Tag Archives: Tales of the Cocktail

Snoop Dogg, Texas bar industry help nation’s largest spirits festival mark 15th year

Kallhoff, Eakin, Orth, Hartai
Among those representing Dallas at Tales were Justin Kallhoff of DEC on Dragon; Eddie Eakin and Matt Orth of wine and spirits distributor Southern Glazer’s; and barman Mate Hartai of Black Swan Saloon.

Could Dale DeGroff have imagined that, some 25 years after he began squeezing fresh citrus and making simple syrups in the service of better cocktails, he’d be among the elder statesmen of a 20,000-strong spirits festival? Yet there he was – King Cocktail! – with his signature wry smile, at New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone, flaming orange peels and cranking out drinks like a champ at Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits festival that last weekend concluded its 15th run.

Tales of the Cocktail
The annual cocktail festival, based in the French Quarter, draws about 20,000 people.

A bartenders’ walking tour: That’s how all this started. Back then a lot of people still thought of bartending as a temporary gig you did on the way to something else – but the spirits industry is now a $25 billion-dollar beast, and Tales is likewise a juggernaut, with people traveling to New Orleans from 40 countries for five days of booze-related workshops, career advice, happy hours, tastings, competitions, parties, bonding and networking. What was once a manageable, almost intimate gathering of industry professionals riding a wave of love for the craft and quality ingredients has, in some eyes, become too big for its own good, an overcrowded, over-the-top party of sold-out seminars, ever-accumulating wristbands and fewer one-on-one opportunities.

Tales of the Cocktail
At the festival’s pisco tasting room, cocktail luminaries Tony Abou-Ganim and Dale DeGroff hammed it up for the camera.

“Tales has become, to me, more about learning one-on-on through networking than in seminars,” said Brittany Koole, a bar manager and consultant in Houston.

It didn’t help that the stretch of Bourbon Street normally frequented by Tales-goers was a war zone of giant potholes, wire fencing and bulldozers. “I didn’t feel the same connection with the area,” said Justin Kallhoff of Dallas event space DEC on Dragon, who spent more time off the strip and less time dealing with the big parties.

Just the same, Tales carried on, the thus-far clear leader in the spirit-festival world.  As usual, attendees this year included a good number of Texans – bartenders, bartenders-turned-spirits-reps, bar owners, bar suppliers, bar goers and those who chronicle it all.

Laura Bellucci, SoBou
At SoBou, Laura Bellucci’s dessert-like House of the Rind – featuring honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and chamomile-citrus bitters — was among the festival’s cocktail highlights.

So there were Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who staffed a table at Saturday’s mezcal tasting room at the Monteleone. And Campari America rep Chase Streitz and Megan McClinton of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, were among those who joined Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller for Wild Turkey, for dinner and whiskey at Cochon. “I was lucky enough to get to pour Jimmy a glass, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Streitz, formerly of Bulldog Gin, The Standard Pour and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen.

Cazadores Tequila partnered with the Bartender Boxing Organization to sponsor a battle between Houston and Los Angeles bartenders that culminated at Tales. And in a bowling event pitting bartenders from 14 cities against each other in the lanes, Team Texas took second only to Miami.

The Standard Pour
Brian McCullough and Mandy Meggs of The Standard Pour in Dallas poured drinks at Tales’ mezcal tasting room.

Major spirits companies, small-batch distillers and beverage-related producers also come to Tales to build or bolster brand recognition. But possibly the fastest growing group of attendees might be people who just like consuming and learning about spirits and the various things made with them – people like Jean Verhaar of Houston. “We are what you call cocktail enthusiasts,” she said, at the festival with pal Pam Stevens of New Orleans.

The festival draws more “cocktail enthusiasts” every year. At top, pals Verhaar and Stevens; below, the Davises and Lawyers of Mobile.

On Thursday, Steve and Beverly Davis of Mobile, Alabama, roamed a tasting room dedicated to pisco, the clear brandy native to Peru and Chile. “A little waitress at Galatoire’s told us about (Tales) some years ago,” Beverly said. The two have been coming ever since with friends John and Sue Lawyer.

“It’s just fun,” Sue Lawyer said. “There’s no purpose to it but to learn and have a good time.” She ducked over to one drink station where DeGroff, now widely considered the godfather of the modern cocktail renaissance, was busy making Algeria cocktails for the masses.

Tales of the Cocktail
At Tales, numerous tasting rooms offered attendees the chance to sample spirits or liqueurs — straight, or in cocktails — like this set-up from Sonoma, Calif.-based Uncle Val’s Gin.

It was at New York’s Rainbow Room that DeGroff built a following by reviving classic, pre-Prohibition cocktails in the 1980s, a gig he landed a few years after being hired by restaurateur Joe Baum, the man behind the Four Seasons and other fine dining establishments; the Alegria – pisco, Cointreau and apricot brandy – was among the cocktails featured at Baum’s La Fonda del Sol in the 1960s, at a time when anything not a Manhattan or Martini was rare. Now DeGroff had revived it as the Algeria, with his own twist, for the pisco event. “Because (Baum) was my mentor,” he said.

Tales of the Cocktail
Snoop Dogg at Friday’s Dogg House Party, sponsored by liquor giant Diageo, New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center.

Brands found clever ways to promote themselves, crafting whimsical and interactive tasting rooms, throwing happy hours, offering special product unveilings or cocktail-paired dinners – or, in the case of Amaro Montenegro, the excellent Italian bitter liqueur, having its master botanist demonstrate its 132-year-old production process using herbs and spices, an alembic, a boiler and a macerating device.

Jagermeister, the ubiquitous digestif now angling for a piece of the craft-cocktail craze, recruited Gaz Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology, for a happy hour at Fritzel’s, the Bourbon Street jazz pub where LSU students made Jager popular in the late 1980s. And then threw a huge party afterward.  And there was Diageo, the giant spirits company behind brands like Tanqueray and Don Julio, scoring Snoop Dogg for its own beats-heavy Friday night bash.

Amaro Montenegro
Master botanist Matteo Bonoli prepares to illustrate Amaro Montenegro’s production process using an alembic, boiler and macerating device.

Workshops this year included explorations of ingredients like grains and bitter gentian in spirits and liqueurs; the use of technology such as centrifuges behind the bar; and the rising popularity of umami flavor and low-proof drinks.

Cocktails were plentiful, served mostly in small plastic Tales cups, and it was wise to heed the oft-quoted Tales adage “you don’t have to finish that” while collecting grab-and-go bottled water along the way. That said, I did find the bottom of a few superior creations –my favorites being Laura Bellucci’s House of the Rind, a dessert-like mix of Earl-Grey-infused honeysuckle vodka, lemon curd and citrus-chamomile bitters served at Sunday’s “Legs and Eggs” burlesque brunch at SoBou; and from Aaron Polsky of Los Angeles’ Harvard and Stone, the Precious Punch served at Thursday’s pisco tasting room, featuring pisco acholado, apricot liqueur and amaro.

Fritzel's, New Orleans
Drawn by rumors of its Valium-like effects, LSU students in the late 80s came to Fritzel’s to drink Jaegermeister, making this Bourbon Street jazz joint the launchpad for its eventual widespread popularity.

