Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Ft. Worth, Texas, is on us.
Fort Worth, Texas, people like to drink beer, bourbon and sometimes tequila. That’s about it. Located about 30 miles west of Dallas, Ft. Worth was a major stopping point along the Chisholm Trail, the path used in the mid-1800s to drive cattle between Texas and Kansas. Today Ft. Worth’s historic stockyards are still a major tourist attraction: Cowboys in period dress drive longhorn steer down the street during the day, and honky tonk bars such as Billy Bob’s Texas and the White Elephant Saloon pull huge drinking and two-stepping crowds at night. These are the kind of no-nonsense bar patrons who live in the outlying, rural areas of North Texas—the kind of people who probably have more things to do in their day than keep up with the latest cocktail trends.
Brad Hensarling, owner of The Usual cocktail bar on Magnolia Avenue, says this is one of the reasons why Ft. Worth’s cocktail scene is still relatively niche. He opened his spot in 2009, which got more people interested in cocktails, but not in opening craft bars; you can count the number of dedicated cocktail bars in the city on one hand. "Even though there haven’t been a lot of bars that have popped up, people have changed their approach," he says. "Places that weren’t necessarily cocktail places have started to pay more attention and stock their bars differently. You can definitely see a sea change around the city." At restaurants such as the popular Bird Café, the cocktail list has become just as important as the beer and wine selection—a shift that has only happened in the past two years. "Quality has replaced quantity," says Bird Café beverage director Amber Davidson. "Customers are willing to wait for the perfect Old Fashioned."
Hensarling says the biggest obstacle to having a booming cocktail scene right now is education, both of bartenders and patrons. "There’s still a lot of explaining that has to happen," he says. "But as long as the cocktail community is progressing, if you’re spending time seeking out new and different stuff, that’s always going to be the case." On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three only-in-Ft. Worth cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.
1. Unconventional Wisdom
Where to order: The Usual
The Usual was the first craft cocktail bar to open in the entire Dallas-Ft. Worth region, a 13-county behemoth referred to as the DFW metroplex. Owner Brad Hensarling says that back when he opened, in 2009, you couldn’t even find a bartender in Fort Worth who could make an Old Fashioned. "I would go to the nicest restaurants in town and ask for that kind of drink and I’d either get an eye roll or the bartender would try to fake his way through it," Hensarling says. One of the reasons he opened his bar was because he was bored of having to do it at home. "We’re kind of like the paternal figure in this whole thing," he says.
And customers trust Father Hensarling: Cocktail geeks pop their heads inside every day asking what’s new. "They really cling to the bar here," he says. In fact, one of The Usual’s most popular drinks, the Unconventional Wisdom, is made with a completely foreign spirit to many of them. The drink features bison grass-infused vodka, a traditional Polish spirit with a green, almost sage-like taste. The drink also includes molasses, lemon juice and sage. "A lot of times I try to play flavors off of flavors from another spectrum, but the way the vodka tasted, I figured I could use the sage to bolster that," he says. He says the whole thing tastes fresh yet earthy, like a ginger snap cookie.
2 oz. Zubrówka bison grass-infused vodka
½ oz. rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar: 1 part water)
½ oz. lemon juice
1 barspoon blackstrap molasses
1 sage leaf, for garnish
Combine all ingredients plus ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Fine strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a sage leaf.
2. The Dude Imbibes
Where to order: Bird Café
Photo courtesy of Bird Cafe
Another way to get people to taste something out of their comfort zone is to elevate a drink that they already love. The Dude Imbibes, available at the Bird Café restaurant in Sundance Square Plaza, is a White Russian variation inspired by The Big Lebowski. The classic recipe calls for vodka, cream and coffee liqueur. At Bird Café bar manager Amber Davidson uses Jameson infused with cinnamon and local coffee, plus a local imperial milk stout beer and smoked vanilla whipped cream. It’s garnished with cocoa nibs and a mint sprig. "We have the flavors of the coffee and cream represented, and then we boost them with cinnamon, smoke and vanilla," Davidson says. "The chocolate and espresso are intense, but balanced out by the whipped cream. The cinnamon adds that little bit of spice that lingers with you."
