Where there's smoke, there's now fire: In DFW, 2015 was the year that mezcal busted out of its stall. For a long time the distinctively smoky Mexican spirit crept on the fringes, prized by straight-up sipping purists and embraced by bartenders who carefully nudged it into cocktails, if only as a lesser sidekick, the Robin to tequila's Batman.
That all changed in 2015, as mezcal shone in starring roles all over town, reflecting the rising quality and popularity of Mexico's agave-based spirits. At Blind Butcher, Ian Reilly - now at Americano - used mezcal in a saturnine Hanky Panky variation, while other bartenders led mezcal toward bitter ends: Black Swan's Gabe Sanchez employed Aperol and a Szechuan peppercorn tincture in the sultry True Romance, and Bolsa's Marcos Hernandez struck oil with his Wildcatter, which marched mezcal into earthy Fernet territory.
Tequila, too, had star turns, notably Michael Martensen's cucumber-cool See You Again at Madrina, Randall Warder's Spiced Cider Martini at Clark F&W and Carlo Biddle's crowd-pleasing avocado margarita at his now-defunct Tippling Lair.
At newcomer Armoury D.E., Peter Notovny's Vulgar Display of Sour was a refreshing splash of gin and kitchen potpourri; Austin-based Waterloo Antique aged gin wowed in Jason Long's velvety Negroni spin at Abacus and again at Parliament, where Drew Garison mixed it with Scandinavian aquavit for his ambitious Fractioned Truth.
At Ida Claire, Bonnie Wilson's tobacco-leaf syrup slapped some tasty leather on her Tobacco Peach Julep, while at Tate's, Robbie Call made perfect harmony with his take on an Argentinian Fernet-and-Coke. Finally, at Lakewood bar Cosmo's, Bradley Stogsdill and Jackson Tran revived the horribly named but absolutely delicious Chartreuse-ito under a new name - Two Revolutions - eschewing rum altogether and subbing citrus-y yerbabuena for traditional mint.
Yes, 2015 was a good time to be into cocktails around DFW. While my tastes lean toward bitter or smoky, I appreciate any drink that offers a mouthful of an experience, that takes your palate down a rabbit-hole where every ingredient, down to the garnish, is discernible or enhancing in some way.
Here were my favorite 15 craft-cocktails of 2015.
15. FOSCO NEGRONI (James Slater, Oak)
The classic Negroni - a simple mix of gin, sweet vermouth and the Italian bitter Campari - is one of my go-to cocktails, but Slater rocked it into hyperdrive at this Design District restaurant with a version dubbed for the original drink's creator, Fosco Scarselli. Slater infused his Campari with vanilla bean, mixing it with chocolate-y Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and the honey-tinged Barr Hill gin; the result hits your sweet spots while maintaining its classic form, with a blood-orange garnish ushering home Campari's luscious fruity finish.
14. RXPX (Mate Hartai, Remedy)
Remedy's old-style soda-fountain on Lower Greenville was the perfect setting for mixmaster Mate Hartai to unleash a bit of milkshake fun on the masses. Pedro Ximenez sherry is among the richer versions of the Spanish fortified wine's many varieties, and its raisin-like notes make it a nice topping for, say, vanilla ice cream. Hartai bounced that idea on its head, adding a scoop of vanilla to an ounce of sherry and topping it with a balsamic cherry. With baking spice flavors, sherry undertones and tart cherry accent, it's sinfully decadent. "It's basically a Pedro Ximenez milkshake," Hartai says. "The three flavors play really well together, and then you have that cherry, and it's, like - boom." Mr. Hartai, I drink your milkshake.
13. BLOOD AND SMOKE (Brad Stogsdill, Cosmo's)
A longtime bartender at this Lakewood dive bar, Stogsdill has been venturing more and more into the world of craft cocktails. Like a lot of people, he took a shine to mezcal and especially liked how it plays with grapefruit. But he knew that the smoky spirit, when sipped straight, is traditionally paired with orange slices, while orange is a driving flavor of bitter Campari. "I was probably just tinkering around," he says. "But mezcal, orange and Campari, it just seemed to go all together." His creation - a pool party of mezcal, Campari, orange, agave nectar and orange bitters - is a bull in a chute, brutish smoke tamed by sweet citrus.
12. NICARAGUAN FIX (Benj Pocta, Small Brewpub)
There's a lot to love about Oak Cliff's Small Brewpub, from its modest if carefully curated selection of craft beer and spirits to its admirable range of bitter liqueurs. (And the food. Try the food.) The cocktail menu, too, is typically small but artfully composed - and this gem showed up early in the year, a mix of rum, coffee bitters and gomme syrup. Pocta's version with Appleton rum, served in an Old-Fashioned glass over crushed ice, was a savory sipper, part coffee bean, part Cherry Coke.
