More than a month has passed since Dallas’ last two cocktail competitions, both coincidentally arranged for the same day in June. While a few ingredients may have been pre-prepared a day or three ahead, the bartenders at both the “Disaronno Mixing Star” contest (won by Smoke’s Mandy Meggs) and the subsequent Pisco Mercenaries’ “Pisco Punch Duel” (won by Rapscallion’s Andres Zevallos) pretty much shook or stirred their cocktails up in real time.
Last week, though, brought a different sort of beverage bout, one that deliciously demonstrated how patience and ingenuity can create liquid gold. The Campari Barrel-Aged Cocktail Competition, organized by local rep Chase Streitz, showed how barrel-aging smooths out liquor’s hard edges while adding beautiful depths of flavor; mixtures are conceived and left to age for weeks in a barrel, the wooden cocoon from which will hopefully emerge a beautiful butterfly of a drink.
The rules were this: Contestants had up to six weeks to age their cocktail in a 5-liter barrel. Each was to be built on a base of Bulldog gin, a London Dry-style spirit featuring several influences not typically seen in gins – lotus leaf, poppy and the lychee-like dragon eye fruit. The final presentation could include no more than seven ingredients, one of which had to be the Italian bitter liqueur Campari or one of its products.
In all, nine bartenders fielded entries. Some concoctions had entered the barrel fully assembled and then reappeared, transformed; others, like Robbie Call’s Frenchie, went into the barrel in partial form and were enhanced with other ingredients before serving.
Call, the bar manager at Madrina, poured out his bright barrel-aged mix of gin, Aperol and herbal-sweet Dolin Genepy and shook it with lemon, simple and egg white; that was then strained into a half-glass of Duvel beer.
The result craftily utilized the egg white, which sat atop the cocktail and gave it the appearance of a frothy summer ale. “It makes a great foam,” said visiting judge Amanda Olig, of Denver’s Meadowlark Kitchen. “It looks like the head on a beer.”
Another notable was Peter Novotny’s Sancho, a play on the classic Martinez and a recent addition to the specials board at Deep Ellum’s Armoury. Featuring gin, orange bitters, roasted-black-pepper-infused cherry liqueur and dry vermouth infused with the cherry-vanilla influence of tonka beans, its unaged version was pleasantly sweet and worth drinking on its own. (One judge, in fact, preferred it over the aged one.)
The barrel-aged drink was boozy and winter-ready, illustrating how the process can take a drink from sunny-weather refresher to winter warmer.
All of the entries evidenced the undeniable influence of wood. These were vigorous barrels. “You’re not going to get rid of the taste of the wood,” said Dee Sweis, who tends bar at The People’s Last Stand. “That’s the whole point of barrel-aging.”
A few bartenders got a rein on those woodsy depths by pre-treating their barrels: For his Churchill Negroni, Michael Reith of Sissy’s Southern Kitchen in Knox-Henderson poured sweet Spanish sherry into his barrel and rotated it daily for a week before replacing it with his classic Negroni combination of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.
But Reith also elaborately pre-spiced his gin with goodies including clove, coriander, star anise and dried fruits, his overall goal being to evoke sherry and tobacco, two of Winston Churchill’s favorite ingredients. “Rather than actually using tobacco, I wanted to hit those notes,” he said.
The result was luscious and beautiful, and it took second in the judging. Parliament’s Drew Garison took third with his Summer in SoHo, a mix of pear and white-peppercorn-infused gin, apricot liqueur, Aperol and lavender bitters.
On the top prize, though, we all agreed on an unlikely source: Renfield’s Corner, the high-volume party den in Uptown where Rogher Jeri’s sultry Bulldog and Zen, playing off the gin’s Eastern and Western influences, was all at once thoughtfully presented, bold and well-conceived. He combined the spirit with dry vermouth, a touch of ginger liqueur and herbal Yellow Chartreuse, and a vinegary lemon-lavender shrub. Halfway through the aging process, he added a jalapeño oleo saccharum, a classic sugar oil typically extracted from citrus.
