Tag Archives: Jesse Powell

Best cocktails 2017: DFW’s revitalized scene shows it can handle the (low) proof

Kyle Hilla, Chad Solomon, Brittany Day, Austin Gurley, Gabe Sanchez
Some of the year’s best, clockwise from upper left: Kyle Hilla’s Undercut; Chad Solomon’s Screwpine Fix; Hugo Osorio’s Big Stick Mojito; Brittany Day’s Prolific Poet; Austin Gurley’s Smokey Bandit; Gabe Sanchez’s Calvados Sidecar.

As 2017 got underway, it wasn’t insane to wonder if the local craft-cocktail scene had lost its mojo despite its expanding influence around the region. Sure, Hide had just opened in Deep Ellum, with its fancypants behind-the-scenes gadgetry elevating its ambitious alchemy, and well-etched torchbearers like The Standard Pour, Atwater Alley, Bolsa, Jettison, Black Swan, Bowen House, Thompson’s Bookstore and Industry Alley (to name a few) powered on, doing what they do.

But even as cocktail lists sprouted like bluebonnets throughout North Texas – in Frisco, in Lewisville, in Trophy Club, for god’s sakes – too many of the area’s proliferating iterations emerged uninspired or even unhinged, seemingly designed more to ride the trend than to propel it forward. Overall, creativity seemed stifled by malaise. Had things finally peaked?

Then July brought Shoals, the soulful, back-to-basics cocktail lounge in Deep Ellum, and Fair Park’s Las Almas Rotas, whose heartfelt ambience admirably sated Dallas’ growing thirst for mezcal. And as the year pulled to a close, Bourbon & Banter appeared down the rabbit hole of downtown Dallas’ Statler Hotel, sprinkling its craft savvy with photogenic dashes of Wonderland whimsy.

Scott Jenkins, Nick Backlund
Hide, Deep Ellum’s science-y cocktail lab, gave life to some of 2017’s best cocktails.

DFW did get its groove back, and then decided to make a night of it. In 2017, a wave of low-proof cocktails met the need for an evening’s worth of social nectars without the boozy kick that might send one home early. Low-alcohol cocktails dotted menus at Hide, Uptown’s Standard Pour and sherry-focused Jettison in Oak Cliff; Yayoi, in Plano, made its Wasabi Bloody Mary with Japanese shochu, while Bourbon & Banter’s excellent Undercut put Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur, in the spotlight.

Hide also blazed tasty trails with savory cocktails, employing mushrooms in its magnificent Champion, bananas in its Tally Man and chicken stock in – well, more on that later. At Bourbon & Banter, Kyle Hilla topped two of his stellar cocktails with small spoonfuls of savory goodness. Meanwhile, green chilies surfaced as a popular flavor as bartenders toyed with a pair of newly arrived ingredients, poblano-driven Ancho Reyes Verde and St. George’s multi-peppered green chile vodka;  elsewhere, Hatch green chile syrup ignited Skyler Chastain’s Santa Fe Smash at The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station.

Sprezza
Sprezza’s Julieta. Get to it, Romeo.

Ever-flourishing agave-based spirits drove some of the year’s best drinks. Smoky mezcal danced with Ancho Reyes Verde and lemon liqueur in Brittany Day’s Prolific Poet at Thompson’s Bookstore in Fort Worth; at High and Tight in Deep Ellum, it partnered with cinnamon-infused whiskey to amp up the smoke in Austin Gurley’s solid Smokey Bandit. And at East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Brad Bowden flexed aged tequila’s guns in Dirty D’s Thang, his tribute to an aging dive-bar ladies man in long-ago New Orleans.

Gin sparkled in Sprezza’s Julieta in Oak Lawn, in George Kaiho’s Sylvan at Oak Cliff’s Jettison and in Chad Solomon’s remarkable Screwpine Fix at downtown’s Midnight Rambler, where it was infused with lemongrass and paired with Bolivian pisco. And Robbie Call used Gracias A Dios’ agave-based gin and his own vanilla-spiced tonic for a smoky Spanish Gin Tonic, a short-lived gem at since-shuttered Filament in Deep Ellum.

Finally, the force was strong in 2017’s classic covers, with solid spins on drinks like the Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Bijou, Last Word and Pina Colada. At Black Swan, Gabe Sanchez’s Calvados-anchored Sidecar was a thing of beauty; Scandinavian aquavit fancied up The Keeper’s gimlet in Plano; and at the Theodore in NorthPark Center, Hugo Osorio’s falernum-spiked Bee’s Knees and Big Stick Mojito, juiced up with raspberry coulis, were as pretty as they were delicious.

