Tag Archives: la duni

TBD Kitchen opens in Castle Hills: Are suburbanites ready for Latin cocktails?

TBD Kitchen
Bartender Daniel Guillen, now dropping drinks and knowledge in faraway suburbia.

 

CASTLE HILLS – OK, maybe Castle Hills isn’t really that far away. On a good day you can get here in less than a half-hour. Sandwiched between Lewisville, The Colony, Carrollton and West Plano, its regal label is intentional, with a 30-mph main drag dubbed King Arthur Boulevard and the sprawling development of king-sized homes described on its web site as “a majestic, 2,600-acre master-planned community.”

Castle Hills
TBD Kitchen, Guillen’s latest venture with owner Sean Conner at the Village Shops in Castle Hills.

It’s not the kind of outpost you’d expect to find a great cocktail, and yet, the very thought of being 25 miles north of downtown Dallas might make you pine for one. It’s a royal paradox.

Well, you’re in luck: With the opening of TBD Kitchen, Sean Conner’s latest venture (in partnership with Daniel Guillen), you and the villagers of Castle Hills now have two quality drinking establishments from which to choose.

TBD Kitchen, next door to Conner’s Pie 314, is the latest step in Daniel Guillen’s ongoing pilgrimage to promote Latin traditions via drink and food. Five of TBD’s nine house cocktails got test runs at the various pop-up events, seminars and South American-styled dinners that Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni, has been throwing around the DFW area in the last year.

Castle Hills, Daniel Guillen
The Daisy — a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation — is a TBD staple.

Along with a bold selection of agave spirits and rums, those drinks complement a menu highlighting $2 street tacos. (Also, if anyone asks whether you want the off-menu chicharrones, say yes.) The décor is hip Mexican, with Day of the Dead skulls, Mexican movie posters and kitschy candles from Target. Cushy, bendy barstools are modeled after seats on bass boats.

“It’s not like Dallas here,” Guillen says. “It’s a whole different beast. People here have money, but they want comfort food.”

Situated at the Castle Hills Village Shops, nestled deep in the thicket of $500,000-plus homes, Conner has accommodated those tastes, offering quality pizza and now tacos, with decent cocktails to boot. “There’s three kinds of food that people eat all the time,” says Conner, among Dallas-Fort Worth’s pioneering craft-cocktail bartenders. “And these are two of them.”

Daniel Guillen
Guillen’s mission to bring Latin cocktails to the masses continues at TBD Kitchen.

But are the people of Castle Hills ready for cocktails like the Chamoyada, a drink inspired by Guillen’s visits to the fruterias of Oak Cliff, or the Pachamama, featuring Peruvian brandy and not one, but two, Italian bitter liqueurs?

Or what about the Bolivar Old Fashioned, a nod to the influential Venezuelan leader, which mixes five rums, Angostura bitters infused with tobacco leaves and Brazilian coffee beans? The nicely conceived drink did well on a recent night, perhaps because of Guillen’s piece de resistance, a coconut water ice cube that gradually sweetens the drink as it’s savored.

Guillen says TBD actually stands for Tacos, Burritos and Daisies — the Daisy being a cocktail category of which the Margarita is a variation. A daily Daisy will be a staple of Guillen’s offerings. And in the (warmer) future, Guillen envisions half-price rum nights with cigars and dominoes, Cuban-style, on the patio.

TBD Kitchen
These guys: Conner, a veteran of Victor Tango’s and Whiskey Cake, with partner Daniel Guillen.

As TBD was being built out, Guillen did a smart thing: He worked the bar at Pie 314. That earned him a familiarity with local residents that will serve him as he aims to nudge less adventurous palates into unfamiliar territory. “If you like Balvenie,” Guillen told one guest as he slid forward a bottle of Cartavio XO, “this is a Peruvian rum. It’s finished in sherry casks, just like Balvenie is.” The guy was inspired to give it a try.

A couple at the bar was impressed with Guillen’s Margarita Pa’Llevar (Margarita to-go), whose presentation mimics the street-ready drinks served in plastic bags in certain South America countries. It was among the drinks Guillen featured with chef David Anthony Temple at a South American dinner earlier this year, sipped through a straw coated with chamoy – fruit pulp flavored with lime and chile – for some added kick.

So maybe he’ll earn the keys to the kingdom just yet. “People are like, ‘Why here?’” Guillen says. “Even I don’t know. We were just given the chance, so we’re going to roll with it.”

Follow the bouncing bartender: Nine craft-cocktail moves you should know about

Hops and Hominy, Cafe du Nord
Unfortunately for Dallas, Meddlesome Moth’s Loiselle has taken her talents to ‘Frisco. Um, the one in California. Shown here at San Fransciso’s Hops and Hominy, she’s now at Cafe du Nord.

We all know that the people who make your cocktails can be right up there with your doctor, your shrink, your spiritual leader and your favorite podcast host when it comes to simple week-to-week survival. Sometimes they’re kind of all of those things rolled into one, except that they can also knock out a good drink – which might make them the most important people of all.

So when the best of them move on to new places, you want to know. Here’s a roundup of some of Dallas’ craft-cocktail peeps who’ve found new digs.

Chefs for Farmers 2013
Don’t start freakin’ if you haven’t seen Eakin: He’s over at soon-to-open Rapscallion.

