Tag Archives: the cedars 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.

Halloween party, at least for a night, raises classic Dallas cocktail team from the dead

 

Victor Tangos, where Monday's Halloween bash benefits a good cause. Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.
Victor Tangos, where Monday’s Halloween bash benefits a good cause. Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.

Here’s some Halloween weekend activity that won’t have you saying Boo.

Monday’s event at Victor Tangos is the highlight, and the costume party/cocktail fest doubles as a charity effort, with proceeds benefiting Dallas CASA, an agency that helps abused and neglected children find safe and permanent homes.

Bar Smyth
Josh Hendrix and Omar YeeFoon, behind the bar at since-closed Bar Smyth. Now spirits ambassadors, both will be pouring at the Victor Tangos event.

The longtime Knox-Henderson craft-cocktail den is teaming up with Brian Floyd of The Barman’s Fund, a national organization of bartenders who hold monthly events to benefit worthwhile causes and donate their night’s tips to the proceeds.

The Victor Tangos party features an all-star cast of Dallas bar industry pioneers, including five members of the original teams at milestone craft-cocktail joints Bar Smyth and/or The Cedars Social, both of which earned national acclaim: Michael Martensen, Mate Hartai, Josh Hendrix, Julian Pagan and Omar YeeFoon.

Joining them will be Victor Tangos vet Emily Arseneau, Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour, Midnight Rambler’s Zach Smigiel and spirits distributor Kristen Holloway.

The fun gets underway at 7 p.m. with drink specials, with tracks spun by DJ Bryan C and prizes to be awarded for the best, most outlandish and most inappropriate costumes.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the classic Windmill Lounge on Maple Avenue will hold its annual Halloween bash with drink specials, a midnight costume parade and contest ($100 for first place!) and DJs Chris Rose and Genova providing the beats.

The Windmill's Halloween party gets underway at 9 p.m. (Image courtesy of Windmill Lounge)
The Windmill’s Halloween party gets underway at 9 p.m. (Image courtesy of Windmill Lounge)

Both events are free.

Victor Tangos, 3001 N. Henderson, Dallas.

Windmill Lounge, 5320 Maple Avenue, Dallas.

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.

Talkin’ ’bout the Midnight Rambler, Dallas’ ambitious new cocktail arrival

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

With a month gone by since the jewel that is Midnight Rambler beamed into downtown, it’s hard to believe it was barely a year ago that the Dallas cocktail scene seemed lost in free-fall… To recap: Everything was going just fine – better than fine, actually, with two notable spots, Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social, getting national acclaim, and then – Bam! Both places were suddenly gut-punched with the overnight departure of Michael Martensen and his top-notch bartending posse. Meanwhile, Eddie “Lucky” Campbell, an equally well-known luminary behind the stick, was still bouncing around after leaving the failed Chesterfield downtown. Sure, both said they had projects in the works, but DELAYS. The imbiberati were verklempt.

Dallas cocktails
More of these? Okay then.

Then, on one night in August, everything was illuminated: Parliament, Campbell’s carefully polished Uptown gem, and Proof + Pantry, Martensen’s much anticipated Arts District venture, opened on the same night with his crafty little bartenders all in a row. This fall, The Bourbon Review named The Standard Pour among its top 60 bourbon bars in America.

Dallas’ cocktail mojo is flowing again, and Midnight Rambler immediately joins the dean’s list – a gorgeous space in the Joule Hotel that reveals itself in holy-moly fashion the moment you plunge into its subterranean home. From the pincushion lighting to the art-deco styling to the arcing, inverted hull of a ceiling with its sleek wooden beams, it’s if you’ve walked into…. New York. Which is no surprise, given the Big Apple origins of owners Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, whose New York-based beverage consulting firm, Cuffs & Buttons, has put its stamp on bars and hotels around the world.

Midnight Rambler has an art deco, midcentury-modern aesthetic that Solomon ascribes to David Lynch’s Silencio space in Paris and the hotel bar in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, minus Lloyd the bartender. Strategically placed curtains hide or reveal adjoining space based on volume, intending a sense of intimacy no matter what the crowd. The punch bowl display is a bling-y touch.

Dallas cocktails
Part of Midnight Rambler’s solid cocktail lineup.