My tastes are my own, of course. I love the botanicals of gin and the smoke of mezcal, the warm comfort of whiskey and the bittersweet beauty of European amari; I’m drawn to flavor combinations that lure me to unfamiliar territory and drinks that go down like great train rides, where every ingredient is visible along the way.

Here were my 15 favorite cocktails of 2017.

Jason Long, Abacus
Long’s lush La Joya showed you can still count on Abacus.
  1. LA JOYA (Jason Long, Abacus)

Tequila reposado, Green Chartreuse, sweet vermouth, Port, orange bitters

At this cozy upscale lounge welcoming patrons of the celebrated Knox-Henderson restaurant, Long’s agave-driven play on a classic Bijou (French for “jewel”) was a bouquet of caramel, grape-y sweetness. Eager to make a drink honoring a tequila-loving colleague, Long tinkered with the floral Bijou, subbing smooth, aged tequila for gin plus a touch of Port. The name is the classic’s Spanish translation and an equally perfect gift for somebody special.

Jeremy Koeninger, Parliament
When you needed to cool off in Uptown, it was time to go Due South. (Photo by SungJoon Bruce Koo)
  1. DUE SOUTH (Jeremy Koeninger, Parliament)

Rum, coconut, pineapple, orange, jalapeno, nutmeg

At Parliament, Koeninger put a Texas spin on the tropical Painkiller, itself a spin on the Pina Colada. “I wanted something a little less tiki,” he says. “And being from Texas, I like the combination of spicy and sweet.” So he added jalapeno and called it the Due South for the happy coincidence that any south-of-the-border spirit works as well as rum – except for, apparently, cachaca. (What up, Brazil?) Pisco in particular is fantastic. As you might expect, it’s a great warm-weather refresher, with its creamy pineapple, cool citrus and nutty spice, with some lingering heat on the tongue to boot.

  1. MAMBO MORADO (Jonathan Garcia, Jose)

Blueberry/lavender-infused sotol, sunflower seed orgeat, lime, Campari, Crème de Violette

The drinks at this Highland Park gem naturally lean agave, and Garcia drew upon a pisco-based concoction he’d made for a local competition and funked it up by subbing little-known sotol, distilled in Chihuahua from desert Spoon, an agave cousin. Hacienda de Chihuahua’s delicately smoky sotol gets the tiki snow cone treatment here, draped it in floral, fruity and slightly nutty tones with a splash of bitter Campari to rein in the sweetness.

James Slater, Network Bar
At members-only Network Bar, James Slater’s Malta was berry berry good.
  1. MALTA (James Slater, Network Bar)

Fernet, Amer Gingembre, turbinado syrup, blackberries

A few years ago when Slater was helming the bar at Spoon (now closed), he wowed with an off-the-cuff, darkly bittersweet creation he ultimately named Blue Moon, and he’s been riffing on it ever since. Though he’s since left his brief post as bar director for the members-only club at Trinity Groves, his latest spin on the drink was a winner: Still mining the bitter mint depths of Fernet, it subbed blackberries for blue and a ginger-forward bitter liqueur for less aggressive Averna, taming Fernet’s harshness while retaining its flavor; gorgeous Amer Gingembre does the same with ginger. Think of the Malta as a boozy berry detox juice with a dollop of licorice-like sweetness.

Hugo Osorio, The Theodore
New Orleans meets Oaxaca in Osorio’s classic spin, and now I can’t wait to have a chicken mole po’boy.
  1. MEZCAL SAZERAC (Hugo Osorio, The Theodore)

Mezcal, tawny port, Peychaud’s bitters, tiki bitters, absinthe

It was actually Sam Gillespie of The Mitchell, in downtown Dallas, who recently introduced me to the notion of a Sazerac built on smoky mezcal rather than the classic rye or cognac. His simple switch of spirit was solid and satisfying – but then, the very next day, I happened to drop by the Theodore, the NorthPark Center lair where barman Hugo Osorio has been unspooling impressive off-menu creations in his spare time. When I asked for something new, he said: “How about a mezcal Sazerac?” Osorio made the drink his own by adding the wintry cinnamon spice of tiki bitters and replacing sugar with a bit of sweet tawny port, serving up a spectacular sipper for the season.

