Tag Archives: Private/Social

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here were my favorite 15 craft cocktails of 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

14. PUSH IT (Seth Brammer, Filament)

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

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

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

13. SCARLET GAEL (Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus)

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

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

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

12. RIO JULEP (Spencer Shelton, Bolsa)

Aged cachaca, Cynar, grapefruit bitters, salt dash

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. SAVE THE DATE (Ashley Williams, Boulevardier)

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

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

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

9. NOTATORONTO (Jesse Powell, Parliament)

Rye, banana liqueur, Fernet Vallet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vodka, Hum, honey-piquillo syrup

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

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

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

Cognac, persimmon shrub, citrus, clove dust

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

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

5. AGAVE TEMPTRESS (Ricky Cleva, Atwater Alley)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. TIGER STYLE (Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler)

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

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

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

2. SEPPUKU REALE (Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos)

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

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

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

1. ROME IS BURNING (Robbie Call, Vicini)

China-China, mezcal, Meletti, Herbsaint

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

With bottled cocktails, acclaimed bar man Rocco Milano finds his new venture is on the rocks

Among the OTR collection: The Aviation, Cosmopolitan and Mango Daiquiri
Shaken, stirred — or bottled? OTR’s Mango Daiquiri, Cosmopolitan and award-winning Aviation.

FROM A LOFTY outdoor suite at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the elusive Rocco Milano is taking in FC Dallas’ home opener against Philadelphia. He has a cocktail in hand – and the fact that the venue even sells them says a lot about how far craft-cocktail culture has come.

You remember Rocco. As Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene blossomed in the early 2010s, Milano was among its luminaries, emerging from the Mansion at Turtle Creek to preside over well-regarded bar programs at Private/Social and Barter in Uptown. Then, with Barter’s sudden closing, he vanished, leaving a trail of mystery. What is Rocco up to, people wondered? Has anyone heard from Rocco?

Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.
Toyota Stadium is the first major client for OTR, which hopes for many more.

Everyone may be about to. Along with partners Patrick Halbert – owner of P/S and Barter, which operated successively in a space off McKinney Avenue – and Andrew Gill, Halbert’s cousin, Milano has been crafting a line of bottled cocktails, hoping to join a growing playing field.

Their venture, called On The Rocks, or OTR, has been building a buzz; FC Dallas is the team’s first major client, with four OTR cocktails now sold in the stadium’s suite-exclusive Jack Daniels Lounge. (Other, less potent OTR drinks are available on the concourse to general ticket holders.)

This week, On The Rocks scored 11 medals at the esteemed San Francisco World Spirits Competition – including two gold, four silver and five bronze. But OTR’s sights are set much higher, with the group sweet-talking several major airlines to get their drinks onboard national and international flights.

Several of OTR's bottled cocktails are now available at Toyota Stadium's Jack Daniels Lounge.
Several of OTR’s bottled cocktails are sold at the stadium’s Jack Daniels Lounge.

Here in the suite with Milano are partners Halbert and Gill, along with other OTR staffers and people like industry consultant Steve Ousley. “What they’re doing is really innovative,” Ousley says of OTR. “It’s like, how do we execute a crafted cocktail and bring it to consumers really quick? This is in a bottle, and that’s about as quick and convenient as we can deliver it.”

As the brand name implies, the beverages are meant to be served over ice. But with bottled cocktails a relatively new concept, kinks remain: As the match gets underway, an OTR team member arrives fresh from the lounge, where he’s just ordered the bottled Aviation. “They poured it wrong,” he tells Milano; the server poured the liquid straight into a glass, he says, with no ice.

Milano’s eyes widen. “It’s called On The Rocks!” he says, incredulously.

***

IMAGINE THIS: You’re on a plane from Dallas to New York. You’ve ordered a cocktail – not the standard one-and-one mixed drink, like a gin and tonic or a whiskey and coke – but an actual cocktail. Maybe it’s a Mai Tai, or a Cosmopolitan. The flight attendant shows up and cracks open a 100-milliliter bottle, drops a napkin on your tray and a cup with a scoop of ice. Then you’re handed the bottle, to dispense as you please.

“It’s just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

This is what Rocco Milano has been up to.

While a bottled cocktail can’t fully match the punch and zip of one freshly made, OTR’s concoctions taste remarkably like the real deal – a threshold the team has worked hard to meet. Though the airline dream is still just that, it’s one the OTR team hopes to make a reality, as early as this year, having been in talks, they say, with Hawaiian, Alaska and Virgin Airlines.

