Tag Archives: Spencer Shelton

As DFW’s craft-cocktail universe continued to expand in 2016, these stars shone brightest

Bartender Jordan Gantenbein's delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath -- aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry -- was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.
Bartender Jordan Gantenbein’s delicious and gorgeously seasonal Rosemary Wreath — featuring aged tequila, apple cider, lemon, apricot liqueur and fino sherry — was one reason Abacus was among my favorite craft-cocktail bars in 2016.

One evening last month, having somehow wandered far beyond my urban comfort zone, I stopped in for a drink at Rye, a bustling bistro just off the square in McKinney. No, not McKinney Avenue, the trendy SMU hang in Uptown where, not surprisingly, some of DFW’s best cocktail joints have clustered in the last five years – but McKinney, the fast-growing former farm center 45 minutes north of Dallas.

Surely, I thought, even at this suburban outpost, I could score a decent gin and tonic. Maybe even an Old Fashioned. But as I scanned bar manager Manny Casas’ drink list, I found myself eyeballing anything-but-rural components: Mole bitters; gomme syrup; aloe liqueur; Fernet Francisco; honey-blessed Barr Hill gin. And then I noticed the small barrel to my left, which – as I would soon discover – harbored a terrific barrel-aged variation on the classic Negroni. My cocktail destinations had grown by one.

It’s more challenging than ever to keep up with the constantly expanding universe of cocktails in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the area’s farthest reaches, and in places that five years ago would have been content to serve simple mixed drinks, you can now order a Sazerac, or a Last Word, and avoid the indignity of blank stares or massive shade.

Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, of course, and pretty surroundings alone do not a great cocktail bar make. DFW’s craft cocktail landscape in 2016 wasn’t without its casualties – notably Knox-Henderson’s Hibiscus, whose small but well-informed bar program enjoyed a loyal following, and noble but aborted ventures like Frisco’s Vicini and, in Lower Greenville, Knuckle Sandwich and Remedy, destined to close by year’s end.

But from straight-up cocktail joints like Oak Cliff’s Jettison and clubby enclaves like Quill in the Design District to cocktail-minded restaurants like East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Uptown’s Next Door and Quarter Bar in (gulp) Trophy Club, the boozy buffet available to cocktail drinkers showed few signs of abating. (And Hide in Deep Ellum and Frisco’s Bottled in Bond are still to come.)

At their very best, these spots echo – and often are part of – fine restaurants, serving up not just great drinks but a successful mix of efficient, attentive and consistent service; fresh ingredients attuned to the passing seasons; an energizing and welcoming vibe; the ability to cater to tastes simple and complex; and a savvy and innovative staff behind the bar.

Here, in alphabetical order, were my favorite 15 craft-cocktail spots in 2016.

Abacus
Bartender Jason Long shaking things up at Abacus.

ABACUS

Most come to the highly regarded Knox-Henderson restaurant for its fine dining – but personally, I never make it past the classy, comfortable bar and its black-clad crew of Jordan Gantenbein, Jason Long and John Campbell. Abacus’ thoughtful and playful drink list is a standout from season to season – Gantenbein’s Rosemary Wreath (pictured at top) was a wintry thing of beauty – but the off-road adventures are equally delicious and fun, as in Long’s recent mix of mezcal, cinnamon syrup and amaro.

Atwater Alley
A dark, intimate atmosphere accents Atwater’s speakeasy character.

ATWATER ALLEY

A couple of years have passed since Henry’s Majestic, at this once-cursed location on McKinney in Knox-Henderson, unveiled the speakeasy pearl buried within its oyster depths. Named for the nondescript thoroughfare from which it’s accessed, Atwater is a two-story, dimly lit sanctuary swathed in senatorial wood, where bartenders like Ricky Cleva (and the occasional guest bartender) let their talents run wild like wildebeests in the nighttime streets. Jumanji!

Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.
Everything you need to know about Black Swan is embodied in the Clint Eastwood image above the bar.

