It all started with hair – Noelle Hendrix’s hair in particular. The Dallas private chef has the kind of eye-catching dreadlocks that invite teasing from fellow chefs, who would joke about taking their knives to it – maybe for charity.
Teasing turned to brainstorming and then into action, and on Saturday you’ll be able to reap the results when Industry Alley, in the Cedars, hosts a pop-up dinner showcasing a semi-supergroup of Dallas chefs. Proceeds will fund Hendrix’s “$10K for Kids” effort to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The cash-only event, which goes from 6 p.m. until the grub runs out, will feature four of Dallas’ top chefs, each offering a specialty dish for just $10. Doors open at 4. Early arrival is advised.
Participating chefs include John Tesar of Knife, Oak and adjoining Quill, Graham Dodds of Wayward Sons, LUCK’s Daniel Pittman and Kitchen LTO’s Nick Amoriello. So while it’s all for a good cause, this is clearly a chance to benefit your belly as well. Behold the choices: Beef cheek on creamy polenta (Tesar); lamb, pork or beef brisket tacos (Pittman); venison tartare (Amoriello); or strawberry shortcake (Dodds).
Bar owner Charlie Papaceno will be offering a pair of cocktails created especially for the event, each of them a nod to Danny Thomas, the actor, singer and comedian who founded St. Jude in 1962 to treat and research catastrophic childhood disease. Make Room for Daddy – the name of the sitcom Thomas starred in from 1953-65 – is an old-fashioned mix of Old Forester bourbon and Lebanese 7-spice syrup, while That Girl – the name of the series starring Thomas’ daughter, Marlo – features tequila, triple sec, cranberry and Champagne.
There’ll also be live music, plus a handful of raffles and silent auction items – including Hendrix’s signature dreadlocks, which can be had for $1,000. “The money goes to the kids, and the scissors go in the winner’s hands,” she says. “Otherwise, they’ll stick around and be ready to cut next year.”
This is the latest in a series of pop-up dinners at Industry Alley, which has also featured chefs such as Small Brewpub’s Misti Norris and Lucia’s Justin Holt. But it’s the first to fund a cause, or to have anything to do with hair.
I see you, 2014. You didn’t have it easy. Not only did you have much to live up to after a year that saw DFW’s craft-cocktail scene garner national attention, but you had to do so on the heels of events that threatened to knock the wheels off the whole thing.
A year later, DFW’s mojo is back. Because beyond all the drama, a critical mass of cocktail ninjas just kept doing their thing, widespread seeds of creativity that found new places to grow and blossom, while others were enriched by the newfound talent beside them.
It was a banner year for veggies: At Victor Tango’s, former bar chief Alex Fletcher used pea-infused Old Tom gin prepared sous-vide-style for his refreshing Swee’Pea, while over at The Ranch at Las Colinas, Robin Milton’s Maverick combined roasted corn with tequila and spicy Ancho Reyes liqueur for a nice salsa-in-a-glass effect. At LARK on the Park, Matt Orth’s Hanging in the Garden served up a nom-nom liquid salad of mint, basil and cherry tomato, while Anthony Polo’s Scallywag was a scallion-laced standout at The People’s Last Stand.
Other highlights included Jason Long’s apricot-tamed Summer in Manhattan at Abacus, which appealed to both genders by giving the classic cocktail a luscious fruity smoothness. At Meddlesome Moth, bar manager Lauren Loiselle kicked another classic up a notch with her barrel-aged Negroni. And Charlie Papaceno, formerly of the Windmill Lounge, juiced up bourbon with coffee to make his energizing Kentucky Eye Opener.
I could go on. A few of these drinks are still available; some, being seasonal or dependent on a limited supply of house-made ingredients, are not; some were bartender’s creations built totally off-menu. And at least one place, regrettably, has closed (at least temporarily). But that’s the nature of the biz: Sands shift, talent moves on. As always, it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.
With that, here are my favorite 15 cocktails of 2014.
