The Best Artisanal Cocktails in Dallas
We've finally given up our sour apple martinis and started paying attention to what we imbibe.
The sun is bright, and bars on Lower Henderson Avenue are crawling with happy young people in T-shirts ordering pitchers of beer on patios. But inside Neighborhood Services Tavern, at its small, crowded bar, the scene is darker, moodier, with better music and drinks. At the bar sits the most influential man in modern cocktail history, Dale DeGroff, the man who worked at the world-famous Rainbow Room in New York in the 1980s, the man whom the New York Times has credited for being "single-handedly responsible for what's been called the cocktail renaissance." He's delivering an abbreviated version of the speech he just finished at his private margarita seminar at Hotel ZaZa, which began with a field trip down the produce aisle of Whole Foods Market. He holds aloft a lime from the bar.
"You telling me you can't squeeze this?" he asks. DeGroff looks like the man on the wall behind him, Steve McQueen, if he'd lived into his 60s. The young women flanking him giggle. "Are you f---ing kidding me?"
DeGroff is debunking the long-standing fallacy that profit is lost when bartenders start thinking they're chefs, because making cocktails with fresh, high-end ingredients is too expensive and time consuming. Of course a top-shelf margarita requires freshly squeezed lime juice. Any bartender worth his rim salt can cut and squeeze a lime in a flash. More important, he says, customers increasingly demand a more complex cocktail. It's the same transformation the restaurant industry went through in the '90s with food. It used to be that dried herbs and powdered cheese were okay on your pasta; suddenly fresh basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano were required.
"There hasn't been a more exciting time in the American cocktail industry than right now, this moment," DeGroff says. "It's a sea change in the craft of bartending. It's a perfect storm: high-end products, the culinary explosion, and customers who want that freshness and spice and creativity they're seeing with their food."
DeGroff trails his finger down the cocktail menu and expounds on what he finds—e.g., the Egg Man (pineapple-infused pisco, raw egg white, lime juice, nutmeg, Angostura bitters)—and then points at the mustachioed man behind the bar who created that drink. "Dallas is a great cocktail town now, and this guy here is one of the main reasons. Why do you think I'm here?"
If DeGroff was the industry's savior, reintroducing pre-Prohibition levels of sophistication, Jason Kosmas is one of his prophets. He took DeGroff's lead and in the '90s managed and opened New York lounges (Pravda, then Employees Only) that helped spread the word that mixed drinks could have a style and heritage, a depth, that put them on par with great plates of food. Although the affable, humble Kosmas would deny it, his full-time presence in Dallas served notice that the cocktail culture had arrived. (Kosmas would go on to leave NST before I finished reporting this story, but more on that in a minute.)
The truth is that Dallas, long known as a city of great chefs, has in the past few years quietly become one of the top U.S. spots for great cocktail creations. That's because a core group of mixologists—Kosmas, Michael Martensen, Eddie "Lucky" Campbell, and others—has embraced the five tenets of the classic cocktail program (fresh juice, forgotten spirits, adventurous liqueurs, the speakeasy scene, and a swinging style). In turn, their drinks have increased the city's cocktail IQ. It's a story of a few bartenders banding together to fight close-minded restaurant owners and a cosmo-swilling clientele.
To Kosmas, of course, it's simpler than that. "Some people think cocktails are for lounges only. We think they should go with food. It shouldn't shock people," he says, "but for some reason it does."
It's 11 am on a Saturday, and in his one-room apartment off Greenville Avenue, Lucky Campbell, in his usual fedora and t-shirt, is still trying to get his bearings. He tends bar at Bolsa, and last night the place was packed. There are several local bars with deserved reputations for serving high-end cocktails—the Mansion Bar, Victor Tango's, Smoke, The Usual in Fort Worth, Neighborhood Services Tavern—and several others that have reputations but whose omission from this article was not an accident. It's safe to say that Bolsa belongs among the elite. Largely that's due to the disorderly state of Campbell and his apartment.
