Thompson’s Bookstore. Proper. The Usual. Basement Lounge.
You may have noticed that Fort Worth has a cocktail scene. And while it’s not nearly on the scale of Dallas’ ever-expanding arena, DFW’s western half does have one thing the Big D does not: A cocktail week.
The second annual Fort Worth Cocktail Week kicks off Saturday, even bigger and tastier than its predecessor. Each of six nights’ worth of events will be complemented by chef-designed dishes, with a portion of each night’s proceeds going to charity.
While billed as “a celebration of our city’s booming craft-cocktail scene,” the week – which runs through next Friday, Oct. 20 – is also a tribute to the kinship between chefs and craft bartenders, both of whom prize fresh and local ingredients and attention to detail and history.
The week will feature a repeat of last year’s five signature ticketed events in addition to one newcomer: Saturday’s “Sips” event, which will highlight before- and after-dinner drinks and cocktails. That event will join a lineup that already spotlights tiki drinks, bourbon, gin, vodka, agave spirits and Texas-based spirits.
Organizers are partnering with local arts and nonprofit organizations like Fort Worth Opera, The Cliburn and Amphibian Stage Productions, each of which will receive part of the ticket proceeds from one of the week’s events. Tickets are available here.
Here’s a list of the week’s events:
Saturday, Oct. 14: “Sips,” 5-8 p.m. at Proper, 409 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $20
The evening will highlight aperitifs and digestifs, from cognacs to Italian bitter liqueurs, “in an indulgent celebration of exquisite before- and after-dinner libations.” Drinks will be complemented by dishes from Fixture owner and chef Ben Merritt, two-time winner of Fort Worth magazine’s Top Chef competition.
Monday, Oct. 16: Texas Spirits Tasting Party, 6-9 p.m. at Mopac Event Center, 1615 Rogers Road. Tickets: $15-20
This showcase of Lone Star State spirits will feature bites from chef Nico Sanchez (Meso Maya, Taqueria La Ventana), whose latest concept, TorTaco, recently opened in Fort Worth.
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Bourbon Bash, 6-9 p.m. at Thompson’s Bookstore, 900 Houston St. Tickets: $15-20
Bourbons will be the star of this Old World-themed evening at Thompson’s downtown, whether alone or in cocktails. Samples of harder-to-find whiskeys will also be available for an extra charge. The evening’s food will come from chef David Hollister (Yucatan Taco Stand, Gas Monkey Bar and Grill).
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Tiki Drink Rum Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Usual, 1408 W. Magnolia. Tickets: $15-20
A night focusing on the resurgent tropical cocktail trend will be paired with dishes from chef Juan Rodriguez of Magdalena’s Supper Club.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Bartenders Without Borders, 6-9 p.m. at Salsa Limon Distrito, 5012 White Settlement Road. Tickets: $15-20
Agave-based spirits like mezcal and tequila will anchor the evening, including small-batch selections. Chef Keith Grober, former head chef at Rodeo Goat, will provide Mexican street-style food.
Friday, Oct. 20: Gin vs. Vodka Party, 6-9 p.m. at The Foundry District, 2624 Weisenberger St. Tickets: $15-20
Advertised as “a bare-knuckle brawl for the soul of the martini,” this evening will showcase the history, flavors and versatility of the classic clear spirits. Chef Stefan Rishel, head chef at Texas Bleu in Keller, will provide the munchies.
Four years ago, the annual, bar-industry-driven fundraiser for Triggers’s Toys was a modest Christmas-season party at The Standard Pour, with 50 bartenders in Santa hats raining cocktails upon their mirthful elf minions. These days… well, look at it: Repositioned in the expansive savanna of Klyde Warren Park, this benefit behemoth, now dubbed the Ultimate Cocktail Experience, last year raised more than $200,000 and aims to exceed that this time around. Naturally.
The 2017 version of the Ultimate Cocktail Experience is set to go down on Saturday, Sept. 30, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. There will be food trucks and a charity casino area. Tickets, which range from $65 to $125 for VIP status, are available here. Or you can get your tickets for $80 at the door.
This big boy pop-up is the brainchild of Bryan Townsend, vice president and sales director for spirits producer The 86 Co., who a decade ago was a corporate wonk who didn’t like his job very much. In 2008, he left his job and began to focus on other things – including his dog, Trigger.
