It was the best of times, it was the thirst of times, and 2014’s constantly unfolding craft-cocktail kaleidoscope unfurled a spirited array of events for DFW’s imbiberati. Here’s a look back at the year’s top stories:
JANUARY: Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Michael Martensen together behind the bar at Abacus
From darkness, light: For a brief but glorious time, the chaos set in motion by Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s displacement from the late Chesterfield and Michael Martensen’s abrupt exit, along with his bar team, from Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social actually set the stage for two of the city’s most talented and influential bar men to pair up behind the bar at Abacus. The two have a longstanding rivalry – “I’m Seabiscuit and he’s War Admiral,” Campbell once told me. “I’m hard working, and he’s a fucking genetic miracle” – that continued to unfold at Abacus to customers’ benefit, especially late, once the kitchen had closed. One evening we rolled in and the two went back and forth like b-boys, throwing down cocktail creations to put each other’s to shame until Martensen slipped off to a corner to focus on a bit of handiwork. “What’s he doing over there?” Campbell wondered with his sly smile. Martensen emerged with what you see at top: A frothy apple boilermaker made with Deep Ellum Blonde, Cointreau, apple brandy, whole egg and a hollowed-out half-eggshell cupping a whiskey shot. Boss.
MAY: Mate Hartai says goodbye to The Libertine Bar
For years, Hartai — chief barman at Remedy, opening tonight –was synonymous with the Libertine, which he helped transform from solid neighborhood bar to a den of craft-cocktail prowess and innovation. But after five years at the Libertine, Hartai decided it was finally time to move on to other things – namely The Cold Standard, the craft ice business he’s been shaping for some time – and most recently, Remedy, the new Lower Greenville project from HG Sply owner Elias Pope.
JULY: Texas Tiki Throwdown at Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans
The DFW presence at the spirit industry’s biggest annual gathering has gotten larger and larger, with dozens of bartenders and spirit reps on hand for 2014’s event. Among the festival’s kickoff happenings was the Texas Tiki Throwdown, where DFW drink-slingers went mano-a-mano with others from Houston, Austin and San Antonio. It’s fair to say everyone left the conference room with Lone Stars in their eyes.
JULY: Driftwood introduces an oyster shooter flight
They say the world is your oyster, but sometimes oysters are your world: This little bit of brilliance from Oak Cliff’s disappointingly defunct seafood establishment briefly brightened up my existence. Four oysters on the half-shell, each shell filled upon consumption with one of four spirits or liqueurs: Manzanilla sherry, mezcal, single malt whiskey and Pernod. Let bivalves be bivalves!
AUGUST: Hendricks Gin’s Kanaracuni unveiling
Dallas was one of a handful of cities this summer in which Hendricks Gin chosed to unveil its rare Kanaracuni gin, a single-batch production made from a plant culled from the Venezuelan rainforest. Hendricks knows how to put on an event, and the fancifully exotic tasting, conducted at the Dallas Zoo, did not disappoint: Bordering on elaborate fantasy, it featured tales of adventure and large insects and finally samples of the amazing kumquat-flavored gin, which in intentionally ephemeral fashion shall never be seen again.
AUGUST: Parliament and Proof + Pantry open
As noted above, Lucky Campbell and Michael Martensen’s longstanding rivalry can occasionally reach ridiculous proportions, so it was only logical that their two long-awaited projects would open on the same night — Parliament in Uptown, and Proof + Pantry in the Arts District. (“How ridiculous is that?” Campbell told me a couple of nights before the big event.) Both have met expectations, garnering local and national acclaim.
OCTOBER: Midnight Rambler opens
Behind their Cuffs and Buttons consulting enterprise, cocktail masters Chad Solomon and Christy Pope have long been influences in DFW’s drinking scene, but it wasn’t until this fall that Midnight Rambler, the bar the two have long dreamed of opening, launched at the Joule Hotel. The swanky subterranean palace and its lineup of well-conceived libations take the city to another level, marking another step in its craft-cocktail evolution.
NOVEMBER: Charlie Papaceno leaves the Windmill Lounge
After nine years at the landmark lounge he co-founded with Louise Owens, Papaceno left the venerable dive spot to pursue plans to open a new bar in Dallas’ Cedars neighborhood. One of the scene’s elder statesmen, Papaceno’s bespectacled mug was a steady presence behind the bar at Windmill, which became an early haven for Dallas’ budding craft-bartender scene and went on to garner national attention – including a nod as one of Esquire’s best American bars.