If you haven’t seen Eddie Eakin mixing things up at Bishop Arts’ Boulevardier lately, it’s for good reason: The buff barman has been busy readying beverage operations at soon-to-open Rapscallion, the new Lower Greenville venture from the folks behind Boulevardier.

With Eakin at the helm and one wall pretty much entirely devoted to bar space and storage, you know it’s going to be serious.

In Eakin’s absence, former Meddlesome Moth mixmaster Austin Millspaugh has stepped in to fill the void. The man who once incorporated foie gras into a cocktail is now overseeing Boulevardier’s bar program and is already in full tinker mode; if your tastes lean toward bitter, try his smoked Negroni with Fernet, thyme and Green Chartreuse. His ambitious alchemy should be interesting to watch as the year goes on.

Boulevardier, Dallas
Millspaugh: Your new master of ceremonies at Boulevardier.

Oak, in the Design District, is another place to put on your radar: The high-end restaurant has gotten double-barrel-serious about its cocktail program by bringing on both Michael Reith and James Slater, who between them produced three of my favorite cocktails of 2014.

One night, Reith was working his last night at the venerable Windmill Lounge in T-shirt and jeans, and the next he was pouring fancydranks in Oak’s signature white button-down shirt, black pants and tie. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s going to be a chance to shine again.”

Spoon Bar & Kitchen
Done with the utensils: After gigs at Knife and Spoon, Slater is now at Oak.

Slater, formerly of Spoon, is likewise happy about the move; the dynamic duo have already put their formidable imprint on Oak’s cocktail menu with classic variations that include a killer Negroni and an Old Fashioned made with Old Tom gin. Though the two are different in style, their philosophies are simpatico, and the Panamanian-born Slater aims to inspire patrons to consider them as much of an accompaniment to dinner as wine.

“We’re going to change the bar program,” Slater says. “We’re like Batman and Robin.”

Oak
Reith: Taking things up a notch at Oak.

Meanwhile, it’s been six weeks since the much decorated Daniel Guillen left La Duni, for … well, for what no one was exactly sure – but after more than nine years with the operation, whose cocktail operations had become synonymous with his name, it was time to make a change.

It turns out there was a beast waiting to explode: The proudly Peruvian-born bartender has been unleashing his passions for Central and South American drink culture at places like Proof + Pantry and pop-up events – like next week’s cocktail dinner with Chef David Anthony Temple at Twenty Seven.

Proof + Pantry
Guillen, here at Proof + Pantry, is loosing Latin libations on Dallas after his long stint at La Duni.

“Most bartenders focus on classic American cocktails, maybe a few from Europe,” Guillen says. “In my case, that doesn’t make sense. I would be one of many. So I thought, what can I bring to the table?” Look for more of the same while he and cocktail guru Sean Conner, he of the metroplex’s northern hinterlands, work on an upcoming project set to launch this fall.

At Blind Butcher, Ian Reilly is putting his own spin on things after joining the meat-forward establishment a couple months ago. “He’s the shit,” a departing and obviously happy patron says one evening. “He educates you and he makes you a badass drink.”

Reilly’s variation on the Old Fashioned, which he calls the Hubris, features whiskey with a hops-based syrup, because, “If I had to envision something that men here would want to drink – guys on the prowl, out celebrating, maybe going from beer to cocktails – what better way than to use hops as the sweetener?”

Blind Butcher
The Beard and the Butcher: Reilly, now pouring on Lower Greenville.

It’s one way that the bearded bar man is easing his way in at a place that has carved out a niche on busy Lower Greenville. “The formula here is working,” says Reilly, formerly of Bowl & Barrel and The People’s Last Stand. “I don’t want to stomp on that.”

Barter’s closing in January dispersed a number of souls to the winds – and one of them was the understated Creighten Brown, who has resurfaced at Tate’s in Uptown. (Juli Naida, as noted in 2014’s end-of-year post, has joined Mate Hartai’s team at Remedy.)

Tate's Uptown
Mr. Brown is back Uptown, at Tate’s.

The talented tipple maker – whose Black Monk was also among my favorite cocktails last year – went from bar-back to bartender at Barter and is already hyped to be among Robbie Call’s team at Tate’s, along with Pro Contreras and Ryan Sanders. “The whole gang, man,” he says. “Good times, good times.”

Finally, Dallas recently bid farewell to two budding talents – Lauren Loiselle, who headed the bar program at Meddlesome Moth, and bartender Damon Bird of LARK at the Park. Both also figured prominently in my 2014 list but found themselves drawn to the Bay Area (and who can blame them?). “Two of our real good friends live in San Francisco,” Bird told me before they left. “We talked about it a long time and just decided to give it a go.”

Mikkeller Bar, San Francisco
The Bird has flown: Formerly at LARK, he’s now settling in at San Francisco’s Mikkeller Bar.

Leaving Dallas was bittersweet, but both are excited about their new opportunities: Loiselle has joined the bar team at Café Du Nord, the new venture from the owners of Trick Dog. The team knows what it’s doing: Trick Dog is among four finalists for Best American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, to be awarded next month. “I’m super stoked,” she says.

Bird, meanwhile, has nested at Mikkeller Bar, a beer-centric spot near Union Square featuring the best of brews from around the world. While he misses the craft-cocktail world, you can tell the easygoing drink-slinger has found his people. “This was my choice place,” he says.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified Tate’s Ryan Sanders as Ryan Frederick.