BLACK SWAN SALOON

Black Swan is a craft-cocktail lover’s dive bar, where barman Gabe Sanchez makes it look easy, firing volleys of classic and original drinks at the eager Deep Ellum hordes while somehow creating a backyard post-BBQ atmosphere. Among DFW’s early craft-cocktail spots, the Swan’s speakeasy vibe (there’s no signage outside) is captured in the image of Clint Eastwood above the back bar: anonymous and enigmatic, rough around the edges, coolly efficient. No drink list here; just tell Sanchez what you’re in the mood for or point at one of his latest jarred infusions, and let your Drink With No Name come riding into town.

Still creating after all these years: Bolsa's bar was among DFW's early craft cocktail practitioners.
Still creating after all these years: Bolsa’s bar was among DFW’s early craft cocktail practitioners. (Photo courtesy of Bolsa Restaurant)

BOLSA

Among DFW’s earliest craft-cocktail purveyors, the modestly sized bar-in-the-round at this Bishop Arts mainstay is going strong under lead barman Spencer Shelton, whose wonky spirits wisdom continues to fuel Bolsa’s culture of experimentation. The well-honed southside outpost, with a bold seasonal drink menu – take Shelton’s smoky bitter Mi Alma Rota, featuring mezcal and Fernet – is a last-stop refuge for neighborhood regulars and others looking for uncommon spirits and across-the-board creativity.

The clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown's Bowen House.
The clothing is gone but the vintage remains at Uptown’s Bowen House.

BOWEN HOUSE

The place is gorgeous, dah-ling. But owner Pasha Heidari’s homey hideaway a stone’s throw from the madness of Uptown’s McKinney Avenue has finally settled into a groove nice enough to match its elegant Prohibition-Era character, what with its turn-of-the-century library and great-granddad’s framed pictures on the wall. A viable drink list now complements the able bar squad’s ability to craft something to your own tastes, and a sickle-shaped bar counter promotes interaction.

Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social's latest resurrection is divine.
Go ahead and call it a comeback: The Cedars Social’s latest resurrection is divine.

THE CEDARS SOCIAL

Look who’s back. Once the shining light in Dallas’ budding craft drink scene, The Cedars Social’s nationally acclaimed promise imploded in what I simply refer to as The Great Unpleasantness, thereafter plummeting off the craft-cocktail radar. Several iterations later, barman Mike Sturdivant is at the helm, and things are looking bright again: Along with Dallas pastry chef Annika Loureiro, he’s crafted a refreshingly original drink menu – including the Soju Spice, which makes excellent use of the Korean rice-based spirit – while staying true to pre- and Prohibition-era classics.

Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way.
Forget the fancy stuff: Industry Alley does craft cocktails the old-school way. (Photo courtesy of Industry Alley Bar)

INDUSTRY ALLEY BAR

When Charlie Papaceno left the Windmill Lounge in late 2014, among his goals in opening Industry Alley was to recreate the lounge’s come-as-you-are vibe. In that he has succeeded, creating a down-home atmosphere that’s a favorite for Cedars-area locals and industry regulars alike. You won’t find fireworks, fancy syrups, infusions or house-made bitters here – just the makings of a good time and classic cocktails like the legendary Singapore Sling.

Oak Cliff, Sylvan Thirty
Jettison’s cozy space in Oak Cliff adjoins the most recent of Houndstooth Coffee’s four locations.

JETTISON

The latest addition to Oak Cliff is a welcome one, especially for imbibers of sherry, the Spanish fortified wine, and mezcal, the smoky agave spirit mostly from Oaxaca. Discreetly nestled within the Sylvan Thirty complex next to Houndstooth Coffee, whose owner, Sean Henry, launched Jettison as his initial cocktail venture, it’s a sleek and shadowy hidey-hole where barman George Kaiho crafts excellent classic twists like the Red Headed Oaxacan, a play on the Penicillin fielding both tequila and mezcal along with honeyed ginger syrup, lemon and a float of Scotch.

Dallas cocktails
Midnight Rambler: Setting the pace in Dallas-Fort Worth’s craft-cocktail scene.

MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

This rock-and-roll hideaway in the underbelly of downtown Dallas’ Joule Hotel is truly a gem — and it keeps getting better, with its lush and well-structured space equipped to manage the peaks and valleys of hotel and weekend crowds. The long-awaited project from Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, which opened just over two years ago, is purposely efficient, lavishly designed and wholly adventurous, driven by Solomon’s bordering-on-geeky cocktail-science know-how: Witness the Pinetop Perker, which graced the spring menu, a woodsy wallop of genever, aquavit, pine, lemon, egg white, apple schnapps and a perfume-like “alpine woodland essence” spritzed onto a dehydrated lemon wheel.

If it's gin and whiskey beauty you seek, venture to The Mitchell.
If the beauty of whiskey and gin you seek, venture to The Mitchell.

THE MITCHELL

What if there were a place where you could pluck away the plumage of more involved libations and jump directly into the embrace of your whiskey or gin without feeling like a vegan at a Vegas buffet? Well, my friends, The Mitchell is your place: The stately space in the former home of Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Chesterfield in downtown Dallas boasts 50 kinds of gin and a hundred different whiskeys, the better to meet your martini, Old Fashioned or straight-up sipping requirements. And the glassware is beautiful too.

Bartender Jesse Powell dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.
Bartender Jesse Powell, dropping a Ramos Gin Fizz at Parliament.

PARLIAMENT

Comfortably nestled within the labyrinth of Uptown apartments off raucous McKinney Avenue, Lucky Campbell’s gem of a bar can often be as busy as its 100-plus drink list. Just the same, the well-trained crew, featuring the occasional visiting star bartender, keeps the crowds soused and entertained from behind the horseshoe-shaped bar, whether the vibe is loud or laid-back. With concoctions like Jesse Powell’s unnamed mix of aged tequila, sweet potato truffle syrup, sherry, apple and cinnamon, Parliament is a first-rate cocktail den with Cheers-style ease, a special combination indeed.

Rock steady: The People's Last Stand.
Rock steady: The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station.

THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND

The Mockingbird Station stalwart is still going strong in its second-level space, churning out an ever-changing list of libations behind a veteran bar team led by general manager Devin McCullough. The drinks are original and varied – and occasionally playful, as in the wintry Petra at Night, a hot rum cider mix served with apple slices and mini wafers, and Mr. Joe Black, an equally snack-y blend of rye and cold-brew coffee featuring blackberries, brown sugar and cayenne-sugared pecans. “Everybody’s got their little side munch going on,” McCullough said.

Brian McCullough's battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.
Brian McCullough’s battle-ready bar on McKinney, still firing on all cylinders.

THE STANDARD POUR

Just up the street from Parliament, the McKinney Avenue landmark remains, as I described it last year, a craft-cocktail battleship – built to weather weekend barrages of bar hoppers but equally effective quietly docked on a Tuesday eve. A crew staffed by talents like Austin Millspaugh and Jorge Herrera helps take the sting out of former lead barman Christian Armando’s departure, pumping out a stream of solid originals as well as the ubiquitous Moscow Mules. Like Parliament and Industry Alley, Brian McCullough’s stalwart staple maintains a homey vibe whether rafting calm stream or raging river.

Bars of the Year 2013
A wry, loose attitude and remarkable consistency define this craft-cocktail institution on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue.

THE USUAL

While the cheeky drink menu has barely changed, the bartenders at this seemingly never-understaffed Magnolia Avenue haven in Fort Worth are more than handy with the palette of potions behind the bar. I said this last year, and it holds true today: More than anything, what impresses about The Usual – among DFW’s pioneering craft-cocktail joints – is that I have yet to have a drink there that didn’t qualify as a success, which is something I can’t say about that many places.

Victor Tangos restaurant in Dallas. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)
Lively and inventive, Victor Tangos still makes craft-cocktailers’ hearts skip a beat. (Photo by Mei-Chun Jau)

VICTOR TANGOS

Another of DFW’s initial craft-cocktail practitioners, this Henderson Avenue landmark found its footing again under beloved general manager Matt Ragan. Though Ragan recently departed, the cocktail program remains in the able hands of bar manager Andrew Stofko, one of the city’s most exciting young talents; among Stofko’s 2016 creations was The Dread Pirate Roberts, whose intricate mix of Brazilian cachaca, grapefruit liqueur, bitter Suze, lemon, cinnamon syrup, Angostura and hopped grapefruit bitters was wonderfully reminiscent of tart apple pie.