Jesse Powell, Parliament
At Parliament, Jesse Powell’s Osage County is built on childhood memories.
  1. OSAGE COUNTY (Jesse Powell, Parliament)

Sarsaparilla/vanilla-infused rum, Mexican fernet, demerara syrup, lime, cola, absinthe

God bless Jesse Powell’s grandparents in small-town Osage County, Oklahoma, for supplying him with all the sarsaparilla sweets a little boy could eat, because otherwise we might never have had this bodacious burst of root beer candy in a glass. When Powell visited them again not so long ago, “they had the same exact candy, and I was like, I want to come back and make a cocktail like that.” The infused rum pairs with earthy fernet and cola to echo herbal vanilla root beer with a hint of licorice and a drink that makes you feel like a kid in a candy store.

Scott Jenkins, Hide
At Hide, Jenkins’ Winner Winner was chicken soup for the cocktail soul.
  1. WINNER WINNER (Scott Jenkins, Hide)

Ford’s gin, chicken broth, clarified lemon, thyme

Why did the imbiber cross the road? To get to this drink at Hide. Though the bar’s beverage director, Scott Jenkins, is a fan of savory cocktails, he knows consumers don’t always warm to the idea. But once the menu’s magnificent mushroom-driven Champion earned a following, he knew he had license to do more. One day, as he was looking for something to complement gin and thyme, a thought occurred: What about chicken stock? “I gave it a try,” he said, “and I was, like, yeah. It’s got that saltiness.” Before you pooh-pooh the idea, know that Brits drink something called a Bullshot, a Bloody Mary alter-ego mix of vodka and beef consommé. (Midnight Rambler’s Pho King Champ shot is not far off, either, with a little oloroso sherry thrown in.) In Jenkins’ yummy Winner Winner, the broth grows more robust as you drink – offering a much-needed remedy for flu season.

Brick and Bones
Its namesake might not have the fastest run in the west, but Brick and Bones’ Slowpoke Rodriguez is a rush of sweet and heat.
  1. SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ (Dre Cantu, Brick and Bones)

Hibiscus-infused tequila, blood orange liqueur, amaretto, jalapeno syrup

All the drinks at Brick and Bones are named for occasionally obscure cartoon characters, and this one pays homage to Speedy Gonzales’ acceleration-challenged cousin. While its namesake might be slow, this drink is a carefree rush of floral sweet with a dash of heat, with exuberant hibiscus the life of the party. With citrus-y blood orange liqueur and sweet amaretto, “it’s like a Margarita without the acid,” Cantu says.

Michael Sturdivant, The Cedars Social
Sturdivant draws on Angus Winchester’s No. 4 and takes it up a notch.
  1. NO. 5 (Michael Sturdivant, The Cedars Social)

Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, celery heart, lemon, honey, burnt Green Chartreuse

At The Cedars Social, the pioneering craft-cocktail joint just south of downtown, bar manager Sturdivant is always up for a challenge. For a good while, the bar menu featured a terrific drink called the No. 4, a creation of former Tanqueray Gin rep Angus Winchester. “People would order it all the time,” Sturdivant says. Then, this year, “I was trying to impress a girl at the bar who ordered one, and I told her I could do one better.” His botanical re-do, poured over flamed floral Chartreuse, is somewhere between the original and the classic Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon and honey): On the palate, it’s candied lemon tailgated by a mambo of lush botanicals, aromatic sweet celery and a pleasant, lingering burn.

Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour
At Standard Pour, Millspaugh’s Fleur de Feu is like an after-dinner treat  around the campfire.
  1. FLEUR DE FEU (Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour)

St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Ancho Reyes Verde, Angostura bitters, cream

Austin Millspaugh, you so cray. This creamy off-menu knockout at Uptown’s Standard Pour, with a name that means “flower of fire,” is a low-proof treat, a deceptively sweet drink that actually turns out to be more savory. After the first three ingredients are mixed and poured into a nifty Nick and Nora glass, Millspaugh tops it all with a thin layer of cream, then torches it for a burnt marshmallow effect and a stunning contrast between the foamy top and wine-clear body below. “You think it’s going to be sweet,” he says. “But your notions are debunked the second you sip it.” The creamy fats add texture and depth to a beautiful mix of floral and spicy flavors with smoky overtones.