What made Jeri’s effort so intriguing is that in unaged form, there was nothing special about the drink. It was both blond and bland, a little cloudy in appearance, an ugly duckling loosed into the world. But it returned a swan: Tart and nicely balanced, with a handsome amber hue and a just-right singe of jalapeno, which can often be overdone. It was a startling metamorphosis.
“It’s like a wasabi burn,” said judge Austin Millspaugh, local rep for liquor distributor Frederick Wildman and Sons, as he sipped. “It clears your nose and then dies off.”
“It travels through your palate and, just as it starts to heat up, it sweetens,” Streitz added.
To top it off, Jeri gave a nod to the gin’s signature ingredients by garnishing the drink with a lavender stem and a lotus flower sculpted from a jalapeno. It was exquisite. Or as judge Pezhmon Sabet, secretary of the the U.S. Bartender’s Guild’s North Texas chapter, said: “That’s a badass drink.”
Was it Churchill who said good things come to those who wait?
You don’t have to go all to Japan to find an izakaya, a gastropub-like gathering spot for those who love to drink shochu, the country’s national spirit. At least not this Sunday, when Dallas’ Industry Alley, Charlie Papaceno’s chill hang in the Cedars neighborhood, becomes a pop-up izakaya for the night.
It’s all part of the bar’s “1st Sunday Soiree,” a recently launched series of evenings featuring guest chefs and their gustatory goodies. The series kicked off last month with Small Brewpub’s Misti Norris, whose creative consumables were to die for; Justin Holt, sous chef at Lucia, will bust out an array of ramen, yakitori skewers and the Japanese delight known as Battleship Curry. The fare is cash only, with prices running from $2 to $10 from 8 p.m. until the food runs out. Try to remain civilized.
This time around, bar manager Mike Steele is getting into the fun, rounding out the izakaya theme with a mix of cocktails featuring shochu, a low-proof liquor distilled from stuff like rice, barley or sweet potatoes. As I wrote in The Dallas Morning News, it’s light and earthy, like a hoppy green tea.
In Japan, shochu is the featured spirit at izakayas, which evolved from sake shops that began adding seating so people could stay a while. While they still feature sake, beer, wine and whiskey, shochu is still the foundation; at 50-proof, it’s not as strong as most spirits but still brawnier than wine. Izakaya-style bars featuring American-oriented cocktails have blossomed throughout the country.
Steele and guest bartender Trina Nishimura — the two were among the original crew at Cedars Social, the influential craft-cocktail bar just down the street — will be serving up a mix of izakaya-style cocktails evoking both Japanese-style drinks (think low-proof) and cocktails adhering more to a Western philosophy. They’ll use ingredients like yuzu and matcha green tea syrup and stick to two kinds of shochu, one made from barley and the other from white sweet potatoes specifically produced for shochu. “Once you get that third or fourth sip and that shochu gets on the palate, then these other flavor profiles start coming through,” Steele says.
POP-UP IZAKAYA AT INDUSTRY ALLEY, 1713 S. Lamar, Dallas. Food is cash only. Starting at 8 p.m. until the food runs out.
So, you’ve wowed your Fireball-drinking buddies with your superior knowledge of mezcal, tequila’s smoky and more exotic cousin. You’ve earned serious props for your appreciation of mezcal’s Scotch-like acquired taste. But dude: if you really want to prove yourself mas macho, try drinking mezcal the way it’s done in Oaxaca – with worm salt.
Among the benefits of the ongoing craft-cocktail renaissance has been the rising availability of mezcal, distilled from Mexico’s native maguey plant, a form of agave. Generations-old methods of artisan production – in which the plants’ hearts are roasted in pit ovens before the fermentation process, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor – have spawned hundreds of choices, many of which you can now find in the U.S.
Typically it’s imbibed straight. Picture a tiny cup or shot of your beloved mezcal, served alongside a small plate of orange slices. Garnish those slices with a sprinkling of sal de gusano – a rust-colored powder of sea salt, ground chilies and the crushed remains of agave worms. Better yet, dip a slice into a bowl of the powder itself.