Runners-up: Armoury DE, Flora Street Café, Lounge Here, Small Brewpub, Thompson’s Bookstore.

Bolting Bolsa: Stalwart bartender Kyle Hilla departs for parts north

Bolsa
Seven-year itch? The longtime face of Bolsa’s bar program is headed to NorthPark.

Bartenders are a mobile bunch, so it’s rare that a name becomes as synonymous as a place as Kyle Hilla’s did at Bolsa.

Friday was Hilla’s last day at the Oak Cliff restaurant, marking the end of a seven-year run that saw him rise from server to bartender to manager of Bolsa’s vaunted bar program, among the pioneering establishments of DFW’s craft-cocktail scene.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Hilla said at the end of his busy final night, after the place had pretty much emptied out.

The talented barman is on his way to NorthPark Center, where he’ll be heading up the bar at The Theodore, the new venture from the owners of Bolsa, nearby Bolsa Mercado, Chicken Scratch and The Foundry. In his stead, the gifted Spencer Shelton will be assuming Bolsa’s bar reins.

Like many a bartender, Hilla didn’t set out to pour drinks. Instead, he tired of a retail manager position (“To this day, I’m still the youngest store manager in Dollar General history,” he said) and aimed to head back to school. In the meantime, he figured, he’d be a server. That eventually brought him to Bolsa, where then-bar-managers Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Dub Davis kept prodding the Boy Wonder to get behind the bar. He resisted – until the night Campbell asked him to help make drinks at an art gallery special event.

“I had the time of my life,” he said. Two days later, he was walking the aisles of a Kroger store with now-wife Jessica and realized he’d been transformed. “Everything I saw in the store, I was like, `Hmm, what can I make a cocktail with?’ “

Hilla embraced the jigger and shaker, and in the ensuing years, as the cocktail scene began to grow, both Davis and Campbell (and Jason Kosmas, who had left New York’s Employees Only to raise a family in Texas) departed for other projects. In 2010, Hilla took over the bar.

He further streamlined the program, making his cheerful, quip-smart presence a Bolsa mainstay, along with attentive service and creative mixology. “People before me laid an amazing foundation,” he said. “I just focused it.”

Campbell and Kosmas had created one of the bar’s best-known features, the weekly cocktail challenge on Wednesdays in which two bartenders would face off, creating cocktails based on a pair of customer-chosen ingredients and let the night’s sales dictate a winner. Those ingredients occasionally verged on the ridiculous, stretching bartenders’ talents and imaginations to extremes – for instance, banana ketchup. “Think about that, buddy,” he nodded with a wry smile. (He made a Bloody Mary.) “There was a time when I hated Wednesdays.”

Others included oysters, black garlic or Pop Rocks. “Pop Rocks were terrible,” he said.

Eventually, Hilla rescheduled the challenges to just the first Wednesday of each month, and his final match – against bartender Marcos Hernandez – took place on September 3. Hilla drew saffron and tangerines, Hernandez got plums and blood orange. It was Hernandez who late last year conceived a drink that paired the bitter Italian liqueur Cynar’s artichoke flavor notes with the smokiness of toasted mesquite chips. But it was Hilla who eventually named it, calling it the Imenta.

“When we first came out with it,” Hernandez said, “it was the Oaky Smoky Arthichoke-y.”

“And that’s why we started requiring drug tests at work,” Hilla cracked.

In his seven years at Bolsa, Hilla has gotten to know a few people. “I know 99 percent of the people who come in here,” he said as the minutes ticked down on Friday night’s last shift, and he hopes some of his regulars follow him to The Theodore, set to open late next month at NorthPark. He told one pair of retiree regulars, “Y’all just need to become mall walkers. I’ll tell you what – I’ll invent a drink called the Mall Walker just for you.”

Moving on and up is the next logical step for Hilla, but it’s hard to see familiar traditions end. Bolsa was among my first cocktail finds when I moved to Dallas five years ago, so for my last Hilla-made drink there, I asked for something bitter/sweet to commemorate the moment. He produced a blend of bourbon and Cynar goodness and made clear that in spite of the change, he and Jessica won’t be forgetting Oak Cliff anytime soon.

