REAL SLOW AND REAL LOW, Barter (Rocco Milano)
“You would think there’s no way that could all work together,” bar manager Rocco Milano said as he placed the bottles in front of me one by one at the late Private/Social (RIP): Slow and Low Rock & Rye (basically a pre-bottled Old Fashioned). Cointreau Noir. Peachy Crème de Peche. Hum, a botanical spirit distinguished by hibiscus, ginger and clove, among other flavors. And Luxardo maraschino liqueur. The ingredients would comprise one of the last drinks Milano — whose Fall Into A Glass was my favorite drink of 2012 — would pour for me there before it closed in July; back then he called it the I’ll Have One Of Those, but fortunately for us brave souls it has been reborn under its new identity at Barter, Milano’s new playground in Uptown, where it will likewise seduce you with fruity sweetness before wrapping you in its warm boa-constrictor grip.
3. ROSEMARY’S AFFAIR, La Duni (Daniel Guillen)
Here’s a cocktail that takes you from backyard garden to summer campfire on a magic carpet of licorice; it’s no wonder this cocktail earned Guillen, La Duni’s bar program manager, a slot repping North Texas in a national Bombay Sapphire-sponsored competition in Vegas. It’s not officially on La Duni’s menu, but track Guillen down and he’ll gladly make it for you, first dropping a sprig of fresh rosemary into a Collins glass, splashing it with absinthe and lighting it afire. Then he’ll douse it with enough ice to fill the glass to the brim and cover it with a coaster, capturing and taming the smoking rosemary’s savory flavor. Meanwhile, he’ll mix 2 ounces of Bombay Sapphire gin, ¾ ounce of orgeat, ½ ounce of Averna and a bit of lemon and lime, then pour the liquid over the rosemary-smoked ice. Swirl it in your mouth and you’ll find herb, citrus, smoke and probably the urge to order another.
2. ONE SMASHED MONK, The People’s Last Stand (Alex Fletcher)
Ah, Green Chartreuse: My beloved Joan Allen of liqueurs. Forever a supporting actress in many a cocktail, never the star. Can she help it if she’s larger than life? See her shine in the classic Last Word – but then send her offstage. When Fletcher (now at Victor Tango’s) headed the bar program at The People’s Last Stand, he felt it was time to give this aggressively vegetal liqueur a starring role, and the tart, sweet, highly herbaceous result outdoes even The Bourne Supremacy: Its elemental mash-up of Green Chartreuse, lime and simple, spiced up with muddled Thai basil and sugar, might seem soft on the surface, but it packs a 110-proof punch. Just like Joan Allen.
1. AMOR Y AMARGO, Hibiscus (Grant Parker)
Grant Parker’s bar program at Hibiscus is one of the better ones in town, and this Sazerac-esque drink of incredible depth – not officially on the menu – reflects his alchemistic approach. After being blown away by a similar drink at New York’s bitters-focused Amor Y Amargo bar last summer, he wanted to try to replicate the cocktail’s blend of amaros (bittersweet herbal liqueurs). For a week straight he spent a couple of hours a day perfecting this mysterious and satisfying blend of four amaros, plus Peychaud’s bitters and Bittermen’s orange cream nitrate. There’s some Cynar in there, and Averna. Possibly some Amaro Montenegro. Or not. But it’s dark and voluptuous, a drink you’ll want to take a thousand sips of, letting the flavors lindy-hop across your tongue. Cherry. Citrus. Root beer. They’re all there. “It’s essentially an Amaro Sazerac,” he says. It’s amor (love) and amargo (bitter) in a glass. And it’s fabulous.
Honorable Mentions: Brown and Stirred (Grant Parker, Hibiscus); Caribbean Winter (Matt Orth, Lark on the Park); Chocolate Bullet (Bistro 31); Holy Grail (Michael Martensen, Driftwood); The Inquisition (Emily Perkins, Victor Tango’s); Scorched Belly (Matt Perry, Belly & Trumpet); Steep Buzz (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier).
“We’re kind of scrunched for space, but I’m doing the best I can,” Ryan Sumner said as he kicked off the Clyde May’s Whiskey Old-Fashioned competition at The People’s Last Stand with a version featuring apple bitters, demerara syrup and the French bitter Suze.
Consider this post Old-Fashionably late: It’s been a couple of weeks since 16 bartenders vied for the top prize of $500, each with up to six minutes to make and present their drink for the judges. Clyde May’s was the vehicle here, an apple-ish, bordering-on-caustic whiskey with some colorful moonshine roots, and each contestant spun a different version of the cocktail stalwart while adhering to its traditional mix of whiskey, sweetener, bitters and water.
Cinnamon, vanilla, peach and, of course, apple were popular flavors. One of my favorite versions came from Greg Matthews of Oak Cliff’s Ten Bells Tavern, who froze Mudsmith Coffee’s steeped coffee into cubes and punctuated his whiskey concoction with a vanilla sugar made with Mexican vanilla beans, hazelnut bitters and a vanilla/hazelnut garnish.