15. WHAT ABOUT BOB?, Michael Reith (Windmill Lounge, Oak Lawn)
Here’s a drink that’s easy to fall for, playing as it does on seasonal flavors. To be more exact, Reith’s radiant refresher at Oak Lawn’s Windmill Lounge pairs bourbon with the holiday’s New England influences: “I get a lot of people who come in here from Boston, or New Hampshire,” he says, “so I was thinking, what could I make them?” Maple and cranberry came to mind – “I was trying to evoke cranberry sauce, but in a good way,” he says – as did the spices of mulled cider. The result, named for the Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy set in New Hampshire, supplements Angel’s Envy bourbon with lemon, cranberry juice and maple syrup, plus nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, topped with a fragrant sprig of rosemary.
14. SMOKING GARDEN, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)
Matt Orth likes his herbs. This beauty appeared way back in January, when Orth had some house-made Thai-chili-infused St. Germain (an elderflower liqueur) on his hands. He shook that with basil, lime, slightly aged tequila, ginger liqueur and herbaceous Green Chartreuse, capping it with a smoked sprig of rosemary to wow the nose. The spicy bouquet offered pleasant heat and a sweet, sweeping floral finish, a garden-fresh treat for the senses.
13. COMMON ELDER, Lauren Festa (FT33, Design District)
Yes, I typically avoid vodka, but such is the legerdemain of Lauren Festa, who before she moved on to helm the bar program at The Mansion at Turtle Creek was making magic at FT33 in the Design District. Festa grew up watching the Food Network instead of cartoons, so maybe that explains this deceptively tame mix of Hophead vodka, elderflower syrup, ginger liqueur, ginger and lemon – a drink that started out delicately tart and sweet and then, just as it seemed about to fade, unveiled a hoppy ending all dolled up in elderflower. And with a gorgeous elderflower garnish, it was a treat to look at, too.
12. SEVENTH SAMURAI, Armando Guillen (The Standard Pour, Uptown)
Last summer, Bombay Sapphire hosted a DFW regional competition at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye, part of its annual nationwide hunt for “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender.” After the contest, won by FrontBurner’s Bonnie Wilson, the festivities moved on to The Standard Pour down the street, where Guillen whipped up this little number that could have easily held its own at the event. Featuring his house-made hibiscus-lemongrass cordial – which he’s just replenished, so you can still enjoy this one – it’s a play on the classic Last Word’s mix of gin, sweet, citrus and Chartreuse. Its floral and citrus medley of Bombay Sapphire, Yellow Chartreuse and Asian yuzu juice, along with the cranberry-sauce-scented cordial and a shake of lavender bitters made a tantalizing statement that gave Guillen the last word after all.
11. BLUE MOON, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
The bar at Spoon – which closed this week, at least temporarily – was not as well stocked as its other craft-cocktail siblings, but luckily James Slater, who took over the program around mid-year, had license to play. One day, exploring a Korean grocery store, he found a jar of pulpy blueberry preserves. “You could see the blueberry skins inside,” he says. He bought a jar and experimented; lighter spirits failed aesthetically, creating a dirty water effect. This is where it gets Reese’s-Peanut-Butter-Cup-good: Right around the time that Slater was noodling something dark to cloak the pulp, I walked into Spoon seeking something dark and bitter. Slater mixed the blueberries with lemon and the only two bitter amari he had on hand, Averna and Fernet, to amazing effect; the end result, garnished with aromatic mint, tamed Fernet’s aggressive bitterness with velvety sweetness and just the right hint of tart.
10. HOUSE OF FRIENDS, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)
You get the sense that if Matt Orth weren’t busy making your bar experience all better at LARK that he’d be perfectly at home on the farm, tending to his herbs and vegetables and berries, pruning and snipping and tilling and picking and all that. From his Hanging In The Garden (noted above) to the blackberry-infused whiskey masterpiece he conceived for a Jameson competition a few months ago, he’s handy with the fruits of the earth. No wonder, then, that this delicately complex mix of tequila blanco, cilantro-infused dry vermouth, pear liqueur and sweetly herbaceous Yellow Chartreuse unfolds across the palate like a breeze on Sunnybrook Farm. Garnished with a bit of grapefruit zest, its initial agave flavor melds into cilantro, then embraces the sweet pear before waltzing away into the flowers.
