3 Austin sommeliers pair their favorite wines with heart-healthy meals

Sure, the month of January is filled with onerous New Year’s resolutions full of strict diets and exercise. The good news is that those resolutions probably have you on the path to participate in American Heart Month this February. The even better news is that, according to many studies, drinking red wine—as long as you don’t overdo it—may actually be good for your heart.

So follow your heart with these recommendations for pairing a rustic or robust red wine with a few of Austin’s best heart-healthy dishes.

The Sommelier: Mark Sayre  

Arro
601 W. Sixth St.

Niçoise salad and Burgundy at Arro
Niçoise salad and Burgundy at Arro

 

Advanced Sommelier Mark Sayre has gathered prestigious honors, such as Texas’ Best Sommelier in 2007, Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Seven Best New Sommeliers in 2010 and a 2012 CultureMap Tastemaker Award during his career managing the restaurant at Westwood Country Club and running the wine program at Trio Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin. Now serving as service director of the wine-focused Arro, he is in his element.

Executive chef, Andrew Curren of the ELM Restaurant Group, opened the French bistro, Arro, in autumn 2013 and it quickly grew a devoted following with its unpretentious farm-to-table French fare. Arro got a facelift in the summer of 2015, expanding its outdoor seating and adding vibrant design touches to the interior. The menu was also updated with some playful touches.

Sayre has a deft touch at pairing wines from the extensive list with the everchanging menu.

“I take a broad approach to food-and-wine pairings,” he says. “I pair the structure and weight of a wine to match the food. This gives you more options. Now you can talk about red wines and seafood. Now you don’t have to talk about pairing cherry flavors in wine with cherry flavors in a dish. It’s about how the weight of the wine and the weight of the dish work together. If the texture of this dish is really elegant, let’s find an elegant wine with a little more body.”

The Meal: Niçoise Salad
This classic salad from the South of France is as satisfying as it is healthy, with grilled tuna atop leafy greens, herbs, green beans, potatoes, eggs and olives. Sayre says pinot noir is a perfect mate for niçoise salad. “The elegance and complexity in salad match elegance and complexity in the wine,” Sayre says. “The meaty flavor from tuna, savory earthiness from the olives and potatoes, and myriad herbal qualities go really well with fruity and floral tones and the core of savory and spicy flavors.”

The Wine: 2009 Domaine Michel Lafarge Premier Cru Les Aigrots from Beaune, France
This Southern Burgundy beauty is as rustic as it is elegant, with bright cherry flavors and enough oomph to muscle up to the meaty aspect of the tuna. It runs about $178. For a less expensive option, try the 2013 Soter North Valley Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Ore. This is a gorgeous wine, with juicy fruit intensity balanced with herbal scents and earthiness, and is often found in Burgundy, France. It is $48 for a bottle or $12 by the glass.

 

THE Sommelier: Nathan Fausti

Bullfight
4807 Airport Blvd.  

Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight
Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight

 

Certified Sommelier Nathan Fausti is a rising star in the Austin wine community. Having won the title of 2015 Texas’ Best Sommelier, he is now preparing to take the Advanced Sommelier Exam and test his skills in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Sommelier Competition as one of three people selected to compete in the 10-state region.

Though he’ll soon take the helm as sommelier at Due Forni, in his current position as the sommelier at Bullfight, Fausti pairs Spanish wines with Southern Spanish tapas. Finding the right wine to go with a diverse selection of flavors in multiple dishes is a fun challenge for Fausti.

Bullfight, the newest restaurant from chef Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside Projects, reflects his take on traditional Spanish dishes. Made with local ingredients, sustainably raised meats and fish, the tantalizing selection of tapas is mostly heart-healthy with plenty of gluten-free, dairy free, vegetarian, and vegan options. Executive chef, Ryan Shields, philosophy is if it doesn’t need salt, butter, cream, or flower, it’s not in the dish.

“I look for structure and match the body of the wine with the body of the food,” he says. “Wine with a lot of tannin matches fattiness. Higher alcohol goes with a heavier-bodied dish. I match for the most part and then look for some contrast. It is like adding a seasoning to the dish.”

The Meal: A Trio of Vegetable-driven Tapas
Escalivada with peppers, eggplant and boquerones is an absolutely gorgeous dish served with the fish artistically arranged on a ring of roasted and chilled vegetables. Cauliflower gazpacho, made with cauliflower stock, has crunchy, grilled cauliflower florets, paprika-spiced walnuts, pickled grapes and shaved fennel. It is a party of textures and smoky, sweet flavors. And grilled branzino, a traditional Mediterranean sea bass, is served in tomato broth with herbs, garlic and braised cannellini beans.

The Wine: Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva 2003, Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain
This aged red wine has savory flavors almost like sweet and sour, with mellow red fruit, cherry, soy sauce, baking spice, vanilla and a lot of earthiness that pairs well with escalivada. It’s priced at $98. For a less expensive alternative, try the Palacio de Canedo Maceración 2013 from Bierzo in Northwest Spain. This is a medium-bodied wine made with the mencia grape. It is reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais, with great aromatics, fresh cherry flavors, black pepper and a savory herb spiciness that goes well with vegetables and fish. It is $56 for the bottle or $12 by the glass.

Sommeliers Paul Ozbirn and Nathan Fausti at Bullfight
Sommeliers Paul Ozbirn and Nathan Fausti at Bullfight

The Sommelier: Chris Dufau

Emmer & Rye
51 Rainey St.

Mangalitsa pork ragout at Emmer & Rye
Mangalitsa pork ragout at Emmer & Rye

 

Certified Sommelier Chris Dufau has extensive experience in wine service from stints at the famed French Laundry and the Martini House in Napa Valley, Calif., as well as Jeffrey’s in Austin. He joined the team at the newly opened Emmer & Rye, drawn by the opportunity to work at a chef-owned restaurant in a vibrant part of town.

Named for ancient grains, Emmer & Rye uses local ingredients in its American cuisine, including herbs and vegetables grown in raised beds outside the restaurant and foraged locally. Executive chef and owner, Kevin Fink, prepares seasonally-appropriate small plates like pork trotter pressé and octopus confit. A fun way to enjoy several complex dishes, like cauliflower custard with mustard and wheat berries, is to order from the dim sum style cart service.

Pairing wines with an eclectic mix of small plates and ever-changing dim sum dishes keeps Dufau on his toes.

“I designed a list of mostly European wines that fit a broad spectrum of flavors and that work with multiple courses and multiple dishes,” Dufau says. “We have 45 wines by the bottle and six whites and eight reds by the glass that are great for everyday drinking.”

The Dish: Rye Pappardelle Pasta With a Mangalitsa Pork Ragout
The big, broad noodles are made in-house using grain that is milled in the kitchen. Served lazily folded over each other with lean cuts of pork braised in Roma tomato sauce, the firm pasta and tangy ragout are meltin- your-mouth delicious.

The Wine: Ar.Pe.Pe. Rosso di Valtellina, Nebbiolo from Lombardy, Italy
This light-style wine made near the Swiss Alps has floral, cherry and cranberry flavors that go well with the pork and many other dishes on the menu. It’s priced at $70. For a less expensive alternative, try the Claus Preisinger, Blaufrankisch from Austria. This is a solid wine, with wild, brambly fruit flavors that bring out the spiciness of the rye in the pasta. It is $45 for the bottle.

This story was originally published in the February issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand. 

What are you drinking?

The ultimate holiday indulgence: Champagne and caviar

The holidays are ripe for indulgence. It’s a perfect time for pampering family, friends and yourself. The ultimate culinary extravagance is the pairing of champagne and caviar: bliss! Both are tiny festive balloons bursting with joy, just for you.

Champagne and Caviar

What’s so special about the salted eggs of a sturgeon? It’s that almost magical pop of the delicate shell that showers your mouth with insanely delicious buttery, saline and fishy goodness. Nothing else can replicate the tactile experience or flavor.

Who was the first person to eat the gray-black eggs of a scary fish that looks like it just swam out of the brackish waters of Jurassic Park? Some say Greek philosopher Aristotle and his cronies were diggin’ sturgeon roe way back in the fourth century B.C. While the Persians (aka, Iranians) may be the first to salt sturgeon eggs from the Southern Caspian Sea, it’s the Russian czars who gave caviar its fame as an extravagance. Its popularity spread when the Russians started selling it as a luxury item to European royalty in the 16th century.

Caviar caught on big in the United States in the late 1800s, and by 1910, sturgeon were almost extinct in the U.S., resulting in the halting of domestic production. Similarly, the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea was decimated by overfishing, poaching and pollution. In 1988, sturgeon was listed as an endangered species, but poaching for the lucrative black-market trade after the fall of the U.S.S.R. devastated the industry. Wild beluga and osetra sturgeon have been fished to near extinction.

As a result of scarcity and regulations limiting the harvest of wild sturgeon, caviar prices have soared. Fortunately, farming sturgeon provides cost-effective and sustainable access to the good stuff.

Caviar

Order Like a Pro

You don’t have to be an in-the-know aficionado to get good caviar in a restaurant or store. Just follow a few basic tips.

  • Buy enough. You’ll want at least a 30-gram tin (about 1 ounce) for two people, but the ideal serving is 50 grams per person.
  • Know what you are getting. Caviar is the unfertilized salt-cured fish egg that can come from 26 different species of sturgeon. Look for nationality and species of fish on the tin—Russian sevruga, Iranian osetra or California sturgeon—to know what you are getting. While items like salmon caviar are technically roe and not caviar, it is common to find affordable eggs called whitefish caviar or trout caviar. Caviar is graded by the color, size and texture of its beads. The finest caviars are larger eggs that are lighter in color with firmer beads that pop in your mouth. If you are new to caviar, try milder styles like Chinese shassetra or American white sturgeon. Make sure it is fresh. Caviar stays fresh for four weeks unopened when well refrigerated. Once opened, caviar starts to soften and gets fishier. It will only keep for a day or possibly two when stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
  • That beluga isn’t what you think it is. Beluga is widely regarded as the finest caviar, but in 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed beluga sturgeon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It’s currently illegal in the U.S., however, you may see river beluga caviar, or kaluga caviar, on a menu. It’s a scrumptious substitute with large, firm and luscious pearls.  Sustainably raised caviar is a good thing. Because most species of sturgeon are now considered endangered, sustainably raised, farmed caviar and other fish roe are great alternatives to wild caviar. Wild-harvested sturgeon are killed for their eggs, while eggs from farm-raised sturgeon are live harvested. Look for farm-raised varieties like white sturgeon or paddlefish roe.

Beluga Caviar

 

The Proper Way to Eat Caviar

Eat caviar in small bites, served right out of the tin with a nonmetallic spoon made of mother-of-pearl, wood or even plastic. Let the eggs spread on your tongue and pop those lovely pearls on the roof of your mouth to let the rich, nutty, buttery, salty, fishy flavors explode across your palate.

Alternately, caviar is delightful when served with blini, toast points or cold boiled potatoes with a dollop of creme fraiche—all excellent neutral backdrops that won’t compete with the flavor of caviar.

 

How to Select Champagne

Champagne is a must for pairing with caviar. The tart acidity of champagne and silky texture exquisitely enhance the enchanting, salty flavor of the caviar. It’s a match made in heaven. Even when excluding all styles of sparkling wine made outside the champagne region of France, there are still several styles to choose from. Follow these tips to simplify the selection of champagne.

  • Ask for advice. Go to a restaurant with a sommelier who can make suggestions or visit a reputable wine shop and ask for advice from the smart people who work there. Sommeliers and wine-shop owners spend all day, every day recommending wine, and are great resources for finding the best champagne for the money.
  • Know what you like. Do you prefer sweet or dry? Demi-sec, sec and extra dry are sweet, while brut and extra brut are dry.

Do you like your wine to be tarter or richer? Champagne made with all chardonnay grapes, called blanc de blanc, is more elegant, with lemon-juice freshness and high acidity. Champagne made with pinot noir is typically bigger, richer and more structured.

Pick your year. Champagne made with wine from multiple years is called non-vintage and will have “NV” on the label. It is usually less expensive than vintage-dated champagne. If you choose vintage champagne, some good years to consider are 1995, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

Consider being adventurous.  If you want a solid champagne without spending a lot of time scouring the wine list, pick a non-vintage bottle from one of the major houses, like Bollinger, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot. If you feel more adventurous, try a grower champagne, or fizzy wine made by the same house that grows up to 88 percent of their own grapes rather than buying it from other sources. Look for a tiny “RM” on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant, which signifies it is an independent grower and producer. It’s possible to find high-quality champagne at a great price from houses like Egly-Ouriet, Guy Charlemagne, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils and Serge Mathieu.

Where to Get it in Austin 

There are several stores in Austin that sell quality caviar, but two with high-quality caviar year-round include:

Lone Star Caviar

512.636.8265

As the only caviar-specific retailer in Central Texas, Lone Star Caviar sells a wide array of wild caviar, from domestic sturgeon in a 4-ounce container for $280, to golden osetra imported from Iran in a 3.5-ounce tin for $350. To ensure freshness, the retailer only keeps a small amount in stock. Proprietor Bill Kirchenbauer recommends calling ahead to pre-order. He delivers in the Austin area usually within 24 hours.

