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Annual cocktail conference about to get 86’d: Dallas bartender’s spirits venture will host bar battle

imageThe 86 Co.’s signature vodka and rum.

A coup for Dallas’ Jason Kosmas and his new spirits venture, The 86 Co.: The brand has been chosen to host this year’s Bare Knuckle Bar Fight at July’s annual Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) conference in New Orleans.

The event, held toward the conference’s end, is this year’s version of the previously named Bar Room Brawl, wherein a number of selected bar staffs around the country battle for bragging rights as judges assess their ability to churn out drinks in the midst of a massive, party-type atmosphere.

The event’s primary spirits will come from The 86 Co., which Kosmas launched earlier this year with esteemed barmen Simon Ford (brand expert for Pernod Ricard USA), Dushan Zaric (co-owner with Kosmas of New York’s Employees Only bar). They include Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cana Brava Rum, Tequila Cabeza and the highly rated Ford’s Gin.

Del Maguey Vida mezcal will also be represented at the event.

"(TOTC founder) Ann (Tuennerman) wanted to give us an opportunity," Kosmas said. "It makes perfect sense for us.

"The Bar Room Brawl has been such an iconic part of Tales, and as the festival gets bigger, we’re happy to be a part of it."

Participants and judges are expected to be announced on May 1.

— Marc Ramirez, published 4/26/13

Try these cocktails: The best from the Pisco Trail

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Hibiscus’ Peruvian Fix was among the stand-outs of the five-week series.

MY FRIENDS, this blog can sometimes be a grueling enterprise. In those moments I find myself re-energized by my sworn duty to my readers, and that, no doubt, is what powered me through five straight Thursdays of pisco sampling. Somebody had to do it.

Now I bring you the highlights of that brave mission, the best of a barrage of pisco cocktails fired up by some of Dallas’ ace bartenders.

First, a little catch-up: Not long ago, I told you about The Trail Project, Daniel Guillen’s crusade to showcase lesser-known spirits via a series of “bar crawls” through various Dallas neighborhoods. The idea, developed with Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, is to introduce or reacquaint bartenders with spirits they may then decide to add to their shelves: The spirits become part of their repertoire, an ingredient to which adventurous patrons can be wooed; the brand gets marketed; everybody wins.

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At Bar Smyth, bartender Josh Hendrix does the pisco thing his way.

The first series, sponsored by Pisco Porton – pisco, like Cognac, is a grapey eau de vie, native mostly to Peru – began with a walkable stretch of bars along Henderson; the next week, we’d moved to Uptown. Next came the Northpark/Mockingbird Station/Knox area, the Design District and Oak Cliff areas and finally a motley bunch of orphan bars stretching from Henderson to the Crescent to Oak Lawn. In all, more than 25 bars took part, amazing considering the number of quality spots not even on the list, such as The Cedars Social, Black Swan Saloon, Whiskey Cake and the Libertine. There were surprises – bars I didn’t expect much from made solid showings, and vice versa – and some non-surprises (many many variations on the Pisco Sour); all together, we probably each tasted about 60 cocktails.

Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 favorites from along the way.

1. The as-yet anonymous second drink that Ashley Williams served us at Oak Cliff’s Boulevardier, featuring Pisco Porton, DeKuyper O3 liqueur, Cherry Heering, lemon and a float of Montelobos mescal.

2. At The Dram on Henderson, Jasin Burt’s mix of Pisco Porton, Dolin Rouge vermouth, chocolate bitters and vanilla extract – a drink I dubbed Down With The Brown – complex and grapey sweet, with a nice chocolate finish.

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Ashley Williams puts Boulevardier on the list with her as-yet unnamed creation.

3. I dug the drink called the Hawaiian Room, a bit of whimsy from Sunset Lounge’s Nico Ponce, with Pisco Porton, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, applejack, lemon and pineapple. Served in a coupe with banana leaf protruding like a feather, it was again on the sweet side, but well-rounded: A refreshing iced tea with a vanilla-wafer finish.