One day he was a Grapevine hospital with his newly trained dog when he met a nurse distressed about a young girl who’d been in therapy for a year, unable to socialize with others. Townsend suggested that maybe the girl would like to give Trigger a treat.
The girl did, and Townsend wondered if she might follow the dog through one of the hospital’s children’s ward play tunnels. Then that happened too. The nurse retrieved the girl’s mother. “It was the first time she’d ever crawled,” Townsend remembered.
Inspired by the experience, Townsend launched Trigger’s Toys, a nonprofit that provides toys, therapy aids and financial assistance to hospitalized kids and their families. That’s the organization at the heart of the revelry that now includes bartenders, brand reps and spirits distributors from Texas and beyond who come to lend their shaking, stirring hands.
Recast as a global throwdown, the Ultimate Cocktail Experience puts forward six unique bar “concepts,” each representing a different part of the world with drinks to match. This year’s showcased locales are Mexico City, London, New Orleans, Hong Kong, Havana and Casablanca, and each station’s drink lineup will include a classic drink and a non-alcoholic selection.
In the mix this year are bartenders Ash Hauserman of New York’s Havana-themed Blacktail, named Best New American Bar at this summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, and Iain Griffiths of London’s Dandelyan, which won the honor of the world’s best cocktail bar.
This year’s teams, classic drinks and team captains are as follows:
Casablanca (Mule): captain Andrew Stofko (Hot Joy, Uptown)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I see you, 2014. You didn’t have it easy. Not only did you have much to live up to after a year that saw DFW’s craft-cocktail scene garner national attention, but you had to do so on the heels of events that threatened to knock the wheels off the whole thing.
A year later, DFW’s mojo is back. Because beyond all the drama, a critical mass of cocktail ninjas just kept doing their thing, widespread seeds of creativity that found new places to grow and blossom, while others were enriched by the newfound talent beside them.
It was a banner year for veggies: At Victor Tango’s, former bar chief Alex Fletcher used pea-infused Old Tom gin prepared sous-vide-style for his refreshing Swee’Pea, while over at The Ranch at Las Colinas, Robin Milton’s Maverick combined roasted corn with tequila and spicy Ancho Reyes liqueur for a nice salsa-in-a-glass effect. At LARK on the Park, Matt Orth’s Hanging in the Garden served up a nom-nom liquid salad of mint, basil and cherry tomato, while Anthony Polo’s Scallywag was a scallion-laced standout at The People’s Last Stand.
Other highlights included Jason Long’s apricot-tamed Summer in Manhattan at Abacus, which appealed to both genders by giving the classic cocktail a luscious fruity smoothness. At Meddlesome Moth, bar manager Lauren Loiselle kicked another classic up a notch with her barrel-aged Negroni. And Charlie Papaceno, formerly of the Windmill Lounge, juiced up bourbon with coffee to make his energizing Kentucky Eye Opener.
I could go on. A few of these drinks are still available; some, being seasonal or dependent on a limited supply of house-made ingredients, are not; some were bartender’s creations built totally off-menu. And at least one place, regrettably, has closed (at least temporarily). But that’s the nature of the biz: Sands shift, talent moves on. As always, it’s the people who make the scene: Follow them and you won’t go wrong.
With that, here are my favorite 15 cocktails of 2014.
15. WHAT ABOUT BOB?, Michael Reith (Windmill Lounge, Oak Lawn)
Here’s a drink that’s easy to fall for, playing as it does on seasonal flavors. To be more exact, Reith’s radiant refresher at Oak Lawn’s Windmill Lounge pairs bourbon with the holiday’s New England influences: “I get a lot of people who come in here from Boston, or New Hampshire,” he says, “so I was thinking, what could I make them?” Maple and cranberry came to mind – “I was trying to evoke cranberry sauce, but in a good way,” he says – as did the spices of mulled cider. The result, named for the Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy set in New Hampshire, supplements Angel’s Envy bourbon with lemon, cranberry juice and maple syrup, plus nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, topped with a fragrant sprig of rosemary.
14. SMOKING GARDEN, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)
Matt Orth likes his herbs. This beauty appeared way back in January, when Orth had some house-made Thai-chili-infused St. Germain (an elderflower liqueur) on his hands. He shook that with basil, lime, slightly aged tequila, ginger liqueur and herbaceous Green Chartreuse, capping it with a smoked sprig of rosemary to wow the nose. The spicy bouquet offered pleasant heat and a sweet, sweeping floral finish, a garden-fresh treat for the senses.
