There are dozens of bars throughout Austin that serve excellent drinks, flawlessly prepared with craft spirits and locally sourced ingredients. The rise of cocktails in Austin is riding the same wave of popularity as our foodie craze, with correspondingly high expectations for quality ingredients and impeccable service.

Austin’s bartenders take their jobs seriously, pouring over books, studying with spirits ambassadors, bringing culinary techniques to the bar and competing — and winning — in national competitions.

Nine of the city’s finest bartenders have been nominated for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards for Bartender of the Year. Meet them below.

Chris Bostick, Half Step

Chris Bostick
After stints at swanky cocktail dens in New York, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles (where he won the Best Cocktail Bar in America award at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail), Bostick returned to Austin dripping with drink cred to start Half Step on Rainey Street. At Half Step, he oversees a serious cocktail program complete with custom cut ice.

“Opening Half Step is by far the biggest accomplishment in my career to date,” says Bostick. “It was such an undertaking that involved an incredible amount of work. The success of Half Step has made all of the hard work extremely gratifying.”

Must try: The Ginger Paloma, on tap at Half Step, featuring Tequila Ocho Plata, fresh lime and grapefruit as well as Jarritos Toronja Mexican Soda.  

Carley Dunavant, JW Marriott

Carley Dunavant
Dunavant has brought a smile to Austinites while working at several top-notch bars including Whisler’s, Drink.Well., Odd Duck and Sawyer & Co. This Memphis native has been bartending since college, and has earned prestige by winning the Bombay Sapphire Competition in Austin, competing in the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition in Las Vegas, which was featured in the GQ miniseries America’s Bartender.  She recently took over the helm of the bar program at the new JW Marriott, which has Osteria Pronto, Corner Restaurant, Burger Bar and Lobby Bar.

“My biggest accomplishments are the relationships I’ve built with all the amazing bartenders and industry people in Austin and across the country,” says Dunavant. “I’ve been extremely lucky to get to work side by side some of the best and most talented people Austin has to offer. If it weren’t for all these passionate, creative, and crazy people, my life wouldn’t be the same.”

Must try: A classic margarita made with the large selection of tequila in the Corner Restaurant.

Justin Elliott, Qui

Justin Elliott Qui (2)
Elliott started at The Tavern and has been in the drinks business ever since with jobs at Brooklyn dive bars and now leading the bar program at Qui. Last year Elliott’s Tepache Collins, a traditional Mexican street drink made with barely fermented pineapple agua fresca, was named the Official Drink of Austin.

“The thing I’m most proud of, though, is my staff,” says Elliott. “We’ve created a really great culture at Qui. Really thoughtful, progressive cocktails are hard enough to put out, especially in a fast-paced environment. To be part of creating a team that makes cocktails look and taste great all the time in a super fun environment is incredibly rewarding.”

Must try: The spring cocktail menu at Qui features an Underberg-spiked Death in the Gulfstream with Genever and lime.

Bill Hankey, King Bee Lounge

Bill Hankey
Hankey earned a reputation for making serious cocktails behind the stick at The Good Knight and then as bar manager of Bar Congress. Now he is drawing crowds to King Bee on East 12th Street with killer craft cocktails and delicious pizza.

“When Colette and I first started dating, in fact on our first date, we told each other how much we wanted to open our own place,” he says. “We want to influence everything from fare all the way down to what was on the jukebox. Almost five years later, we have that place. King Bee embodies love and support, the same love and support I get from Colette every day.”

Must try: Château Pradeaux Bandol Rosé

Chauncey James, Garage

Chauncy James of Garage
James has honed his impressive bartending skills at damned fine Austin bars such as East Side Show Room, Volstead and Arro. He now leads the bar at Garage, the covert spot tucked inside the American National Bank parking garage. James recently crafted The Official Drink of Austin 2015.

Must-try: The Indian Paintbrush (The 2015 Official Drink of Austin) made with vodka, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, rosemary syrup and Peychaud’s Bitters.

Pam Pritchard, The Tigress Pub  

Pam Pritchard The Tigress
After working for 25 years as a medical technician, Pritchard made a significant career change and opened the Tigress Pub on North Loop in the spring of 2010. The cozy bar packs in cocktail lovers with its ever-rotating menu of classic and Pritchard-made drinks. The tiny bar recently expanded from 20 seats to about 40.

“I feel pretty good about being in business for five years,” says Pritchard. “I’m loving what I do and especially loving all the great people that have come into my life.”

Must try: The White Dove, made with white port, dry vermouth, elder flower, served in a tall glass with ice and fruit garnish.

Ania Robbins, Drink.Well.

Ania Roberts
Robbins has been a fixture behind the bar at Drink.Well. since 2013. She is as deft with a classic Sazerac as she is with a flaming tiki drink.

“I think the importance of a fantastic bar team is very underrated. It’s always been one of my biggest priorities. When people have the right chemistry behind the bar it translates into customers’ ultimate experience, from the drink on their table to the overall atmosphere,” she says.

