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Best cocktails 2017: DFW’s revitalized scene shows it can handle the (low) proof

Kyle Hilla, Chad Solomon, Brittany Day, Austin Gurley, Gabe Sanchez
Some of the year’s best, clockwise from upper left: Kyle Hilla’s Undercut; Chad Solomon’s Screwpine Fix; Hugo Osorio’s Big Stick Mojito; Brittany Day’s Prolific Poet; Austin Gurley’s Smokey Bandit; Gabe Sanchez’s Calvados Sidecar.

As 2017 got underway, it wasn’t insane to wonder if the local craft-cocktail scene had lost its mojo despite its expanding influence around the region. Sure, Hide had just opened in Deep Ellum, with its fancypants behind-the-scenes gadgetry elevating its ambitious alchemy, and well-etched torchbearers like The Standard Pour, Atwater Alley, Bolsa, Jettison, Black Swan, Bowen House, Thompson’s Bookstore and Industry Alley (to name a few) powered on, doing what they do.

But even as cocktail lists sprouted like bluebonnets throughout North Texas – in Frisco, in Lewisville, in Trophy Club, for god’s sakes – too many of the area’s proliferating iterations emerged uninspired or even unhinged, seemingly designed more to ride the trend than to propel it forward. Overall, creativity seemed stifled by malaise. Had things finally peaked?

Then July brought Shoals, the soulful, back-to-basics cocktail lounge in Deep Ellum, and Fair Park’s Las Almas Rotas, whose heartfelt ambience admirably sated Dallas’ growing thirst for mezcal. And as the year pulled to a close, Bourbon & Banter appeared down the rabbit hole of downtown Dallas’ Statler Hotel, sprinkling its craft savvy with photogenic dashes of Wonderland whimsy.

Scott Jenkins, Nick Backlund
Hide, Deep Ellum’s science-y cocktail lab, gave life to some of 2017’s best cocktails.

DFW did get its groove back, and then decided to make a night of it. In 2017, a wave of low-proof cocktails met the need for an evening’s worth of social nectars without the boozy kick that might send one home early. Low-alcohol cocktails dotted menus at Hide, Uptown’s Standard Pour and sherry-focused Jettison in Oak Cliff; Yayoi, in Plano, made its Wasabi Bloody Mary with Japanese shochu, while Bourbon & Banter’s excellent Undercut put Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur, in the spotlight.

Hide also blazed tasty trails with savory cocktails, employing mushrooms in its magnificent Champion, bananas in its Tally Man and chicken stock in – well, more on that later. At Bourbon & Banter, Kyle Hilla topped two of his stellar cocktails with small spoonfuls of savory goodness. Meanwhile, green chilies surfaced as a popular flavor as bartenders toyed with a pair of newly arrived ingredients, poblano-driven Ancho Reyes Verde and St. George’s multi-peppered green chile vodka;  elsewhere, Hatch green chile syrup ignited Skyler Chastain’s Santa Fe Smash at The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station.

Sprezza
Sprezza’s Julieta. Get to it, Romeo.

Ever-flourishing agave-based spirits drove some of the year’s best drinks. Smoky mezcal danced with Ancho Reyes Verde and lemon liqueur in Brittany Day’s Prolific Poet at Thompson’s Bookstore in Fort Worth; at High and Tight in Deep Ellum, it partnered with cinnamon-infused whiskey to amp up the smoke in Austin Gurley’s solid Smokey Bandit. And at East Dallas’ Lounge Here, Brad Bowden flexed aged tequila’s guns in Dirty D’s Thang, his tribute to an aging dive-bar ladies man in long-ago New Orleans.

Gin sparkled in Sprezza’s Julieta in Oak Lawn, in George Kaiho’s Sylvan at Oak Cliff’s Jettison and in Chad Solomon’s remarkable Screwpine Fix at downtown’s Midnight Rambler, where it was infused with lemongrass and paired with Bolivian pisco. And Robbie Call used Gracias A Dios’ agave-based gin and his own vanilla-spiced tonic for a smoky Spanish Gin Tonic, a short-lived gem at since-shuttered Filament in Deep Ellum.