This is what he and Pope have had in mind since – well, since those dark days of last autumn, but as already noted, these things take time. The wait has been worth it. “It’s pretty much exactly how we envisioned it,” Solomon said a few days before a glorious preopening-night party whose guest list included Manhattan mixology legends Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club and Cuffs & Buttons partner Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey (where Pope and Solomon once tended bar).

The lineup of thoughtfully conceived libations is ladled out by a relatively fresh crew of bartenders whom Solomon and Pope have molded to their well-honed specifications. Labeled vials of premixed cocktail portions sit on the backbar, awaiting call to duty: It’s all about efficiency and consistency, and save for the ample canon of classics with which humankind is blessed, few variations occur off-menu, which is okay-fine because it’s muy excelente. (Being at the Joule, it’s also pricy, with drinks ranging from $12-$15.) Creative, daring and amply sized, it features the orange-y, bourbon-based Soul Clap, the tart, poblano-kissed Wang Dang Dula and the clever Savory Hunter, whose lemongrass- and kaffir-lime infused gin, mixed with coconut and lime evoke the flavors of a delicious Thai tom kha gai soup. There’s a selection of group-friendly punches and a playful trio of shots, including a pho-themed one that incorporates beef stock.

Dallas cocktails
The bar’s midcentury modern aesthetic is “pretty much exactly how we envisioned it,” co-owner Chad Solomon says.

Midnight Rambler is also notable for what you don’t see: A backroom “lab” with nifty toys like refractometers, an evaporative still and a centrifuge, all employed in the making of cocktail ingredients. “We call it a lab, but we’re not back there experimenting all the time,” Solomon says. “It’s more like a flavor house. It’s our own dedicated flavor house.” Many drinks also include a touch of mineral saline – a bit of salt that as in food enhances and brings out other flavors; two drops is all it takes.

Nibbles come from CBD Provisions, up on the main level of The Joule – including charcuterie, a tilefish dip (the fish is smoked on the hotel rooftop), black-eyed pea hummus and a knockout burger. Fries are served in a Moscow Mule mug.

Despite the intense structure and pre-planning, the occasional drink can falter: The Sound System, for instance, which I initially loved for its bold and effective use of super-funky Hamilton pot-still rum, turns out to be fickle; inadequately stirred on a later visit, it was too heavy on the rum’s overripe banana flavor. The pre-prepared vials behind the bar can also visually take some of the appeal out of having your drink prepared to order; they’re more appreciated on a busy weekend night. About the only real minus for Midnight Rambler might be its location in the Joule, whose owner, Tim Headington, has enraged preservation architects with a record of destroying historic buildings, including the recent razing of two century-old structures across the street from the hotel, as noted in a scathing column by Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster in September. Likewise, those who support historic preservation efforts may want to consider whether they want to patronize the businesses within.

Midnight Rambler
The Savory Hunter: Refreshingly recalling your favorite Thai restaurant.

Otherwise, Midnight Rambler is a welcome and needed addition to the DFW cocktail scene. Solomon and Pope had initially considered Austin until the Joule opportunity fell into their laps; they’re now settled in Bishop Arts and have hatched something ambitious, adventurous and more glamorous than any serious cocktail bar Dallas has seen.

“It’s just another layer on top of what’s already here,” Solomon says. “This is next level. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with the best in Chicago and New York. But we’re here.”

Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry officially set to open Wednesday, Aug. 27

Proof + Pantry
Josh Maceachern, among the reunited bar crew of Proof + Pantry.

Attention, craft cocktailers: Set your timepieces for Wednesday, Aug. 27, when Proof + Pantry, the long-awaited concept from mixmaster luminary Michael Martensen and  hospitality management firm Misery Loves Co., officially opens its doors to the craft-cocktail public at One Arts Plaza in the Dallas Arts District.

OK, other publics are welcome, too, but it’s no secret that the fancydrank faction has been chomping at the bitters to witness the now-imminent reunion of some of Dallas’ most talented mixologists, whose diaspora was set in motion in November when Martensen left celebrated Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social to pursue his own ventures.

Last week, as first reported here, we caught a brief glimpse of that reunion when Proof + Pantry hosted a private 80s-themed party for those attending the 10th annual TEXSOM 2014 conference in Las Colinas. The space was still a work in progress at that point, with no menus to speak of, but that will change next week when Proof + Pantry unfurls its bar program (that’s the “proof”) and a food lineup heavy on global cuisine (aye, that be the “pantry”) from executive chef Kyle McClelland.

With Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Parliament also on the horizon, it should be an exciting next couple of weeks.

Proof + Pantry party drops a bomb on One Arts Plaza, hints at what’s to come

TEXSOM 80s Party
Though still a work in progress, Proof + Pantry hit a groove Sunday night.

The official opening of one of Dallas’s most anticipated craft-cocktail bars is about a week away, but sometimes it pays to be into wine: Attendees of last weekend’s 10th annual TEXSOM conference, one of the country’s biggest wine gatherings, got a lucky peek at Michael Martensen’s Proof + Pantry space at a 1980s-themed bash that dropped a Super Freak bomb on One Arts Plaza Sunday night.

Beats dropped, wine corks popped, glasses were topped. Roast pig was served. Meanwhile, the mad bartending skills scattered to the winds when Martensen and his team left Dallas’ Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social in November crafted five shades of Negronis for a workshop-weary crowd eager to party like it was 1989. As reunions go, seeing bartenders Julian Pagan, Trina Nishimura, Josh Mceachern, Josh Hendrix and back-from-Denver Mike Steele simultaneously behind the bar again was sorta like Eric B. & Rakim getting back together – “and you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Mceachern said. “We’re just getting started.”

Proof + Pantry
Josh Maceachern, one of Michael Martensen’s reunited bartending crew.

And indeed, Proof + Pantry’s rustic wood and metal interior is still a work in progress. In fact, one would have been hard-pressed on Saturday morning to believe any sort of gathering would be happening in the space 36 hours later, given its warehouse-like disarray. (Deadlines help.)  But many features were already evident, like the Restoration-Hardware-esque decor, the classy illuminated modular shelving suspended above the marble-topped bar and the exterior courtyard with its Arts-District view.

There was more wine than anyone could drink, and with air-conditioning on the fritz in the immediate area, the sweltering atmosphere was like a jungle sometimes, it made you wonder how you kept from – well, you know.  By night’s end, the contentedly reunited Proof + Pantry team was nonetheless exhausted, having worked nearly around-the-clock to make this moment happen. Still, it was clear that they wanna be startin’ something: This was just a taste of what’s to come.

TEXSOM 2014
Attendees of TEXSOM didn’t stop ’til they got enough.
TEXSOM 2014
P+P’s exterior courtyard got a generous pour from TEXSOM 2014 attendees.
TEXSOM 2014
True that.
Proof + Pantry
This is how you 80s.
Proof + Pantry
Five shades of Negronis on the menu.

 

 

 

 

 

Follow the bouncing ballers: Bar peeps on the move

Clyde Mays Old Fashioned competition
Omar, we hardly knew ye: YeeFoon, The 86 Co.’s new Texas state ambassador.
The spirits scene is fluid. People move around, and maybe you’ve lost track of a few. Barmoire is here to help you out.

 

Last month came the official news that bartender extraordinaire Michael Martensen planned to open Proof + Pantry at One Arts Plaza; that’s still on track, with the space – formerly the Commissary – opening hopefully before summer. But while Martensen had hoped to reassemble the fine crew of bar talent that had formerly held sway at The Cedars Social and Bar Smyth, it appears at least one band member won’t be joining the reunion: Omar YeeFoon, who is joining Jason Kosmas’ The 86 Co. as Texas brand ambassador.

“I’ll be working with friends,” YeeFoon said last week over pasta and cocktails at the Windmill Lounge’s inaugural Spaghetti + Western night. “And it’s a product and a brand I believe in.”

Fork It Over Restaurants
Movin’ up the chain: Wilson, bar programs director for Fork It Over Restaurants. (Courtesy of Fork It Over Restaurants)

Meanwhile, Bonnie Wilson, the bartender who helped put Whiskey Cake on the cocktails map in Plano before taking over the bar program at The Ranch at Las Colinas, is now bar programs director for the entire group of Fork It Over Restaurants, which includes Mexican Sugar and Velvet Taco. Fork It Over has already expanded the Whiskey Cake brand to Oklahoma City and will soon open one in San Antonio.

