Tag Archives: The Standard Pour

Don’t Tell Supper Club aims to make cocktails a feast for your senses

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Don’t Tell’s Green Eggs and Ham. I would drink it on a boat.

I’ve just sipped from a glass brimming with vodka, fruit puree, lemon and champagne on crushed ice, and the crackle of Pop Rocks is still rocketing around my tongue.

“This is going to be a full sensory experience,” James Hamous says, casting a nod at the room as he takes it all in. “Not the humdrum of your typical restaurant.”

It may look plain on the outside, but inside it’s a sensory wonderland.

Do tell, sir!

Actually it’s the Don’t Tell Supper Club we’re in, but it’s clear from our grand surroundings that the folks behind the curtain want the place to be anything but a secret. The décor is whimsical bordering on outlandish, with designer mirrors, slanted shelves, an array of sexy crossed legs along a wall and a stack of books behind the bar that transform into a flock of flying seagulls.

At Don’t Tell, already in soft opening but which officially launches its dinner menu July 27, it’s going to be all about the show, stage and all. The place transforms from dinner club to nightclub at 11 p.m. and will be open three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, with former Top Chef contestant Tre Wilcox the architect du cuisine.

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Houghton’s vodka and fruit puree-powered Contortionist is sprinkled with Pop Rocks.

“It’s going to be socially interactive,” says general manager Hamous, also co-owner of The Standard Pour in Uptown, who prefers to describes his role at Don’t Tell as “facilitator of entertainment” and then, on second thought, as “director of crazy.” He’s thinking maybe geishas in the future, or mermaids in a ginormous water tank.

Yup. It’s going to be that kind of place – a cabaret of contortionists, aerialists and dance revues wriggling and prancing as you devour another forkful of lamb, the sort of spectacle you might find in such clubs in Amsterdam, Miami or New York City.

Likewise, the showy ‘tude infuses the drink menu from bar manager Sam Houghton, formerly of Dragonfly at Hotel Zaza and The Standard Pour. Think dry ice, smoke and fanciful touches like those Pop Rocks in the so-called Contortionist, added, as the drink list says, “to bring the party to your mouth!” (Exclamation point not mine.)

The tiki-esque Trainspotting includes four syringes of rum piercing its icy depths, to be injected upon serving into the highball of orange, lime, pineapple and coconut.

The Most Unusual Tea, a name playing off the brand phrase for Hendricks Gin, is poured from a beaker into a tea cup that bubbles smoke rings like a magic potion of gin, lime, basil and citrus-chamomile bitters.

Sam Houghton, Don't Tell Supper Club
Houghton’s Bumbledypeg, a twist on the classic Bee’s Knees designed for a friend who’s allergic to honey.

One standout is the Green Eggs and Ham (pictured above), a cool mix of tequila, egg white, jalapeno/cucumber puree, St. Germain and spicy Firewater tincture. With a slice of candied bacon crawling from the lime-green surf over the rim of the coupe, I would drink it on a boat, or with a goat. The name even references “Sam I am” Houghton herself.

My favorite may be the Bumbledypeg, whose name recalls mumbledypeg, the old-timey childhood game played with a pocketknife; Houghton says she wanted to make a Bee’s Knees (gin, lemon and honey syrup) for a friend who’s allergic to honey. Her version nicely substitutes almond-y orgeat for honey, but the coup de grace that graces the coupe (boom!) is a Bit-O-Honey speared with a tiny plastic sword.

Drink prices are expected to hover around $12, with many echoing the venue’s theatrical theme: “They’re things that alter and play with your senses,” Hamous says.

DON’T TELL SUPPER CLUB, 2026 Commerce Street, Dallas.

7th Annual margarita fest offered a sweet answer to sour weather

Mellow Mushroom
Pouring Mellow Mushroom’s honey-ginger habanero margarita at Margarita Meltdown 2017.

It’s been just over a week since the 7th annual Margarita Meltdown, a sold-out, five-hour party featuring more than two dozen Margarita variations from all around the Dallas-Fort Worth area – which could be why I’m barely getting around to recapping the whole thing.

A sample scorecard: Each sample-size margarita meant crossing another box off the chart.

Armed with score sheets like big coffee-club cards, we and our fellow festival goers sloshed through the West End grounds on the drizzly last Sunday of May and lined up for sample-size margaritas from places like The Theodore, Mellow Mushroom, Renfield’s Corner and Y.O. Steakhouse (which marked its territory with a longhorn skull and fake Saguaro cactus). There were mango-papaya margaritas, cucumber margaritas, pickled beet margaritas and honey-ginger habanero margaritas. Aside from Lekka’s snow-cone-style version, they came in little cups – the kind salad dressing comes in with a to-go salad – festooned with rose petals, rimmed with chili salt, or in The Standard Pour’s case, garnished with watermelon radish and vegetable ash.