At South American-themed cocktail dinner, Peruvian bartender will showcase the character of his continent

Daniel Guillen
This swig of rum, served with lime, salt and coffee, will be among the surprises unveiled at Wednesday’s dinner.

What most people know of South American drinking culture typically boils down to a handful of things – cachaca and the Caiparinha cocktail, pisco and the Pisco Sour.

Daniel Guillen, the former beverage director for La Duni restaurants and one of Dallas’ more innovative bar talents, is on a mission to change that. For several years, driven by a notion that has since become a passion, the Peruvian-born bar man has been researching South American cocktail tradition; with his departure from La Duni, he’s ready to spring his knowledge loose upon the world in a series of events that will roll out in the coming weeks.

Your first chance to experience the fruits of his obsession will be Wednesday, when Guillen pairs up with Twenty Seven chef David Anthony Temple for a six-course dinner titled “The South American Gentleman’s Companion,” named after Charles Baker’s legendary cocktail tome of 1951.

The event will be a tour de force for the 27-year-old Guillen, who puts as much thought into presenting his cocktails as he does into making them. We’re talking about drinks served in everything from tin cans to test tubes – but as always, there is method to his madness: In addition to showcasing the continent’s drinking traditions, he’s equally amped about reflecting South American street culture.

“It’s what you see when you go out of the house and grab your first bus to work,” said Guillen, who you’ll now find occasionally behind the bar at Proof + Pantry, in the Arts District. “Street cart vendors, little candy carts near the schools – you can apply those things and come up with something off the charts.”

Proof + Pantry
Guillen, formerly of La Duni and now doing time at Proof + Pantry, has a wealth of South American knowledge to share.

Guillen’s libations will be paired with Chef DAT’s Latin-inspired fare, including BBQ’s gnocchi, roasted cabrito, coconut-encrusted cod and smoked duck breast tostadas.

The 7 pm reservations-only dinner is limited to 35 people and will take place at Twenty Seven, 2901 Elm Street in Deep Ellum. Price is $120 plus gratuity.

Doors open for dinner at 6 with an aperitif to start. Reservations can be made via credit card at rsvp@twentysevendallas.com.

Can’t make dinner? You can still sample a lineup of South American-inspired cocktails and other surprises at a public post-dinner reception at 10 pm, with special prices for dinner guests. Think Argentinian Boilermakers, a South American Old Fashioned and Guillen’s celebrated Rosemary’s Affair, which earned him regional honors from Bombay Sapphire gin and was among my favorite cocktails of 2013.

 

Third time’s the charm: Front Burner’s Bonnie Wilson en route to Vegas to represent DFW in national cocktail competition

Frontburner
Wilson, DFW’s first female rep in the prestigious contest’s national finals. (Photo courtesy of Front Burner)

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – a pinch of this or a drop or a float of that – to turn a drink around. Heading into this summer’s Bombay Sapphire-sponsored “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender” competition in Dallas, Bonnie Wilson aimed to put a different spin on the gin.

Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based Front Burner Restaurants, was one of 10 finalists competing in the national contest’s Dallas-Fort Worth regional at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye. The victor would head to Las Vegas to face winners from 27 other U.S. markets in the finals, vying for a cover feature in GQ magazine.

One by one, the gin variations appeared before the judges – a drink inspired by Taiwanese bubble tea, another served up alongside a Venus flytrap, another with a smoked stalk of lemongrass for garnish. But when it was all over, it was Wilson’s so-called “Axl Rose” – a bouquet of Bombay Sapphire, Brut Rosé, strawberry syrup, lemon and rose water – that had taken top prize. (Full disclosure: I was among the event’s three judges.)

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender
The final touch on Wilson’s Axl Rose: A sugar-candy rose petal

This week, Wilson is Vegas-bound to compete in the finals, the first woman to have that honor for the DFW area. “I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I just want to make sure I represent our city well, that I represent myself and our brand and women well, all of those things. Most of all I just want to have fun.”

This was Wilson’s third attempt at the prestigious contest: Bartenders submit a recipe and a short essay, and a national panel whittles each market’s field down to 10. With her winning cocktail, she aimed for simplicity. “I’ve been obsessed with rosé lately,” she says, “so I wanted to do something around that.”

Citrus was a common flavor in the gin to play off of, but Sapphire’s floral aspects were often forgotten. That’s where the rose water came in, plus a self-made strawberry syrup to echo the flavors of the wine. The topper was the garnish: She worked with Front Burner’s pastry chef to produce a sugar-candy rose petal tinted with pomegranate juice. “We made about 60 of them over the course of two weeks to get the consistency I was happy with,” she says. “I think it came out really good.”

The national contest runs Monday through Thursday in three stages. After the 28 competitors present the cocktails that got them there, the field is whittled to about half. The survivors then face off in two further rounds, crafting entirely new cocktails featuring an ingredient to be specified by the judges.

GQ Most Imaginative Bartender contest
Sweet cocktail o’ mine: Wilson’s Axl Rose’.

Last year, DFW was represented by La Duni’s Daniel Guillen, who made it to the second round. Wilson has been prodding him for tips based on his experience. As far as being DFW’s first female representative in the nationals, she says, “we’ve just got to continue to elevate our diversity.”

That’s a priority for her at Front Burner, where she oversees bar operations for the corporation’s independent brands, including Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar and The Ranch at Las Colinas.  Menu development, special events and training are among her duties, but it’s the latter that lets her tap into her first love, customer interaction. “I can get behind the bar and make drinks for people,” she says.

