In Texas, no drink says summer is almost here better than a Margarita. And in Dallas, nothing puts an exclamation point on the thought like the 7th annual Dallas Margarita Competition, happening this Sunday in the city’s West End District.
Ah, the Margarita. The classic mix of tequila, orange liqueur and lime, rimmed with kosher salt, is among the most legendary and debated of cocktails, with more than a few origin stories to its credit. Rather than try to figure out which one to believe, the Dallas Margarita Competition offers you the opportunity to decide which of the 30-plus versions of the drink you’re going to try. Which will be the best? That’s for you to decide.
That’s right: At the Dallas Margarita Competition, which runs from 4 to 9 p.m., you are the judge. Your $40 ticket ($50 at the door) gets you samples of Margarita variations created by more than 30 DFW bartenders, along with a scoring card and a wooden chip with which to cast your ballot. (Don’t wait too late, though, or your vote won’t count at all!) The top three bartenders will win prizes of $1,000, $500 and $250, respectively.
Previous first-place winners of the previously named Margarita Meltdown have included Lewisville’s Pie 314, Plano’s Whiskey Cake, and Dallas’ Asador, Iron Cactus, Savor Gastropub and Soleo.
The event will include food and retail vendors, and a DJ. Tickets are available here, but first one to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the year of the very first Margarita Meltdown wins a free pair!
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
They call Charlie Papaceno the godfather of Dallas’ craft-cocktail scene. Ten years ago, he and then-wife Louise Owens opened the no-frills Windmill Lounge in Oak Lawn, unassumingly planting the local flag of an ongoing national renaissance on a nondescript stretch of Maple Avenue.
With the easygoing maestro at the helm, the low-key bar became a practice ground and hangout spot for the scene’s growing field of practitioners – pioneers like Jason Kosmas, Michael Martensen, Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Sean Conner. Its homey vibe and quality drinks earned the friendly dive a place in Esquire’s top U.S. bars of 2013.
“That was the place you’d go to see all your friends,” says Bonnie Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based FrontBurner Restaurants. “He nurtured a lot of us, and he was always willing to listen and guide us. We all learned from him.”
Now, the cocktail-community cache that Papaceno has earned is coming full circle. This time, it’s the godfather who is struggling: Late last year, Papaceno left the Windmill to launch his own bar, wanting to work on a new project. And then he found out he had Stage 4 cancer.
The #RallyForCharlie hashtag says it all: Charlie Pap has earned his support. The opportunities to help gets underway Thursday with cocktail specials at places like LARK on the Park and Black Swan Saloon to benefit the cause. But the major fundraising event happens Monday, when an “industry rally” is set for Industry Alley, Papaceno’s soon-to-open bar in the Cedars neighborhood.
“It’s awfully nice,” he says, sitting in the Lamar Avenue nightspot that’s still taking shape, with the lingering smell of fresh paint garnishing the air. “It’s humbling.”
“He nurtured a lot of us, and he was always willing to listen and guide us. We all learned from him.” — Bonnie Wilson, FrontBurner Restaurants
Monday’s cash-only event runs from 2 to 8. Twenty bucks gets you two drink tickets and pork tacos from a whole hog presented onsite. (Additional tickets can be purchased for $5 apiece.) Bartender-led teams of four will be pitted against each other in a giant game of Twister for the cause, and a silent auction will feature multicourse group dinners at places like FT33, Bolsa and Proof + Pantry.
For weeks, the ache in his ear and jaw wouldn’t go away. The first hospital visit revealed nothing. But when the pain got so bad he couldn’t sleep, he went back again; this time the tests showed he had, essentially, cancer of the tongue.
He’s been through radiation and chemo; he’s lost 30 pounds and is moving more slowly, but it hasn’t kept him from pursuing his goal. “I’m just working and trying to get better,” he says.
As a military veteran, the VA is covering his medical costs, but living expenses are another matter, especially if he’s left unable to work for a time.
Monday’s Industry Rally will showcase the bar he’s toiled to make real. It’s kind of two venues in one – an informal lounge as you enter, with a jukebox, sexy wall art and a bar with a heavy-duty zinc top and see-through panels underneath. In the rear is a cavernous, corrugated-metal-walled game room that will eventually feature pinball and pool tables. “It’s gonna be a split-personality kind of bar,” he says.
He’d originally wanted something much more intimate. “Then I saw this Quonset-hut backroom, and the office upstairs that’s like something out of some British gangster movie,” and he was sold.