13. COMMON ELDER, Lauren Festa (FT33, Design District)
Yes, I typically avoid vodka, but such is the legerdemain of Lauren Festa, who before she moved on to helm the bar program at The Mansion at Turtle Creek was making magic at FT33 in the Design District. Festa grew up watching the Food Network instead of cartoons, so maybe that explains this deceptively tame mix of Hophead vodka, elderflower syrup, ginger liqueur, ginger and lemon – a drink that started out delicately tart and sweet and then, just as it seemed about to fade, unveiled a hoppy ending all dolled up in elderflower. And with a gorgeous elderflower garnish, it was a treat to look at, too.
12. SEVENTH SAMURAI, Armando Guillen (The Standard Pour, Uptown)
Last summer, Bombay Sapphire hosted a DFW regional competition at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye, part of its annual nationwide hunt for “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender.” After the contest, won by FrontBurner’s Bonnie Wilson, the festivities moved on to The Standard Pour down the street, where Guillen whipped up this little number that could have easily held its own at the event. Featuring his house-made hibiscus-lemongrass cordial – which he’s just replenished, so you can still enjoy this one – it’s a play on the classic Last Word’s mix of gin, sweet, citrus and Chartreuse. Its floral and citrus medley of Bombay Sapphire, Yellow Chartreuse and Asian yuzu juice, along with the cranberry-sauce-scented cordial and a shake of lavender bitters made a tantalizing statement that gave Guillen the last word after all.
11. BLUE MOON, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
The bar at Spoon – which closed this week, at least temporarily – was not as well stocked as its other craft-cocktail siblings, but luckily James Slater, who took over the program around mid-year, had license to play. One day, exploring a Korean grocery store, he found a jar of pulpy blueberry preserves. “You could see the blueberry skins inside,” he says. He bought a jar and experimented; lighter spirits failed aesthetically, creating a dirty water effect. This is where it gets Reese’s-Peanut-Butter-Cup-good: Right around the time that Slater was noodling something dark to cloak the pulp, I walked into Spoon seeking something dark and bitter. Slater mixed the blueberries with lemon and the only two bitter amari he had on hand, Averna and Fernet, to amazing effect; the end result, garnished with aromatic mint, tamed Fernet’s aggressive bitterness with velvety sweetness and just the right hint of tart.
10. HOUSE OF FRIENDS, Matt Orth (LARK on the Park, downtown)
You get the sense that if Matt Orth weren’t busy making your bar experience all better at LARK that he’d be perfectly at home on the farm, tending to his herbs and vegetables and berries, pruning and snipping and tilling and picking and all that. From his Hanging In The Garden (noted above) to the blackberry-infused whiskey masterpiece he conceived for a Jameson competition a few months ago, he’s handy with the fruits of the earth. No wonder, then, that this delicately complex mix of tequila blanco, cilantro-infused dry vermouth, pear liqueur and sweetly herbaceous Yellow Chartreuse unfolds across the palate like a breeze on Sunnybrook Farm. Garnished with a bit of grapefruit zest, its initial agave flavor melds into cilantro, then embraces the sweet pear before waltzing away into the flowers.
9. NOGAHOLIC, Juli Naida (Barter, Uptown)
With barman extraordinaire Rocco Milano as her sensei, Juli Naida – on her way to join Mate Hartai at Remedy, officially opening today on Lower Greenville – has come a long way since her drink-slinging days at the Mason Bar. Responsible for a good portion of Barter’s current cocktail menu, she embraced Milano’s offhand suggestion of a seasonal eggnog-themed “flight” and created a series of killer cocktails to roll out in mini form. Her Nogaholic was the least dessert-y of the bunch, and to me the most delicious, evoking the flavors of eggnog sans dairy, eggs or cream: Naida dialed down Cruzan’s potent Black Strap rum with simple syrup and a tincture made with vanilla, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The result is wintry and belly-warming, nog without the density — or the animal products. As my friend Rachel described it: “It’s a vegan’s Christmas wish come true.”
