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Sugar and spice and everything nice: 2018’s best in DFW cocktails

Some of the year’s best, clockwise from upper left: Cody Riggs’ Bitter Marriage at The Mitchell; Griffin Keys’ Let Me Clarify at Boulevardier; Matt Konrad’s Witch Hunter at Thompson’s Bookstore; and Ryan Payne’s Blu-Tang Clan at Tiny Victories.

Housing prices are falling, the stock market is flailing, but if there’s anything we can count on, it’s craft cocktails: From Dallas to Lewisville to Frisco, from Fort Worth to Trophy Club to McKinney, imbibers in 2018 had an ever-growing bounty of riches from which to choose.

The scene welcomed new destinations like Ruins, 4 Kahunas, 3Eleven and Tiny Victories into the fold, along with solid cocktail programs at new restaurants like Macellaio, Sachet and Bullion in Dallas, and Local Yocal in McKinney. While trying to keep up with it all is a Sisyphean effort, some trends did emerge from within the fray.

This was the year of designer dessert drinks and aguardientes, or sugarcane-based spirits: Rum, the most common, was more widely implemented, and not just at 4 Kahunas, Arlington’s legit new tiki outpost. With the thirst for new and unique liquors reaching ever farther into untapped regions, a pair of lesser-known aguardientes found footing in local cocktails – Oaxaca’s fabulous Paranubes and Michoacan-based charanda.

It wasn’t all sugarland, though: Singani 63, a gorgeous Bolivian brandy similar to pisco, and Italicus, the beautiful bergamot-flavored Italian aperitif, also made welcome inroads, while Spanish sherries flourished and Japanese shochu tiptoed on the fringes, most notably in George Kaiho’s ingenious Earth Wind and Fire at Jettison, which teamed it with mezcal and Green Chartreuse.

Visually, bartenders went the extra mile to create drinks as photogenic as they were tasty, such as Griffin Keys’ Let Me Clarify, a stunning Queen’s Swizzle variation at Bishop Arts’ Boulevardier; Matt Konrad’s fernet-topped Witch Hunter at Thompson’s Bookstore in Fort Worth; Ryan Payne’s captivating Blu-Tang Clan at Tiny Victories; and at the Mitchell, Cody Riggs’ tongue-in-cheek Bitter Marriage, garnished with a faux business card hawking the divorce firm of Ditcher, Quick and Hyde.

Cocktails were also a natural landing zone for turmeric, the “it” health ingredient of the year — for example, Wes Enid’s Turmeric Daiquiri at Atwater Alley in Knox-Henderson. Meanwhile, bartenders more boldly employed nuttiness as a flavor – as in Jones Long’s pecan-infused A Drink With No Name at Bolsa, or Kaiho’s sesame-paste-enhanced Concrete Jungle at Jettison – and increasingly looked to tropical fruits like banana, mango, passion fruit and guava.

As always, the cocktail cornucopia was hard to narrow down, but these were my 15 favorite drinks of 2018.

Guillen’s Gaucho Highball: Don’t cry for me, Argentina.

15. GAUCHO HIGHBALL (Daniel Guillen, La Duni, NorthPark Center)

Glenfiddich 12 Single Malt, Fernet, grapefruit soda

In the summer, the Speyside single malt Glenfiddich launched a campaign pushing its 12-year-old Scotch as the perfect vehicle for a whisky highball, a drink typically supplemented simply with club soda. But Guillen, beverage manager at La Duni, gave the drink Argentinian flair with a splash of Fernet – a darkly bitter Italian liqueur beloved in the South American nation – and a housemade grapefruit soda. “It’s so simple, and yet so good,” Guillen said. “You could drink a few of these, just like that.” With Glenfiddich’s rich pear-apple depths rolling over your palate, held in check by a pull of Fernet’s bitter reins, you might tend to agree – especially at the ridiculous happy hour price of just $6 a pop.

If a light touch you seek, this Brick and Bones invention will ride to your rescue.

