Is Texas the Sleeping Giant Of the Cocktail World?
Pity those drinkers who were in search of an expertly made cocktail last night: All of the state's best mixologists were gathered on the pool deck at the Joule, drinking daiquiris and cheering on participants in the North Texas Bartenders Guild's Legacy Cocktail Competition.
Sponsor Bacardi flew in bartenders from San Antonio, Houston and Austin to share their best rum drinks at an event Bolsa's Eddie "Lucky" Campbell described as unprecedented.
"Those were all the greatest cocktail makers in Texas," Campbell said. "Some are the greatest in the South, and some, you could say, are the greatest in the nation. Everybody brought their A-game."
The official win went to Michael Martensen, formerly of The Mansion on Turtle Creek, who created a cocktail with Barcardi Superior, sherry, cinnamon and his rendition of Don the Beachcomber's secret grapefruit-laced syrup; the drink was finished with flaming absinthe.
But Campbell suggests the event also represented a collective victory for mixologists in Texas, which he believes could be the backdrop for the next big cocktail scene.
"We have cocktail makers that are kicking butt on the national level," he says. "Just because there's no Bourbon and Branch or Pegu Club, people are acting like cocktails aren't here yet."
Campbell says serious cocktail craftsmen are already wise to what's happening in Texas -- including the tremendous success of Houston's Anvil, which is doing twice the sales per square foot as the next most lucrative cocktail lounge in the country.
"The rest of the cocktail world is watching Texas," he says. "They treat it like the final frontier: They feel like when it sets in Texas, it will be a game-changer."
That's largely because so many of the nation's biggest chain restaurants are headquartered here: Once corporate-owned restaurants acknowledge the importance of cocktail programs, mixology stands to make the kind of comeback it's been threatening since the onset of Prohibition.
But if chain restaurants can giveth, they can also taketh away -- or at least sloweth down considerably. Campbell blames a corporate mindset for inhibiting the growth of Texas' cocktail scene.
"The main reason we were late is the Dallas restaurant game is being run by an old regime who borrowed their model from corporations," Campbell says. "And the corporate model says 'Why spend money to do something special?'"
As an example, Campbell cites Victor Tango's Abe Bedell, who competed in last night's contest.
"Abe is light years ahead of the cocktail program at Victor Tango's, but he's limited by an old-guard mentality that wants the same 10 drinks on a menu for a year," Campbell says. "He could turn out a 50-drink menu tomorrow."
Campbell predicts such a menu will soon find a local audience.
"It's almost like everybody's on standby," he says. "People who have reigned in this town have come up with some lame concepts. There's about to be a changing of the guard."