Whole Foods Market

Each Whole Foods location carries a limited selection of caviar year-round and increases the selection to six to 10 varieties during the holidays. Ryan Boudreaux, a seafood coordinator, says Whole Foods carries caviar from small, sustainably farmed, artisanal companies like Tsar Nicoulai Select California Estate Osetra. Various quality levels are available, from a farmed white American sturgeon for $40 for an ounce, to a reserve-style white sturgeon caviar for $90 an ounce.

Whole foods follows its seafood-sustainability practices for the purchase of caviar, which precludes it from buying Russian sturgeon. It only carries fresh caviar. Boudreaux recommends customers talk to a fishmonger to check the date of caviar before buying it. It has a finite shelf life of 60 to 90 days. He recommends packing it in ice, even for a short drive home.

Caviar

Clark’s Oyster Bar

1200 W. Sixth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Clark's
Champagne and Caviar at Clark’s

 

This neighborhood seafood restaurant and raw bar has the casual charm of a beachside bistro. Known for its outstanding oysters and bangin’ cocktails, it also has a respectable selection of champagne and caviar.

The sparkling-wine list offers a diversity of styles and prices, with nine types, ranging from $44 to $240 a bottle.

“Our sparkling-wine selection gets rotated frequently,” says June Rodil, master sommelier and wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality. “I think it’s important to have a mix of non-champagne as well as champagne from the big houses, grower-producers and non-vintage and vintage to fit the menu.”

The Clark’s caviar lineup, chosen by Chef John Beasley, follows the same principle of offering a variety of styles and prices. Beasley selects caviar and seafood only from sustainable sources. He looks for clear consistency of the beads and flavor varieties for five to seven styles. The menu caries inexpensive golden whitefish roe and wild paddlefish caviar starting at $30 an ounce, as well as a selection of white sturgeon and osetra for as much as $240 for 50 grams. Each is served in a traditional setup, with a mother-of-pearl spoon, blini, creme fraiche and a selection of garnishes. The Clark’s servers are trained to provide recommendations on caviar to help guests make a good choice for their taste preferences and budget.

“Less expensive fish roe, like paddlefish, have a more mellow, murky and earthy flavor,” Rodil says, “When you move up to sturgeon, you’re starting to get an unctuous, rich, beautiful, rounded bead with an almost mineral and clean taste.”

The perfect pick: For a flawless pairing, Rodil recommends the royal white sturgeon caviar and Guy Larmandier Grand Cru Champagne, served in half bottles.

“A half bottle is the perfect amount to have by yourself with caviar,” she explains. “It’s made with 100 percent chardonnay and super powerful. The caviar is a little quieter, so it goes well with the chardonnay. The wine is like a laser cutting through the creaminess of the caviar, creme fraiche and egg. [It’s the] perfect texture with the texture of the caviar. It’s a middle-tier splurge, so you can get it again if you fall in love and not feel too guilty.”

 

Congress

200 Congress Ave.

Champagne and Caviar at Congress
Champagne and Caviar at Congress

 

One of Austin’s finest fine-dining restaurants, Congress really knows how to do elegant meals. Caviar feels right at home here. Champagne is a staple.

The Congress wine lists boasts more than 20 types of sparkling wine, the majority of which are Champagne. The list runs the gamut, from the non-vintage André Clouet Grande Reserve Brut at $68, to the prestigious 2000 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill Brut for $436.

Executive Chef David Bull has gathered stacks of prominent national awards for his craftsmanship of cuisine. Among his stellar dishes, he always has a selection that includes caviar.

“We change our caviar selection four to five times a year,” Bull says. “We want the right seasonally available ingredients. In the fall and winter months, the quality of caviar is much better. It’s all about the spawning. We incorporate farm-raised golden osetra from the Caspian Sea in a dedicate dish made with cauliflower mousse with a brown-butter cracker to highlight the flavor of caviar. It’s interactive. Use the crackers to dig in. It’s a fun experience.”

Bull’s driving force when sourcing caviar is to find high-quality eggs with the right color and separation of whole eggs that aren’t broken, as well as a good flavor profile, but caviar that’s still affordable so it’s not intimidating. However, his top priority is to serve sustainable ingredients.

“It’s a chef’s responsibility to make sure he’s not serving an endangered animal,” Bull says. “I make sure we are getting farm-raised caviar.”

It might not always be on the menu, but Congress offers stand-alone caviar service. During the holidays, look for farm-raised golden Caspian osetra served with a boiled egg, red onion, parsley and capers and toasted brioche. It’s served by the ounce for about $70.

“It’s a great bar snack if you can afford it,” says Jason Stevens, ‎director of bars and beverage at La Corsha Hospitality, which owns Congress.

The perfect pick: Stevens gets downright misty eyed when he describes the perfect combination of champagne with that bar snack.

“I like a non-vintage champagne, like Krug Brut Grande Cuvee, that has a little bit of age because it is important to have a nuttiness come out in the champagne to match the nuttiness of the caviar,” he says. “It’s really beautiful. The flavor is one thing but the textural element is another. When eating caviar, it’s so fun for me to crush the caviar on the soft palate of my mouth and let that buttery oiliness come out. The bubbles of the champagne combine with it to create an elegant, creamy mousse. The high acid cuts through the richness and lets the delicate aspects come out to play.”

Alternately, he recommends a very cold shot of vodka.

“I would make a shot with five parts of potato vodka and one part of super chilled akvavit,” he says. “Take a bite of caviar, take a taste of vodka and then more caviar. Rinse and repeat. What a lovely way to spend the evening.”

 

Jeffrey’s

1204 W. Lynn St.

Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery's
Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery’s

 

A couple years ago, Bon Appétit magazine named Jeffrey’s one of its Top 50 New Restaurants when it reopened under new ownership by McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which also owns Clark’s. It’s accurate to say it has only gotten better with age.

With one of only three master sommeliers in Austin responsible for the wine list, it’s no surprise Jeffrey’s stocks an exquisite selection of champagne. Wine and Beverage Director June Rodil organized the list by grower champagnes and négociant-manipulant champagnes in either brut or rosé. It touts superb bottles such as 2004 Bollinger Grande Année Brut, 1988 Le Brun-Servenay Champagne Exception Avize Grand Cru and 1989 Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut.

“We have a lot of guests who are really into wine,” Rodil says. “Our sommelier team can answer their deep questions and get people conscious about what they want to drink. We have a large selection of great champagnes, with about 35 labels. I print our list every week and that changes regularly.”

French-trained Executive Chef Rebecca Meeker, who honed her culinary skills at Chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in New York and Taiwan, along with Chef David Whalen, sample caviar weekly to find the very best. Like the champagne list, the caviar selection changes regularly to ensure Jeffrey’s always has the freshest possible high-end caviar. The restaurant typically carries one or two styles, such as Iranian osetra or royal osetra from Israel.

Jeffrey’s serves caviar in a traditional way, accompanied by blini, creme fraiche, chopped onions and chopped boiled eggs. As an alternative to the mother-of-pearl spoon, Rodil recommends “caviar bumps.”

“It is super trendy,” she says. “People eat caviar off the back of their hands. It makes a lot of sense, as long as your hands are clean and free of odor. After all, you know you’re own scent, and because of that, caviar is the only flavor you taste. Caviar is such a delicate thing, you don’t want any other flavors interfering.”

The perfect pick: To go with that royal osetra caviar bump, Rodil recommends a 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut.

“Cristal is a pinot noir-dominant blend,” she says. “It’s delicate, with the big richness to go with the intensity and the richness of the bubble of royal osetra. It is richness of bubbles paired with the richness of the bubbles. The 2006 vintage is big, lush, with great acidity. High-status caviar deserves to be served with high-status champagne. People think about Jeffry’s as a celebratory meal. It’s easy to indulge here.”

 

LaV Restaurant & Wine Bar

1501 E. Seventh St.

Champagne and Caviar at laV
Champagne and Caviar at laV

 

Elegance without pretense is the pervasive vibe at LaV. The atmosphere is imbued with subtle sophistication, from the art on the walls and the light fixtures to the intricate details of the dishes on the French Provençal-inspired menu. In this setting, champagne and caviar almost seem like a must.

With one of the city’s most expansive wine lists, overseen by Sommelier Rania Zayyat, it’s easy to find an exquisite bottle of champagne. LaV has more than 40 Champagnes available, with bottles starting at about $100 and increasing to the $975 1989 Krug Collection. The expansive list can be a bit overwhelming, but Zayyat, an advanced sommelier, helps guests easily navigate the waters.

Caviar at LaV is on the down-low. It isn’t printed on the menu and is only offered by the server.

“It’s for people in the know,” Zayyat says. “It’s contagious. When people hear about it or see people eating it, they want it.”

If you are one of the people in the know (and you are now), you’ll find Black River osetra from Uruguay available in a 1-ounce portion for $200. The organic and sustainably farmed sturgeon from the Rio Negro River is malossol style, meaning it’s cured with a little salt to preserve it and retain its natural flavor. The dark-gray medium-sized pearls are served with a touch of whimsy: LaV rolls out the tin with a mother-of-pearl spoon and the traditional accouterments, including creme fraiche, egg yolk, egg whites, shallots and chives, but instead of blini, it offers house-cut potato chips.

The perfect pick: Zayyat recommends picking champagne that isn’t too old or too rich.

“You’ll want carbonation and freshness,” she says. “Caviar is so delicate of a flavor, you don’t want to overpower it with something too old, oxidized or too rich. Blanc de blanc is a great accompaniment. It is more elegant with more acidity, lighter body and finesse that goes well with the saltiness and brings out the nutty, creamy flavor and sweeter finish of the osetra. Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and it softens the brininess of caviar. The carbonation goes well with the popping of the beads on your tongue. Champagne goes great with fried food. The potato chips we’re doing are a perfect match. It’s very fun and playful.”

As an alternative, Zayyat says Russian vodka is classic. She recommends slightly chilled Beluga Noble Vodka as an amazing pairing.

Russian House

307 E. Fifth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Russian House
Champagne and Caviar at Russian House

 

This is a vodka den. The Russian-themed family restaurant, bedecked with Soviet-era flags and paraphernalia, has 101 flavors of infused vodka in a dizzying array of fruit, herbal, floral and dessert flavors, as well as unexpected flavors like bacon, cigar and a Stubb’s BBQ flavor, in decanters that line the wall behind the bar. Executive Chef Vladimir Gribkov’s signature infused vodka has 35 Russian herbs and spices, and tastes a bit like brandy.

Owned by husband-and-wife team Grivkov and Varda Salkey, Russian House is a celebration of Russian culture beyond just food and drink. Salkey, a member of the Russian Olympic basketball team, and Grivkov, a chef for more than 25 years in Europe and Russia, moved to the U.S. and saw an opportunity to open the first Russian restaurants in Austin. The menu features classics like cold beef tongue, borscht, golubtsy and family recipes that have been passed down through the generations.

The menu also includes a nice assortment of roe and caviar, chosen by Grivkov. It starts with treats like a boiled egg stuffed with red salmon caviar and progresses to Russian Siberian sturgeon baerii and, at the top of the heap, beluga supreme malossol for $220 for a 20-gram portion. This is the river variety and not the illegal wild beluga.

General Manager Roman Butvin escaped the cold winters of Moscow to move to Austin, and joined the team at Russian House shortly after it opened in 2012.

“Both red [salmon] caviar and black [sturgeon] caviar are popular in Russia,” he says. “The salmon caviar is more affordable, easier to find and has very fine roe. Black caviar is a bit more upscale. All of our black caviar is from the Caspian Sea.”

Russian House offers a traditional caviar service, with the caviar in a crystal bowl accompanied by a plate of baguettes, blintzes and blini, as well as Russian-style non-pasteurized butter, creme fraiche, capers and onions.

“In Russia, we eat it either with blini or a baguette with butter on top and caviar,” Butvin says. “We also serve boiled eggs with a mixture of cream cheese topped with red caviar. It’s a festive Russian appetizer.”

The perfect pick: Butvin suggests pairing caviar with vodka or champagne, but notes vodka is really the way to go.

“We have pairings [that] are with plain vodka and not-infused vodka,” he says. “It’s important to keep the flavor of the caviar prominent, and you don’t want to interfere with the flavor of the infused vodkas. We have set vodka-and-caviar pairings on the menu, with all of the bestvodkas included, like Stoli Elit, Double Cross, Russian Standard Platinum, and our most expensive vodka is also called Beluga.”

Russian House also offers a selection of champagne, including André Clouet, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial and vintage Dom Pérignon.

 

This story was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Austin Woman Magazine

What are you drinking? 

Professional soccer a wash-out in Austin: Aztex to sit out the 2016 season

While a news story about a professional soccer team doesn’t really fit on a blog about alcoholic beverages, I’m including this story about the Austin Aztex that was originally written for CultureMap because the lack of beer sales at the team’s facilities had a financial impact on the team. It is another example of the importance of drink in our recreation.  

A shot escapes the reach of Aztex goalkeeper, Cody Laurendi
A shot escapes the reach of Aztex goalkeeper, Cody Laurendi

 

Just as the Memorial Day Floods washed away House Park, the lack of a dedicated soccer stadium has washed away the 2016 Austin Aztex season. The United Soccer League (USL) has granted the club permission to sit out the season because it lacks a stadium that meets league standards.

If the team is able to secure a soccer-specific stadium in the next year, it intends to resume play in the 2017 season.

