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Amid the mayhem, camaraderie: Texas weathers the Tales of the Cocktail storm

Tales of the Cocktail's Absolut Welcome Party
At Tales of the Cocktail’s opening party, the great Dale DeGroff crooned Sinatra-style standards.

NEW ORLEANS — Here in the city that sets the standard for revelry, you never know what you might see: A Santa Claus in shorts, random people on stilts, or perhaps a llama. Add to that the loosely organized mayhem that is Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s largest national gathering, and you‘ve got “Rum Institute” class sessions, tasting stations disguised as giant Cointreau bottles and sponsored parties teeming with booze and spectacle.

Exhibit A: Absolut Vodka’s Wednesday-night welcome bash at Mardi Gras World, a circus-themed soiree featuring drink-slinging midway characters, Andy Warhol lookalikes in various sizes and craft-cocktail founding father Dale DeGroff crooning jazzy standards in the garden of gigantic floats. Or: the acrobat-dotted William Grant & Sons-sponsored party at Lakefront Airport, a restored art-deco edifice where I’m 85 percent sure I saw a camel.

Clockwise, from upper left: Esquire's David Wondrich at a Tales workshop; The Old Absinthe House; French Quarter llama sighting; The 86 Co.'s Jason Kosmas; Italian amaro producer Orietta Varnelli; a freakin' camel; a TOTC cocktail.
Clockwise, from upper left: Esquire’s David Wondrich at a TOTC workshop; The Old Absinthe House; French Quarter llama sighting; The 86 Co.’s Jason Kosmas; Italian amaro producer Orietta Varnelli; a freakin’ camel; a TOTC cocktail.

This was the 12th annual TOTC gathering; nearly 23,000 people attended last year. The whole experience can be a bit much, a day-to-day beatdown so grueling that it’s tempting to keep score. “Goodnight NOLA, you’re a worthy adversary,” went Dallas’ Trina Nishimura’s fifth-night post on Facebook. “This round however, goes to me.” (Her final score: NOLA 2, Trina 2, draw 1.) But the frenzy couldn’t obscure the little things that make the annual festival special: The random run-ins with friends not seen since last year, the face-to-face encounters with people known only through social media, the new friends made over spirited dinners and Thursday’s massive midnight toast outside the Old Absinthe House by members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. The days were sprinkled with seminars on topics like bitters, a history of women working behind the bar or the Chinese spirit baijiu, but it was also worth taking a breather to browse the event’s bitters-and-book store or the Cocktail Kingdom-run shop with its gold-plated jiggers and beautifully reproduced vintage tomes like “Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual – Or: How To Mix Drinks of the Present Style” (1900 edition).

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
DFW’s Bonnie Wilson held down one of Anchor Distilling’s tasting stations.

The Lone Star State was well represented. It was Texas, of course, that kicked off the jauntiness with Wednesday morning’s Tiki Throwdown at host Hotel Monteleone. The next day, Bonnie Wilson, beverage program manager forFrontburner’s Fork It Over Restaurants – think Plano’s Whiskey Cake or The Ranch at Las Colinas – crafted mini cocktails for the sampling hordes at one of numerous drink stations in Anchor Distilling’s tasting room. Later that afternoon, Austin’s Chris Bostick represented not just Texas but an entire gender at a Battle of the Sexes event sponsored by Mandarine Napoleon. And that night, Dallas’ Brad Bowden (Barter) and Christian Armando (The Standard Pour) were among the many visiting bartenders getting behind the stick at festival-related parties popping up at French Quarter-area locations.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
In case you ever wondered what a Rum Institute looks like. Presented by Angostura.

Austin-via-Dallas resident Jason Kosmas, the easygoing co-founder of legendary New York bar Employees Only and one of the driving forces behind Dallas’ now thriving craft-cocktail scene, took some time to talk up The 86 Co., the fledgling spirits line he started with fellow EO barman Dushan Zaric and liquor ambassador Simon Ford. He held afternoon court at New Orleans’ Gravier Street Social, describing his products like a proud daddy recounting his 3-year-old’s budding sports prowess. “If it wasn’t for Tales, I don’t think we would have had the resources and relationships to take it to the next level,” he said.