The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)
The OTR team: Milano, Halbert and Gill (photo courtesy of On The Rocks)

Airline cocktails are no rye-in-the-sky illusion, though it’s still relatively uncharted territory: In 2014, Virgin tapped Austin Cocktails’ low-cal “Vodka Cucumber Mojito;” more interestingly, Alaska Airlines teamed with Seattle-based Sun Liquor to let passengers make cocktails at their seats using Sun spirits and recipes (a squeeze of lime, a bit of vodka and a pour of ginger ale, and voila! You sort of have a Moscow Mule).

Bottled cocktails are further out of the gate, though quality varies widely. Acclaimed Chicago barman Charles Joly has been producing his Canada-based Crafthouse line – which also scored well in San Francisco – since 2013. There are others sprinkled around the U.S., and around the world. But no other brand in the category did as well in this year’s San Francisco competition as OTR, which won a third of all medals given and was the only U.S.-based company to take gold.

The OTR brand features three cocktail lines – a signature line with classics like the Margarita and Cosmo; a tropical line sporting rummy drinks old and new; and a craft line which “is where we get really weird and esoteric,” Milano says. That category includes the Smoking Pepper, which fans of Milano might recall from Private/Social as the drink actually served in a hollowed-out bell pepper; Milano has recreated a bottled version.

The team's Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR's "crowd-pleaser"
The team’s Rye Old Fashioned, which Halbert describes as OTR’s “crowd-pleaser”

While their ingredients don’t necessarily mirror fresh cocktails (to account for items, like juices, with a short shelf life), OTR’s drinks are nonetheless all-natural, with no preservatives, additives or artificial flavors. All are either 20 or 35 percent alcohol, using real spirits procured from bulk purveyors, whether whiskey, rum or barrel-aged gin.

Take the Spiced Pear cocktail. “There’s some amazing spiced pear in there, and some nice Darjeeling tea,” Milano says. “It’s done with the barrel-aged London Dry gin, so you’re gonna get some cool wood notes, but it’s still gin. The acid is Meyer lemon, which just adds a beautiful pop to it, and then a little bit of allspice.”

The Rye Old Fashioned is a standout – “pretty much our crowd-pleaser,” Halbert says. There’s a Moscow Mule, and a Daiquiri; a Mai Tai and a Blackberry Bramble.

The bottle’s logo design is a nod to its ice intentions, with the lower half of “OTR” submerged in illustrated cubes.

“And it’s the same regardless of who pours it,” Milano says. “Everything you need is in this drink.”

**

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be this way. The three had originally planned to focus on a fledgling distillery operation once Barter had closed. But as Virgin Airlines made its debut at Love Field in late 2014, a handful of Virgin execs came to Barter to celebrate. One of them, Milano says, told him something to the effect of, “These drinks are so good, I wish we could have them on our planes.”

“And Pat was like, `Well, shit – let’s put them in a bottle,’” Milano says. Not knowing how serious the execs were, they didn’t get their hopes up. “People say a lot of things,” Milano says.

Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR's cocktail creations. Here, Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR's offices.
Beakers and pipettes and trial and error have fueled OTR’s cocktail creations. Halbert and Gill test a new mixture at OTR’s offices in December.

Months later, he says, the Virgin guys called to check in. That led to more serious talks, then intros to other airlines and a crash course in bottled-cocktail science. By last year’s end they’d invested half a million into the venture, mostly on inventory and legal and consultant fees, and crafted close to 40 different cocktails.

At the time, they had 90,000 200-milliliter bottles sitting in a warehouse, with 300,000 half that size on the way. The bottles conform to federally approved sizes for alcohol sales; meanwhile, some cocktails had to contain particular ingredients to fit official government definitions. For example, according to the feds, a Margarita must include triple sec, and OTR’s Rye Old-Fashioned is described as such because the government’s definition of the classic drink calls for bourbon.

The group’s office, near Love Field, evokes a cohabitation of chemistry grad students who inherited their parents’ excess furniture. Remnants of Private/Social and Barter comprise the minimal décor or lie strewn throughout – the hanging wicker chairs, the randy sofa pillows, the curtain of metal string that once separated P/S’ bar from the dining area. “We obviously didn’t spend any money on the finish-out,” Halbert laughs.

On a typical day, the heavy-duty table at center is slathered with bottles, beakers, notebooks and vintage cocktail tomes. “We have graduated cylinders, pipettes, even scales that measure to 1/16 of a gram,” Milano says.

And the nearby fridge is filled not with beer and lunchmeats but scores of bottles spanning a range of concentrated flavors. “You can get flavors of anything,” Milano says. There’s butter, truffle, lemon zest, even something called cloud. Not all of it is good. They went through 60 flavors of lime before finding one they liked.

"Just crack and pour," Milano says. "That's the beauty of OTR, brother."
“Just crack and pour,” Milano says. “That’s the beauty of OTR, brother.”