While you grimace, consider this: Despite the name, the worms aren’t actually worms. They’re the larvae of moths that start feeding on the hearts and leaves of the agave plant as soon as they’re born. In other words, they are living the life. Their brief and blissfully unaware existence comes to an end in late summer, when – in accordance with centuries-old tradition – they’re gathered up, dried in the sun and toasted, then pulverized along with sea salt and chilies to become the magical mix now before you.
Back to your plate. Take a bite of powdered orange and your mouth explodes with sweet citrus, faint heat and a wallop of salt. It’s a zesty complement to the swig of smoky mezcal you’re about to inhale. But wait: There’s another flavor there, too, almost paprika-esque. It’s lovely and rounds out the mezcal perfectly.
“It’s savory,” says bartender Hector Zavala of Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “It has that flavor of umami.”
Yes, a bit of the worm-salt experience and you might just be calling for your mommy. But insect consumption is a longtime tradition in resource-challenged Oaxaca, where critters like grubs and crickets provide a cheap and plentiful source of protein. (I once sampled a plate of not-so-bad dried crickets at a Oaxacan hole-in-the-wall in Phoenix, sautéed with lime and chili and served with a side of tortillas. The biggest issue – the little legs that get caught between your teeth.)
A few weeks ago, Zavala scored a shipment of sal de gusano from Mexican producer Gran Mitla; he’s now dishing it up Oaxaca-style at Henry’s Majestic and its speakeasy sidekick, Atwater Alley. (Appropriately, he serves it with Wahaka’s reposado mezcal, which incorporates the same agave worm.) At Uptown’s upscale Mexican place Komali, bar manager Leann Berry is pondering serving her recently obtained sal de gusano with mezcal flights, while you can also find it at Proof + Pantry in the Arts District, socked away in a Hefty bag labeled “grub salt.”
Zavala, of Henry’s Majestic, comes from the same small town in Mexico as fellow bartender Luis Sifuentes; they lived two miles apart but never met until they came to Dallas. Now both are among the badass bar crew assembled at Henry’s by beverage director Alex Fletcher. “Alex has a lot of trust in us,” says Zavala, who along with sal de gusano also procured a milder, sweeter powder of ground-up grasshoppers called sal de chapulin. “He lets us experiment and come up with our own ideas.”
Fletcher finds the whole thing intriguing. “(Hector) brought those in to play with,” he says, wheels already turning. “I think doing a worm-salt, citrus-based mezcal cocktail would be fantastic.”
That’s what a post on the site Mezcalistas.com suggests. In fact, its play on the classic Margarita is basically the orange-slice tradition rolled into a drink, replacing tequila and lime with mezcal and orange juice and then serving it in a worm-salt-rimmed glass.
At Atwater Alley, Sifuentes gave the cocktail concept a go, too, mixing mild Wahaka mezcal with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and a bit of bitter Averna. Worm salt lined the glass. It was a respectable blend, but it could just be that the spices’ jaw-punch of salinity is too aggressive to play well in cocktails, at least in significant quantity. Still, there’s nothing wrong with having it the traditional way. Sometimes simplicity is best.
Maybe food is the most logical complement of all. In Austin, you’ll find worm-salt-accompanied mezcal at Takoba, along with slices of Oaxacan cheese. And at The Pastry War in Houston, you can get mezcal with a straight-up side of toasted grasshoppers. If that makes you shudder, start slow – with a bit of worm salt.
“Psychologically, that’s a hump I had to get over,” said Proof + Pantry bartender Mike Steele. “But it’s pretty good stuff.”
The official opening of one of Dallas’s most anticipated craft-cocktail bars is about a week away, but sometimes it pays to be into wine: Attendees of last weekend’s 10th annual TEXSOM conference, one of the country’s biggest wine gatherings, got a lucky peek at Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry space at a 1980s-themed bash that dropped a Super Freak bomb on One Arts Plaza Sunday night.
