Dallas bartenders make a splash at national cocktail festival

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The Chesterfield's Eddie "Lucky" Campbell prepared a special calling card for the festival.

As Private/Social’s Rocco Milano put it, things went wrong. Campari bottles broke. Ordered produce was nowhere to be seen. A batch of concentrated blackberry mix blew up in Whiskey Cake bartender Bonnie Wilson’s car.

Whatevs. Texas knows how to go big, never mind the circumstances. And given their chance in the spotlight, Dallas bartenders left their Lone Star mark on this year’s 10th annual Tales Of The Cocktail conference in New Orleans: No one who stepped into the Iberville Ballroom of the Hotel Monteleone could leave saying they didn’t have a good time. OK, maybe whoever had to clean up the blackberry juice. But on the whole. Seriously.

Drinks flowed. Multitudes appeared. Moods lifted. The Chesterfield’s Eddie “Lucky” Campbell sang a song. And this was all before noon.

Campbell with the double-pour.

“Come And Get It! Cocktails Texas Style!” was the title of the Wednesday morning tasting event, and despite the tricky A.M. draw on the festival’s opening day, word in the stairwells was that the session was the rockingest party in its time slot. An all-star crew of Dallas barmen and women shook their stuff for a packed room of conference attendees: There was Mike Martensen of The Cedars Social, Oak’s Abe Bedell, Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, Jay Kosmas of Marquee Grill & Bar… the list goes on.

But even before the doors opened at 10:30 a.m., things looked a little shaky, and not in the diffused citrus and disintegrating ice-crystals sort of way. A day earlier, Bonnie Wilson had arrived with bottles of blackberry puree corked and sealed by Whiskey Cake’s Sean Conner, then checked into the hotel. Sugars fermented. Pressure built. The next morning, they opened the car to find that streams of puree had burst through the box overnight. “It looked like a paintball gun had hit the roof,” Conner said.

One bottle survived. And now it was Wednesday morning and the Dallas bartenders frantically readied workstations, setting up tiny sampler glasses, organizing their mises-en-place.

Then, suddenly, Bonnie Wilson’s voice cut through the room: “Oh, Anthony!”

Then, anyone who turned to watch, which was everybody, saw a blast of burgundy spewing in a volcanic rush from Conner’s surviving bottle of berry mix, which Whiskey Cake’s Anthony Krencik had just uncorked. Before they could stanch the flow, much of the mix had doused them and the hotel carpet in a bath of goopy concentrate.

Kosmas, as always unflappable amid the chaos, walked in two minutes later. “Oh, another explosion?” he said.

Bonnie Wilson's "Bird" was a fetching blend of Evan Williams single-barrel whiskey, black tea, blackberry puree and Benedictine topped with sweet vanilla cream and mint.

Meanwhile, Bolsa’s Hilla had had to scramble when the produce he’d ordered never showed, forcing a last-minute cab ride to the market. His planned drink – the Cherry Pit – became, well, something else. “You can call it the Plum Pit,” he said.

Before long the troublesome juju was lost in an increasingly happy flow of festival-goers, who sampled drinks ranging from Abe Bedell’s Barbados Breeze – a frosty blend of Mount Gay XO rum, basil, ginger, lime, pineapple and banana-coconut sorbet – to Kosmas’ Oaxaca Sour, a deliciously smoky blend of Ilegal mezcal, Texas grapefruit, honey cordial, egg white, lime, barrel-aged bitters and a sprinkling of nutmeg.

Bolsa's Kyle Hilla improvised with a last-minute produce run.

Martensen and Cedars Social owner Brian Williams had recreated a mini version of their bar in the ballroom, propping up signature menus and a small array of books on the table to evoke Cedars’ study-like atmosphere. Martensen had gone as basic as possible. “I’m doing the original margarita,” he said. “We want to represent Texas, right?”

Martensen has been coming to Tales for years, and Williams joined him starting four years ago. But Dallas was barely represented otherwise, and today’s splash showed how far the scene has come.

“It’s good representation for Dallas,” Williams said. “We have so many chain restaurants, and people get caught up in the whole restaurants-per-capita thing It’s good to let people know we’re out there.”

The Cedars Social's Mike Martensen made margaritas. "We're representing Texas, right?"

Eventually, Chesterfield’s Campbell – who was flanked by New Orleans native and Dallas chef David Anthony Temple, he of the festive “underground” dinners – would make a prideful speech and belt out “Deep In The Heart Of Texas.”

You could say Private/Social’s Milano was, well, moved. “As I look around the room, this is, to me, a minor miracle,” he said. “This is awesome. We are not a backwater third-tier market.”

And Krencik, in the festival T-shirt he’d quickly bought to replace his puree-drenched top, added this: “Texas is one of those states everybody knows, but they probably don’t expect us to bring a cocktail game. But from five years ago to now, it has just skyrocketed. We’re, like, the underdogs, coming out and showing that we can shake.”

The fun showed no sign of slowing down until conference officials finally shooed everyone out of the room. As the buoyant Dallas bunch headed onto the streets of the French Quarter to celebrate at nearby Mr. B’s Bistro, a hotel staff person came up to Bolsa’s Hilla.

“Sir,” she said. “Your produce is here.”

Dallas' Lauren Laposta was on hand to help the Lone Star State represent.

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