Caledonia Spirits
Representin’: Farm-fresh-minded Amber West now with Vermont’s Caledonia Spirits
We’ve also missed the upbeat presence of Amber West, former lead bartender at Central 214 at the Hotel Palomar whose garden-to-bar enthusiasm never failed to mesmerize. West is now Texas brand ambassador for Caledonia Spirits, the Vermont-based company that produces honey-tinged Barr Hill Gin and other liquid goodies soon to appear in bars and restaurants around the state. She and her new portfolio were behind the cocktails at last Saturday’s Polo On the Lawn fundraiser in Oak Point.
She’d met Caledonia founder Todd Hardie through former Central 214 chef Graham Dodds; their similar views forged a connection. “Caledonia Spirits is all about his connection with the land, beekeeping and farming,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Nora and Windmill Lounge
If you’ve been looking for this guy, he’s taken his talents to Maple Avenue.

 

Meanwhile, for those who’ve been wondering whatever happened to bartender Michael Reith, the man whose drinks once shone at Lower Greenville’s Nora, the low-key barman has resurfaced at the esteemed Windmill Lounge on Maple Avenue, where he was last seen firing up cider-y accompaniments for the divey spot’s just-launched, above-mentioned Spaghetti + Western dinners on Mondays.

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

 

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

A great cocktail should take you on a little journey, and one benefit of DFW’s thriving craft-drink culture is the growing number of bar-peeps able to put you aboard that flavor train. The year 2013 was a highlight reel of riches: There was Amber West’s Wild Weeds – a Scotch-and-beer blend rimmed with smoked-almond salt – at Central 214; Chase Streitz’s nectarine-and-Fresno-chile-syrup-influenced Honey Bee Sting at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen; and the just-right, savory bacon-infused bourbon goodness – not an easy feat to pull off – that Tamsin Gray (now at Barter) achieved with the Bull Lejeune at Ser.

La Duni’s stalwart Lemon 43 spoke to my inner adolescent with its lemon fruit-gem sweetness, while Belly & Trumpet’s Scorched Belly cocktail (pictured at right) was certainly one of the year’s prettier drinks. Last summer at Bar Smyth, former bar chief Michael Martensen introduced me to the excellent Smoky Negroni, a twist on the classic cocktail (attributed to Austin’s Rob Pate) that subs mezcal for gin. Asian flavors surprised, too: At Bowl & Barrel, former bar manager Ian Reilly – now at Chino Chinatown – cleverly used hoisin sauce in a pisco-based drink called the Passerine, while Victor Tango’s Alex Fletcher incorporated miso into his gin-fueled Art of War.

I could go on. Some of my year’s favorite drinks are still on menus, some aren’t; some never were. Some can be rekindled from memory at their original locations, some have been lost to posterity. As the last year has shown us, places close, others open, sands shift. But it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.

My tastes are partial to the bitter and the botanical – show me a bottle of Suze behind the bar and I’m in – and classic browns like the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac. That said, here are my 15 favorite DFW cocktail discoveries of 2013.

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

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

Campbell’s hiring at the five-star restaurant showed that Abacus was as serious about its cocktails as it was about its food. This was among the first of his new additions to the menu, a gorgeous concoction of bourbon and muddled blackberries, full-bodied and smooth with echoes of grape that give this luscious drink cache beyond whiskey’s typically male demographic. “It’s delicious,” my friend Susan said after a sip or two. “I think a girl who doesn’t like whiskey would still like this.” Not to mention a boy who likes whiskey, too.

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

14. DOUBLE UNDER, H&G Sply (Emily Perkins via Jacob Wallace)

Who doesn’t love beets? Okay, a lot of people doesn’t love beets. But properly speaking, for those of us who do, this splash of refreshment ably answers the call – a simple mix of lively beet-infused tequila, lime and rosemary syrup. Perkins – now with Remy Cointreau – modified this creation by Portland’s Jacob Wallace for H&G’s drink list, toying with the proportions; “it’s supposed to be an earthier Margarita that never feels out of season,” she says. The taste is sour beet moxie and tangy lime, with a slight hint of herb. Unabashedly red with a flirty half-skirt of glittery salt, it sure is purdy to look at, too.

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

13. NEGRONI VARIATION, Lark on the Park (Matt Orth)

One benefit of the classic Negroni – equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and bitter Campari – is that it lends itself to modification: Sub mezcal for gin, as mentioned above, and you still have a formidable drink. Around the time Lark on the Park opened last spring, I was bouncing around town seeing what bartenders were doing with Suze – the herbal French bitter that had become my latest crush – and asked bar manager Orth what he could come up with. This was his second concoction – a honey-gold, bitter/botanical flourish of Suze, Gran Classico and Art in the Age’s Sage spirit, marked by a leafy, sage finish.