Beats dropped, wine corks popped, glasses were topped. Roast pig was served. Meanwhile, the mad bartending skills scattered to the winds when Martensen and his team left Dallas’ Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social in November crafted five shades of Negronis for a workshop-weary crowd eager to party like it was 1989. As reunions go, seeing bartenders Julian Pagan, Trina Nishimura, Josh Mceachern, Josh Hendrix and back-from-Denver Mike Steele simultaneously behind the bar again was sorta like Eric B. & Rakim getting back together – “and you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Mceachern said. “We’re just getting started.”
And indeed, Proof + Pantry’s rustic wood and metal interior is still a work in progress. In fact, one would have been hard-pressed on Saturday morning to believe any sort of gathering would be happening in the space 36 hours later, given its warehouse-like disarray. (Deadlines help.) But many features were already evident, like the Restoration-Hardware-esque decor, the classy illuminated modular shelving suspended above the marble-topped bar and the exterior courtyard with its Arts-District view.
There was more wine than anyone could drink, and with air-conditioning on the fritz in the immediate area, the sweltering atmosphere was like a jungle sometimes, it made you wonder how you kept from – well, you know. By night’s end, the contentedly reunited Proof + Pantry team was nonetheless exhausted, having worked nearly around-the-clock to make this moment happen. Still, it was clear that they wanna be startin’ something: This was just a taste of what’s to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Before entire music libraries and players fit in your hip pocket, there was the age of console stereo systems. Back then, you’d veg out to the vinyl crackle of REM or Pink Floyd in the darkness, the light of the receiver glowing from behind the frequencies on the AM/FM radio display.
That’s the feel you get at The Establishment, the long-anticipated cocktail lounge from Mike Martensen and Brian Williams in Dallas’ Knox-Henderson neighborhood.
It’s no accident, because if The Cedars Social, the James-Beard-nominated bar Martensen and Williams co-own south of downtown, is decidedly 70s retro, The Establishment is even more so — dark, cozy and swank, with sleek wood paneling creeping from the walls onto the ceiling above the bar.
Plush, U-shaped booths wallow in the murk. A shag-carpeted back room features vinyl-ornamented shelves. The whole scene is soul-ified by a soundtrack courtesy of Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire and recalling a time of gold chains, leisure suits and bell bottoms.
“I feel like I could walk into that (back) room and hair would grow on my chest,” said Ian Reilly, who runs the bar at Dallas’ Bowl and Barrel.
The speakeasy atmosphere begins on Travis Street, where no obvious sign or entry marks The Establishment’s existence. An unlit hallway bends into the nightlight-dim lounge, where the bar glows in the darkness like the Yamaha tuner in your daddy’s man cave.
“I think this is what my dad thought his basement bar looked like,” said Charlie Papaceno, the stalwart behind Dallas’ Windmill Lounge, admiring The Establishment’s wood-paneled setup with a Manhattan in hand. “I’m sure when he looked at it, this is what he saw.”
In its purposefully quiet, early opening days, small numbers and familiar faces demonstrated the intimacy of the space, snug as a den. So far there are no stools at the bar and plenty of room to move around or melt into the shadows, as long as the numbers remain limited. And Martensen insists that’s the idea: A host will make sure attendance tops out at 48, which is why reservations may ultimately be recommended. “It’s never going to be crowded,” he says.
Not everything about the room is perfect: A prominent staircase, set off by a pair of stanchions, leads temptingly to nowhere but offices. But that’s a small trifle, and of course it’s the drinks we’re here for. There’s no menu, just a list of spirits, your own desires and the whims of the dapper wizards behind the bar. Name a poison, vote spirit-forward or not, claim a preference for bitter or sweet — whatever you fancy. Mezcal is how I dive in: bartender Mike Steele churns out the Slow Trombone, an apricot-tinged concoction he’s still perfecting. Later, Omar Yeefoon, The Establishment’s bar program manager, works magic with Hum, one of my preferred liqueurs.
“That’s the great thing about working here,” says Steele, exhibiting a sheet of note paper with scribbled ingredients and proportions on both sides. “All these drinks, I came up with last night.”
If hit-or-miss experimentation isn’t your thing, go safe with a classic; in the hands of these bartenders, you won’t go wrong.
And when Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” comes on, you’ll know you’ve officially crossed the Boogie Nights barrier.