Hospitality-minded people are the ones who catch her interest and attention. “You can teach somebody how to bartend and teach them about spirits, but you can’t teach the heart of it, the love of that interaction with the guest,” she says.

Others cite her dedication to cultivating talent and encouraging other women to pursue similar paths. “She’s moving up, but she’s not forgetting us,” says Alexandrea Rivera, a bartender at The Ranch at Las Colinas. Adds fellow Ranch bartender Gabrielle Murray: “Everything Bonnie says, we just sponge up.”

Daniel Guillen
2013’s national finalists were featured in a GQ photo spread. That’s La Duni’s Daniel Guillen with the giant honey dipper.

Now, after winning the local Bombay Sapphire contest, Wilson says: “I’ve actually had women come to me who want to work for me. That’s super flattering, and inspiring.”

It was people like Sean Conner – whose Pie 314 pizzeria recently opened in Lewisville – and The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough who helped on her own learning path. And in particular, she credits Angel’s Envy bourbon rep Trina Nishimura with showing her how as a woman to negotiate a male-dominated world. Brands like Bacardi and Heaven Hill have given her valuable educational opportunities, but it’s her own company, she says, that has really challenged her recently. “Sometimes we have these amazing weeks, and we want to rest on our laurels and celebrate,” she says. “They always say, `Great job. How do we make it better?’ Everybody has pushed and encouraged me.”

Not bad for someone who never planned to make craft cocktails. But negative environments in previous workplaces spurred her to move onward, and she landed behind the bar with Conner at Whiskey Cake. “It was like a fated spiritual thing,” she says. “That’s exactly where I was supposed to be. It started me on this career that was like a dream. It’s been such a great ride and it keeps getting better and better.”

Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – to be reminded that it’s not a dream at all.

Spirit rising: Pisco promoters bring their crusade to Texas

Victor Tango's
The Peruvian Pick-Me-Up: Among the more striking pisco drinks to hit Dallas this spring, at Victor Tango’s.

 

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.

Pisco Porton, Sissy's Southern Kitchen
Here’s Johnny: Pisco Porton’s master distiller Johnny Schuler with bartender Chase Streitz of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.

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.

Pisco Porton
The Apprentice: A Negroni-inspired pisco cocktail destined to move up the ranks.

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.)

Johnny Schuler
Schuler recreated the evening he and his business partner crafted the Porton bottle design on a napkin.

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.”

About that he was probably right, too.

Chino Chinatown
Julian Pagan’s Neile Adams at Chino Chinatown: Further evidence of pisco’s versatility, with Lillet Blanc and Aperol.

One last look at 2013: The year’s best in Dallas cocktails

 

Matt Perry, Belly & Trumpet
Belly & Trumpet’s Scorched Belly: Among 2013’s more noteworthy cocktails.

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.

Eddie "Lucky" Campbell, Abacus
The Blackberry Smash: One more reason things are looking up at Abacus.

15. BLACKBERRY SMASH, Abacus (Eddie “Lucky” Campbell)

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.

Jacob Wallace/Emily Perkins, H&G Sply
Mad beetz: H&G Sply’s refreshingly vegetal Double Under

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.

Matt Orth, Lark on the Park
Keeping things in proportion: Suze leads the way in this twist on the classic cocktail.

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.

Alex Fletcher, Victor Tango's
You have no idea how lucky Dallas is that Alex Fletcher didn’t leave Peru a day earlier until you’ve had this drink.

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.

Mike Steele, Bar Smyth
Bitter/sweet legacy: Former Dallas bartender Mike Steele is now in Denver, but left us with this gem.

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.

Omar YeeFoon, Bar Smyth
For too short a time, we sipped our cares away with this caraway-flavored goodness from Omar YeeFoon.

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.

Gabe Sanchez, Black Swan Saloon
Go fig or don’t go at all: Black Swan’s Vieux Carre.

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.

Lee Heffter, Five Sixty
Find me at Five Sixty, and chances are I’ve become Comfortably Numb.

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.

Michael Reith, Nora
Michael Reith’s Fig Sidecar could be your main ride at Nora.

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.

Eddie "Lucky" Campbell, Abacus
Campbell’s Anejo Flip: Caribbean pirates get a Texas twist.

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.

Josh MacEachern, Cedars Social/Belly & Trumpet
MacEachern’s I’ll Get To It: Try to get to it.

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.

Rocco Milano, Barter
I’ll have one of those: A cocktail finds new life at Barter.

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.

Daniel Guillen, La Duni
Basic ingredients, intricate results: Rosemary’s Affair is one to remember.

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.

Alex Fletcher, The People's Last Stand
Into the spotlight: A not-for-the-timid starring role for Green Chartreuse.

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.

Grant Parker, Hibiscus
It’s about the journey, not the destination: Grant Parker’s Amor Y Amargo.

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).

Pairing spirits with dinner: More of that, please.

 

Whiskey Cake, Plano
Plays well with food: Last month’s whiskey-paired dinner at Plano’s Whiskey Cake.

More than three years later, the memories linger. Five courses at one of the city’s best restaurants, each paired with cocktails made by five of the city’s best bartenders, and all featuring Maker’s Mark whiskey.