The team, which was promoted to the USL this year from the Premier Development League (PDL), was able to play the 2015 season on a one-year waiver from the USL allowing the club to land a soccer-specific stadium by the end of its first season. That wicked flooding on Memorial Day weekend severely damaged House Park, the club’s home stadium. The team was forced to move to a high school football stadium in Round Rock for the rest of the 2015 season.

The scramble to find a new home mid-season distracted the club from finding a permanent home for 2016; and playing on a high school football field just doesn’t cut it.

A statement issued by the team said in part that the facilities in Austin and Round Rock “have not proven to be economically viable solutions for our professional team.” “This soccer city deserves a proper venue free of football lines, with amazing sightlines, and where a cold beer can be served on a hot summer night.”

Aztex midfielder Romain Gall
Aztex midfielder Romain Gall

 

Club executives will spend the next year working to find a venue worthy of professional soccer. They feel strongly that Austin is a soccer city with the right demographics and enough fan to support a professional team.

In the meantime, Aztex players are busily looking for new teams for the 2016 season. As soon as the season ended, some Aztex players went out on trial with other clubs. Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak has already signed with the San Antonio Scorpions. The Dripping Springs native, former Major League Soccer (MLS), and Austin Aztex star wowed fans with nine goals and two assists for the Aztex this season. We will likely see more Aztex players sign with other clubs in the near future.

Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak
Aztex forward Kris Tyrpak

 

A rallying cry for a return
“By taking the year off from playing, we will have the time necessary to work with all interested parties to secure a professional soccer-friendly stadium to ensure the long-term viability of the Austin Aztex,” Aztex CEO Rene van de Zande said.

“It will be important to have the support of the community in these efforts. We encourage all Austinites to visit www.StadiumForAustin.com and register with the site so that as a community, we can make this stadium happen.”

Fans have a lot to cheer for with the return in 2017. The caliber of USL play is explosive and exciting to watch. The Aztex lured MLS teams to Austin for a preseason tournament and beat the MLS Houston Dynamo in a separate preseason match. The club finished the 2015 season in ninth place in the 12-team Western  Conference with a record of 10 wins 15 losses and three ties.

Eberly’s Army cheers on the Aztex
Eberly’s Army cheers on the Aztex

 

Disclaimer: I am a fan of the Austin Aztex, have attended many games on my own dime and received a media pass for the last home game to shoot photos for this story. I received no other compensation from the team.  

What are you drinking? 

Austin’s 10 Best Drink Slingers: Meet the CultureMap Tastemaker Award Nominees for Best Beverage Director

What is the right cocktail to drink while listening to Gary Clark Jr.? What wine will bring out the best in braised rabbit? The 10 nominees for the CultureMap 2014 Tastemaker Awards in the Best Beverage/Wine Program category keep Austin at the forefront of trends in craft cocktails and fine wine.

Whether working at a cozy wine lounge or a fine dining restaurant, this year’s nominees share a passion for constantly studying beverages to ensure they buy and serve the very best drinks available. (They’re also sharing with us the best beverage options for spring.)

CollinsbyNilsJuul-Hansen (1)Craig Collins, Beverage Director, ELM Restaurant Group
Craig Collins became enamored with wine while working at a Texas winery during college. He is currently the beverage director for ELM Restaurant Group where he oversees the programs at 24 DinerEasy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden and Arro. In 2011, he passed the esteemed Master Sommelier Exam, joining an elite club of less than 200 people worldwide at the time. He is an active member in the Court of Master Sommeliers and frequently serves as a featured speaker at wine and food festivals across the country.

What was your first memorable wine? I experienced my “aha” wine while living in Italy with Chef Andrew Curren. It was a bottle of 1998 Brancaia Il Blu, a super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Merlot that opened my eyes to the rest of my life.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? My guilty pleasure is an ice cold can of beer when I get home at the end of the night. Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap always does the trick.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc. The acid of the goat cheese balances out the saltiness of the cheese and cuts through the fat. It is one of the classic pairings that works every time.

What should Austinites drink right now? It sounds a bit cliché at this point, but rosé. We are moving into the hot time of the year and there is nothing better than an ice cold glass of pink wine.

Sam Hovland, Wine Consultant, Swift’s Attic
Sam Hovland has worked at The Austin Wine Merchant, Headliners Club, Sardine Rouge, Demi-Epicurious, Mars Restaurant and Bar and Twin Liquors. Hovland became the wine buyer for East End Wines in 2010 and continues in that role today. He worked with Mat Clouser, the chef at Swift’s Attic, to develop and maintain the Swift’s Attic wine list. As an extension of that partnership, he is looking forward to buying wines for Clouser’s new restaurant, Wu Chow.

What was your first memorable wine? My first experience was with wines pilfered from my father when he was hosting art openings at the Austin Conceptual Visual Artists Association. I then made wine in the early 1980s, and distilled it (thanks, Science Academy). I was really blown away by a 1967 Richebourg, older vintage Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese, Henri Jayer Pinot Noirs and Domaine Huet Vouvray sweet Chenin Blanc early on in my sommelier career.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? I like very cold tallboys of cider after a day of drinking wines for work, vermouth and Cava and 10,000 beers. I once ran out of wine, and had Sauternes poached foie gras on Ritz crackers with ice cold Budweiser standing in a friend’s kitchen in the middle of the night.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? My four favorites are Sonoma Coast or Oregon Pinot Noir with duck (Doritos crusted for extra naughtiness); Alsatian Riesling with escargot soup; Muscadet and oysters; and the classic vintage Port and Stilton.

What should Austinites drink right now? Bubbles, Mondeuse, Sherry, pink wine, orange wine, natural wines and food-friendly wines that are funky with higher acid, lower tannin and lower alcohol.

josh_lovingJosh Loving
Josh Loving has worked in both the front of the house and back of the house at such notable Austin restaurants as Fino, which he helped open in 2005, Vino Vino, Asti and East Side Show Room. Most recently, Loving was part of the opening team at Josephine House & Jeffrey’s, where he served as beverage director. He left Jeffrey’s this year to focus on his own project, and is currently tending bar at Half Step.

What was your first memorable wine? I think it was 2003, I was working a private party for wine collectors and they gave us the rest of their wines including a vertical from the 1970s of Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy from Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret. I didn’t know what they were, but I remember telling myself to remember the labels so someday I could recall what they were.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Cheap beer: Coors, Miller High Life, Tecate, etc. I try to stay away from cheap wine, but I crush cheap beer.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? It’s a tie between Champagne and raw oysters, and fried chicken and Riesling.

What should Austinites drink right now? Sherry. I feel like I say this every year, and every year it gets a bit more traction. But yeah, Sherry.

Bill Norris, Alamo DrafthouseBill Norris, Beverage Director, Alamo Drafthouse
For 20 years, Norris has poured drinks in venues across the country, winning numerous awards and cocktail competitions along the way. He was on the opening staff at Fino, where, according to the Austin American-Statesman, he “planted the sacred seeds” of the modern cocktail in Austin, before creating the nationally recognized bar program at Haddingtons. Norris is currently the beverage director for Alamo Drafthouse, overseeing the cocktail and beverage programs at Midnight Cowboy400 Rabbits and other Alamo properties.

What was your first memorable wine? It was probably a Chablis Grand Cru. One of my early jobs was at a restaurant in New York City where all the wines were from Skurnik’s book, and he led a tasting. I just remember thinking, “So, this is why people like white wine!”

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Vinho Verde from the lobster bottle (Santola). There is nothing better for an Austin summer Sunday afternoon.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Vintage Champagne and potato chips. And I’m not joking.

What should Austinites drink right now? It’s springtime in Austin, so I recommend rosé, preferably Provençal or Spanish. Or Champagne. Champagne is always good.

Paul Ozbirn, Olilve & JunePaul Ozbirn, Wine and Beverage Director, Parkside Projects  
Ozbirn got his start in Austin’s restaurant industry in 2006 as a server at Vin Bistro, which sparked his passion for wine. He held various positions at Botticelli’s, Wink Restaurant and Paggi House while studying to attain Certified Sommelier status through The Court of Master Sommeliers. Ozbirn became the Beverage Director for Parkside Projects to hone the predominately Italian wine list at Olive & June. He is expanding his role to manage the beverage and wine programs at The BackspaceParkside and Chavez.

What was your first memorable wine? My first memorable wine was Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2002. My dad couldn’t find it in Birmingham and asked me to buy it at my local wine shop in Huntsville. It was the start of a long relationship with said wine shop and my love for the balanced, lush and fruit-forward wine. I still love the wines today despite the fact that I’ve really moved away from buying and drinking that style.   

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? After a long day of tasting and discussing nothing but wine, the last thing I crave is wine. If I’m at a bar, I’ll drink Hops & Grain ALTeration, but I’m always up for a Lone Star with a lime. Another guilty pleasure is chilled Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka!

Your favorite food and wine pairing? A big glass of Lambrusco with the new late-night burger at Vino Vino is a pretty stellar meal. I’m always up for Riesling with just about anything.

What should Austinites drink right now? We’re really diving into the orange wine thing at Olive & June. We serve an abundance of small bites like quail, pork and meatballs that pair really well with either full-bodied whites or lighter style reds. Orange wine is perfect for those plates and introduces tannin to white wine drinkers in a much more approachable way. My favorite at the moment is Ezio Trinchero Bianco 2007.   

Brian Phillips, Eddie VsBrian Phillips, Manager and Sommelier, Eddie V’s Restaurants Inc.
Over the past 14 years, Phillips has worked in venerable Austin establishments such as The Driskill Hotel and Haddingtons and currently manages the beverage program at Eddie V’s Prime Seafood. He not only serves wine, he also makes wine called “Ground Up” from Texas Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional grapes tended and harvested by the team at Pedernales Cellars.

What was your first memorable wine? My first memorable wine was a sip of my mom’s Beringer White Zinfandel when I was around 10 years old. It was memorable because it was so bad. I can’t quite recall one wine that sent me down the rabbit hole. It was a natural progression with an endless quest to find wines that make me stop and look both inward and outward at the same time.   

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Like all somms, at the end of a long day serving our guests we want something clean and simple like beer, or a cold, classic martini. My guilty pleasure is a shot of really cold silver tequila (no salt, no lime, no mixology). 

Your favorite food and wine pairing? My go-to wine and food combo is spicy and sweet Asian with the classic off-dry wines of the world. I am super happy with Thai food and an assortment of Loire Chenin Blanc, German Riesling and fungus infected Alsatian beauties. 

What should Austinites drink right now? Everyone should be drinking wine, period. There has never been a better time in the history of wine to drink it in terms of quality and world representation. When treated right, wine is restorative, contemplative and, in turn, good for society. Every region and corner of the globe produces something special and we owe it to those producers to try it and give it its moment of silence.    

Nathan Prater, The Red Room LoungeNathan Prater, Sommelier and General Manager, Red Room Lounge
A native Austinite, Prater is currently the general manager of the Red Room Lounge, a hidden gem of vinous solitude. He began his education with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2007, and after six years of dedicated study and practice, he sat for the Masters Exam in 2013, passing the service portion. He plans to take the other sections of the Masters Exam in Aspen, Colorado in mid-May. Part of his study is the pursuit of the perfect gin martini, which he calls the “elixir of quietude.”

What was your first memorable wine? A bottle of 1983 Château Lynch-Bages sparked my interest for wine, while a 1978 Bodegas Muga Prado Enea inspired the drive to become a sommelier. 

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? A third gin martini.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? French rosé and escargot.

What should Austinites drink right now? Sidecars, Aviations, Micèl Prosecco, Domaine Houchart rosé or a Gibson with three onions.


Paula Rester, CongressPaula Rester, Wine Director, Congress

Paula Rester worked at Congress from its opening in December 2010 until January 2012 when she left to become the general manager of Vino Vino. In October 2012 Paula rejoined the Congress team as the Sommelier. Rester draws on her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to bring a spirit of performance and presentation to wine and food. She is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators.

What was your first memorable wine? Travaglini Gattinara, for the shape of the bottle and the aromatic nature of the Nebbiolo.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Rye whiskey manhattans.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Champagne and French fries.

What should Austinites drink right now? Rosè! Because (in my best Game of Thrones voice…) summer is coming. My favorites include Inman Family Endless Crush Olivet Grange Pinot Noir Rosè 2013 and Clos Cibonne Cotes du Provence Tibouren Rosè 2012.

June Rodil, Qui

June Rodil, Director of Operations, Qui
Rodil leads operations of Paul Qui’s flagship restaurant, Qui, and the multi-location casual concept, East Side King. She has an extensive wine background and has served as the beverage director for the Uchi Restaurant Group and Congress Austin. Rodil relishes the perfect pairing and believes that this can be accomplished when a chef and sommelier have mutual respect for each other and have the same goal: happy guests.

What was your first memorable wine? I first started really getting into wine and food when I was a server at the Driskill. I went in to dine there for a birthday celebration to see what the tasting menu was all about. I scoffed at the buttery Chardonnay that was on the tasting menu, but the simple butter poached halibut with tomatoes was transformed into something else altogether by the wine … It always reminds me not to turn my nose at a wine. There are definitely moments for each wine, and if not moments, then at least dishes that go well with it.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? A Lone Star tallboy and a shot of bourbon after a long shift. It gets me every time.

Describe your favorite food and wine pairing? Champagne, Champagne, Champagne, and anything! Champagne and French fries are a must. For complete dishes and something that I like to do at Qui, I suggest a red Burgundy with saba. It’s really a stunning pairing and one that I love introducing to people.  