Friday night would bring yet another party, this one sponsored by The 86 Co. – the annual bar battle pitting half a dozen bars from around the country against each other in a raucous atmosphere to see who could best handle the pressure, evoke their home environment and make the best set of cocktails. In short: To see who was mas macho. As with last year’s event — at which Dallas’ late Bar Smyth made an admirable showing — the throwdown was promoted boxing-style, this time with fancy posters and clever profile cards proclaiming each bar’s staff, fighting styles and words of warning to the competition. In addition to the Tiki Throwdown team, the night’s powerful Texas showing included at least a half-dozen Dallas-based state beverage reps; bartenders Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, Barter’s Stephen Halpin and Brad Bowden, Libertine’s Will Croxville and Driftwood’s Ryan Sumner; even cocktail gadabout Sean Reardon.

Upstairs, Houston bartending luminary Bobby Heugel poured mezcal. Vegas-based “Modern Mixologist” and author Tony Abou-Ganim singlehandedly lit up an entire corner of the dark room with his big-time smile. There was New York’s Julie Reiner, co-founder of the Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club and Clover Club – but wait, who was that once again behind the bar at The 86 Co.’s  station? None other than Dallas’ own Omar YeeFoon, the former Bar Smyth/Cedars Social cocktail magician who joined The 86 Co. as Texas state brand ambassador earlier this year.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
Bar Fight Club, clockwise from upper left: Trick Dog’s drink menu; The Williams & Graham team; Texas’ Brian McCullough and Jason Kosmas; New York’s NoMad squad; happy revelers; the guys from Herbs & Rye; Dallas’ Omar YeeFoon; The menu from Boston’s Backbar; Bar Fight Club 2014’s poster.

My favorite sips of the evening, aside from the chicory-syrup-enhanced Milk Punch Hurricane poured at Boston’s Backbar, leaned toward the trending mezcal, including Vegas-based Herbs and Rye’s brilliant Smoking Mirrors – a spicy, sweet and smoky mix mining Fernet and pineapple syrup – and Denver stalwart Williams & Graham’s voluptuous Gold Digger, which matched the smoky agave spirit with Pierre Ferrand dry curacao and two kinds of sherry.

San Francisco’s Trick Dog would take the judges’ top prize, boosted by its carnival theme and cocktail-filled watermelons suspended in mini hammocks for midair imbibing through tiny spouts. Williams & Graham’s team – whose lead man, Sean Kenyon, would earn Tales’ nod as American Bartender of the Year, worked hard to recreate the bar’s library-esque atmosphere. A guy from New York’s NoMad climbed atop the bar and rained shots of premium mezcal into willing mouths, while Backbar was fronted in part by a fierce and impressively bearded madman with habanero eyes. Los Angeles’ Harvard & Stone was back there in a corner somewhere, out-crazied by the adjacent team from Herbs and Rye with its gaudy chandeliers and a leopard-bikini’ed woman the size of a Galliano bottle primping atop the bar, which in turn inspired Seattle bar man Rocky Yeh to peel off his shirt, leap aboard and let out his best beastly roar.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
You’ll have whatever he makes you. At Boston’s Backbar station at Fight Club 2014.

Could that have been what ultimately earned Herbs and Rye the People’s Choice award? Who knows, but it was that kind of night. It was that kind of week. And for a community whose living revolves around giving guests a great experience, a time to soak in camaraderie and a great experience for themselves.

“I’m Dallas bound,” wrote TOTC first-timer Lauren Spore, a cocktail waitress at Southlake’s Brio Tuscan Grille, in a Facebook post when it was all over. “But thank you to everyone I met, the new friends I made and the old friends who helped make this even more amazing. This has been one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life and to all the people who made it happen, thank you.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
Words can’t even: The Absolut Welcome Party at Mardi Gras World.


Cheers! Documentary about the faces behind the craft-cocktail revival to screen Monday in Dallas


Documentary by Douglas Tirola
Raising the bar. (Image courtesy of 4th Row Films)

“The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards… above all the elusive promise of friendship and love.”

– Pete Hamill, from the documentary Hey Bartender

Yeah, think about that. You’re at your favorite bar, which is your favorite bar because they know what you like, or are clever enough to play to your tastes, or because they give you that little extra pour, or because they slyly started that conversation with you and that cute girl two seats away – but wait. Who’s they?

It’s bartenders, that’s who. And in this craft-cocktail renaissance that has demanded even higher levels of professionalism from those fine gents and damsels behind the counter, they are your tour guides.

