Dallas’ cocktail culture is as craft-centric as its chef-driven restaurants
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Ever since news broke that Leann Berry — one of the most popular (and acclaimed) bartenders in North Texas — would be taking a break for a few months, desperate alcoholi… err, “savvy cocktail enthusiasts” have been faced with a conundrum: Where to get their next friendly fix of smart adult beverages.
The good news is, Dallas is a cosmopolitan city … which means both that we like our cosmos (our lingering obsession with Sex and the City, no doubt), but also that we know a good cocktail when we taste one, and numerous establishments have turned up to serve that demographic. “It’s exciting,” says David Edessa, head bartender at Lounge 31 in Highland Park Village. “Customers know a lot more about [food and drink] than they used to, and sometimes even know more than [their bartenders]. They know what they want and what they like.”
But sometimes, customers benefit from being schooled a bit.
Chad Solomon, co-creator of the menu at Downtown’s Midnight Rambler — a funky, speakeasy-style cocktail den in the basement of the Joule Hotel — doesn’t design his cocktail menus as instructional texts; he’s all about serving his clientele something they will enjoy.
But he’s also a firm believer in the crossroads of art and science in designing the perfect drink.
That’s one reason why he and co-creator Christy Pope shake up the menu every so often. This summer, for instance, their inspiration was “Dark and Tropical,” a theme often associated with fruity rum drinks of the paper-umbrella-tiki-bar variety. But that’s exactly what they did not want to do at Midnight Rambler.
Take, for instance, one of the summer potables: the rum-less Savory Hunter. It’s Southeast Asian in terms of its conceptualization: lemongrass mixes with cilantro and coconut cream, and it’s put in the form of a gin fizz, only milkier, with a luxurious mouthfeel. There’s also a tiny underpinning of Thai chile tincture in the mix… and even a soupcon of fish sauce. “There’s a slight funk of fish sauce that you’ll never taste, but it lends an umami quality to the drink,” Solomon explains.
Even so, the summer menu boasted a fair supply of rum-based cocktails, but it’s not all cloying sweetness bombs. Some of the creations include Jamaican black rum, Trinidadian and Venezuelan rums, Brazilian cachaca (made from cane instead of molasses) and even Batavia-Arrack, an Indonesian variation of the island staple. Batavia-Arrack is the primary spirit in a drink Solomon called the Tiger Style, a recipe filled with unfamiliar ingredients: Palm sugar, calamansi (Philippine citrus), pippali and the aromatic essence of cassia (Indonesian cinnamon). (The menu has since changed for autumn with the theme “Electric Orchard/Gothic Harvest,” dominated by bourbons, bitters and brandies.)
All drinks, though, fall generally into either aromatic or sour-based concepts, and the role of a great mixologist is balancing the ingredients to navigate a unique taste experience. That can include decisions related to, for instance, the ice.
“Ice is very important,” Solomon insists. “The smaller the nugget, the colder the drink because there is more surface area; but smaller pebbles will also melt faster.”
Solomon can come across as much like a “chemistry nerd” as a “hipster bartender.” He let me tour his laboratory — a tight little room of flasks and centrifuges, gadgets and tinctures that looks like an apothecary run by a modern-day Frankenstein. It’s here that the recipes are perfected before they debut in the subterranean nightclub. But there is no perfect cocktail, as Solomon sees it.
“I need to know: What time of day is it? Where am I? What time of year it is?” he says. “You need to look at the quality of the distillate and how it works in the drink.”
Which is why, when it comes to cocktail culture, there’s always something new to explore.
Midnight Rambler, 1530 Main St. at the Joule. 5 p.m.–2 a.m. MidnightRamblerBar.com.
Midnight Rambler bartender Kyoko Kinoshita is captain for Team Asia at the 5th annual Ultimate Cocktail Experience, a fundraiser for Trigger’s Toys at Klyde Warren Park on Saturday, Nov. 5. Five teams, representing the continents, will create at least 40 cocktails. Admission is $65 and includes all cocktails plus items at a food truck.
Cocktail Friday returns to the InstanTea blog this week.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2016.