A metal-gated courtyard alley winds toward the front door; hence the name. The “industry” part refers to the neighborhood’s history as an industrial area.
Nothing fancy here – no syrups, no tinctures, no shrubs. Except for Miller Lite ponies, all beers will come in a can. The cocktails will be classically simple. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t walk into a regular bar and be able to get a decent Manhattan or Old Fashioned,” Papaceno says. “It doesn’t have to be The Mansion but I don’t want to be a McDonald’s either. Something in the middle.”
So yeah, there won’t be any elaborate garnishes or a kitchen full of produce, but if he has his way, you’ll know you can walk in and get a quality drink in a comfortable atmosphere. It’s the kind of place he hopes people will go before or after the place they’re headed to that evening. Kind of like the Windmill – though he’s not looking to reinvent the place.
Industry Alley, he says, “is not a destination bar. It’s a hangout bar. Hopefully I can design a place that people can hang out in and feel comfortable.”
For Papaceno, that should be no struggle whatsoever.
Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – a pinch of this or a drop or a float of that – to turn a drink around. Heading into this summer’s Bombay Sapphire-sponsored “GQ’s Most Imaginative Bartender” competition in Dallas, Bonnie Wilson aimed to put a different spin on the gin.
Wilson, director of independent bar programs for Addison-based Front Burner Restaurants, was one of 10 finalists competing in the national contest’s Dallas-Fort Worth regional at Uptown’s Nickel & Rye. The victor would head to Las Vegas to face winners from 27 other U.S. markets in the finals, vying for a cover feature in GQ magazine.
One by one, the gin variations appeared before the judges – a drink inspired by Taiwanese bubble tea, another served up alongside a Venus flytrap, another with a smoked stalk of lemongrass for garnish. But when it was all over, it was Wilson’s so-called “Axl Rose” – a bouquet of Bombay Sapphire, Brut Rosé, strawberry syrup, lemon and rose water – that had taken top prize. (Full disclosure: I was among the event’s three judges.)
This week, Wilson is Vegas-bound to compete in the finals, the first woman to have that honor for the DFW area. “I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I just want to make sure I represent our city well, that I represent myself and our brand and women well, all of those things. Most of all I just want to have fun.”
This was Wilson’s third attempt at the prestigious contest: Bartenders submit a recipe and a short essay, and a national panel whittles each market’s field down to 10. With her winning cocktail, she aimed for simplicity. “I’ve been obsessed with rosélately,” she says, “so I wanted to do something around that.”
Citrus was a common flavor in the gin to play off of, but Sapphire’s floral aspects were often forgotten. That’s where the rose water came in, plus a self-made strawberry syrup to echo the flavors of the wine. The topper was the garnish: She worked with Front Burner’s pastry chef to produce a sugar-candy rose petal tinted with pomegranate juice. “We made about 60 of them over the course of two weeks to get the consistency I was happy with,” she says. “I think it came out really good.”
The national contest runs Monday through Thursday in three stages. After the 28 competitors present the cocktails that got them there, the field is whittled to about half. The survivors then face off in two further rounds, crafting entirely new cocktails featuring an ingredient to be specified by the judges.
Last year, DFW was represented by La Duni’s Daniel Guillen, who made it to the second round. Wilson has been prodding him for tips based on his experience. As far as being DFW’s first female representative in the nationals, she says, “we’ve just got to continue to elevate our diversity.”
That’s a priority for her at Front Burner, where she oversees bar operations for the corporation’s independent brands, including Whiskey Cake, Mexican Sugar and The Ranch at Las Colinas. Menu development, special events and training are among her duties, but it’s the latter that lets her tap into her first love, customer interaction. “I can get behind the bar and make drinks for people,” she says.
Hospitality-minded people are the ones who catch her interest and attention. “You can teach somebody how to bartend and teach them about spirits, but you can’t teach the heart of it, the love of that interaction with the guest,” she says.
Others cite her dedication to cultivating talent and encouraging other women to pursue similar paths. “She’s moving up, but she’s not forgetting us,” says Alexandrea Rivera, a bartender at The Ranch at Las Colinas. Adds fellow Ranch bartender Gabrielle Murray: “Everything Bonnie says, we just sponge up.”
Now, after winning the local Bombay Sapphire contest, Wilson says: “I’ve actually had women come to me who want to work for me. That’s super flattering, and inspiring.”