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

12. LAST NIGHT IN PERU, Victor Tango’s (Alex Fletcher)

Last summer, Fletcher, the new bar manager at Victor Tango’s, traveled to Peru to more fully explore the world of pisco (a light-shaded brandy) and came back inspired by a raisin-syrup-enhanced drink he had on his last night there. “This is my tribute to that,” he says. Employing a perfectly highlighted date syrup instead, this butterscotch-hued drink – with pisco, lime, egg white and Peruvian bitters – has a gentle, fruity sweetness that can shine all year long.

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

11. TWO THIRTY, Bar Smyth (Mike Steele)

In the days that followed Bar Smyth’s much-anticipated opening last March, bartender Mike Steele – whose creations twice landed in my list of 2012’s favorite cocktails – served up this doozy that he’d been working on for some time. With two ounces of Eagle Rare bourbon, ¾ of Gran Classico, ½ apiece of Pedro Ximenez sherry and Carpano Antica and a dash or two of celery bitters, it’s a linebacker of a drink, chocolate-y and mildly sweet, something you’d want to sip in front of the fire. In the version pictured above, I subbed the more maple-forward Angel’s Envy for the nutty Eagle Rare and echoed PX sherry’s raisin notes with Lustau’s East India Solero, and it was still terrific. Use mezcal in place of the bourbon, as Steele also did, and you have the Dos Y Media.

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

10. BAD SEED, Bar Smyth (Omar YeeFoon)

Maybe I actually waltzed into the menu-less Knox-Henderson speakeasy and asked for something with Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway-flavored liqueur. (Doubtful.) Or maybe it was something that YeeFoon just happened to be playing with that day. (More like it.) Whatever the case, this inventive drink to which he added Averna, egg white, lemon and a creative splash of root beer and toasted sesame seeds caught my fancy for its frothy off-beat nuttiness. YeeFoon is no longer at Bar Smyth, so I don’t know whether this is still part of his repertoire, but the next time you see him around town it’s worth checking out.

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

9. FIGGY VIEUX CARRE, Black Swan Saloon (Gabe Sanchez)

It’s always fun to dip into Deep Ellum’s Black Swan and see what the heck bar man Gabe Sanchez is up to that night. Maybe he’s brewing coffee with bourbon – or maybe, as in this case, he’s taking a spoonful of fig jam and setting it afire. So taken was I with this element that I didn’t note at first the lineup of ingredients that would accompany it: Rye, Cognac, sweet vermouth, honey-sweet Benedictine – the classic Vieux Carre. This is Black Swan’s take on it, and cooking the jam reins in its sweetness (the drink has enough of that element already) and lets the wintry fig shine through.

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

8. COMFORTABLY NUMB, Five Sixty (Lee Heffter)

There’s a lot going on in this drink, but that describes a good number of Lee Heffter’s drinks on the rotating menu at Five Sixty, the Wolfgang Puck Asian-themed restaurant atop Reunion Tower downtown. With Bulleit rye, Cointreau, simple syrup, lemon, Pernod, Peychaud’s bitters and a barspoon of cherry juice, it’s a one-two punch of tart cherry/orange and sweet licorice. If you ever wondered what would happen if a Sidecar crashed into a Sazerac, here’s your answer. You’re welcome.

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

7. FIG SIDECAR, Nora (Michael Reith)

Speaking of figs and Sidecars: I was excited enough to learn that Nora – the excellent Afghan addition to Lower Greenville – was opening a rooftop bar area. But then bow-tied bar man Michael Reith laid this dollop of seasonal joy on me: A fig-and-winter-spice-infused Cognac to accompany the classic cocktail’s Cointreau and lemon. “I was looking for something wintry,” Reith said. “Once it gets cold outside, I love Cognac, which has that raisin taste. And Cognac and figs go together.” Yeah, like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong. The result is cool fireside comfort.

