It's time to toast the folks behind the bar, as part of CultureMap's Tastemaker Awards, our annual celebration of the best in Dallas food and drink.
It's the latest chapter in our editorial series, where we spotlight nominees in categories such as best bars, best neighborhood restaurants, best rising star chefs, best wine programs, and best ghost kitchens.
We're here now to tip our hat to the best bartenders in town.
The 2021 nominees are a spectacularly diverse group, ranging from newcomers to veterans, doing their craft everywhere from hotel bars in the mid-cities to cozy neighborhood lounges.
A panel of judges consisting of former CultureMap Tastemaker Award winners and local F&B experts narrowed down the list to 10. One winner will be announced at the Tastemaker Awards party on August 19 at Fashion Industry Gallery, where we'll dine on bites from nominated restaurants while emcee CJ Starr reveals the winners. (Buy tickets here.)
Here are the best bartenders in Dallas for 2021:
Ricky Cleva - Alice
Veteran bar player has worked numerous well-regarded spots around town including Parliament, Gung Ho, Harlowe MXM, Henry's Majestic, Trick Pony, and Atwater, where he first made a name for himself, earning nods for his creative drinks. He's been at the forefront of some creative adventures such as championing bitter spirits, which he did in 2018 with the creation of a mini bar-within-a-bar that focused on amari. Now you can find Aperol Spritzes on menus all over town.
Jacob Crews - Tiny Victories
Jake is a bit of a prodigy who worked every front-of-the-house job at Ferris Wheeler's in the Design District and Uptown Dallas cocktail temple Standard Pour before heading behind the bar. That versatility is put to good use at Tiny Victories, the neighborhood lounge in Oak Cliff, which operates in a collaborative style, with everyone on staff doing a little of everything: The bar staff not only mixes you a fine drink, they deliver it to your table, and Crews does so with a congenial charm.
Maylee Gray - Sky Creek Kitchen & Bar
Gray started young, working the bar at Saltgrass Steakhouse at age 18, where she learned how things tick at a corporate-style environment. She was recruited by the Worthington Renaissance in 2019 to help open Toro Toro, the hotel's Latin steakhouse and lounge, and began to develop her passion for craft. In 2020, she joined the team at Sky Creek, the restaurant and bar at the newly opened Delta Hotel, where she puts her multitasking skills to work, balancing mixology and hospitality for hotel guests and locals alike.
George Kaiho - Jettison
Kaiho is a return nominee (he was nominated in 2017), and it's hardly a surprise. Widely considered one of the best bartenders in Dallas, he has a quiet diligence and attentiveness to detail, evident in practices such as hand-cutting his own ice cubes because he prefers the "handmade" results. He's presided over the bar at Jettison, the intimate bar at the Sylvan Thirty complex in Oak Cliff, since it opened in 2016, where cutting-edge events such as cocktail omakase, showcasing seasonal cocktails, are par for the course.
Perla Lozano - Barcadia
Like a lot of bartenders, Lozano was somewhat thrown into the mixology world, but enjoyed a fortunate series of steps that have given her a well-rounded perspective. Working at Seasons 52 offered exposure to wine programs. Public 972 was a crash course in craft beer. And she embraced craft cocktails while working at Ida Claire. In her regular life, Lozano confesses to being an introvert, so tending bar at a highly social place like Barcadia gives her the freedom to operate outside of her usual comfort zone.
Adam Mercado - Billy Can Can
Mercado is part of a great bartender team at Billy Can Can, the cool swanky restaurant-bar in Victory Park, along with Mario Huerta and Jimmy Yee. He also tends bar at Hudson House and previously worked at Del Frisco's Grille.
Liz Mitchell - Thunderbird Station
Mitchell started out at Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House in East Dallas where she worked for five years before joining the "Double Wide family," the collection of cool bar spots owned by hospitality whiz Kim Finch that also include Single Wide on Greenville Avenue. Mitchell currently presides over Thunderbird Station, the groovy retro bar and restaurant on the edge of Deep Ellum, where all the food and cocktails are super fun. Mitchell's approach is to always try to make a personal connection before she serves you a drink.
Heather Poile - Lounge Here
Poile is a quick study whose cool determination and natural curiosity have vaulted her from indie restaurants to grand hotels and back. She helped build the bar program at BBBop Seoul Kitchen in Oak Cliff and was one of the longest running bar staffers at Stock & Barrel before joining the Statler Dallas hotel, where she was one of the few (only?) women bartenders. She's found a fitting home at East Dallas cocktail spot Lounge Here, home to a motley crew of talents.
Hector Santana - Yellow Rosa
One not-uncommon bartender stereotype is that of the cocktail-shaking king, the flamboyant hero who rules over the bar. Santana is the opposite of that. Modest and level-headed, he gets the job done with low-key, almost humble precision, even though he's scaled such heights as competing in the margarita challenge (where he came in third). His previous tenure with the SBBC Hospitium, which owns bars such as Tipsy Alchemist, helped mold his crafty skills.