What should Austinites drink right now? This is the season for rosé! Rosé in any style to satiate any palate. The range of grape flavors, texture and fruit concentration is huge. It’s available in everything from bubbles, to a salty, barely pink Côtes de Provence.

Dhal Smith, UchiDhal Smith, Beverage Director, Uchi/Uchiko
Smith joined Uchi in 2009, where his extensive travels in Asia fueled a fascination with the history and culture of the wine and sake on the menu. Rodil, who was beverage director at the time, encouraged Smith to become a certified sake professional. That education was the beginning of his passion for food and beverage pairings and how the right match can elevate the experience.

What was your first memorable wine? It was a Châteauneuf-du-Pape about six years ago with a former roommate who was a wine rep. I was struck by all that it had going on. There was great depth of fruit, leather, tar, savory, and it had this really meaty texture. They are still some of my favorite wines.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Jameson. 

Your favorite food and wine pairing? I really love pairing sweeter wines with meat. Instead of red wine, choose Riesling Spätlese or Chenin Blanc that has some richness that goes great with beef, lamb and pork. The acid cuts right through the fat and the ripe fruit balances the savoriness. A pairing that I love to do at Uchi is a Norwegian mackerel with truffle oil and yellow tomato on top with Royal Tokaji dessert wine. The mackerel is quite gamey and savory along with the truffle and the fruit and acidity of the wine is a perfect match.   

What should Austinites drink right now? Craft beer is blowing up right now and I think that brewers are really pushing the boundaries seeking out new and different nuances. Whether it’s barrel-aging or the use of some indigenous yeast, beer is becoming so varied — and almost wine-like in some instances. For wine, I choose Riesling because it is so versatile and it’s possible to find one that will pair with almost anything. They will age for decades and continue to gain complexity.

Tickets for the third annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, which take place May 7 at Brazos Hall, are available here.

This story was originally published on CultureMap. Disclosure: I am a CultureMap Tastemaker Award Judge.

Photo Credits:

  • Craig Collins – photo courtesy of Nils Juul-Hansen
  • Josh Loving – photo courtesy of Bill Sallans
  • Bill Norris – photo courtesy of Bill Sallans
  • June Rodil – photo courtesy of Qui
  • Dhal Smith – photo courtesy of Uchi/Uchiko
  • All other photos by me.

What are you drinking? 

 

Whole Foods Markets brings 45 beer taps to its new Domain store

Whole Foods Market Domain StoreDo you want to go to the grocery store to have a couple beers? Not too long ago that would have been an absurd question. Lately a few stores around Austin have added beer taps to let customers enjoy a pint whether they are buying groceries or not. Whole Foods Markets, which has beer taps in its downtown, Arbor Trails and Bee Caves stores, is opening a new location at the Domain on Wednesday, January 15, 2014, that will have 45 beer taps in its Draft Shack. That’s great news for beer lovers in Austin.

Austin’s fifth Whole Foods Market store will be its second largest in the area with 63,000 square feet and will of course carry the fat selection of natural, organic and locally sourced eats that we’ve come to expect. Like each Whole Foods store, the new location at the Domain will have a unique feel with art pieces by Judy Paul, a cool moss and steel wall installation above the escalator by Articulture, re-purposed wheel barrows hanging above the Wheel barrow mobil at Whole Foods Marketproduce department and neon art in beer ally made by Austin Ion Art.

The artistic touches give it a cozy feel worthy of lingering a bit longer. The draw to linger is enhanced immensely with the Draft Shack, the store’s indoor oyster bar with 45 beers and four wines on tap as well as chargrilled oysters, gumbo and BBQ shrimp. The bar is located adjacent to the wine section. Both the beer and wine selections will rotate regularly with unique selections from new distributors.

Having a big selection of beer on tap gives Whole Foods the ability to sell us local brews that aren’t currently bottled to be available on the store shelves. The taps in Draft Shack will feature local beers from brewers like Austin Beerworks and wine from Duchman Winery. It will also have Abita Root Beer, house-made cold brewed coffee and hard cider from Austin Eastciders.

The Draft Shack isn’t the only place in the new store to chill with a draft beer. In front of the store, the Public Domain has outdoor seating, playground equipment for the rug rats, fire pits and a bad-ass recycled freight train shipping container that has been converted into an outdoor beer and bratwurst bar with four beers and root beer on tap. Dogs are welcome and even invited to “Yappy Hours.” The Public Domain will also have space for live music. Not bad for a grocery store.

Whole Foods Market Draft Shack BarIf you prefer to take your beer home, the Domain store will have 80 feet of beer in coolers. The beer aisle will have a four foot section that features 100 point rated beers. It will also have a selection of gluten free beers and ciders.

Krystal Angelo, the draft beer buyer for Whole Foods Market Domain and Jake Maddux, aka @BeerEvangelist, will host a Google + Hops Hangout on Tuesday, January 14, from noon to noon:30 to talk all things craft beer. This is a great chance to plan out your first beer adventure at the new Domain store.

All of those excellent beverages call for a nosh. Prepared foods will be plentiful in the Domain store. The bakery will have bread from Easy Tiger, fresh tortillas made in-store, a cookie of the, and made in-store bagels and bialys. The seafood department will also roll out do-it-yourself sushi and sashimi. My tour guide, Rachel is a huge fan of the Texas Ramen spot that will make Ramen with a Texas BBQ. There will be plenty of good chow on the hot bars and salad bars.

The store opening celebrations will start with a bread breaking ceremony (a Whole Foods Market version of ribbon cutting) at 7:30 a.m. and the official opening at 8 a.m. The first 500 shoppers in the store will receive a new Austin shopping bags filled with goodies. I wonder if it will include a local beer?

What are you drinking?

Whiskey: Everything you ever needed to know about the drink for every man

This story originally ran in the Winter issue of Austin Man Magazine. It looks way better in print than it does here, so go pick up a copy at your closest newsstand. Story and photos by Matt McGinnis, hand-lettering by Chelsea Patitillo. 

Whiskey’s caramel-colored glory is just as at home in the coarsely calloused mitt of the rancher as it is in the well-manicured grip of a technology tycoon. Its appeal spans not only socio-economic status, but also nationality and age. It is the drink of the everyman for every man. Whiskey is an elixir that stirs the soul. Under its spell, we speak more eloquently, love more ferociously and fight more passionately. Its allure is as deeply rooted in its traditions as it is in its magical character-enhancing powers. Whiskey’s broad appeal, its adherence to tradition and its ability to transform moods and moments make it the perfect gift for the holiday season and the perfect drink at your holiday parties.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHISKEY, WHISKY AND BOURBON?

Not all whiskey is bourbon, but all bourbon is whiskey. Bourbon is not whisky. Got it? Whether its spelled “whiskey” or “whisky,” we are talking about many types of alcoholic spirits with the commonality that they are made from fermented mash of grain, distilled at less than 190 proof, aged in oak barrels. The spelling boils down to geographic preference. The Scots, Canadians and Japanese are adamant about spelling it “whisky,” while the Americans and Irish refer to it as “whiskey.”

Whisk(e)y from Ireland and Scotland is made with grains that have been dried with smoke, giving it that characteristic peatiness and smokiness. Canadian and American whiskeys can be categorized as bourbon, Tennessee, rye, corn, wheat and blended varieties. Unlike Scottish or Irish whisk(e)y, American whiskey is made using grain, so it typically has a rounder taste. So what is bourbon? Bourbon is a variety of whiskey made to meet exact regulations stipulating that it is made from fermented mash of grain including at least 51 percent corn. The rest of the bill of grains can include wheat for a more mellow flavor, rye for

Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof. It is unthinkable and illegal to add any colors, flavors or anything other than water to bourbon before it is bottled. Bourbon must be aged in brand new, charred oak barrels. The selection of the oak barrel, how it is toasted or charred and where it is stored has a huge impact on flavor. Storage of whiskey barrels in a rick house (a warehouse where whiskey barrels are stored) exposes it to temperature swings, which draws whiskey in and out of the wood, gives the whiskey its caramel color and adds oak, vanilla and spice flavors.spice and bite, and malted barley for chocolate and fermented sugars.

Another big regulation for bourbon is that it must be distilled in the U.S. In fact, in 1964, the U.S. Congress recognized bourbon as a distinct American product and passed an Act of Congress that declared bourbon “America’s native spirit.” While the majority of bourbon is made by 13 big distillers in Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the U.S. Some say there are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky. Whether its whisky or whiskey, rye or bourbon, it has been a beloved elixir for hundreds of years because of its enchanting ability to paint a moment of clarity across our minds like a streak of sunset blazing across a glass skyscraper before the fog rolls in and blurs it all in to obscurity.

 

INSIDER’S TIPS

There are two terms to look for to find high-quality whiskey.

Bottled-in-Bond: The Bottled in Bond act of 1897 may well have been the first food regulation in the U.S., and was established by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. to create a set of regulations that dictate the highest standards for whiskey. Bonded whiskey must be produced by one distiller during one distillation “season.” These whiskeys are federally regulated to be 100 proof and aged four years. There are fewer than 20 labels, like EH Taylor and Evan Williams BIB, carrying this designation.

Barrel Proof: Whiskey that is bottled at the same level of alcohol-by-volume (abv) as it is during aging in the barrel is called “barrel proof” or “cask strength.” Many whiskeys are diluted with water before bottling to bring the alcohol level down to about 40 percent abv to take the edge off. Barrelproof whiskeys typically weigh in at about 60 percent abv. These straight-strength whiskeys often come from barrels stored in the center of the rick house, where they aren’t subject to quite as great fluctuations in temperatures. The result is the barrels in the sweet spot of the rick house don’t lose as much water from evaporation. Less “angel’s share” is a good thing.

THE RIGHT WHISKEY FOR HOLIDAY GIFTS

A distinctive bottle of whiskey makes an excellent holiday gift no matter how deep your pockets.

  • For your Boss — Black Maple Hill Small Batch, this bourbon is lesser known, but has huge street cred with whiskey lovers. It says you recognize he is cooler than most people at your company without kissing too much ass. $40
  • For your Best Man Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013, the 12th limited edition, small batch and highly sought after whiskey is a perfect gift for your best friend. It says you recognize his discerning taste in whiskey and in friends. $55
  • For your DadElijah Craig 21-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon, named for the father of bourbon, this well aged and refined collectors bottle is worthy of the man who gave you life. It says you value the finer qualities that come with time. $140
  • For your DIY Bookworm FriendGuide to Urban Moonshining; How to Make and Drink Whiskey, an informative book on the history of whiskey, and an insightful guide to making and enjoying it. $25

THE RIGHT WHISKEY GLASSWARE

The Standard-bearer. The Glencairn whisky glass bills itself as “The Official Whisky Glass,” and many an aficionado agrees that its size and shape make it the only glass for properly smelling and tasting whisky.

The Contemporary Style-hound. The hand-blown, lead-free crystal Sempli Cupa rocks glass created by designer Daniele “Danne” Semeraro spins when you set it down, aerating your whiskey while looking stylish as hell.

The Practical. Use an ordinary white wine glass for a handy way to get the most out of tasting whiskey straight.

The Traditionalist. The rocks glass, aka the Old Fashioned glass, aka the lowball glass, is as at home in a whiskey bar as it is in your hand cuddled with a cigar.

 

BALCONES DISTILLERY INTRODUCES THE WORLD TO TEXAS SINGLE MALT

Chip Tate is a mad scientist. His feverish work in the distillery and his amazing beard helps to enhance that persona.

The founder and head distiller of Balcones Distillery, based in Waco, constantly checks the quality of the white dog straight from the still. He also tastes dozens of barrel samples in his lab every day to ensure his whisky is just right. (He spells it without the “e” because he makes a Scottish style). Tate doesn’t just fixate on the whisky itself, but he also obsesses about every aspect of how it is made. He demands the absolute best quality in his barrels because of their essential role in building the flavor.

Barrels matter so much that Tate is even drying his own Live Oak staves to have custom barrels made with Texas wood. That

kind of attention to detail has produced award-winning whiskys. In late 2012, the Balcones Texas Single Malt won the prestigious Best in Glass competition held at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in London. It is the first American whisky to win the prize and beat out storied whiskys like Balvenie, Glenmorangie and Macallan to take home first prize.“Barrels add wood profile during aging as the whisky evaporates and adds oxidative effects as the barrel breathes in and out,” Tate says. “We use barrels made with slow growth, yard-aged wood, with extra-fine grain and a custom toast profile charred to my specifications.”

Adding to its awards collection, the fifth anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon won the Sweepstakes Best in Show at the 2013 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition. Balcones was the first Texas-made whisky on the market in 2009, and it now makes seven styles of whisky: Rumble, Rumble Cask Reserve, Baby Blue Corn Whisky, True Blue, True Blue 100 Proof, Texas Single Malt and Bimstone, a smoked whisky. It has also produced special edition bottling like the fifth anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon.

We make an original style Texas whisky made with Hopi blue corn,” Tate says. “Our whiskys have a lot of similarities to Scottish malt, but a taste all their own.”

The Baby Blue and True Blue are readily available in stores, restaurants and bars. Tate calls Baby Blue the “Reposado of whisky” because it is a youthful whisky that is lighter in color. It’s slightly lower in alcohol at 46 percent and is made to be drunk straight. True Blue is hearty, spicy, vigorous and assertive at 61 percent alcohol with caramel and pear flavors.

Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky is hard to find, but worth the hunt and worth the $80. It is made with 100 percent malt, fermented for seven days and is double distilled. After aging in various sized oak barrels, it has rich flavors of caramel, brown sugar, nutmeg and vanilla with ripe pear, a hint of citrus and roasted chestnuts. This is a fantastic whisky to enjoy while burrowed in to a cozy lounge chair. After a couple glasses of this, I imagine myself sounding like Tom Waits speaking intently to a burro that nonchalantly acknowledges my presence.

Balcones was set up to make about 6,000 cases a year, but is retrofitting the distillery, which is housed in a cramped 1880s welding shop, to keep up with demand. Installing new stills in the

existing distillery will triple the capacity. Balcones has also purchased an enormous former manufacturing facility that will house a new distillery, which Tate hopes to have online by the beginning of 2015.

Did I mention that Tate obsesses about every aspect of his whisky production? The mad scientist handmade his copper stills right on site at the distillery. In fact, everything in the distillery is custom built to fit exactly in the tight space. Balcones whiskys are sold in 20 states, the U.K., Australia, Sweden, Norway and Japan. Balcones whiskys are available in Austin at liquor stores and bars like The Four Seasons, The Tigress Pub and Fino.

TREATY OAK DISTILLING CO. RED HANDED WHISKEY

Texans are awfully proud people. We like to buy products made in our state. Flying in the face of that, one Austin distiller, Treaty Oak Distilling, is brazenly buying bourbon distilled in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee and selling it under its own label with a picture of Texas right on it. The gall! Red Handed Bourbon was released in November and is the first whiskey from Treaty Oak.

The name is a wink and a nod to acknowledge that they’ve “stolen” their whiskey. The distillery buys the bourbon and then blends it and re-barrels it to age for 12 to 15 months onsite in Austin. It’s actually a common practice and producers who do so, like Jefferson’s, Bulleit and Willet, are known as NDPs (nondistiller producers) in the industry. Think about it: There are dozens of brands of Kentucky bourbon on the shelf, but only a handful of distilleries.

“This is bourbon worth stealing,” says Daniel R. Barnes, owner and distiller of Treaty Oak Distilling. “We got lucky with buying really good bourbon to use for Red Handed. It was a rare opportunity for a distillery of our size to acquire the quantity and variety that we did. The oldest batches are from 2006 and the newest bourbon in our blend is from 2010. It’s fun to play with other people’s whiskeys. It tastes so different after we’ve blended and aged it.”

Treaty Oak started the distillery making rum, then gin to showcase craft spirits, before moving in to whiskey. Barnes, an avid whiskey collector with more than 300 bottles of bourbon and several antique bourbons, has been interested in making whiskey since the start of the distillery. He has been making whiskey behind the scenes for seven years, trying out different flavor profiles, but hasn’t released any yet. In preparation for making his whiskey, Barnes worked at a few distilleries in Kentucky to learn bourbon distilling. The relationships with distillers and his experience in Kentucky led to the decision to go the NPD route.

“We wanted to know how to blend whiskey before we put ours on the market,” Barnes says. “It’s an education to work with other distillers’ whiskey to make it our own. We are grateful to the guys in Kentucky who welcomed us with open arms to learn, distill and sell to us. There is great camaraderie among those distillers.”

So if it’s just purchased liquid, what makes this a Treaty Oak product? Barnes says it’s the selection of the blend and re-barreling and aging in Texas heat that makes it pop. Treaty Oak specified the bill of grains for each batch of whiskey and then assembled the exact blend desired. In addition, Barnes hand-selected the new American oak barrels with a three-level char. Treaty Oak ages the whiskey in a warehouse where the temperature doesn’t exceed 95 degrees.

Red Handed is a bold, spicy bourbon made with 60 percent corn and a heavy hand on the rye, with more than 30 percent. Barnes likes it both as a sipping whiskey and also thinks it’s well suited for cocktails like the Old Fashioned. The oaky whiskey has plenty of sweetness with vanilla, caramel and toasted pecan flavors, accentuated by black pepper and ginger. This whiskey should be enjoyed while listening to old Dinosaur Jr. albums on vinyl in a dimly lit room. Its early introduction has been well received. Red Handed has already won a gold medal at the 2013 Great American Distillers Festival. It sells for $34 a bottle at local shops like Spec’s and Twin Liquors, and it’s featured in a cocktail at the W Hotel.

Treaty Oak has enough stock of Red Handed for three years of allocated small seasonal releases of about 300 to 500 cases. That will be enough to get them through until they release their own in-house-created whiskey. Barnes intends to introduce a four-grain whiskey with an equal mixture of wheat, rye, corn and barley in about one year. It will be aged four years to get the desired complexity. Treaty Oak is opening a tasting room where visitors can sample Red Handed and its other spirits in its North Austin distillery. Barnes is in the process of building a new distillery in Southwest Austin off Highway 290 near Argus Cidery and Jester King Brewery.

GARRISON BROTHERS DISTILLERY

Tucked in to the rolling hills about 10 miles west of Johnson City, the Garrison Brothers Distillery is making bourbon in Texas wine country. Former ad man Dan Garrison fired up his whiskey distillery in Hye, Texas, to make its first batch in 2008. It’s one of the first whiskeys legally made in the state after prohibition.

The flagship Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon is made with 64 percent Texas-grown corn, giving it a sweet profile. The remainder of the all-organic grains in the mash bill is winter wheat grown on the ranch in Hye and barley from the Pacific Northwest. The distillery’s location makes a difference. The water used is filtered through the limestone beneath its ranch, much like the water used in Kentucky bourbon is filtered through limestone. The Texas heat speeds up the aging process by accelerating oxidation and evaporation for the whiskey in the barrel. It’s made in Texas for Texans.

“We have no plans to sell outside Texas,” Garrison says. “As long as the Texans keep drinking, we’re in good shape.”

The Texas corn, heat and water give Garrison Brothers bourbon sweet flavors of caramel, molasses and maple syrup, along with spices like black tea, vanilla and nutmeg. It has a little kick at 94 proof, but is silky smooth on the way down. This is a sipping whiskey best enjoyed with a lump or two of ice while sitting on the back porch with your favorite dog. Garrison Brothers bottles its bourbon twice a year in fall and spring, and vintage dates each batch. Each bottle is hand numbered and hand sealed in black wax. The distillery filled about 1,300 barrels this year. The fall 2013 vintage will be available after it has been aged about three years.

In addition to its flagship bourbon, the company released the special edition Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon Whiskey in May this year. This barrel-proof bourbon was uncut, unfiltered and bottled straight from the barrel, weighing in at 136 proof. You can still find it in some bars, but the small batch of 600 small 375-millileter-sized bottles of Cowboy sold out quickly, even at the steep price of $169. That’s a lot of cash for a small bottle. Why so expensive?

“In Kentucky, they lose three to four percent of the whiskey to evaporation,” Garrison explains. “We lose 12 to 13 percent annually. That’s a lot of ‘angel’s share.’ Our Cowboy Bourbon is expensive because after five years of aging, the barrel is only half full. A lot of the water is gone, leaving the whiskey more concentrated.”

If you didn’t get your share, never fear. Garrison has already selected the barrels he will use in the 2015 bottling. He plans to produce 5,000 of the larger 750-millileter bottles, and make it a little less expensive. The distillery is a great day-trip destination. Garrison Brothers provides informative tours of the facilities, which conclude in the tasting room. Garrison Brothers has done a good job of getting bars and restaurants to carry its whiskey, so it’s readily available throughout the state. It retails for about $75 a bottle and you can find it at major steakhouses like Vince Young Steak House, bars like TenOak, and the W Austin sells it by the bottle.

BARTENDER’S WISDOM

It is a good sign that a bar might be a good whiskey bar when you walk in and see a wide selection of whiskey labels that are out of the mainstream. The second important element is a bar staff that knows their stuff. That’s what you get at Drink.Well. on North Loop. Not only does the bar have more than 75 kinds of American whiskey, but Co-owner Jessica Sanders knows her corn from her rye. Sanders not only has studied all things wine, beer and spirits as a board member of the Austin chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild and as a sommelier, but she also recently attended a week-long camp about bourbon in Kentucky. She uses that knowledge for good, teaching whiskey classes and by droppin’ science behind the bar at Drink.Well.

“Drink.Well. specializes in American craft spirits,” Sanders says. “Bourbon and American whiskey are the ultimate American craft sprits. Bourbon is a national treasure. Having a big whiskey selection is critical to our concept. It has become a life-long mission to learn about all of them.”

Tasting a whiskey properly can also improve the enjoyment. Smell it twice by inhaling with your mouth and nose simultaneously with the glass away from your face. Smell as slowly as you possibly can. That way, the alcohol level is turned down and you can smell the fruit and the balance of the spirit. Don’t bury your nose in the glass like wine or it will burn your nose hairs off. Next, sip twice. The first sip acclimates your palate to get past the first burn of alcohol. The second sip is what counts.

Now, think about the various flavors and separate the notion of heat from spice. Whiskey can have great spice flavors of black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg that are completely different from the burn of alcohol. Mind you, that alcohol heat can be there, particularly in the higher alcohol and barrel-strength styles, which can be up to 110 proof. A big swig of that without warming up your mouth will be like getting kissed by a fist.

Whiskey can be intimidating to some with its rough-and-tumble fire-water reputation. Sanders recommends beginners start with bourbon like Maker’s Mark, which has an approachable flavor. Its creaminess, vanilla and sweetness make it a suitable gateway whiskey. As people progress and want to discover the types of whiskey that they enjoy most, Sanders recommends people branch out from whiskeys they already like. Ask the bartender about whiskeys that are in the same family as your favorite.

“Don’t jump from Maker’s Mark to Bulleit,” Sanders advises. “It’s a high-rye bourbon that is spicier. Make the process a gradual one. Drink different spirits until you find the ones you don’t like and the ones you like best.”

A great way to explore different whiskeys is to order a flight, which allows you to compare both complementary and contradictory styles to see which you like better. It might be difficult to know if you prefer the Eagle Rare versus the Elijah Craig 12 if you drink them a week apart. Tasting in flights also helps find preferences among different styles of whiskey. Do you prefer the sweetness of bourbon that corn brings? Do you gravitate to spice rye or softer wheat whiskey? Or are you a big fan of the bold peatiness of Scotch? Sipping whiskey on its own is definitely an enjoyable pastime.

Purists may thumb their noses at mixing whiskey with anything but a cube of ice or a dash of water, but there are many delicious classic and signature cocktails worth exploring.

Battle of New Orleans at Drink.Well

A classic cocktail recipe that’s perfect for Sazerac drinkers who like a little variety.

  • 1.5 ounce bourbon
  • 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • 1/4 teaspoon Herbsaint
  • 1/4 teaspoon Meletti Anisette

Stir all ingredients and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel.

The Atlantic Avenue at Drink.Well

This variation on the classic Manhattan is homage to the Brooklyn cocktail, using Swedish Punsch, which is a popular Scandinavian liqueur that’s based with Batavia Arrack. Combine all ingredients with ice and stir until properly diluted and chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail coupe and express a lemon peel over the drink.

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1/2 ounce Swedish Punsch
  • 1/2 ounce Bonal
  • 2 bar spoons Amontillado Sherry
  • 1 dash baked apple bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters

WHERE TO DRINK WHISKEY IN AUSTIN

Bar Congress

This intimate lounge carries 60 to 70 American, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Japanese and other regional whiskeys available, including an allocated Black Maple Hill 16 year and a rare bottle of A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Reserve. Bar Congress is known both for making solid classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Vieux Carre and Black Manhattan, and for signature drinks like The Roundabout.

Bar manager Jason Stevens: “I’m a huge fan of the Suntory Hibiki 12 year with an extended preparation. I will start a guest with the Hibiki neat, having them take a few sips to get used to the flavor then add ice, a few sips more and then finally and slowly elongate with Topo Chico soda. It’s incredible how the flavors change and how different elements fade and become pronounced throughout.”

Drink.Well

This North Loop neighborhood bar has more than 75 types of American whiskey like E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond and St. George Single Malt Whiskey. Drink.Well. offers flights of four whiskeys to let you taste the difference between a Whistle Pig Straight Rye 11 year and a Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch.

Péché

The absinthe selection might draw you in and then the whiskey will catch your eye with a selection of about 100 bottles. Péché carries special whiskeys like a hand-selected single barrel Buffalo Trace bottled just for it and a Talisker 40-year-old Scotch.

Jack Allen’s Kitchen

Known for periodically hosting whiskey dinners, Jack Allen’s Kitchen carries 25 different whiskeys, including Texas whiskeys, Kentucky bourbon, Irish, Canadian and Rye. The Texas lineup includes Firestone & Robertson Distillery, Rebecca Creek Spirit Whiskey, Garrison Brothers and True Blue from Balcones. They have a hand-selected barrel of Eagle Rare 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon bottle especially for them.

tenOakTen Oak

This whiskey bar has 220 to 250 whiskeys from throughout the world, including 127 bourbons and as many as 30 American whiskeys. They love to pour Texas whiskey like the Ranger Creek Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey and Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon. They have rare and special whiskeys like the Buffalo Trace Experimental made with rice and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year.