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

6. ANEJO FLIP, Abacus (Eddie “Lucky” Campbell)

You probably haven’t heard of the Old Smugglers Awaken, a 200-year-old Havana slush of gin, egg, sugar, lemon and bitters that Campbell has included among his repertoire since his Bolsa days. Probably devised by Caribbean pirates — “Who else would be sitting around drink gin flips in Cuba?” he says — the drink was a favorite of one of Campbell’s patrons at the short-lived Chesterfield downtown until she began ordering a fizzy grapefruit tequila drink on the menu instead. “I thought – what if I combined them?” Campbell says, and this bootylicious treasure – which he dropped on me at his current station, Abacus – is the result: Anejo tequila, grapefruit, agave syrup, vanilla, whole egg and Angostura bitters. Served up in a martini glass with Abacus’ signature “A” stencil-sprayed atop, it’s deliciously creamy and sweet, with hints of warm, dark vanilla.

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

5. I’LL GET TO IT, The Cedars Social (Josh MacEachern)

During his days at The Cedars Social, MacEachern came up with this lovely off-menu blend of Cognac, Pedro Ximenez sherry, orange-y Grand Marnier, walnut tincture and Pernod. But while the easygoing bartender loves crafting drinks, he doesn’t like naming them, so when I’d drop in and request “that thing you made for me last time” and then ask when he was going to name it, his signature reply finally became its lasting moniker. The sippable tipple is a spin on the Sazerac, MacEachern’s favorite cocktail, and arose as he was pondering flavors that might pair well with orange. “I thought of walnut, and anise,” he says. “That’s the fun thing about cocktails – we’re basically building on what chefs have already given us.” You’ll currently find MacEachern pouring Fridays and Saturdays at Uptown’s Belly & Trumpet, where you can still savor the drink’s warm nuttiness and licorice finish.

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

4. REAL SLOW AND REAL LOW, Barter (Rocco Milano)

“You would think there’s no way that could all work together,” bar manager Rocco Milano said as he placed the bottles in front of me one by one at the late Private/Social (RIP): Slow and Low Rock & Rye (basically a pre-bottled Old Fashioned). Cointreau Noir. Peachy Crème de Peche. Hum, a botanical spirit distinguished by hibiscus, ginger and clove, among other flavors. And Luxardo maraschino liqueur. The ingredients would comprise one of the last drinks Milano — whose Fall Into A Glass was my favorite drink of 2012 — would pour for me there before it closed in July; back then he called it the I’ll Have One Of Those, but fortunately for us brave souls it has been reborn under its new identity at Barter, Milano’s new playground in Uptown, where it will likewise seduce you with fruity sweetness before wrapping you in its warm boa-constrictor grip.

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

3. ROSEMARY’S AFFAIR, La Duni (Daniel Guillen)

Here’s a cocktail that takes you from backyard garden to summer campfire on a magic carpet of licorice; it’s no wonder this cocktail earned Guillen, La Duni’s bar program manager, a slot repping North Texas in a national Bombay Sapphire-sponsored competition in Vegas. It’s not officially on La Duni’s menu, but track Guillen down and he’ll gladly make it for you, first dropping a sprig of fresh rosemary into a Collins glass, splashing it with absinthe and lighting it afire. Then he’ll douse it with enough ice to fill the glass to the brim and cover it with a coaster, capturing and taming the smoking rosemary’s savory flavor. Meanwhile, he’ll mix 2 ounces of Bombay Sapphire gin, ¾ ounce of orgeat, ½ ounce of Averna and a bit of lemon and lime, then pour the liquid over the rosemary-smoked ice. Swirl it in your mouth and you’ll find herb, citrus, smoke and probably the urge to order another.

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

2. ONE SMASHED MONK, The People’s Last Stand (Alex Fletcher)

Ah, Green Chartreuse: My beloved Joan Allen of liqueurs. Forever a supporting actress in many a cocktail, never the star. Can she help it if she’s larger than life? See her shine in the classic Last Word – but then send her offstage. When Fletcher (now at Victor Tango’s) headed the bar program at The People’s Last Stand, he felt it was time to give this aggressively vegetal liqueur a starring role, and the tart, sweet, highly herbaceous result outdoes even The Bourne Supremacy: Its elemental mash-up of Green Chartreuse, lime and simple, spiced up with muddled Thai basil and sugar, might seem soft on the surface, but it packs a 110-proof punch. Just like Joan Allen.