Their bottled Margarita was the most challenging in terms of achieving the right balance of spirit, acidity and sweetness. It took a month to perfect. Whenever they thought they had it down, they’d run to Albertson’s, buy some limes and fire up a fresh drink for comparison’s sake.

“That was the standard,” Milano says. “I didn’t even have a juicer; I had an elbow. I wasn’t even gonna get pith off the lime, just boom – squeeze it in there. And if it didn’t compare to that, then we just started over.”

In the end, their bottled version turned out to be a mix of aged tequila, lime, orange and agave.

On the other hand, their Aviation took them all of 15 minutes. “That had everything to do with the violet extract,” Milano says. “But just like with a real Aviation, you can easily add too much and screw it up.”

Their experience with bars and restaurants has proved valuable. “We’re not guys in lab coats,” Milano says. “We know what a Margarita should taste like.”

Still, a guy in a lab coat comes in handy. To that end, OTR hired Illinois-based food science consultant Dave Wengerhof to assist them with the chemistry of it all. Their aim is to make the drinks taste freshly made even after sitting on a shelf for a year. They test their wares against heat and cold. “It’s not how it tastes when we make it,” Milano says. “It’s how it tastes when you drink it.”

Late last year, they took some of their bottled cocktails to Portland’s Clyde Common, base of renowned bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and ordered the actual versions to see how they measured up. They were especially pleased with their Aviation, and along with Milano’s Smoking Pepper, the drink was among OTR’s two gold-medal winners this week.

Their 11-medal showing was not necessarily what they expected so early on. When the results were announced, “the room just erupted,” Milano says. And they’re just getting started.

For OTR, it seems, the sky really may be the limit.

2013 tried hard to be mean, but the scene in ’14 still looks keen: DFW’s best craft-cocktail bars

Windmill Lounge
Charlie Papaceno’s down-home Windmill Lounge: Still among Dallas’ standout craft-cocktail bars. (Marc Ramirez)

Oh, 2013. You hater. You tried so hard to suck. In the summer, just days after influential bar man Jason Kosmas announced he was taking his talents to Austin, you pulled the plug on my beloved Private/Social, where bar manager Rocco Milano had overseen one of the best cocktail programs in town. Then, last month, you shocked us with the sudden exit of Michael Martensen and his crew of highly talented bartenders from Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social, the two brightest stars in DFW’s craft-cocktail culture. With the unfolding of The Great Unpleasantness, a scene that had solidly come of age at last lost its innocence.

But hey, that’s part of growing up. And despite assertions to the contrary, craft cocktails as we head toward 2014 are alive and swell, showing no signs of peaking: Milano has resurfaced in a major way; Eddie “Lucky” Campbell is preparing to launch Parliament; Asian-Latin fusion restaurant Chino Chinatown has opened in Trinity Groves with Ian Reilly at the bar-program helm; Origin has restyled itself in Knox-Henderson with a promising drink lineup; and the Smyth/Cedars Social diaspora is sprinkling its goodies all over town.

Are you not entertained? To what do we owe this good fortune? It’s because we, my thirsty friends, have proven ourselves worthy. We’re a smarter bunch now when it comes to craft cocktails; our palates now welcome more flavor, complexity and originality. We like menus that mirror the season, varied but not overwhelming, with options both accessible and challenging. We want bartenders steeped in history and craft and eager to command the palettes of flavor at their disposal, ready to improvise when able. Is that asking too much?

No. And DFW has answered the call. Here are my top 10 spots as we head into 2014, in alphabetical order, BECAUSE.

ABACUS

Bars of the Year 2013
Bartender Jordan Gantenbein, one of Abacus’ signature Men in Black, pours out a line of 75’s. (Marc Ramirez)

OK, I’ll admit: I hadn’t set foot into Abacus since I first moved to Dallas three years ago – at least not until chef Ken Rathbun lured Lucky Campbell away from The Standard Pour in Uptown. Campbell, whose bumpy road has taken him from The Mansion at Turtle Creek to renown at Bolsa to the short, chaotic life of The Chesterfield and then to TSP, set about infusing Abacus’ solid martini-and-bubbly-focused menu with the Pacific Rim sensibilities that inform the five-star restaurant’s kitchen. The result: a boost of energy and derring-do behind the bar that have given Abacus’ Men in Black new street cred.

BARTER

Bars of the Year 2013
At the newly opened Barter, drink wizard Rocco Milano has a new workshop for his alchemy. (Marc Ramirez)

Where Rocco Milano goes, magic follows. The execution of Private/Social paved the way for a makeover of the Uptown space, and the results are terrific: The vibe is warm and woodsy, and the bar has been opened up to give Milano and his top-notch staff room to move more freely. The house cocktails are unsurprisingly great, but it’s the added features that really set Barter apart: Milano’s “book-of-the-month” set will feature selected drinks from different classic cocktail tomes every month; first up is David Embury’s 1948 classic, “The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks.” Add to that a mix of high-end choose-your-poison flights and an innovative series of pours that illustrate liqueurs in various stages, and you’ll see why Milano is the cocktail geek’s cocktail geek.