More than 50 bottles of liquor fill one corner. A go-bag bursting with bar tools and bottles lies by the door. Campbell opens more than a dozen jars of roots, herbs, and fruits steeping in grain alcohol. This is how you make bitters. They're all labeled with black marker on masking tape: pink peppercorn, angelica root, horehound, wormwood, mugwort, dragon fruit, others. It's like an apothecary married a drunk.
He takes a long, deep whiff of one jar and holds it out. "Smell that, dude," he says. The jar is marked "Black Walnut Leaf." It smells nutty and earthen, like, say, black walnuts and leaves.
Campbell researches the history of drinks obsessively and isn't shy about sharing what he knows with whoever happens to be sitting on a bar stool in front of him. That intensity, combined with a mixing manner that can be charitably be described as "flashy," makes him a polarizing figure among customers who know their stuff. Some employers, too. Campbell was fired from Screen Door for making a true Ramos gin fizz for a customer, despite being told he wasn't to go off-menu.
But other bartenders love him, and in the quiet of his apartment-laboratory, it's easy to see why. He pulls out Prohibition-era cocktail manuals to discuss inspiration, demonstrates the best way to hold a mixing spoon, creates a new bottle of bitters with his guest to show how it's done. (Eric's Bitters No. 1 should be rounding into its peppercorn-orange flavor profile about the time you read this.) He rails on the evils of batching (premixing ingredients or drinks beforehand).
Now he's evangelizing about using ice chopped and shaved from a large block when possible. He plops the big imperfectly square cube he's fashioned into a lowball glass and mixes three fingers of an old-fashioned, a beverage he declines to imbibe when offered the final sip.
"Hey, no, sorry, dude," Campbell says. "I don't drink."
Then he takes a hit from a 2-foot-long glass bong before launching into a disquisition about how the Dallas bar scene has grown so fast in the past five years.
"Dallas' bar scene has been guided by the old-school restaurants," he says. "They don't see the value of slowing down, of taking the time to make your drinks properly, the way you do someone's food. That's why there hasn't been a true cocktail lounge in Dallas. But we're changing that. Me. Mike. Jason. Abe. We geek out on this stuff, we try each other's stuff, we critique and compliment and challenge each other. And through that, you know, that brotherhood, we take all the best stuff back to our bars, and—if we can remember what the hell it was we made last night that was so damn perfect—we've got more progressive owners now who will let us push these drinks onto the menu. It's a beautiful thing."
He checks his watch. It's almost 1 o'clock. "Mike should be up by now. If not, let's wake him up. He can tell you how it all began."
Jerry Thomas wrote the seminal book Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks or a Bon Vivant's Companion, published in 1862. But Harry Johnson is the man who wrote the bartender's bibles some 25 years later. They had chapters like "To Know How a Customer Desires His Drink To Be Mixed" and "How To Keep Ants and Other Insects Out of Mixing Bottles." They have recipes for hundreds of drinks. The best part about re-reading his books, which Michael Martensen owns, is seeing a picture of Johnson's handlebar mustache—a look Martensen shares.
Martensen's apartment off Travis Street is like Campbell's after the maid has come. His spice shelf, his bitters collection, his bartender library, even Martensen's go-bag are more compact and neat.
"I've got to have my mise en place," says the soft-spoken Martensen, who, with his facial hair and wide back, looks like a circus strongman. "Everything in place. It's the way I work in the kitchen and behind the bar."
To put me in my place, Martensen spends a few hours making sure I understand the history of cocktails pre-, during, and post-Prohibition. Absinthe is discussed, as is the Volstead Act. How Dallas finally got from those classic cocktails—the gimlet, a Manhattan—to an Oswald's Corridor (Campbell's outstanding mix of bourbon, Cherry Heering, Punt e Mes bitter vermouth, absinthe, and orange essence) is a story Martensen can tell only after the stage has been properly set.
Martensen was having a blast working at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado, a five-star hotel serving expensive bourbons to Texans on vacation. He then moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts, when a friend who was consulting for John Tesar, the new chef of the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek at the time, called and asked him to take over the cocktail program. Tesar explained that he didn't just see food as the Mansion's mission. He said the culinary experience, like a bar stool, needed three legs to work: food, service, and drinks. "Most restaurants don't think that way," Martensen says. "But at that point, John had the juice to make it happen."