9. NOGAHOLIC, Juli Naida (Barter, Uptown)
With barman extraordinaire Rocco Milano as her sensei, Juli Naida – on her way to join Mate Hartai at Remedy, officially opening today on Lower Greenville – has come a long way since her drink-slinging days at the Mason Bar. Responsible for a good portion of Barter’s current cocktail menu, she embraced Milano’s offhand suggestion of a seasonal eggnog-themed “flight” and created a series of killer cocktails to roll out in mini form. Her Nogaholic was the least dessert-y of the bunch, and to me the most delicious, evoking the flavors of eggnog sans dairy, eggs or cream: Naida dialed down Cruzan’s potent Black Strap rum with simple syrup and a tincture made with vanilla, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The result is wintry and belly-warming, nog without the density — or the animal products. As my friend Rachel described it: “It’s a vegan’s Christmas wish come true.”
8. SMOKY DAIQUIRI, Alex Fletcher (Victor Tango’s, Knox-Henderson)
Smoked beer. It’s a thing. A pretty funky thing, if you ask me, at least judging by the whiff I got of the German-made Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a neutral grain spirit that wormed its way into the primo lineup of beers that Victor Tango’s piled up in 2014. On its own, the malty rauchbier was earthy and harsh, almost nasty like a bad vegetable; the smell called to mind a college laundry room. So of course cocktail master Alex Fletcher – who has since taken over the bar at Henry’s Majestic – had to make a cocktail with it. “That’s what you’d want in that, though,” he said of his clever Smoky Daiquiri, which incorporated the beer into a simply presented daiquiri mix of Blackwell rum, sugar, lime and a pinch of salt. “That salty, spicy funk.” In the drink, the beer’s more off-putting traits vanished; what hit the palate instead was full-bodied lime and tamarind with a sweet tang that got even better as it warmed.
7. BENGAL LILY, Kevin Trevino (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
It was the marvelous Madras curry syrup that really shone in this Indian-influenced creation from Kevin Trevino, Spoon’s former bar manager. One day Trevino – now a wine sales rep – saw the curry powder on Spoon’s kitchen shelf and decided to see what he could pull off. He combined his curry syrup with Tru Organic gin, some Fruitlab ginger liqueur and lemon; the gorgeously blonde cocktail welcomed with a zesty garam masala aroma, then smooth, lemony flavor with hints of ginger and an upper-lip-tingling curry heat. The Bengal refers to its Indian notes; Lily refers to a friend. “It’s got that beautiful Indian curry smell and a little bit of spiciness that burns on the back,” Trevino says. “Especially that ginger.” Tru dat.
6. TOP DOWN, Jordan Gantenbein (Abacus, Knox-Henderson)
Driving around with the top down – that’s what I thought summer was all about until I discovered Gantenbein’s wonderful play on the classic Sidecar. He tricked out cherry-wood-infused Cognac with seasonal Meyer lemon syrup, plus a bit of candied Meyer lemon and a Luxardo cherry garnish in a sugarcoated glass. The drink’s luscious lemon/cherry mouthfeel batted the two flavors around the tongue like a game of air hockey, with cherry emerging victorious. The result was a libation that singlehandedly redefined summer.
5. ONE MILLION IN UNMARKED BILLS, Pam Moncrief (The Usual, Fort Worth)
One evening at The Usual, I asked for my usual. Which was basically anything using a bitter liqueur. Moncrief – now at Fort Worth’s American F&B, had been working on a little something of her own off-menu, something motivated by a desire to appeal to cocktail newbies and broaden their tastes. But her blend of Ransom Old Tom gin, bitter-smooth Hungarian Zwack liqueur, Dolin Blanc vermouth and Benedictine honey liqueur can please even the heartiest cocktail fan with its well-rounded spicy depths – floral and grape giving way to a honey-bitter finish and a tang that lingers like nightclub ear. A dose of lemon oils atop gives it a nice citrus nose. “I just really enjoy herbaceousness,” Moncrief says. “Zwack and all those amaros are so herbaceous, and I feel like they don’t show up in cocktails enough.” And on that we would agree.