4. At the Standard Pour, the Incan Resemblance, from Guillen’s brother Armando, was one of the series’ most original and beautiful looking drinks. (The same goes for the epically named cocktail from his SP colleague McCullough, Pisco Kid Rides Again Into The Fiery Sunset.) Guillen’s drink featured Pisco Porton, puree made from chirimoya (a Peruvian fruit), elderflower liqueur, ginger foam, Thai basil, Peychaud’s bitters and lavender bitters. A garnishing bundle of lavender leaves were rolled into a lemon peel papoose, evoking an Incan headdress. It was stunningly creative, with a smooth strawberry taste.

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The Incan Resemblance, from Standard Pour’s Armando Guillen.

5. It was practically midnight when we reached Tate’s on the Uptown leg of the so-called Pisco Trail, and head barman J.W. Tate obliged our tastes with an excellent digestif he called Muy Criollo, or Very Creole. “The word “Creole” is used in a very different way in Peru,” Tate told us. “It refers to a spirited way of life, similar to the way we’d say gusto, or the French joie de vivre.” He made his drink with pisco, Bonal bitter liqueur and three kinds of shrub, including habanero. It was arresting, a sipping drink for night’s end, with a pleasantly mild kick of spice in the finish.

6. At Bowl and Barrel, Ian Reilly found a way to incorporate hoisin, an Asian plum sauce he came across in the kitchen, in a fabulous drink he called the Passerine. Figuring the hoisin would go well with other Asian flavors, he mixed it with Hum, a feisty liqueur strong with ginger and kaffir lime, and pisco, lime, Yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters. It was brilliant tang and sweetness, all in one.

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A mango-jalapeno cocktail from The Kennedy Room’s Joseph Buenrostro, among the few to embrace heat in his pisco creations.

7. Hibiscus, on the first week’s itinerary, had to pull out at the 11th hour. After it was reset for week five, Bartender Grant Parker atoned for the wait with the beautiful and delicious Peruvian Fix, a bouquet of pisco, pineapple syrup, lime, mint, simple and most significantly, jalapeno-infused Green Chartreuse. It was lovely, with a slight kick – not too spicy, not too sweet, all the flavors exhibiting perfectly. Parker was among the bartending minority who’d worked with pisco before. “One woman came in once and put me through hell,” he said. “She had me make, like nine Pisco Sours.”

8. It’s fair to say that Sunset Lounge’s Nico Ponce, spurred on by news that the bar preceding his in week number two had turned out two pisco drinks, was a little motivated. He sent out a volley of at least seven pisco-based cocktails, all of them variations on the tiki drinks that are the trademark of the fledgling Ross Avenue bar. His Pisco Mai Tai was, yes, on the candy-sweet side, but oh so good: pisco, lime, orange Curacao and a bit of almond syrup.

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The Pisco Mai Tai, one of Sunset Lounge’s numerous tiki variations.

9. At Marquee Grill & Bar, Andrew Lostester made the tantalizing Pisco Star using a housemade syrup made with grapefruit, cinnamon and star anise. That was shaken with pisco, lime and seasonally fresh grapefruit, then topped with soda; it had a creamy mouthfeel with a citrusy finish, the perfect match for appetizers drenched in rich sauce.

10. It’s no fluke that Guillen himself ended up on this list; being Peruvian, he’s well versed in pisco and he raised his chances by offering up three drinks to sample at Northpark’s La Duni. His second effort, called the San Isidro, was money: pisco, Grand Marnier, lemon, maple syrup, peach puree, Angostura bitters and a housemade apricot-nectarine bitters. Topped with mint and a dried apricot lounging atop a tiny ice-bowl float, the result was all-up-in-your-face apricot with a double-barreled peach-maple sweetness.

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The trail master himself, La Duni’s Guillen, scores with the San Isidro.

If you’re keeping score by neighborhood, that makes Uptown/Arts District the winner of the first Trail Project series, at least in my book. The more notable point is, there’s a whole passel of bartenders out there who now know how to throw down with pisco, and the person who benefits is you: Get out there and try some of these drinks soon.

Guillen’s plan is to launch a whole new series of bar crawls built around a second spirit, so stay tuned either here or on my Twitter feed at @typewriterninja #trailproject.

