Ever since it burst onto the scene nearly two years ago, Midnight Rambler has regularly offered up one of the more ambitious cocktail rotations in Dallas. That can be largely credited to co-creator Chad Solomon, the New York City-trained bartender - and veteran of such places as the famed Milk & Honey and Pegu Club - whose bold and borderline geeky creations are always thoughtfully composed, conceived and curated.
Rambler's glorious setting, in the lower level of the Joule Hotel, is stunning, and while I wasn't blown away by the bar's inaugural drink menu, Solomon's lineups have proved increasingly sublime with each seasonal reboot.
The current summer lineup is his best yet: It lassoes the ongoing tiki trend and wrenches it into dark and adventurous places, infusing the genre's cheery Asian South Sea island vibe with hard edges and soulful energy tracing the global Ring of Fire and beyond.
"It's a gritty tiki," Solomon says. "We wanted to do something more global, with tropical regions around the world touched by colonialism, man-eating animals and African rhythms."
In other words, this ain't your daddy's Mai Tai. This is dark spice and jungle heat fueled by a soundtrack of steel drums and surf guitars. Take the Samoan War Club, a mix of aged spiced Jamaican rum, agricole rum, West Indian bay leaf, lime sugar oil and the lime-almond influence of falernum, sweetened up with a rich syrup made from gula jawa. Made from coconut sap, it's one of the world's oldest sugars, Solomon says, with "sort of a meaty umami-ness." The drink is also the menu's most "woodsy," making up for the absence of any whiskey cocktail in the lineup.
The Purgatory Lost is another standout, incorporating poblano for an appropriately hot finish; so, too is the Neon Lilikoi, a radiantly presented blended-Scotch beaut whose passionfruit rush is held in check with a hint of black cardamom tincture. While Asian flavors -- criminally underused in cocktails -- are prominent, as in the Savory Hunter, which incorporates lemongrass, cilantro and Thai chili, there are also nods to South America, Africa and the coffee-growing regions of Hawaii.
Make the rich Grasshopper-inspired Komodo Dragon your last drink of the night; its traditional mix of minty Fernet Menta and cacao is supplemented not with heavy cream but with coconut milk and a syrup made from tantalizingly sweet Southeast Asian pandan leaf.
But my favorite of the bunch is the Tiger Style, built on a platform of Batavia Arrack, a rum-like, sugar-cane-based spirit from Southeast Asia. Featuring calamansi (an acidic blend of citrus and kumquat), rich palm sugar, Indonesian black pepper tincture, egg white and earthy cassia spritzed atop a dehydrated lime, it's a triumph of creamy orange spice dashed with a hint of Fireball cologne.
"It was, like, how do we put Indonesia and the Philippines into a glass?" Solomon says. "The more you drink it, the more your lips tingle."
It's a hefty, not dainty, drink, a psychedelic Snickerdoodle - or at least that's what my quivering fingers wrote as I pearl-dove into the cocktail's delicious depths.
"It takes you into the exotic," Solomon says, "and intentionally so."
Wild things, you make my heart sing.