4. CAMARA LENTE, Damon Bird (LARK on the Park, downtown)
Take a sip of bartender Damon Bird’s barrel-aged concoction and you may find that your world has slowed to a Matrix-like sensory crawl. Maybe that’s because camara lente is sometimes interpreted as “slow motion,” or maybe it’s because this beautiful blend of mezcal, orange-y curacao, orange bitters and the bitter liqueurs Aperol and Fernet is just that good. Its mix of mellowed smoke and floral hints finish usher in a second wave of smoke and bittersweet, doused in a tobacco-leaf farewell. Bird first made it one night when he was slammed and somebody asked for “something with mezcal.” “The original version included simple syrup,” he says,” but with the barrel-aging, you don’t need it. It’s one of my few babies.”
3. ENIGMA, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
Oh Spoon, we hardly knew ye. While chef John Tesar hopes to reopen the recently shuttered place in another location soon, Dallas’ fickle relationship with seafood casts more doubts than fishing lines. Its demise would be a shame, because under the guidance of Slater and former bar manager Trevino (see Nos. 7 and 11 above), the restaurant’s bar program quietly cranked out some of the area’s more creative and well-balanced drinks in 2014. Slater’s Enigma emerged as my favorite. Noticing that a pair of Angel’s Envy bourbons were finished in port barrels, Slater was intrigued by the combo: He mixed Rittenhouse rye and port with bittersweet Aperol; the result charts a path between two classics, the Manhattan and the Boulevardier, with hints of raisin and honey. A float of orange blossom adds both a perfume-y aroma and a softly sweet, linen finish. There’s no riddle or mystery here: It’s simply delicious.
2. BLACK MONK, Creighten Brown (Barter, Uptown)
Speaking of mysteries, I pretty much went bonkers trying to figure out the enigmatic flavor in this fine cocktail. Many a sip later, I still don’t know the answer: It’s a smoky-flavored drink that’s tricky to pin down, greater than the sum of its parts: Brown took a tincture that bar manager Rocco Milano made with tonka bean, vanilla bean and lemongrass and added it to Jameson Black Barrel Reserve Irish Whiskey, bittersweet Averna, the honey-ish Benedictine and a bit of rye-and-sarsaparilla-flavored basement bitters. Every time I tried it, the image of shoe leather popped into my head, but in a most comforting way: The flavors dancing across my tongue included molasses, root beer, pecan pie, cooked honey, even smoky flan. It’s not for everyone – one taster described it as Chloraseptic – but if you enjoy a good cigar, this one is a winner.
1. DAMNED AND DETERMINED, Brad Bowden (Parliament, Uptown)
Bowden, formerly of Barter and The People’s Last Stand, was never much for Ancho Reyes, the ancho-chile-flavored liqueur that became my crush of 2014, following in the footsteps of botanical Hum and bitter Suze. But when the slightly spicy, vanilla-tinged blend became a Best New Product finalist at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, Bowden knew he had to do something. Damned and determined was he: Ancho’s bite made it a natural fit for tequila or mezcal, “but that’s what everyone else was doing,” he says (accurately). Instead, Bowden looked to his preferred spirit, rum, and what he devised is essentially a tiki drink, adding sweetly vegetal Green Chartreuse to Papa’s Pilar blonde – “Rum and Green Chartreuse go together like nobody’s business,” he says – along with egg white and a tropical pineapple-vanilla syrup. The egg white gives the ancho a soft bed to lie on; the syrup binds it all together. A last flourish of Angostura bitters atop and you’ve got yourself a magic carpet ride, frothy and floral with a sweet and spicy descent. While he also does a mezcal variation that he calls Aztec Brutality, the original rum version, held aloft on Pilar blonde’s creamy-smooth texture, is a year-topping keeper.