Austin Millspaugh
The Standard Pour crew knocks out pickled beet margaritas.

Attendees had a sought-after tool at their disposal: one wooden coin, to deposit into the “tip jar” of their favorite overall margarita, with prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250 awarded to the first-, second- and third-place drink makers.

My favorite of the day was the blood-orange margarita from Cassidy’s, in Fort Worth, a Texas two-step primped with Solerno blood orange liqueur and a chewy piece of candied blood orange sunbathing in the cup. The drink, followed by the sugary punch of the candied fruit, was a winner – and not just with me: It turned out to be the people’s choice as top margarita, joining previous champs Pie 314 of Lewisville, Whiskey Cake of Plano, and Dallas’ Asador, Iron Cactus, Savor Gastropub and Soleo.

The Renfield’s Corner’s team handing out berry-powered “Purple Jesus” margaritas.

Coming in second was the pineapple-jalapeno margarita from Frankie’s Downtown, while third place went to Rj Mexican Cuisine’s blueberry-basil translation. The people had spoken. The people were feeling pretty good. So even though we may never know who created the original margarita, it’s safe to say its legacy is alive and well.

For one night, Dallas bartenders take over a San Francisco bar — for charity

Pacific Cocktail Haven
The Standard Pour bar crew, doing its thing at San Francisco’s PCH — for charity.

For any serious Dallas cocktail fan, the crew behind the bar Sunday would have looked familiar – Austin Millspaugh, Jorge Herrera and Christian Rodriguez, the popular Thursday night crew from The Standard Pour in Uptown – jostling shakers, swirling liquids, torching lemon peels and working the room in their dapper TSP uniforms. It was a practiced environment for the TSP crew, but a typical Uptown crowd this was not. A glimpse outside made it clear: They weren’t in Dallas anymore.

Chinatown was a half-mile away; the Transamerica Pyramid a few blocks beyond that. Five miles to the west, the Golden Gate Bridge. On Sunday, the Standard Pour team – which in recent months has made a habit of doing guest pop-ups at other bars – took things to a whole new level, bringing their traveling “TSP Takeover” to Pacific Cocktail Haven, or PCH, one of San Francisco’s newer cocktail joints.

Pacific Cocktail Haven
TSP’s Herrera talks cocktails with a thirsty patron who teaches at Stanford University.

“We’re going into a West Coast stronghold,” Millspaugh had said before the trip, aware that the city, along with New York, had forged the beginnings of today’s craft-cocktail revival. “We have to bring our A-game.”

And that they did, with a six-drink lineup sponsored by Pernod Ricard USA. As with their previous pop-ups at Dallas’ Industry Alley and High & Tight, it was all for charity – with Planned Parenthood the recipient of this night’s proceeds.

Though PCH has hosted guest bartenders before, “we’ve never had a team take over the bar,” said Kevin Diedrich, PCH’s operating partner. The bar, typically closed on Sundays, had opened for this special event. “It’s a cool way to share what we do, but also for them to share with they do. We went through the drink list this afternoon. There’s some cool flavors. They’re pushing the boundaries.”

Pacific Cocktail Haven
Millspaugh, garnishing his quirky Light Camera Action — reminiscent of caramel-truffle popcorn.

There was Rodriguez’ tropical Bad and Boujee, a mix of tequila, horchata, lime, cinnamon-vanilla syrup, Topo Chico and tiki bitters.

Herrera’s Tourist Trap was a crowd favorite featuring Irish whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, bittersweet liqueur, sweet vermouth and a tobacco tincture.

Millspaugh, meanwhile, in typical Millspaughian fashion, had concocted the cocktail equivalent of caramel-truffle popcorn with his disorientingly delicious Light, Camera, Action – an ensemble of Irish whiskey, nutty Oloroso sherry, popcorn liquid, dehyrdrated foie gras and black truffle salt.

“It’s weird,” said one woman, a Stanford University instructor. “I feel like I’m drinking a movie.”

Pacific Cocktail Haven
Rodriguez’ tiki-style Bad to Boujee.

The TSP team showcased Texas hospitality and flair, with Millspaugh at one point grating dehydrated foie gras directly into a woman’s mouth. He, Herrera and Rodriguez have drawn a loyal following on Thursdays at The Standard Pour, which has made a habit of trying not to be a standard bar.