Using locally roasted Avoca coffee and locally brewed Lakewood beer, which are both popular at Bird Café in their own rights, only help sell the drink. "We love to support our friends in Ft. Worth," Davidson says. "Knowing where the product comes from and who is crafting it ensures its quality." And once one The Dude Imbibes goes out to a table, a lot more get ordered because it’s so pretty.
The Dude Imbibes
1½ oz. cinnamon- and Avoca espresso-infused Jameson Irish whiskey (recipe below)
5 oz. Lakewood Temptress (an imperial milk stout)
Smoked vanilla whipped cream, for garnish (recipe below)
Cocoa nibs, for garnish
Mint sprig, for garnish
Make cinnamon- and Avoca espresso-infused Jameson: Steep 3 bags of cinnamon tea in a bottle of Jameson for 24 hours. Remove bags and discard. Add in 1 cup of Avoca espresso beans wrapped in cheesecloth. Steep for 24 hours. Remove beans and discard. Add in a few ounces of simple syrup (1 part sugar: 1 part water). Store in the refrigerator.
Make smoked vanilla whipped cream: Combine 1 part sugar, 1 part water and 2 split vanilla beans in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar is melted. Strain. Cool. Fill an empty bottle halfway with the syrup. Use a smoking gun (tk) to fill the rest of the bottle with smoke. (You can use any kind of woodchips for the smoke; Bird Café uses a combination of cherry wood and mesquite.) Replace the lid on the bottle and shake until all of the smoke has disappeared. Combine equal parts of the smoked syrup and heavy whipping cream in a whipped cream canister (tk). Shake.
Make drink: Add Jameson to a 10-ounce snifter glass. Top with Lakewood Temptress and then the whipped cream. Garnish with cocoa nibs and a mint sprig.
3. The Siren’s Song
Where to order: Thompson’s
Photo courtesy of Thompson’s
Thompson’s is Ft. Worth’s newest—and only downtown—cocktail bar. Open since 2015, Thompson’s is inside of an old bookstore and references that history on its drink menu: an author, book title or other literary reference inspires each cocktail. (Thompson’s actually has a pharmacy-themed speakeasy in its basement as well.) Beverage director Megan McClinton says whiskey has been the most popular base spirit since day one, so she’s trying to get customers to expand their preconceived notions about it. For instance, she’s bringing in hard-to-find whiskeys for them to taste and even barrel-aged gins that have a whiskey character. On her new menu though she’s showcasing Akavit, a Scandinavian spirit that’s related to gin but tastes like licorice. "I’m trying to branch out a little and introduce people to a different type of spirit that has an interesting character," she says. "As long as it’s a well balanced cocktail, people seem to be open to anything."
Akavit’s main flavor is caraway or dill with hints of coriander and star anise. McClinton uses it in a savory, garden-fresh cocktail called The Siren’s Song, which also includes tart lime and vegetal cucumbers. To come up with the name, she followed the trail of where the spirit originated. "Aquavit is Scandinavian and the water of life," she says. "I was looking into mythology and sirens are also related to water. [The drink and sirens] are both beautiful but maybe slightly deadly if you have one too many."
The Siren’s Song
1½ oz. Temperance Regnig Dag Aquavit
1 oz. lime cordial (recipe below)
1 oz. cucumber water (juice a cucumber; fine strain)
Cucumber strip, for garnish
Make lime cordial: In a bowl combine 3 cups of white sugar and 3 cups of lime juice. Whisk until dissolved. Add the zest of 12 limes. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 24 hours. Strain. Refrigerate for another 24 hours before use. Yields 1 liter.
Make drink: Combine all ingredients plus ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Fine strain into a coupe. Garnish with a cucumber strip.
City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.