BLACK SWAN SALOON

Bars of the Year 2013
Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name presides over the bar with no sign — the shadowy Black Swan. (Marc Ramirez)

Gabe Sanchez’ one-ring circus in Deep Ellum has a cult following, and with good reason: He’s been quietly cranking out some of Dallas’ more original concoctions at this dimly lighted, low-key speakeasy with the badass vibe you’d expect from a bar in the city’s tattoo epicenter. The Swan’s staff now walk the tightrope without the net of a cocktail menu, playing to tastes and whatever Sanchez has cooked up that day. Smoked fig jam with rye? You’ll find that here.

CENTRAL 214

Bars of the Year 2013
At Central 214, cocktails are farm fresh, a reflection of Amber West’s enthusiasm for gardening. (Marc Ramirez)

Bar manager Amber West has been among the city’s under-sung cocktail heroes, avidly and expertly using seasonal ingredients in her creations. Example: The gin-based, garden-in-a-glass First Course, like so many of her cocktails, is as beautiful to behold as it is to imbibe, with flecks of Tom Spicer’s arugula dotting its translucent surface; her Honeysuckle Gimlet is another standout. Though she’s moving into more of a consulting role to focus on gardening, the cocktails at Central 214 — located inside Hotel Palomar off the Central Expressway — will continue to carry her imprint.

FIVE SIXTY

Best bars of 2013
The buttoned-up precision of Five Sixty: It ain’t cheap, but the drinks are most excellent. (Marc Ramirez)

The spinning modern-Asian-themed Wolfgang Puck restaurant at the top of Reunion Tower has more to offer than a fantastic view. Yes, you’ll have to endure a 45-second elevator ride and the beastly $16 price tag per cocktail, but the drinks are a journey in themselves. They’re part of a rotating series of libations designed by the chain’s Lee Hefter — bold, original and artfully presented, mirroring the restaurant’s sophisticated vibe. Try the gorgeous Fog Rolling Over Mount Fuji or the Locked and Loaded, both among my top cocktails of 2012.

HIBISCUS

Best bars of 2013
Bar manager Grant Parker has given Hibiscus one of the city’s better cocktail programs. (Sheila Abbott)

Seats at the bar are few at this Henderson Avenue mainstay, but they’re worth the wait to gain an audience with bar manager Grant Parker, whose behind-the-bar expertise continues to steadily lift Hibiscus to new mixology heights. Parker hopes to gradually expand the drink menu with more adventurous offerings, but for now try his play on the lesser-known classic Emerson (also among my top-rated  drinks of 2012) or the luscious, rye-based Brown and Stirred.

LARK ON THE PARK

Bars of the Year 2013
Damon Bird of Klyde Warren Park area’s Lark on the Park, a welcome newbie on the craft-cocktail scene. (Marc Ramirez)

This Klyde Warren Park newcomer is a solid playa in the craft-cocktail game, excelling at wintery drinks in particular, so now’s the time to go and warm up your belly. Bar manager Matt Orth and his crew respect seasonality and do nice spins on the classics, too; if you’re into Sazeracs or Negronis, ask for one of their variations and you won’t be disappointed.

THE STANDARD POUR

Bars of the Year 2013
One of the signature chalk murals at The Standard Pour, a Dallas craft-cocktail mainstay. (Marc Ramirez)

Stacked at Ground Zero of the madhouse Uptown scene, barman Brian McCullough’s strong crew is primed to feed the weekend’s party-minded mainstream tastes, armed with what must be the largest arsenal of Moscow Mule mugs outside of wherever it is Moscow Mule mugs come from. But take a closer look at the bar’s wide-ranging, Prohibition-Era-themed menu and you’ll find lots more than vodka. It also doesn’t hurt that the dark, vintage-lounge-style space exudes fun, or that its chalk-mural-adorned bar is often a refuge for displaced craft bartenders (see Abacus, Bar Smyth, The Cedars Social above).

THE USUAL

Bars of the Year 2013
A loose attitude and mad skillz mark this consistently good spot on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue. (Marc Ramirez)

I love this place, from its wry, respectable menu on up to its sleek, chill vibe and a team of able bartenders who never seem to be in short supply. The modest house drink list is nice – try the gin and apricot liqueur-fueled Parlor – but it’s the off-road adventures that are really fun; a spin on the classic Hanky Panky, for instance, or something using the most recent bottle on the shelf.