11. MARGARITA PA'LLEVAR (Daniel Guillen, TBD Kitchen)
You think you've seen all the Margaritas there are to see and then you feast your gaze upon Daniel Guillen's Margarita Pa'Llevar, consisting of Cimarron tequila, herbal Damiana liqueur, lime and piloncillo, a syrup made from a Latin American cane sugar. Served in a plastic bag, corralled in a glass, it evokes the street beverages of the Peruvian-born Guillen's South American homeland. (Pa'Llevar is a colloquial shortening of "para llevar" - in other words, a Margarita to-go.) Now on the menu at recently opened TBD Kitchen in Castle Hills, it was among the drinks he featured at a South American dinner at Deep Ellum's Twenty Seven in June, sipped through a straw coated with chamoy - a south-of-the-border fruit pulp flavored with lime and chile - for added kick.
10. BENITO JUAREZ (staff, Mexican Sugar)
In Oaxaca and increasingly elsewhere -- including DFW -- mezcal is sipped straight with accompanying orange slices and sal de gusano, a blend of sea salt, chile powder and the ground-up remains of toasted moth larvae. I'd thought the salty mix too aggressive for cocktails until I found this excellent elixir devised by a former bar man at Mexican Sugar, at The Shops at Legacy in Plano. He took the restaurant's chipotle puree, mixed it with mezcal, orange, lime, honey and orange liqueur, dusting half the glass with the sal de gusano. It's a brilliant blend of heat, sweet, citrus, umami and tradition.
9. REBEL YELL (Matt Ragan, Victor Tangos)
Having infused bourbon with chamomile tea at this Knox-Henderson staple, bar program manager Matt Ragan took a whiff of his creation. Orgeat, a common tiki component, sprung to mind, so he ran with it, adding coconut, vanilla, lemon and a few dashes of Angostura bitters. Served over crushed ice with a sprinkling of chamomile tea both decorative and functional -- the herbs slip into your sip, adding texture and flavor -- it's a frothy fest of citrus and sweet bourbon, with a lingering chamomile finish. Said GuideLive colleague Tiney Ricciardi: "I honestly feel like I would drink a snow cone like that."
8. KERN AND OLE (Eddie Eakin, Rapscallion)
Another concoction that began with a fabulous ingredient, this one came from a recipe Eakin had found for falernum, a Caribbean almond syrup, as bar manager at Oak Cliff's Boulevardier. Tweaking the mix of baking spice and citrus zest to his own design, Eakin put it into action at Rapscallion, Boulevardier's new sister restaurant on Lower Greenville. A reinvention of the classic Corn and Oil, Eakin's drink uses Black Barrel rum (like bourbon, finished in re-charred barrels) for a Southern twist, plus his homemade falernum and decanter bitters, topping it all with a charred lime. "I just wanted a platform for the falernum, because it was so dang tasty," Eakin says. It's served without a straw; you're forced to get in there and smell that lime, to wondrously smoky effect.
7. RED PEGASUS REDUX (Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, Midnight Rambler)
A Texas play on the Americano, a classic Italian aperitif cocktail, this drink was an arrestingly refreshing mix of grapefruit and Texas-cedar-infused Suze, a French bitter liqueur. Named after the iconic red Pegasus of downtown Dallas, it was actually a re-do of a similar drink conceived for CBD Provisions that played off the besties bond between grapefruit and gentian, a common ingredient in such bitter liqueurs. For the Redux at Midnight Rambler, their subterranean drinky den in downtown Dallas, Solomon and Pope infused Suze sous-vide with a tincture made from essential oils of Texas cedar, bergamot, vetiver and ginger. Combined with Suze's gorgeous astringency, the cocktail garnered national props. "I thought, let's push the woodsy-ness of the gentian into cedar territory," Solomon says. "I thought anyone who liked Negronis or Americanos would like that drink, but you never know. And it connected."
6. MR. BROWN GOES TO OAXACA (Creighten Brown, Tate's)
Monday nights are half-price agave nights at this Uptown establishment, which make it a great time to check out Creighten Brown's avant-garde concoctions. For this clean and smoky masterpiece, he paired Vago Espadin mezcal with herbal Grand Poppy, dry vermouth and dashes of spicy and chocolate bitters. Simply presented with a lemon twist, its harnessed, slightly sweet smokiness is like sipping mezcal from a pure mountain stream. Which, by the way, would be a pretty awesome thing.