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen shone, too, gussying up his Old Fashioned with sherry, Campari and a roasted red pepper and pecan jam. And Smyth’s Charlie Tips Ferrin, like his compatriot Sumner, served his summery green apple/walnut drink in little mason jars – “in the spirit of the moonshine that it came from,” he said.
Brad Bowden of The People’s Last Stand infused his whiskey with smoked peaches, while Ryan Fussell of Ruth’s Chris Steak House strived to use ingredients that would have been available in the 1800s, when the classic cocktail was born. He topped it with a warm fig garnish. (“Figs are badass,” pronounced photographer Mary Szefcyk, clearly impressed with the choice.)
In the end it was Smyth’s Omar YeeFoon who walked away with top honors, flavoring his version with Plantation 5-year-old rum, Angostura and tiki bitters, cane syrup and a light dash of orange oils. With Ferrin placing second and Sumner taking third, it was a Smyth sweep, which if nothing else proved the speakeasy boys could come through in scrunch time.
And if you’d like to see Smyth’s Ryan Sumner explain the method behind his Old Fashioned twist, here’s a link to my YouTube video:
They came to do battle with guava and chili, with basil and peppers and passionfruit puree. Slinging their drinks in shot-sized portions, they implored the parched and perspiring throngs to cast votes in their favor, each angling for the $1,000 crown of Margarita Meltdown 2013.
The third annual event pitched its tents in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District Sunday, and if you came to knock down a little tequila, it did not disappoint: Around 30 restaurants offered their own spin on the classic Margarita, cranking out mini-cocktails dressed oh so many different ways — punched up with pineapple, couched in horchata, spiced with serrano chile.
Everybody started with a common ingredient: Milagro tequila blanco. Plano’s Whiskey Cake, which took last year’s title with bartender Bonnie Wilson’s frozen “Push-Up” Margarita, made another strong push this year with a drink served not in a glass but in a plastic squirt gun. They ran out within two hours.
Here’s how it all worked: Checklists were distributed. Have a mini-Margarita, cross the place off your list. Then vote – via text – for your favorite four. The machinations were a mystery, and voting continued for an hour past its scheduled cut-off point. Then again, the queues moved slowly; I still managed to sample 18 Margaritas in all, from Oak Cliff Social Club’s grapefruit and Squirt-splashed version to the tasty peach margarita pitched up by Cyclone Anaya’s of Oak Lawn.
Sunset Lounge embraced the tiki with a “Zombie-rita” partied up with Bacardi 151 rum, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Velvet Falernum, Angostura bitters, cinnamon syrup and lime, grapefruit and pineapple juice.
“This is the longest line I’ve had to wait in,” a girl complained as she waited to try the Standard Pour booth, where bartender Armando Guillen shook up batches of his special Margarita blend in real time. “It’d better be f-ing worth it.”
And it was: Guillen’s drink featured orange-tea-infused tequila, ginger and passionfruit purees, blood orange bitters and a five-chili balsamic reduction – sweetly alluring with lots of character.
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen – Armando’s brother – also scored with his Bohemia Margarita, flavored with Becherovka (a Czech herbal liqueur), lime and a house-made cordial of cucumber, pepper and star anise, finished off with a Tajin chile-lime powder rim.
So did Asador, whose fruity watermelon and basil version shone with subtle heat, making use of sambal (a Southeast Asian chili sauce) and a ginger/sea salt foam. Another stand-out: The Lucky One, from the just-opened Mutts Canine Cantina, dolled up with a strawberry, cucumber and rosemary shrub for some balsamic beauty. (Though my companion Rachel cleverly suggested sprucing it up even more with a Pop-Rock rim.)
DaLat came prepared to serve up 2,300 of its spectacular “Vietnamese Margaritas,” which were really not Margaritas at all, but with their prune-candy and chili-flaked lime one-two punch kept the booth’s lines long and lingering.
The best of the bunch? For one, Mesomaya’s avocado-pineapple Margarita made with Cointreau – always a plus in my book – and laced with Tajin. “It’s mellow and yellow,” my worthy sidekick said.
My favorite, though, was “The People’s Last Pequin,” from The People’s Last Stand, a complex punch incorporating smoked strawberries, honey agave and two infused tequilas – one with chile pequin, the other with vanilla bean – and, naturally, Cointreau. The rim was a mix of lime zest, smoked sea salt and guajillo chili. All-around goodness.
So who won? Well, does it really matter? Suffice it to say that the victorious cocktail was the one drink that both my companion and I tossed away without finishing, so horrendous was its assault upon our palates. And in case we thought we were mistaken, the guy behind us practically spit his out. Who knows: Maybe we got a bad batch. But really, by the time the results were announced, spirits were high, and this small but populous stretch of Bishop Arts had gotten its club vibe on, with booming beats and dancing in the streets, so for all anyone cared – except for a contingent of disappointed bartenders – the Sonic down the street could have been named winner and the party would have gone on. And it did. Dallas, I salute you.
Booze news and adventures in cocktailing, based In Dallas, Texas, USA. By Marc Ramirez, your humble scribe and boulevardier. All content and photos mine unless otherwise indicated. http://typewriterninja.com