Finally, the force was strong in 2017’s classic covers, with solid spins on drinks like the Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Bijou, Last Word and Pina Colada. At Black Swan, Gabe Sanchez’s Calvados-anchored Sidecar was a thing of beauty; Scandinavian aquavit fancied up The Keeper’s gimlet in Plano; and at the Theodore in NorthPark Center, Hugo Osorio’s falernum-spiked Bee’s Knees and Big Stick Mojito, juiced up with raspberry coulis, were as pretty as they were delicious.

My tastes are my own, of course. I love the botanicals of gin and the smoke of mezcal, the warm comfort of whiskey and the bittersweet beauty of European amari; I’m drawn to flavor combinations that lure me to unfamiliar territory and drinks that go down like great train rides, where every ingredient is visible along the way.

Here were my 15 favorite cocktails of 2017.

Jason Long, Abacus
Long’s lush La Joya showed you can still count on Abacus.
  1. LA JOYA (Jason Long, Abacus)

Tequila reposado, Green Chartreuse, sweet vermouth, Port, orange bitters

At this cozy upscale lounge welcoming patrons of the celebrated Knox-Henderson restaurant, Long’s agave-driven play on a classic Bijou (French for “jewel”) was a bouquet of caramel, grape-y sweetness. Eager to make a drink honoring a tequila-loving colleague, Long tinkered with the floral Bijou, subbing smooth, aged tequila for gin plus a touch of Port. The name is the classic’s Spanish translation and an equally perfect gift for somebody special.

Jeremy Koeninger, Parliament
When you needed to cool off in Uptown, it was time to go Due South. (Photo by SungJoon Bruce Koo)
  1. DUE SOUTH (Jeremy Koeninger, Parliament)

Rum, coconut, pineapple, orange, jalapeno, nutmeg

At Parliament, Koeninger put a Texas spin on the tropical Painkiller, itself a spin on the Pina Colada. “I wanted something a little less tiki,” he says. “And being from Texas, I like the combination of spicy and sweet.” So he added jalapeno and called it the Due South for the happy coincidence that any south-of-the-border spirit works as well as rum – except for, apparently, cachaca. (What up, Brazil?) Pisco in particular is fantastic. As you might expect, it’s a great warm-weather refresher, with its creamy pineapple, cool citrus and nutty spice, with some lingering heat on the tongue to boot.

  1. MAMBO MORADO (Jonathan Garcia, Jose)

Blueberry/lavender-infused sotol, sunflower seed orgeat, lime, Campari, Crème de Violette

The drinks at this Highland Park gem naturally lean agave, and Garcia drew upon a pisco-based concoction he’d made for a local competition and funked it up by subbing little-known sotol, distilled in Chihuahua from desert Spoon, an agave cousin. Hacienda de Chihuahua’s delicately smoky sotol gets the tiki snow cone treatment here, draped it in floral, fruity and slightly nutty tones with a splash of bitter Campari to rein in the sweetness.

James Slater, Network Bar
At members-only Network Bar, James Slater’s Malta was berry berry good.
  1. MALTA (James Slater, Network Bar)

Fernet, Amer Gingembre, turbinado syrup, blackberries

A few years ago when Slater was helming the bar at Spoon (now closed), he wowed with an off-the-cuff, darkly bittersweet creation he ultimately named Blue Moon, and he’s been riffing on it ever since. Though he’s since left his brief post as bar director for the members-only club at Trinity Groves, his latest spin on the drink was a winner: Still mining the bitter mint depths of Fernet, it subbed blackberries for blue and a ginger-forward bitter liqueur for less aggressive Averna, taming Fernet’s harshness while retaining its flavor; gorgeous Amer Gingembre does the same with ginger. Think of the Malta as a boozy berry detox juice with a dollop of licorice-like sweetness.

