It's a relatively quiet Wednesday night at Deep Ellum's newest watering hole, Swallow Lounge (double entendre or just a hastily chosen name? You be the judge). I take a seat at the empty bar lined with bright red vinyl stools. Above the bar, back-lit swallows -- those little birds that adorn collarbone tattoos on every wannabe rockabilly kid from here to Tokyo -- slowly change from red to blue and back again. Old blues plays weakly from somewhere out of sight.
According to the bartender, they're still in soft opening mode, so there's no real cocktail menu to speak of yet, other than a little table tent with a few house concoctions. He instead asks my preferences, and I relay the usual parameters: I like gin, nothing sweet, fruity is cool, herbal is great.
What I get is something they call the Jimi Hendrix: Jim Beam, Hendricks gin, Cointreau, and cucumber, shaken till icy cold and poured on top of a layer of Chambord in a martini glass, garnished with a slab of cuke. Twelve dollars.
This is a giant shot at best, not a drink that should be sipped, as they apparently intend. It's nearly flavorless on intake, but once swallowed the Jim Beam bitch-slaps your palate, its alcoholic burn (but not its flavor) furthered by all the other liquors.
I came here because this place was being touted as a sexy new lounge with pinup girl cocktail waitresses (ooh!) serving up "libations and adult cocktails." I'd even heard they'd be making their own syrups and infusions.
So where are the fresh ingredients? I guess the nearly empty bottle of Midori behind the bar should've tipped me off, or the fact that every drink listed on the table tent contains Jägermeister, 151 or Fireball cinnamon whiskey, and that most of them are served lit on fire. That's all well and good, but put it in a damn shot glass and call it eight bucks at best.
I can't help but guess that the extra four bucks probably went to pay for the bartender's ultra-stylish fedora.
A similar ruse will play out, I suspect, at a "premier martini lounge" coming to Plano, as reported by CraveDFW yesterday. With a name like Blue Martini, they've got to be mixing up a drink that would make James Bond proud, right? According to their website, their signature 'tini combines vodka, orange juice, blue curacao, Cointreau, and sour mix. Over ice. With a glowstick. In a martini glass.
In what strange universe do these ingredients make a martini? What self-respecting bartender puts ice in a martini glass? The only drink for which a glowstick makes an appropriate garnish is one of those $14 neon blue frozen "margaritas" you get at a Mavericks game. I have no beef with those drinks. What frustrates me is when a bar tries to straddle both sides of the fence: They want the glory and the high price point that comes with craft cocktails, but they don't want to put in the effort and legwork to really qualify their drinks as craft.
Unless you live under a rock in the garden of a rehab facility, you're probably aware that the state of cocktails in Dallas has been undergoing a gradual but dynamic change over the past few years, with outstanding beverage programs at restaurants like Bolsa, Private Social and Marquee Grill, and new specialty cocktail bars such as The People's Last Stand, The Chesterfield and Tate's. The way we drink is being elevated in a number of ways, including that commercially made sour mix and saccharine-sweet flavored vodkas are largely being replaced by fresh-squeezed juices and house-made syrups, infusions and bitters. (Not to mention the improving state of the city's craft-beer scene.)
Where there used to be young ladies with copious amounts of cleavage pouring liquor into patrons' mouths, many bars are now occupied instead by highly educated bartenders (some of whom prefer the term "mixologist") all too happy to provide a history lesson along with your cocktail. I know, I know -- there are plenty of drinkers out there resisting the trend and its fedora-clad barmen, happy with their Bud, their scotch on the rocks, their G and T. Which is obviously fine. Who is anyone to foist a kumquat and elderflower concoction on those who just want to sit and sip without having a full history of obscure spirits forced on them?
To each his own, and luckily there are plenty of hideouts that will never embrace the mixology movement and will always offer up solid, straightforward drinks: Lakewood Landing, Windmill Lounge, Lee Harvey's and countless other beloved outposts of good old-fashioned drinking.
But places like Swallow Lounge and Blue Martini just trivialize everything that forward-thinking, inventive bartenders have worked to establish here. You've got to walk before you can run. New bars trying to burst onto the high-end cocktail scene would be advised to master the classics before attempting to reinvent the wheel. (Or light Midori on fire.)
I'm not saying there's no place for you here, Swallow Lounge -- just decide what you want to be and go with it. And if that's a place where sluttily dressed cocktail waitresses with retro hairstyles guzzle Fireball whiskey from an ice-cold tap, there's probably a market for that. Just don't expect anyone to take you seriously enough to order a Manhattan.