The DFW cocktail scene has come a long way in the last two years, and as many a bartender knows, I’ve been no stranger to it. Restaurants now launch with bar programs no longer a second thought, the qualities of ice and citrus oils are strongly considered, and drinkers once keen on vodka-and-Red-Bull are growing more adventurous palates.
Some of the local drinks unveiled in 2012, these ones at Dallas’ Five Sixty. At middle left, Rolling Fog Over Mount Fuji; at middle right, Locked and Loaded.
Our craft cocktail architects have, in the last year, designed menus built on the shoulders of the past – reintroducing old classics, embellishing and remodeling, thinking up creations of their own.Luckily, I have taken it upon myself to sample many of these libations on behalf of the greater good. I have, as they say, taken one for the team.
I can’t claim to have sampled every drink out there. I’m just one man, for god’s sakes. (Thanks to all who sacrificed themselves to join me for the effort.) And I have my own tastes and habitats: In general, my spirits of choice are gin, whiskey, tequila, rum, gasoline and vodka, in that order. Ha ha, vodka – I kid you, I kid you.
But as we say Peace Out to 2012, I leave you with my top 10 favorite local discoveries of the past year. Ah, what the heck: In the spirit of the annum, let’s just make it 12.
12. MEXICALI BLUES, Tate’s, Dallas (J.W. Tate)
Blending the glamour of aged tequila and house-made grenadine with the smokiness of mezcal, this is Salma Hayek in a coupe, bold and feminine. The borderland babe, named for a Grateful Dead song, is garnished with a palm-tree V of thyme planted in a floating lime-slice island, with a muddle of pepper upping the Baja heat.
“Somebody asked me to make them a drink called Stripper Sweat. I think they had just come from a strip club,” says Tran, adept with flavor even as he churns out the shots and mixed drinks usually favored by the crowd at this Lakewood dive-bar gem. Partial to pairing vodka with the elderflower sweet of St. Germain, he gave complexity to this summery play on vodka-cranberry by mixing vanilla vodka with cranberry, St. Germain and the earthy licorice punch of Fernet. Shaken with an orange wedge, the pulpy, apricot-like mixture is poured over ice, frothy as a raspberry fizz.
When Streitz, the beverage director at Sissy’s, was asked to design happy-hour drinks around the Henderson Avenue restaurant’s most popular spirits, he spun simple gold from Makers 46, honeying it up with Benedictine and splash of orange bitters over crushed ice. The drink’s initially aggression softens as the ice melts and muddles the accompanying orange slice, a pleasant pre- or post-dinner relaxer.
9. THE PEOPLE’S OLD FASHIONED – The People’s Last Stand, Dallas (Omar Yeefoon)
Though Yeefoon no longer pours at this Mockingbird Station bar, he left his mark on the place with this luscious take on the classic whiskey cocktail that couples maple syrup with Rittenhouse rye along with a touch of Angostura bitters and flame-drawn orange oils.The result: A strong whiskey handshake with a rush of almost tamarind-y sweetness.
8. ROLLING FOG OVER MOUNT FUJI, Five Sixty, Dallas (Lee Hefter)
This gorgeous and aptly named drink at Wolfgang Puck’s Asian-themed restaurant atop Reunion Tower also has depth – and properly made, the illusion of height. Japanese Hibiki 12 whiskey is shaken with Aperol, lemon, simple syrup and egg white, then poured into a small fishbowl of a glass. A mountainous ice slab juts out from the foamy egg-white surface, towering over the pink-hued landscape beneath and evoking the drink’s name. It has the taste and feel of sherbet, with an herbal Aperol finish.
7. FIG MANHATTAN, Tate’s, Dallas (J.W. Tate)
This classic re-do land-rushes the prairie of your tongue with a bracing yet savory sweetness, the house-made fig syrup ably enhancing the Uptown bar’s orangey dark brown blend of Rittenhouse 100 rye, Cocchi D’Torino vermouth and Angostura bitters. It’s rich, not cloying, with a fig essence that elevates rather than just flavors this classic.