14. DUDLEY DO-RIGHT (Bar team, Brick and Bones, Deep Ellum)

Tomato-infused vodka, basil syrup, lemongrass water

It may be the hardest sell on the menu, but Dudley Do-Right is the low-key star of the Brick and Bones show, where every drink is named for a cartoon character. A delicately flavored triumvirate of tomato-infused vodka, basil syrup and lemongrass water, “it’s like a Caprese salad” in liquid form, said bar co-owner Cliff Edgar. Simple, bright and refreshing, so nuanced is its touch that the vodka, typically content to be the vehicle for other flavors, actually shines in this one – completing a righteous drink worthy of its name.

Tiki met salted caramel in this one-night-only gem from Uptown’s Parliament at a pop-up event in Oklahoma City.

13. TAI OF SUM YUNG GAI (Eddie Campbell, Parliament, Uptown)

Pyrat XO Rum, lime, pineapple, ginger orgeat, soy sauce reduction

This one’s a bit of a cheat as it was rolled out at Parliament’s one-night pop-up fundraiser at Oklahoma City’s Jones Assembly in July. The event was pure Parliament, with a half-dozen bartenders making the trip along with a dazzling 21-drink menu. (Pop-ups typically sport no more than half a dozen.) “We wanted to keep it low-maintenance,” quipped bar owner Eddie Campbell. The lineup included this deliciously innovative tiki blend of rum and citrus tanged up with a ginger orgeat, then rimmed with a soy sauce reduction. Think sweet tropical meets salted caramel and you get the idea.

The Queen is Dead was among several Industry Alley cocktails bartender Tommy Fogle named after songs by The Smiths.

12. THE QUEEN IS DEAD (Tommy Fogle, Industry Alley, The Cedars)

Sherry, orange curacao, Licor 43, lemon

At Industry Alley, the low-key cocktail haven in Dallas’ Cedars neighborhood, bartender Tommy Fogle found his groove with liquorous treats like the Golden Mylk Fizz, a creamy riot of honey, coconut and turmeric, and the Boys Don’t Cry, a bitter spin on a cocktail from New Orleans’ Cure (hence the name). But my favorite of all was The Queen is Dead, a sherry-forward jewel that adorned the fortified wine with a wreath of lemon, orange curacao and Spanish vanilla liqueur, unleashing a citrus-grape tang that zipped across your palate like Zeke Elliott headed for the goal line.

When it came to Pisco Sour variations, I found myself constantly seeking Greener Pastures.

11. GREENER PASTURES (Cody Barboza, Armoury D.E., Deep Ellum)

Pisco Porton, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo maraschino, rosemary, lime, egg white

Armoury’s got a thing for Pisco Sour variations, which is fine with me, because so do I. Having already produced the Hungarian-influenced Speak of the Devil, which showed up on this list two years ago, the Deep Ellum bar this year introduced Barboza’s Greener Pastures, more fragrant and floral with a sprig of smoked rosemary. The herb’s aromas were just muscular enough to cap the cocktail’s botanical brawn.

The Old Spiced: Here to fulfill your dark chocolate cravings.

10. OLD SPICED (Jones Long, Lounge Here, East Dallas)

Coffee-infused bourbon, crème de cacao, Fernet Branca, mole bitters

Jones Long, formerly of Oak Cliff’s Bolsa and Ruins in Deep Ellum, took over the bar program at East Dallas’ Lounge Here earlier this year. She took to her new role with aplomb and creativity, even fashioning faux olives from pickled grapes in her Don Vito, a riff on the classic Godfather. But my favorite was the Old Spiced, a hearty handshake of a drink that was not unlike biting into a bar of spicy dark chocolate, only more refreshing. It’s so satisfying that I can’t even be annoyed that every time I order it, I’m reminded of the Old Spice commercial jingle.

Libertine, you nut, you. Lower Greenville’s longtime cocktail landmark still got it goin’ on.

9. FIDELIO (Daniel Zoch, Libertine Bar, Lower Greenville)

El Dorado 12 Rum, Amaro Montenegro, pistachio paste, orange juice, egg white, salt, pistachio dust

The Libertine, on Lower Greenville, was one of Dallas’ early craft mainstays thanks to former bar manager Mate Hartai (now with spirits producer The 86 Co.), and while its cocktail program might not get much attention anymore, it’s still going strong with seasonal drinks like Daniel Zoch’s Fidelio. A dessert-like dance of sweet rum, delicately bittersweet Amaro Montenegro and pistachio, rimmed with ground pistachio dust, the Fidelio is creamy, nutty and lush, with just enough bitter to give it a lovely, nuanced finish.

