It only took 15 minutes for Bryan Townsend's whole life to change course.
In 2008, he left a job he loathed only to meet a struggling economy. Money was tight, and few companies were hiring; Townsend almost had to sell his house to stay afloat. With little left to lose, he decided to act on a long-term goal to train his dog, Trigger, to be a therapy animal.
Trigger was the inspiration, but a little girl Townsend and his dog met at Our Children's House in Grapevine ended up being the catalyst to his life's 180-degree turn. She was "having a really rough time" in therapy one day, Townsend says, and her reaction to Trigger moved him to create a nonprofit called Trigger's Toys, which in the eight years since has raised more than $1 million to help children with medical needs but limited means.
"It was one of those miraculous things," says Townsend, a locally renowned bartender and vice president of sales for spirits company the 86 Co. "The light bulb went off."
The organization's signature fundraiser is the Ultimate Cocktail Experience, which brings six pop-up bars to Klyde Warren Park in Dallas on Sept. 30. Townsend assembled a team of 110 to 120 mixologists from around the world, who were split into groups and tasked with creating original bar concepts that transport drinkers to six reputable cocktail cities: Hong Kong, Havana, Mexico City, Casablanca, London and New Orleans. And you can expect the participants to go all out.
"I told them, 'You need to work with a graphic designer to have a logo, a bar name, a social media platform and full concept,'" Townsend says.
Each bar will have a drink menu that includes one classic cocktail synonymous with that city. A $60 ticket to the event buys six libations, a complimentary glass of bubbly upon arrival and a meal ticket redeemable at the on-site food trucks. A seventh city, Las Vegas, will also be represented -- Townsend is setting up a bubble bar with casino games that attendees can indulge in for an extra cost.
The idea for the Ultimate Cocktail Experience originated in 2011, when Townsend enlisted his peers in the service industry for a similar event called the Fantasy Bar Draft. Bartenders would divide into teams, create a concept and invite local drinkers to the pop-ups for discounted cocktails, the proceeds from which Townsend used to buy gifts for hospitalized children. Each year, the event grew, and so did the funds raised -- from $10,000 the first year to $100,000 in 2015.
In 2016, Klyde Warren Park hosted the inaugural Ultimate Cocktail Experience, a refined version of the Fantasy Bar Draft that elevated its charitable mission and aimed to entice even casual cocktail drinkers. Today, the funds benefit a variety of charities, including Bryan's House in Dallas, which offers medical and respite care and social services to underprivileged families.
It's a fun event with a simple goal: To bring the bartending community together for one night where the only people who benefit are the people we're supposed to help, Townsend says.
We'll drink to that.
Featured drinks at the 2017 Ultimate Cocktail Experience
We asked the pop-up bar captains about the classic libations they'll be serving.
Casablanca: a mule
WHAT'S IN IT? Vodka, lime and ginger beer
"The spice element brings a Moroccan flavor to the drink," says Andrew Stofko of Hot Joy in Dallas. "We are employing a pomegranate-cinnamon kind of grenadine, both things which are traditionally consumed or used in Morocco. The ginger, too, the staple of the mule, is apparently considered one of the most important spices used in Moroccan cuisine."
Havana: a daiquiri
WHAT'S IN IT? Rum, lime and sugar
Ravinder Singh from Rapscallion in Dallas quoted writer Jake Emen in his description: "Certain drinks are intrinsically and unapologetically matched to their homes of origin, ideal libations which bring together a time and a place, a city and a mood. Close your eyes and picture the daiquiri and Havana, a drink and city pairing more perfect than any other that collective human intelligence has yet brought together."
Hong Kong: a Rob Roy
WHAT'S IN IT? Scotch whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters
"The global whiskey revival over the last decade-plus did not miss Hong Kong," says Robbie Call of FT33 in Dallas. "Hong Kong is home to a number of specialty bars, many of which focus specifically on that sweet, sweet elixir."
London: a gin and tonic
WHAT'S IN IT? Gin and tonic water
"We've let quality drop in this country and more or less relegated the G+T to a flat, wimpy club highball," says Omar Yeefoon, co-owner of Shoals Sound and Service in Deep Ellum. "Everywhere you go in London, you are likely to get a pour of your choice of gin, ice and a nice quality bottled tonic poured in a medium-height, thin glass."
Mexico City: a margarita
WHAT'S IN IT? Tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and agave nectar, with a salt rim
"I'm always surprised by how fresh and simple the drinks are in Mexico," says Brad Hensarling of the Usual bar in Fort Worth. "Everyone can make a great margarita because they've either never known the horrors of sweet and sour mix or were never willing to give in to that demon out of pride for a drink that has represented their culture and agriculture for generations."
New Orleans: a Sazerac
WHAT'S IN IT? Cognac, sugar, an absinthe rinse, Peychaud's Bitters and water
New Orleans' classic cocktail "is one of the oldest recorded cocktails in America," says Keisha Allen, bar maven at Shoals in Deep Ellum. "The phylloxera epidemic decimated the grape spirit industry, and Sazeracs turned to rye whiskey in the 1800s. I think it is a great representation of my city because it shows a long history, whilst encountering change and overcoming or adapting to it, just like New Orleans always has."