DECEMBER: Trigger’s Toys annual benefit event featuring five pop-up bars
I was crushed to miss this epic event, which made use of the long-unused warren of space at recently opened Henry’s Majestic in the Knox-Henderson area. Five pop-up bars featuring teams of bartenders from DFW and beyond went all out to raise money for a Dallas charity serving hospitalized kids. From sports bar and tiki bar to country saloon and nightclub, it was a raucous party that garnered $100,000 for the cause.
ONGOING: Collectif 1806’s bartender book club events
The bartender education and support arm of Remy Cointreau USA, helmed locally by Emily Perkins, has helped remind that the whole craft-cocktail thing is less revolution than revival. At its periodic exclusive book club gatherings, bartenders page through some of Cointreau’s extensive collection of vintage cocktail tomes, perusing recipes and gleaning old knowledge and then passing the reaped benefits along to consumers. Everybody wins.
True oyster lovers know there’s no better way to enjoy nature’s briny gift to humankind than to slurp them right out of the half-shell. Well, not unless you’re at Driftwood, the Oak Cliff seafood oasis that has possibly invented the perfect way to love our luscious little friends – slurped right out of the half-shell and then followed by excellent half-shell shots.
Imagine yourself sitting at Driftwood’s newly expanded absinthe bar. Imagine it’s Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, because those are currently the only days when this is available. Suddenly – because you’ve ordered the oyster shell shooter special – four delicious Blue Point oysters appear in front of you, gleaming in their little half-shell boats. Of course you’re ready to pounce, but wait: Here come four glorious bottles, a beckoning backdrop to your bivalve bonanza.
Now, then: You may proceed. Oyster No. 1, down the hatch. Your friendly bartender raises the first bottle – mild, sweet La Guita Manzanilla sherry – and fills your still-briny oyster shell with a mini shot. You drink. Above you, clouds part and a sunbeam envelops you in a heavenly glow. (Your mileage may vary.) Each bottle gets its turn in a half-shell as you finish off oysters two through four: Del Maguey Vida mezcal. Laphroig single malt whiskey. And finally, sweet licorice-y Pernod.
The order is deliberate, explains Dallas bar man extraordinaire Michael Martensen, who hatched the concept in collaboration with UrbanDaddy Dallas editor Kevin Gray. (Gray had been eating oysters in New York once when he was suddenly inspired to have the barkeep top off one of nature’s cups with Laphroig.) “The sherry is soft,” says Martensen, co-founder of Misery Loves Co., which owns and operates Driftwood. “The mezcal is the next softest, but introduces smokiness. The Laphroig has a burn; it’s a smoke bomb in your face. And the Pernod is a whole other flavor – it’s got a dessert quality, so you want to finish with it.”
For those who haven’t ventured beyond more basic spirits, the four liquids might present a challenge, as several are generally acquired tastes. It’s a fine way to measure a companion’s taste for derring-do. But look, if you’re willing to put a raw oyster in your mouth, it’s not that much of a leap to consider accenting it with an intriguing alcoholic beverage, right?
The whole experience runs a reasonable 20 bucks. And just in time for National Oyster Day.
NEW ORLEANS — Here in the city that sets the standard for revelry, you never know what you might see: A Santa Claus in shorts, random people on stilts, or perhaps a llama. Add to that the loosely organized mayhem that is Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s largest national gathering, and you‘ve got “Rum Institute” class sessions, tasting stations disguised as giant Cointreau bottles and sponsored parties teeming with booze and spectacle.
Exhibit A: Absolut Vodka’s Wednesday-night welcome bash at Mardi Gras World, a circus-themed soiree featuring drink-slinging midway characters, Andy Warhol lookalikes in various sizes and craft-cocktail founding father Dale DeGroff crooning jazzy standards in the garden of gigantic floats. Or: the acrobat-dotted William Grant & Sons-sponsored party at Lakefront Airport, a restored art-deco edifice where I’m 85 percent sure I saw a camel.