Now comes a 2013 documentary that marks their role in the ongoing cocktail revival. Hey Bartender will screen at 7 p.m. Monday at the Highland Park Village Theater. Written and directed by Douglas Tirola, the film launched in New York City and Los Angeles earlier this year and follows the ups and downs of two bartenders: Steve Schneider, a retired U.S. Marine who hopes to tend bar at New York City speakeasy Employees Only; and Steve Carpentieri, owner of Dunville’s, a struggling pints-n-shots corner bar in small-town coastal Connecticut.

Employees Only, of course, is where Texas’ own Jason Kosmas earned his juice as one of the pioneering bar’s co-owners before he relocated to Dallas. (It’s also a bar Esquire’s David Wondrich calls “the greatest date bar in the world.”) Kosmas, who now co-owns The 86 Co. spirits venture, has since moved to Austin but had helped convince 4th Row Films to offer the screening here.

Hey Bartender documentary
Steve Schneider of New York’s pioneering speakeasy Employees Only is among those featured in the film. (Image courtesy of 4th Row Films)

The events in Hey Bartender take place about the time Kosmas came to Texas – one reason, he says, he’s not more prominently featured in the film. On the other hand, it gave him the chance to see Dallas cocktail culture go from tottering baby deer to the swaggering buck it is today. (And of course Kosmas had much to do with that, though he doesn’t say so.)

In that sense, getting 4th Row Films to screen the film here was a way to thank his local bartending and alcohol industry community for eschewing the standard vodka-and-Red-Bull approach to help to bring the scene to where it is now.

The film features contributions from Dale DeGroff, widely acknowledged as man behind the revival; Charlotte Voisey, representative for family-owned distillery William Grant and Sons, which has partnered with the film; and prominent New York bar owners and drink makers Jim Meehan, Audrey Saunders and Sasha Petraske.

The film features a black-and-white photo of a youthful, less hirsute Kosmas in his mid-20s, when he met fellow Employees Only co-owner Dushan Zaric. Both were tending bar at Pravda, Dale DeGroff’s first venture outside the famed Rainbow Room. “We were kids,” he says.

Tickets to the film are $11.95, but seats are very limited. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to call the theater beforehand to confirm availability. Or try buying tickets here. Kosmas, for one, will be returning to Dallas for the occasion.

“I’m really excited,” he says. “It’ll be great to come back home.”

Because sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

HIGHLAND PARK VILLAGE THEATER, 32 Highland Park Village. 214-443-0222.

Annual cocktail conference about to get 86’d: Dallas bartender’s spirits venture will host bar battle


The 86 Co.’s signature vodka and rum.

A coup for Dallas’ Jason Kosmas and his new spirits venture, The 86 Co.: The brand has been chosen to host this year’s Bare Knuckle Bar Fight at July’s annual Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) conference in New Orleans.

The event, held toward the conference’s end, is this year’s version of the previously named Bar Room Brawl, wherein a number of selected bar staffs around the country battle for bragging rights as judges assess their ability to churn out drinks in the midst of a massive, party-type atmosphere.

The event’s primary spirits will come from The 86 Co., which Kosmas launched earlier this year with esteemed barmen Simon Ford (former brand expert for Pernod Ricard USA), Dushan Zaric (co-owner with Kosmas of New York’s Employees Only bar). They include Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cana Brava Rum, Tequila Cabeza and the highly rated Ford’s Gin.

Del Maguey Vida mezcal will also be represented at the event.

“(TOTC founder) Ann (Tuennerman) wanted to give us an opportunity,” Kosmas said. “It makes perfect sense for us.

“The Bar Room Brawl has been such an iconic part of Tales, and as the festival gets bigger, we’re happy to be a part of it.”

Participants and judges are expected to be announced on May 1.

— Marc Ramirez, published 4/26/13

NOTE: A previous version of this post incorrectly implied Ford still represented Pernod Ricard. Barmoire regrets the error.

A clear and pleasant danger

You know what they say about what happens in Vegas, and I’m sure there are good reasons for that. It’s not something I personally would ever have to worry –


All right! It’s out in the open now! Me and vodka, gettin’ crazy!

Here’s the thing: I usually avoid vodka. When I scan a bar’s cocktail list, I skip right over vodka drinks like a vegetarian presented with a burger menu. And yet: Were you to look in my freezer, you’d see a vodka bottle stationed right there among the frozen tortillas and turkey patties.