So by 2007, Martensen had every bartender's dream job. No matter what cocktail he wanted to put on the menu, Tesar would bring in the freshest ingredients for it every day. What's more, Martensen had a great clientele. They traveled enough that they were trying these same drinks in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In short, they were educated. They appreciated what he was pouring. Most important, they had the money to pay for $15 drinks.
Martensen met Campbell while the latter was tending at The Club in the Centrum building, and the two "drink nerds" started talking cocktails and making fun of the folks whose idea of high-end cocktail culture was a candied apple martini. (Hello, Palomino!) They spent time after work at each other's bars, experimenting, waiting for Dallas to appreciate the fruits of their after-hours tinkering. "We spent so much time making drinks behind that bar," Campbell says, "we shoulda had cots back there."
Little did they know that a similar story had played out years earlier in the boroughs of New York, leading to Manhattan's cocktail revolution.
Not long after 9/11, Jason Kosmas and the other co-workers at the Manhattan vodka bar Pravda started throwing huge free-booze parties, with volleyball and barbecue, for their restaurant industry friends. They were all just trying to feel connected, alive, like New Yorkers did in the months after the tragedy. And it was at these gatherings where Kosmas would talk to his cohorts about their professional gripes, how there were only two kinds of places: pubs filled with beer drinkers and "clubs filled with d-bags looking to get their dates drunk." There needed to be a bar that catered to people who took their drinks seriously—grown-ups, in other words.
So Kosmas spent a few years developing a bar for his friends, for the people who would appreciate attention to detail. It had a swinging vibe, drinks with freshly squeezed juice. It was called Employees Only, because he and his partners figured the only people who would go were the people who attended those weekend barbecues.
Employees Only was an unqualified hit. They infused gins and vermouths. They created their own ingredients. They took old ideas and contemporized them. To celebrate its opening in 2004, the proprietors took photos in Prohibition-style outfits, showcasing their impressive mustaches. It was genius in every way, except, as Kosmas now notes, "All they wanted to write about were the f---ing mustaches!"
Five years later, Kosmas was named by Forbes as one of the country's best bartenders, and he'd become a big deal within the New York crowd. But because of his familial obligations, he was visiting Dallas frequently and knew he would eventually have to find full-time work here. (Being part owner of a bar, even a successful one, pays less than you'd think. Or, if you've owned one, exactly what you'd think.) Kosmas wanted to find a place where he could ply his trade and work on a book about speakeasy cocktails.
Then, at a bartending conference in New Orleans in 2009, he met Charlie Papaceno from Dallas' Windmill Lounge. Papaceno wasn't one to concoct new versions of the classic cocktails, but he did make his own grenadines and sherries. The cherries he uses for Manhattans are soaked in Luxardo. They became friends, and they started holding cocktail nights at the Windmill on Wednesdays. To put that in perspective, imagine walking into your favorite neighborhood burger joint and seeing, oh, Wolfgang Puck working the grill. Pouring drinks at the Windmill, Kosmas learned that there was a small but passionate group of people in Dallas who take their drinks as seriously as anyone in New York. "There were enthusiasts here," he says. "I was excited."
Still commuting between cities, Kosmas asked for part-time work at The Porch. He trailed a bartender there to learn how they did things and found it was not a good fit. The Porch is known for its well-appointed behind-the-bar setup but also for its rigid pouring system. It's not free-pour; bartenders measure all drinks with jiggers. Although Kosmas said he learned a lot about jiggers and how to use them, it was constricting to a man known as one of the best bartenders in the world, one who compares the craft to jazz. There was the added absurdity of the trainer, ignorant of Kosmas' pedigree, telling him how you make a cocktail.
Kosmas grins. "Please," he says. "Teach me."
Enter Lucky Campbell. He'd heard from his buddy Mike Martensen that Kosmas was in town regularly and looking for something full-time to make the move permanent. Campbell by then had landed at Bolsa, whose owner, Chris Zielke, wanted his bar to pour cocktails as cutting edge as his food. Campbell knew Kosmas needed a like-minded owner and told him to call Nick Badovinus.