Bowen House brought the heat with the peppery Puesto Del Sol.

8. PUESTO DEL SOL (Kayla McDowell/Greg Huston, Bowen House, Uptown)

Espolon blanco, muddled roasted red pepper, rosemary syrup, lemon, black pepper

It’s a joy to listen to McDowell and Huston brainstorm behind the bar, and this savory concoction was one of their many menu collaborations, pairing slightly fruity tequila with roasted pepper for a gently spicy sipper of a cocktail. Peppery citrus on the nose paved the way for a rosemary-forward body and a finish that complemented the drink’s aromas. Looking forward to seeing what this team comes up with in 2019.

A tribute to Pixar’s Coco, Mendoza’s Grito had me salivating for a sequel.

7. GRITO! (Henry Mendoza, The People’s Last Stand, Mockingbird Station)

Mezcal, lime, pink/black peppercorn syrup, agave, sage, Boston Bittahs

Mendoza’s Grito had me aay-yai-yai-ing like a joyful mariachi – the sound of which the drink’s name recalls. The first of several libations Mendoza devised in tribute to Pixar’s Day-of-the-Dead-themed Coco, its cool but fiery mix of smoky mezcal and sage, peppercorn syrup, agave and bitters was an otherworldly journey through smoke and citrus spice. Topped with a sprinkling of red peppercorn and cigarillos of dried sage, its pachanga-in-your-mouth mix of pepper and chamomile/citrus bitters was what made this spicy number shine.

The Nut House: Banana-nut bread in a glass.

6. NUT HOUSE (Josh Brawner, LARK on the Park, Downtown Dallas)

Flor de Cana 7-year rum, Don Ciccio & Figli nocino, Tempus Fugit Crème de Banane, walnut bitters, nutmeg

Hey LARK, it was real: Shannon Wynne’s airy, chalk-art-bathed restaurant shuttered before year’s end, but not before its bar program had returned to the glory of its opening days. Bar manager Josh Brawner’s Nut House was a standout, inspired by his love of banana nut bread. “I’m a foodie, so I always try to replicate things in my drinks,” says Brawner, now at Wynne’s Meddlesome Moth. Built on aged rum, the Nut House was a liquid treat, festive and nutty, awash in walnut and banana liqueurs with a dash of walnut bitters to boot; a shaving of nutmeg added flattering aromatics.

I could wax Brazilian all day about Pollard’s luscious Autumn in Brazil.

5. AUTUMN IN BRAZIL (Jason Pollard, The Usual, Fort Worth)

Avua Amburana, sherry, Cocchi di Torino, demerara syrup, saffron bitters

A couple of years have passed since cachaca, Brazil’s national spirit, enjoyed a brief moment in the DFW sun, but thankfully The Usual’s Jason Pollard hasn’t let the spirit’s grassy, banana-fruit magic slip into obscurity. His Autumn in Brazil takes Avua’s aged Amburana cachaca and balances its notes of caramel, vanilla and spiced bread with the rich nuttiness of sherry, rounding it out with sweet vermouth and caramel-esque demerara syrup. With hints of raisin, chocolate and cinnamon and the aroma of musky grapes, it’s a sensational seasonal sipper.

Powell’s Mango Lassie, a fabulous reinterpretation of India’s summer refresher.

4. MANGO LASSIE (Jesse Powell, Parliament, Uptown)

El Dorado 5, citrus, mango, yogurt, honey, tajin

On a trip to Chicago’s Pub Royale – an Anglo-Indian-style tavern – earlier this year, Powell discovered the wonder of the mango lassi, India’s traditional mango milkshake. Naturally, as he savored its mix of yogurt, mango, milk and sugar, he thought to himself: How can I make this into a cocktail? Luckily for Dallas, he came through like a champ, structuring its viscous, sour-sweet depths atop a foundation of rum and garnishing the Creamsicle-orange drink with cool mint and a clever rim of Mexican tajin, the chili powder often gracing that country’s mango street snacks. Poured over crushed ice, it was a tasty summer refresher that I still craved in the cold of winter.

