Put me in coach: The report from Dallas' inaugural cocktail bus tour

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By bartender Amber West

Central 214's Last Monkey Standing was among the highlights of last week's tour. (Marc Ramirez)

“There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody…. You’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.”

Ken Kesey, as quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

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So, here’s how things went on Dallas’ first-ever cocktail bus tour: Festively. By 7:05 p.m. last Thursday, two dozen imbibers were on the bus, a dazzling white coach and our carriage for the evening. Already, at The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station, the night’s initial libation had been sampled, some flouncy red thing with gin and Campari and watermelon and rhubarb liqueur.

For $60 apiece, the inaugural “chartered bus tour of some serious libations” would ferry the group to six craft-cocktail bars from Uptown to Cedars to Deep Ellum. As you might expect, the evening’s mood grew progressively buoyant; few cared that the excursion was less an actual “tour” than a series of stops via luxury taxi.

Dallas Cocktail Bus Tour

Standard Pour's Brian McCullough, cranking out Mexican Standoffs. (Marc Ramirez)

It was a group primed for fun, but not one of people looking to fog up their night in clouds of vodka and Red Bull. Those on board were willing to be led down new paths — believers in, or at least curious about, the concept of craft cocktails with their artisan ingredients, fresh-squeezed juices and creative depths. As former Private/Social barman Rocco Milano once described an evening of imbibement to local cocktail enthusiast Manny Mendoza, who’s working on a documentary about the Dallas cocktail scene: “You’re going to be inebriated at the end of the night. The difference is in how you get there.”

Wise words indeed. But to get there you had to be on the bus, and so we were. The tour’s purpose was to showcase Dallas’ craft-cocktail diversity; not everyone had been to all six spots and certainly not all in one night. First came the Palomar Hotel’s Central 214, where we enjoyed bartender Amber West’s Last Monkey Standing – a bouquet of Monkey Shoulder blended scotch, Lillet Rose, chamomile, lemongrass syrup, lemon and a touch of red sorrel from Tom Spicer’s gardens.

At Central 214, Dallas cocktail bus tour

Cocktail fan Manny Mendoza enjoys a taste at tour stop #2, Central 214. (Marc Ramirez)

Then, back on the bus. “Everybody here?” asked host and mastermind Alex Fletcher, general manager at The People’s Last Stand. Hmmm. He paused. “OK,” he said, “if you’re not here, raise your hands!”

Havoc.

At Uptown’s The Standard Pour came the Mexican Standoff – a tequila-and-mezcal concoction from Pozo, TSP’s sister-establishment next door and one of my favorite tastes of the night – before we hoofed it down the street to Tate’s, tour stop No. 4.

Dallas Cocktail Bus Tour

At Tate's Dallas, bartender Pro Contreras making a row of basil gimlets. (Marc Ramirez)

Levity ruled the occasion, thankfully never descending into sloppiness. “I’m surprised at how calm everybody is,” said tour co-host Brad Bowden, also of The People’s Last Stand. “I thought there’d be a lot of drunk people walking around.”

The bars themselves, too, performed admirably, firing up twenty-something drinks in quick fashion and keeping us on schedule, and somehow the bus we managed to collect a bartender or two, as well as CraveDFW’s Steven Doyle, along the way.

After Deep Ellum’s divey Black Swan came the pioneering Cedars Social south of downtown, where bartender Julian Pagan wowed with his tiki-esque Yacht Rock: “It’s Sailor Jerry rum, Velvet Falernum, cinnamon syrup, lime, and… yeah.” Yeah!
Dallas Cocktail Bus Tour

Central 214 bartender extraordinaire Amber West hopped aboard the tour at Stop No. 2. (Manny Mendoza)

By the time the call came to head back to The People’s Last Stand for a nightcap and munchies, we were having trouble corralling even our hosts. Personally I’d love to see more tour-like features in something like this – more info about the bars we visited, for instance, or the Dallas scene itself, but all in all, it had been a good night. Fletcher figured he’d be lucky to break even with the trial-run event; it was more about getting people out of their cocktail comfort zones.

And that was just fine with Calissa Gentry, a Cedars Social regular who’d taken the tour with friends Elaine Lagow and Genevieve Neyens. “We usually like vodka on the rocks,” she said. “But because we go to Cedars, we try new things.”

And that was the reason Lagow was on the tour, too. “I’d do it again in a minute,” she said.

— Marc Ramirez, 8/26/13

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