The scene was Seattle’s Spur Gastropub, and the chefs were rocking it as usual. (Example: sous vide pork belly with sunchokes and Bing cherries – whut whut?) The all-star bartender lineup cranked out an assembly line of original cocktails like the Pine Box, with its grilled-pineapple garnish. There was even some Maker’s 46, which was about to hit the market in summer 2010. We were a happy bunch.

I moved to Dallas soon afterward, and since then I’ve been to barely a handful of spirit or cocktail-themed dinners, though not for lack of want. Last month some friends and I hit a Hudson Whiskey-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake in Plano. And as I do every time I go to one of these events, I wondered: Why doesn’t this happen more often?

Wine and beer dinners have long been a thing, but bartenders like J.W. Tate – formerly of Tate’s Dallas – at first faced resistance to the notion of making a one-stop night of cocktails and food. That’s starting to change as DFW’s cocktail culture comes of age – a welcome and logical step in the scene’s continuing evolution.

Tate’s offered two spirits-paired dinners before J.W. left Dallas earlier this year to head up a company venture in Winston-Salem, N.C., and places like Dallas’ Libertine Bar and La Duni have experimented with the idea too. “People are trying it,” says Libertine’s Mate Hartai. “It’s just going to take a while for the wheels to hit the ground.”

Seattle
Among a cocktail dinner’s challenges: Quickly producing drinks en masse. At Seattle’s Spur, an assembly line of bartenders churn out pairings for a Maker’s Mark dinner.

One reason for the slow going is that these dinners — which generally run from $35 to $100 — aren’t easy to pull off. Cocktails are time-intensive and demand smaller groups; achieving drink consistency can be difficult when produced in a bunch. And the kind of patron who embraces the idea of a cocktail dinner isn’t going to tolerate pre-batched drinks.

On the other hand, the ever-broadening assortment of quality spirits, cordials and apertifs give bartenders a grand palette to work from.

“It’s rewarding when you do it right,” Hartai says. “But it’s much more difficult than people think.”

***

The glasses are set, pretty orbs in a row, when a legion of Sazeracs appear in our midst. The classic cocktail is the evening’s first volley at last month’s Hudson-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake. The Plano restaurant’s dinner showcased the Hudson line’s various incarnations, from its New York Corn Whiskey, well paired with chef Brent Hammer’s charred octopus; and Four Grain Bourbon, solidly supporting an extraordinary, In-N-Out-inspired dry-aged-sirloin burger; and more.

Whiskey Cake, Plano
Whiskey Cake’s Hudson dinner kicked off with a classic Sazerac.

Sean Conner, Whiskey Cake’s beverage director, tackles pairings the way he does cocktails, dissecting courses’ flavor profiles to match. “Certain things go with blackberry or cinnamon or basil,” he says. “It takes six weeks to plan out four or five different cocktails and make them really special.”

Pairing cocktails with food offers some of the same challenges that went into creating, say, sweet-and-sour chicken, with its mix of sweet and savory. “You try to figure out how someone else solved that puzzle,” says Libertine’s Hartai. “To me, that’s really fun. It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.”

Last year, when Tate’s offered a cocktail-paired dinner with chef DAT (David Anthony Temple), “DAT sent over a menu, and I riffed on that,” Tate says. “We talked a bit, and I threw out a cocktail menu, and we each made changes as it got closer…. It’s a lot like making music, with two people jamming – you throw something out there and the other person runs with it, and five weeks later you’ve got something.”

When Temple said he was doing garlic soup, Tate immediately thought of Campari and came up with a drink called the Italian Resistance. On its own, the drink’s various elements struggled to mingle, but fared much better as a pairing. Similarly, a chanterelle-and-pink-peppercorn-infused vodka drink went nicely with Temple’s speck and arugula salad but its savory character made it less pleasurable as a stand-alone cocktail.

The bar’s whiskey-themed dinner in April was a treat, pairing peppery Buffalo Trace Single Oak Barrel whiskey, for instance, with corn soup with fried pig ear, parsley crème fraiche and house-made hot sauce.

J.W. Tate, formerly of Tate's Dallas, among spirit-paired dinners' early adopters.
J.W. Tate, formerly of Tate’s Dallas, which was among spirit-paired dinners’ early adopters.

And last year, at Libertine’s whiskey-and-beer-paired dinner featuring three Scotches and two hefty beers, Hartai wanted to echo the flavors of Lagavulin. “I sat down with the chef and said, `I need smoke, earth and some kind of heat.’ He did a mushroom compote with this awesome smoked-pork thing and some vinegary thing for a kick. It took the whiskey apart into its larger flavor components.”

More recently he did what he called an Italian dinner, but by dinner’s end he had unveiled it more precisely as a vermouth-paired dinner. “The whole point was to change people’s minds about vermouth,” he says. “By the end, people were drinking straight glasses of vermouth and saying, `This is great!’ Well, yeah, it is.”

Hartai likes to save a palate-testing curve ball for the last course. “I want to jar people, give them a reason to talk,” he says. “If you realize you’re putting together an experience aimed at creating lasting memories and challenging palates, you can make an awesome dinner.”

Tate's Dallas whiskey dinner
At Tate’s whiskey dinner, Buffalo Trace Single Oak Barrel was paired with this delicious corn soup with fried pig ear.
Whiskey Cake's dinner featured this tasty sirloin burger alongside Hudson's Four Grain Bourbon.
Whiskey Cake’s dinner featured this tasty treat alongside Hudson’s Four Grain Bourbon.