WINDMILL LOUNGE

Bars of the Year 2013
Windmill’s Charlie Papaceno introduced me to Ancho Reyes, a newly released ancho-chile-based liqueur. (Marc Ramirez)

The godfather of them all. Charlie Papaceno and Louise Owens have been crafting cocktails since 2008 in this dive-y spot off a remote stretch of Maple Avenue. Jason Kosmas – the co-owner of New York City’s Employees Only and spirit line The 86 Co. – did time here after moving to Texas, and early adopters Campbell and Martensen threw down in friendly competition back when as well. It’s still a bartender’s bar; you’ll find a number of mixers bellied up here, drawn by the Windmill’s unpretentious atmosphere and the staff’s easygoing approach. But there’s skill here, too, and innovation; it was Charlie who introduced me recently to Ancho Reyes, a recently released ancho-chile liqueur, and the bar was listed among Esquire Magazine’s top bars of America earlier this year.

Looking forward to what 2014 may bring!

Honorable mentions: Bolsa, Victor Tango’s, Boulevardier

Ones to watch: Chino, Parliament, The Cedars Social

Put me in coach: The report from Dallas’ inaugural cocktail bus tour

Central 214
Central 214’s red-sorrel-accented Last Monkey Standing, one of last week’s cocktail bus tour highlights. (Marc Ramirez)

“There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody…. You’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.”

Ken Kesey, as quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

***

So, here’s how things went on Dallas’ first-ever cocktail bus tour: Festively. By 7:05, two dozen imbibers were on the bus, a dazzling white coach and our carriage for the evening. Already, at The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station, the evening’s initial libation had been sampled, some flouncy red thing with gin and Campari and watermelon and rhubarb liqueur.

For $60 apiece, the inaugural “chartered bus tour of some serious libations” would ferry us to six craft-cocktail bars from Uptown to Cedars to Deep Ellum. As you might expect, the evening’s mood was progressively buoyant; few cared that the excursion was less an actual “tour” than a series of stops via luxury taxi.

For one glorious moment, Tate's Dallas' Robbie Call was on the bus -- and then he was not
For one glorious moment, Tate’s Dallas’ Robbie Christian was on the bus — and then he was not. (Marc Ramirez)

It was a group primed for fun, but not one of people looking to fog up their night in clouds of vodka and Red Bull. Those on board were willing to be led down new paths — believers in, or at least curious about, the concept of craft cocktails with their artisan ingredients, fresh-squeezed juices and creative depths. As former Private/Social barman Rocco Milano once described an evening of imbibement to local cocktail enthusiast Manny Mendoza, who’s working on a documentary about the Dallas cocktail scene: “You’re going to be inebriated at the end of the night. The difference is in how you get there.”

Wise words indeed. But to get there you had to be on the bus, and so we were. The idea was to showcase Dallas’ craft-cocktail diversity; not everyone had been to all six spots and certainly not all in one night. First came the Palomar Hotel’s Central 214, where we enjoyed bartender Amber West’s Last Monkey Standing – a bouquet of Monkey Shoulder blended scotch, Lillet Rose, chamomile, lemongrass syrup, lemon and a touch of red sorrel from Tom Spicer’s gardens.

Cocktail fan Manny Mendoza enjoys the Last Monkey Standing at tour stop No. 2, Central 214
Cocktail fan Manny Mendoza enjoys the Last Monkey Standing at tour stop No. 2, Central 214 (Marc Ramirez)

Then, back on the bus. “Everybody here?” asked tour host and mastermind Alex Fletcher, general manager at The People’s Last Stand. Hmmm. He paused. “OK,” he said, “if you’re not here, raise your hands!”

Havoc.

At Uptown’s The Standard Pour we encountered the Mexican Standoff – a tequila-and-mezcal concoction from Pozo, TSP’s sister-establishment next door and one of my favorite tastes of the night – before hoofing it down the street to Tate’s, tour stop No. 4.

Standard Pour's Brian McCullough, cranking out Mexican Standoffs.
Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, cranking out Mexican Standoffs. (Marc Ramirez)

Levity ruled the occasion, thankfully never descending into sloppiness. “I’m surprised at how calm everybody is,” said tour co-host Brad Bowden, also of The People’s Last Stand. “I thought there’d be a lot of drunk people walking around.”

The bars themselves, too, performed admirably, firing up twenty-something drinks in quick fashion and keeping us on schedule, and somehow the bus we managed to collect a bartender or two, as well as CraveDFW’s Steven Doyle, along the way.

At Stop No. 4, tour-goers had a choice -- a basil gimlet or this bit of Scotch beauty
At Stop No. 4, tour-goers had a choice — a basil gimlet or this bit of Scotch beauty. (Marc Ramirez)

After Deep Ellum’s divey Black Swan came the pioneering Cedars Social south of downtown, where bartender Julian Pagan wowed with his tiki-esque Yacht Rock: “It’s Sailor Jerry rum, Velvet Falernum, cinnamon syrup, lime, and… yeah.” Yeah!