Hugo Osorio, The Theodore
New Orleans meets Oaxaca in Osorio’s classic spin, and now I can’t wait to have a chicken mole po’boy.
  1. MEZCAL SAZERAC (Hugo Osorio, The Theodore)

Mezcal, tawny port, Peychaud’s bitters, tiki bitters, absinthe

It was actually Sam Gillespie of The Mitchell, in downtown Dallas, who recently introduced me to the notion of a Sazerac built on smoky mezcal rather than the classic rye or cognac. His simple switch of spirit was solid and satisfying – but then, the very next day, I happened to drop by the Theodore, the NorthPark Center lair where barman Hugo Osorio has been unspooling impressive off-menu creations in his spare time. When I asked for something new, he said: “How about a mezcal Sazerac?” Osorio made the drink his own by adding the wintry cinnamon spice of tiki bitters and replacing sugar with a bit of sweet tawny port, serving up a spectacular sipper for the season.

Jesse Powell, Parliament
At Parliament, Jesse Powell’s Osage County is built on childhood memories.
  1. OSAGE COUNTY (Jesse Powell, Parliament)

Sarsaparilla/vanilla-infused rum, Mexican fernet, demerara syrup, lime, cola, absinthe

God bless Jesse Powell’s grandparents in small-town Osage County, Oklahoma, for supplying him with all the sarsaparilla sweets a little boy could eat, because otherwise we might never have had this bodacious burst of root beer candy in a glass. When Powell visited them again not so long ago, “they had the same exact candy, and I was like, I want to come back and make a cocktail like that.” The infused rum pairs with earthy fernet and cola to echo herbal vanilla root beer with a hint of licorice and a drink that makes you feel like a kid in a candy store.

Scott Jenkins, Hide
At Hide, Jenkins’ Winner Winner was chicken soup for the cocktail soul.
  1. WINNER WINNER (Scott Jenkins, Hide)

Ford’s gin, chicken broth, clarified lemon, thyme

Why did the imbiber cross the road? To get to this drink at Hide. Though the bar’s beverage director, Scott Jenkins, is a fan of savory cocktails, he knows consumers don’t always warm to the idea. But once the menu’s magnificent mushroom-driven Champion earned a following, he knew he had license to do more. One day, as he was looking for something to complement gin and thyme, a thought occurred: What about chicken stock? “I gave it a try,” he said, “and I was, like, yeah. It’s got that saltiness.” Before you pooh-pooh the idea, know that Brits drink something called a Bullshot, a Bloody Mary alter-ego mix of vodka and beef consommé. (Midnight Rambler’s Pho King Champ shot is not far off, either, with a little oloroso sherry thrown in.) In Jenkins’ yummy Winner Winner, the broth grows more robust as you drink – offering a much-needed remedy for flu season.

Brick and Bones
Its namesake might not have the fastest run in the west, but Brick and Bones’ Slowpoke Rodriguez is a rush of sweet and heat.
  1. SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ (Dre Cantu, Brick and Bones)

Hibiscus-infused tequila, blood orange liqueur, amaretto, jalapeno syrup

All the drinks at Brick and Bones are named for occasionally obscure cartoon characters, and this one pays homage to Speedy Gonzales’ acceleration-challenged cousin. While its namesake might be slow, this drink is a carefree rush of floral sweet with a dash of heat, with exuberant hibiscus the life of the party. With citrus-y blood orange liqueur and sweet amaretto, “it’s like a Margarita without the acid,” Cantu says.

Michael Sturdivant, The Cedars Social
Sturdivant draws on Angus Winchester’s No. 4 and takes it up a notch.
  1. NO. 5 (Michael Sturdivant, The Cedars Social)

Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, celery heart, lemon, honey, burnt Green Chartreuse

At The Cedars Social, the pioneering craft-cocktail joint just south of downtown, bar manager Sturdivant is always up for a challenge. For a good while, the bar menu featured a terrific drink called the No. 4, a creation of former Tanqueray Gin rep Angus Winchester. “People would order it all the time,” Sturdivant says. Then, this year, “I was trying to impress a girl at the bar who ordered one, and I told her I could do one better.” His botanical re-do, poured over flamed floral Chartreuse, is somewhere between the original and the classic Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon and honey): On the palate, it’s candied lemon tailgated by a mambo of lush botanicals, aromatic sweet celery and a pleasant, lingering burn.

Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour
At Standard Pour, Millspaugh’s Fleur de Feu is like an after-dinner treat  around the campfire.
  1. FLEUR DE FEU (Austin Millspaugh, The Standard Pour)

St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Ancho Reyes Verde, Angostura bitters, cream

Austin Millspaugh, you so cray. This creamy off-menu knockout at Uptown’s Standard Pour, with a name that means “flower of fire,” is a low-proof treat, a deceptively sweet drink that actually turns out to be more savory. After the first three ingredients are mixed and poured into a nifty Nick and Nora glass, Millspaugh tops it all with a thin layer of cream, then torches it for a burnt marshmallow effect and a stunning contrast between the foamy top and wine-clear body below. “You think it’s going to be sweet,” he says. “But your notions are debunked the second you sip it.” The creamy fats add texture and depth to a beautiful mix of floral and spicy flavors with smoky overtones.

Kyle Hilla, Bourbon & Banter
Hilla merged two of his favorite ingredients — Suze and turmeric — in Bourbon & Banter’s savory Rat Tail.
  1. RAT TAIL (Kyle Hilla, Bourbon & Banter)

Tequila, mezcal, Suze, lime, agave syrup, turmeric

A fan of the bitter spice turmeric, Hilla wanted to feature it in a cocktail at the speakeasy-style bar where each of his house cocktails features  a little razzle-dazzle. He muddled actual turmeric root rather than using the familiar powder, but its tannic earthiness was too overwhelming for tequila, and smoky mezcal was too strong, so he went half and half and added bitter Suze for some botanicals. As with all the bar’s hairstyle-themed drinks, Hilla put some thought into the Rat Tail’s picture-perfect presentation, serving it in a capita and capping it with a spoonful of avocado, cilantro and Basque Espelette pepper, whose mix of flavors both complement and counter. Marked by turmeric’s orange-yellow hue, it drinks like an earthy, slightly bitter Margarita.

John Ruiz, Hide
It’s high time we had more low-proof cocktails like Hide’s No Scurvy Here.
  1. NO SCURVY HERE (John Ruiz, Hide)

Suze, Italicus, orange, lemon, egg white, maple, eucalyptus tincture

Texas this year saw the coming of Italicus, a lovely bergamot-forward liqueur from Italy, and in this low-proof libation it pairs with Suze, an equally lovely French gentian liqueur. Ruiz initially set out to produce a Suze “sour” – a category of cocktail built on spirit, citrus and sweetener –and when bar manager Scott Jenkins brought Italicus to the shelf, Ruiz had his tools in place. With a few tweaks brainstormed with his colleagues, Ruiz’s result is soft bitter orange: Bittersweet bergamot and sweet maple balance Suze’s earthy bitterness with the abundant citrus – hence the name – playing off the drink’s orange notes.

Chad Yarbrough, Armoury DE
If your mouth likes pina coladas and getting caught in a rain of fizzy tang, Yarbrough’s Colada No. 2 is your escape.
  1. COLADA NO. 2 (Chad Yarbrough, Armoury)

Cachaca, lime, orgeat, soda, coconut balsamic

This tangy tiki tipple, an obvious nod to its classic predecessor, was conceived as Yarbrough was browsing 1890 Marketplace, the most excellent olive oil and vinegar shop that at the time had just opened a few blocks away on Main in Deep Ellum. Having discovered the shop’s coconut balsamic vinegar, “I tried it and I was, like, we have to do something with this,” he said. Thus was born the Colada No. 2, a sweet and nutty mouthparty tempered by a tantalizing tang. Tangs a lot, Mr. Yarbrough. Tangs a lot.