8. SMOKY DAIQUIRI, Alex Fletcher (Victor Tango’s, Knox-Henderson)
Smoked beer. It’s a thing. A pretty funky thing, if you ask me, at least judging by the whiff I got of the German-made Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a neutral grain spirit that wormed its way into the primo lineup of beers that Victor Tango’s piled up in 2014. On its own, the malty rauchbier was earthy and harsh, almost nasty like a bad vegetable; the smell called to mind a college laundry room. So of course cocktail master Alex Fletcher – who has since taken over the bar at Henry’s Majestic – had to make a cocktail with it. “That’s what you’d want in that, though,” he said of his clever Smoky Daiquiri, which incorporated the beer into a simply presented daiquiri mix of Blackwell rum, sugar, lime and a pinch of salt. “That salty, spicy funk.” In the drink, the beer’s more off-putting traits vanished; what hit the palate instead was full-bodied lime and tamarind with a sweet tang that got even better as it warmed.
7. BENGAL LILY, Kevin Trevino (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
It was the marvelous Madras curry syrup that really shone in this Indian-influenced creation from Kevin Trevino, Spoon’s former bar manager. One day Trevino – now a wine sales rep – saw the curry powder on Spoon’s kitchen shelf and decided to see what he could pull off. He combined his curry syrup with Tru Organic gin, some Fruitlab ginger liqueur and lemon; the gorgeously blonde cocktail welcomed with a zesty garam masala aroma, then smooth, lemony flavor with hints of ginger and an upper-lip-tingling curry heat. The Bengal refers to its Indian notes; Lily refers to a friend. “It’s got that beautiful Indian curry smell and a little bit of spiciness that burns on the back,” Trevino says. “Especially that ginger.” Tru dat.
6. TOP DOWN, Jordan Gantenbein (Abacus, Knox-Henderson)
Driving around with the top down – that’s what I thought summer was all about until I discovered Gantenbein’s wonderful play on the classic Sidecar. He tricked out cherry-wood-infused Cognac with seasonal Meyer lemon syrup, plus a bit of candied Meyer lemon and a Luxardo cherry garnish in a sugarcoated glass. The drink’s luscious lemon/cherry mouthfeel batted the two flavors around the tongue like a game of air hockey, with cherry emerging victorious. The result was a libation that singlehandedly redefined summer.
5. ONE MILLION IN UNMARKED BILLS, Pam Moncrief (The Usual, Fort Worth)
One evening at The Usual, I asked for my usual. Which was basically anything using a bitter liqueur. Moncrief – now at Fort Worth’s American F&B, had been working on a little something of her own off-menu, something motivated by a desire to appeal to cocktail newbies and broaden their tastes. But her blend of Ransom Old Tom gin, bitter-smooth Hungarian Zwack liqueur, Dolin Blanc vermouth and Benedictine honey liqueur can please even the heartiest cocktail fan with its well-rounded spicy depths – floral and grape giving way to a honey-bitter finish and a tang that lingers like nightclub ear. A dose of lemon oils atop gives it a nice citrus nose. “I just really enjoy herbaceousness,” Moncrief says. “Zwack and all those amaros are so herbaceous, and I feel like they don’t show up in cocktails enough.” And on that we would agree.
4. CAMARA LENTE, Damon Bird (LARK on the Park, downtown)
Take a sip of bartender Damon Bird’s barrel-aged concoction and you may find that your world has slowed to a Matrix-like sensory crawl. Maybe that’s because camara lente is sometimes interpreted as “slow motion,” or maybe it’s because this beautiful blend of mezcal, orange-y curacao, orange bitters and the bitter liqueurs Aperol and Fernet is just that good. Its mix of mellowed smoke and floral hints finish usher in a second wave of smoke and bittersweet, doused in a tobacco-leaf farewell. Bird first made it one night when he was slammed and somebody asked for “something with mezcal.” “The original version included simple syrup,” he says,” but with the barrel-aging, you don’t need it. It’s one of my few babies.”