Camaraderie is what keeps people coming back to Tales, and festival vets saw old friends while newbies made new ones. Second-timer Ashley Williams, a Bols Genever ambassador who tends bar at Filament in Dallas, was looking forward to being in New Orleans and meeting fellow ambassadors. What had she learned from her first go-round?

“Pace yourself,” she said. “You don’t have to do everything. There’s so much going on. Take some time to just go sit in a park.”

Tales of the Cocktail
Black Swan’s Hartai brandishes the Texas flag at the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s annual midnight toast.

Being in the French Quarter, amid the stilt-walkers and human statues and little kids drumming on plastic buckets, it was also worth revisiting gems like the rotating Carousel Bar, grabbing a frozen Irish Coffee at classic haunt Erin Rose or nestling in at the French 75 Bar at historic restaurant Arnaud’s, which recently won the James Beard award for bar program of the year.

Around the festival’s midway point came the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s beloved annual Thursday midnight toast, on which Texas naturally has put its stamp over the years with waving Lone Star flags and choruses of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” This year’s spectacle was a bit more subdued, given that the whole shebang had to be relocated from construction-torn Bourbon Street to the second-floor confines of Bourbon Cowboy Too. Nevertheless, Texas endured – and somehow so did Tales, which will power on to see another year.

Tales of the Cocktail
When the party’s over: The aftermath of Villa Campari’s Aperol Spritz rooftop happy hour.

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With dedicated bars, mezcal’s missionaries hope to convert Dallas tastes

Dallas mezcaleria
Spreading the gospel: A trio of Oak Cliff friends are looking to share the love.

First came the bottles of Del Maguey, creeping onto the back shelves of select Dallas cocktail bars at the whims of barkeeps already touched by mezcal’s pentecostal fire. Even so, the agave-based spirit was shared straight – as some believe it should always be – and then only with the equally enthralled or the merely curious, offering a smoky hint of what was to come.

Then came the cocktails, in which mezcal was first relegated to a bit role, a distant sidekick to tequila, before gradually being paraded front and center to put its smokiness on full display. More recently, the Mexican spirit has been gauging its appeal among Big D imbibers in a growing series of pop-up-style events around town, but the question remains: Is Dallas ready for a full-fledged mezcal-driven bar?

A trio of Oak Cliff friends think so – and the three hope their passion for mezcal will turn other Dallas drinkers on to a spirit that has come a long way since the days it was known as “that bottle with the worm in it.”

Las Almas Rotas
Bar manager Daniel Ferrin making a round of cocktails at a soft opening event at Las Almas Rotas.

Las Almas Rotas, the project of pals Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko, hopes to open this weekend on Parry Avenue, across from Fair Park. The mezcal-focused bar represents the logical and welcome next chapter for a concept that began first as a group of friends meeting for periodic mezcal tastings before becoming an underground tasting room (for those in-the-know) on Davis Street. There, the three would expound on mezcal’s virtues opposite a wall on which was scrawled “Tequila to wake the living. Mezcal to wake the dead.”

When the three shuttered that rustic hideaway, they set their sights on a licensed operation where they could share the fervor they’d built while not just tasting but learning about the spirit — even making several visits to Oaxaca, where the vast majority of mezcal is produced, much of it in small, family-run palenques that have been doing so for generations.

Las Almas Rotas
How it all began — with informal tastings like this one at the Kvetkos’ Oak Cliff home. Clockwise from top, Taylor Samuels, Shad Kvetko and Leigh Kvetko.

“We’re hoping the space will be interesting enough to engage people to come in,” says Samuels, whose pedigree is strong as a member of the family that launched Maker’s Mark. “Hopefully it will encourage people to reach beyond their normal habits.”

Leigh Kvetko
An image of a tobala-variety agave plant, the work of Leigh Kvetko, graces the door at Las Almas Rotas.

Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant – but while tequila is limited to the blue agave variety, mezcal is a spirit made from any agave variety (thus making tequila technically a mezcal) and so has a broader taste profile.

“There’s an immense amount of genetic diversity,” panelist Ivan Suldana, author of “The Anatomy of Mezcal,” told an audience at 2015’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. “We’re talking about the largest genetic diversity we can get from a spirit.”

Which is one reason Samuels chose to pursue a Mexican spirit rather than the pride of his Kentucky family. “Mezcal to me is more interesting than bourbon because every batch is different,” he says.

Mezcal’s production process also differs from tequila, with the hearts of the agave smoked in ovens rather than baked, giving the spirit its distinctive smoky flavor. Agave has an almost mythical status in Oaxaca, and those turned on to mezcal’s distinctive flavors remember their conversion.

Mezcal Cartel
A typical table spread at one of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel’s at-home tastings.

For Samuels, that moment came at Austin’s Bar Ilegal, a tiny, dark mezcaleria where patrons were encouraged to sip samples from traditional copas. “That was my first experience,” said Samuels, who’s been tending bar at Oak Cliff’s Bar Belmont throughout the last year. “I didn’t really understand until I was in that room. Then Shad and I started doing the dinners and it kept getting larger and we thought, ‘We need a good room to drink mezcal in.’ That led to this.”

Las Almas Rotas – “the broken souls” – will have such a room, lurking behind a main area focused on cocktails and Mexican small plates. There you’ll find more obscure mezcals and even Paranubes, a fantastic Oaxacan agricole rum. “It’s kind of an homage to our speakeasy,” Samuels says. “Just straight spirits and Topo Chico.”

Mauricio Garriegos and Daniel Zapata
Bartenders Garriegos and Zapata keeping it real at Santos y Pecadores, the twice-weekly mezcal pop-up at Uptown’s Bowen House.

Such a room already exists in Dallas, in the back area of Uptown’s Bowen House, where bartenders Daniel Zapata and Mauricio Garriegos operate Santos y Pecadores (“saints and sinners”) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. The two pour strictly agave spirits in a small space accented with Christian paraphernalia, luchador masks and even a figurine of a revered, Robin-Hood-like narco.

Santos y Pecadores, too, is an extension of a previous effort, a series of mezcal pop-ups previously conducted with fellow bartenders Hector Zavala and Luis Sifuentes.

“We want people to get in love with mezcal,” says Garriegos, who also works at Palapas on Lower Greenville. That is the true Mexico, he says; not tequila. “It’s, like, with Mexican food. People think they’re eating real Mexican food but it’s actually Tex-Mex.”

Las Almas Rotas will be open Wednesdays through Sundays, with church-pew seating, contemporary Mexican rustic decor and two-inch-thick pecan tables from the original speakeasy. The image of an agave plant that graces the front door was done by Leigh Kvetko, a graphic designer.

Mezcal Cartel
Informal dinner-table gatherings eventually led to this now-closed underground tasting room on Davis Street.

Husband Shad is an antiques collector and dealer, and the Kvetkos hosted many of the original gatherings of the so-called “Mezcal Cartel,” of which I was fortunate enough to be a part. What began as a group of mezcal-enthused friends sipping agave around a dinner table will now be a brick-and-mortar operation that they hope will inspire similar zeal in others.