This was the 12th annual TOTC gathering; nearly 23,000 people attended last year. The whole experience can be a bit much, a day-to-day beatdown so grueling that it’s tempting to keep score. “Goodnight NOLA, you’re a worthy adversary,” went Dallas’ Trina Nishimura’s fifth-night post on Facebook. “This round however, goes to me.” (Her final score: NOLA 2, Trina 2, draw 1.) But the frenzy couldn’t obscure the little things that make the annual festival special: The random run-ins with friends not seen since last year, the face-to-face encounters with people known only through social media, the new friends made over spirited dinners and Thursday’s massive midnight toast outside the Old Absinthe House by members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. The days were sprinkled with seminars on topics like bitters, a history of women working behind the bar or the Chinese spirit baijiu, but it was also worth taking a breather to browse the event’s bitters-and-book store or the Cocktail Kingdom-run shop with its gold-plated jiggers and beautifully reproduced vintage tomes like “Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual – Or: How To Mix Drinks of the Present Style” (1900 edition).
The Lone Star State was well represented. It was Texas, of course, that kicked off the jauntiness with Wednesday morning’s Tiki Throwdown at host Hotel Monteleone. The next day, Bonnie Wilson, beverage program manager forFrontburner’s Fork It Over Restaurants – think Plano’s Whiskey Cake or The Ranch at Las Colinas – crafted mini cocktails for the sampling hordes at one of numerous drink stations in Anchor Distilling’s tasting room. Later that afternoon, Austin’s Chris Bostick represented not just Texas but an entire gender at a Battle of the Sexes event sponsored by Mandarine Napoleon. And that night, Dallas’ Brad Bowden (Barter) and Christian Armando (The Standard Pour) were among the many visiting bartenders getting behind the stick at festival-related parties popping up at French Quarter-area locations.
Austin-via-Dallas resident Jason Kosmas, the easygoing co-founder of legendary New York bar Employees Only and one of the driving forces behind Dallas’ now thriving craft-cocktail scene, took some time to talk up The 86 Co., the fledgling spirits line he started with fellow EO barman Dushan Zaric and liquor ambassador Simon Ford. He held afternoon court at New Orleans’ Gravier Street Social, describing his products like a proud daddy recounting his 3-year-old’s budding sports prowess. “If it wasn’t for Tales, I don’t think we would have had the resources and relationships to take it to the next level,” he said.
Friday night would bring yet another party, this one sponsored by The 86 Co. – the annual bar battle pitting half a dozen bars from around the country against each other in a raucous atmosphere to see who could best handle the pressure, evoke their home environment and make the best set of cocktails. In short: To see who was mas macho. As with last year’s event — at which Dallas’ late Bar Smyth made an admirable showing — the throwdown was promoted boxing-style, this time with fancy posters and clever profile cards proclaiming each bar’s staff, fighting styles and words of warning to the competition. In addition to the Tiki Throwdown team, the night’s powerful Texas showing included at least a half-dozen Dallas-based state beverage reps; bartenders Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, Barter’s Stephen Halpin and Brad Bowden, Libertine’s Will Croxville and Driftwood’s Ryan Sumner; even cocktail gadabout Sean Reardon.
Upstairs, Houston bartending luminary Bobby Heugel poured mezcal. Vegas-based “Modern Mixologist” and author Tony Abou-Ganim singlehandedly lit up an entire corner of the dark room with his big-time smile. There was New York’s Julie Reiner, co-founder of the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club – but wait, who was that once again behind the bar at The 86 Co.’s station? None other than Dallas’ own Omar YeeFoon, the former Bar Smyth/Cedars Social cocktail magician who joined The 86 Co. as Texas state brand ambassador earlier this year.
My favorite sips of the evening, aside from the chicory-syrup-enhanced Milk Punch Hurricane poured at Boston’s Backbar, leaned toward the trending mezcal, including Vegas-based Herbs and Rye’s brilliant Smoking Mirrors – a spicy, sweet and smoky mix mining Fernet and pineapple syrup – and Denver stalwart Williams & Graham’s voluptuous Gold Digger, which matched the smoky agave spirit with Pierre Ferrand dry curacao and two kinds of sherry.