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Trail participants strike a pose with the raspberry-infused X Factor, one of several solid pisco cocktails from Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla.

— Marc Ramirez, posted 4/15/13

Pours without pretense: Are Dallas’ cocktail bars keeping it real (casual)?

imageThe Windmill’s Charlie Papaceno: Unpretentious before it was cool.

Interesting story yesterday from The New York Times, which notes the number of craft cocktail joints popping up around the country that are striving for a more casual vibe. These places, the article says, are “part of what is shaping up as a fresh chapter for high-end mixology: a new breed of cocktail bar that seeks to retain the profession’s hard-won artistry while shedding the pretensions that often come with it.”

In other words, the complete opposite of cocktail culture’s stuffy stereotype – things like secret entrances, purposely subtle signage, bans on canned beer and rules against standing at the bar.

But for the most part, when it comes to serious craft cocktails, Dallas ain’t that kind of place anyway. Even The Cedars Social, which this year earned a prestigious James Beard nom for best bar program, has made a habit of stocking Lone Star and Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can for a crowd as likely to come in wearing T-shirts and jeans as much as stiletto heels and Saturday Night sport jackets.

Another draw of these casual bars, the story notes, is their bartenders’ ability to rapidly churn out quality craft drinks for dense crowds without the pomp and production that can often leave you wanting. In other words, what Uptown’s Standard Pour and Tate’s – neither of them exactly hidden away – do on a regular basis for the weekend throngs full of yuppies who thirst more for a quick buzz than for obscure cocktail knowledge. (For the record, I avoid these nights.)

Neither place is particularly stuffy, either, though it must be noted that in Standard Pour’s earlier days Tate’s own head barman J.W. Tate was turned away at the door because of the cap he wore backwards on his head.

As far as strict, quality-cocktail casual goes, these places already exist here: Charlie Papaceno at the divey Windmill Lounge on Maple has been crafting quality drinks since before it was a thing in Dallas. The Black Swan Saloon in Deep Ellum wears no fancypants, and the pubby Libertine on Lower Greenville has Mate Hartai, one of the better cocktailian minds around.

Granted, none of these spots went into business proclaiming themselves to be craft cocktail bars, so maybe the comparison is unfair. But pretension doesn’t go very far in Dallas’ cocktail culture, and so far, the jury is still out on whether people will stand, in line or in temperament, for even the tiniest bit of speakeasy pretension. (I’m looking at you, Bar Smyth.)  There’s something genuine about the scene here that evades the haughtiness that comes with being first. New York and the Bay Area no doubt paved the way for the country’s classic cocktail revival, but those cities are now also, according to the story, discovering the value in being a little less like themselves and a little more, well, like Dallas.

“I do think there are some bartenders out there that have a pretentiousness about them,” says Chris Dempsey of The People’s Last Stand. “But they’re quick to change once they see it affect their business. Most of the guys I know are humble and knowledgeable, which is a pretty good combo, if you ask me.”

What do you think? Do you find Dallas’ cocktail bars pretentious? What do you think about bars that take a “speakeasy’ approach?

Marc Ramirez, posted 4-11-13

Because film festivals need cocktails too: Central 214 offering DIFF specials

The Psycho Smash, one of Central 214’s DIFF cocktails.

Film festivals are a lot of work. Waiting in line, waiting in line: It’s enough to drive you to drink.

Luckily, Central 214 at Dallas’ Hotel Palomar — headquarters for the Dallas International Film Festival — has your best interests in mind. The bar at the Graham Dodds restaurant is featuring two cocktails designed especially for the event by head bartender Amber West.

"I was trying to think of all the great movies," says West, who recalls enjoying moviegoing in the days "before I became a working, crazy mommy."

She came up with the Citizen Kane, whose plot unfolds with High West rye, orange liqueur, maple syrup, lemon and finally a nod to that fateful word, Rosebud.

Then there’s the citrus-y fresh Psycho Smash, a delicious sweet-tea frenzy of Angel’s Envy whiskey, simple syrup, mint, lemon and Angostura bitters. No doubt Mother would be proud.