Neighborhood Services Tavern was scheduled to open in February 2010, and Badovinus needed not just a head bartender but a general manager. He'd been to Employees Only the year it opened and was deeply impressed. When he heard Kosmas was available, he became the pursuer. One dinner at the original Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane, a flurry of e-mails, and the deal was done.
Kosmas designed and helped build the underbar, a masterpiece of bartender-friendly design. ("It's twice as much stuff packed into half the usual space, and everything is positioned to make your job easier," Martensen says. "It's amazing.") He moved past martinis and fresh juices, into artisanal cocktails, creating his own ingredients and using others such as vermouth, Benedictine, and Chartreuse. "The thing is, customers now will try these drinks in Dallas," Kosmas says. "That's my job. To inspire them to try."
If you traveled bar to bar most nights during the past year (and if you didn't, shame on you), you found two types of high-end drinking establishments. The first group: places with great reputations that nonetheless were playing catch-up to what Bolsa (Campbell and bartender Dub Davis) and Neighborhood Services Tavern were doing. The Mansion Bar for example, with three top-notch mixologists, revamped its vodka- and gin-heavy menu to add more bourbon cocktails. The second group: places whose continued use of Apple Pucker and its cousins made them seem like dinosaurs overnight (a list too long and depressing to construct).
"There's no question Dallas has reached a level of sophistication where places that value food and drinks with great, fresh, local ingredients will be rewarded by customers," says Tristan Simon, owner of Victor Tango's, The Porch, and Fireside Pies. "It's where we're moving with our newer restaurants and what the city is demanding."
Now comes the next test for Dallas: will people wait 20 minutes for a bartender to make a drink?
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! No pictures!" The man coming at me is 6-foot-1 and played linebacker in the NFL for nine years. Picture-taking immediately ceases.
"It's okay, Brian," Martensen says. "No one will see it before we open."
The former linebacker is Brian Williams, born in Dallas and played ball for the Packers, Lions, and Saints before retiring to indulge his love for great drinks. "It" is Cedars Social, the most anticipated new bar to open in Dallas in some time. Satisfied with Martensen's answer, Williams smiles and nods. "Okay," he says, going back to overseeing the day's construction team. "I know where to find you."
Martensen, in charge of the cocktail program at Cedars Social, gives the proud-papa tour. The building sits across the street from South Side on Lamar and next to Dallas Police Department headquarters. It will offer lounge seating, a small library area, and a gorgeous bar that overlooks a patio with a grand view of downtown. There are fire pits inside and out. Filter out the sawdust and use your imagination, and you can see the bar filled with hipsters congregating on cold nights, discussing the bitters that will be on display.
"When you go into Milk & Honey, they make it a show," Martensen says, leading us over extension cords to the area behind the bar. "When they're done straining their tins, they slam them in the sink to make as much noise as possible. The bar is the show. That's the way we want it to be here—but a little more sexy and elegant. But still with great drinks. Oh, and a window outside where you can get a bag of fried chicken."
It's an ambitious vision, one that sees the city seeking out fine drinks like it does fine food. The menu won't be big, and it won't be the focus; the drinks will. The cocktail menu will have six divisions: pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, repeal ('30s to now), the bar's signature list, and the tribute menu (ode to great drinks created by others in Dallas and beyond), and the punch bowl menu.
Martensen is geeked. He just returned from Seattle, where he visited a bartender friend who "has the best ice program in the country." Don't roll your eyes. "Craft ice" is the latest bartending term, the idea being that anything dissolving in your beverage deserves the same care and attention that the liquid itself gets. At two Philadelphia drinkeries, cubes are carved and shaved from 50- and 125-pound blocks of ice, respectively. Martensen shows me a video on his phone of a chunk of ice being sculpted into a diamond before it goes in the glass. The drink costs more than $100. "We won't do that, but it's pretty damn cool," he says.
Ice, bitters, fruits, juices, herbs, even the pickle juice—only the best will be served, he says. Cedars Social will be a place where people can learn the story of each cocktail they try, discuss how bitters change a cocktail and can improve its depth. And Martensen is certain that if the beverage is worth the wait, no one will mind that it may take five minutes, 10, or maybe more to make the perfect cocktail.
