Happy hour is just gearing up on a Thursday evening, and bartender Brad Hensarling, flanked by hundreds of bottles of liquor, is back on stage at the Usual. The lights are dim and the crowd buzzing. Hensarling, also a co-owner, moves fluidly, selecting a glass and gathering ingredients -- a small bottle of bitters, a container of fresh-squeezed juice and a hefty bottle of gin affixed with a pour spout.
With a mixture of intensity and practiced calm, Hensarling, squinting behind his glasses, measures, assesses, mixes and pours: Manhattans, sidecars, Moscow mules, martinis. The colors pop -- vivid yellows, oranges, ambers and greens -- but never more than the flavors. His drinks are a fascinating bit of edible alchemy.
With Hensarling behind the bar, cocktails approach theater: a performance in a glass.
Surveying the room, thick with hipsters and happy-hour regulars, you can hear the satisfied murmurs. Certainly, you could get your buzz on with less-expensive drinks at just about any other bar in Fort Worth. But for a few bucks more, here on Magnolia Avenue you get to be part of a full-blown liquid renaissance -- a craft-cocktail movement that started on the coasts and in Chicago but has taken root in the Metroplex, thanks to a fraternity of dynamic mixmasters who are quietly rewiring the way we look at what we're drinking.
"It's not just happening in one or two spots. There's a group of people that is changing the way people drink," says Michael Martensen, president of the North Texas chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild and a partner at Dallas' hip new watering hole, the Cedars Social. "It's not a trend -- it's definitely a movement."
Food and drink
You won't immediately be offered Jägerbombs at bars like the Usual or the Cedars Social and restaurants like Bolsa and Grace. Instead, you'll find passionate purveyors of decades-old recipes that, like so much else in life, have swung around to cultural relevance once more.
It started not with clothing, television or pop music, but in the dining room. The craft-cocktail movement remains inextricably tied to the creation and consumption of food. The "fresh" mentality is driven by the explosive popularity of the locavore movement, or "farm-to-table dining," manifested in award-winning restaurants like Fort Worth's Ellerbe Fine Foods or Dallas' Smoke.
"It first started with food and sustainability, and it's now just translating over to the drink," Martensen says. "People now can understand it in liquid form. They were eating it, and now they're drinking it."
Not that anyone's advising you to make a meal out of cocktails, but bartenders are increasingly thinking along the same lines as chefs. "Every time I approach a new creation, I'm like, 'Why does this have a reason for existing?' Like how a chef approaches a dish," Hensarling says. "A lot of the recipes are founded on templates that have proven themselves historically.... I go back to the kitchen frequently."
It's that rigorous adherence to tradition, practiced by the bartenders at these vanguard establishments, that ensures that this latest revival won't be a flash in the pan, like, say, martini bars were in the '90s, with their neon-colored drinks and sticky-sweet flavors.
"I've had a lot of people come in and think this whole thing is going to sparkle and fade," Hensarling says. "But these drinks have been around since the 1860s."
Of course, classics aren't for everyone -- some folks may be perfectly satisfied to go through life ordering vodka tonics or a Bud Light and never taste a $10 gimlet. To each his own.
But does paying a little more (from $6 to $10 a drink, on average) and sipping cocktails with fresh, occasionally esoteric ingredients (one doesn't see Angostura bitters just everywhere) really make a difference?
On a recent visit to the Usual with my wife and some friends, we sampled a variety of cocktails, from the effervescent bee's knees to the more traditional South American pisco sour. All of us were struck by how "alive" the drinks seemed. The ability to taste individual layers of flavor -- sparkling notes of lemon and honey in the bee's knees, staccato flourishes of lime and ginger beer in the Moscow mule -- brought each cocktail into sharp relief. It was as refreshing as it was eye-opening.
Show of spirits
There's inherent showmanship in bartending. It may not involve tossing around shakers or flinging bottles of Stoli, a la the movie Cocktail, or igniting flaming Dr Peppers or stirring up shockingly pink cosmopolitans, but these classic and craft cocktails are assembled in stages. And there's a sense of awe, watching them be concocted.
So it's no surprise that in our reality-show universe, cocktail competitions have flourished recently, particularly in Dallas. Often sponsored by high-end liquor companies, the events spur bartenders to think up new ideas, which can lead to fame and endorsement deals.
"[Those contests] all tie back into marketing. It typically tends to be the better brands that push this kind of thing," Hensarling says. "They want you mixing with their product -- they want your picture and your recipe."
"We're all competitive -- it raises the bar," Martensen says. "We all kind of flex our muscles. It's great for [creativity]. People will think, 'That was a great idea, maybe I could change this,' so the standard gets raised. Is marketing involved? Hell yeah, but other than that, I look at it as more of a 'Let's do these things; it helps the movement.'"
These events also encourage camaraderie among a working class whose hours don't exactly leave much room for a social life. And it helps maintain the cocktail renaissance's forward momentum.
