Gin starts life as a wallflower. In the beginning, it is nothing more than colorless, odorless, flavorless liquor, sort of like vodka. Then it is distilled again with a mix of juniper berries and other herbs that transform it into an aromatic, sophisticated spirit.
As gorgeous and complex as gin is, it takes on an even more interesting tone when it spends some quality time with oak. Like barrel-aged whiskey, it takes on a comely amber hue and gains a depth of flavor with vanilla, caramel and spices layered in with the botanicals. Local booze maker Treaty Oak Distilling introduced its Waterloo Antique Gin, aged in new American white oak barrels, in autumn 2013. Now two more Austin distilleries are introducing oak-aged gins in time for summer.
Revolution Spirits introduces Austin Reserve Gin Single Barrel Series Revolution Spirits, a boutique distillery nestled in the rolling hills just outside Dripping Springs, sold its first bottle of gin on February 22, 2014. That happens to be George Washington’s birthday, who was also a distiller and revolutionary. A fitting coincidence.
Revolution makes its flagship Austin Reserve Gin with a blend of six botanicals that includes juniper, rosemary, lavender, lemon grass, pink pepper corn and Texas grapefruit peel. The 100-proof gin is hand-bottled and every label is hand-numbered.
The folks at Revolution Spirits are constantly experimenting with different distilled spirits, like fruit brandies and the just-released coffee liqueur. That spirit of experimentation led them to try barrel-aged gin.
Co-founder of Mark Shilling describes the first batch of the Austin Reserve Gin Single Barrel Series. “We aged our Austin Reserve Gin in a French oak barrel that was previously used once to oxidize Tempranillo port wine. We aged our Austin Reserve Gin in it for six months and tested it along the way to select the right amount of aging required to get the flavor we want.”
Revolution Spirits will be releasing its Single Barrel Series twice a year with gin aged in different types of barrels. “We might use American, Hungarian, French oak variations that have previously been used for bourbon or mezcal,” says Shilling. “Our second batch is currently aging in a barrel that was previously used to age Jester King Brewery RU55 sour red ale.”
The first batch is a limited run of about 27 cases. It has a lovely light copper, almost salmon, color. Despite the barrel aging, it still smells like gin: prominent juniper and soft floral scents with the added touch of vanilla. Bold botanicals and piney gin flavors of citrus, allspice and pepper layer in with aged flavors of caramel and vanilla. It’s tasty on its own and great in cocktails.
Austin Reserve Gin Single Barrel Series is hitting the shelves of bars and stores in Austin, Houston and Dallas and is available for $45. Try it in a classic Negroni.
Austin Reserve Gin Single Barrel Series Negroni
1 ounce Austin Reserve Gin Single Barrel Series
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Stir gin, Campar and vermouth in an ice-filled tumbler; garnish with orange slice.
Genius Liquids rolls out Oaked Genius Gin
Mike Groener and his partner Charles Cheung started Genius Gin in the summer of 2013 to fully pursue a torrid love affair with gin. The unassuming distillery, housed in a nondescript industrial area, quietly cranks out some of Austin’s most distinctive gin.
Genius creates its gin by making a neutral spirit by fermenting sugar with yeast. It is then cold-steeped in botanicals and distilled with additional botanicals. Genius comes in a standard 90-proof version and a 114-proof version.
“The creation of our Oaked Gin was a happy accident,” says Mark Toohey, sales manager at Genius. “We ran a batch of gin that wasn’t up to snuff, so we decided to experiment with it. We wanted to try something new and decided an aged gin was the way to go. We considered buying a barrel and then chose to go with chips to see what happened. The result was too good not to bring to market.”
Genius makes its Oaked Gin by steeping the standard gin for six weeks with medium-roast oak chips. Using oak chips exposes the gin to more surface area to let the oak have a speedier impact. Groener likes the way the oak interacts with the botanicals in the gin. After taste-testing the gin, the team settled on a six-week process that gives the gin a nice caramel flavor and rich golden color.
The oak isn’t overpowering and the botanical aromas shine through; juniper and coriander are most prominent. The flavors are all gin up front, sliding right into lovely caramel flavors with a lingering, smooth vanilla finish reminiscent of the Cognac style Groener was aiming for.
“Sipping it straight is the way I like to drink it,” says Toohey. It’s also delightful in cocktails.
Genius initially made a small batch of 12 cases of Oaked Genius Gin; additional batches are being aged right now. The first release is expected to be available in stores around Austin later in July and will sell for $28. Try it in an Old Fashioned.