Kyle Hilla, Bourbon & Banter
Hilla merged two of his favorite ingredients — Suze and turmeric — in Bourbon & Banter’s savory Rat Tail.
  1. RAT TAIL (Kyle Hilla, Bourbon & Banter)

Tequila, mezcal, Suze, lime, agave syrup, turmeric

A fan of the bitter spice turmeric, Hilla wanted to feature it in a cocktail at the speakeasy-style bar where each of his house cocktails features  a little razzle-dazzle. He muddled actual turmeric root rather than using the familiar powder, but its tannic earthiness was too overwhelming for tequila, and smoky mezcal was too strong, so he went half and half and added bitter Suze for some botanicals. As with all the bar’s hairstyle-themed drinks, Hilla put some thought into the Rat Tail’s picture-perfect presentation, serving it in a capita and capping it with a spoonful of avocado, cilantro and Basque Espelette pepper, whose mix of flavors both complement and counter. Marked by turmeric’s orange-yellow hue, it drinks like an earthy, slightly bitter Margarita.

John Ruiz, Hide
It’s high time we had more low-proof cocktails like Hide’s No Scurvy Here.
  1. NO SCURVY HERE (John Ruiz, Hide)

Suze, Italicus, orange, lemon, egg white, maple, eucalyptus tincture

Texas this year saw the coming of Italicus, a lovely bergamot-forward liqueur from Italy, and in this low-proof libation it pairs with Suze, an equally lovely French gentian liqueur. Ruiz initially set out to produce a Suze “sour” – a category of cocktail built on spirit, citrus and sweetener –and when bar manager Scott Jenkins brought Italicus to the shelf, Ruiz had his tools in place. With a few tweaks brainstormed with his colleagues, Ruiz’s result is soft bitter orange: Bittersweet bergamot and sweet maple balance Suze’s earthy bitterness with the abundant citrus – hence the name – playing off the drink’s orange notes.

Chad Yarbrough, Armoury DE
If your mouth likes pina coladas and getting caught in a rain of fizzy tang, Yarbrough’s Colada No. 2 is your escape.
  1. COLADA NO. 2 (Chad Yarbrough, Armoury)

Cachaca, lime, orgeat, soda, coconut balsamic

This tangy tiki tipple, an obvious nod to its classic predecessor, was conceived as Yarbrough was browsing 1890 Marketplace, the most excellent olive oil and vinegar shop that at the time had just opened a few blocks away on Main in Deep Ellum. Having discovered the shop’s coconut balsamic vinegar, “I tried it and I was, like, we have to do something with this,” he said. Thus was born the Colada No. 2, a sweet and nutty mouthparty tempered by a tantalizing tang. Tangs a lot, Mr. Yarbrough. Tangs a lot.

Deep Ellum
This ain’t rocket science: Hide’s Delight is perfect for your afternoon.
  1. DELIGHT (Scott Jenkins, Hide)

Aperol, Cynar, clarified grapefruit, elderflower liqueur

Nothing at Hide is simple. They just make it look that way. Mostly when you’re not looking, spirits are “milk washed” and relieved of their harshness, citrus juices are clarified for a pure veneer and soda and tonic water are eschewed in favor of a lighter-handed carbonating device. The radiant Delight – Jenkins’ low-proof, bittersweet ballet of Italian aperitifs tamed with soft grapefruit and elderflower – is perfectly crisp and flavorful, whirled in a Perlini device for a delicate fizz that curls up on the roof of your mouth like a cat settling onto a sunny windowsill.

Jeff Trevino, LARK on the Park
This time around, Johnnie gets the Last Word.
  1. JOHNNIE’S WORD (Jeff Trevino, LARK on the Park)

Johnnie Walker Triple Grain Blended Scotch, Yellow Chartreuse, apricot liqueur, lemon

For a time, LARK drifted into a bit of a tailspin, but with Trevino at the helm, the drinks, at least, have regained their footing. This was the finest of his new additions to the menu, a play on the Last Word – a classic which, full disclosure, I adore – that drinks like candied apricot in a glass. Trevino says when he first tasted the fruity, spicy notes in this American-oak-aged whiskey, part of Johnnie Walker’s Blenders’ Batch series, “I immediately thought of apricot,” he said. “We didn’t have anything on the menu that was like a Last Word, so I built it that way.” With whiskey standing in for gin, lemon for lime, Yellow Chartreuse for Green and apricot liqueur for maraschino, it’s a handsome, honey-gold humdinger with bold autumn flair.

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From Italy to Mexico to Southeast Asia, global flavors marked 2016’s best in DFW cocktails

Some of 2016's best, clockwise from upper left: At Abacus, Gantenbein's Smoke on the Water; at Jettison, Kaiho's Good Morning Jerez; at Sprezza, Zapata's Aperrat Sour; and at Henry's Majestic, Fletcher's Salt Lake Suburb.
Some of 2016’s best, clockwise from upper left: At Abacus, Gantenbein’s Smoke on the Water; at Jettison, Kaiho’s Good Morning Jerez; at Sprezza, Zapata’s Aperrat Sour; and at Henry’s Majestic, Fletcher’s Salt Lake Suburb.