The Mitchell’s Gillespie wasn’t monkeying around when he came up with this cocktail.

3. MONKEYING AROUND (Sam Gillespie, The Mitchell, Downtown Dallas)

Gin, Chareau, Genepy des Alpes, Dolin Blanc

Gillespie originally crafted this exquisite spring cocktail for a special event at the bar featuring Monkey 47, a berry-influenced gin made in Germany’s Black Forest. He accentuated its flavors and feel with rich aloe liqueur, herbal alpine liqueur and dry vermouth, but the gin’s high price-point made it impractical to put on The Mitchell’s standard menu. Instead, he substituted standout Botanist gin, serving the drink in a clear patterned glass that highlighted its see-through appearance. With herbs and white grape on the nose, it’s a gorgeously botanical Martini – all cucumber, spearmint and sweet spice and an herbal sweet-sour finish.

George Kaiho and Andrew Kelly, Jettison

2. SLEEPY COYOTE (George Kaiho/Andrew Kelly, Jettison, West Dallas)

Coffee-infused Paranubes, cinnamon syrup, Ancho Reyes, horchata

Kaiho and Kelly, the personable one-two punch behind the bar at Jettison, wanted to create a cocktail using horchata, the Mexican cinnamon rice milk. Specifically, as a popular after-dinner destination, they wanted to craft a dessert drink, so as fans of The Big Lebowski they devised this buzzy riff on a White Russian, using a base of banana-funky Paranubes – a Oaxacan aguardiente – infused with coffee, cold-brew style. To that they added cinnamon syrup and a splash of spicy Ancho Reyes liqueur, then poured it over crushed ice for a rich cinnamon coffee with a kick.

Jenkins’ Alpine Blues: A heady expression of forest growth in a glass.
  1. ALPINE BLUES (Scott Jenkins, Hide, Deep Ellum)

Singani 63, Pasubio amaro, Cap Corse quinquina, Nux walnut liqueur, clarified lemon

Scott Jenkins, Hide’s resident mixmaster, killed it again this year: The Oaxacan Shaman, his mezcal-aguardiente mashup, was masterful, and Quest for the Sun, a sunflower-seed-infused vodka vehicle, was lusciously butternutty. But my favorite of all was his Alpine Blues: He missed the mountains, see; a whirlwind trip had filled him with memories of brisk, chilly air and damp ground covered in foliage. He let his longings inspire this wonderfully balanced reflection of nature’s growth. In his mind, walnut liqueur formed the base soil, deep and rich with decomposing nettles; blueberry-influenced alpine bitter liqueur was the surface – “earthy and fruity; there’s still some life in it;” a quinine aperitif and clarified lemon juice were the new growth, with the bitter citrus of biting into a young stem; Singani 63, a botanical Bolivian brandy, was the blossom. “There were specific slopes and colors in my mind,” he says. “It made me have the blues not to be there.”

Say howdy to churros, elotes and Fried Elvis in a glass: Industry Alley’s State Fair cocktail lineup

Industry Alley State Fair cocktails
Can’t get enough of those State Fair treats? Industry Alley’s got you covered in liquid form. Above, the El Churro cocktail. (Photo by Tommy Fogle)

Before I tell you about the Fried Elvis cocktail, you have to know that for Marty Reyes and his wife Jen, the State Fair of Texas is an annual rite of passage. Or maybe bite of passage is the way to put it, since the two regularly take in the event’s over-the-top creamy and battered delights.

“I love me some Fried Elvis,” admits Reyes, managing partner of Dallas’ Industry Alley, whose in-laws regularly come from San Francisco to enjoy the yearly Big Tex bonanza at Fair Park.

Industry Alley State Fair cocktails
Try Industry Alley’s Fried Elvis cocktail and you may have found a new place to dwell.

But at the same time, the Fair’s three-week run also takes a regular chomp out of bar revenues – an effect Reyes and his crew say stretches as far as the Cedars, where their low-key cocktail hang is located.