Deep Ellum
This ain’t rocket science: Hide’s Delight is perfect for your afternoon.
  1. DELIGHT (Scott Jenkins, Hide)

Aperol, Cynar, clarified grapefruit, elderflower liqueur

Nothing at Hide is simple. They just make it look that way. Mostly when you’re not looking, spirits are “milk washed” and relieved of their harshness, citrus juices are clarified for a pure veneer and soda and tonic water are eschewed in favor of a lighter-handed carbonating device. The radiant Delight – Jenkins’ low-proof, bittersweet ballet of Italian aperitifs tamed with soft grapefruit and elderflower – is perfectly crisp and flavorful, whirled in a Perlini device for a delicate fizz that curls up on the roof of your mouth like a cat settling onto a sunny windowsill.

Jeff Trevino, LARK on the Park
This time around, Johnnie gets the Last Word.
  1. JOHNNIE’S WORD (Jeff Trevino, LARK on the Park)

Johnnie Walker Triple Grain Blended Scotch, Yellow Chartreuse, apricot liqueur, lemon

For a time, LARK drifted into a bit of a tailspin, but with Trevino at the helm, the drinks, at least, have regained their footing. This was the finest of his new additions to the menu, a play on the Last Word – a classic which, full disclosure, I adore – that drinks like candied apricot in a glass. Trevino says when he first tasted the fruity, spicy notes in this American-oak-aged whiskey, part of Johnnie Walker’s Blenders’ Batch series, “I immediately thought of apricot,” he said. “We didn’t have anything on the menu that was like a Last Word, so I built it that way.” With whiskey standing in for gin, lemon for lime, Yellow Chartreuse for Green and apricot liqueur for maraschino, it’s a handsome, honey-gold humdinger with bold autumn flair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abacus
Bartender Jason Long shaking things up at Abacus.

ABACUS

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

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

ATWATER ALLEY

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

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

BLACK SWAN SALOON

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

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

BOLSA

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

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

BOWEN HOUSE

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

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

THE CEDARS SOCIAL

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

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

INDUSTRY ALLEY BAR

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

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

JETTISON

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

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

MIDNIGHT RAMBLER

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

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

THE MITCHELL

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

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

PARLIAMENT

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

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

THE PEOPLE’S LAST STAND

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

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

THE STANDARD POUR

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

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

THE USUAL

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

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

VICTOR TANGOS

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

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

“Let’s do this, Texas” — Lone Star bartenders came ready for battle and brotherhood at annual spirits festival in New Orleans

USBG midnight toast
Texas bar peeps putting a Lone Star stamp on Bourbon Street at Tales of the Cocktail 2015.

THEY CAME, they saw, they cocktailed – and by Sunday evening, Tales of the Cocktail 2015 had been conquered. Thousands of bartenders, bar owners, distillers, product reps and cocktail enthusiasts — a good portion of them from Texas — swarmed New Orleans’ French Quarter last week for the spirits industry’s biggest gathering, taking in five days’ worth of workshops, networking, tasting receptions, parties and spirit-paired dinners.

From brand-sponsored cocktail breakfasts to rum seminars to after-party confabs at favorites like Erin Rose (home of the Frozen Irish Coffee), there’s a lot to take in. But most of all, the festival is about camaraderie – a time for those who practice and support the cocktail craft to revel in each other’s knowledge, company and support. Bar staffs get better at their craft – by watching each other work, learning about new products and techniques, discovering the history behind what they do — and as a result, we, the consumers, get a better bar experience. It’s a win-win.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Tales’ tasting rooms promoted various brands — or entire spirits, like Thursday’s pisco party, which went all out to evoke Peru.

One big happy family. Except for one thing: While festival rivalries are never bitter, Texas members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild got word that heading into this year’s ritual midnight toast, another USBG chapter had Texas in its sights.

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AMONG THE MANY traditions of Tales – which last year drew 18,000 people – is the USBG’s annual midnight toast, held on Thursday night of the festival outside the landmark Old Absinthe House, at Bienville and Bourbon streets.

The toast is a quick but raucous affair, a celebration of unity, but of course, Texas can’t help but go big. And having been late to the cocktail game behind places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago – a deficit Lone Star State cities have since made long strides toward closing – maybe there was a little something to prove as the 2014 toast approached.