San Francisco’s Trick Dog would take the judges’ top prize, boosted by its carnival theme and cocktail-filled watermelons suspended in mini hammocks for midair imbibing through tiny spouts. Williams & Graham’s team – whose lead man, Sean Kenyon, would earn Tales’ nod as American Bartender of the Year, worked hard to recreate the bar’s library-esque atmosphere. A guy from New York’s NoMad climbed atop the bar and rained shots of premium mezcal into willing mouths, while Backbar was fronted in part by a fierce and impressively bearded madman with habanero eyes. Los Angeles’ Harvard & Stone was back there in a corner somewhere, out-crazied by the adjacent team from Herbs and Rye with its gaudy chandeliers and a leopard-bikini’ed woman the size of a Galliano bottle primping atop the bar, which in turn inspired Seattle bar man Rocky Yeh to peel off his shirt, leap aboard and let out his best beastly roar.
Could that have been what ultimately earned Herbs and Rye the People’s Choice award? Who knows, but it was that kind of night. It was that kind of week. And for a community whose living revolves around giving guests a great experience, a time to soak in camaraderie and a great experience for themselves.
“I’m Dallas bound,” wrote TOTC first-timer Lauren Spore, a cocktail waitress at Southlake’s Brio Tuscan Grille, in a Facebook post when it was all over. “But thank you to everyone I met, the new friends I made and the old friends who helped make this even more amazing. This has been one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life and to all the people who made it happen, thank you.”
With Dallas’ craft-cocktail cogniscenti waiting on Pimm’s and needles for the long-anticipated official openings of Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry and Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Parliament, even a practiced imbiber could be forgiven for failing to notice the other libationary locales making marks around town. And as it turns out, some of them have Martensen’s and Campbell’s DNA on them anyway.
Here’s six places worth putting on your cocktail radar while you wait.
It would be easy to get lost in the charm of this little house of a bar. A one-time vintage clothing shop off McKinney in Uptown, Bowen House evokes a Prohibition-era estate with its bookshelves and old photographs and your great-grandmother’s precious furniture. Don’t look for a cocktail menu beyond the pair of specials scrawled on the blackboard; there isn’t one. Instead, cite your tastes and preferences to steady bartenders Erikah Lushaj or Brandon Addicks, who are eagerly devouring cocktail knowledge as they strive to build a quality bar program. They’re also capable of devising their own creations – like Lushaj’s lusciously sweet 1874 (a nod to the year the house was built), a mix of rum, Galliano, vanilla and pineapple puree that she came up with for Dallas’ recent Tiki Week celebration.
In case you haven’t been keeping your ear to the ground, Dallas now has an absinthe bar – and it’s right there in the reinvented space at Driftwood, the Oak Cliff seafood restaurant on Davis. The minimal bar that once felt more like a holding area for diners awaiting tables has been expanded into a formidable L-shape that proudly proclaims its own identity. More importantly, bar manager Ryan Sumner’s spirit selection has been pumped up with anise-flavored concoctions from around Europe and the U.S., including 14 absinthes and three versions of French pastis. The absinthes – with notes ranging from juniper to honey-plum – can be enjoyed in the traditional louche style (slowly diluted with ice water and sugar); there’s also four related cocktails, including Hemingway’s classic mix of pastis and sparkling wine, Death In The Afternoon. Menu creator Michael Martensen says the idea of pairing absinthe with seafood occurred to him the more he researched seafood. “We’re doing like they do in the south of France,” he says. You’d do well to take in your Van Gogh experience with a round of fresh-shucked oysters – and even if you haven’t been keeping your ear to the ground, you can still keep your ear.
John Tesar’s new paradise of meat in Central 214’s old space in the Palomar Hotel comes with a solid bar program, too. Another project from barman Michael Martensen, it includes nods to often disregarded “retro classics” like the Long Island Iced Tea, Harvey Wallbanger and Sex on the Beach, the idea being that if the drinks are properly made with high-quality ingredients, they’re actually quite good. For the most part, that’s true – but it’s some of the bar’s other innovations that brighten my day, including the choose-your-own-ingredient Negronis or Gin and Tonics and a smooth, floral olive-oil gin martini softened with a hint of Green Chartreuse. The delicious, slightly salty Planter’s Punch was influenced by Martensen’s recent visit to Martinique: Among a group of bartenders there to learn about the island’s rum industry, the group was enjoying Planter’s Punches on a rollicking boat ride as the craft bobbed in the rough surf. “We were getting salt water in our drinks,” Martensen said. “I tasted it and thought: This is better.” He came back and made Knife’s version with a hint of house-made salt water. He says: “Dude, once you put the salt water in there, it’s like – bam! It takes me right back to the boat.”