Last year, the McKinney Avenue venue featured a weekly series of guest crews from other Dallas bars; a weekly event felt like too much, so as 2017 rolled around they brainstormed. What if the TSP team spent one night a month working at other bars, they thought? “We’re just trying to get our names out there,” Rodriguez says.

Pacific Cocktail Haven
Pacific Cocktail Haven is one of the San Francisco’s newer and most well-regarded cocktail spots.

Their first “takeover” took place at Knox-Henderson’s Atwater Alley, after which Herrera proposed the idea of doing it all for a good cause. April’s event at Industry Alley, sponsored by Remy Cointreau, benefited Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, while proceeds from their March pop-up at Deep Ellum’s High & Tight, sponsored by Avion tequila and St. Germain, went to the Dallas office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Each event raised $1,300 or more for charity.

They recently met Jessamine McClellan, the San Francisco-based national brand ambassador for Redbreast Irish whiskey, and told her about the project, pitching the idea of taking their show on the road. She suggested the idea to Diedrich, who agreed to host the TSP crew. The Standard Pour offered to partially subsidize their trip, and the deal was done.

“The idea is, one, to showcase the place we work at, and two, to give back,” Millspaugh said. “It’s, like, paying it forward.”

Pacific Cocktail Haven
The Standard Pour crew: Rodriguez, Herrera and Millspaugh.

Standard Pour’s cocktail “takeover” for charity lands at Industry Alley Sunday

Industry Alley
The poster for Sunday’s benefit event, the second of what the bartenders hope to make a monthly occurrence.

When it comes to benefit events involving cocktails, there’s always room for one more. This weekend, Dallas’ Industry Alley is pulling off what perhaps no other local cocktail bar has done by throwing two benefit events on consecutive nights.

On Sunday, a team of bartenders from Uptown’s Standard Pour will be slinging drinks at the Cedars District bar, all for a good cause: All of the night’s tips will benefit Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.

“The Standard Pour Takeover” runs from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday at Industry Alley, just one night after the bar hosts a pair of pop-up dinners from two teams of Dallas chefs, also to benefit Scottish Rite.

Standard Pour bartenders Austin Millspaugh, Christian Rodriguez and Jorge Herrera started the takeover events as a way of both promoting their bar and giving back, and they hope to make it a monthly thing. Last month’s inaugural benefit takeover, at Deep Ellum’s High and Tight and sponsored by Avion tequila and St. Germain elderflower liqueur, benefited the Dallas office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“It’s, like, paying it forward,” Millspaugh said. “And people get to experience different venues.”

Sunday’s event will be sponsored by Remy Cointreau, so look for cocktails featuring Mount Gay Rum, Botanist Gin and, of course, Cointreau.

The event is free to attend.

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.

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.

Bigger venue means higher hopes for annual charity cocktail bash

This year's benefit cocktail event aims to be the largest ever.
This year’s benefit cocktail event aims to be the largest ever.

It’s the fete that launched a thousand sips.

Now, it’s back for another run: The 5th annual Trigger’s Toys cocktail bash, billed as “The Ultimate Cocktail Experience,” is projected to be the biggest ever – with ailing kids as the beneficiary.

The yearly pop-up, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 5, has moved to Klyde Warren Park, showing how far the annual benefit event has come after stints at The Standard Pour in Uptown and Henry’s Majestic in Knox-Henderson.

Five teams of bartenders, distributors and brand ambassadors from around Texas will face off for charity, and under this year’s theme, “Cocktails Around The World,” each squad’s pop-up bar will represent a particular continent – North America, South America, Africa, Asia or Europe.

With this year’s larger venue, Trigger’s Toys founder Bryan Townsend hopes to raise as much as $300,000, more than three times the $130,000 raised at last year’s event. By 2020, he aims to offer a million Christmas-season care packages to needy area children.

“We’re offering a unique way for people to experience the talents of our service industry while giving back to their community,” said Townsend, who named the agency for his dog, Trigger, after seeing the animal’s positive effect on a child in need of therapy.

The annual event helps chronically sick kids and their families through financial assistance and supplemental programming.

This year’s event will run from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets, available here, are $65 or $125 for the VIP experience — including 6 p.m. entry.

Team captains and their logos (provided courtesy of Trigger’s Toys) are as follows:

africatrigger

AFRICA: Rafiki’s

Captain: Bryan Dalton, Mexican Sugar, Plano

asiatrigger

ASIA: Kamikaze

Captain: Kiyoko Kinoshita, Midnight Rambler, Dallas

europetrigger

EUROPE: Mad Hatter’s Cocktail Emporium

Captain: Jenny Park, Filament, Dallas

northamtrigger

NORTH AMERICA: New World Carnival

Captain: Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos, Dallas

southamtrigger

SOUTH AMERICA: Dr, Amazon’s Apothecary

Captain: Ravinder Singh, Rapscallion, Dallas

 

For more information, or to donate to Trigger’s Toys, go here.

