Dallas is Oz on a black-dirt prairie. The city’s considerable charms are the accomplishments of human enterprise rather than the gift of natural vistas. People here shop, eat and drink with undisguised verve.
While Dallas has had a distinguished dining scene since Southwestern cuisine blew open in the 1980s, and one that’s gotten ever more varied, the city has only recently embraced a drinks culture that’s as distinctive. It is closing the gap, though. Purveyors of craft cocktails are introducing Prohibition-era classics to history-challenged twenty-somethings, but also providing sly twists and modern takes on what could be dubbed the liquid arts.
“Professional bartenders are capable of delivering a unique, flavorful and well-balanced culinary experience in a glass,” says Rocco Milano, bar manager at Top Chef competitor Tiffany Derry’s Private Social restaurant.
Barkeeps are busily innovating from the northern suburb of Plano, at Whiskey Cake and Pepper Smash, to Fort Worth to the west (Whiskey & Rye) to center-city venues such as the People’s Last Stand, the Standard Pour and the Chesterfield.
Keith LaBonte, who developed the initial cocktail list for Pepper Smash and runs the tiny Four Lounge in Dallas’ State-Thomas neighborhood, really takes that culinary experience idea to heart by bringing the kitchen to the bar. Some of his concoctions—heady mash-ups of savory, smoky or sweet—are more like salads in a glass. For instance, the namesake Pepper Smash is comprised of Tito’s Handmade vodka, pulverized red bell peppers, caramelized onions, a sautéed jalapeño, basil and lime juice.
“A great chef told me once you want to create a sauce or dip that enhances the main course but doesn’t steal the show. That’s so true today, even with cocktails,” says LaBonte. “Finding that perfect balance takes years to master. Most mixologists mask their cocktails with one flavor overpowering another.”
Taking on the classics
Fans of classic cocktails, on both sides of the bar, might roll their eyes at LaBonte’s gastronomic perorations. But their passion is indulged at numerous other spots in Dallas.
Bartenders Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Michael Martensen were bending their customers’ ears about the classics and delighting their taste buds with Sazeracs, Aviations and Sidecars a decade before the mixology boom began in Dallas. All that evangelism has paid off: Now they’re the high priests at popular temples to old-school cocktailing—Campbell at the Chesterfield downtown and Martensen at the Cedars Social, in a rapidly gentrifying area south of downtown.
Both establishments feature encyclopedic menus suffused with lore and history: how Sazeracs were first (and best) made with Cognac; the 19th-century origins of fizzes; the way Prohibition changed everything about drinking and more.
“We wanted the menu to say, ‘This is what we do, we’re not just the extension of a restaurant,’” says Martensen. But he adds that education is only part of the formula for success at the Cedars Social and other such cocktail lounges. People drive the experience.
“A lot has to do with the personality behind the bar,” says Martensen. “You order an Old Fashioned now, and they’re happier to make an Old Fashioned than pour a beer. It speaks volumes about the culture of the workforce.”
Campbell gets a thrill whenever customers enjoy a spirit they previously disliked. “Classic cocktails were more balanced, so that the flavor is greater than the sweetness or tartness. We hear it all the time, ‘This is the only place I drink bourbon.’”
Earning bar-goers’ trust is also key for Jason Kosmas, who made his mark at Manhattan’s famed Employees Only and looms large on the Dallas scene. He’s beverage director at the Village Marquee Texas Bar & Grill in the ritzy Highland Park Village shopping center and created drink menus at Malai and Mesa restaurants.
During an earlier Dallas gig, at Neighborhood Services Tavern, Kosmas came up with a variation of the Pisco Sour he dubbed the Egg Man—as in the Beastie Boys song. He infused the sour with roasted pineapple. “The pineapple was the draw,” says Kosmas. “That would lead people to other questions: What’s Pisco? Why eggs?”
Cultivating the cocktail culture
The curiosity of customers and creativity of bartenders came together to propel two events in 2012 that demonstrated this maturing cocktail culture, Craft Cocktails Texas and the Dallas Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival. At Craft Cocktails Texas, professionals lectured on topics that included cocktail party best practices (Campbell) and the use and history of bitters (Milano) at the swanky Stoneleigh Hotel. The whiskey festival drew about 1,500 to a hangar at the suburban Addison Airport, where 200 liquors were represented.
One of those was from a local start-up, the Firestone & Robertson distillery in Fort Worth. Its first offering of TX Blended Whiskey flew out of stores and found shelf space at establishments such as Chamberlain’s Steak and Chop House in Addison. Owners Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson were determined to create a blend that rivaled the best Canadians.
“Canadian blended whisky is the most popular in Texas,” says Robertson. “We wanted to capture those Texas loyalties with a homegrown product by making something that could be in the same category.” Adds Firestone, “Given it’s a premium, our goal was to create something with a lot of body, traditional bourbon-whiskey characteristics, without that spiciness that some people object to.”
So now producers have joined consumers and purveyors in the pursuit of superior drinking in Dallas.
Jerry Bokamper is the night-life columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Read more at www.misterdallas.com. Follow him on Twitter: @misterdallasvip.
Don’t-miss Dallas drinks destinations
Two upscale hotel bars pull in lively crowds most evenings and feature distinguished cocktails. They’re the Mansion Bar at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Library Bar at the Warwick Melrose
Get a taste of Dallas glamour at the Village Marquee Grill & Bar and Bistro 31, both in Highland Park Village. Bistro 31’s upstairs lounge emphasizes sparkling wine cocktails.
Dallas has a slew of relatively new cocktail bars as well. Three of the best sit along the same short stretch of McKinney Avenue: Tate’s, the Standard Pour and Private Social.–JB
Editor’s note: Dallas mixologist Keith LaBonte passed away suddenly on Nov. 18, 2012. To read Mr. Dallas’ tribute, visit this article in the Dallas Morning News.