5. SMOKE RING (Moses Guidry, Twenty Seven)
Cool, fresh and effectively presented, this agave version of a Pisco Sour was the premier highlight offering from chef David Anthony Temple's new spot in Deep Ellum. A pachanga of mezcal, tequila, simple syrup and lime, frothed up with egg white and muddled cucumber, it's presented in a coupe with a swirl of Peychaud's bitters, a dash of sea salt and a jalapeno coin. Guidry's breezy beverage pleases the eyes, nose and finally the tongue with a finish of jalapeno heat. "It's just a great way to introduce mezcal to people who haven't had it or who think it's too intense in other cocktails they've tried," he says.
4. SESAME DAIQUIRI (Jordan Gantenbein, Abacus)
Playing off Kent Rathbun's five-star, Asian-influenced cuisine, bartender Jordan Gantenbein delectably doctored a classic daiquiri at this Knox-Henderson mainstay. Mixing rum with yuzu, sesame oil, toasted sesame syrup and a black-sesame-seed-coated rim, he created an absolutely nutty experience of sesame aroma followed by flavors of nut, citrus and chewy sesame bread-iness. "You don't expect a cocktail to be so nutty," Gantenbein says. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street? Never mind, I've already found it.
3. SPEAK OF THE DEVIL (Peter Novotny, Armoury D.E.)
Another take on the under-appreciated Pisco Sour, Novotny's crafty blend is inspired by his own Hungarian background. "I grew up on Hungarian liqueurs like Pecsetes," he says, referring to an apricot brandy made there. "It's basically an eau de vie, like pisco. They're like Hungarian moonshine." Being a fan of sours, he took the Pisco Sour's blend of brandy, citrus, simple syrup, egg white and Peruvian chuncho bitters and added Hungarian Slivovitz plum liqueur, with a boost of Pedro Ximenez port for even more plum flavor. It's a delightfully fruity-sweet homage to classic and cultural origins.
2. BUZZ-CAT (Eddie Eakin and staff, Boulevardier)
The craft-cocktail renaissance has inspired a resurgence of classic spirits, among them Old Tom gin, the spirit's 18th-century, slightly sweeter cousin. Among the best is the phenomenal barrel-aged Tom Cat, made by Vermont's Barr Hill, a former bee farm that infuses its spirits with a signature honey flavor. It also happens to be sold in distinctive, smaller bottles that were just the size bar program manager Eakin needed for his syrups and juices at newly opening Rapscallion, so he ordered a batch of Tom Cat for sister restaurant Boulevardier. Charged with putting the spirit to good use, Boulevardier's staff used it in the Steep Buzz, a celebrated cocktail that Eakin devised in 2013 using gin, Earl Grey-tea-infused honey syrup, apple bitters, lemon juice and ginger. Garnishing it with a baked apple slice, the result is a honey-perfect blend of autumny, apple-pie aroma, herbal Tom Cat spice and lingering lemon-ginger bite. This is the cocktail Tom Cat was born to be in. "We were just trying to pour through it," bartender Ashley Williams explains. "And it just caught on."
1. HOLY SMOKE (Hector Zavala, Atwater Alley)
The drink menu is minimal at this weekend speakeasy behind Henry's Majestic in Knox-Henderson, so Alex Fletcher's bar crew wings it on the whims of its patrons. Zavala says women often ask for something with mint or cucumber, a request he fulfills with the classic Eastside cocktail, which pairs gin with lime, simple syrup, mint and cucumber. But the Torreon, Mexico-born bar man is also an avid fan of mezcal and brainstormed this gem with smoky sage using the same template; garnished with a bit of sage and showmanship, it's a basic but badass blend of Wahaka mezcal, lime, simple, grapefruit liqueur and muddled celery and sage. Launched with a double-handed shake of sage to the gods and appropriately adorned, Zavala's expression of smoke, citrus and musky herb elicits a reaction worthy of its name.
The next 10, in alphabetical order: Battle of New Orleans (Matt Perry, Neighborhood Services); Bolivar Old-Fashioned (Daniel Guillen, TBD Kitchen); Brazilian Nut Job (Alex Fletcher, Henry's Majestic); Exclusivo (Kyle Hilla, Bolsa); Lips are Movin' (Michael Martensen, Madrina); Oleomaize (Mate Hartai, Remedy); Passion of the Juniper (Armando Guillen, The Standard Pour); Rider of the Purple Sage (Chad Solomon, Midnight Rambler); Texas Shandy (Michael Jordan, Clark F&W), Yu-Kuza (Andrew Stofko, Victor Tangos).