There are probably two things you think about when you hear Meddlesome Moth: 1) the flutter and thump of a lepidopteran under the shade of your bedside lamp; and 2) beer. While there are indeed a mighty number of quality brews to be had at this Design District mainstay, cocktail program director Lauren Loiselle, with the help of beverage director Larry Lewis, has compiled a formidable selection of craft drinks, too, from a lineup of seasonal drinks (including dandy spins on the Margarita and Moscow Mule) to a top-notch supply of barrel-aged concoctions. One recent highlight: Loiselle’s divine barrel-aged Negroni, uncorked in time for last month’s National Negroni Week, with Ford’s gin, Aperol and Dolin Dry and Dolin Blanc vermouths.
Hump Day is already worth the trip to Tate’s in Uptown for half-price specials on most of their extensive whiskey selection, but even more so now that craft bartender Ian Reilly has joined the team on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Reilly, a one-time People’s Last Stand stalwart who’s also played significant roles behind the bar at Bowl & Barrel and Chino Chinatown, is a bit of a whiskey connoisseur who has written about Japanese whiskey for both CocktailEnthusiast.com and The Dallas Morning News. With the addition of Reilly to GM Robbie Call’s crowd-pleasing squad and a stable but solid cocktail list, Tate’s is golden right now.
The former J. Pepe’s space on Greenville has been reborn as a neighborhood bar with bocce ball and a quirky array of local art. (My favorite is the one of the dog that reminds me of a Chihuahua mix my family used to have.) So yes, come to Vagabond for the art and the kitschy bar-top lamps. Come for the quality food, like excellent beef tongue pastrami. But you should also come for the drinks: The house menu devised by mixologist Eddie “Lucky” Campbell includes delicious versions of under-recognized vintage cocktails like the Bijou and Scofflaw as well as tasty modern ones like the red-pepper-influenced HydroTonic and the rum-and-white-wine-combo Ninja Sangria. (In a nod to GM Stewart Jameson, there’s a handful of Jameson whiskey cocktails, too.) Cocktail director Stephen Vasquez plans to roll out a revised menu by next month, including the excellent Aurelius, a slightly bitter, refreshing drink featuring apricot-infused Aperol that he first made for me while doing time at downtown’s LARK on the Park.
Texas Tiki Week has been stomping through town, and if you want to get your boozy coconut on, there’s still two days left to go.
Already the week has brought a Mount Gay Rum-sponsored tiki dinner at Victor Tango’s, an Uptown tiki bar crawl and a Papa’s Pilar Rum-sponsored party at the Windmill Lounge – which not only featured the tropical-style drinks associated with the California-born genre but the meaty handiwork of barman Charlie Papaceno, who produced for the peckish late-night masses (in the words of bartender Trina Nishimura) an eye-popping “deconstructed, reconstructed Spam-ham.”
Thursday’s Uptown tiki crawl breezed through five McKinney Avenue-area destinations – Barter, Nickel & Rye, Bowen House, Tate’s and The Standard Pour –with each featuring their own umbrella- and flower-topped tiki spins (all of which should be available through the weekend). My favorites: Erikah Lushaj’s “1874” cocktail at Bowen House, a smoky-sweet mix of Brugal silver, Galliano, vanilla and smoked pineapple puree; and Mike Hamilton’s Timebomb at Nickel & Rye, which paired Brugal 1888 aged rum with peach liqueur and Hum, a botanical spirit for which I’ve been known to carry a tiki torch from time to time.
But wait, you say. What good does this do me, the thirsty reader, who also wishes to partake in such tropical revelry?
Simmer down: Here is your remedy. Friday night brings tiki revelry to Knife, where Omar YeeFoon and Michael Martensen will be doing it up with The 86 Co.’s Cana Brava rum.
