It’s three hours before the dining room is set to open at FT33, and Executive Chef/Owner Matt McCallister’s tattooed personage is leaning over the host podium, snapping a picture of a plate of food with a smartphone. The plate is so perfect, and the mood is so focused that we dare not ask what the quenelle of pink mousse and curly tendrils of green foliage are—the purpose of the visit is cocktails after all—but it looks fabulous. “Take pictures,” he instructs the staffer who has brought the plate out from the kitchen, “because you’re making it tonight.”
I’m glad it’s not me. It looks like it took hours. But I digress. I’m here for cocktails.
It’s easy to spot the Balcones casks upon entering the bright, airy space. They’re parked right up against the window where they can be spotted from outside. There’s nothing like a barrel of booze to draw in curious would-be imbibers from off the street, but FT33 needs hardly sidewalk marketing: the accolades have piled on since opening in 2012.
Seated at the comfortable marble bar, General Manager and Wine Director Jeff Gregory shares the background of the barrel-aged cocktail program, which began in August, and has proven popular. An industry veteran, there’s no point untouched in Gregory’s background spiel—there’s passion apparent here as there would be with any curated art—and no question that can stump. The barrels are 20 liters of New American Oak, which have been used twice for other spirits, for a stint of 12 months per spirit. He knows which spirits are aged in each particular cask, and points out that Balcones original notes and markings remain on the bottom of each barrel so they can be selected for their qualities.
Three of the barrels have been used to first age the Balcones Rumble, and then used for a single malt Texas Whisky, and one of the barrels has been used for two batches of single malt. From these barrels come three cocktails: a house Martinez, a traditional Manhattan, and a Mezcal-and-Tequila Negroni. The fourth barrel is used for a straight liquor—Ford’s Gin—which is used in the mixed-to-order Final Say, FT33’s take on the Last Word. Witty.
The aging takes eight weeks, so rather than pouring an entire cask and then waiting for the aging process to begin from the beginning, a “kill switch” was built into the point of sale system, cutting off sales after 24 in a single week. The casks are replenished for the week on Tuesdays, being kept consistently full enough for an ongoing aging process without diluting the flavor of the already-aged cocktail within. Gregory mentions that some of the more popular cocktails like the Manhattan start to run out closer to the end of the week, so cocktail aficionados coming in late on a Saturday evening may have been beaten to the, er, punch. Selling out of cocktails by the end of the week is definitely a mark that Dallas drinkers have taken to the program. “We started with these smaller barrels and quickly realized we needed something larger to keep up with the demand,” Gregory explains. “Luckily, here in Texas, we have a lot of whisky producers.”
Barmen Scott Augat and Tristan Price are a pair of capable, affable gents who pour with practiced precision and comfortable conversation—the cocktail comes out of the barrel with almost ritualistic cadence. The aged potables are “thieved” from the barrel using a slender steel implement appropriately called a “thief” (it’s reminiscent of coring a watermelon), poured over ice and stirred, then strained into a cocktail glass with a sliver of lemon rind. The gin is thieved in the same manner and pulled with ice with other ingredients to mix the Final Say, the pale jade goodness of which is served up in a champagne coupe.
And what delicious thievery it turns out to be. Rye gives the Manhattan a pleasant spice, but the time in the cask seems to mellow the spice and enhance the wood for a smooth, oaky finish. The Negroni reads like an ode to two worlds of green hills: the Old being represented by Torino Vermouth and Gran Classico Bitters from Piedmont, in the foothills of the Italian Alps; the New World contributing Del Maguey Mezcal and blanco tequila from Southern Mexico. The result is a downright agave-driven but not dominated cocktail. The Martinez also gets some oak action, which works especially well with the orange bitters for an aftertaste that struck like a smoky vanilla smudge.
If a favorite were to be picked, it would have to be the Final Say. It’s a lovely eye-opening floral-and-citrus delight with a subtle but firm gin back. Speaking of “back”, we definitely will be.
The Bar at FT33 is opens from 4:30 five nights a week, closing at 11 Tuesday through Thursday and at 12 on Friday and Saturday evening. The dining room opens at 6 and closes an hour before the bar. Private lot parking. Cask-aged cocktails are $14-$15. Gracious thanks to FT33 for furnishing the cocktails reviewed.