Vince Young Steakhouse

While it may not have the largest list of whiskeys with more than 65 on hand, it has some of the most exclusive labels in town. Vince Young Steakhouse carries full sets of whiskeys, like all five Macallans, from 12 year to 30 year, and four bottlings of Pappy Van Winkle.

Disclosure: Samples were provided for tastings by Balcones, Treaty Oak and Garrison Brothers. 

What are you drinking? 

7 Austin wine experts compete for Best Sommelier in Texas

On August 8- 13, the world’s largest gathering of wine professionals, TEXSOM, will kick off at the Four Seasons at Las Colinas in Dallas. Now in its ninth year, this educational wine conference is expected to draw more than 500 people ready to participate in seminars and to sip some of the world’s best wines.

The highlight of TEXSOM will be the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition, an annual event that puts 25 of the region’s most talented sommeliers head-to-head to determine who is the reigning wine guru. The competition presented by Texas Monthly will test competitors’ blind tasting skills, wine service talents, knowledge of wine business, and understanding of sake, beer, coffee, tea and cigars. Texans who have not already passed the Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Exam (Level III) are eligible to participate. The winner receives scholarship money to then use for their Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program.

TEXSOM co-founder, James Tidwell, explained how the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition began. “We started the competition with TEXSOM in 2005 as a way to bring people together to prepare for higher level exams like Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced test and the Society of Wine Educations CWE exam. We wanted to bring Master Sommeliers to Texas to help Texans understand what is going on in the wider wine world and we wanted people outside of the state to see the high quality of wine education going on in Texas.”

In the past eight years, four sommeliers from Austin — Devon Broglie, Mark Sayre, June Rodil and Bill Elsey — have brought home the coveted prize. This year the city has a chance to win the crown once again with seven of the 24 competitors hailing from Austin.

Competitor Brian Phillips is confident that one of the hometown sommeliers will win. “I think that the chances of bringing back to Austin are very high,” says Phillips. “People here are very highly driven and focused. Our sommelier community has excellent support. There is no reason we couldn’t take it.”

Here are Austin’s participants in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition.

 

Marie-Louise Friedland, Sommelier, Congress Austin

Marie-Louise FriedlandYou won’t meet many people who have held the title, “cheesemonger,” but Marie-Louise Friedland has. After growing up in the restaurant business, she delved into the world of cheese while working at Henri’s Cheese Shop. “Working in cheese, (wine) pairing became a huge thing,” said Friedland. “I got obsessed and couldn’t stop.”

Friedland’s wine journey was also shaped by her experience as a cocktail server at Uchi. While at Uchi, she joined a Court of Master Sommeliers study group with other staff members. In 2011, Friedland passed her Level I Introductory Exam.  Less than two years later, she passed the Level II Certified Sommelier Exam in March 2013, earning the top score.  Friedland will bring her expertise and fine dining skills to the competition.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I’ve heard a lot of good things about the competition. On top of that, I’m extremely hard on myself. I like pushing myself to uncomfortable boundaries. I like to force myself to keep studying. Being stagnant is the worst thing. I wanted to participate in a competition that is affiliated with the Court of Master Somms to keep studying in a regimented progression.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I’m studying for the competition the same way I do for exams. I do blind tastings weekly and have ramped up to doing it twice a week as the competition is getting closer. I practice service every night. Luckily I work in an excellent fine dining environment at Congress. I treat every table as if they are my competition judge. I do the wine service by the Court standards for every table. For studying the theory (wine knowledge) I use the Guild of Sommeliers website, and create note cards from the content. Then I memorize, memorize, memorize. I study for three to five hours a day. I grill myself even when I’m at the grocery store. I am on my own trajectory to study theory and don’t do it with a study group.

Why will you win? 

I got game day skills. I’m calm, cool and collected when it counts. I don’t get nervous in service portion of the exam because I do this every night and I’ve been around it all my life. I grew up in my grandparents’ restaurant. It’s in my blood. I remind myself, “Don’t freak out.”

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Dom Pérignon champagne. Duh! A bottle of 1996 would be preferable.

 

Melissa Lamb, Auction Director, Wine and Food Foundation of Texas

Melissa Lamb, Wine & Food FoundationDuring college, Mellissa Lamb toured the Hill Country wineries and fell in love with the romantic side of wine. The more she learned, the deeper she wanted to go.

Lamb turned that passion into a career. “I knew I wanted to be a part of the wine industry so I started working for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. I never knew about the world of the sommelier until I met Bill Elsey. He got me interested in the profession and studying wine. I love working for the Foundation and knowing about wine is a big part of it.”

As the Auction Director at the Foundation, Lamb runs the Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction. After work hours, she can often be found serving wine at the Red Room Lounge.

It’s Lamb’s passion and dedication that will make her a viable competitor in this year’s fight.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I’m a highly competitive person. I participated in speech and debate competitions at UT for four years. I like to work on getting better at anything I do and that’s what TEXSOM is all about. I know by preparing for and participating in this competition I’m going to get better. And it’s fun. Nothing bad is going to happen if I don’t win. It’s only growth. It’s only positive.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I set my own syllabus and study for two hours a day Monday through Friday and five hours on the weekends. I read the Guild Somm lessons and Bill Elsey quizzes me. To practice blind tasting and wine service I participate in a study group with Bill, Nathan Prater and Scott Ota (also competing). Nothing compares that. You can grill yourself at home, but having people rake you over during service is really helpful.

Why will you win? 

I will win because I don’t have the pressure to win. I’m so new to this and it’s bold enough to just to enter the competition. It’s about the learning and development process.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Champagne! Ruinart! Let’s drink some Ruinart.

 

Mandi Nelson, Fine Wines Specialist, Republic National Distributor

Mandi Nelson, RepublicFood and beverage have been a big part of Mandi Nelson’s life for as long as she can remember. Her great grandfather ran a food supply company and her father designs restaurants and bars. She started in the restaurant business at age 15 and fell in love with wine while working as a bartender. She helped Four Seasons with the introduction of Trio and created its wine list before handing over the sommelier reins to Mark Sayre.

“After turning over the wine program to Mark, I realized that was the best part of her job,” said Nelson. “I loved it. I loved working with the guests and the food, but wine was my passion.”

Nelson has passed her Introductory and Certified Exam and has continued her education and certification march by completing the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Advanced Exam, CSW and Wine Location Specialist Program for Champagne and Port.  Nelson hopes to take the Advanced Exam in April 2014.

Nelson brings her rigorous training and past experience in the Texas’ Best to this year’s competition.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I see the competition as a free glimpse at the Advanced Exam and a great way to learn by going through a scary experience.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I do blind tasting twice a week; once in a completely blind format and the second in comparative sets with similar wines like Shiraz, Syrah and Merlot. I do my blind tastings with Vilma Mazaite (Owner of LaV Restaurant and Wine Bar), Paula Rester (also competing) and Paul Ozbirn (also competing). The Guild Somm site is amazing for study guides. I live by that. I break down each region and study it in detail. I trace outlines of maps and then write out the specifics for each region. The physical drawing and color coding of wine region helps me remember it. I study by myself and exchange tests with others. I haven’t done any service yet, so I’m trying to get a group together to do that.

Why will you win? 

I am not going with the intention of winning. I’m going with the intention of learning. The world of wine is so massive. The more I study, the more I realize there is so much more to study. I’ve been studying for years and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Champagne of course. I’ll drink the first bottle I see, but will go for Bollinger La Grande Annee 1985.

 

Scott Ota, Sommelier & Wine Captain, The Driskill Grill, The Driskill Hotel

Scott Ota, SommelierScott Ota used to thrash on a skateboard until he tore his ACL jumping a flight of stairs. Now he tears it up as a Court of Master Sommeliers Level II Certified Sommelier at The Driskill Grill where he has been since March 2011.

“It is my goal to continue the Driskill’s historical reputation,” said Ota. “Many of Austin’s top talent, from the front-of-house staff to the kitchen, have a history with the property and I am privileged (to have) the responsibility of maintaining excellence.”

Earlier this year Ota was a Nominee for the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, and he won the challenging Somms Under Fire competition by wowing judges with his food and wine pairing talent. He will draw on that win and his previous experiences in the Texas’ Best when he competes next weekend.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I entered the competition to challenge myself. TEXSOM is an incredible opportunity to be criticized and graded by Master Sommeliers. For anyone who is looking to move through the Court of Masters, I would urge them to compete. It helps to show the level of knowledge required for the level III exam, and it offers an incredible opportunity to network with the best.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

Review theory, review theory, blind taste, and review theory.

Why will you win? 

Preparation. I am putting in the time with the books. That and I’ve got the best tasting group in the state. I’ll brag on their behalf. Advanced Sommeliers Nathan Prater and Bill Elsey, and Certified Sommelier Chris McFall are an incredible study group.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Grower-producer Champagne, forever and always. Pierre Gimonnet Et Fils is my jam.

 

Paul Ozbirn, Sommelier, Olive and June

Paul Ozbirn, SommelierPaul Ozbirn has tried his hand as a professional skateboarder in California and as a roadie for a rock band, but a trip to Greece and Italy after college sparked a love of wine. This Alabama boy with a bit of a gypsy spirit moved to Austin after that trip in order to being his pursuit.

“I started working at Vin Bistro in 2006 and that’s where I really started learning about wine and took my Intro exam a few years later,” said Ozbirn. “That got me in the door at Wink where I had the opportunity to nerd out on wine and introduce guests to wines they’ve never heard of. It was a great environment for learning and it inspired me to take the Certified Exam in April 2011.”

Ozbirn will bring his gypsy spirit and passion as a formidable opponent in the Best Sommelier competition.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I set out for 2013 to be a power year for wine education. I love TEXSOM and what it’s all about. It’s going to push me to do better whether I do well in the competition or do horribly. I’m going to learn something. It’s going to be fun competing with a bunch of my friends. Wine is supposed to be fun. It’s a way for me to exercise creative juices. Blind tasting is like a puzzle. Service is like a dance. You are on stage working to provide something guests love.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I use the Guild Somm study guides a lot, supplemented by the Wine Atlas. I listed to a lot of Master Sommelier podcasts and review detailed maps. I do blind tasting with friends like Mandi Nelson (also competing), Paula Rester (also competing) and Vilma Mazaite. I also go to the Red Room Lounge to see what they can throw at me. I don’t do study groups because it’s so hard to coordinating schedules. Just managing a personal life is challenging. Skate boarding, music, and tattoos are still a part of my life. I don’t feel like those things need to be mutually exclusive from my professional life in wine.

Why will you win? 

I don’t think I will win. I think Scott Ota will win and I think he deserves it. I’m going in with an open mind and a lot of curiosity. I think we will have a strong Austin showing in the competition.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I’ll probably drink a Negroni or any rosé Champagne. Andre Clouet Rosé NV is my desert island wine. I’m a sucker for a Campari and soda or a Negroni after tasting wine all day. Or maybe I’ll have an ice-cold Lone Star with a lime.

 

Brian Phillips, Manager and Sommelier, Eddie V’s Restaurants Inc.

Brian Phillips, SommelierWhile studying abroad at a culinary school in Holland, Brian Phillips worked as an intern in a vineyard in Germany. That experience working in a winery in a bombed out castle in the middle Rhine set his course.

Fourteen years ago, Philips made his way to Austin where he has worked at the Driskill Hotel, Haddington’s and Mulberry.

“In 2008, I started taking wine study seriously,” said Phillips. “I worked with an Advanced Somm, Anthony Garcia, who took an interest in me. I became a Certified Sommelier in a year’s time. I have also achieved Level II Certification with the International Sommelier Guild and have passed all but blind tasting for the Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. I’m now pursuing the Advanced Sommelier exam.”

Philips not only studies wine, but he also makes it with a boutique private label, Ground Up Wines. Phillips likes to get his hands dirty both in making wine and in his role managing the beverage program at Eddie V’s. He hopes those facets help him to be successful in the competition.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I learn the most by getting my butt kicked. Sometimes you have to know what you need to know by failing. I see this competition as a free run at the Advanced Somm. It’s a good opportunity to surround myself with a lot of sharp people in the business. My studying is going pretty well and I’m feeling confident in my blind tastings. I’m going to go for it and see what happens.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I study solo with a lot of maps and using the compendium on the Guild Somm site. Study solo. I blind taste with other people. I did a blind with Bill Elsey last night. My wife pours wines for me the first thing in the morning before she goes to work. When I wake up, the wine flight is waiting for me.

Why will you win? 

I have maturity of experience working in different environments that brings me composure at the table. I can handle tough situations with grace. Maybe that will give me a few bonus points where I may miss points in another area.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Champagne of course. Pierre Péters Champagne Blanc de Blancs is my first choice. I like something clean, bright and refreshing with as much mineral as possible. Shortly after that, I’ll have a beer so I don’t have to think about it.

 

Paula Rester, Wine Director, Congress Austin

Paula Rester, SommelierFine dining service is more than just pairing the right wine with an elegant dish and proper presentation of wine. Paula Rester knows that every visit a guest makes to Congress Austin is potentially for a very important meal and one worthy of her full attention. She brings her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to work with her every evening.

“I like to create a fun environment, put on a bit of a show and bring my sense of humor into a conversation about wine,” said Rester. “People come into my restaurant to have a good time. I am here to make sure that happens.”