This weekend, you’ve got two tiki brunches to choose from – Standard Pour will host one on Saturday from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm, while Barter will offer another on Sunday from 11:30 am to 2 pm. If you want to make a full night of it, there’s still a few seats left for Saturday’s Tiki Bus Tour, which will rumble to destinations including Bolsa, Driftwood and Dallas’ first renaissance-age tiki bar, Sunset Lounge. Tickets are $65 and can be reserved by emailing Steven Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The week will culminate with a tiki luau at The Standard Pour, which knows a thing or two about throwing a party. Sponsored by Utah’s High West Distillery, the event will run from 6:30 to midnight. Price is $20 and includes roast pig and a cocktail.
I’m sitting with another right now and all I can think about is you. Your curves: finer. Your colors: brighter. Tucked into every pocket of a memory, some drop of precious time holding echoes of so many bright moments. Warmth and comfort lined with intrigue and amazement, there is no inch of you that has not sat silent vigil to the chaotic magic of a serendipitous night. Some light up a room when they walk into it, but you, you are the room. You have seen me in the most revealing moments of the triumph of gravity over a single stubborn object more times than I would wish. You have also watched me stand many times my height with steel in my gaze and lead in my feet. I have watched over you as you gave warmth to many in a dim cold haze and I have seen you let the wind wildly shake tail over every curve and dimension. The days you cracked, tore and buckled – but never fell – charged me with the same will. You showed me the pain of compassion in the witness of true loss. Truly there is no light I have not seen you in but always in the most intimate of proximity. Soon that will become distance; familiarity, perspective; and responsibility, pride. I can’t say goodbye because you will be the object of my many thousand-yard gazes. Hopefully tomorrow we will have the perspective to see how much we were for each other yesterday.
Your barman true, Máté Hartai
You’ll have to forgive Máté Hartai if he’s got some strong feelings about the Libertine, the Lower Greenville institution whose bar program he’s headed for the last several years. In that time, disguised as merely a popular neighborhood bar, the Libertine has instead been the Trojan Horse in our midst: Under Hartai’s stewardship, both its beer and cocktail selections have emerged as among the most daring and erudite in DFW, and yet its subtle bearing, modest location and reluctance to promote itself as much more than a community servant conspired to curb it off the star-bar radar.
Cellared beers, morel-mushroom-infused rye, beer- and cocktail-paired dinners – Hartai had them all underway before they were trendy around these parts.
But the moment has come, Hartai says, to – well, he can’t even say the words. Not to move on – no, to move in a different direction. The Cold Standard, the nascent ice enterprise he’s been nurturing for several years is demanding more and more of his attention, as are other projects he’s got in the works, so…
“It’s time to let the Libertine go,” says the Hungarian-born Hartai, who joined the Libertine as a bar-back in 2009. “I’ve trained that baby to where it can run on its own.”
Tuesday, May 27, will be Hartai’s final day at the Libertine (his final day behind the bar will be Sunday the 25th), and fittingly his stint will end with one of the bar’s signature dinners – this one a Utah-themed event featuring both of his passions, beer and spirits.(Click the link above, then the box to the right.) It’s also his birthday, and Hartai is letting it all out, planning to unveil some of his rarest cellar keepsakes.
“It’s the bridging of two things I’m passionate about,” he says. “The beer is going to be out of this world.”
Hartai, whose family came to the U.S. when he was a middle-schooler – “just young enough to lose my accent,” he says – is among the most knowledgeable of bartenders, quirky and wonkish, with a nerdy, scientific approach to his work. When Bar Smyth, the Knox-Henderson speakeasy to which Hartai was briefly attached, was invited to compete against other bars at a national cocktail-industry convention last year, it was he who devised the ingenious backpack keg with which he waded through the crowds with his Texas-stamped helmet, pouring cocktail shots.
In an industry where mobility is a constant, Hartai was a mark of steadiness and community involvement, even as he shunned social media — he had to be goaded into joining Facebook — and self-promotion. Within bartending circles, his grasp of the craft is well known.
“Everybody on this side knows what Máté has been doing,” said Eddie Eakin, bar manager at Oak Cliff’s Boulevardier. “He’s intelligent, he’s cutting edge. Definitely among the upper crust in Dallas.”
Yet some still scoff when Eakin directs them to the Libertine for cocktails, deceived by the bar’s unassuming presence. By excelling in all areas – including its solid kitchen – it couldn’t be pegged as making its “thing” any single one of them.