Oaked Genius Gin Old Fashioned
2 ounces Oaked Genius Gin
4 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 teaspoon sugar
2 orange wheels
1 maraschino cherry
1 splash club soda
In an Old Fashioned or rocks glass, muddle the bitters, sugar, orange wheel, cherry and a splash of soda. Get rid of the orange rind, add the gin and fill with ice. Make it pretty with a fresh orange wheel and cherry.
This story was originally published on CultureMap.
Riding a huge wave of success, Austin based Deep Eddy Vodka introduced its fourth flavored vodka this year with Deep Eddy Lemon Flavored Vodka. At a tender age of five years old, Deep Eddy is one of the fastest growing vodka brands in the U.S. Last year the company secured $13 million in financing and opened a new distillery to be able to satisfy our thirst.
Deep Eddy Lemon is made with column distilled vodka and flavored with real lemons from California. That’s exactly what it tastes like – tart and slightly sweet with a smooth boozy finish. The lemon flavored vodka takes is place on store shelves and bar backs next to the wildly popular Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka. Like the grapefruit flavored Ruby Red, the lemon is delicious just with a splash of seltzer, but it’s also versatile in summery, refreshing cocktails.
Try this cold and ultra-refreshing drink on a hot summer day.
Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka shandy
4 ounces Deep Eddy Lemon Flavored Vodka
1 beer (preferably local, light style)
4 ounces Topo Chico
4 tablespoons frozen lemonade
8 ice cubes
2 lemon wedges
Blend ice cubes, frozen lemonade and Deep Eddy Vodka until it’s the frothy consistency of a Slurpy. Pour into a pitcher and mix in the beer and Topo Chico. Garnish with lemon wedges.
This makes enough for two pint glasses of sunshine. Grab your sweetie, a pitcher of Deep Eddy shandy and head outside to relax for a bit.
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a flying cucumber! That’s right, Hendrick’s Gin has created Hendrick’s Air, a gigantic billboard in the sky. The 130-foot-long, 44-foot-tall blimp nicknamed the Flying Cucumber is visiting Austin this weekend.
The Hendrick’s Flying Cucumber first set sail on April 13 in Los Angeles and will visit San Francisco, Austin, Dallas, South Florida, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Ann Arbor, Indianapolis and Chicago during its journey. In Austin, the blimp will fly over Levitation Festival, Zilker Park and South Congress. It’s the first booze blimp to grace the skies of Austin.
“Our giant flying cucumber will pay homage to the distinguishing ingredient that makes our gin special. We want to remind our loyalists that Hendrick’s Gin & Tonic deserves the finest cucumber garnish, every time. We hope that this journey will enlighten our imbibers as to the important role the cucumber plays in the Hendrick’s world,” said brand ambassador, Jim Ryan, at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport where the blimp is tethered.
Whether you cast a jaded eye on the massive cucumber or see it as an omen that you must immediately have a cocktail, you have an opportunity to take a flight on the blimp.
“We are able to take a select group of people to ride with us in the Hendricks Flying Cucumber,” says Ryan. “These fellow ‘unusualists’ include loyal drinkers from the industry trade, press, and of course, our fans. Anyone can enter [for] a chance ride in the Flying Cucumber through social media by snapping a photo of it as it soars over Austin and post[ing] it onto Twitter or Instagram using #HendricksGin, #FLYINGCUCUMBER and #CucumberChallenge.”
The dirigible will fly over Austin “slow and low” at a sub-1000-foot cruising altitude from May 8-10. Hendrick’s recommends gathering at one of its viewing spots during the weekend to catch sight of the Flying Cucumber:
Friday, May 8, 6-8 pm at Maggie Mae’s
Saturday, May 9, 4:30-6:30 pm at Olive and June
Sunday, May 10, 7:30-10 pm at the W Hotel, Bar 96 and Bungalow
Only two to three people can ride at one time in the tiny capsule, so you may be lucky to catch a ride. The weather also may play a nasty role in grounding its flight. As of filing time for this story, Hendrick’s was unable to get its cucumber up for the press.
There is no shortage of places to get a drink in this town. But for the discerning tastes of Austin’s cocktail crazy residents, not just any bar will do. The best bars in town pay attention to every aspect of your happiness with a stellar drink list, proper glassware, excellent ice and an enjoyable atmosphere, capped off with a knowledgeable and passionate staff providing flawless service.