The Cedars Social's Yacht Rock cocktail. (Marc Ramirez)
The Cedars Social’s Yacht Rock cocktail. (Marc Ramirez)

By the time the call came to head back to The People’s Last Stand for a nightcap and munchies, we were having trouble corralling even our hosts. Personally, I’d love to see more tour-like features in something like this – more info about the bars we visited, for instance, or the Dallas scene itself, but all in all, it had been a good night. Fletcher figured he’d be lucky to break even with the trial-run event; it was more about getting people out of their cocktail comfort zones.

And that was just fine with Calissa Gentry, a Cedars Social regular who’d taken the tour with friends Elaine Lagow and Genevieve Neyens. “We usually like vodka on the rocks,” she said. “But because we go to Cedars, we try new things.”

Trying new things was the reason Lagow was on the tour, too. “I’d do it again in a minute,” she said.

"By the way, guys, great idea," said bartender Danno O'Keefe. "I hate you, because I didn't think of it first." (Marc Ramirez)
“By the way, guys, great idea,” said bartender Danno O’Keefe. “I hate you, because I didn’t think of it first.” (Marc Ramirez)
Night-night: Genevieve Neyens smooches pal Elaine at tour's end. (Marc Ramirez)
At night’s end, smooches: Genevieve Neyens bids pal Elaine Lagow farewell. (Marc Ramirez)
Central 214's bartender extraordinaire Amber West hopped aboard the tour at Stop No. 2 (Manny Mendoza)
Central 214’s bartender extraordinaire Amber West hopped aboard the tour at Stop No. 2. (Manny Mendoza)

The wonderful, wonderful things he does: Where will P/S’ Rocco Milano do them now?

Bartender Rocco Milano and the underground-garage system that once powered his cocktails on tap at the late P/S
Bartender Rocco Milano and the underground-garage system that once powered his cocktails on tap at the late P/S.

The Museum Tower mess still hasn’t abated, West Nile virus is on the loose again, and yet what everybody really wants to know is: What is Rocco Milano going to do now?

“That’s a popular question,” he says.

The former chief barman at the recently shuttered P/S, formerly Private|Social, is something of a geeky wizard behind the stick, the sort of gent who’d lead workshops about homemade infusions and bitters and then show up with a kiddie wagon full of exotic herbs and roots. At one point during the restaurant’s nearly two-year run, Rocco toyed with idea of adding a deconstructed Margarita to his alchemy, but now it is P/S that is suddenly deconstructed, its modern interior lifeless and marked by disarray.

Remnants of his apothecary dot the premises. Plastic containers of Grand Marnier “dust,” lemongrass syrup, jars of infusions, even the basement garage system that once powered his pioneering cocktails on tap. What’s going to become of it all? “Fuck if I know,” he says.

Some of Rocco's jarred stash at last year's Craft Cocktails TX festival
Some of Rocco’s stash of jarred infusions at last year’s Craft Cocktails TX festival.

One of the city’s finest craft-cocktail geniuses, the Santa Cruz-born redhead will not hurt for opportunity; nearly a dozen job offers were dangled, he says, the very day (July 20) an online item appeared offering rumor of P/S’ demise that night. Mostly, he says, he was concerned for his team, the U2 to his bartending Bono and the collective engine that made the restaurant’s top-notch bar program go. But the place never really recovered from the change in identity that followed chef Tiffany Derry’s departure.

“For better or worse, people had an idea what P/S was,” he says. “And for some people, when Tiffany left, P/S stopped being P/S.“

I’m sad to say that I was among that crowd. Though I didn’t go back to P/S as often afterward, Rocco’s legerdemain with liquor never ceased to amaze, and he was just as eager to share cocktail backstories as he was to turn the uninitiated on to something new.

Rocco looking things over before his bitters/infusions session at CCTX 2012.
Rocco looking things over before his bitters/infusions session at CCTX 2012.

So what will he do now? The possibilities range. What does he want to do? “I love educating people about drinks and cocktails,” he says. Whether that’s behind the bar, or as a spirits representative, or in some corporate role – well, that remains to be seen.

But he’s a brand new father now, so as far as what he really wants to do, it’s to spend time with his newborn son. All those clichés, he says, about how much you love the little being who has suddenly and fantastically graced your life – yeah, he’s living them now. Being unemployed has its benefits.

Heading forward, it will be the first time in five years that he won’t be working with P/S sous chef (and one-time bartender) Matt Medling, who was a pastry chef at The Mansion at Turtle Creek when Rocco tended bar there. “He was a great resource,” Rocco says. “Most important, he did not stop me from grabbing cookies.”

