In last week's column we alluded to a drink recipe handed to us by Indy Racing League chef Eddie Wilson. Well, the Burning Question crew mixed up a few batches of the stuff, a harmless blend of apple cider, cinnamon candy, blackberry brandy and Everclear. It's almost the perfect summer drink when poured over ice: sweet, cold and light.
Or it would have been light had we not misread the recipe. Turns out Wilson scribbled "1/2 cup" Everclear. Not 12 cups.
It seems Dallas has forgotten the joys of cool summertime cocktails. Sure, barhoppers down plenty of mojitos and margaritas. But they've become year-round staples. "It's amazing; people don't vary," says Dan Hart, bartender at Del Frisco's, referring to drinking habits. No matter the season, local residents stick with trendy brands or familiar liquors. As a result, explains Reagan Jensen of Oceanaire, "few bars in Dallas exploit seasonal items," which, of course, means fruits and berries and such, anathemas to the fragile egos of area males. Even Hart admits to an unwavering adherence to one or two favorites: "I drink the same thing all year long."
A couple of factors contributed to this demise. Air conditioning and outdoor misting systems create comfort zones indoors or out, even in triple-digit heat. Dallas residents dash from the office to the car to happy hour surrounded by a constant flow of chilled air. As a result, few people really need a tall cold concoction to stem the beads of sweat.
Of greater consequence, at least in this market, is the tendency of bartenders to create sweet and colorful drinks, the sort appealing to women and novices. It's difficult for a guy to walk into Hibiscus, order one of their special cocktails, then sidle up to a nearby blonde while tossing back a bright substance topped by a flower.
Yet many of the classics emphasize balance rather than a blast of citrus or sugar. We judged, along with D Scene's 2 a.m. Girls, a drink contest sponsored by Courzo tequila. Ciudad's Leann Berry won the event by pouring tequila over blueberries and mint. Jensen shook up several drinks from his summer menu, including an almost dry combination of grapefruit, lemonade, champagne and vodka borrowed from a Sea Island, Georgia, resort, and something called the Cunningham. The latter, he warns, "will sneak up on you." It consists largely of orange juice, iced tea and a hefty dash of Russia's national spirit. In other words, everything required for a long and healthy life--vitamin C, caffeine, liquor. Stephen Pearce at the Uptown version of Sambuca prefers vodka and tonic with a twist. His colleague, Javier Dominguez, handed us a michelada (beer, hot sauce and lime over ice). Over at Windmill Lounge, Quinn Knight responded to our call for a great summer drink with the venerable Tom Collins.
"You want something refreshing, but not syrupy," Knight says. "It should be like drinking iced tea. You want a tall glass, ice, citrus."
Indeed, the common denominator seems to be citrus. "In summer you have the opportunity to do things with fruit," Jensen adds. We assume he's not referring to some American Pie scenario. The abundance of flavored alcohols allows bartenders to push the boundaries. Chris Chapman at Hector's recommends Stoli peach as a foundation for summer drinks. "It doesn't have that harsh taste," he says. At Hibiscus, Leah Bricker splashed together a very smooth blend of Stoli peach, Midori and cranberry juice. Yet even the old-fashioned cocktails generally took a slice of lime or twist of lemon.
Generally, Bricker says, a day by the pool during a steaming Dallas summer requires something "fun and refreshing, quick and easy." No pouring liqueur down the side of a glass for colorful layering, no shaking 50 times, no fine measurements. "You can do these at home," Chapman adds. "It's just that most people don't have the ingredients or don't know how, so they have to go out." Near-equal pours of iced tea, lemonade and vodka make up an Arnold Palmer. A light touch of tonic over a solid dose of vodka, that's an easy one. How 'bout a steady stream of gin, a bit of sour mix and a quick dash of tonic? Geez, and there we were dissolving cinnamon candy in a large bowl of Everclear.
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Then waking up in Austin.
Few summer cocktails call for scotch, bourbon or other dark alcohols. Yet Simon Brooking, master ambassador of the Dalmore distillery in Scotland, took us to Al Biernat's for a refreshing combination of single-malt scotch, ginger ale and muddled orange.
So we're not really quite sure how to answer this week's Burning Question. We sampled dozens of drinks and whipped up a couple at our suburban headquarters as well. We tried champagne, vodka, bourbon, scotch, tequila, gin and Everclear. We took a very expensive cab ride from the state capital back to Dallas. The classics stand out as crisp and cool, relying on deft touches of mint or citrus or tea. More recent concoctions slap you with sugar and flavored liquor.
Therefore, the only answer that makes sense is this, supplied by Sambuca's Dominguez: "The best summer drink is your next one."