Looking for a cocktail or spirits-themed dinner? Contact these spots and see what’s on the schedule, or follow them on Facebook.

WHISKEY CAKE KITCHEN AND BAR, 3601 Dallas Parkway, Plano. 972-993-2253. Offers quarterly alcohol-paired dinners.

LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-824-7900. Does dinners monthly, generally beer.

LA DUNI LATIN KITCHEN, four locations in Dallas/Fairview. Offers cocktail-paired, three-course dinners. Join the restaurant’s “inner circle” at one of its locations or at www.laduni.com to advance notice of such events.

KOMALI, 4152 Cole Ave., Dallas. 214-252-0200. Offers occasional tequila- and mezcal-paired dinners.

Doing it the Old Fashioned way: Dallas bartenders face off at whiskey competition

By Charlie Tips Ferrin, Smyth
This apple-walnut Old Fashioned earned 2nd-place honors.

“We’re kind of scrunched for space, but I’m doing the best I can,” Ryan Sumner said as he kicked off the Clyde May’s Whiskey Old-Fashioned competition at The People’s Last Stand with a version featuring apple bitters, demerara syrup and the French bitter Suze.

Consider this post Old-Fashionably late: It’s been a couple of weeks since 16 bartenders vied for the top prize of $500, each with up to six minutes to make and present their drink for the judges. Clyde May’s was the vehicle here, an apple-ish, bordering-on-caustic whiskey with some colorful moonshine roots, and each contestant spun a different version of the cocktail stalwart while adhering to its traditional mix of whiskey, sweetener, bitters and water.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
Chase Streitz of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, serving up his twist on the classic cocktail.

Cinnamon, vanilla, peach and, of course, apple were popular flavors. One of my favorite versions came from Greg Matthews of Oak Cliff’s Ten Bells Tavern, who froze Mudsmith Coffee’s steeped coffee into cubes and punctuated his whiskey concoction with a vanilla sugar made with Mexican vanilla beans, hazelnut bitters and a vanilla/hazelnut garnish.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
The vanilla-accented version from Ten Bells’ Greg Matthews featured coffee ice cubes.

La Duni’s Daniel Guillen shone, too, gussying up his Old Fashioned with sherry, Campari and a roasted red pepper and pecan jam. And Smyth’s Charlie Tips Ferrin, like his compatriot Sumner, served his summery green apple/walnut drink in little mason jars – “in the spirit of the moonshine that it came from,” he said.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
Ryan Fussell of Ruth’s Chris Steak House prepares his drink’s fig garnish.

Brad Bowden of The People’s Last Stand infused his whiskey with smoked peaches, while Ryan Fussell of Ruth’s Chris Steak House strived to use ingredients that would have been available in the 1800s, when the classic cocktail was born. He topped it with a warm fig garnish. (“Figs are badass,” pronounced photographer Mary Szefcyk, clearly impressed with the choice.)

Brad Bowden of The People's Last Stand infused Clyde Mays with smoked peaches for his entry.
Brad Bowden of The People’s Last Stand infused whiskey with smoked peaches for his entry.

In the end it was Smyth’s Omar YeeFoon who walked away with top honors, flavoring his version with Plantation 5-year-old rum, Angostura and tiki bitters, cane syrup and a light dash of orange oils.  With Ferrin placing second and Sumner taking third, it was a Smyth sweep, which if nothing else proved the speakeasy boys could come through in scrunch time.

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
Smyth’s Omar YeeFoon with the double-stir on his way to the evening’s top honors.

And if you’d like to see Smyth’s Ryan Sumner explain the method behind his Old Fashioned twist, here’s a link to my YouTube video:

Old Fashioned variation, from Smyth’s Ryan Sumner

Shrubs, purees, dancing in the streets: The report from Dallas’ Margarita Meltdown 2013

 

Standard Pour's Armando Guillen and Brian McCullough battle the crush at Margarita Meltdown 2013 in Oak Cliff.
Standard Pour’s Armando Guillen and Brian McCullough battled the crush at Margarita Meltdown 2013 in Oak Cliff.

They came to do battle with guava and chili, with basil and peppers and passionfruit puree. Slinging their drinks in shot-sized portions, they implored the parched and perspiring throngs to cast votes in their favor, each angling for the $1,000 crown of Margarita Meltdown 2013.

The third annual event pitched its tents in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District Sunday, and if you came to knock down a little tequila, it did not disappoint: Around 30 restaurants offered their own spin on the classic Margarita, cranking out mini-cocktails dressed oh so many different ways — punched up with pineapple, couched in horchata, spiced with serrano chile.

Margarita Meltdown 2013
Oak Cliff’s own Mesa represented with a habanero, serrano and bell pepper Margarita laced with brown sugar.

Everybody started with a common ingredient: Milagro tequila blanco. Plano’s Whiskey Cake, which took last year’s title with bartender Bonnie Wilson’s frozen “Push-Up” Margarita, made another strong push this year with a drink served not in a glass but in a plastic squirt gun. They ran out within two hours.

Here’s how it all worked: Checklists were distributed. Have a mini-Margarita, cross the place off your list. Then vote – via text – for your favorite four. The machinations were a mystery, and voting continued for an hour past its scheduled cut-off point. Then again, the queues moved slowly; I still managed to sample 18 Margaritas in all, from Oak Cliff Social Club’s grapefruit and Squirt-splashed version to the tasty peach margarita pitched up by Cyclone Anaya’s of Oak Lawn.