6. TINY’S FAREWELL, The Cedars Social, Dallas (Mike Steele)
Basically, Steele wanted to make a stirred tiki drink, one without the citrus juice that calls for shaking or the mounds of crushed ice that typically characterize these Caribbean-styled cocktails. He produced this blend of Cana Brava rum, Dolin dry vermouth, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, Kronan Swedish punsch, pineapple syrup and tiki bitters. A diaphanous lemony yellow, it’s honey-sweet with a fruity frontal assault and minty finish underscored by the warm essence of rum. The coup de grace is a swath of grapefruit ignited to draw out the oils and citrusy aroma. The story behind the name? “I always wanted to have a tiki bar,” Steele says. “I figured I’d have this really huge guy behind the bar named Tiny with really big arms, crushing ice. But when I made this drink, it was like, `Tiny, we don’t need you anymore.’ “
5. EMERSON, Hibiscus, Dallas (Grant Parker)
OK, nothing fancy here – just Parker’s take on a little-known classic that deserves wider recognition. The traditional Emerson is gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and lime. Parker, the low-key force behind this Henderson Avenue restaurant’s bar, subs the sweeter and less botanical Old Tom gin and uses the spicy, herbaceous Carpano Antica as his vermouth. The result is a drink that starts fruity (especially cherry), but then U-turns with a dazzling chocolate-and-spice finish. “During the cold season, the Antica gives it a nice cinnamon flavor,” Parker says. “And when the weather turns hot, it’s a nice aperitif.”
4. LOCKED AND LOADED, Five Sixty, Dallas (Lee Hefter)
“That reminds me of breakfast, man,” says Five Sixty bartender Casey Griggs of Locked And Loaded. “That reminds me of some pancakes.” This drink created by Los Angeles-based Lee Hefter, Wolfgang Puck’s right-hand chef, is a buffet of bourbon, maple syrup, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, lemon juice, egg white, rhubarb bitters and a sly rinse of Laphroig. Its hue is somewhere between butterscotch and Chimay Triple, and the bourbon is purposely understated, with a creamy finish marked by rhubarb candy sweetness.
3. LINNEO’S REMEDY (Ian Reilly)
One evening when Reilly was still working at The People’s Last Stand, I asked him to concoct a drink to feed my growing fascination with mezcal. At the time, he, too, was toying with mezcal and employing his philosophy of temperance – that is, avoiding the urge to compound the agave-based spirit’s smoky Latin flavor with heat and rather using it as a player in an equal, four-part structure a la the classic Last Word. This is what he came up with: a balance of mezcal, Aperol, ginger liqueur and lime.The result is a delicious sweet-and-sour mix caught up in an undercurrent of peaty mezcal. Reilly – since relocated to just-opened Bowl and Barrel – now opts for saffron-spiced Strega over orangey Aperol, and the name he chose recalls Spain’s medicinal use of bitters as well as Swedish naturalist (and agave’s identifier) Carl Linnaeus – or Carlos Linneo, as he would have been known in Spanish. “I guess all of those, the idea of soothing and balance, combined into Linneo’s Remedy,” Reilly says.
2. SECRETS AND LIES, The Cedars Social, Dallas (Mike Steele)
This off-the-menu treasure, inspired by a drink Steele once served in Denver, takes premium whiskey, enhances it with port and Strega and adds strong hints of Carpano Antica, vanilla syrup and a cardamom tincture. “I think cardamom and vanilla go really well together, and it’s a good, rich flavor for the fall,” he says. “Plus it goes really well with whiskey.” Every ingredient comes through, a beautiful balance of bite, herbs and holiday warmth. “One time, somebody asked me what was in it,” says the affable Steele from behind the bar of this pioneering spot south of downtown. “I said, `Secrets and lies, man, secrets and lies. And it just went from there.”