Either way, forces aligned: With a Texas-staffed event simultaneously happening at a two-story venue across the street, “there were, like, Texas fight songs and Texas flags waving from up on the railing,” remembers Dallas’ Chase Streitz, Bulldog gin’s Texas ambassador. “It was like Texas Mardi Gras for 15 minutes.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Will Croxville of Dallas’ Proof + Pantry offers a hearty welcome during his guest stint at an Edrington Scotch whisky party at New Orleans’ Bourbon Cowboy.

“Texas is kind of the underdog of Tales,” said Alex Fletcher, bar manager at Dallas’ Henry’s Majestic. “So it was kind of, like…. You know. Texas style.”

It was all over quickly. But rumors soon began that a Texan had thrown a rival chapter flag to the ground, and naturally its owners were not amused. When Travis Tober, beverage director at Austin’s VOX Table, heard they were going to come out swinging this year, Texans decided it was time to rally.

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TEXAS’ MARK ON TALES is huge, given the state’s size and proximity to New Orleans. Festival founder Ann Tuennerman says representation likely lags only behind New York and California, but this year marked the fourth in a row that a Texas-run party helped kick off the week – and as far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s still Tales’ only state-specific event.

Houston cocktail enthusiasts Michelle Mata, Teddy Bucher and Laura Villafranca were making their second, fourth and sixth Tales visits, respectively. At a dinner at famed Commander’s Palace to showcase Maker’s Mark’s new Cask Strength bourbon, the state went four-for-four, with one table seating a Houston-based rep for Beam Suntory spirits, a wine enthusiast from Austin and a pair of spirits writers from San Antonio and Dallas.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Hey, House of Angostura Orange is the New Black pool party: You’ve got balls.

One morning in the festival’s pop-up bookstore, bartenders Christian Armando (of Uptown’s Standard Pour) and Austin Gurley (of Plano’s Whiskey Cake) browsed the festival’s ever-increasing stock of spirits-related books and cocktail enhancers, from ginger-turmeric bitters to smoke-and-salt bitters to a $75 bottle of truffle bitters.

And the weather was scorching hot – which made the lavish pool parties thrown by spirits producers such as Trinidad-based House of Angostura – all the more welcome. As an attendee from Austin posted on Facebook: “Never in my life have I felt more confident in my decision to pack 8 undershirts.”

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THE RALLY PLAN was this: To meet at Thursday night’s High West whiskey-sponsored barbecue dinner at One Eyed Jacks on nearby Toulouse Street. Chris Furtado, High West’s Texas rep, had brought a backpack brimming with Texas flags, ready to distribute. From there the group would move on to Erin Rose, and finally to the Old Absinthe House. “I’m sure I’ll be hoarse by the end of the night,” Furtado said. “I’ve heard they (the other chapter members) have a chant. We’re not that organized.”

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Accoutrements of drinkdom in Don Julio’s Airstream Speakeasy at the Diageo House Party.

He had big hopes, though, expecting other Texas-based liquor reps and distributors and hordes of bartenders. But by 10:30 p.m., when it was time to move on to Erin Rose, there was just him and a pair of Texas supporters from Reston, Va.

Outside Erin Rose, the passing minutes brought only a trickle, and by 11:15, Furtado seemed concerned.

At last, a handful of others showed, including Austin’s Tober, USBG Austin chapter president Jessica Sanders, North Texas chapter president Brian McCullough and Julian Pagan of The Mitchell in Dallas.

The showdown was barely a half-hour away.

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THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY is now a $23 billion beast. The category made up 35 percent of alcohol sales last year, a slow but steady rise from 29 percent in 2000, with new products coming out all the time.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Making music at the House of Angostura’s Orange is the New Black pool party.

So you can’t blame brands for going all-out to win favor. On top of dozens of Tales tasting rooms, spirit portfolio giants William Grant & Sons, Diageo and Bacardi are known for extravagant parties with multiple drink stations churning out brand-specific cocktails amid the sensory smorgasbord.

Rutte, a Holland-based line of vodka and gins, made its official U.S. launch with a presentation led by master distiller Myriam Hendrickx and packets of the many botanicals that go into its products – juniper, fennel, coriander, cardamom and, interestingly, nuts, which influence its genever (gin’s European precursor). Then came another party, with more drinks handed out, and oysters done Dutch: On the half-shell, with a splash of gin.