"Everyone loves a smash," West says between lunch guests, including an HBO documentary maker and an L.A. actress whose film was going to debut that night. "Plus I thought ‘psycho’ and ‘angel’ would go well together. I thought it would be kind of cute."

The $8 drinks will run the duration of the festival, which ends Sunday, and are the ‘8’ part of Central 214’s “2-4-6-8 ” happy-hour promotion of specially priced appetizers.

— Marc Ramirez, posted 4/10/13

Back in the saddle again: Trail Project resumes tonight

 

Above: A pisco cocktail at Dallas’ Central 214 during last Thursday’s crawl.

Last week, I wrote about the Trail Project, a series of neighborhood “cocktail crawls” conceived by La Duni’s Daniel Guillen and Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough to showcase lesser known spirits. Tonight, the fourth of five crawls, all free and open to the public, will muddle through Dallas’ Design District and Oak Cliff neighborhoods.

This first series is built around the project’s initial sponsor, Pisco Porton, with bartenders at each stop crafting cocktails featuring the Peruvian eau de vie. Last week, the less than punctual project lazed its way through the Northpark and Mockingbird Station areas.

Tonight’s event kicks off at Meddlesome Moth in the Design District at about 5:30, to be followed by stops at FT33 and then several venues in Oak Cliff. If you’re interested in joining or just following along, you can track the trail’s whereabouts on Twitter with the hashtag #piscotrail.

— Marc Ramirez, posted 4/4/13

On the pisco trail: One bartender’s mission to raise awareness of lesser known spirits

image La Duni’s Daniel Guillen has a passion he needs to share.

I have seen pisco gone tiki and pisco gone Southern and pisco show grace under pressure. I have seen pisco gone wild, hooking up with a variety of unlikely dance partners: watermelon, smoked balsamic, Champagne, hefeweizen, chocolate bitters, balsamic puree…. and this was all in the span of two nights.

Who knew pisco had it in her? Yes, pisco, the diaphanous Peruvian (and occasionally Chilean) brandy dating to the 16th century. When you think of it in a cocktail, you think of the Pisco Sour, and then… um, the Pisco Punch, and… well, who really thinks about pisco anyway?

Daniel Guillen does. He’s the 24-year-old beverage director at La Duni, and having been bitten by the craft-cocktail bug, he wanted to get other bartenders excited about lesser known spirits and liqueurs. Being Peruvian, he wanted to start off with pisco, and to show that there was more to this smooth, sweet eau de vie than the Pisco Sour.

With the help of Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough – president of the North Texas chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild – he came up with an idea: a weekly series of neighborhood-themed bar crawls, where bartenders at each stop would showcase the featured spirit in a different cocktail or three.

image A Pisco Porton cocktail at Joyce and Gigi’s.

Tonight, the third leg of the Pisco Trail continues, and you’re invited. Never had pisco before? Pisco Porton, the project’s initial sponsor, wants to make sure you have your chance.

“Let’s have bartenders show how they can use pisco,” Guillen says. “Maybe instead of gin in a Negroni, or instead of vodka in a Cosmopolitan…. If mezcal is acceptable, I don’t see why pisco shouldn’t be.”

Parts of the Thursday night neighborhood crawls are even walkable. And anyway, the point is not to finish off every cocktail, but to sample, experience and move on.

image Pisco Porton, the project’s initial sponsor.

The Pisco Trail series started two weeks ago in Knox-Henderson, then moved on to Uptown last week. This week the tour will target the North Park/Mockingbird Station area.

At Knox-Henderson’s Victor Tango, bartender Ivan Rimach made the tangy, refreshing Chilcano, a Peruvian cocktail little known in the U.S.: pisco, ginger soda, lime and bitters. “People would say it’s the Moscow Mule of Peru, but it’s really the Horse’s Neck of Peru,” Guillen said, citing a little known classic.

Next door, at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen, beverage director Chase Streitz gave pisco a Southern spin, mixing it with Champagne and Chambord black raspberry liqueur in a sweet drink he called Pisco In The South.

“We really enjoyed trying a spirit we didn’t know anything about,” Streitz said. “We’d never worked with pisco before.”

“That’s the basis of this whole thing,” Guillen replied.

image At Sunset Lounge, Nico Ponce’s Lani Hana.