“We basically created a room that we would want to drink in,” Shad Kvetko says.

For their mezcaleria’s actual opening date, keep an eye on their Facebook page for announcements.

LAS ALMAS ROTAS, 3615 PARRY AVE, DALLAS.

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Good times rolling: Cigars and booze are a smoking-hot pair

Oak Cliff
Brandon Fields of DeSoto enjoys his smokes with bourbon at Cigar Art in Oak Cliff.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud said, but then again he probably never paired one with Scotch. The two were practically made to go together, and increasingly they actually are: The smokes in C&C’s four-edition Dram line, for example, are each designed to pair with specified whiskey profiles.

As the spread of craft cocktails has given rise to more and better spirits, cigar enthusiasts find themselves awash in options when it comes to enhancing their puffery. It’s not as simple, though, as blindly picking something off the shelf or menu – too strong a spirit or cocktail and it might stomp all over your stogie goodness; too mild and it won’t stand up at all.

“A lot of people think they need to pair cigars with a really robust Scotch, and then they just pick any cigar,” says John Pullo, managing editor of online magazine Cigar Advisor, which has published guides on the subject. “And then the flavors of the drink completely wash out whatever they got out of the cigar.”

Delicia Silva, the so-called “Cigar Vixen” who presented on the topic at the 2015 Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, says it’s all about flavors. “You want to match the body of the cigar with the body of the spirit,” she says. “You want it to be like a marriage. You want them to complement each other.”

Tobacco is enhanced by flavors in the wrapping paper, just as spirits are enhanced by flavors in the barrel or a cocktail itself. As the Tales seminar description put it: ”There are parallels in the production of cigars that align with the creations of spirits and cocktails… The potent flavors of smoke and spirit, in combination, can create a truly unique experience.”

Pairing cigars with booze has been around since your great-grandfather’s grandfather, but Cigar Advisor copywriter Jonathan Detore says the tradition really thrived in the Roaring Twenties, when high rollers smoked cigars wrapped in $100 bills. With time, that nonsense subsided and cigars fell out of popularity, not to rise again until the 1990s.

Their profile has been rising ever since, helped along by the spirits explosion and the continued rise of craft beers. In addition to C&C’s whiskey-ready line, major cigar maker Perdomo earlier this year debuted smokes meant to pair with craft brew.

“What we’re seeing in the industry now is a deep dive into the pairing world,” Detore says. “In the last five years, makers have even started aging cigars in used whiskey barrels to make sure they go well with that particular liquor.”

Glenfiddich
At Dallas Chop House’s “Scotch and Cigars Under The Stars” event in July, attendees sipped several Glenfiddich single-malts with their smokes.

C&C’s Dram Cask #1, according to Cigars International, is designed to go with a milder, lighter whiskey “with notes of citrus and wood.” But absent paint-by-numbers instruction, how’s a cigar smoker supposed to know what to do? While it’s really a matter of personal taste, there are some basic principles one can follow. Generally speaking, the darker the cigar, the darker the spirit or beer best suited for the occasion.

Say, for example, you were smoking a Connecticut cigar, says Cigar Advisor’s Detore from the magazine’s offices in Pennsylvania, where he and Pullo are, of course, smoking cigars. You’d likely want a lighter beer, something like a nice, crisp Harpoon Saison.

“Right now,” Pullo says, “Jonathan is smoking a Partagas 1845 Extra Oscuro, from Honduras. The wrapper is extra fermented to get that dark color. There’s a mix of Nicaraguan, Honduran and Dominican tobacco in there. If I was a beer guy, I would put that with a stout or a porter; I wouldn’t think twice about putting a Guinness with it. That’s the nice thing about a cigar – it shows you the color.”

As far as spirits, Detore says, the cigar’s spicy, woody, leather notes, would probably go best with an aged rum or maybe the spicy bite of Bulleit Bourbon.

In Dallas, Brandon Fields of DeSoto likes complementing his smokes with Knob Creek. “The spirits that have the most age pair well,” he says as he and friends share a bottle at Cigar Art, in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District. “They have different characters, like oak, dark plum, or chocolate or coffee. It’s almost parallel to what the cigar rollers are trying to show you.”

Cigar Art managing partner Russell Hargraves says it’s similar to how you might pair wines – for instance, not expecting a Riesling or Pinot Grigio to hold up against a big, bold Maduro or Jericho Hill cigar. “With some cigars, whiskey cocktails aren’t a terrible choice,” Hargraves says. “Like a Sazerac, or an Old Fashioned.”

While cigar smokers have long complemented their smoky puffs with solid pours, typically from bottles of Scotch and cognac, aged tequilas and rums are coming into their own, too. The goal is to bring out the flavors and character of each, by complement or contrast. Detore suggests aiming to complement your cigar first, and then, as you learn how each works with the other, to go for more complex, contrasting pairings.

Cigar Art

Silva, the “Cigar Vixen,” says you have to decide what you want from the experience. Do you want the cigar, or the spirit, to stand out? Once she decides, her approach is to start smoking the cigar, and then to introduce the spirit, typically aged rum, about a third of the way in. “Zacapa 23 goes with just about any cigar on the market,” she says. “It especially goes well with a Maduro.

“You’re creating a memory, an experience,” she says. “It’s becoming more popular, especially for people who aren’t necessarily that into cigars.”

With a low barrier to entry, it’s also a trend that doesn’t appear ready to go up in smoke anytime soon. “You can pick up a cigar for five or six bucks,” Pullo says. “It’s cheaper than a movie ticket. And, it lasts longer than the flick.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015: Texans hit the road for the spirits industry’s annual festival

It's that time again: The spirits industry's annual festival is back in The Bayou.
It’s that time again: The spirits industry’s annual festival is back in The Bayou.

NEW ORLEANS — The Season of the Drink is upon us once again: Tales of the Cocktail 2015 has come to town, marking its 13th year in the Big Easy. From around the world they’ve come – thousands of bartenders, liquor reps, spirits producers, bar owners, beverage industry scribes and cocktail enthusiasts here to witness the monster truck of all spirits festivals in the grandest of all party towns.

New Orleans is a city that knows how to drink: From its primordial jambalaya sprang more than a few now-classic cocktails – among them the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz and the insufferable Hurricane. We know her as NOLA, and she is among America’s craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud’s French 75, Antoine’s Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it’s not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here.

Ramos Gin Fizz Slushie
Here, have a Ramos Gin Fizz Slushie: Things going down at The London No. 1 gin’s tasting room.

The five-day festival can be grueling, overflowing as it is with workshops, networking, happy hours, competitions, tastings, spirit-paired dinners, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions and French Quarter camaraderie, huge parties and… even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one’s resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if one is not careful – for instance, advanced bartender trainings; tips on opening and running a bar; seminars about the flavors of Cognac, the reemergence of Canadian whiskey or the pairing of cocktails with cigars; and of course, the singularly unique city itself.

Agave spirits producers
This is either The Last Supper or a seminar panel on agave spirits.