3. ENIGMA, James Slater (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, North Dallas)
Oh Spoon, we hardly knew ye. While chef John Tesar hopes to reopen the recently shuttered place in another location soon, Dallas’ fickle relationship with seafood casts more doubts than fishing lines. Its demise would be a shame, because under the guidance of Slater and former bar manager Trevino (see Nos. 7 and 11 above), the restaurant’s bar program quietly cranked out some of the area’s more creative and well-balanced drinks in 2014. Slater’s Enigma emerged as my favorite. Noticing that a pair of Angel’s Envy bourbons were finished in port barrels, Slater was intrigued by the combo: He mixed Rittenhouse rye and port with bittersweet Aperol; the result charts a path between two classics, the Manhattan and the Boulevardier, with hints of raisin and honey. A float of orange blossom adds both a perfume-y aroma and a softly sweet, linen finish. There’s no riddle or mystery here: It’s simply delicious.
2. BLACK MONK, Creighten Brown (Barter, Uptown)
Speaking of mysteries, I pretty much went bonkers trying to figure out the enigmatic flavor in this fine cocktail. Many a sip later, I still don’t know the answer: It’s a smoky-flavored drink that’s tricky to pin down, greater than the sum of its parts: Brown took a tincture that bar manager Rocco Milano made with tonka bean, vanilla bean and lemongrass and added it to Jameson Black Barrel Reserve Irish Whiskey, bittersweet Averna, the honey-ish Benedictine and a bit of rye-and-sarsaparilla-flavored basement bitters. Every time I tried it, the image of shoe leather popped into my head, but in a most comforting way: The flavors dancing across my tongue included molasses, root beer, pecan pie, cooked honey, even smoky flan. It’s not for everyone – one taster described it as Chloraseptic – but if you enjoy a good cigar, this one is a winner.
1. DAMNED AND DETERMINED, Brad Bowden (Parliament, Uptown)
Bowden, formerly of Barter and The People’s Last Stand, was never much for Ancho Reyes, the ancho-chile-flavored liqueur that became my crush of 2014, following in the footsteps of botanical Hum and bitter Suze. But when the slightly spicy, vanilla-tinged blend became a Best New Product finalist at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, Bowden knew he had to do something. Damned and determined was he: Ancho’s bite made it a natural fit for tequila or mezcal, “but that’s what everyone else was doing,” he says (accurately). Instead, Bowden looked to his preferred spirit, rum, and what he devised is essentially a tiki drink, adding sweetly vegetal Green Chartreuse to Papa’s Pilar blonde – “Rum and Green Chartreuse go together like nobody’s business,” he says – along with egg white and a tropical pineapple-vanilla syrup. The egg white gives the ancho a soft bed to lie on; the syrup binds it all together. A last flourish of Angostura bitters atop and you’ve got yourself a magic carpet ride, frothy and floral with a sweet and spicy descent. While he also does a mezcal variation that he calls Aztec Brutality, the original rum version, held aloft on Pilar blonde’s creamy-smooth texture, is a year-topping keeper.
HONORABLE MENTIONS NOT NOTED ABOVE: 1874 (Erikah Lushaj, Bowen House); 1919 (Josh Uecker, Blind Butcher); Apples and Oranges (Eddie Eakin, Boulevardier); Ascension Hook (Matt Orth, LARK); El Guapo (Brian Williams, The Establishment); High Ryse (John Campbell, Abacus); Imenta (Marcos Hernandez, Bolsa); Nicaraguan Breakfast (Carlo Duncan, Parliament); Peach Pisco Sour (Creighten Brown, Barter); Soul Clap (Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, Midnight Rambler); Velvet Smoke (Juli Naida, Barter); .
And of course, a hearty thank you to those who accompanied me on my outings, without whom I could never have sampled this many cocktails.
Oh, 2013. You hater. You tried so hard to suck. In the summer, just days after influential bar man Jason Kosmas announced he was taking his talents to Austin, you pulled the plug on my beloved Private/Social, where bar manager Rocco Milano had overseen one of the best cocktail programs in town. Then, last month, you shocked us with the sudden exit of Michael Martensen and his crew of highly talented bartenders from Bar Smyth and The Cedars Social, the two brightest stars in DFW’s craft-cocktail culture. With the unfolding of The Great Unpleasantness, a scene that had solidly come of age at last lost its innocence.
But hey, that’s part of growing up. And despite assertions to the contrary, craft cocktails as we head toward 2014 are alive and swell, showing no signs of peaking: Milano has resurfaced in a major way; Eddie “Lucky” Campbell is preparing to launch Parliament; Asian-Latin fusion restaurant Chino Chinatown has opened in Trinity Groves with Ian Reilly at the bar-program helm; Origin has restyled itself in Knox-Henderson with a promising drink lineup; and the Smyth/Cedars Social diaspora is sprinkling its goodies all over town.
