MY FRIENDS, this blog can be a grueling enterprise. In those moments I find myself re-energized by my sworn duty to my readers, and that, no doubt, is what powered me through five straight Thursdays of pisco sampling. Somebody had to do it.
Now I bring you the highlights of that brave mission, the best of a barrage of pisco cocktails fired up by some of Dallas’ ace bartenders.
First, a little catch-up: Not long ago, I told you about The Trail Project, Daniel Guillen’s crusade to showcase lesser-known spirits via a series of “bar crawls” through various Dallas neighborhoods. The idea, developed with Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough, is to introduce or reacquaint bartenders with spirits they may then decide to add to their shelves: The spirits become part of their repertoire, an ingredient to which adventurous patrons can be wooed; the brand gets marketed; everybody wins.
The first series, sponsored by Pisco Porton – pisco, like Cognac, is a grapey eau de vie, native mostly to Peru – began with a walkable stretch of bars along Henderson; the next week, we’d moved to Uptown. Next came the Northpark/Mockingbird Station/Knox area, the Design District and Oak Cliff areas and finally a motley bunch of orphan bars stretching from Henderson to the Crescent to Oak Lawn. In all, more than 25 bars took part, amazing considering the number of quality spots not even on the list, such as The Cedars Social, Black Swan Saloon, Whiskey Cake and the Libertine. There were surprises – bars I didn’t expect much from made solid showings, and vice versa – and some non-surprises (many many variations on the Pisco Sour); all together, we probably each tasted about 60 cocktails.
Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 favorites from along the way.
1. At The Dram on Henderson, Jasin Burt’s mix of Pisco Porton, Dolin Rouge vermouth, chocolate bitters and vanilla extract – a drink I dubbed Down With The Brown – complex and grapey sweet, with a nice chocolate finish.
2. I also dug Nico Ponce’s Hawaiian Room at Sunset Lounge, a potluck of pisco, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, applejack, lemon and pineapple. Served in a coupe with banana leaf protruding like a feather, it was again on the sweet side, but well-rounded: A refreshing iced tea with a vanilla-wafer finish.
3. At the Standard Pour, the Incan Resemblance, from Guillen’s brother Armando, was one of the series’ most original and beautiful looking drinks. (The same goes for the epically named cocktail from his SP colleague McCullough, Pisco Kid Rides Again Into The Fiery Sunset.) Guillen’s drink featured Pisco Porton, puree made from chirimoya (a Peruvian fruit), elderflower liqueur, ginger foam, Thai basil, Peychaud’s bitters and lavender bitters. A garnishing bundle of lavender leaves were rolled into a lemon peel papoose, evoking an Incan headdress. It was stunningly creative, with a smooth strawberry taste.
4. It was nearly midnight when we reached Tate’s on the Uptown leg of the so-called Pisco Trail, and head barman J.W. Tate obliged our tastes with an excellent digestif he called Muy Criollo, or Very Creole. “The word “Creole” is used in a very different way in Peru,” Tate told us. “It refers to a spirited way of life, similar to the way we’d say gusto, or the French joie de vivre.” He made his drink with pisco, Bonal bitter liqueur and three kinds of shrub, including habanero. It was arresting, a sipping drink for night’s end, with a pleasantly mild kick of spice in the finish.
5. At Bowl and Barrel, Ian Reilly found a way to incorporate hoisin, an Asian plum sauce he came across in the kitchen, in a fabulous drink he called the Passerine. Figuring the hoisin would go well with other Asian flavors, he mixed it with Hum, a feisty liqueur strong with ginger and kaffir lime, and pisco, lime, Yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters. It was brilliant tang and sweetness, all in one.
6. Hibiscus, on the first week’s itinerary, had to pull out at the 11th hour. After it was reset for week five, Bartender Grant Parker atoned for the wait with the beautiful and delicious Peruvian Fix, a bouquet of pisco, pineapple syrup, lime, mint, simple and most significantly, jalapeno-infused Green Chartreuse. It was lovely, with a slight kick – not too spicy, not too sweet, all the flavors exhibiting perfectly. Parker was among the bartending minority who’d worked with pisco before. “One woman came in once and put me through hell,” he said. “She had me make, like nine Pisco Sours.”
7. It’s fair to say that Sunset Lounge’s Nico Ponce, spurred on by news that the bar preceding his in week number two had turned out two pisco drinks, was a little motivated. He sent out a volley of at least seven pisco-based cocktails, all of them variations on the tiki drinks that are the trademark of the fledgling Ross Avenue bar. His Pisco Mai Tai was, yes, on the candy-sweet side, but oh so good: pisco, lime, orange Curacao and a bit of almond syrup.
8. At Marquee Grill & Bar, Andrew Lostester made the tantalizing Pisco Star using a housemade syrup made with grapefruit, cinnamon and star anise. That was shaken with pisco, lime and seasonally fresh grapefruit, then topped with soda; it had a creamy mouthfeel with a citrusy finish, the perfect match for appetizers drenched in rich sauce.
9. The Rindo, Ashley Williams’ cherry-accented creation at Oak Cliff’s Boulevardier, featured Pisco Porton, DeKuyper O3 liqueur, Cherry Heering, lemon and an emboldening float of Montelobos mescal. “Rindo” she says, is the Quechua (language of the Peruvian Incas) word for cherry.
10. It’s no fluke that Guillen himself ended up on this list; being Peruvian, he’s well versed in pisco and he raised his chances by offering up three drinks to sample at Northpark’s La Duni. His second effort, called the San Isidro, was money: pisco, Grand Marnier, lemon, maple syrup, peach puree, Angostura bitters and a housemade apricot-nectarine bitters. Topped with mint and a dried apricot lounging atop a tiny ice-bowl float, the result was all-up-in-your-face apricot with a double-barreled peach-maple sweetness.
If you’re keeping score by neighborhood, that makes Uptown/Arts District the winner of the first Trail Project series, at least in my book. The more notable point is, there’s a whole passel of bartenders out there who now know how to throw down with pisco, and the person who benefits is you: Get out there and try some of these drinks soon.
Guillen’s plan is to launch a whole new series of bar crawls built around a second spirit before too long, so stay tuned either here or on my Twitter feed at @typewriterninja #trailproject.
– Marc Ramirez