“We just closed on a house here,” he said. “I’ll always be a part of this community.”

Coming soon: Five pop-up bars all under one roof — and it’s all for charity

The Standard Pour
Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla, left, is all smiles as the pop-up bar “draft” gets underway in preparation for Sunday’s annual fundraiser.

As Ryan Fussell of Fort Worth’s Bird Café put it, it was a veritable who’s-who of craft bartenders, dozens of them assembled on a weekday afternoon for the first of several steps toward a purpose greater than themselves. The site was Uptown’s Standard Pour, where five boards had been posted above the bar, each topped with the name of a trusty tipple maker.

Yes, there’s a story there, but here’s what you really need to know: That on Sunday, Dec. 14, five teams of drink-slingers will face off at Henry’s Majestic as part of the Trigger’s Toys Fantasy Draft Main Event – not only for your imbibing pleasure but for the benefit of Trigger’s Toys, a Dallas charity serving hospitalized kids and their families.

As if that’s not enough reason to get yourself over there, consider this: The agency’s third annual fundraiser will feature five pop-up bars of varying tongue-in-cheek themes, and if you’re wondering how Henry’s – the recently opened Knox-Henderson gastropub in the space once occupied by Acme F&B – is going to pull that off, you’re going to have come see for yourself the little ace that bar manager Alex Fletcher has been hiding up his sleeve.

The Standard Pour
Your five pop-up bar captains: Campbell, Sanders, Orth, Moore, Hilla. Yup, it’s going to be a party.

So on this afternoon, the gathered bartenders were at The Standard Pour for the “fantasy draft” that would produce the five teams of 13, along with bar concepts and sponsored spirit lineups. Organizer David Alan, the Austin-based Tipsy Texan himself, was here with his team, the lot of them dressed like referees. Actually, it wasn’t so much a draft as a draw, with each captain – Parliament’s Lucky Campbell, Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla, Knife’s Charlie Moore, LARK at the Park’s Matt Orth and, from Austin, Drink.Well’s Jessica Sanders – picking names out of a bowl to compile their teams.  While most of the crews represent the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a number are coming in from elsewhere to aid the cause from places like Austin, San Antonio, San Diego and Los Angeles.

The Standard Pour
Knife’s Moore, left, meets outside The Standard Pour with members of his team, including Windmill Lounge’s Reith, Windmill co-founder Charlie Papaceno and Proof + Pantry’s Hendrix.

Dang, my team looks good,” Moore crowed after drawing Fletcher’s name from the batch, adding to a lineup that already included Bolsa’s Spencer Shelton, Proof + Pantry’s Josh Hendrix and Michael Reith of the Windmill Lounge. “That’s it! It’s over. Everybody go home.”“Stacks on stacks,” Hendrix added.Your pop-up bar lineup will include a sports bar, honky-tonk saloon, nightclub, tiki bar and, of course, bespoke cocktail lounge.  Each ephemeral entity is already being promoted on Facebook and other social media, and you’ll find them here:

Burning Saddle Saloon: https://www.facebook.com/burningsaddledallas

Red Card Sports Bar: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Red-Card/597869657005457

Klub Dreemz: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Klub-Dreemz/628717833906094

Booty Bar and Half Mast Tiki Lounge: https://www.facebook.com/bootybartiki

The & and &: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-And-/317489505118782

The event runs from 8 pm to midnight at Henry’s Majestic, 4900 McKinney in Dallas. Pre-purchased tickets on Eventbrite (available here) are $20, which includes two drinks. You can also buy tickets at the door for $10, then spring for your drinks inside.

The Standard Pour
LARK’s Matt Orth, center, meets with his “drafted” team at The Standard Pour. The nightclub-themed pop-up will be called Klub Dreemz.

Along with donations from sponsoring spirit producers, last year’s bash at The Standard Pour pulled in a whopping $45,000 for Trigger’s Toys, which in addition to financial aid provides kids with toys and therapy aids. With the help of the bartenders giving their time on Sunday, founder Bryan Townsend – who named the agency for his dog after seeing the animal’s positive effect on a child in need of therapy – hopes to take that to new levels.

“Not only are you changing this industry,” an emotional Townsend told the group. “What we’re doing today will change lives.”