Must try: The Daiquiri made with Smith & Cross over-proof Jamaican rum and lime juice. 

Jessica Sanders, Drink.Well.  

Jessica and Michael Sanders
Sanders opened the neighborhood cocktail bar and restaurant, Drink.Well. in 2012. Since then, she has made waves in the Austin cocktail scene by competing regularly in national competitions, gathering accolades, and serving as the president of the local chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild.

“When I am behind the bar and I see someone walk into Drink.Well. for the second, third or fourth time … that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating,” Sanders says. “I am proud that I’ve helped create a space where people come to be made happy and feel welcomed to return again and again.”

Must try: Martini made with 50/50 gin and vermouth with a lemon twist.

Jason Stevens, Bar Congress

Jason Stevens Bar Congress
As the director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, Stevens presides over the drinks at cocktail mecca Bar Congress as well as Second Bar + Kitchen and its second location in The Domain. He also has a hand in the soon-to-open Boiler Nine Bar + Grill in the Seaholm development.

“I’m most proud of convincing my mom to stop making margaritas with bottled artificial mix,” Stevens says.

Must try: Barolo 12 year grappa and a Real Ale Han’s Pils chaser

The Bartender of the Year will be announced at the 2015 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards on May 12 at Brazos Hall. 

This story was originally published on CultureMap

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Austin’s best cocktail bars battle for recognition and bragging rights.

Garage Wins

 

There are a lot of places to get a great cocktail in Austin, but only one bar gets to say it has the Official Cocktail of Austin. To earn that honor, the winners were one of six teams that had to run the cocktail gauntlet at the Official Drink of Austin 2015 event hosted by the Tipsy Texan to benefit the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. Teams from some of Austin’s best cocktail bars, including drink.well., Half Step, Odd Duck, Garage, Licha’s Cantina and the soon-to-open VOX Table, battled it out in front of a panel of judges to earn the title.

Teams from some of Austin’s best cocktail bars, including drink.well.Half StepOdd DuckGarageLicha’s Cantina and the soon-to-open VOX Table, battled it out in front of a panel of judges to earn the title.

The event has changed throughout the years and has grown with the rise of craft cocktails.

“We saw remarkable support for the event this year from the bars: Twenty-six venues submitted menus for the competition, a record for us,” says event originator and founder of Tipsy Texan, David Alan. “Furthermore, many of them were from restaurant bars, not just the usual-suspect cocktail bars you see in many competitions. As the scene matures, it becomes harder and harder each year to narrow it down to just six contestants. This was the best lineup we’ve ever had and we sold out of tickets, and could have sold a hundred more if we’d had them. My voice isn’t loud enough to sing the praises of this community.”

The competition not only shows off the talent of local bartenders, but it also shines a spotlight on Texas spirits. The thirsty crowd sampled drinks from each of the competing bars, as well as various cocktails from locally owned distilleries, including Balcones Distilling, Deep Eddy Vodka, Dripping Springs Gin, Dulce Vida Organic Tequila, Garrison Brothers, Genius Gin, Paula’s Texas Spirits, Revolution Spirits, Tequila 512, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Treaty Oak Distilling and White Hat Rum.

Rivers of booze were flowing and people voted for their favorites with the People’s Choice Award. A panel of drink experts, including Chef Jack Gilmore, Gina Chavez, Dan Gentile, Jason Stevens, Jason Kosmas and last year’s winner, Justin Elliott of Qui, cast a critical palate on each concoction.

Kosmas let us in on his judging criteria., “Of course it’s got to be a great drink,” he says. “The scrutiny is if it really represents Austin. We see some great cocktails here that don’t have an Austin feel. You can’t fake it.”

Led by Chauncy James, the team from Garage, the covert bar tucked inside the American National Bank parking garage, brought its A game. In so doing, they won the People’s Choice Award. However, the judges selected the Half Step team led by Chris Bostick as its winner. That set up an onstage shake-off between Garage, with its vodka-based drink, The Indian Paintbrush, against Half Step, with its smoky version of a michelada called the Don Brimstone.

Garage emerged victorious, earning The Indian Paintbrush the title of The Official Drink of Austin 2015.

The Indian Paintbrush Aka, The Official Drink of Austin

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 ounces Dripping Springs Vodka
  • 1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
  • .5 ounce fresh lime juice
  • .5 ounce rosemary syrup
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Directions:

Pour all ingredients into a tin, shake over ice, double fine strain into a Tom Collins glass and add ice and garnish with rosemary.

While it is a ton of fun, the event also raises money for a good cause.

“The purpose of what we do is to raise money and reinvest it in the community,” says Mariam Parker, executive director of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. “Proceeds from the event help provide money for culinary innovation grants. The event also highlights the incredible talent we have in town.”

This story was originally published by Austin Woman Magazine.

Disclosure: I was provided a media pass to the event. 

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Celebrate Al Capone’s 116th birthday with the Capone cocktail   

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