He says one of P/S’ fans put it best just after the closure was announced on Medling’s Facebook page, saying the test of any good establishment was what endured in its wake. Because it was at Private/Social that Rocco met girlfriend Jessica Pech, who was a manager at the restaurant: What they now have together will reflect its legacy for years to come.

One of Rocco's Negroni variations at P/S
P/S, I love you.

National cocktail conference gets a Lone Star welcome

Shiner Beer at Tales of the Cocktail
The fancydranks of Texas strutted their Lone Star stuff at Tuesday’s kickoff event

You could say that Texas did itself proud in New Orleans yesterday, but then again pride in Texas has never been in short supply. Anyone taking in Tuesday’s festivities in front of the venerable Hotel Monteleone would have seen a state standing as one, with two dozen bartenders and liquor promoters firing a collective bar gun of Lone Star hospitality.

The “Texas Tailgate” — among the kickoff events for the 11th annual Tales of the Cocktail conference — served up a double-digit selection of punch-cooler cocktails, plus a handful of Texas distillers and brewers offering samples of their work. Breaking a sweat in the NOLA humidity, they poured: Charlie Papaceno of Windmill Lounge, Creighten Brown of the late Private/Social, Sean Conner of Plano’s Whiskey Cake and a smattering of representatives from the Cedars Social and Bar Smyth.

Mate' Hartai -- of Dallas' Libertine Bar and Bar Smyth -- and Whiskey Cake's Sean Conner beat a punch-cooler drum roll
Mate’ Hartai — of Dallas’ Libertine Bar and Bar Smyth — and Whiskey Cake’s Sean Conner beat a punch-cooler drum roll
McCullough's tequila-fueled Garden District Punch was among the event's highlights
Brian McCullough’s tequila-fueled Garden District Punch was among the day’s highlights

There was the bourbon-fired Leather Face Mask, from Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch in Las Colinas; the tiki-ish Paradise Dream from Republic Distributing’s Chris Furtado, made with Mount Gay small-batch Black Barrel rum; and coolers of Shiner beer. Brisket was served. Austin’s Treaty Oak distillery handed out sips of two limited-release products – Red Handed Bourbon and Antique Reserve Gin – scheduled to be available by year’s end.

“Every good party needs a good kickoff before the festivities,” said Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, president of the North Texas chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. “We’re just celebrating what we do in Texas.”

And apparently, that’s good times and drinks: McCullough’s Garden District Punch was among the day’s best concoctions, a tart and refreshing burst of Dulce Vida tequila blanco, watermelon, raspberry, strawberry, lemongrass, jalapeno and red wine vinegar.

The 'Texas Tailgate' welcomed early conference-goers outside the Hotel Monteleone, TOTC headquarters
The ‘Texas Tailgate’ welcomed early conference-goers outside the Hotel Monteleone, TOTC headquarters

Suddenly, Papaceno’s voice boomed, as if over a megaphone: “WE HAVE EIGHT MINUTES UNTIL THESE COCKTAILS SHUT DOWN, SO PLEASE, DRINK HEARTILY WITHIN THOSE EIGHT MINUTES.”

The able and willing complied. After all, it was barely 4 p.m.

“Yeah!” someone shouted. “Texas!”

“Texas has four little gems,” said Juan Pablo DeLoera, the state’s rep for Milagro Tequila, referring to the cities of Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio. “There’s a lot of talent and passion. It has the right to show what it’s made of.”

Brad Bowden of The People's Last Stand was one of a dozen-plus bartenders representing Dallas
Brad Bowden of The People’s Last Stand was one of a dozen-plus bartenders representing Dallas

Private/Social closes its doors

 

Cucumber gimlet, by Rocco Milano
Little did I know this cucumber gimlet would be my last drink at Private/Social.

Sad news, homies: There is one less cocktail oasis in Dallas.

Private/Social apparently marked its last night Saturday, and the place where I enjoyed many a first cocktail experience is apparently no more. The news came in a tweet from chef Najat Kaanache Sunday morning: “Last Night At Private/Social Was The Last service We Closed ready for New Adventures within Food Thanks To My Great Team.”

Rocco Milano, among the best barmen in Dallas, confirmed the closure to me later that morning. The restaurant had struggled to reinvent itself after chef Tiffany Derry’s departure early this year, but with Rocco at the helm, P/S remained one of the more adventurous cocktail spots around: He had spirits on tap (including my beloved Hum botanical spirit, to which Rocco introduced me) soon after the restaurant opened in late 2011; his Fall Into A Glass was my favorite cocktail discovery of 2012; and most recently he’d unveiled a lineup of a half-dozen tap cocktails.