Rester helped open Congress in 2010 and served as its commis sommelier for more than a year before departing for a stint as General Manager of Vino Vino. She returned to Congress last fall and has put her stamp on the wine program. Rester is Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators, a Level II Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for the Advanced Exam, which she hopes to take in April 2014.

Rester is banking on her showmanship and poise to bring her the win.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I entered the competition to get an introduction to the kinds of questions and situations I will find in the Advanced Sommelier exam. I also want to gain some notoriety among the Master Sommelier testers in hopes of being invited to take the Advanced Exam.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I do blind tasting once or twice a week with several people in the sommelier community, including people who are competing. There is strength in number in blind tastings and I learn a lot from how others tastes. I study wine theory for two hours a day on my own and Vilma Mazaite (Owner of LaV Restaurant and Wine Bar) and I create quizzes for each other. I also like to study with flash cards. Oh, and I have maps of wine regions up around my house.

Why will you win? 

I have no illusions about winning at TEXSOM. If I have a shot at winning, it’s because I intend to enjoy the hell out of myself. I want to have fun and get put through the paces by Master Somms. I might have my ass handed to me, but I’m entering into the competition in the right frame of mind. I keep teasing Scott Ota by telling him I’ve got good money riding on him.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I’m going to double fist with a glass of vintage Blanc de Blancs Champagne in one hand and a Negroni in the other hand to calm the nerves and settle the stomach. Actually I’ll drink whatever Master Somm, Fred Dame, is pouring. I’ve had Fred Dame nightmares by the way.

This story originally ran in a cool slideshow format on CultureMap.

What are you drinking? 

Austin City Guide: Your Guide to Great Wine Bars

Austin City GuideThere are tons of places in Austin to get a great glass of wine. The city is bursting with excellent wine lists at restaurants and bars, and we are fortunate to have many bars focused primarily on wine. Here are some of the top wine bars in Austin.

Downtown

Coal Vines, 314 West 2nd Street

After a hard day of shopping in the Second Street District, Coal Vines is an excellent place to cool your heels. What could be better than people watching on the chill outdoor patio with a glass of vino or three? Coal Vines offers 20 wines by the glass and an unpretentious selection of bottles from big Californian and Australian producers.  It is open for brunch and has delightful pizzas to recharge your engines for more shopping.

Cork & Company , 308 Congress Ave

This long, narrow wine bar has a classic, cozy warm feel with a broad selection of wine. Cork & Company carries the usual suspects like California and France, but also a good mix of wines from South America, Italy, Spain and New Zealand. The menu offers 40 different wines that we serve by the glass: 13 red, 17 white, six sparkling and four dessert wines. If you can’t find your perfect wine by the glass, they offer more than 300 wines by the bottle.

In addition to wine Cork & Company has a solid list of Texas craft beers and an assortment of delightful snacks. They offer cheese, charcuterie and antipasto plates, paninis and carry Austin Cakeballs.

“Our focus at Cork is to be a neighborhood wine bar with a friendly atmosphere where we know our patrons and where anybody can come in and find a wine they love, whether they are drinking wine for the first time or have the best cellar in Austin,” says Carlo Bligh.

Crú,  238 W. 2nd St.

Cru Wine Bar has a couple locations in Austin; one downtown and one in the Domain shopping center. It offers 300 wines from around the world with a focus on American, Italian, Spanish and France. Cru servces 13 flights of three wines grouped by varietal, style or region, including five white wine flights, one sparkling/Champagne flight and seven red wine flights. It also has 39 wines by the glass and an additional 10 to 15 dessert wines also available as well as a small selection beers.

Cru offers a menu of what they call on “Wine Country” fare with an emphasis on appetizers and small plates, but also seafood, cheese plates, larger entrees and desserts.

Max’s Wine Dive,  207 San Jacinto

$$$ American, Wine Bar

Max’s is the kind of place where the wait staff wears t-shirts that read, “Fried Chicken and Champagne? Why the Hell not?” Max’s is the kind of place that serves down-home food like Gator Beignets and Shrimp & Grits.  Max’s is the kind of place that doesn’t serve flights of wine, because who really just wants a small taste of wine when you can have a whole glass?

This Houston-based chain has a respectable selection of wine with three sparkling wines, two rosé, about a dozen reds and a dozen whites available by the glass. They carry anywhere from 140 to 170 wines by the bottle at prices ranging from $12 to $500. All wines are available to take home at retail prices. If you’re not a wine drinker, they also carry about a dozen kinds of beer.

The service is prompt and attentive. I like Max’s willingness to open any bottle to pour a glass as long as the table is willing to order at least two glasses from the bottle.  Good wine, good service, casual attitude.

 

Mulberry,  360 Nueces St

The sidewalk café in front of Mulberry is always packed with smiles and laughs. The sleek bar seems to burst at the seams spilling people into the fresh air. Mulberry has a nice mix of new world and old world selections with more than 20 red, white, rose and sparkling wines by the glass. They also carry more than 100 wines by the bottle. What keeps my grin beaming is the lineup of desert wines including a Port, Sherry and Sauternes. Yum!

The bistro menu is kick-ass with meat and cheese plates, sandwiches and hearty entrees. Mulberry is a delightful urban oasis.

 

Bill Elsey The Red Room LoungeRed Room Wine Lounge, 301 E. 3rd St Suite A

If you don’t know what you are looking for, you might miss it. The Red Room Lounge is unobtrusively tucked to a quiet spot below street level, just down the block from the Convention Center and two doors west of the Vince Young Steakhouse. It doesn’t have a sign out front, so you better know the address.

Despite its anonymity, the Red Room is typically packed on any given night and the city’s best sommeliers treat it like their personal living room. One reason the wine crowd is drawn to The Red Room Lounge is because its owner, Alex Andrawes, has created a chill, speakeasy-like atmosphere for people to enjoy a few glasses of great wine. The red velvet draped entrance gives it an elegant, hushed feel. There are nicely arranged conversation areas and dark nooks for lovers to steal a kiss or two.

Another reason is this is a place where both wine experts and novices can learn something new. Not only is Andrawes  a wine expert, but Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011 and Advanced Sommelier, Bill Elsey, is behind the bar bringing incredible wine knowledge and a deft touch for sharing that insight without making people feel stupid.

The Red Room Lounge has some pretty amazing wine in the cellar with a stock of 2,000-2,500 bottles spread over 400-450 private labels and boutique wines. Rare and collectable wine like Screaming Eagle, 1982 Chateau Haut Brion, 1955 Taylor’s Vintage Port and 1989 magnums of Petrus share the spotlight with lesser known and hard to find wines from Bordeaux and California. “I am always happy to discuss the higher end cellar wines with our clientele and help them find that rare gem to enjoy for the night,” says Elsey.

There is something to meet every wine lover’s desire with bottle prices ranging from $35-$5000. The Red Room offers 10-12 wines by the glass and selection changes every 3-5 weeks, so people can try new and exciting wines regularly.

While the wine selection is large, that’s all you can expect. They don’t serve beer, cocktails or anything else. They don’t prepare food on premise, but have service agreements with restaurants within a two block radius that will bring you cheese plates, hors d’oeuvres and light eats. The Red Room hosts private parties and arranges for catering.

Uncorked Wine Bar,  900 E 7th St

Just off the beaten path perched on a hill overlooking I35, Uncorked feels like a world away from downtown Austin. The renovated old house has comfy rooms in which to lounge about and a gracious back deck to enjoy the breeze and live music. Uncorked has a seasonally rotating menu of wines from around the world. The list is dominated by French, Italian and Spanish wines, but also has wines from lesser-known wine countries like Lebanon and Uruguay.

The knowledgeable staff, lead by owner and Certified Wine Professional, Ron Wright, is quick with astute recommendations and pairing suggestions for just the right wine to go with your delicious dinner. Whether you choose a flight of wine, wine by the glass or by the bottle, the well selected list has a broad enough range to satisfy almost any palate.

Wink, 1014 North Lamar, Ste. E

Hidden behind the venerable restaurant and accessible through a separate entrance, Wink has a lovely little wine bar. The extensive wine list features more than 45 wines by the glass and even more by the bottle. The sommeliers put together a stellar line up of predominantly old world wines with great choices from France, Italy, Spain and Germany and many wines from the U.S. as well.

Wink Wine Bar has its own delightful bar menu with mac & cheese with black truffles and steamed mussels to curb your appetite. You can also order from the full restaurant menu and nosh on it in the casual wine den. Love it.

North Austin

Apothecary Cafe & Wine Bar,  4800 Burnet Rd Ste 450

This Allandale  café is a lovely place for a cup of coffee and desert or for a glass of wine. It features a long list of European and U.S. wines by the glass or by the bottle.

Vino Vino,  4119 Guadalupe St

This Hyde Park mainstay draws wine lovers and foodies with its fantastic and ever changing menu. Owner, Jeff Courington, stacks the wine list with gems from Oregon, Argentina and the left-field old world wines from places like Greece and Lebanon. The meat of the wine program is made up of exquisite French, Italian and Spanish wines. Vino Vino pours around 20 to 25 wines by the glass on any given day, a handful of sparklers and an even few sweet wines. The bottle selection is always changing with 100 to 150 labels elegantly displayed on the walls. The staff knows their stuff. Not only do they have two Certified Sommeliers on the team, but the whole crew is dedicated to helping customers pick the perfect wine for the evening.

Vino Vino also has an excellent cocktail menu with a full bar and seasonal specialty cocktails. If you are adventurous, ask the bartender for something unique and they will take you on a whole journey to find your perfect cocktail. Let them treat your senses by rubbing various bitters in their palms to smell all the intricacies, tasting each ingredient of a cocktail individually before they come up with the perfect blend. Vino Vino also has four local craft beers on tap.

It offers full dinner menu and late-night snacks with tasty dishes like steak and frites made with wagyu beef from Strube Ranch and slider and fries.  Vino Vino also has salads, several cheese plates and desserts. If you don’t want to mess around with so-so wines and passable food, head to Vino Vino where everything is top notch.

South Austin

Henri's Wine and CheeseAviary, 2110 South Lamar

This is one hell of a unique place. It’s a home furnishings shop with  a lovely little wine lounge tucked in for good measure. Aviary has a small lineup of carefully chosen Italian red and white wines, sparkling wines and beer. It also has charcuterie plates to nosh on.

Henri’s Cheese and Wine , 2026 S Lamar Blvd

What is a cheese shop doing masquerading as a wine bar? How can you go wrong with opening a bottle of delicious French wine with an expertly chosen artisanal cheese? Henri’s is open for lunch and dinner and sells wine by the bottle and glass. It also sells wine and cheese at retail all day. It’s a fantastic south Austin spot.

House WineHouse Wine , 408 Josephine St

House Wine is in a little house tucked away just south of Lady Bird Lake a block west of S. Lamar on Josephine St. They are definitely going for the South Austin vibe – casual, cozy and a little sloppy. The space is intimate (small) and eclectic (mismatched décor).  It has a lovely front porch and outdoor lounge. Love.

Table service isn’t a priority here, so belly up to the bar to look through the menu of about 25 whites and 30 reds by the glass and by the bottle. The prices are pretty damn reasonable ranging from $7 to $11 and bottles in the $20s and $30s. They also offer flights for three half-glasses for $15. A bargain.  If you go at happy hour, you’ll be rewarded with a discount of two bucks a glass.

House Wine offers a decent selection of nibbles like cheese plates and Mediterranean plates with smoked salmon served in a gorgeous wooden bowl.  You can also satisfy your sweet tooth with a selection of deserts.

If you are looking for a very relaxed, inexpensive wine bar with a decent selection, try House Wine. If you want knowledgeable wine guidance and service in an elegant setting, you may be disappointed here.

Opa Wine BarOpa! Coffee & Wine Bar  

This south Austin Greek restaurant and wine bar has ample seating outdoors under the spread of ancient oak trees and casual couches and chairs inside the rooms of the renovated house. Live music sets the mood for easy conversations. Opa has a full bar, several beers and dozens of wines by the glass in the $7 to $10 range. The wine list has a wide variety of unassuming old and new world wines

Water2Wine, 4036 South Lamar Boulevard

Water 2 Wine is an actual operating winery that offers wine by the glass, by the bottle, or by the batch (approximately 28-30 bottles per batch).  All of its wines are fermented on premises from the grape juice of about 90 different wines from 13 different countries. Water 2 wine has red, white and dessert wines, but no sparkling wines. There are three different locations for Water 2 Wine with the other two at 3300 W. Anderson Lane and 2000 S. I-H 35 in Round Rock.

West Austin

360 Uno Trattoria & Wine Bar,  3801 N Capital Of Texas Hwy

This West Lake Hills eatery has award winning wine list of 375 different wines from around the world with a focus on Italian and us wines. 360 Uno serves 50 wines by the glass to go with a full Italian menu.

Eleven Plates & Wine,  Bar 3801 N Capital Of Texas Hwy Ste C200

Also in West Lake Hills, Eleven Plates has an outstanding wine list. Owner Mike Swartz and partner Randy Laboy, both Certified Sommeliers, have selected 50 diverse wines – including some from Texas – to serve by the glass. It also has an extensive list of wines by the bottle with both affordable and high end options. Eleven Plates has a full menu for lunch and dinner.