This is my fourth year at Tales, soaking in knowledge and sunshine and chronicling the shenanigans as the members of Texas’ craft-cocktail community represent the Lone Star State. Texas, along with New York and California, is among the top-represented states at the festival, which last year drew nearly 18,000 attendees. About three-fourths of those were working bartenders or industry professionals.

“Everything we do is in support of the spirits industry,” said Paul Tuennerman, co-founder of the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, which sponsors the festival. “We want to ensure that flavorful cocktails are served for years to come.”

Houston cocktail enthusiasts Laura Villafranca, Teddy Bucher and Michelle Mata, attending Tales for the second year in a row.
Houston cocktail enthusiasts Laura Villafranca, Teddy Bucher and Michelle Mata, multiple-year attendees of the conference, are back again.

Most of the action is going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street (home to the famously revolving Carousel Bar), where Wednesday morning’s annual Texas party helped kick things off for the fourth year in a row, with Austin’s bar peeps leading this year’s charge.

The bar staff of The Pastry War, Houston’s pioneering agave spirits spot, is among a handful of crews competing in Thursday’s yearly Bar Fight (which this year has gone international, with competitors representing Paris, London and Melbourne). Texas is also known to bring its oversized presence to the U.S. Bartenders Guild’s annual midnight toast, and in general you’ll find Lone Star peeps chilling at local spots like Cane and Table, One Eyed Jacks and Erin Rose.

In Mexico City, a craft-cocktail scene takes root

Tales on Tour - Mexico City
At the Bacardi plant outside Mexico City, chocolatey treats nicely complemented the Mi Familia.

It’s a scene still in the nest, but you wouldn’t know it from the mob scene at Maison Artemisia, an old-timey-chic urban hideaway in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood. As befits the global metropolis of 8.8 million, the bar’s three-deep lines are plush with people from all over – but on this night, many are in Mexico City for the most recent episode in a series of cocktail and spirits conferences set in places around the world.

Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) – the spirits-minded juggernaut behind the eponymous annual festival every summer in New Orleans – came to Mexico last week, its latest push to highlight up-and-coming mixology markets worldwide as the U.S.-led craft-cocktail renaissance continues to chart new terrain. It’s called Tales of the Cocktail on Tour, and like a pared-down version of its mammoth mothership in NOLA, the bartender-oriented event is a mix of workshops, distillery tours, networking, distributor-sponsored brunches and parties and the chance to visit the bars leading the local charge.

“We pick markets that we see bubbling up and shine a spotlight on them,” said TOTC founder Anne Tuennerman. “When we say we’re going to a city, people think, there must be something going on there.”

Cocktail apprentice program
Some of the Tales contingent touring the city’s Plaza de la Constitucion.

The intent is to showcase each city’s potential for distributors and brand ambassadors and to enrich the local soil of knowledge with the wisdom and talents of industry veterans and experts like tiki writer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Esquire columnist David Wondrich. In turn, visiting bartenders gain insight into local ingredients and methods to take back home. Sponsor companies build brand loyalty. Ultimately, the rest of us get to drink better drinks in more places. Everybody wins.

The Tales on Tour gatherings are held in successive years before moving on to a new city, leaving the young bird to fly on its own. Mexico City is the third city to fall into the TOTC spotlight; Vancouver and Buenos Aires were before that. “What’s really cool is to see these cities after Tales has been there once,” said bar consultant Don Lee of Cocktail Kingdom, an online bar-implements and spirits literature seller. “They’re excited to grow.”

Having Tales come to Vancouver “was huge,” said bartender Dani Tatarin of the city’s Keefer Bar. “It gave us an extra push of publicity that people could see, and it highlighted the talents of people in the industry. Since then, we’ve kind of nurtured it along.”

The Mexico City attendees came from all over, from locals like Carlos Mendoza and Mauricio Hernandez of Podcast Borracho (“Drunken Podcast”) to a sizable posse from Guadalajara. There were bartenders from Austin, Key West, Miami, New York and Bellevue, Wash., cocktail writers from Seattle and Paris; groupies from Boston. Others came from countries like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia and Australia.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The Bacardi plant crew knocks out an assembly line of mojitos.

One afternoon, we piled into coaches for a tour of Bacardi’s Mexico plant in Cuautitlan Izcalli, an hour away from central Mexico City toward the state of Queretaro. Along the way, we rolled past graffiti’d embankments, homes with rooftop clotheslines and sprawling hillside communities before reaching the plant, where we found music, a carnivore’s lunch and, of course, mojitos and Cuba Libres. My favorite of the batch was La Familia, a well-rounded rumba of Bacardi, orange juice, Fino Sherry and sweet vermouth served in a coupe with a side of gooey, delicious chocolate-glazed popcorn or a slab of chocolate. It was a pleasingly perfect match.

In the facility’s musty, sweetly aromatic barrel storage warehouse, overhead misters moistened the air – and our hair.  “It smells so good in here,” said bartender Juan Carlos Machuca of Guadalajara, where he’s creating cocktails for a new restaurant.

The next day brought a lineup of workshops and discussions, from the merits of sugar and modern bar technique to the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and the “dark ages” of mixology (1958-1977), when convenience and quantity bested style and substance. “The Margarita suffered tremendously in the 1970s,” said writer Berry. “The blender was basically The Devil back then. It made life easier for bartenders.”

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
At Licoreria Limantour, the tart and savory Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, ginger and yellow lime.

Each night brought chances to sample Mexico City’s fairly new but mostly impressive craft-cocktail culture, sprouting primarily in the trendy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods. (That’s also true for mezcalerias, such as La Nacional and Sobrinos, that specialize in tequila’s smokier cousin.) Spirits like Diplomatico Rum and Chivas Regal sponsored special menus during Tales’ run and bartenders from around the world came to help staff the busy bar nights. In general, drinks ran about $6-12 U.S.

“Designer cocktails are still a very small niche,” said a local food and drink blogger who goes by the handle Gastronauta. “It’s growing, but slowly.”

In addition to Maison Artemisia and pair of rogue visits to mezcalerias, I was only to get to barely a half-dozen spots on Tales’ itinerary, including Baltra and Bar Lilit. These were my three favorites:

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
Licoreria Limantour, in the city’s Roma neighborhood.

LICORERIA LIMANTOUR, the city’s first real craft-cocktail bar when it opened three years ago. Next door to mezcal-minded Sobrinos in the Roma area, its two floors of well-crafted cocktails and dark elegance overlook busy Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Visiting mixologist Sebastian Gans’ of Paris’ Candelaria made one of my favorite cocktails of the week, the apricot-shaded Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, yellow lime and ginger. Even the shot-sized sangrita Gans made to complement a bit of straight tequila was outstanding, with mango, tomato, coriander, lime and chipotle.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
Jules’ Basement, in the fancy Polanco neighborhood, was the city’s first speakeasy.

JULES’ BASEMENT, in the ritzy Polanco neighborhood, is a nicely conceived speakeasy below a Mexican restaurant accessed by what at first looks to be the door of the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. (There is a large, suited doorman outside. And a small hostess.) If you’re lucky enough to be on the list, the door will open, and the sound of thumping bass will signal the dark otherworld below. Down the stairs and you’re in a low-ceilinged, dance club atmosphere where able bartenders crank out house drinks and classics like the Cucaracha, Old Cuban and Mary Pickford. Overall, not typically my scene, but the drinks were well executed and the service was top-notch.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The dazzling Almond Old Fashioned at Bar Felina.