The demands of the local craft-cocktail scene are too much for one country to handle, and the luckier we all are for that: 2016 was the year that Mexico, Spain and Italy came to the rescue. You could almost sense the year’s cocktail vibes being garnished with a neat little Luxardo cherry as north Oak Cliff’s Jettison opened in October, capping a year in which mezcal tilted even more mainstream, bitter liqueurs took center stage and sherry quietly earned a place at the table.

All three claimed territory on cocktail menus as bartenders became not only more versatile with each but confident that their patrons would drink them, too. Sherry popped up in drinks from heavyweights Knox-Henderson’s Victor Tangos, Abacus and Atwater Alley to newcomers like Oak Lawn’s Sprezza, Uptown’s Next Door and Flora Street Café, in the Arts District. Nowhere, though, was the Spanish fortified wine wielded more freely than in the dark confines of Jettison, where George Kaiho’s cocktail list spotlights sherry and mezcal – and occasionally coffee, as in his wonderful Good Morning Jerez. Spirits writer Warren Bobrow, who blogs at The Cocktail Whisperer, predicts sherry cocktails will be a national trend in 2017 – so way to go, DFW. You’re ahead of the game.

That wasn’t all 2016 had in store: Cachaca, the national spirit of Brazil, had a starring role in at least half a dozen spring menu highlights around town; banana, typically maligned and eschewed as a flavor in cocktails, enjoyed a solid summer run (as in the Magilla Gorilla at Deep Ellum’s Brick and Bones, made with banana-infused rye); and cognac, typically relegated to Sidecar status, tried on some new outfits  – as in Andrew Stofko’s tasty Cobra Kai at Victor Tangos, which put cognac front and center backed by sherry(!), dry vermouth, fuji apple syrup and bitter amaro.

Some of the year’s strongest overall drink lineups lay in typical strongholds like Midnight Rambler, Parliament and The People’s Last Stand, but the bar team at Knox-Henderson’s Abacus quietly made noise while The Cedars Social, the landmark lounge just south of downtown, showed solid signs of returning to top-tier status.

Among the year’s highlights: At Henry’s Majestic, Alex Fletcher’s Salt Lake Suburb – rye, apple shrub and soda – was a feat of simplicity; at Italian restaurant Sprezza, Daniel Zapata’s Aperrat Sour mined Aperol’s citrus-floral radiance. At Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, former lead barman Michael Reith smashed a home run with his strawberries-and-bourbon Louisville Slugger; and at Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., Chad Yarbrough’s Bow Street Bouncer elegantly echoed a classic Boulevardier with Irish whiskey, Lillet Blanc, aperitif wine and bitter Suze.

My tastes are my own, of course. I love the juniper of gin and the smoke of mezcal, the warm comfort of whiskey and the bittersweet beauty of Italian amaros; I’m drawn to flavor combinations that lure me down rabbit holes I haven’t been before and favor any drink offering a mouthful of an experience, where every ingredient, down to the garnish, is discernible or enhancing in some way.

Here were my favorite 15 craft cocktails of 2015.

Cedars Social
A better name than Eleven-Fifty: Mike Sturdivant’s coffee-bean-laced cocktail.

15. TEN MINUTES TILL MIDNIGHT (Mike Sturdivant, The Cedars Social)

Sheep’s Dip Scotch, Cynar, vanilla syrup, Suze, burnt coffee bean

This is dessert in a glass for people who love Old Fashioneds. As a craft bartender, one is practically required to go through a Cynar phase, and as Sturdivant, Cedars Social’s bar manager, went through his, he knew how well the Italian bitter played with coffee. Challenged by a European guest’s veteran palate, Sturdivant devised this drink late one evening; you can guess the time. He mixed bitter Cynar with vanilla syrup, Suze and bourbon-y Sheep’s Dip Scotch, garnishing it with a rolled lemon peel filled with burnt coffee beans that sit right up in your nose as you sip. The result evokes chocolate cake with a slight bitter finish and almost clings to your tongue, the beans guiding your senses. “The chocolate versus bitter versus strong Old-Fashioned-style drink kind of goes in and out as you smell the coffee,” Sturdivant says. “I like drinks that change flavors as they sit.”

Filament
In the garden of gin and vermouth: Filament’s Push It tiptoed through my two lips.