Oak Cliff Social Club's Social Sipper, with Milagro tequila blanco, Ruby Red grapefruit and a splash of Squirt.
Oak Cliff Social Club’s Social Sipper, with Ruby Red grapefruit and a splash of Squirt.

Sunset Lounge embraced the tiki with a “Zombie-rita” partied up with Bacardi 151 rum, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Velvet Falernum, Angostura bitters, cinnamon syrup and lime, grapefruit and pineapple juice.

“This is the longest line I’ve had to wait in,” a girl complained as she waited to try the Standard Pour booth, where bartender Armando Guillen shook up batches of his special Margarita blend in real time. “It’d better be f-ing worth it.”

And it was: Guillen’s drink featured orange-tea-infused tequila, ginger and passionfruit purees, blood orange bitters and a five-chili balsamic reduction – sweetly alluring with lots of character.

Asador's entry featured sambal, a Southeast Asian chile sauce.
Asador’s entry featured sambal, a Southeast Asian chile sauce.

La Duni’s Daniel Guillen – Armando’s brother – also scored with his Bohemia Margarita, flavored with Becherovka (a Czech herbal liqueur), lime and a house-made cordial of cucumber, pepper and star anise, finished off with a Tajin chile-lime powder rim.

So did Asador, whose fruity watermelon and basil version shone with subtle heat, making use of sambal (a Southeast Asian chili sauce) and a ginger/sea salt foam. Another stand-out: The Lucky One, from the just-opened Mutts Canine Cantina, dolled up with a strawberry, cucumber and rosemary shrub for some balsamic beauty. (Though my companion Rachel cleverly suggested sprucing it up even more with a Pop-Rock rim.)

La Duni's Daniel Guillen flavored his Margarita with his own cordial of pepper and star anise.
La Duni’s Daniel Guillen flavored his Margarita with his own cordial made with cucumber, pepper and star anise.

DaLat came prepared to serve up 2,300 of its spectacular “Vietnamese Margaritas,” which were really not Margaritas at all, but with their prune-candy and chili-flaked lime one-two punch kept the booth’s lines long and lingering.

The best of the bunch? For one, Mesomaya’s avocado-pineapple Margarita made with Cointreau – always a plus in my book – and laced with Tajin. “It’s mellow and yellow,” my worthy sidekick said.

Mesomaya's avocado-pineapple Margarita, a solid dose of mellow yellow
Mesomaya’s avocado-pineapple Margarita, a solid dose of mellow yellow

My favorite, though, was “The People’s Last Pequin,” from The People’s Last Stand, a complex punch incorporating smoked strawberries, honey agave and two infused tequilas – one with chile pequin, the other with vanilla bean – and, naturally, Cointreau. The rim was a mix of lime zest, smoked sea salt and guajillo chili. All-around goodness.

So who won? Well, does it really matter? Suffice it to say that the victorious cocktail was the one drink that both my companion and I tossed away without finishing, so horrendous was its assault upon our palates. And in case we thought we were mistaken, the guy behind us practically spit his out. Who knows: Maybe we got a bad batch. But really, by the time the results were announced, spirits were high, and this small but populous stretch of Bishop Arts had gotten its club vibe on, with booming beats and dancing in the streets, so for all anyone cared – except for a contingent of disappointed bartenders – the Sonic down the street could have been named winner and the party would have gone on. And it did. Dallas, I salute you.

The top-notch People's Last Pequin, from The People's Last Stand.
The top-notch People’s Last Pequin, from The People’s Last Stand.
And then this happened.
And then this happened.

 

Try these cocktails: The best from the Pisco Trail

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Hibiscus’ Peruvian Fix was among the stand-outs of the five-week series.

MY FRIENDS, this blog can sometimes be a grueling enterprise. In those moments I find myself re-energized by my sworn duty to my readers, and that, no doubt, is what powered me through five straight Thursdays of pisco sampling. Somebody had to do it.

Now I bring you the highlights of that brave mission, the best of a barrage of pisco cocktails fired up by some of Dallas’ ace bartenders.

First, a little catch-up: Not long ago, I told you about The Trail Project, Daniel Guillen’s crusade to showcase lesser-known spirits via a series of “bar crawls” through various Dallas neighborhoods. The idea, developed with Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, is to introduce or reacquaint bartenders with spirits they may then decide to add to their shelves: The spirits become part of their repertoire, an ingredient to which adventurous patrons can be wooed; the brand gets marketed; everybody wins.

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At Bar Smyth, bartender Josh Hendrix does the pisco thing his way.

The first series, sponsored by Pisco Porton – pisco, like Cognac, is a grapey eau de vie, native mostly to Peru – began with a walkable stretch of bars along Henderson; the next week, we’d moved to Uptown. Next came the Northpark/Mockingbird Station/Knox area, the Design District and Oak Cliff areas and finally a motley bunch of orphan bars stretching from Henderson to the Crescent to Oak Lawn. In all, more than 25 bars took part, amazing considering the number of quality spots not even on the list, such as The Cedars Social, Black Swan Saloon, Whiskey Cake and the Libertine. There were surprises – bars I didn’t expect much from made solid showings, and vice versa – and some non-surprises (many many variations on the Pisco Sour); all together, we probably each tasted about 60 cocktails.

Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 favorites from along the way.

1. The as-yet anonymous second drink that Ashley Williams served us at Oak Cliff’s Boulevardier, featuring Pisco Porton, DeKuyper O3 liqueur, Cherry Heering, lemon and a float of Montelobos mescal.

2. At The Dram on Henderson, Jasin Burt’s mix of Pisco Porton, Dolin Rouge vermouth, chocolate bitters and vanilla extract – a drink I dubbed Down With The Brown – complex and grapey sweet, with a nice chocolate finish.

image

Ashley Williams puts Boulevardier on the list with her as-yet unnamed creation.

3. I dug the drink called the Hawaiian Room, a bit of whimsy from Sunset Lounge’s Nico Ponce, with Pisco Porton, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, applejack, lemon and pineapple. Served in a coupe with banana leaf protruding like a feather, it was again on the sweet side, but well-rounded: A refreshing iced tea with a vanilla-wafer finish.

4. At the Standard Pour, the Incan Resemblance, from Guillen’s brother Armando, was one of the series’ most original and beautiful looking drinks. (The same goes for the epically named cocktail from his SP colleague McCullough, Pisco Kid Rides Again Into The Fiery Sunset.) Guillen’s drink featured Pisco Porton, puree made from chirimoya (a Peruvian fruit), elderflower liqueur, ginger foam, Thai basil, Peychaud’s bitters and lavender bitters. A garnishing bundle of lavender leaves were rolled into a lemon peel papoose, evoking an Incan headdress. It was stunningly creative, with a smooth strawberry taste.

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The Incan Resemblance, from Standard Pour’s Armando Guillen.

5. It was practically midnight when we reached Tate’s on the Uptown leg of the so-called Pisco Trail, and head barman J.W. Tate obliged our tastes with an excellent digestif he called Muy Criollo, or Very Creole. “The word “Creole” is used in a very different way in Peru,” Tate told us. “It refers to a spirited way of life, similar to the way we’d say gusto, or the French joie de vivre.” He made his drink with pisco, Bonal bitter liqueur and three kinds of shrub, including habanero. It was arresting, a sipping drink for night’s end, with a pleasantly mild kick of spice in the finish.

6. At Bowl and Barrel, Ian Reilly found a way to incorporate hoisin, an Asian plum sauce he came across in the kitchen, in a fabulous drink he called the Passerine. Figuring the hoisin would go well with other Asian flavors, he mixed it with Hum, a feisty liqueur strong with ginger and kaffir lime, and pisco, lime, Yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters. It was brilliant tang and sweetness, all in one.

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A mango-jalapeno cocktail from The Kennedy Room’s Joseph Buenrostro, among the few to embrace heat in his pisco creations.

7. Hibiscus, on the first week’s itinerary, had to pull out at the 11th hour. After it was reset for week five, Bartender Grant Parker atoned for the wait with the beautiful and delicious Peruvian Fix, a bouquet of pisco, pineapple syrup, lime, mint, simple and most significantly, jalapeno-infused Green Chartreuse. It was lovely, with a slight kick – not too spicy, not too sweet, all the flavors exhibiting perfectly. Parker was among the bartending minority who’d worked with pisco before. “One woman came in once and put me through hell,” he said. “She had me make, like nine Pisco Sours.”

8. It’s fair to say that Sunset Lounge’s Nico Ponce, spurred on by news that the bar preceding his in week number two had turned out two pisco drinks, was a little motivated. He sent out a volley of at least seven pisco-based cocktails, all of them variations on the tiki drinks that are the trademark of the fledgling Ross Avenue bar. His Pisco Mai Tai was, yes, on the candy-sweet side, but oh so good: pisco, lime, orange Curacao and a bit of almond syrup.

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The Pisco Mai Tai, one of Sunset Lounge’s numerous tiki variations.

9. At Marquee Grill & Bar, Andrew Lostester made the tantalizing Pisco Star using a housemade syrup made with grapefruit, cinnamon and star anise. That was shaken with pisco, lime and seasonally fresh grapefruit, then topped with soda; it had a creamy mouthfeel with a citrusy finish, the perfect match for appetizers drenched in rich sauce.

10. It’s no fluke that Guillen himself ended up on this list; being Peruvian, he’s well versed in pisco and he raised his chances by offering up three drinks to sample at Northpark’s La Duni. His second effort, called the San Isidro, was money: pisco, Grand Marnier, lemon, maple syrup, peach puree, Angostura bitters and a housemade apricot-nectarine bitters. Topped with mint and a dried apricot lounging atop a tiny ice-bowl float, the result was all-up-in-your-face apricot with a double-barreled peach-maple sweetness.

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The trail master himself, La Duni’s Guillen, scores with the San Isidro.

If you’re keeping score by neighborhood, that makes Uptown/Arts District the winner of the first Trail Project series, at least in my book. The more notable point is, there’s a whole passel of bartenders out there who now know how to throw down with pisco, and the person who benefits is you: Get out there and try some of these drinks soon.

Guillen’s plan is to launch a whole new series of bar crawls built around a second spirit, so stay tuned either here or on my Twitter feed at @typewriterninja #trailproject.

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Trail participants strike a pose with the raspberry-infused X Factor, one of several solid pisco cocktails from Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla.

— Marc Ramirez, posted 4/15/13