It was people like Sean Conner – whose Pie 314 pizzeria recently opened in Lewisville – and The Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough who helped on her own learning path. And in particular, she credits Angel’s Envy bourbon rep Trina Nishimura with showing her how as a woman to negotiate a male-dominated world. Brands like Bacardi and Heaven Hill have given her valuable educational opportunities, but it’s her own company, she says, that has really challenged her recently. “Sometimes we have these amazing weeks, and we want to rest on our laurels and celebrate,” she says. “They always say, `Great job. How do we make it better?’ Everybody has pushed and encouraged me.”
Not bad for someone who never planned to make craft cocktails. But negative environments in previous workplaces spurred her to move onward, and she landed behind the bar with Conner at Whiskey Cake. “It was like a fated spiritual thing,” she says. “That’s exactly where I was supposed to be. It started me on this career that was like a dream. It’s been such a great ride and it keeps getting better and better.”
Sometimes all it takes is a pinch – to be reminded that it’s not a dream at all.
The spirits scene is fluid. People move around, and maybe you’ve lost track of a few. Barmoire is here to help you out.
Last month came the official news that bartender extraordinaire Michael Martensen planned to open Proof + Pantry at One Arts Plaza; that’s still on track, with the space – formerly the Commissary – opening hopefully before summer. But while Martensen had hoped to reassemble the fine crew of bar talent that had formerly held sway at The Cedars Social and Bar Smyth, it appears at least one band member won’t be joining the reunion: Omar YeeFoon, who is joining Jason Kosmas’ The 86 Co. as Texas brand ambassador.
“I’ll be working with friends,” YeeFoon said last week over pasta and cocktails at the Windmill Lounge’s inaugural Spaghetti + Western night. “And it’s a product and a brand I believe in.”
Meanwhile, Bonnie Wilson, the bartender who helped put Whiskey Cake on the cocktails map in Plano before taking over the bar program at The Ranch at Las Colinas, is now bar programs director for the entire group of Fork It Over Restaurants, which includes Mexican Sugar and Velvet Taco. Fork It Over has already expanded the Whiskey Cake brand to Oklahoma City and will soon open one in San Antonio.
We’ve also missed the upbeat presence of Amber West, former lead bartender at Central 214 at the Hotel Palomar whose garden-to-bar enthusiasm never failed to mesmerize. West is now Texas brand ambassador for Caledonia Spirits, the Vermont-based company that produces honey-tinged Barr Hill Gin and other liquid goodies soon to appear in bars and restaurants around the state. She and her new portfolio were behind the cocktails at last Saturday’s Polo On the Lawn fundraiser in Oak Point.
She’d met Caledonia founder Todd Hardie through former Central 214 chef Graham Dodds; their similar views forged a connection. “Caledonia Spirits is all about his connection with the land, beekeeping and farming,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Meanwhile, for those who’ve been wondering whatever happened to bartender Michael Reith, the man whose drinks once shone at Lower Greenville’s Nora, the low-key barman has resurfaced at the esteemed Windmill Lounge on Maple Avenue, where he was last seen firing up cider-y accompaniments for the divey spot’s just-launched, above-mentioned Spaghetti + Western dinners on Mondays.
A few days before St. Patrick’s Day weekend, Maurice “Mossie” Power bounced around the private dining room at Barter in light-footed stutter steps, sort of a cross between a ballroom dancer and R2D2. “I am the ultimate cliché for this week,” the Irish-born Texas ambassador for Tullamore DEW whiskey quipped, acknowledging his accent and ginger-colored hair for a modest audience gathered for the restaurant’s special four-course Tullamore DEW-paired dinner.
The night’s purpose was to push not only Power’s product, but Irish whiskey in general, which in case you hadn’t noticed is enjoying a major resurgence: According to The Wall Street Journal, the category that brought you bar-shot standards like Jameson and Bushmills is now the fastest growing portion of the U.S. spirits market, up 400 percent since 2002.
If it seems odd to call it a resurgence, consider this: Before Scotch and American bourbons ruled the scene, Irish whiskey was king. In the 1830s, Ireland fielded more than a hundred distilleries, making what was then considered the premium of whiskeys.
But the industry was stunted by a temperance movement, then walloped by the notorious famine of 1840; when Ireland kicked out the British (its number-two market) to gain independence and then lost its number-one market (the U.S.) to Prohibition, the Irish whiskey reign was officially over.