The Grove,  6317 Bee Caves Rd

Some of my sommelier study buddies frequent The Grove for its solid list of excellent wines and knowledgeable staff. It serves wines three sparkling, 16 whites, 25 reds, and five dessert wines by the glass an additional 150 by the bottle from all over the world. The Grove has an extensive menu of pizzas, pastas and entrees.

Riviera Bistro , 12801 Shops Parkway, Suite 200 (in The Shops at the Galleria)

The wine bar in Riviera Bistro offers 17 wines by the glass in a continually evolving menu. It is primarily focused on Italian wines, but has a nice selection of French wines as well.

No matter what part of Austin you are in, you are never too far from a wine bar.

What are you drinking?

 

 

 

Austin Brew Pubs Could be Better

2013 Austin City Guide Austin Food Bloggers Alliance Texans love to crow about the great beer scene in the state. They point to the insane growth in breweries and production. Sure, the craft brew industry in Texas is enjoying explosive expansion with brewers almost doubling the number of barrels they produced from 2010 to 2011 according to a study commissioned by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. They point to the award winning quality and diversity of styles of beer that have consumers clamoring. Sure Texans are bringing home medals in international competitions and we are enthusiastically draining pints of locally made brew as fast as it is made. That doesn’t make a great beer state. It’s not great at all.

If state of the Texas craft beer industry were great, we would be able to buy an armload of 750 ml bottles of Jester King after a visit to the brewery. Or we could grab a six-pack of Uncle Billy’s at the local HEB. But we can’t. Alas, Texas laws prohibit breweries to sell directly to consumers on-site and bars brewpubs from selling package beer at off-site retail locations. That sucks.

This month Senate Bills 515, 516, 517 and 518 were filed in the State Legislature aimed at overturning those archaic laws that artificially constrain the business of craft brewers and limit consumer choice. Don’t get your hopes up too fast. Similar bills filed last year failed to reach a vote. Until politicians hear our voices and wake up to the economic opportunities of selling craft beer in an open market, Texas is not a great beer state.

Until then, we will have to leave the comfort of home to drink great beer at brew pubs. Fortunately there are some great ones to choose from in Austin.

Draught House PubDraught House Pub and Brewery, 4112 Medical Parkway  Austin

When the inside bar is crammed full of beer lovers, you can sometimes find a seat at a picnic table in the outside beer garden. The Draught House has been an Austin beer bastion for years; first opening its doors in 1968 and now celebrating its 45th anniversary in October. Brewmaster, Josh Wilson, has been brewing since 1994 and brews about 30 original beers each year. He has done hundreds of recipes over the years using traditional and interesting ingredients to make brews like the Grackle Black Lager and Reanimator Dopplebock. The Draught House serves five house beers that change seasonally.

The Draught House also has 70 beers on tap and cask and has an additional 20 beers in bottles, including gluten free and Belgian. Wilson selects the line-up to support local brewers, represent the best American craft beer and to offer of as many styles as possible. The line-up includes several Texas craft beers, seasonal and special releases, brewer’s reserve and small batch beers. The Draught House keeps things fresh by varying the beer menu by changing out about a dozen taps weekly. The mix of its beers and selection of guest taps earned The Draught House a spot on “America’s 100 best beer bars: 2012,” chosen by Draft Magazine.

“We have a hand-picked selection of beer that reflects my tastes, served in a comfortable atmosphere with low lighting and a beer garden. It’s a chill place to find really good beer at honest prices,” says brewer, Josh Wilson

Black Star Co-op, 7020 Easy Wind Drive, Midtown Commons, Suite 100, Austin,

The world’s first co-operatively owned brew pub is anything but an average beer bar.  Steven Yarak had an idea to start a neighborhood brew pub owned by the neighborhood and gathered like-minded individuals with the panache and know-how to brew beer and operate a business in April 2006. It’s now owned by more than 3,000 members who have chipped in money to brew the beer that they want to drink.

Brew Master Jeff Young, brews 15 house beers broken down into rational, irrational and infinite series. I like to taste my way through all of them by ordering flights. They also offer ten local and craft beers rotating on guest taps and an extensive selection of bottled beers. Black Star currently has eight gluten free beers available. Its conveniently located next to the Crestview Train Station.

Davis Tucker, NXNW Owner North by Northwest (NXNW), 10010 Capital of TX Hwy N, Austin

Patterned after a Pacific Northwest lodge, NXNW serves a full menu with steak, grilled duck and cedar plank salmon. While the food is tasty, the beer is the star with prominently displayed grain silo and six house-made brews on tap. Owner, Davis Tucker is an active board member of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, and has assembled a team of talented brewers making top notch beer. The Barton Kriek brought home a bronze in the Belgian-style lambic for at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival.

Brewmaster, Don Thompson, augments the core menu of five classic beers with eight seasonal and special beers that are rotated regularly. Special cask-conditioned beers are featured at “Cask Night,” held the last Monday of every month. NXNW also has a full bar serving cocktails and wine.

Pinthouse Pizza, 4729 Burnet Road, Austin

Austin’s newest brew pub packs in guests at long shared tables and often is crowded with groups of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder yearning for craft beer. Families, young couples and well-bearded beer geeks soak in the boisterous environment that includes several flat-screen TVs playing sports and video games. As the name suggests, the menu sports a wide assortment of pizza including pizza rolls, a Vietnamese style Banh Mi pizza and “Off the Map Pie,” a specialty pizza with artisan sausage, jalapeños, pickled onions & carrots and cucumber topped with sriracha sauce and cilantro. Damn!

The real star of the pub is of course, the beer.

Pinthouse had 45 taps and typically eight-to-ten of those are pouring house-made beers that vary week to week and the rest are guest taps.  Its mainstay beers are the Man o’ War, a bright, tropical IPA; Iron Genny, a hoppy and earthy Pale Ale, Calma Muerta, a hoppy Session Ale; and Bearded Seal, a dry Irish Stout with lovely coffee and chocolate flavors. Pinthouse offers a rotation of seasonal beer with at least two on tap at all times. If you can’t make up your mind which beers to try, they offer two different flights: the Pinthouse Flight which includes all 4 mainstays and “fallen cask” and the Guest Flight: includes any five beers on tap. They also have one constantly changing “ironic” tap with beers like Coors Original, Keystone Light or Natural Light.

The house-brewed beer is in hot demand. Owner, Ryan Van Biene says, “We brew as fast as we can and try to put as many Pinthouse Pizza beers on tap as possible, but this is a thirsty town and they are often ahead of our fermentation capacity.”

Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que, 1530 Barton Springs Road, Austin

This award winning brew pub has gone through some big changes in the last year with the closing of its gorgeous Lake Travis location with its expansive state-of-the-art brewery, to the departure of its two star brewers Amos Lowe and Brian “Swifty” Peters.  Despite the change, Uncle Billy’s is still a great place to drink fantastic craft brew while munching on finger-sucking-good barbeque in a convenient location just south of downtown.

New brewmaster, Michael Waters, brews 1,200 barrels of five mainstay beers and regularly rotates in a Brewer’s Choice beer as well. The beer menu is dominated by light, hoppy beers made with Belgian yeast like Back 40 Blonde, Axe Handle Pale Ale and Hop Zombie. The Bottle Rocket Lager, made at the former Lake Travis location, garnered a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011 and gold in 2012.  Let’s hope they resurrect that recipe. They also serve a few local beers on guest taps, bottled beers, cocktails and a crappy selection of wine.

Whip In, 1950 South IH-35 South, Austin  

While it might look like a convenience store on the frontage road of a major interstate highway, it’s actually an amazing Indian-inspired restaurant, retail shop and now a brew pub.  The South Austin institution has been in business since 1986, offering an eclectic café menu (they call themselves a Gastro Pub, but that feels like a stretch) and a small beer garden to enjoy a drink and live music. The retail shop not only offers more than 200 bottled beers to drink on premise or take with you, but it also features 58 special, season and craft beers on tap and wine by the glass.

Whip In opened Namaste Brewing in August 2012 to an enthusiastic reception. Kevin Sykes, head brewer, currently offers four beers including the Brahmale Post Colonial IPA, Vishnavitripale Belgian style triple, Shivastout dark ale and the Ganeshale aged Belgian.

Coming Soon

Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co., 1305 West Oltorf 78704

The award winning brewers at Uncle Billy’s, Amos Lowe and Brian “Swifty” Peters, left Uncle Billy’s to start their own brewery slated to open in June 2013. The South Austin brew pub will serve hand-crafted pizza and beer on 10 taps in a music hall-style beer garden. “We’re going for the Armadillo World Headquarters vibe with New York style pizza like Home Slice,” said Peters.

They will make several varieties of always on-tap mainstay line up of Pilsner, Pale Ale and IPAs, with a rotating selection of seasonals and brewer’s choices, including a cask-conditioned beer. At opening, all of the beer will be house-made, but they have plans for some big collaborations down the road.

The venue will seat up to 170 inside, and potentially just as many people outside. It’s a big space with plenty of parking. The owners plan to be open for lunch every day and feature live music at night. “We’re all passionate about music, so it will be a big part of our place. We want the ABGB to feel like an old comfortable place you’ve been loving and coming to for years, right from the get go,” says Mark Jensen, owner.

Other local Brew Pubs

  • The Barber Shop, 207 Mercer Street, Dripping Springs
  • Flix Brewhouse, 2200 South IH-35, Suite B1, Round Rock
  • Middleton Brewing, 9595 Ranch Road 12, Suite 4, Wimberly
  • Wimberly Brewing Co. , 9595 Ranch Road 12, Wimberly

OK, so we now know that Texas, and particularly Austin, has great beer at brew pubs, but it doesn’t have the rights to claim that it is a great beer state because of its ridiculous laws. Do your part. Drink local and voice your opinion. Open The Taps has a convenient page describing how you can voice your support for craft brew in Texas. Do it!

What are you drinking?

Going bananas: Third annual Gorilla Run 5k returns to the streets of Austin this weekend

Drinking Thirsty Planet Beer at the Gorilla Run 5k
Photo by © Justin Lee Bradshaw

This coming Saturday, the streets of Austin will be overrun with hundreds of gorillas grunting and beating their chests. No, it’s not a remake of the campy ’70s flick, Planet of the Apes, it’s the third annual Gorilla Run, a 5K fun run where all participants wear gorilla suits.

The Gorilla Run is more than just a typical 5K race, and not just because people will be running in full suits of fur. I like to think of it as a triathlon of sorts with three important components: running, supporting a good cause, and beer drinking. The event is held to raise money for the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund (MGCF), an international charity working to save the endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda.

And at the run’s end, participants are greeted with a cold Silverback Pale Ale made by event sponsor Thirsty Planet Brewing.

“The event got started in Austin as an extension of the Gorilla Run in Denver. It’s been going on for eight years in Denver. Austin has a reputation for both fitness and fun, so we knew it would be a good fit for the city. Now Austin may overtake Denver in popularity with more than 1,300 expected to run this weekend,” says Jon Partridge event co-director.

That means there will be more gorilla-suited runners in Austin than actual mountain gorillas in the world. The current mountain gorilla population is estimated to be about 880. “Since the conservation fund has been up and running, the numbers of gorillas in the wild has tripled. Hopefully with more support it will continue to get better and better,” says Partridge.

Photo by © Justin Lee Bradshaw

Actual gorillas can run in short bursts up to 20 miles per hour, but only for about 20 yards on their hind legs. The elite runners at the head of the pack would have no trouble beating them in this race.

Partridge explains it’s the mix of seriousness and silliness that makes the race unique. “The race is timed with official numbers and finishing spots. Some people take the Gorilla Run very seriously. It’s hilarious to see someone dressed in a gorilla suit running with determined speed. While you can race it, it’s more about raising awareness and having fun.

“Last year we had people on roller blades, skateboards and even a pedicab. The race starts with guys from Thirsty Planet Brewery dashing off on bikes dressed as huge bananas and hundreds of gorillas chase them down the street. It’s quite a sight.”

Austin borrowed the tradition of having a brewery as a main sponsor from the Denver race. The Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver made the original Silverback Pale Ale to raise additional money and awareness for the MGCF.  Thirsty Planet Brewing brewed about 70 kegs of Silverback Pale Ale this year to sell at 20 bars around Austin and to serve after the race.

Thirsty Planet slightly altered the original recipe, but brews Silverback with the same special ingredient, Grains of Paradise, which is an important part of the gorilla’s natural diet in Africa.

“Having the brewery involved is a fun way to get people involved who might not want to do the run. Along with my event co-director, Tammy Smittle [wife of Thirsty Planet Brewing’s founder Brian Smittle], the brewery is doing awareness building events like a pub crawl to call attention to the goals of the event,” says Partridge.

Event participants are encouraged to donate and raise money for the MCGF, and based on the amount they raise, they are eligible to win prizes. Last year the Austin event raised more than $60,000 for the cause and they are aiming to raise up to $80,000 this year.

Proceeds from the Austin Gorilla Run will help support the construction of a new Wildlife Veterinary Education facility at Makerere University in Uganda. Students taught at the facility go on to help protect Africa’s struggling wildlife.

Registration is still open for the Gorilla Run. Your entry fee of $110 (for first time adults) includes a gorilla suit that you get to keep afterwards, race participation and an after party with live music, beer and beverages, food vendors and an awards ceremony.

Packet and gorilla fur pick-up will be held Tuesday, January 15 at RunTex on W. Riverside, Wednesday at The Tavern, Thursday at Hopfields, Friday and Saturday at RunTex.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?