“We thought, ‘How can we combat this?’” says Industry Alley bartender Tommy Fogle. “And it was, like, ‘Well – why don’t we embrace it?’”

Get ready, then, for Industry Alley’s lineup of State Fair of Texas cocktails, with everything from the Candied Apple and Lemon Chiller to the Fried Elvis and a Cotton Candy Old Fashioned. There’ll even be a Corn Dog cocktail for the courageous, and the special menu will run the length of the fair, which starts Friday through October 22.

“I mean, who doesn’t love the State Fair?” says Jen, who goes by the moniker Jen Ann Tonic. “Why not drink the experience?”

Tommy Fogle, Industry Alley, State Fair
Reyes and his crew had a head start on their State Fair cocktail lineup with Fogle’s Elote en Vaso cocktail. (Photo by Tommy Fogle)

The group got to work designing cocktails that would echo some of the event’s iconic treats, and they realized already had a head start: Fogle’s Elote En Vaso (Elote in a Glass), an elotes-inspired drink he’d created for a recent whiskey competition.

Others followed, like the Candied Apple cocktail – a mix of apple-infused port, apple brandy and cinnamon syrup, with a trio of apple slices to sop up the rock-candy syrup around the glass – and the El Churro cocktail, which enriches pisco with butter, pecan, cinnamon and cream, with a churro garnish to boot.

The Fried Elvis cocktail fancies up Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey with banana liqueur, peanut butter powder, cream and egg white, with a strafing of currant liqueur filling in the jelly part of the equation.

Industry Alley State Fair cocktails
The Candied Apple cocktail includes a trio of apple slices to sop up the caramel syrup. (Photo by Tommy Fogle)

“People like that one,” Fogle says, who’s been testing out the drinks on some of his customers. “I think it really works.”

The list will also feature a smattering of saltwater taffy shots, and Fogle’s corn-whiskey-based Elote en Vaso is buttery and salty, with a dash of sour cream and Mexican cotija cheese to complete the effect.

Devising drinks that would evoke the State Fair-style delicacies in liquid form wasn’t exactly a walk down the midway.

The corn dog one was the most challenging,” Reyes says. “I was almost ready to knock it off the list. Then along comes my mad scientist, Johnny.”

Industry Alley State Fair cocktails
You must be this tall to ride: The Corn Dog cocktail proved the most challenging drink of all. (Photo by Tommy Fogle)

That would be bartender Johnny Maslyk, who Reyes says was able to replicate the taste of corn dog batter without over-thickening the texture of the drink.

The finished product incorporates pork-infused Scotch, corn meal and honey.

“It’s just a matter of whether anyone’s brave enough to order it,” Fogle says.

For all of this, Jen Ann Tonic has designed a menu she describes as “Texas Fair cute,” and in a way, Industry Alley is the perfect canvas for such an experiment, with a laid-back, dive-bar atmosphere untethered to any particular audience.

“I’ve always liked the approachability of this place,” Fogle says. “And I think that gives us the leeway to do something like this.”

For the most part, the bar’s State Fair cocktails are over-the-top and rich – but then again, so are the treats they mimic.

“These are novelties,” Fogle says. “But it’s nice to have the freedom to be weird.

Industry Alley, 1711 S. Lamar St., Dallas. 214-238-3111

You can handle the proof: Shochu, Japan’s national spirit, making inroads in DFW

shochu
Shochu, once a spirit of the Japanese working class, is becoming increasingly available as the craft-cocktail renaissance prompts interest in global spirits.

A man and woman sitting at the bar eye the glass curiously at Jettison, in West Dallas, not sure what to make of this liquid they’ve barely heard of, which has been poured over ice. The man picks it up and brings it to his nose. “I can smell the sweet potato,” he says.

The vegetal sweetness is evident on the tongue, too – that’s the beauty of shochu, the centuries-old, national spirit of Japan, which is slowly gaining a steady, if still uncertain, foothold in Dallas-Fort Worth as a casual Japanese food scene blossoms throughout the area.

“Because it’s only one-time distilled, you really taste the base ingredient,” says Jettison’s bar manager, George Kaiho, who grew up in Japan until he was 18. “And potato and rice shochu will taste totally different.”