"Well, let's see if that's true the first time the bar is three deep on a Friday night," Tristan Simon says. "I wish them the best, but that's tough. Look, I've been to those places in Los Angeles who do that. The cocktails are fantastic. But I'm on a date, and it's 20 minutes before I can get another drink once we've finished, and that's a problem."
Martensen doesn't see it that way. He believes Dallas is ready for this. He says as long as you're honest with customers about the value you're providing, they'll understand. "If someone comes in and they don't get what we do, we'll teach them," he says. "They're in a rush and we're slammed, we'll recommend Absinthe [a bar across the street] for faster service. We'll do what we can to make them happy. We want to be a good neighbor, but we also want to add to the cocktail culture here, and we think this is the way to do it."
As I wrote this in early December, Martensen was training his staff, which includes Dub Davis, formerly of Bolsa, who was chosen last year by fellow bartenders as the winner of a regional best bartender competition. Davis, who grew close to Campbell and helped create last summer's drink menu at Bolsa, had a quiet but unpleasant parting with his friend, owner Chris Zielke. Now all the drinks Davis had a big hand in creating are off the Bolsa cocktail menu, and the dozens of origami swans he fashioned, which used to hang over the bar, have been removed.
Finishing off the musical chairs, Zielke hired Jason Kosmas after he left Neighborhood Services Tavern in October. Kosmas left NST in the very capable hands of barkeep Andrew Lostetter, who himself sports a pretty sweet mustache. Kosmas couldn't juggle promoting his new book, Speakeasy, and the demands of being a general manager, so Zielke teamed him with Campbell.
Then, in mid-December, Campbell and Martensen signed a lease on a downtown Dallas space, on Main Street, where they plan to open a pure cocktail lounge. "We think downtown is ready for it," Campbell says. They'll both still tend bar at Bolsa and Cedars Social, respectively. They just want to attack that cocktail wave now, as it's cresting, with as much force and blind hope as possible.
It's this sort of cross-pollination—working together, jumping to each other's bars, experimenting, trying to at once learn from and make better cocktails than the other guy—that makes the Dallas cocktail scene feel real. It's talented people who want to make something so sensible, so much better than what is already there, that the force of their efforts and passion make everyone else take notice, perhaps come along for the ride.
It must be true. Why else would we pay $15 a drink?Eric Celeste is the former managing editor of
D Magazineand a known drunk. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to wet your whistle in Dallas and beyond
Order Brad Hensarling's Moscow Mule. For a bourbon-heavy Prohibition-style bar, The Usual cranks out a fine version of this 1950s favorite, made with vodka, ginger beer, Angostura bitters, a bit of sugar, and fresh lime juice.
Order Abe Bedell's Intro to Aperol. All the kids in Italy are drinking Aperol and soda, but Bedell mixes the bittersweet aperitif with dry gin, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and Angostura bitters.
Black Swan Saloon
Order Gabe Sanchez's Cherry Limeade. The former Ghostbar manager combines Hendrick's gin, fresh lime juice, and black cherry juice, stirred on the rocks. A better drink than a dive bar should be allowed to serve.
Order Eddie "Lucky" Campbell's Oswald's Corridor. A take on another classic: an absinthe wash, Maker's Mark, Cherry Heering, Punt e Mes, and a hint of orange. Enough bourbon to have a kick, just enough dark cherry sweetness to make you crave more.
Order the Old-Fashioned No. 2. Three mixologists combined to totally rework the dated cocktail menu, which now features classic "revivals and evolutions." This mix of Maker's 46, Gomme syrup, orange and lemon peel; Peychaud bitters adds sweet vermouth for a kick.
Order Charlie Papaceno's Manhattan. The classic (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, strained into a cocktail glass) with cherries soaked in Italian maraschino liquor.
Neighborhood Services Tavern
Order Jason Kosmas' New Fang. Current barkeep Andrew Lostetter can make you this mix of rye whiskey, sugar, elderflower liquor, and orange bitters. Yes, it's named after the Them Crooked Vultures song.