Across the street was the Dram, where bartenders Jasin and Ryan each threw down a couple of impressive pisco variations, my favorite taste being the drink I dubbed Down With The Brown – a mix of pisco, vermouth, chocolate bitters and vanilla extract finished off with a flamed orange twist.

The Pisco Trail concluded its Knox-Henderson crawl at Porch and the Old Monk, then resumed last week in Uptown with stops at Joyce and Gigi’s, Sunset Lounge, P/S, Standard Pour and Tate’s.

At Sunset, Nico Ponce tossed out an insane barrage of at least a half-dozen tiki-themed pisco drinks to sample, including a pisco Mai Tai. Among my favorites was the Hawaiian Room, a blend of pisco, Applejack and Sailor Jerry spiced rum that started as sweet tea and finished like a vanilla wafer.

Guillen seemed pleased. “Before I hit this place, I never thought Pisco could go tiki,” he said. “Before we hit Sissy’s, I never thought it could go Southern.”

image At P/S, a Pisco Sour transfoamed.

At P/S, head barman Rocco Milano started things off with the Pisco Espuma, a Pisco Sour in pressurized form spewed foam-like into a spoon. Then came the Peruvian Shandy, a group favorite in which he married pisco with lemon, simple syrup and Franconia Hefeweizen. “The acidity plays particularly well with the hefeweizen,” he said, “and helps the pisco come out in the finish.”

Standard Pour was an experience: Brian McCullough started with Pisco Kid Rides Again Into The Fiery Sunset, an elaborate production involving a cedar-chip-smoked coupe filled with pisco, pineapple shrub, smoked balsamic, lemon, Peychaud’s and egg white, followed by Armando Guillen’s (Daniel’s brother) drink, the Incan Resemblance, one of the most beautiful and tasty drinks on the tour.

At Tate’s, J.W. Tate dropped the perfect digestif with the Muy Criollo, mixing pisco with Bonal (a French aperitif wine) and three kinds of vinegary shrub.

image Standard Pour’s McCullough employed cedar-chip-smoked coupes to make his epically named drink.

What Guillen hopes is that bartenders will learn to appreciate the products he hopes to showcase and start adding them to their inventories, and thus, their repertoire, which in turn will enrich the customer experience.

“I hope people will experience out-of-the-box cocktails instead of just the classics,” Guillen says. “That’s what bartenders get excited about. And if you’re adventurous, which you should be every time you go to a bar, you’re going to have a good experience.”

Join the tour tonight (Thursday 3/28) if you can. Stops are planned at La Duni Northpark starting at 7:30, with Bowl and Barrel, Central 214, The People’s Last Stand and Smyth to follow. I’ll hope to tweet as we go with the hashtag #piscotrail, so feel free to follow at @typewriterninja to figure out the tour’s whereabouts.

At the end of the series, I’ll post my favorite pisco cocktails from along the way.

Something whiskey this way comes

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Like dinner with your whiskey? Then Tate’s in Dallas has a treat for you – a five-course dinner by FT-33’s Josh Black, to be paired with selected whiskies at the Uptown neighborhood bar.

The April 17 event is unsponsored, which will allow Tate’s to showcase some of its more interesting bottles. Rare whiskies such as Michter’s Sour Mash, Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project and, most excitingly, Parker’s Heritage 6th Edition Cask Stength “Blend of Mashbills” Bourbon will complement Black’s rad menu. (Three words: Fried pig ears.)

The dinner is the second cocktail-paired event Tate’s has put on. Last year, head barman J.W. Tate and his crew cranked out cocktails to go along with dishes from underground-dinner master David Anthony Temple. If you want to know why you should think about forking out the extra $30 for the optional cocktails J.W. will be pairing with Black’s $50 dinner, consider this: Last time around, one of J.W.’s concoctions involved chanterelle- and pink-peppercorn-infused vodka designed to play off Chef DAT’s arugula salad.

Wine by the bottle and Tate’s’ full cocktail menu will also be available via walk-up service. To ask about reservations, email Tate’s at info@tatesdallas.com.

— Marc Ramirez, posted 3/27/13

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