"One thing I do like about it is it gets more bartenders thinking about what they're doing," Hensarling says. "Everybody that does well in these things is out searching for that little thing, or that new flavor to integrate, or a little twist to add."
The bartenders at places like Grace or Bolsa also enjoy evangelizing about the resurgence of cocktails and discussing their craft's finer points. They are artisans and craftsmen first, bartenders second. These top bartenders -- folks like Martensen, Hensarling, Grace's Jason Miller or Bolsa's Eddie "Lucky" Campbell -- carry around hundreds of recipes in their heads, ready at a moment's notice to create a sidecar or a Manhattan out of thin air.
In addition to functioning as quasi-chefs, relying on techniques like steeping or infusion, they also serve as resident professors, eager to share their accumulated knowledge and help those skittish about spirits find a new favorite.
Old favorites, new standards
For once, Fort Worth is keeping pace with Dallas, where movements such as these usually take hold first.
The Usual, which opened in 2009 in Fort Worth's rapidly revitalizing Near Southside neighborhood, is co-owned by the 30-year-old Hensarling, who has worked in the restaurant industry since age 14. He is downright zealous about his cocktails, having been first exposed to their potential a few years ago at Chicago's influential lounge the Violet Hour. Over time, his repertoire has increased -- the curly-haired Hensarling estimates that he has about 300 recipes in his head at any given time -- as his appreciation for the classics has deepened.
Although the Usual has enjoyed steady business since opening two years ago, Hensarling acknowledges that it has taken time for the concept to catch up.
"When I first opened, I thought I had a larger market than I actually did at the time," Hensarling says. "The cocktail has really, in the last year and a half, gotten a lot more public than it was. Originally, I thought I'd open up, start doing classic cocktails, and everybody would hop on board. Now it's become almost an evangelical mission."
To that end, Hensarling says that the Usual will begin offering classes this summer, teaching about the ins and outs of mixing cocktails, as well as liquor in general. (Class information will be posted on the bar's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/pages/the-usual/194200839573.)
That realization -- that those willing to pay more to drink well also want to know the cocktail's provenance -- is true for nearly every craft cocktail-serving bar in the Metroplex. Whether it's at a new place on the block, like Dallas' the Cedars Social, which opened this year, or the scene's (relatively) elder statesmen, Victor Tango's and Grace, both of which opened in 2008, bartenders are finding customers who are more interested and informed about what they're drinking.
Grace's Jason Miller says the downtown Fort Worth restaurant was determined to have its cocktails be on par with its food, created by chef Blaine Staniford, and its extensive wine selection, overseen by sommelier Ryan Tedder.
Before the doors opened, Miller says there was a long day of trial and error at Staniford's house, where he and several co-workers experimented with all manner of ingredients.
"To me, the best thing is using fresh ingredients," Miller says. "We use fresh basil, fresh lime, fresh mint -- I've worked in many places where everything comes in a pre-made mix. People can drink those, but you're doing so much better with fresh [ingredients]."
Testing the recipe
It's a similar situation at Oak Cliff gem Bolsa, which has elicited raves for its locally sourced fare and craft cocktail menu, overseen by Eddie "Lucky" Campbell. Regarded as one of the best in the business, Campbell has worked everywhere from Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie to Dallas' renowned Mansion on Turtle Creek.
The crisp menu of drinks, which includes staples like the Peruvian pisco sour and gimlets alongside new creations like the Oak Cliff creeper and Taylor's Buck, has its genesis in the classics, according to Campbell. In addition, the "market fresh" restaurant's bar also indulges in occasional challenges, like using berries or a specific liquor and forcing its bartenders to invent new drinks on the spot.
The barkeeps keep one foot in the present while rifling through the history books for inspiration.
"In that pursuit of better-quality drinks, I started realizing that the old cocktails had more integrity than new cocktails did," Campbell says. "I started looking into why that was and discovered the bartenders of yesterday worked way harder than the bartenders of today."
He uses these standards as a springboard for innovation, like many of the craft cocktails he and fellow area bar legend Martensen just created for Baileys Prime Plus at the Shops at Park Lane. Its a brief list, but deep with enticing selections, like the pairs riff on brandy Alexander and a gimlet goosed with fresh cucumber and basil.
Over at the Cedars Social, the newest addition to the steadily growing North Texas craft-cocktail renaissance, general manager Craig Reeves, says his mission is simple: "Have great drinks and stick with the classics," he says. "We're just trying to stick to the way bartending should be."
But will dedication to the art of bartending and fidelity to hundred-year-old recipes be enough to sustain this movement past its moment in the spotlight?
Although craft cocktails haven't yet hit the level of Top Chef -- although there is a half-hour program, Drink Up, airing on the Cooking Channel -- the forward momentum is evident, at least in North Texas.
If there seems to be a whiff of elitism that comes with quaffing a $10 or $12 drink in the midst of sustained economic crises, well, consider it a worthwhile indulgence. One or two of these creations, whipped up behind the bars of these talented mad scientists, is less like class warfare and more like treating your hardworking self to a vacation in a glass.
And we can all drink to that.