HONORABLE MENTIONS NOT NOTED ABOVE: 1874 (Erikah Lushaj, Bowen House); 1919 (Josh Uecker, Blind Butcher); Apples and Oranges (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier); Ascension Hook (Matt Orth, LARK); El Guapo (Brian Williams, The Establishment); High Ryse (John Campbell, Abacus); Imenta (Marcos Hernandez, Bolsa); Nicaraguan Breakfast (Carlo Duncan, Parliament); Peach Pisco Sour (Creighten Brown, Barter); Soul Clap (Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, Midnight Rambler); Velvet Smoke (Juli Naida, Barter); .
And of course, a hearty thank you to those who accompanied me on my outings, without whom I could never have sampled this many cocktails.
If you’ve been looking for Lauren Festa, who until recently was working mushroom and elderflower wonders at FT33, she’s now overseeing the bar program at The Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek. It’s a much-heralded place in Dallas bar lore, having been presided over by some of the city’s most respected mixerati – names like Michael Martensen, Lucky Campbell and Rocco Milano. “An opportunity like this doesn’t come around very often,” Festa said just before leaving FT33 – and spied not long ago, the hospitality-minded bartender seemed content to have ditched the chain mail of her former Design District home for the proper vest of her dark, new Uptown den. She was expecting to roll out her new cocktail menu by last week.
Another new lineup of libations is up and running at Spoon Bar & Kitchen, where James Slater is the new bar program manager. When chef John Tesar opened Knife in the Palomar Hotel space where Central 214 used to be, Slater was among the bartenders who made the jump. The understated Panamanian is an able bar man and now has a chance to make his mark at Tesar’s acclaimed seafood restaurant in North Dallas.
After a nice stint with Rocco Milano at Barter, Stephen Halpin has joined the crew at Parliament, the craft-cocktail pearl that itinerant barman Eddie “Lucky” Campbell has spent the last year or so forming in Uptown’s State and Allen area. Formerly of Whiskey Cake, the Irish-born Halpin has proven himself an adept mixologist and should find a worthy challenge in Parliament’s extensive tome of tipples when the bar opens this week.
Joining Halpin at Parliament is Will Croxville, fresh from Libertine Bar and a stretch last year with the celebrated Bar Smyth. Croxville has the distinction of preparing to adjust his schedule around the nearly simultaneous openings of two highly anticipated Dallas bars: He’ll also be doing time at Proof + Pantry, Michael Martensen’s long-awaited spot in the Arts District, which officially opens Wednesday.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the absence of another bearded chap at Barter; Brad Bowden, a veteran of The People’s Last Stand, says that’s because he’s lying in wait for his new gig at Midnight Rambler at the Joule Hotel. The coming speakeasy-style bar is the venture of Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, whose Cuffs and Buttons cocktail consulting firm has put its stamp on many a bar program throughout the Dallas area.
In other news, Chase Streitz, the former bar manager at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, has been spotted behind the bar at The Standard Pour (where Cody Sharp, former sous chef at the excellent Casa Rubia in Trinity Groves, has taken over the kitchen). And finally, when we last saw Matt Perry, he was making the most of the tiny bar space at Belly & Trumpet, Apheleia Restaurant Group’s restaurant in Uptown; after the briefest of cameos at Oak – one of Apheleia’s two Design District restaurants – he’s now behind the better-than-average bar at Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane.
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.
They were here to win the war – for a country’s bragging rights, for a brand’s foothold in the marketplace. In recent weeks, a Delta Force of sales reps representing Peru’s Pisco Porton have stormed through Texas in a calculated push to promote their spirit as pisco’s popularity grows nationwide.
Leading the way was none other than Johnny Schuler, surely the only man in the world to have scored a Congressional Medal of Honor for promoting alcohol. For 30 years, the thick-haired restaurateur and distiller has circled the globe touting pisco, a brandy-like spirit produced primarily in Peru and Chile, both of which continue to tussle for the rights to claim pisco’s ancient heritage. Schuler even hosts a Peruvian TV show about pisco; in 2007 the nation’s government gave him a medal for his role in promoting a national icon.