BAR FELINA: If I lived here, this low-key but classy refuge sited in the quirky, subdued Hipodromo neighborhood near Condesa would be my hang. There, Minneapolis transplant Jane Soli-Holt could be credited for one of the best Old Fashioneds I’ve had in some time – a beautifully presented Almond Old Fashioned made with Angostura 1919 rum, almond-cinnamon syrup, orange-allspice bitters, Angostura bitters and a thin curl or two of mulato pepper. Its sweetness spoke of depth rather than cloyingness. The bar’s casual vibe was accented by a DJ spinning classic vinyl dorm-room-style. It was more of a den in which to enjoy fine drinks and talk about big ideas than a place to see and be seen.

Beyond that, Mexico City itself was a sensory delight, from its plentiful in-city parks to the magnificence of the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the grandiosity of Plaza de la Constitucion. I enjoyed one of the best street-taco experiences ever at hole-in-the-wall Los Cocuyos, no doubt just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy and inexpensive to get around; Uber operates in Mexico City now along with worthwhile competitors, such as Yaxi. I loved how street-crossing was a constant game of Frogger, as equally well played by the elderly as the young; cars and people move in closer proximity on busy city streets than we are used to here. And one of the finest views in the city can be had from an eighth-floor café in the Sears Department store.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The Williams Grant & Sons party, conducted with typical understatedness.

But for cocktail fans, it’s good to know that you can visit the city and find a decent drink, a situation that in Tales’ wake seems only destined to improve.

“You have no idea how important this is to us,” said Philippe Zaigue, Mexico brand ambassador for Havana Club rum. “It’s allowed us to communicate to the world what we’re doing. And, it will give us the feedback we need to make things better.”

2014: It was the best of times, it was the thirst of times

Michael Martensen, Abacus
An unforgettable cocktail launched an unforgettable year: Martensen’s Apple Boilermaker.

It was the best of times, it was the thirst of times, and 2014’s constantly unfolding craft-cocktail kaleidoscope unfurled a spirited array of events for DFW’s imbiberati. Here’s a look back at the year’s top stories:

Abacus
Campbell and Martensen: Spittin’ spirited rhymes at Abacus for all too brief a time.

JANUARY: Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Michael Martensen together behind the bar at Abacus

From darkness, light: For a brief but glorious time, the chaos set in motion by Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s displacement from the late Chesterfield and Michael Martensen’s abrupt exit, along with his bar team, from Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social actually set the stage for two of the city’s most talented and influential bar men to pair up behind the bar at Abacus. The two have a longstanding rivalry – “I’m Seabiscuit and he’s War Admiral,” Campbell once told me. “I’m hard working, and he’s a fucking genetic miracle” – that continued to unfold at Abacus to customers’ benefit, especially late, once the kitchen had closed. One evening we rolled in and the two went back and forth like b-boys, throwing down cocktail creations to put each other’s to shame until Martensen slipped off to a corner to focus on a bit of handiwork. “What’s he doing over there?” Campbell wondered with his sly smile. Martensen emerged with what you see at top: A frothy apple boilermaker made with Deep Ellum Blonde, Cointreau, apple brandy, whole egg and a hollowed-out half-eggshell cupping a whiskey shot. Boss.

Libertine Bar
Libertine’s influential former head barman doing his thing.

MAY: Mate Hartai says goodbye to The Libertine Bar

For years, Hartai — chief barman at Remedy, opening tonight –was synonymous with the Libertine, which he helped transform from solid neighborhood bar to a den of craft-cocktail prowess and innovation. But after five years at the Libertine, Hartai decided it was finally time to move on to other things – namely The Cold Standard, the craft ice business he’s been shaping for some time – and most recently, Remedy, the new Lower Greenville project from HG Sply owner Elias Pope.

Tales of the Cocktail 2014
The Dallas crew, clockwise from upper right: Hartai, Brian McCullough and Charlie Moore; Bonnie Wilson, Trina Nishimura and Julian Pagan; Josh MacEachern and Josh Hendrix.

JULY: Texas Tiki Throwdown at Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans

The DFW presence at the spirit industry’s biggest annual gathering has gotten larger and larger, with dozens of bartenders and spirit reps on hand for 2014’s event. Among the festival’s kickoff happenings was the Texas Tiki Throwdown, where DFW drink-slingers went mano-a-mano with others from Houston, Austin and San Antonio. It’s fair to say everyone left the conference room with Lone Stars in their eyes.

Driftwood
Um, this.

JULY: Driftwood introduces an oyster shooter flight

They say the world is your oyster, but sometimes oysters are your world: This little bit of brilliance from Oak Cliff’s disappointingly defunct seafood establishment briefly brightened up my existence. Four oysters on the half-shell, each shell filled upon consumption with one of four spirits or liqueurs: Manzanilla sherry, mezcal, single malt whiskey and Pernod. Let bivalves be bivalves!

Hendrick's Gin
Out of the wilderness, a mysterious elixir.

AUGUST: Hendricks Gin’s Kanaracuni unveiling

Dallas was one of a handful of cities this summer in which Hendricks Gin chosed to unveil its rare Kanaracuni gin, a single-batch production made from a plant culled from the Venezuelan rainforest. Hendricks knows how to put on an event, and the fancifully exotic tasting, conducted at the Dallas Zoo, did not disappoint: Bordering on elaborate fantasy, it featured tales of adventure and large insects and finally samples of the amazing kumquat-flavored gin, which in intentionally ephemeral fashion shall never be seen again.

Proof + Pantry
Josh Maceachern, among Michael Martensen’s reunited bartending crew at Proof + Pantry.

AUGUST: Parliament and Proof + Pantry open

As noted above, Lucky Campbell and Michael Martensen’s longstanding rivalry can occasionally reach ridiculous proportions, so it was only logical that their two long-awaited projects would open on the same night — Parliament in Uptown, and Proof + Pantry in the Arts District. (“How ridiculous is that?” Campbell told me a couple of nights before the big event.) Both have met expectations, garnering local and national acclaim.

Dallas cocktails
Everything is illuminated: The new gem in Dallas’ cocktail scene.

OCTOBER: Midnight Rambler opens

Behind their Cuffs and Buttons consulting enterprise, cocktail masters Chad Solomon and Christy Pope have long been influences in DFW’s drinking scene, but it wasn’t until this fall that Midnight Rambler, the bar the two have long dreamed of opening, launched at the Joule Hotel. The swanky subterranean palace and its lineup of well-conceived libations take the city to another level, marking another step in its craft-cocktail evolution.

Windmill Lounge
Venerable barman Charlie Papaceno: No longer tilting at the Windmill.

NOVEMBER: Charlie Papaceno leaves the Windmill Lounge

After nine years at the landmark lounge he co-founded with Louise Owens, Papaceno left the venerable dive spot to pursue plans to open a new bar in Dallas’ Cedars neighborhood. One of the scene’s elder statesmen, Papaceno’s bespectacled mug was a steady presence behind the bar at Windmill, which became an early haven for Dallas’ budding craft-bartender scene and went on to garner national attention – including a nod as one of Esquire’s best American bars.