Now, Irish whiskeys have found new life, with micro-distilleries sprouting throughout Ireland and attempting to lift the category beyond its mere infantry status: Midleton, Connemara and Kilbeggan are earning space on bar shelves, whether it’s because clever marketers have seized on a humbled genre’s untapped potential or because consumers truly do appreciate a generally triple-distilled product that on the whole is smoother, fruitier and less peaty than other whiskeys.
“For someone who’s used to bourbon, Irish whiskey is easier to adapt to,” said Izzy Delgado, bar manager at Mockingbird Station’s Trinity Hall. “It’s lighter, sweeter and easier to drink.” The Irish pub and restaurant has one of the largest selections of Irish whiskey around, which makes any resurgence hard to notice. “Pretty much when something is available, we go ahead and get it,” Delgado said.
Except for Tullamore DEW, Brian McCullough of The Standard Pour said he hasn’t seen much interest in Irish whiskey beyond Jameson, the world’s most popular brand. The resurgence is also not evident at Tate’s, whose solid whiskey lineup does include Ireland’s heavily promoted 2 Gingers but leans more toward Scotch and gems such as Indian-produced Amrut.
“I’m not the biggest Irish whiskey fan,” said Tate’s general manager Robbie Christian. “We haven’t really jumped on that bandwagon. There’s just so much better stuff out there.”
Nevertheless, the figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States speak for themselves, and Plano’s Whiskey Cake has gradually added several Irish whiskeys to its stock. “That is a market that is fixing to blow up,” said Sean Conner, the restaurant’s former bar manager.
Power, of Tullamore DEW — the capital letters are the initials of one of the whiskey’s early influential managers — says the category is still growing more than 20 percent annually. “Irish whiskey is definitely a category that everyone is revisiting,” he said.
It may say a lot that Barter certainly is, with the restaurant’s spring cocktails menu set to feature exclusively Irish whiskeys. “I completely buy into Irish whiskey coming back in a big way,” said Rocco Milano, Barter’s beverage director.
Milano poured a succession of barrel-aged Tipperary cocktails to kick off the restaurant’s Tullamore DEW dinner this week, which pleased Power to no end. “This is my favorite cocktail,” Power said. “When I go out, that’s what I order.” Typically the drink is two ounces of Irish whiskey plus a healthy bit of sweet vermouth and a splash of Green Chartreuse, but Milano subbed Dolin’s deliciously herbal Genepy des Alpes for the Chartreuse, with marvelous results.
The four-course dinner was paired with Tullamore DEW’s four variants – the original, the nutty 10-year, the toffee-ish 12-year and the spicy, 110-proof Phoenix special edition. Barter chef Andrew Dilda had asked Power what he would eat if he were out on the town in Ireland, and naturally the answer was pub food; that inspired the chef’s hearty and rustic menu, which included lamb potpie and a lamb-sausage stuffed rabbit wrapped in bacon.
With pop singers like Rihanna and Lady Gaga referencing Jameson in their lyrics and shows, the Irish whiskey comeback may be a young-professional-driven movement. In Uptown, the heart of that demographic for Dallas, whiskey-centric bar Nickel & Rye is pushing 2 Gingers specials as St. Patrick’s Day draws nigh. Just the same, bar manager Mike Hamilton said, “I don’t expect to sell much more than Jameson.”
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.
In many ways, Prohibition was the best thing to happen to U.S. drinking culture. The Dry Movement’s successful forging of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920 left imbibers with nowhere to drink legally except in foreign lands, which they did while visiting Europe, Cuba or the Caribbean. America’s suddenly employment-challenged bartenders went where the work was, resettling in places like Paris or Havana where their cocktail knowledge was infused with the riches of local ingredients, concoctions and sensibilities.
They say that that which does not kill you makes you stronger, and except for a nasty batch of bathtub gin, that may be true. When Prohibition was repealed on Dec. 5, 1933, many of those newly enriched bar peeps returned with their worldly cocktail know-how (and a penchant for rum or Champagne), and those that stayed in the U.S. now had new tricks up their sleeves for enhancing inferior booze. Plus we got speakeasies.
Thursday marks the 80th anniversary of the 21st Amendment, which 86’d the 18th for good. For those of you inclined to celebrate, options abound, some of which might have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief.
First, there’s Victor Tango’s on Henderson, where classic cocktails like the Sazerac or Mary Pickford can be had from 5 pm and onward this evening for the Depression-Era price of just 80 cents apiece. A fancy drank for less than the price of an iTunes song: crazy, no? Make sure you’re sitting down, because here’s some absolutely off-the-charts insanity: From 3 to 7 pm at Plano’s Whiskey Cake, you can responsibly indulge in your choice of five classic cocktails — like the French 75 or the Moscow Mule — for just a nickel apiece. Yes, you may need to be pinched right about now.
