You can’t say Dallas’ Bar Smyth didn’t try. Did any of the other half-dozen establishments facing off at Tales of the Cocktail’s Bare-Knuckle Bar Fight sport a derby-hatted fire eater? Could any of them claim to wield as original a punch as mobile cocktail service poured out of a backpack keg?
That was Bar Smyth, going big and gloves-off in its debut at the nation’s largest cocktail conference in New Orleans. Friday night’s annual showdown-slash-party pitted bar crew against bar crew for yearlong bragging rights, measuring bars on the quality of their beverages, sense of atmosphere and ability to churn out cocktails for the great, buzzing tides of humanity thirsting for drink. It was a madhouse. It was supposed to be.
The chaotic hordes began forming outside the Jackson Brewery’s microscopic entryway well ahead of the event’s 10 p.m. start time and before long resembled a ravenous weasel trying to poke its nose into some tiny field mouse’s hiding hole. Once inside, the senses were dazzled by a raging tumult, tables piled with pasta trays, a spunky rockabilly band and monitors spilling footage of Muhammad Ali.
But people were here for the drinks, and of those there was plenty: Eight bars in all, plucked from around the country by The 86 Co., the just-launched spirit line that sponsored this year’s event. The company’s aim was to showcase notable up-and-coming bars rather than the established stalwarts of years past: There was Miami’s Broken Shaker, with its Santeria vibe and a killer banana-mint daiquiri; Queens’ Sweet Leaf with its Jose Camel, a tequila-mezcal pachanga laced with coffee liqueur and Punt e Mes; the two were my favorite sips of the night.
Los Angeles’ Old Lightning threw down with a mezcal Negroni. New York City’s The Daily had a popcorn machine and an air of uniformed aplomb amid the fray. Chicago’s Barrel House Flat poured shots from a bottle labeled “Encyclopedia Brown” – a tantalizing formula of Rittenhouse Rye, Punt e Mes, Amaro Montenegro, Cynar, Angostura bitters and salt.
I failed to find San Diego’s Polite Provisions in the maelstrom, but Boston’s Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar was remarkably hospitable considering its three-deep crowd and the fact that it was bartender Sabrina Kershaw’s birthday; the bar’s red-velvety Negroni variation, called The New Black, was as delicious as it was alluring.
Dallas’ Bar Smyth made the most of its prime real estate on the brewery’s second floor. Smyth barmen Mike Martensen, Omar Yeefoon, Josh Hendrix, Julian Pagan and, inexplicably, Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough slung drinks as fast as they could muster. The crew donned Lone Star aprons, and bar host Ryan Sumner stirred up the crowd, occasionally from atop the bar counter – whooping and hollering, ringing a bell, kick-starting choruses of “Deep In The Heart of Texas.”
And despite a superior Cuba Libre anchoring its drink lineup, it was what Smyth had conjured beyond the bar that set it apart: Bar-back Charlie Ferrin blazed a trail through the darkness, wowing anyone within eyeshot with his fire-eating prowess. (“You only see the bartender side of me,” the longtime circus performer explained.) And bartender Mate Hartai waded through the crowd with a handmade backpack keg and a Texas-stamped helmet, pouring shots of Smyth’s Mexican Monk, a habanero-watermelon spin on a Tom Collins.
Texas represented well: There was Austin star barman Bill Norris; The 86 Co.’s Jason Kosmas, the bartender extraordinaire recently relocated to Austin from Dallas; Emily Perkins of Dallas’ Victor Tango; Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas; Kevin Gray of CocktailEnthusiast.com and Hypeworthy’s Nico Martini.
When it was all over, Boston’s Public House had taken People’s Choice honors, no doubt aided by its giveaway signature cozies and fans (brilliant in light of the unspeakable humidity) and a machine dispensing frozen Julep Slushies. Then it was time for the judges’ decision: “We got to try drinks tonight from some of the best bars in the world,” one of them announced. “Those of you who tend bar know what it takes. Not just cocktail creativity, but teamwork, speed and execution. We know what it takes to make people happy not just this one night, but every night of the year.” And with that it was declared that The Daily of New York City had taken top prize.
Ah, Dallas. There’s always next year.