Henry's Majestic
Slinging tiki drinks at one of five pop-up bars at Henry’s epic Trigger’s Toys benefit. (Mary Christine Szefzyk)

DECEMBER: Trigger’s Toys annual benefit event featuring five pop-up bars

I was crushed to miss this epic event, which made use of the long-unused warren of space at recently opened Henry’s Majestic in the Knox-Henderson area. Five pop-up bars featuring teams of bartenders from DFW and beyond went all out to raise money for a Dallas charity serving hospitalized kids. From sports bar and tiki bar to country saloon and nightclub, it was a raucous party that garnered $100,000 for the cause.

IMG_20141025_152349

ONGOING: Collectif 1806’s bartender book club events

The bartender education and support arm of Remy Cointreau USA, helmed locally by Emily Perkins, has helped remind that the whole craft-cocktail thing is less revolution than revival. At its periodic exclusive book club gatherings, bartenders page through some of Cointreau’s extensive collection of vintage cocktail tomes, perusing recipes and gleaning old knowledge and then passing the reaped benefits along to consumers. Everybody wins.

And so it begins: Tales of the Cocktail 2014 kicks off in New Orleans

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Dallas’ Mate Hartai, second from left, and Brian McCullough, second from right, doin’ Texas proud at the Texas Tailgate Party that kicked off Tales of the Cocktail 2013.

NEW ORLEANS — It’s that time again – time to let the good times roll, time to learn about agricole, time to sip some Aperol. You know what I mean: It’s time for Tales of the Cocktail 2014.

The nation’s most ginormous industry event for bartenders, bar owners, spirits makers, liquor reps, enthusiasts and the wretched chroniclers of said shenanigans is upon us for its 12th year in that most perfect of cities, New Orleans.

Oh, New Orleans: You complete me. You are the primordial jambalaya from whose loins sprang the mighty Sazerac, the sultry Vieux Carre’, the demanding Ramos Gin Fizz, the insufferable Hurricane.

We know her as NOLA, and she is among America’s craft-cocktail matrons, with heralded institutions like Arnaud’s French 75, Antoine’s Hermes Bar and the Court of Two Sisters evidencing craft culture before its modern renaissance; it’s not for nothing that the Museum of the American Cocktail is based here. That’s not to say there aren’t some great new cocktail bars in NOLA: Cure, Bellocq and Cane and Table have earned much national acclaim.

I’ll hope to visit them if I can find the time. That’s because this five-day festival can be grueling, chock full as it is with workshops, happy hours, competitions, spirit-paired dinners, tastings, Bloody-Mary breakfast stations, new product unveilings, cocktail tours, chance wee-hour reunions, huge parties and… even huger parties. A smorgasbord of delights, for sure; but also a test of one’s resolve; there are opportunities to be missed if you aren’t careful – including “whiskey dialogues,” seminars about how to launch a spirits line or about the Chinese spirit baijiu, tips for bartenders charged with making drinks in front of TV cameras and advanced bartender trainings.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The William Grant & Sons party at last year’s Tales conference, complete with the Hendrick’s Gin cannon at right.

This is my third year at Tales and I’ll be bringing you dispatches from the front lines where members of Texas’ bartending community are representing the Lone Star State, many for the first time – including Alex Fletcher of Victor Tango’s, Barter’s Stephen Halpin, The Standard Pour’s Christian Armando, Absolut Vodka rep Ashley Williams (formerly behind the bar at Boulevardier) and Sissy’s Southern Kitchen’s Chase Streitz, whose victory in a recent Jefferson Bourbon competition earned him the trip here (I was among the contest’s judges). Most of the action will be going down at the veritable Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, home to the revolving Carousel Bar.

The festival kicks off with Wednesday morning’s Texas Tiki Throwdown, because obviously nobody knows how to throw a party like Texas, and the ensuing days will feature other Texas bar peeps along the way: Former Dallas luminary Jason Kosmas will wax proud about his popular new line of spirits; Bonnie Wilson – here with her flock of Fork It Over Restaurants staffers – will churn out cocktails for an Anchor Distilling Co. shindig; Austin’s Chris Bostick will compete at Wednesday’s Battle of the Sexes bartender competition. Also, because this is New Orleans, there will be beignets.

I asked a few TOTC veterans to offer tips for festival first-timers and for their can’t-miss destinations while in New Orleans.

BRIAN McCULLOUGH, The Standard Pour – 6th time at Tales

The Standard Pour
Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour in Uptown.

SURVIVAL TIPS: One, eat when you see food. Two, drink when you see water. Three, sleep when you can. And four, you don’t have to finish that.

MUST-DO’S: You’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t go to Frenchman Street.  Café Le Monde, for sure. Port of Call for a cheeseburger. And the alligator cheesecake at Jackamo’s – the tables are all uneven, but the food is absolutely astounding.

BONNIE WILSON, Fork It Over Restaurants (Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar, et al.) — 4th time at Tales

Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)
Bonnie Wilson, beverage director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Photo courtesy of Fork It Over.)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Everything in moderation. You can go down and have things be crazy, or you can go down and have it be a fun educational event. Be moderate about it. Do everything you want to do, but just control yourself.

MUST-DO’S: I always go to Mother’s for the Ferdy’s special. That’s 100 percent a must. They do this stuff called debris. It’s a ham and roast beef sandwich with basically the juices, the pan drippings, all the goodness, spices and fat and everything.

MATE HARTAI, The Cold Standard – 3rd time at Tales

Libertine Bar
Dallas’ Mate Hartai. (Photo by Jason Raney)

SURVIVAL TIPS: Lots of (dehydration preventative) Pedialyte. And cardio.

MUST-DO’S: Get out of the French Quarter. Check out the architecture. I’m from Hungary, and this place reminds me of Europe. I’ve been to New York and San Francisco, all the supposed European cities, and this city makes me more homesick to be in than anywhere else.

BRAD BOWDEN, Barter – 3rd time at Tales

Barter
Brad Bowden, lately of Uptown’s Barter.

SURVIVAL TIP: Nothing good happens after 5 AM.

MUST-DO’S: Mad Hatter. I always try to stop in and get myself a hat. And the Erin Rose – I always go there and get one of those Bailey’s drinks they have there. (Erin Rose is renowned for their frozen Irish Coffee.)

Victor Tango's
High West’s Chris Furtado and Remy Cointreau’s Emily Perkins showing off their skin art at Dallas’ Victor Tango’s.

EMILY PERKINS, Remy Cointreau brand rep, Dallas – 2nd time at Tales

SURVIVAL TIPS: Just let it wash over you. But be responsible. And be careful; it’s easy to forget that New Orleans can be a dangerous place.

MUST-DO’S: Domelise’s, for the po-boy sandwich.

CHRIS FURTADO, Texas rep for Utah’s High West Distillery

SURVIVAL TIPS:

* Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

• Take time to eat. Often.  When dashing from seminar to event to party, sometimes meals fall to the side.  You are doing yourself a disservice both physically and culturally.