Are you not entertained? To what do we owe this good fortune? It’s because we, my thirsty friends, have proven ourselves worthy. We’re a smarter bunch now when it comes to craft cocktails; our palates now welcome more flavor, complexity and originality. We like menus that mirror the season, varied but not overwhelming, with options both accessible and challenging. We want bartenders steeped in history and craft and eager to command the palettes of flavor at their disposal, ready to improvise when able. Is that asking too much?
No. And DFW has answered the call. Here are my top 10 spots as we head into 2014, in alphabetical order, BECAUSE.
OK, I’ll admit: I hadn’t set foot into Abacus since I first moved to Dallas three years ago – at least not until chef Ken Rathbun lured Lucky Campbell away from The Standard Pour in Uptown. Campbell, whose bumpy road has taken him from The Mansion at Turtle Creek to renown at Bolsa to the short, chaotic life of The Chesterfield and then to TSP, set about infusing Abacus’ solid martini-and-bubbly-focused menu with the Pacific Rim sensibilities that inform the five-star restaurant’s kitchen. The result: a boost of energy and derring-do behind the bar that have given Abacus’ Men in Black new street cred.
Where Rocco Milano goes, magic follows. The execution of Private/Social paved the way for a makeover of the Uptown space, and the results are terrific: The vibe is warm and woodsy, and the bar has been opened up to give Milano and his top-notch staff room to move more freely. The house cocktails are unsurprisingly great, but it’s the added features that really set Barter apart: Milano’s “book-of-the-month” set will feature selected drinks from different classic cocktail tomes every month; first up is David Embury’s 1948 classic, “The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks.” Add to that a mix of high-end choose-your-poison flights and an innovative series of pours that illustrate liqueurs in various stages, and you’ll see why Milano is the cocktail geek’s cocktail geek.
BLACK SWAN SALOON
Gabe Sanchez’ one-ring circus in Deep Ellum has a cult following, and with good reason: He’s been quietly cranking out some of Dallas’ more original concoctions at this dimly lighted, low-key speakeasy with the badass vibe you’d expect from a bar in the city’s tattoo epicenter. The Swan’s staff now walk the tightrope without the net of a cocktail menu, playing to tastes and whatever Sanchez has cooked up that day. Smoked fig jam with rye? You’ll find that here.
Bar manager Amber West has been among the city’s under-sung cocktail heroes, avidly and expertly using seasonal ingredients in her creations. Example: The gin-based, garden-in-a-glass First Course, like so many of her cocktails, is as beautiful to behold as it is to imbibe, with flecks of Tom Spicer’s arugula dotting its translucent surface; her Honeysuckle Gimlet is another standout. Though she’s moving into more of a consulting role to focus on gardening, the cocktails at Central 214 — located inside Hotel Palomar off the Central Expressway — will continue to carry her imprint.
The spinning modern-Asian-themed Wolfgang Puck restaurant at the top of Reunion Tower has more to offer than a fantastic view. Yes, you’ll have to endure a 45-second elevator ride and the beastly $16 price tag per cocktail, but the drinks are a journey in themselves. They’re part of a rotating series of libations designed by the chain’s Lee Hefter — bold, original and artfully presented, mirroring the restaurant’s sophisticated vibe. Try the gorgeous Fog Rolling Over Mount Fuji or the Locked and Loaded, both among my top cocktails of 2012.
Seats at the bar are few at this Henderson Avenue mainstay, but they’re worth the wait to gain an audience with bar manager Grant Parker, whose behind-the-bar expertise continues to steadily lift Hibiscus to new mixology heights. Parker hopes to gradually expand the drink menu with more adventurous offerings, but for now try his play on the lesser-known classic Emerson (also among my top-rated drinks of 2012) or the luscious, rye-based Brown and Stirred.
LARK ON THE PARK
This Klyde Warren Park newcomer is a solid playa in the craft-cocktail game, excelling at wintery drinks in particular, so now’s the time to go and warm up your belly. Bar manager Matt Orth and his crew respect seasonality and do nice spins on the classics, too; if you’re into Sazeracs or Negronis, ask for one of their variations and you won’t be disappointed.