14. PUSH IT (Seth Brammer, Filament)

Gin, Cocchi Rosa, lemon, pink peppercorn, sea salt

As I wrote in March, Cocchi Rosa, the lush and rosy vermouth variation from the fine folks at Cocchi, is one of the best things you’ll ever put in your mouth. Flowery and fruity with the slightest hint of bitter, it’s a sensational sipper on its own, but beverage manager Brammer’s creation subtly backed it with gin’s botanical notes and a splash of lemon to round it out. Served in a Collins glass with floating peppercorns and a rim of fine sea salt, it was playful and beautiful to look at – but those little pink globules were more than decorative, adding a floral pop of their own. If Tom Collins and sangria had a little garden rendezvous, this would be the result.

Gantenbein's Scarlet Gael: Like drinking Scotch on a bed of pillows.
Gantenbein’s Scarlet Gael: Like drinking Scotch on a bed of pillows.

13. SCARLET GAEL (Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus)

Ardbeg 10-year Scotch, hibiscus tea syrup, honey, lime, vanilla tincture, egg white

The constantly evolving menu at Abacus featured a number of hits from Gantenbein, from Smoke On The Water, his shishito-infused tequila gem, to the whimsical Apple Of My Eye (featuring gelatinized apple pucker) and beautifully seasonal Rosemary Wreath. The Scarlet Gael emerged as my favorite, a drink he initially made for a Scotch-paired dinner and then put on the menu. Smoky and light with a soft citrus finish, it’s a marriage of Ardbeg’s peatiness and the soft sweetness of honey, hibiscus and vanilla, a trio of tiny rosebuds atop the froth.

Spencer Shelton's Rio Julep, evoking memories of Southern monkey bread.
Spencer Shelton’s Rio Julep, evoking memories of Southern monkey bread.

12. RIO JULEP (Spencer Shelton, Bolsa)

Aged cachaca, Cynar, grapefruit bitters, salt dash

A sudden influx of Avua cachaca graced Dallas early in the year, and no one embraced the Brazilian sugar-cane spirit more enthusiastically than Bolsa’s Shelton. Inspired by local bartender Daniel Guillen’s Cynar Julep and notions of Southern monkey bread, he crafted a Boulevardier riff subbing Amburana, Avua’s aged cachaca, for bourbon; Cynar for Campari; and grapefruit bitters and mint for sweet vermouth, to accent the herbaceousness. His creation earned him a nod in Saveur magazine. As I noted in April, Shelton wanted to show how bready, nutty Amburana could shine despite its seemingly delicate character. “The first time I tasted this, I thought it would get lost in a cocktail,” he says. “But no – it has this really interesting way of sitting on top and being predominant.”

Austin Gurley, High and Tight
Among the perks of Deep Ellum’s High and Tight was the coffee-powered Mayahuel’s Awakening.

11. MAYAHUEL’S AWAKENING (Austin Gurley, High and Tight)

Tequila, mezcal, cold-brew vanilla coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon

Fans of Mexican café de olla know the belly-warming sweetness that comes with every sip. This was not that drink – but as I wrote in May, it could have been its boozy cousin. “It pretty much came from my love for Mexican coffees,” says Gurley, who blended concentrated Madagascar cold-brew vanilla coffee with fruity reposado tequila, smoky mezcal and rich brown-sugar simple syrup, completing the salute to its stovetop Mexican relative with a dash of Fee Brothers’ Bourbon Barrel bitters, with its notes of cinnamon and vanilla. Served in a coupe half-rimmed with cinnamon-vanilla sugar, it was a perfect nightcap of comforting café de olla flavor and agave-spirit brawn, whose name (say it “ma-ya-WELL)” recalls the Aztec goddess of fertility and agave, from which mezcal and tequila are born.

Boulevardier
Ashley Williams’ Save The Date was a delightful riff on the Pisco Sour.

10. SAVE THE DATE (Ashley Williams, Boulevardier)

Aged cachaca, tamarind concentrate, amaro, egg white, lemon, Angostura bitters

As cachaca danced its way through Dallas last spring, it was Avua’s aged Amburana that shone brightest with its full-bodied cinnamon grape-y-ness. Williams, now at Filament, mixed the nutty, bready spirit with savory tamarind concentrate, bittersweet Meletti amaro, egg white, lemon and Angostura bitters for a wonderfully balanced variation on a Pisco Sour. The cachaca refused to be buried, dominating the finish with a hint of bitter Meletti. Lavishly presented with a radiant and aromatic flower resting atop the foam amid swirls of Angostura, it was one I could have enjoyed all night.