“It’s one of the most well-rounded bars in the city,” says bar manager Ryan Sumner of Driftwood. “If you open up a neighborhood bar – that’s what it should be.”
As the Dallas cocktail scene exponentially matured behind names like Michael Martensen, Brian McCullough and Charlie Papaceno, Hartai always viewed the Libertine, with its homey, den-like atmosphere, as a place to feel comfortable enough to take those first few steps into a much deeper pool of alcohol knowledge. Co-owners Simon McDonald and Michael Smith trusted his oddball seasonal menu inspirations, with experiments like the cocktails named after Smiths song titles; you wouldn’t know what you got until you actually ordered the drink.
Libertine’s classic cocktail menu has stayed the course since Hartai instituted it, but that’s since been supplemented by bar favorites and other rotating theme menus like “By Friends, For All,” a tribute lineup with cocktails designed by fellow craft-cocktail bartenders like Trina Nishimura and Julian Pagan. “The Brave, The Bold” featured Hartai creations named the Coburn, the Bronson, the McQueen and the Brynner with ingredients like pulled-pork-infused tequila and five-spice rum. “All it is, is a liquid kitchen to me,” he says.
He’s loved his job, he says – and why shouldn’t he? He gets to throw a party every day. But in moving on, Hartai will leave behind a consummate bar – not a great beer bar, not a great cocktail bar, but a great all-around hangout. He’s eager to see the Libertine continue to develop without him, supported by a training program he willfully built over time. “There’s a lot of talent in that house,” he says.
Co-owner McDonald wishes Hartai the best, knowing that he helped build the bar into what it is today. “He’s a really smart guy who just worked his way into knowing everything about everything,” McDonald said. “But he’s so humble about it.”
No matter where he lands, Hartai says, it won’t be for long. “I like being behind the bar too much,” he says. “It’s like when you cut down Obi-Wan: I’m going from being the old man in the robe to being the blue glowie.”
The May 27 dinner begins at 7 p.m. and seating is limited. The price is $60 a person – more than worth the opportunity to wish Hartai a happy birthday and see the Jedi in his temple one last time.
“It’s the culmination of everything I’ve been working for,” he says. “It’s gonna be a magical night for me.”
LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Avenue. 214-824-7900.
The sugar peas were looking exceedingly delicious this spring, and right away Alex Fletcher knew it was time to take a stab at the idea that had been percolating inside for a year.
Fletcher, bar manager at Victor Tango’s in Knox-Henderson, had in mind a sugar-pea-infused gin, but he also knew that green vegetables tended to wilt in booze. “Like cucumbers — they’ll be good one day and then the next day, it’s like they’re pickled,” he says. “That’s gross. I learned that the hard way.”
Instead, he turned to one of the culinary world’s more modern trends: sous-vide (French for “under vacuum”), a vacuum-sealing method industrialized in the 1960s and then increasingly adopted by chefs like Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria and Dallas’ John Tesar as part of the molecular gastronomy movement.
Fletcher is among a handful of Dallas bartenders experimenting with the technique – in which ingredients are usually vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag – or its variations to create infusions or to enhance other cocktail ingredients, further fogging the lines between bar and kitchen.
Chefs typically cook ingredients in the bag, often at low heat for long periods of time, to juice up flavor and moistness. Bartenders do the same using bags or even mason jars kept in a water bath temperature-controlled with a sous-vide circulator. There’s also “Cryovacking,” as some call it, playing off the brand-name airtight plastic-bag manufacturer, which can be used to quickly infuse pressurized contents with added flavors or heighten flavors already present.
That’s what Jacob Boger, lead barman at Knox-Henderson’s Origin Kitchen + Bar, was doing with lemons and limes and hoping to echo with strawberries earlier this month. He figured five minutes’ worth of pressure could help siphon sweetness from the not-quite-ripe strawberries. “Just the fact that they’re in their own juices, you know…. Maybe I’ll put some raw sugar in there to really draw it out. It’s an easy enough thing you can do to make a better drink.”
At Driftwood in Oak Cliff, bar manager Ryan Sumner is eyeing the method to create infused simple syrups, while Ian Reilly at Trinity Groves’ Chino Chinatown has made oleo saccharums, or sugared citrus oils, the same way. Meanwhile, at Barter, the wheels are always spinning. “We’re basically just playing the game, `Can we sous-vide it? Yes, we can,’” says the Uptown bar’s Stephen Halpin.