With so much liquor flowing freely, it’s wise to heed the words of advice that preface many a festival: You don’t have to finish that. In other words, unless a cocktail is truly special, a taste is enough. Then set it aside. There will always be another one.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Herbs, nuts and botanicals: Spirit makings utilized by Holland-based Rutte, which just launched in the U.S.

That said, among the drinks I actually got the chance to try, these were my top four. I might have even have had one or two of them twice.

SWEET AND DANDY (by Kellie Thorn, Empire State South, Atlanta)

This sublimely bittersweet gem from Alameda, Calif.-based St. George Spirits – of which I am a loyal fan – featured its California Citrus vodka, Suze bitter liqueur, vanilla liqueur, lemon, green tea syrup and orange peel. I arrived late to the St. George tasting, so I only got to try it because publicist Ellie Winters was nice enough to share hers with me. And thank the heavens for that.

SOLERA PINA (Lynette Marrero, Zacapa Rum)

OK, it was crazy hot at Diageo’s annual House Party, held at the city’s Contemporary Arts Warehouse, and between that and the killer 80s-cover band onstage, it somehow seemed OK to fall for a snow-cone cocktail. Featuring Zacapa rum along with amantillado sherry, macadamia nut syrup and pineapple, its icy crunch was gloriously enhanced with a sprinkling of Marrero’s vanilla-infused salt.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Yes, one of my favorite festival cocktails was a snow cone. I’m not ashamed. Zacapa’s Solera Pina.

TIERRA D’ORO (Jim Kearns, Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, Greenwich Village, New York); and

MACHO PUNCH (Tony Abou-Ganim, The Modern Mixologist)

At Thursday’s packed Peruvian pisco tasting room, at least a half-dozen versions of the classic Pisco Punch were on display, and these two were absolutely standout: Kearns’ Tierra D’Oro spiced up Pisco Porton with lime, aji Amarillo (a Peruvian chili) syrup, passion fruit syrup, guava puree and classic pineapple, gorgeously presented with an edible flower garnish.

Meanwhile, the gregarious Abou-Ganim mixed Macchu Pisco with floral Yellow Chartreuse, pineapple gomme syrup, lime and lemon and a garnish of pineapple and pineapple-ginger foam to sweet, refreshing effect.

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Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Texas bartenders stage a huge last-minute rally — including, at rear, Dallas’ Brian McCullough and Austin’s Travis Tober.

THINGS WERE LOOKING shaky as the Texans headed into battle a couple of blocks away. But as the group neared the intersection of Bourbon and Bienville, a critical mass began to form, constellations of others joining in along the way as they closed in.

“Let’s do this, Texas!” Tober yelled.

The avenue was a gumbo of Bourbon Streeters and festival-goers, but little Lone Star flags were already waving en masse as beads rained off the balconies. A bigger flag drew a lineup of Texans for selfies and, as midnight drew near, the throng broke into a loud, proud group-sing of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”

The big showdown – well, it never materialized. If the rumors had ever been true, the evidence was nowhere to be seen or heard. “I don’t know what happened,” Furtado said. “We owned it.”

And then it was over once again, and the festival rolled on. San Francisco’s ABV bar reigned victorious at Tales’ annual Bar Fight (which went international this year) and won Best New American Bar at Saturday’s annual Spirited Awards, Denver’s Williams & Graham was named Best American Cocktail Bar and New York’s Ivy Mix was named best bartender.

Tales of the Cocktail 2015
Among the shirt on display at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival.

Sunday’s annual picnic rewarded those who went the distance, but for many, Tales was a beatdown and done before they knew it – with great memories tinged with realizations of how much they had yet to learn or regrets over missed opportunities.

“New Orleans, you were a whirlwind romance this year,” Austin’s Sanders posted on Facebook. “Can’t believe I have to leave already!”

And from Whiskey Cake’s Gurley: “Well, that was an experience. Tales of the Cocktail, you win this time. Back to Dallas.”