Parliament
Jesse Powell’s banana-influenced rye cocktail is not a Toronto, but it smacks you like one.

9. NOTATORONTO (Jesse Powell, Parliament)

Rye, banana liqueur, Fernet Vallet

Powell, a crowd favorite at busy Parliament, is used to pouring shots of whiskey or bitter Fernet for visiting bartenders, but as he briefly obsessed over Giffard’s lovely Banane du Bresil liqueur, he decided to try something different. “I thought – what do I like to drink, cocktail-wise, with Fernet?” he says, and the answer was a Toronto, a mix of Canadian whiskey, Fernet, simple syrup and bitters. Eventually he came up with this blend of Tennessee’s Dickel rye, Banane du Bresil and Mexican Fernet. Perfectly calibrated to meld whiskey power with banana sweet, it’s like a Toronto – but not.

The Standard Pour
Austin Millspaugh’s Bijou variation was one of several innovative ways cognac found its way into DFW cocktails in 2016.

8. COGNAC BIJOU (Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour)

Cognac, sweet vermouth, Green Chartreuse, root beer bitters, black truffle salt

Millspaugh is a cocktail explorer’s bartender, thoughtful and learned with something new always up his sleeve to drop on bold palates. Some of his finest 2016 creations were ultimately too adventurous to make it onto menus in original form, while others – like the one incorporating cuttlefish ink – were just too exotic for their own good. But when Millspaugh hits, it’s a thing of beauty – as in his Cure What Ails Ya, a cross between a classic Penicillin and a sangrita, on Standard Pour’s current menu. My favorite of his creations was this play on the classic Bijou, which subbed Cognac for gin and rounded it out with a well-conceived touch of earthy sarsaparilla flavor.

Flora Street Cafe
At Flora Street Cafe, Festa’s Madame Hummingbird made Hum great again.

7. MADAME HUMMINGBIRD (Lauren Festa, Flora Street Café)

Vodka, Hum, honey-piquillo syrup

Way back when Rocco Milano helmed the bar at Private/Social, may it rest in peace, he introduced me to Hum, a remarkably profuse hibiscus cordial offering notes of cardamom, clove, ginger and kaffir lime. A love affair was born; I couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and though the fling finally ran its course, it’s always good to see an old flame. That’s how the crafty Festa, at Stephen Pyles’ new downtown restaurant, lured me in; her flower-garnished cocktail lets sturdy Absolut Elyx act as handler, reining in Hum’s exuberance, but the real dash of brilliance is the chili syrup, which adds a welcome jolt of heat. “Hum and heat go well together,” Festa says. “It brings out the spices.” Or as my buddy Tim said after trying it: “You don’t even remember what it is that you’re experiencing. All you know is that there’s a perfect storm.”

Henry's Majestic
Fletcher’s Sidecar variation is like sipping through a winter wonderland.

6. SOUTHPAW STREETCAR (Alex Fletcher, Henry’s Majestic)

Cognac, persimmon shrub, citrus, clove dust

What do you do when your chef hauls in 80 pounds’ worth of foraged persimmons? Well, if you’re Alex Fletcher, you think on it a bit, make a shrub and craft my favorite Sidecar variation ever. Fletcher’s Southpaw Streetcar lets you roll along in tangy persimmon sweetness when suddenly, BAM! A burst of clove hits your tongue to bathe you in winter-fire goodness. Sugar-plum visions dance in your head; in the distance, you hear the jingling of sleigh bells and the sound of muffled hoofbeats in snow – and wait, is that Nana calling? Are the tamales steamed and ready? Oh wait – that’s just Fletcher, asking if everything’s OK and why your eyes have been closed for the last 10 minutes.

Atwater Alley
Cleve’s Agave Temptress: Making mezcal and cognac play nice together.

5. AGAVE TEMPTRESS (Ricky Cleva, Atwater Alley)

Mezcal, cognac, cinnamon, lemon, strawberry, Campari, thyme

Cleva was on fire in 2016; his Montenegro-fronted Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and Japanese-Scotch-based Drunken Angel could easily have made this list. His Agave Temptress was my favorite of all; as winter headed into spring, he’d already been making wintery cognac and spring-evocative mezcal cocktails each featuring cinnamon and lemon, and he figured, why not combine the two spirits? As he quickly found out, it’s because they don’t easily play well together, but as he toyed with adding other ingredients he gradually hit upon a perfect mix, adding muddled strawberry for sweetness and a bit of bitter Campari to dry it out. The result? Tamed smoke and bitter, anchored by caramel-apple cognac; a sprig of slapped thyme atop the drink added a defining touch of spring fragrance.