Sitting at the bar, I could always depend on a pleasant experience. It was the kind of place you could share secrets, kindle romance, celebrate birthdays and wind down even as you expanded your cocktail horizons. One mark of a great bar is its consistency, and Milano’s staff — including Matt Medling, Creighton Brown, E.J. Wall and Pro Contreras — was always a well-oiled machine. No doubt they’ll find new stages on which to showcase their craft, but it was always fun to be a guinea pig in Rocco’s lab. On Friday — not realizing it was Private/Social’s penultimate day — a friend and I took in one of his most recent and typically improbable off-menu experiments: A riot of rye whiskey, Cointreau, peach and maraschino liqueurs and Hum botanical spirit (swoon) that he called I’ll Have One Of Those.

Here, Rocco makes that cocktail for another patron: http://youtu.be/a–bWcleAuQ

Rocco Milano: I’ll Have One of Those

I’ll update this post as I learn more.

P/S: Thanks for the memories.

 

 

 

It’s National Negroni Week. Why aren’t you celebrating?

Negroni at Private/Social
Why isn’t every week National Negroni Week?

In case you hadn’t noticed, you have two days left to celebrate National Negroni Week — as proclaimed by none other than Imbibe magazine, which earned brownie points earlier this year by making the Lone Star State its cover story.

The other reason I’m perfectly willing to heed the publication’s call is that the classic bittersweet cocktail is among my pantheon of favorite go-to drinks, a perfect equal-parts blend of gin, sweet vermouth and, most important, the Italian aperitif Campari. It’s the Campari that provides the Negroni’s bitter undercurrent, and that undercurrent is the essence of the drink: As I’ve said before, you can switch the ingredients and keep the delicately balanced proportions the same but I balk at calling anything without Campari a Negroni. Variations on the Negroni are many (and welcome), but they are exactly that: variations on the Negroni.

The Negroni’s balance is not as nuanced, nor does it take as much skill, as, say, the equally classic Aviation, but its one-two-three punch does showcase each ingredient. “You can’t do it with Martini & Rossi and well gin,” says Private/Social’s Rocco Milano. “It’s a drink that’s greater than the sum of its parts, because they have an amplifying effect.”

With that in mind, and to give you more options, here are a few of my favorite variations.

Some time back at Private/Social, Milano crafted for me a fine mix of St. George’s aggressive Terroir gin, the vintage-style aperitif Gran Classico and the classy vermouth Carpano Antica. Then, very recently, he topped it by subbing the floral Leopold’s Navy Strength Gin for St. George’s (shown below). A third, truer version (photo above) featured Campari, Dolin Rouge and St. George’s Dry Rye gin, poured over an ice sphere.

Negroni at Private/Social
A Negroni variation with Leopold’s Navy Strength Gin, Gran Classico and Carpano Antica.

Meanwhile, Lark on the Park is one of the bright new lights on the cocktail scene, and bar manager Matt Orth put a notable, bitter-forward spin on the Negroni by using not one but two bitter apertifs – the Italian vintage-style Gran Classico and the French, gentian-flavored Suze – along with the botanical spirit Sage, from Art in the Age. All equal proportions, naturally – and because my palate does cartwheels for bitter (and in particular Suze), completely delicious.

Matt Orth
Matt Orth of Lark on the Park, doing one of the many things that Matt Orth can do.

Imbibe drinks our milkshake: National magazine highlights Texas cocktails

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Don’t look now, but Texas is having a national cocktail moment: No less than Imbibe magazine, the nation’s premiere publication devoted to all things drinkable, highlights the Lone Star State in its latest issue.

“It’s kind of surprising,” says John Garrett, who represents the spirits division for Texas distributor Virtuoso Selections. “They could have done any state. They picked Texas. They know this is a burgeoning area.”

Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio cocktails, beer and coffee are all featured. Getting deserving cocktail nods from Dallas are The Cedars Social, The Standard Pour, Private/Social, Tate’s and the Black Swan Saloon. More questionable recommendations are dining-centric Local, the fast fading Chesterfield and, most incredibly, the Establishment, described in great detail as an “experience for a Dallas night you won’t soon forget” even though the place has yet to actually open as of today. Way to go, Imbibe!

Nevertheless, the focus on Texas shows the state is finally emerging from behind the national curve when it comes to cocktails, and Lone Star luminaries such as Houston’s Alba Huerta and San Antonio’s Jeret Pena are prominently featured. There’s even a drink recipe from The Cedars Social’s Mike Martensen.

Things are only going to get better here.

— Marc Ramirez, 3/2/13

Cocktails of the Year 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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11. STRIPPER SWEAT – Cosmo’s Bar & Lounge, Dallas (Jackson Tran)

“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.

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10. COLONEL SANDERS – Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, Dallas (Chase Streitz)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’ “

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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).

— Marc Ramirez 1/9/13