Let me explain, first about Vegas: Imagine yourself wandering through the Mandalay Bay Casino, when suddenly you see a headless Lenin. Being a sucker for Soviet kitsch, you enter Red Square, a vodka bar fronted by the decapitated statue outside. Inside, the atmosphere is a dark tableau of marvelous red, awash in Russian décor.

The velvety interior of Red Square, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay.

Suddenly you are transported to Russia, smack in the thick of winter. (Well, not really, but play along here.) The curious dark room at the end of the bar, cordoned off with stanchions, is a small, circular space kept at between zero and five degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the icy table in the middle is Lenin’s missing head.

To enter the so-called Vodka Vault, you have to buy either a full or a half bottle of premium vodka. You’ll also want to grab something off the coat rack lined with mink coats and furry hats outside. Anna, tonight’s vodka goddess – because Red Square is the kind of place that would have a “vodka goddess” – says no party lasts more than 90 minutes inside. “It’s a novelty,” she says. “Like you’re in Russia.”

The so-called vodka vault, kept at zero to five degrees Fahrenheit.

There is no right way to drink mediocre vodka. However, there is a right way to drink premium vodka, and that is straight, and cold, with fellow imbibers. The vodka vault will do just fine, and you don’t have to finish the whole bottle; do some frosty shots, the vodka goddess says, then come out and have any of Red Square’s able bartenders make cocktails out of the rest.

The site vodkaphiles.com notes that vodka has earned popularity as a “perfectly neutral” – read “generally tasteless” – base for mixed drinks: “Frankly, to us Vodkaphiles, that’s a bit like buying a car for the sunroof,” the site says. (Not the best metaphor, but you get the idea.) And on Red Square’s cocktail menu, you’ll find the typical assortment of saccharine vodka offerings – pineapple, blueberry and raspberry martinis.

That’s the reason vodka is widely known among craft bartenders as the tofu of spirits: It tends to be a lifeless vehicle whose only talent is taking on the flavor of whatever’s added to it. Basically, it’s the Kristen Stewart of liquor, primped up with fruity, sugary flavors. In other words, it’s what people who don’t want to taste alcohol drink when they want to get drunk, particularly appealing to those unaccustomed to spirits and suburban sorority girls seeking sweet paths to oblivion.

For me, though, it would be pure, honest martinis at Red Square, extremely stingy on the vermouth, olives on the side. I wanted to taste those multi-distilled and filtered vodkas: Russian Standard Platinum, crisp and clean, with a hint of sweetness; Russian ZYR, tinged with a slightly bitter finish; and my favorite, Icelandic Reyka, smooth as the surface of a glacier – which, coincidentally, is what the icy bar top (another novelty) felt like as well.

Russian Standard Platinum and ZYR, two very fine vodka distillations.

Luckily, in the – gasp – four visits I would make to Red Square over that five-day span in Vegas, I had friends David, Tom and Juliana to share the experience. Sure, you can shoot vodka, but I love it as easy-going lubricant of extended conversation: It was Reyka that fueled my long-overdue reunion with old friend David; and it was Mischief, the product of a small-batch distillery in Washington State, that played liquid Pied Piper to a stream of emotional outpouring shared among friends one recent evening in Seattle, sipped in short, patient, heart-soothing infusions.

Dushan Zaric, co-owner of the great Employees Only in New York City, notes that vodka was never meant for mixing. Instead, it was designed to complement meals the very way wine was in southern Europe. But the climes of northern Europe, or Russia, aren’t as kind to the grape; enter grains, or potatoes, or beets – and the vodkas produced by each, Zaric says, are best savored with the food of their native countries: smoked fish, caviar, pickled vegetables. “If it cuts through all that and cleanses your palate,” he writes, “then the vodka is good, very good.”

With pals like Tom and Juliana, how can a guy go wrong?

Likewise, it was vodka that underscored one of my most memorable meals, at a Jewish restaurant called Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House on New York City’s Lower East Side. It was an evening of impossible decadence: There were steaks, of course, and chopped chicken liver doused with syrup bottles full of schmaltz; there were my pals Jonathan and Harley, and a Liberace-bejeweled organ player, and before the evening was out I would be introduced to the crowd as Irving Goldberg. But mostly what I remember was that bottle of Ketel One waiting for us in an ice bath at our table, about to sacrifice itself to the appetites we found that night for food and life in general.

From what I recall, that vodka was very, very good.

— Marc Ramirez

Posted 8-24-12