How to Make a Great Cocktail: Go to TRACE

Recently I’ve figured out the secret to excellent cocktails. Get the hell out of the house and go to a bar that specializes in craft cocktails. Let’s face it, I’m not a trained bartender, I don’t keep a lot of fresh squeezed juices in the house and I don’t have all of the specialty ingredients. Why screw up perfectly good liquor by mixing it incorrectly?

There are several really good cocktail bars in Austin so you won’t go thirsty. In fact in the just released Austin Chronicle 2011 Restaurant Poll, they chose not to pick a winner for the “Best New Craft Cocktail” saying, “The great news is, there’s so many we couldn’t list them. Austin is emerging as a cocktail capitol.”  One bar to include at the top of your list is TRACE Restaurant, one of three bars at the W Hotel Austin.

I had a chat with Joe Thompson, Libationist at TRACE to find out what he thinks makes a great cocktail. Like many bartenders, he happened into the business as a way to pay the bills while he pursued his career as an actor and a musician. He’s been doing this for last 10 years in Pittsburg, New York City and now in Austin. He fell in love with it, one thing led to another and he’s now a professional bartender. Along the way he studied cocktail technique, history and mixology to master the craft (yes he’s still playing music around town, has a couple albums out and is working on a film score).

The TRACE cocktail list has a mix of classic in pre-prohibition cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned and specialty drinks like the Bluegrass Martini. The cocktail program was designed to have a Texas flare with big bold flavors. The top selling is drink is the Jalapeño Cucumber Lemonade, a fresh and spicy drink that goes down like a wickedly clever double entendre.

Some things need to be truly Texan and fit the trends in Austin. Joe created a drink with Crown Royal and Dr. Pepper reduction and Texas grapefruit rind called the Lone Star Classic. Texas is the largest consumer of Crown Royal and Austin is the biggest market and Dr. Pepper was born in nearby Waco. Joe has been creating drink recipes for five years and he says this is the best he has ever done. It’s sweet as candy and packs a punch.

Over the past year Joe has updated the menu for seasonality and for evolving drinking trends.  He is rolling out a new list this week with nine new cocktails. He says he is excited to introduce adventurous, fun, classics and amazing libations like the Ginger Lemon Smash and the Fever Dream, a mescal cocktail with pomegranate and absinthe. Really cool take on the Negroni with mandarin vodka and Champagne called the Happen Stance. I’ll be back to try out a few. 

Like with the farm to market movement in food, people expect local flare and high quality ingredients. Joe loves tending bar and gets a ton of satisfaction from mixing in a busy bar with five people waiting on the same drink because they are blown away by it and know it’s worth the wait for an intricately made drink. People expect fresh ingredients like lemon and lime juice, because fresh tastes good. Several bars that pay attention to quality cocktails, like TRACE, use Kold Draft ice, which are dense cubes that get a drink really cold and don’t water it down. It’s the little things that add up.

It’s not just the ingredients, but also how a drink is mixed that makes a great cocktail. Joe showed me the difference between shaking a cocktail and stirring them. Shaking introduces air, which “wakes it up.” It’s a good thing to shake cocktails that have citrus or other juices. If it’s a Margarita, follow André 3000’s instructions. Cocktails that are mostly straight spirits like a Martini, Old Fashioned or Manhattan should be stirred. Stirring produces a heavy, silky, sexy texture to the cocktail. It turns out that old James Bond request for his Martini to be “Shaken, not stirred” is a load of crap. Here is Joe in action demonstrating the right way to mix a classic Manhattan.


I couldn’t help but compare the shaken Manhattan with the stirred Manhattan. Here’s what I thought of them.

Look Shaken – The martini glass is masked in frothy cloud of ice chips that obscure the view of the drink.Stirred – The glass shimmed with amber elegance like a royal cousin of cherry cola.  
Smell Shaken – Have you ever smelled a snowball? The shaken version was sort of like that with all that ice obscuring the scent   Stirred – Ah, bliss. A full nose of aromatic cinnamon, oak and lemon heralded love at first sniff.
Taste Shaken – After slurping through the sheen of slush, the first taste was the sweetness of vermouth mingling with a hint of citrus and a nice backbone of toasty bourbon.Stirred – What a huge difference.  The stirred version was more balanced with charred oak, spice, hint of caramel and a silky, rich, luxurious texture.
Price $12


Whether you’re a local or visiting Austin, I encourage you to drop in to luxuriate with an exquisitely made craft cocktail. The bars in the W Hotel in Austin attract a good mix of local regulars. Based on receipts, Joe guestimates the bars attract 70% locals and 30% hotel guests. An added bonus is the top notch people watching. On a typical Saturday night there are about 1,000 well-dressed people in the three-bar sprawling setting. See you there.

What are you drinking?

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Matt McGinnis

As a marketing strategist for Pen & Tell Us, Matt McGinnis provides marketing, branding and communications counsel to food and beverage as well as other clients globally. He is also an avid beverage enthusiast, chronicling his interests as a Food & Drink contributing writer for CultureMap, as the Food & Drink columnist for Austin Man Magazine, and as a blogger for What Are You Drinking?. He is passionate about the wine industry having previously worked at a winery in Oregon and in wine sales. He has served as Guest Host of Sommelier Cinema at the Alamo Drafthouse, and is a Certified Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. His writing has been recognized as a Top 10 Food Blog by the Austin Chronicle in 2013 and 2014, with a 2011 Texas Social Media Award from the Austin American-Statesman.

4 thoughts on “How to Make a Great Cocktail: Go to TRACE”

    1. Nicole, I absolutely love your article about the intensely local focus Trace has for its food. We should set a time to forage food and drink together there. Cheers!

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