THE STANDARD POUR
Stacked at Ground Zero of the madhouse Uptown scene, barman Brian McCullough’s strong crew is primed to feed the weekend’s party-minded mainstream tastes, armed with what must be the largest arsenal of Moscow Mule mugs outside of wherever it is Moscow Mule mugs come from. But take a closer look at the bar’s wide-ranging, Prohibition-Era-themed menu and you’ll find lots more than vodka. It also doesn’t hurt that the dark, vintage-lounge-style space exudes fun, or that its chalk-mural-adorned bar is often a refuge for displaced craft bartenders (see Abacus, Bar Smyth, The Cedars Social above).
I love this place, from its wry, respectable menu on up to its sleek, chill vibe and a team of able bartenders who never seem to be in short supply. The modest house drink list is nice – try the gin and apricot liqueur-fueled Parlor – but it’s the off-road adventures that are really fun; a spin on the classic Hanky Panky, for instance, or something using the most recent bottle on the shelf.
The godfather of them all. Charlie Papaceno and Louise Owens have been crafting cocktails since 2008 in this dive-y spot off a remote stretch of Maple Avenue. Jason Kosmas – the co-owner of New York City’s Employees Only and spirit line The 86 Co. – did time here after moving to Texas, and early adopters Campbell and Martensen threw down in friendly competition back when as well. It’s still a bartender’s bar; you’ll find a number of mixers bellied up here, drawn by the Windmill’s unpretentious atmosphere and the staff’s easygoing approach. But there’s skill here, too, and innovation; it was Charlie who introduced me recently to Ancho Reyes, a recently released ancho-chile liqueur, and the bar was listed among Esquire Magazine’s top bars of America earlier this year.
Looking forward to what 2014 may bring!
Honorable mentions: Bolsa, Victor Tango’s, Boulevardier
Ones to watch: Chino, Parliament, The Cedars Social
It’s holiday season, and that means you’ve added a few more things on your to-do list.
Give to charity
Have a holiday cocktail or two
Well, joy to your world: Now’s your chance to do both at once at the second annual Cocktails For A Cause, happening this Sunday at The Standard Pour in Uptown from 6 p.m. until close. The evening’s “ultimate pop-up bar” will feature $10 cocktails made by a rotating, ridiculously rife assortment of local bartenders, with all proceeds going toward Trigger’s Toys, a charity benefiting hospitalized children.
The cool thing, says charity founder Bryan Townsend – who named the organization after his golden Lab – is that bartenders have been clamoring to join in on the reindeer games. “It’s been overwhelming, the response,” he says. “People were actually really upset that they missed out last year.”
And not just because they might have missed the inaugural event’s spectacle of bar man extraordinaire Michael Martensen in a Santa suit: No, this is a chance to help make children’s wishes come true, to help create awwwww moments like the night when Townsend and his pals get to deliver a truckload of toys to kids Baylor Medical Center. “My favorite night of the year,” Townsend says.
Last year’s event, which Townsend coordinated along with Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough and Sean Conner of Whiskey Cake in Plano, raised $17,000. He’s hoping that Sunday’s event, combined with what sponsors have already donated, will raise as much as $50,000 to help fund the charity’s efforts in the coming year.
And so, 45 of your favorite drink crafters will be taking turns behind the bar, which as you might guess is just about every bartender in Whoville. In addition to Conner, McCullough and Martensen, the lineup includes Abacus’ Lucky Campbell, Alex Fletcher and Chris Dempsey of Victor Tango’s, Central 214’s Amber West, Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla, Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas, Windmill’s Charlie Papaceno, a smattering of bar peeps from Fort Worth’s The Usual – the list goes on and you’ll be checking it twice to make sure you’re not just seeing things.
“It gives us a chance to get together and have some fun and not compete,” Conner says. “To just throw out some really good drinks and raise money for the less fortunate around holiday time.”
They have fun. You drink craft cocktails from an all-star lineup of bartenders. Children’s wishes come true. Everybody wins.
THE STANDARD POUR, 2900 McKinney Avenue, Dallas. 214-935-1370.
Booze news and adventures in cocktailing, based In Dallas, Texas, USA. By Marc Ramirez, your humble scribe and boulevardier. All content and photos mine unless otherwise indicated. http://typewriterninja.com