The Cedars Social
If you like grapes, this is your drink: Loureiro’s Grapes Three Ways.

4. GRAPES THREE WAYS (Annika Loureiro, The Cedars Social)

Pisco, genever, grilled-grape syrup, lemon, port

Put a crafty bartender and a talented pastry chef together and you’ve got magic. (See Rocco Milano and Matt Medling, Private/Social, c. 2011.) Last summer, pastry chef Loureiro, in whose dream world the dessert and cocktail stations would exist side by side, had already paired grape-y Pisco Porton with malty Bols genever when, inspired by bar manager Mike Sturdivant, she amped up the grape with a patio-ready spritzer in mind. First she reflected the distilled grape by grilling fresh Concords and making a syrup – then, after adding some lemon to accentuate the sweetness topped it off with raisin-y tawny port. “We wanted those tannins in there, so you really got the full flavor of grape,” she says. The drink is a wave of tangy, smoky grape, a hefty sangria with the hue of strawberry tea; if grapes you like, this is your drink.

Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler
Solomon’s Tiger Style was a passionfruit wildcat from Midnight Rambler’s summer lineup of “gritty tiki.”

3. TIGER STYLE (Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler)

Batavia Arrack, calamansi, palm sugar, pippali, egg white, cassia aromatics

Chad Solomon’s seasonal drink menus are thoughtfully thematic and often exotic, and he was on fire this year; his Coconut Cooler, a gin-and-sherry blend sweetened with Southeast Asian pandan, was a spring highlight and offered a small preview of what was to come – a powerhouse summer menu of “gritty tiki” drinks reflecting Asian, African and South American influences. The Filipino-Indonesian-accented Tiger Style was my favorite, a seemingly light mix of Batavia Arrack (an Asian-style rum), passionfruit-y calamansi, palm sugar and Indonesian pippali that nonetheless packed a punch. A spritz of Indonesian cassia aromatics atop a dehydrated lime pulled you into the drink’s creamy orange-spice lushness, countered by the peppery pippali tincture’s gradual trail of heat. “The more you drink it, the more your lips tingle,” Solomon said, quite accurately. “It takes you into the exotic, and intentionally so.”

Victor Tangos
Stofko’s Guinness-black Seppuku Reale artfully merged Italian and Japanese influences.

2. SEPPUKU REALE (Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos)

Amaro Montenegro, Gran Classico, furikake syrup, lemon, nori, furikake

Amaro Montenegro may be my favorite of the Italian bitter liqueurs; it leans toward sweet and herbal with the bitter only evident in tow. Stofko won a local Montenegro contest with this bold cocktail, crafting an unexpected taste detour to create one of the more interesting drinks I’ve ever enjoyed. Aiming to subdue Montenegro’s sweetness with an umami-ness he knew he’d like, Stofko crafted a syrup from furikake, a Japanese spice mix of sesame seed, seaweed (nori), sea salt and bonito flakes; upped the bitter component with Gran Classico; then added some lemon to round it out. The citrus, however, made the drink unpleasantly dark, so Stofko went all-in and added a bit of squid ink to turn it Guinness-black. The garnish was his piece-de-resistance – a sprinkling of roasted sesame seeds on a skiff of seaweed, floating atop the sea of dark; bring it to your nose and the aroma portended savory Japanese. “It just wakes up your palate,” Stofko says. Instead, you got something completely different: A bewitching bittersweet taste tempered with savory nuttiness. “That’s umami in a glass,” Stofko says. “I’m just glad (former GM) Matt (Ragan) let me put it on the menu.”

Vicini
Call’s response to bitter and smoky: The marvelous Rome Is Burning.

1. ROME IS BURNING (Robbie Call, Vicini)

China-China, mezcal, Meletti, Herbsaint

Ah, Vicini. We were just getting to know you. The Frisco-based Italian restaurant’s all-too-brief run may have been a flash in the risotto pan, but it was long enough for Call to have some fun behind the stick. One slow Sunday, the lanky Tate’s veteran, who now heads the bar at Oak Lawn’s Madrina, answered the call for something bitter and smoky. This was the luscious result – a rush of French and Italian bitter liqueurs anchored by mezcal and a rounding touch of Herbsaint, bitter orange and chocolate-caramel grounded in depths of smoke and anise. Simply garnished with an orange peel, it was everything I wanted in a glass, a mirepoix of worldly influences. “I’m a big fan of letting amaro drive the car and having the mezcal creep in,” Call says. So am I, Robbie. So am I.