Standard Pour bartender wins local cocktail battle, will represent DFW at national competition

Espolon Cocktail Fight 2016
Dallas’ Jorge Herrera takes on Fort Worth’s Amber Davidson in the final round of DFW’s Espolon competition.

For a lot of people, the idea of making a few drinks brings to mind mixing a little vodka with soda over ice, but for the craft bartenders who strutted their stuff before the judges earlier this week, it meant much, much more – firing up an original cocktail and then knocking out a dozen tequila classics, all within minutes. And with flair, to boot.

Espolon's annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District's DEC On Dragon.
Espolon’s annual contest for the DFW region was held at the Design District’s DEC On Dragon.

Jorge Herrera is on his way to New York City because he managed to make the whole thing look easy. A veteran of Plano’s Mexican Sugar who joined The Standard Pour in Uptown earlier this year, Herrera took top prize at Monday’s Espolón Cocktail Fight for the right to represent the DFW area at the tequila brand’s national finals in November.

Held at the DEC on Dragon, the event – part culinary competition, part WWF – was a raucous, “luchador-style” affair pitting Dallas drink slingers against their Fort Worth brethren.

Here, in photos, are some of the highlights.

In the first matchup, Devin “El Guapo” McCullough of The People’s Last Stand, at Mockingbird Station, took on Amber “Waves of Pain” Davidson of Fort Worth’s Bird Cafe. Contestants had two minutes to set up their stations and three minutes to prepare their original cocktails for the judges.

Espolon contest round 1
McCullough and Davidson, going mano a mano before the thunderous crowd. Both of their cocktails — McCullough’s coffee-inflected Milkman and Davidson’s black-salt-rimmed Pearls and Spice — earned them passage into the second round.

Next up was Jonathan “Manila Killa” Garcia, also of The People’s Last Stand, against Jermey “Big Jerm” Elliott of Citizen, in Uptown. Garcia appeared in a conical hat while Elliott fired up the crowd by stripping down to shorts and a tank top.

Espolon contest round 2
Elliott crafting his cocktail, A Mexican at Lumpinee, featuring curry powder and Thai basil/pineapple syrup, in the contest’s second matchup.

 

 

 

 

With competitors taking the stage with painted faces, or in skimpy or outlandish outfits, supporters embraced the costumed spirit of things and advantaged the nearby photo booth.

The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.
The crowds were pumped full of enthusiasm and tequila, especially the boisterous Fort Worth contingent.

The third matchup pitted Cody Barboza, of Deep Ellum’s Armoury D.E., against Jason Pollard of The Usual, in Fort Worth. Both Barboza’s mescal-fueled El Rico and Pollard’s One Hour Break — which leaned savory with Averna and molé bitters — earned second-round status.

Cody Barboza, Armoury D.E.
Barboza’s El Rico cocktail, which paired Espolon reposado with mezcal, fruit and jalapeño with a chocolate/salt rim.

In the fourth duel, Brittany “B-Day” Day of Thompson’s, in Fort Worth, faced off against Geovanni “Geo” Alafita of Knife, near Mockingbird Station. Day’s Smoke In The Morning went smoky-sweet with mezcal, maple syrup and Allspice Dram while Alafita’s preciously presented Rosario combined tequila with mildly bitter Aperol, cilantro and jalapeño.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise, from upper left: Day, of Thompson’s; Alafita’s Rosario; Alafita pouring his drink; Day’s Smoke In The Morning, after a drink or two.

In addition to taste, presentation and how well the tequila shone through, contestants were judged on showmanship. In addition to yours truly, the panel included chef Nick Walker of The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Bonnie Wilson Coetzee of FrontBurner Restaurants and Frederick Wildman brand ambassador Austin Millspaugh.

Walker, Wilson Coetzee, Millspaugh
Three of the night’s judges: Walker, of The Mansion, FrontBurner’s Coetzee and Millspaugh, of Frederick Wildman distributors.

The fifth and final first-round match was easily the most entertaining as the typically understated Jorge “Don Juan” Herrera of The Standard Pour took the platform with a lovely lady on each arm in his duel against Sean “McDoozy” McDowell of Thompson’s. But Herrera put some shine on his show by completing his deceptively simple drink with plenty of time to spare, then lighting up a cigar and preening before the crowd as McDowell continued to race against the clock.