• Don’t book yourself solid; leave some time free.  A lot of cool stuff will come up that you didn’t know about.

• Be ready for rain. It’s New Orleans, it’s the summer.  It’s not a question of if but when.

MUST-DO’S:

* The U.S. Bartenders Guild toast at The Old Absinthe House – Thursday at midnight.  There’s something cool about seeing the street packed with bartenders raising their glasses in the air and yelling cheers.

* Have a Lucky Dog. Get a slice of pizza also.  Skip the Hand Grenade (drink) though.

* The Alibi is a great late-night spot.  It’s where local service industry peeps go to unwind.

 

Fasten your seat belts: Airport craft-cocktail bars are taking off

Airport bars
Lounge 5280: Offering traveling craft-cocktail drinkers a first-class upgrade.

I’ve got time to spare, so as I’ve been known to do on lazy afternoons, I’m sitting at a bar having a classic Negroni, and not a bad one at that: This mix of Old Raj gin, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Campari is just the tonic to get me through the rest of my day.

The drink menu is admirable, with two dozen decent cocktails to enjoy on its granite-countertopped bar – including a Sazerac, Pisco Sour, Caipirinha, Pimm’s Cup, Moscow Mule, a Daiquiri laced with Strega and 10 drinks featuring Colorado-based spirits like Leopold’s gin or Stranahan’s whiskey. But here’s where it gets weird: The ceiling is a hundred feet overhead, and in the distance, monitors flash the details of arriving and departing flights. No, it’s not your typical cocktail joint, and it’s in one of the last places you’d look for such a thing – on the upper level of Denver International Airport’s Concourse B.

Lounge 5280 is a traveling cocktail fan’s dream come true, one of the country’s few authentic craft-cocktail bars actually based in an airport. Naturally, the menu features the classic Aviation, while behind the bar spirits like Averna and Nolet’s gin offer promise. There’s even a rotating barrel-aged cocktail. Did I mention this is at an airport? “Nobody makes drinks like we do at the airport,” bartender Jony Castaneda told me during my visit last October. “We’re the only one who muddles and does things like that.”

And yet: Does this not make so much sense? Think about it: You’re finally through security. The car is parked, the shuttle taken, the last-minute worries dealt with: Where did you put your ID? What’s your flight number again? You’ve endured the humorless cattle-herd gauntlet of shoes-off, laptops-out, liquids-gone, everything-out-of-your-pockets mayhem, and if there’s one thing you could use right now, dammit, it’s a decent drink.

But unless you’ve got access to an exclusive club like American Express’ Centurion Lounge, good luck finding one at an airport. “It’s almost the last frontier,” said Jacob Briars, Bacardi Rum’s education director, at a workshop dedicated to the topic at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) conference in New Orleans. (The panelists also listed their top 10 airport bars worldwide: See their list at the end of this post.)

Airport bars
Wherever your final destination might be, Denver’s 5280 is a good place to start. At upper right, a classic Negroni.

Things weren’t always that bad. Back in the days of Pan Am and such, airports and airplanes were posh places to be. The idea of air travel was exciting and glamorous, the relaxing and service-oriented prelude to the destinations that waited. Not everybody could do it: Air travel was linked with affluence and passengers pampered by fashion-model stewardesses. “No wonder people dressed up to fly,” said Charlotte Voisey, portfolio ambassador for liquor giant William Grant & Sons USA, at the same workshop. “They were used to that kind of thing on the ground.”

But as airlines and airports tussled for business and as realities of global instability prompted restrictive security measures, that culture gradually devolved.  Getting from one’s car to the boarding gate is now an obstacle course of stress, and concourse options — including liquor — typically hover near lowest common denominator. “Part of the problem is that expectations are so low,” says Dallas’ Chris Furtado, Texas manager for Utah-based High West distillery, recalling his own air-travel experiences. “You just find the least obnoxious thing you can (on the shelf), and that’s what you’re going to order…. It’s a shame, because if there’s ever a time you need a good drink, it’s at the airport.”

Until recently the best you could say about an airport cocktail was, “It was pretty good – for an airport bar.” Last year, when Esquire published a guide on “How To Navigate the Airport Bar,” the magazine offered this instruction: “You’re ordering a beer; maybe a Scotch, neat. Airport bartenders are not mixologists. They’re barely bartenders.” (The magazine also said: “There will be no ordering of poppers, jalapeno or otherwise.” Wise words, indeed.)

Airport bars
What airport bars should strive to be.

But as the taste for craft cocktails grows, spots like Denver’s Lounge 5280 are flying in the face of such perceptions. Not so much yet in Texas, where Bloody Marys, mimosas, sweet-and-sour-mix Margarita variations and fruity vodka concoctions are still the rule. (And demand for those pales next to mixed drinks like rum-and-cokes or plain old brew. “Beer is still the mother lode,” says spokeswoman Cynthia Vega of Dallas-Fort Worth International.)

This fall, however, will bring the opening of Wild Bleu Martini Bar at DFW’s revamped Terminal A, while last year, both DFW and Love Field welcomed Stephan Pyles’ Sky Canyon, a restaurant whose cocktail list is at least a baby step in the right direction. “People are sophisticated about their drinking now,” Sky Canyon bartender Jeff Landesberg told me as he built a drink with bourbon, Dr. Pepper and Benedictine, a honey-flavored liqueur. “You have to carry a lot more (stock) than you did before – like Benedictine.”

In choosing Wild Bleu, DFW’s Vega says, airport officials specifically eyed a cocktail bar, and while it remains to be seen whether the site will lean classic or cheesy, it does seem to signal that concessions directors have evolving tastes on their radars. “This is just the beginning of our efforts to offer a whole new category of drinks for our passengers,” said Zenola Campbell, the airport’s vice president for concessions.

Bassam Odeh, Wild Bleu’s co-owner, says the restaurant/bar will feature Mediterranean food to soak up its mixologist-designed martini selection. His business partner is former NFL player Ray Mickens; the two run other airport fast-food mainstays like Qdoba. When they told a few NFL wives about the martini lounge idea, Odeh said, “they were so excited. They said, `It’s about time someone opened an elegant bar in the airport.’ ”

Lounge 5280, Denver
5280’s Blackberry Mojito, featuring Leopold’s Blackberry liqueur.

So while American airport bars have a long way to go to rival places like Sweden’s Casa Bacardi, London-Heathrow’s Grey Goose Loft or the iconic Jet’s Bar in Belize, things are starting to take off.  It might be too early to envision fresh-squeezed juices at DFW airports, but there’s light at the end of the runway.

“There’s just this recognition,” says DFW’s Vega, “that people value their time in the airport.”

 

*

TOP 10 AIRPORT BARS IN THE WORLD

Not every airport bar can be St. Maarten’s Island’s Sunset Bar & Grill., where topless women drink for free. And to be fair, the bar isn’t actually at Princess Juliana International Airport but on a white-sand beach at the end of the runway with landing jets passing just overhead.