More recently Schuler actually got into the pisco business, becoming master distiller of a new blend called Pisco Porton, produced at the country’s oldest distillery. Porton’s sales nearly tripled in 2012, according to Technonic, which sees the entire category ripe for more activity. Competitors include BarSol and Macchu Pisco.
Most people associate pisco with little more – okay, nothing more – than the classic (and delicious) Pisco Sour, made with simple syrup, lime, egg white and bitters. Schuler’s week-long mission was partly to change that. (Last year, La Duni’s Daniel Guillen – a Peruvian native – pursued a similar Dallas-based effort with his five-Thursdays-in-a-row Pisco Trail project.) Schuler’s strategy was to throw Porton’s resources at its most lucrative markets – Texas, New York, Florida and California, its four biggest U.S. customers. Porton reps were flown in from around the country; reinforcements would arrive the next week to hit Houston as well.
Schuler had a lot on his mind: The airline had twice lost his wife’s luggage, she was bugging him for his credit cards and on top of that the pisco competition was getting fierce.
But the lively pisco workshop he led at Victor Tango’s enervated him, and over the next few days he visited a number of Dallas cocktail joints to see what bartenders could do with his spirit. He was in a drink-buying mood, springing for most of their creations as he blazed through Trinity Groves’ Chino Chinatown, Oak Cliff’s Bolsa and a string of cocktail bars in Knox-Henderson.
Today’s piscos, unlike the harsh ancestors available in the past, generally have a bright, delicate grape-y taste, making them a versatile drink-worthy component. Peruvian pisco is also carefully regulated, as this 2011 New York Times article makes clear:
To be called pisco in Peru, the spirit must be made from grapes grown in designated coastal valleys from Lima south. There are 42 valleys, and 8 varietals, classified as aromatic, like muscatel or Italia, or nonaromatic, like quebranta, a high-yielding grape that is the most widely used. After the harvest, which runs from February to May, grapes are crushed and naturally fermented, then distilled in copper alembics, like Cognac. Pisco is also distilled to proof, meaning it is not diluted with water before bottling.
“I love pisco,” says Jacob Boger, bar manager at Origin Kitchen + Bar in Knox-Henderson. “It’s like brandy, except it uses a lot more of the must of the grape. It’s a clearer, brighter flavor.”
And Michael Martensen, formerly of Bar Smyth/The Cedars Social, says pisco punch will be on the drinks roster at Knife, chef John Tesar’s upcoming Palomar Hotel venture, where Martensen is helping to shape the bar program.
Schuler says the next step, once he’s convinced bars to stock pisco, is teaching bartenders what to do with it. And if it happens to be Porton they use, even better. Porton is his baby: Schuler and business partner William Kallop even designed Porton’s signature bottle itself on a cocktail napkin over a series of Whiskey Sours and Negronis, crafting its hefty, senatorial shape Frankenstein-style, with pieces pulled from what they admired on the bar shelves. I like the lip of this one. I like the shoulders of that one. Schuler’s once gave up a pair of prize socks to win over a client. (That was in Chicago, where the client admired Schuler’s outlandish stockings du jour so much that Porton rep Megan Clark laundered them and presented them to the client the next day.)
For me, the tour’s highlights were:
The Apprentice, a drink designed by Chicago-based Porton rep Natalia Cardenas. It’s a play on the classic Negroni, substituting pisco for gin along with Gran Classico and Carpano Antica.
At Chino Chinatown, Julian Pagan’s Neile Adams, which mixed pisco with Lillet Blanc, Aperol, sweet grapefruit oil and bitters.
At Porch in Knox-Henderson, Beau Taylor’s Porton Morado (with an assist from Andrew Lostetter), with chicho morado (a Peruvian drink made with purple corn), lime, egg white, Velvet Falernum and bitters.
At Gemma, Ruben Bundy’s concoction of pisco, crème de violette, lime and simple.
“Pisco is becoming a multi-cocktail spirit,” Schuler said, and based on the evidence, he was right. “There’s nobody who loves pisco more than I do.”
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