Bowen House, shochu
In Uptown, Bowen House’s Do, Re, Miso cocktail supplements delicate rice shochu with fennel flavor and white miso paste

Shochu’s single distillation keeps its alcohol level between 20 and 25 percent, not as strong as most spirits but still heftier than wine, making it a great accompaniment to yakitori and other small dishes over convivial, leisurely dinners at Japanese izakayas.

“I enjoy the nuance and complexity,” says Justin Holt, sous chef at Lucia in Bishop Arts, who plans to feature shochu at his upcoming restaurant, Salaryman. Shochu’s low-proof nature, he says, means more of them can be sampled in a single sitting – typically as a mix of shochu and soda (or juice, or occasionally iced tea) called a chu-hai, basically a shochu highball (hence the abbreviated name).

Besides rice and sweet potato, the spirit is made from things like soba, sugarcane and, most commonly, roasted barley, giving the category a broad range of flavor profiles, from mild to aggressively earthy.

Barley-based shochu is typically dry and spicy, while sweet potato is at the root of many premium shochus prized for their natural sweetness. Some rice shochus have a mild sweetness similar to sake, though some, Kaiho says, can seem nearly flavorless. The types of yeast used in the fermentation process also play a role in flavor profiles.

shochu
At since-closed Yayoi in Plano, bartender Lyndsy Rausch featured shochu in its traditionally popular highball form, mixed with tea or soda.

While shochu began as a working-class spirit, the global craft spirits trend has ushered in higher quality versions fit for drinking on the rocks, or with water. One brand, a sherry-cask-aged sweet potato shochu called Angel’s Temptation, can sell for as much as a fine whiskey.

In addition to Jettison, you’ll find shochu at Niwa Japanese BBQ in Deep Ellum, Plano’s Yama Izakaya and Irving’s Mr. Max. This being America, its rising availability means bartenders are exploring its use in cocktails: In Uptown, Bowen House features the spirit in its delicious Do, Re, Miso, served in a small bowl, while Oak Lawn’s Izakaya RoMan (at which Kaiho consulted) spins several shochu variations of classics like the Negroni and Martini.

At since-closed Yayoi in Plano, in addition to a number of traditional chu-hai combinations, bartender Lyndsy Rausch blended shochu with matcha, yuzu and soda in her Meet Your Matcha cocktail as well as in a wasabi-spiced Bloody Mary.

“It’s a wonderful liquor that unfortunately is still a little hard to find in Dallas,” Rausch says. “Adding matcha to it was really the first thing that came to mind, because I wanted something earthy to match its complex flavors.”

shochu
At Jettison, in West Dallas, George Kaiho’s Earth Wind and Fire is a fine example of how shochu’s delicate flavor can be used effectively in a cocktail.

One reason shochu hasn’t yet found popular footing in the U.S., Kaiho believes, is because there’s no definitive shochu-based cocktail. He sees shochu following a path similar to pisco, the national spirit of Peru, in that it’s easily subbed in cocktails for spirits like vodka or gin – except that it offers the added benefit of being low-proof, a slower-paced option that’s trending around the country.

“In order to popularize shochu, there needs to be a cocktail,” Kaiho says. “If you can make a good cocktail with potato shochu, you’ve got yourself a good cocktail.”

Kaito’s latest shochu cocktail wouldn’t be a bad place to start: His Earth Wind & Fire supplements Shiranami’s sweet potato shochu with a harmony of smoky mezcal, the sweetly vegetal backbeat of Green Chartreuse and a citrusy yuzu tincture. The mezcal and Chartreuse boost the drink’s alcohol content while still allowing the earthy shochu to take the lead.

Thankfully, the sweet potato flavor is strong enough to meet the task, since, as bartender Tommy Fogle of Industry Alley in the Cedars notes, many shochus are so subtle that they’re better off being consumed straight.

“I feel like shochu is so light and delicate, it gets lost really easily,” Fogle says as he pours a sample. “Why put it in a cocktail? The point of this is to buy a bottle with a buddy and just take shots until the bottle is gone.”