Uncharacteristically, tonight’s least lunatic Repeal Day gathering will be at Dallas’ Windmill Lounge, where authors Jeffrey Yarbrough and Rita Cook will be signing their book, “Prohibition in Dallas and Fort Worth: Blind Tigers, Bootleggers and Bathtub Gin,” all while presumably having cocktails. That event runs from 5 to 7 p.m.
Additionally, a number of cocktail artists formerly of Smyth and Cedars Social will be behind the bar tonight at Bolsa from 9 p.m. onward.
So remember, while the repeal of the 18th Amendment might be to blame for Cinnabon-flavored vodka, it’s also the reason you can publicly enjoy a decent Old Fashioned all year long, and that’s one civics lesson worth remembering, at least for a night. As Alex Fletcher, Victor Tango’s bar manager, put it: “We’re celebrating our right to mix, stir, and shake up some serious libations.”
Power to the people.
VICTOR TANGO’S, 3001 N. Henderson, Dallas. 214-252-8595.
More than three years later, the memories linger. Five courses at one of the city’s best restaurants, each paired with cocktails made by five of the city’s best bartenders, and all featuring Maker’s Mark whiskey.
The scene was Seattle’s Spur Gastropub, and the chefs were rocking it as usual. (Example: sous vide pork belly with sunchokes and Bing cherries – whut whut?) The all-star bartender lineup cranked out an assembly line of original cocktails like the Pine Box, with its grilled-pineapple garnish. There was even some Maker’s 46, which was about to hit the market in summer 2010. We were a happy bunch.
I moved to Dallas soon afterward, and since then I’ve been to barely a handful of spirit or cocktail-themed dinners, though not for lack of want. Last month some friends and I hit a Hudson Whiskey-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake in Plano. And as I do every time I go to one of these events, I wondered: Why doesn’t this happen more often?
Wine and beer dinners have long been a thing, but bartenders like J.W. Tate – formerly of Tate’s Dallas – at first faced resistance to the notion of making a one-stop night of cocktails and food. That’s starting to change as DFW’s cocktail culture comes of age – a welcome and logical step in the scene’s continuing evolution.
Tate’s offered two spirits-paired dinners before J.W. left Dallas earlier this year to head up a company venture in Winston-Salem, N.C., and places like Dallas’ Libertine Bar and La Duni have experimented with the idea too. “People are trying it,” says Libertine’s Mate Hartai. “It’s just going to take a while for the wheels to hit the ground.”
One reason for the slow going is that these dinners — which generally run from $35 to $100 — aren’t easy to pull off. Cocktails are time-intensive and demand smaller groups; achieving drink consistency can be difficult when produced in a bunch. And the kind of patron who embraces the idea of a cocktail dinner isn’t going to tolerate pre-batched drinks.
On the other hand, the ever-broadening assortment of quality spirits, cordials and apertifs give bartenders a grand palette to work from.
“It’s rewarding when you do it right,” Hartai says. “But it’s much more difficult than people think.”
The glasses are set, pretty orbs in a row, when a legion of Sazeracs appear in our midst. The classic cocktail is the evening’s first volley at last month’s Hudson-themed dinner at Whiskey Cake. The Plano restaurant’s dinner showcased the Hudson line’s various incarnations, from its New York Corn Whiskey, well paired with chef Brent Hammer’s charred octopus; and Four Grain Bourbon, solidly supporting an extraordinary, In-N-Out-inspired dry-aged-sirloin burger; and more.
Sean Conner, Whiskey Cake’s beverage director, tackles pairings the way he does cocktails, dissecting courses’ flavor profiles to match. “Certain things go with blackberry or cinnamon or basil,” he says. “It takes six weeks to plan out four or five different cocktails and make them really special.”
Pairing cocktails with food offers some of the same challenges that went into creating, say, sweet-and-sour chicken, with its mix of sweet and savory. “You try to figure out how someone else solved that puzzle,” says Libertine’s Hartai. “To me, that’s really fun. It takes a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.”
Last year, when Tate’s offered a cocktail-paired dinner with chef DAT (David Anthony Temple), “DAT sent over a menu, and I riffed on that,” Tate says. “We talked a bit, and I threw out a cocktail menu, and we each made changes as it got closer…. It’s a lot like making music, with two people jamming – you throw something out there and the other person runs with it, and five weeks later you’ve got something.”