Herrera’s Carolina cocktail was lush with cigar-infused Grand Marnier, while McDowell’s tart Trade With Mexico bundled both Espolón blanco and reposado with tea and homemade ginger beer. Both advanced to the second round.

Espolon contest 2016
Clockwise from upper left, McDowell’s Trade with Mexico; the two rivals take the stage; Herrera’s Big Daddy strut; Herrera’s Carolina cocktail; the competitors in action.

In the second round, the top six contestants each had to crank out 10 El Diablos — a lesser known tequila classic featuring reposado tequila, créme de cassis, lime and ginger beer — within a few minutes’ time.

Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas' Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.
Round Two: McDowell, Pollard and Davidson of Fort Worth double-down on El Diablos against Dallas’ Herrera, McCullough and Barboza as co-emcee Chase Streitz calls the action.

Herrera’s and Davidson’s were dubbed mas macho by the judges and both advanced to the final round, where each had to craft a Margarita using Espolón blanco, a Paloma with Espolón reposado and an Old Fashioned with Espolón añejo — again, within a few minutes.

A taste of each drink, then the judges conferred, taking into account the entire night. It was Herrera’s performance that was judged best overall, which means he’ll be competing at Espolón’s national finals in early November.

Espolon contest 2016
Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, embraces Herrera as the bartender is named winner of Espolon’s DFW contest.

 

Brian McCullough, co-founder of The Standard Pour, said he had no doubt that the Uptown bar’s attention to efficiency on busy weekend nights helped prepare Herrera for the competition’s fast-paced demands.

Between that and Herrera’s previous training at FrontBurner, which owns Mexican Sugar, “he’s been working toward winning this ever since he started working here,” McCullough said.

To watch a normally subdued guy transform into the very picture of confidence made him proud.

“Seeing him do that was like seeing him come out of his shell,” McCullough said.

 

Cocktail of the Week: The Whisperer shrouds its message in a sneaky puff of smoke

Armando Guillen, Standard Pour
The cocktail Whisperer: Guillen’s Trojan horse of mezcal

The all-around craft-cocktail chops at The Standard Pour can be lost in the timid tastes of the partying Uptown throngs that fill its McKinney Avenue environs every weekend. But delve deep into the drink menu and you’ll find a solid lineup of classics and bar originals both – including this one from Armando Guillen.

Guillen, who heads TSP”s bar program, has been a longtime stalwart of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene, a frequent competition winner and, most recently, is among CultureMap’s nominees for its bartender-of-the-year award. He designed this drink, he says, at the behest of San Diego’s renowned Polite Provisions for an event sponsored by El Silencio mezcal.

NAME: The Whisperer

KEY CHARACTERISTIC: Fiery citrus

WHAT’S IN IT: El Silencio mezcal, peach liqueur, honey, lime, salt, Scrappy’s “Firewater” bitters, spiced rim.

WHY IT WORKS: The Whisperer is a smoky play on the classic Margarita, capped with a spicy supernova kick. Bartender Armando Guillen, who manages The Standard Pour’s bar program, aimed to create a Trojan horse of mezcal, another agave-based spirit that, while on the rise, many have yet to embrace. He dipped into the bartender’s crowd-pleasing arsenal of friendly flavors – “peach, strawberry and pineapple; that’s the trifecta,” he says – and chose peach because it pairs well with mezcal’s earthy, smoky qualities.

To sweeten it up, he chose honey over simple syrup for its earthier flavor and added a pinch of salt to round it out. A dash of habanero-based Firewater bitters lends a not-so-subtle scorch of heat. “You’ve got smoke, earth, spice and fruit, everything mezcal needs to have,” Guillen says. And it’s true: In Mexico, mezcal is usually sipped straight, with accompaniments of orange slice and sal de gusano – a blend of chile powder, sea salt and the ground remains of roasted moth larvae that feed on agave plants – that offer a similar combination of flavor.

Guillen serves the Whisperer in a coupe, half-coating it with an appropriately smoky-spicy mix of cayenne powder, sea salt, chili powder and smoked paprika. With a final lime-wheel garnish, the result is a visually striking bouquet of lemon yellow, lime green and rusty red. On the tongue, its spicy edge suddenly slashes through its citrus-y sweetness, planting a lasting burn on the lips that leaves you wanting more.

The name? Yes, a nod to the El Silencio brand name – but really a reflection of Guillen’s sly intentions. “It’s like,” he says, a cupped hand covering his lips as he slips into a whisper, “ `Hey – you should drink mezcal.’ ”

“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.

***

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.

***

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.”

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.”