But there’s no question that the quality of airport-based bars is on the rise. At last year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, dressed-for-the-part panelists Jacob Briars, education director for Bacardi Rum, Charlotte Voisey, portfolio ambassador for William Grant & Sons USA, and Doug Draper, director of adult beverage and bar development for HMS Host, concluded their seminar on airport bars with a list of their Top 10 airport craft-cocktail bars worldwide.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Properly uniformed liquor ambassadors Jacob Briars and Charlotte Voisey at last year’s national cocktail conference session on airport bars.

10. Buena Vista Cafe, SFO – at San Francisco International’s Terminal 3, “where you can get the one drink San Francisco is justifiably famous for,” Briars said, referring to the Irish Coffee.

9. Café Rembrandt, AMS – another reason to fly to Amsterdam.

8. Tortas Frontera, ORD – Rick Bayless’ Chicago restaurant has three outlets at O’Hare International Airport, featuring what the panelists called “an extraordinary selection of mescal.”

7. Little Ludlow, MEL – At Melbourne’s International Terminal, with a view of airplanes on the tarmac. “It’s quite comforting,” Briars said. “There’s a sense of motion. There’s (also) a weird mix of espresso martinis and classic cocktails.”

6. Blanco, PHX – at Terminal 4 of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. A local chain whose great Mexican food is supplemented with a terrific tequila selection.

5. 5280 Lounge, DEN – The panelists praised 5280 for ambience and its natural skylight.

Airport bars
Denver’s Lounge 5280.

4. Center Bar, ZRH – Another bar with a tarmac view, this beautifully designed bar in Zurich, Switzerland, features a standout whiskey selection.

3. Eyecon, CPH – In addition to cocktails featuring Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway-flavored spirit, Copenhagen’s cocktail gem also offers Scandinavian small bites.

2. Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, LHR – it’s a little unfair to include this on the list since it’s only open to Virgin business-class passengers or other premium card holders, “but to me, it’s the best airport bar in world,” Briars said. “They have an amazing staff, and fresh ingredients.”

1. One Flew South, ATL – the top spot is an oasis among Atlanta’s sprawling dump of an airport, the panelists said: With a modest and well-executed cocktail menu leaning toward brown spirits, “it’s actually a reason to go to Atlanta,” they said.

 

Tales of the Cocktail 2013: It’s not just gin cannons. But whoa: Gin cannons!

At the William Grant and Sons party, Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Yup, that’s a gin cannon.

As the 11th annual Tales of the Cocktail conference winds to a close, we’ve learned about airport bars and the Prohibition-Era invasion of Cuba by American bartenders, slogged our way through cocktail competitions and witnessed elaborate fetes featuring fancy hats, gin cannons and a band suspended in midair.

Dallas bartenders have done us proud, too: Bar Smyth’s Omar Yeefoon took the title of “Stoli’s Most Original Bartender” at the UrbanDaddy-sponsored cocktail contest of the same name, throwing down an unlikely combo of Stoli Salted Karamel vodka, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and Prosecco. “I was thinking, this would never make a good cocktail,” Yeefoon said. But apparently it did, giving him the edge over four other bartenders from around the country.

William Grant and Sons party, TOTC 2013
The Wednesday night scene inside New Orleans’ newly revamped Civic Theater.

Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas represented DFW at Anchor Distilling’s 21-Cocktail Salute competition, where drink-makers each had to fire up an original shot, punch and cocktail. Her tangy Fire and Brimstone shot featured Hirsch small-batch bourbon, lime, honey syrup and Cholula hot sauce; the winner of that contest won’t be known until well after the conference wraps up this weekend.

But hey. The Hendrick’s Gin cannon.  The sight was part of the annual packed-to-the-gills William Grant and Sons party, held this year at New Orleans’ beautifully revamped Civic Theatre. It had to be seen to be believed, and let’s just you had to get your kisser up close to avoid having your entire upper torso drenched in alcohol, unless you were looking to cool off, in which case you would have been faulted by no one.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas dishes up drinks at the 21-Cocktail Salute competition.

 

Dallas’ Bar Smyth chosen to compete at national bar battle in New Orleans

Are these bartenders ready to represent or what? Some of the Bar Smyth staff headed to New Orleans.
Are these bartenders ready to represent or what? Some of the Bar Smyth staff headed to New Orleans.

Another big coup for Dallas on the national cocktail front: Bar Smyth has been chosen to compete in this year’s bar-versus-bar-versus bar cage match at next month’s annual Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans.

Smyth’s selection to the so-called Bare Knuckle Bar Fight gives the months-old lounge another dose of national publicity in the short time since it opened earlier this year in the Knox-Henderson neighborhood. In March, Vogue magazine cited the new venture from Michael Martensen and Brian Williams – co-owners of The Cedars Social – as a factor in naming Dallas one of the four “buzziest cultural capitals” in the world alongside Lisbon, Toronto and Istanbul.

Smyth will go up against six other competitors: Polite Provisions (San Diego), Sweat Leaf (Queens, NY), Broken Shaker (Miami), The Daily (New York City), Barrel House Flat (Chicago) and Citizen Pub (Boston).

This year’s bar battle royale is unusual in the sense that the establishments chosen to compete are typically seasoned entities with some mileage under their tires. It’s part of a new focus on new and upcoming bars, a philosophy espoused by the event’s new host, The 86 Co., which launched a new line of spirits earlier this year.

Surely it helped that Dallas bartender extraordinaire Jason Kosmas is among The 86 Co.’s ringleaders, putting Smyth and its smooth 1970s vibe that much closer to the national radar. “It’s usually the biggest and best that get the acclaim,” Kosmas said. “But (this year’s contestants) will be the ones that get no acclaim.”

Dallas' Bar Smyth, about to prove itself on the national stage
Bar Smyth, about to prove itself on the national stage despite opening just three months ago.

But Smyth’s bartenders – including Omar Yeefoon, Josh Hendrix, Trina Nishimura and Mate Hartai – are among the best in Dallas’ come-of-age craft-cocktail culture. They’ll help Smyth represent at the annual event, which in essence is a massive wall-to-wall party of 1,000 people with competing bar staffs scattered throughout a gi-normous space, judged for character, quality, originality and speed in a frenzied atmosphere.

“They’re going up against some real talent,” Kosmas said. And this year’s focus will be riffs on the classics, daring each bar staff to not adhere too closely nor to venture too far from the original formula. “It was, like, these events have to outdo themselves every year,” he said. “We figured, let’s just go back to the basics.”

Bars are also expected to recreate in some small form the character of their actual establishment. Last year, for instance, Seattle’s Rob Roy brought along its signature deer-hoof lamp.

“We’re flattered,” said Smyth’s Martensen. “Our brains are already working. Do we show up with vinyl records?”

The team will no doubt have some tricks up its sleeve, and perhaps one surprising advantage: Bar Smyth is the only one of the seven competing bars that doesn’t have a Web site. Added Martensen: “Now that our wheels are spinning, now that we know who we’re competing against…. We can see what they do. ”

“We’re excited,” Yeefoon added. “Bring it.”

Tales of the Cocktail's annual competition: Not for the faint of bar
Tales of the Cocktail’s annual competition: Not for the faint of bar