Hey, we’re all busy these days. So for bartenders, one of sous-vide’s advantages is the speed with which such ingredients can be ready for use depending on the desired flavor potency. Barter’s deliciously fruity Singapore Sling is made with gin heated at 62.5 degrees Centigrade along with pineapple, cucumber, white peppercorns and orange peel. But where a typical infusion might take 30 days of thumb-twiddling, Barter’s gin preparation, once bagged and sealed, can be ready in 90 minutes.
Put that in your agave pit and smoke it.
Barter’s Halpin also does a sous-vide gin infused with blood orange for an hour; the process allows him to incorporate the fruit’s flavorful zest, which wouldn’t work in a traditional infusion. “You can’t leave in too long,” he says. “It gets too bitter. You can’t dial that back.” The piquant mix shines in the bar’s off-menu Please Give Gin Another Chance, which Halpin offers to those who’ve felt burned by gin in the past.
As Nonstop Honolulu reported early last year, bartender Dave Newman of Honolulu’s Pint + Jigger has used sous-vide to evoke the effects of barrel aging, replacing the typical weeks-long oak-cask soak with bourbon and barrel wood chips sealed in mason jars kept in a 120-degree bath for two days. Does it work? The author thought so: “The sous vide cocktail was much smoother with an added oaky complexity that would normally require several weeks of barrel aging to achieve,” he concluded.
In recent years, sous-vide or Cryovac cocktails have appeared elsewhere across the U.S. – at Seattle’s Tavern Law, San Diego’s Grant Grill, The Aviary in Chicago and Atlanta’s Seven Lamps, where bartender Arianne Fielder “hypothesized that slowly cooking the sugars in alcohol but not allowing the vapors to escape would make colors darker and flavors more intense,” according to an Eater Atlanta article. And three years ago, during his brief reign at Bailey’s Prime, Dallas’ Eddie “Lucky” Campbell featured cantaloupe-infused tequila made Cryovac-style in a cocktail called High Maintenance.
The more heat, the faster the infusion – but don’t get too excited yet: As Oregon bartender Ricky Gomez cautions, ingredients can give off different flavors at different temps. Other variables may also affect potency or longevity. Tweaking may be required.
When Fletcher became bar manager at Victor Tango’s, he suddenly had access to a vacuum sealer at a neighboring restaurant. “My grandmother used to make English peas all the time, so I sometimes have a craving for them,” he says. “And whenever I have a craving for something, I try to make a cocktail out of it.”
He mixed a quarter-pound of slightly crushed peas with a half-bottle of gin. He chose Hayman’s Old Tom gin – the sweeter style of gin popular in 18th-century England before today’s more prevalent London Dry came along – for its more subtle botanicals. Into the bag they went, sealed tight – pooosh – with a Vac Master machine. “That’s the big boy of Cryovac machines,” he says. “It sucks all the air out of the bag.”
Two hours later, the pea-infused, light-green gin was ready to go. And if peas in liquid form make you think of split-pea soup, then we’re all on the same page: The soup is usually boosted with pork flavor, so Fletcher made a genius move to complete the cocktail. He gathered up some tapioca maltodextrin, a light-as-air, fat-soluble starch that absorbs flavors but has no odor or flavor of its own. He then threw some of that into a food processor along with a little bacon fat and a pinch of salt… and out came a unicorn. Okay, not exactly, but if you can imagine bacon-flavored confectioner’s sugar, this was it.
His tasty Swee’Pea cocktail, now on Victor Tango’s’ spring menu, mixes the gin with lemon and demerara syrup, served up in a coupe rimmed with the bacon powder and garnished with a sugar pea.
Fletcher would eventually find his vacuum-sealer access limited, so for the time being he’s using extracted pea juice instead, not introducing it to the gin until ordered. Unfortunately, it lacks the vibrancy of his sous-vide version. But sometime this week, he says, he plans to get Victor Tango’s a vacuum-sealer of its own. When and if that happens, I’d highly recommend the Swee’Pea as a great way to round out your daily vegetable requirement.
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).
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