When Temple said he was doing garlic soup, Tate immediately thought of Campari and came up with a drink called the Italian Resistance. On its own, the drink’s various elements struggled to mingle, but fared much better as a pairing. Similarly, a chanterelle-and-pink-peppercorn-infused vodka drink went nicely with Temple’s speck and arugula salad but its savory character made it less pleasurable as a stand-alone cocktail.
The bar’s whiskey-themed dinner in April was a treat, pairing peppery Buffalo Trace Single Oak Barrel whiskey, for instance, with corn soup with fried pig ear, parsley crème fraiche and house-made hot sauce.
And last year, at Libertine’s whiskey-and-beer-paired dinner featuring three Scotches and two hefty beers, Hartai wanted to echo the flavors of Lagavulin. “I sat down with the chef and said, `I need smoke, earth and some kind of heat.’ He did a mushroom compote with this awesome smoked-pork thing and some vinegary thing for a kick. It took the whiskey apart into its larger flavor components.”
More recently he did what he called an Italian dinner, but by dinner’s end he had unveiled it more precisely as a vermouth-paired dinner. “The whole point was to change people’s minds about vermouth,” he says. “By the end, people were drinking straight glasses of vermouth and saying, `This is great!’ Well, yeah, it is.”
Hartai likes to save a palate-testing curve ball for the last course. “I want to jar people, give them a reason to talk,” he says. “If you realize you’re putting together an experience aimed at creating lasting memories and challenging palates, you can make an awesome dinner.”
Looking for a cocktail or spirits-themed dinner? Contact these spots and see what’s on the schedule, or follow them on Facebook.
WHISKEY CAKE KITCHEN AND BAR, 3601 Dallas Parkway, Plano. 972-993-2253. Offers quarterly alcohol-paired dinners.
LIBERTINE BAR, 2101 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-824-7900. Does dinners monthly, generally beer.
LA DUNI LATIN KITCHEN, four locations in Dallas/Fairview. Offers cocktail-paired, three-course dinners. Join the restaurant’s “inner circle” at one of its locations or at www.laduni.com to advance notice of such events.
In the category of Why Doesn’t This Happen More Often, cocktail-paired dinners is one of the top things on my list. I’ve attended several over the last two years, which for the same time period is fewer times than I’ve been to the dentist, or dropped everything to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on cable, and that’s just wrong.
Well, here comes Whiskey Cake to right the ship. On Monday, Oct. 28, the Plano restaurant and cocktail joint will host Carve and Craft, a five-course dinner highlighted by cocktails featuring the very excellent Hudson Whiskey collection. If you know nothing about Hudson, that’s not a problem: Gable Erenzo, the company’s owner, distiller and brand ambassador, will be on hand to fill in the blanks.
If you know nothing about Whiskey Cake, that’s an issue. The place emerged onto the scene about two years ago and was one of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s original craft cocktail bars. Its beverage program, still under the able leadership of Sean Conner, mirrors Whiskey Cake’s self-proclaimed “farm-to-kitchen” philosophy, with drinks incorporating items from the restaurant’s adjoining garden.
From the looks of it, this dinner will not suck. (A menu preview is below.) The best part is, it’s only 35 bucks.
Capacity is limited to 60 and remaining availability is very limited. Call the restaurant to make a reservation, but if you don’t catch this one, there’s more good news: This won’t be your last chance. “We do dinners like this pretty much quarterly,” says Whiskey Cake’s marketing director Katie Allen.
The best way to keep tabs on the action, she says, is to follow the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Here’s an abbreviated version of the menu for the Oct. 28 dinner, which gets underway at 7 pm:
Course One: Hudson New York Corn
Charred octopus with green olive, chorizo, marble potato, and salsa verde
Course Two: Hudson Baby Bourbon
Cold smoked BBQ tuna ribs with marinated watermelon and jalapeno mint vinaigrette
Course Three: Hudson Four Grain Bourbon
Dry-aged sirloin, iceberg lettuce, vintage Irish cheddar, onion marmalade, 1000 island, 3 inch brioche bun
Course Four: Hudson Single Malt
Local sheep’s milk ricotta agnolotti with duck pancetta, black trumpet mushrooms, and horseradish on marrow bones
Course Five: Hudson Manhattan Rye
Cardamom doughnuts with roasted banana, sea salt pastry cream, and maple rye
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