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

1. AMOR Y AMARGO, Hibiscus (Grant Parker)

Grant Parker’s bar program at Hibiscus is one of the better ones in town, and this Sazerac-esque drink of incredible depth – not officially on the menu – reflects his alchemistic approach. After being blown away by a similar drink at New York’s bitters-focused Amor Y Amargo bar last summer, he wanted to try to replicate the cocktail’s blend of amaros (bittersweet herbal liqueurs). For a week straight he spent a couple of hours a day perfecting this mysterious and satisfying blend of four amaros, plus Peychaud’s bitters and Bittermen’s orange cream nitrate. There’s some Cynar in there, and Averna. Possibly some Amaro Montenegro. Or not. But it’s dark and voluptuous, a drink you’ll want to take a thousand sips of, letting the flavors lindy-hop across your tongue. Cherry. Citrus. Root beer. They’re all there. “It’s essentially an Amaro Sazerac,” he says. It’s amor (love) and amargo (bitter) in a glass. And it’s fabulous.

***

Honorable Mentions: Brown and Stirred (Grant Parker, Hibiscus); Caribbean Winter (Matt Orth, Lark on the Park); Chocolate Bullet (Bistro 31); Holy Grail (Michael Martensen, Driftwood); The Inquisition (Emily Perkins, Victor Tango’s); Scorched Belly (Matt Perry, Belly & Trumpet);  Steep Buzz (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier).

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

Pours without pretense: Are Dallas’ cocktail bars keeping it real (casual)?

imageThe Windmill’s Charlie Papaceno: Unpretentious before it was cool.

Interesting story yesterday from The New York Times, which notes the number of craft cocktail joints popping up around the country that are striving for a more casual vibe. These places, the article says, are “part of what is shaping up as a fresh chapter for high-end mixology: a new breed of cocktail bar that seeks to retain the profession’s hard-won artistry while shedding the pretensions that often come with it.”

In other words, the complete opposite of cocktail culture’s stuffy stereotype – things like secret entrances, purposely subtle signage, bans on canned beer and rules against standing at the bar.

But for the most part, when it comes to serious craft cocktails, Dallas ain’t that kind of place anyway. Even The Cedars Social, which this year earned a prestigious James Beard nom for best bar program, has made a habit of stocking Lone Star and Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can for a crowd as likely to come in wearing T-shirts and jeans as much as stiletto heels and Saturday Night sport jackets.

Another draw of these casual bars, the story notes, is their bartenders’ ability to rapidly churn out quality craft drinks for dense crowds without the pomp and production that can often leave you wanting. In other words, what Uptown’s Standard Pour and Tate’s – neither of them exactly hidden away – do on a regular basis for the weekend throngs full of yuppies who thirst more for a quick buzz than for obscure cocktail knowledge. (For the record, I avoid these nights.)

Neither place is particularly stuffy, either, though it must be noted that in Standard Pour’s earlier days Tate’s own head barman J.W. Tate was turned away at the door because of the cap he wore backwards on his head.

As far as strict, quality-cocktail casual goes, these places already exist here: Charlie Papaceno at the divey Windmill Lounge on Maple has been crafting quality drinks since before it was a thing in Dallas. The Black Swan Saloon in Deep Ellum wears no fancypants, and the pubby Libertine on Lower Greenville has Mate Hartai, one of the better cocktailian minds around.

Granted, none of these spots went into business proclaiming themselves to be craft cocktail bars, so maybe the comparison is unfair. But pretension doesn’t go very far in Dallas’ cocktail culture, and so far, the jury is still out on whether people will stand, in line or in temperament, for even the tiniest bit of speakeasy pretension. (I’m looking at you, Bar Smyth.)  There’s something genuine about the scene here that evades the haughtiness that comes with being first. New York and the Bay Area no doubt paved the way for the country’s classic cocktail revival, but those cities are now also, according to the story, discovering the value in being a little less like themselves and a little more, well, like Dallas.

“I do think there are some bartenders out there that have a pretentiousness about them,” says Chris Dempsey of The People’s Last Stand. “But they’re quick to change once they see it affect their business. Most of the guys I know are humble and knowledgeable, which is a pretty good combo, if you ask me.”

What do you think? Do you find Dallas’ cocktail bars pretentious? What do you think about bars that take a “speakeasy’ approach?

Marc Ramirez, posted 4-11-13