1. FALL INTO A GLASS, Private/Social, Dallas (Rocco Milano)
It’s really not fair when Hum is in the game, because anyone who knows me knows that I adore this liqueur dominated by flavors of ginger, cardamom and clove. It’s a feisty pit bull of an ingredient, but Milano – who introduced me to Hum about a year ago – has a knack for grabbing the leash and making it shine. The gin-hefeweizen-lemon Shandy that he’d added to the summer menu at Uptown’s Private/Social, a twist on the classic French 75, was so popular that he didn’t want to part ways with it in the fall; Hum seemed a natural autumn boost for this cleverly named drink. What you get is a mix of citrus and spritz with a frothy sheen of beer, the finish a wave of autumnal Hum. “It’s amazing how different .75 oz of Hum can make a cocktail taste,” he says. “When I presented the drink to the staff during training, everyone said the exact same thing: You nailed the flavors of fall.”
Want to make it yourself? Here’s the recipe.
FALL INTO A GLASS
2 oz light-bodied gin (such as Citadelle)
1 oz lemon juice
1½ oz simple syrup
¾ oz Hum liqueur
Combine all ingredients, shake and strain into a snifter. Top with 2-3 oz wheat beer (such as McKinney-based Franconia).
Yeah, it’s true: Gin is my longtime BFF. But lately… well, there’s a certain lady in red who’s gotten under my skin.Her name is Hum. She’s like no dame I ever met before. She’s the Jessica Rabbit of liqueurs.
Some say she’s hard to get along with. I gotta say: She does dominate a room. One-on-one, though — oh yeah, she’s something special. I’ll never forget the first time I met her….
It was Rocco who turned my world upside down. Rocco Milano, the head barman at Private/Social. Rocco knows a lot of characters. Rocco gets around. And he ain’t shy about introducing them to his friends.
In January, Rocco was working his usual artistry behind the bar when he saw me grab a stool with a look that said I needed some excitement in my life. That’s what I’m guessing, anyway, because the first thing he did was grab a shot glass and pull a tap and slide the first step toward madness under my nose.
“Try this,” he said. “It is amazing.”
I should have noticed then that Rocco had slipped off the rails himself. He and Hum first got acquainted at Victory in New Orleans, and then he realized he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
I should have noticed it, but I didn’t. I was too mesmerized by the foxy gal in front of me — a lush burst of magenta with a body that spoke volumes.
I picked her up and right away I knew I was in over my head. The pungency of ginger swaddled in fruity spice and the red blaze of hibiscus. I raised her to my lips and felt her syrupy hello. And then, the bite — tangy, stinging the tongue, then settling into a floral embrace. This Hum wasn’t gonna be no pushover.
* * *
You heard right. Rocco had her on tap. He had captured the red queen — a savvy play made when Hum Spirits contacted him after they heard he’d been looking for her. His Fernet — also on tap — had just run out, and he saw an opportunity.
But he’d also found a way to get Hum to play well with others. Things That Make You Go Hum, he called it — a sublime, frothy mix of Hum, Strega, lemon, simple and egg white, with a touch of absinthe.
Hum has made a huge push here in Dallas in the last few months, and she’s starting to appear in the mix at headier cocktail spots, even if some bartenders aren’t quite sure what to do with her. People’s Last Stand uses it in the vodka-based Lying Beauty, but the first version — later corrected, at my behest — barely let the genie out of the bottle.
At The Cedars Social, Mike Steele craftily partnered her with Buffalo Trace bourbon, grapefruit, honey and Strega. The bourbon proved a worthy partner, letting Hum shine without coming on too strong.
And last month, at The Usual in Fort Worth — I’m obsessed, I tell you — resident genius Juan Solis pulled Hum off the back shelf when I picked her out of the crowd.
He gave the hummingbird-logo’d bottle a good look-over. I was supposed to try this a week ago, he said.
He poured a shot and sipped, then grimaced. What’s in that? he asked.
Juan eyed the ingredients, then tasted it again. I have some ideas, he said. He poured a little of this and that and poked around a smattering of tiny bottles on the counter.
His solution doted on on Hum’s Caribbean flavor: Hum, light rum, lime and simple syrup, with coconut extract and a sprig of mint. It was damn good.
Now, just suppose you’re at my place and you meet a lovely stranger in red. Actually, supposin’s as far as you get: Go buy your own bottle.
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