On May 12 at Brazos Hall, the fourth annual CultureMapTastemaker Awards will celebrate the best culinary and beverage talent in Austin. A panel of food and drink experts selected 11 of the finest spots in town that set the bar for excellence. Meet the CultureMapTastemaker Awards nominees for Bar of the Year.
The soaring ceilings and sophisticated design make this intimate bar feel anything but small. Tucked between vibrant Second Bar + Kitchen and elegant fine dining restaurant Congress, Bar Congress is one of the more refined cocktail bars in town. Downtown residents, intrepid suburban cocktail aficionados and tourists flock to the bar for its excellent selection of wine, apéritifs and cordials, whiskeys, tequilas, rums and expertly prepared cocktails. Let yourself sink deep into the cozy banquet and pretend you’re Dean Martin. While you can order delicious food, the cocktails are definitely the star of the show.
Don’t miss drink: The Tequila Daisy, made with SiembraVallesplata tequila, Fino sherry, Marolo chamomile grappa, honey, grapefruit and lemon.
A jewel of the vibrant North Loop neighborhood, drink.well. is a quintessential neighborhood bar serving American cuisine and skillfully made cocktails to a steady flow of regulars. The bar attracts a crowd with its seasonally rotating menu of inventive drinks, themed drink nights and well-chosen selection of beer, wine and spirits. Husband and wife team Michael and Jessica Sanders impress guests with their cocktail craftiness. The Sanders have also become a power couple among Austin’s bar professionals because of their tireless pursuit of improving the scene.
Don’t miss drink: The Carl Rides Again is a nod to one of drink.well.’s regulars, featuring Bonded Bourbon, a New Orleans-style coffee liqueur, Cocchi Rosa vermouth and smoky molé bitters.
East Side Show Room
Sitting at the bar of this East Sixth Street icon, one feels transported to Paris in the 1920s. The artistic interior design, French bistro menu, vivacious live music and long list of pre-Prohibition cocktails combine for a sublime experience that will leave you smiling. East Side Show Room has been a fixture on Austin’s best of lists since it opened in 2009 and has served as an incubator for some of our city’s best bar and restaurant talent. Led by Bar Manager Julianna Fry the bar team is sure to impress with a huge selection of spirits and drinks made with seasonal ingredients.
Don’t miss drink: The Riverman, a spring sipper that mixes Old Granddad 114, Kronan, yellow chartreuse, lemon, grapefruit and Mint & Abbott’s bitters.
Named for its inconspicuous location hidden inside the spiral ramp of the American National Bank parking garage, Garage is a great place to get lost in a rocks glass for a night. Grab a seat at the candle-lit circular bar, let the music from the record player wash over you and place your trust in the erudite bartenders to guide your drink selection. Helmed by barman Chauncy James, Garage recently won the People’s Choice Award and The Official Drink of Austin 2015 with its Indian Paintbrush cocktail.
Don’t miss drink: The New Orleans-inspired VieuxCarré cocktail, made with Cognac, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine and bitters.
Award-winning drinks star Chris Bostick opened Half Step on Rainey Street in 2014. It quickly picked up accolades and became a favorite among bartenders and the cocktail cognoscenti of Austin. Guests have a choice of bellying up to the indoor bar or an outdoor bar on the patio to order a serious cocktail made with custom cut ice. The vibe is New York cool-meets-Austin relaxed, obscuring the depth of sophistication lurking behind the bars.
Don’t miss drink: The Kentucky Colonel is a balanced, no-fuss drink, with Bourbon, Bénédictine and Angostura bitters.
King Bee Lounge
One part dive bar, one part pizzeria, one part live blues venue and two parts cocktail mecca, the King Bee Lounge located on East 12th Street offers a spacious retreat to dissolve your cares. Owner Billy Hankey and his girlfriend Colette Dein have created a destination for killer craft cocktails in a comfortable, unassuming setting. Hankey’s easy-going smile and the curated jukebox set the mood for a good time. Live music every Monday is a nice touch, but the drinks are the real draw.
Don’t miss drink: The incredibly refreshing frozen Bees Knees, made with gin, lemon and Good Flow honey, served from a margarita machine.
If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll most likely walk right by it. This unassuming den has absolutely nothing in common with its Dirty Sixth neighbors. Make a reservation, ring the buzzer marked “Harry Craddock” to enter, and ease into the dark, narrow bar lined with booths on both sides. Tom Waits would feel right at home ordering a pre-Prohibition cocktail from the rolling cart where bartenders make drinks table-side.
Don’t miss drink: The house-created Gin-Soaked Goy, a twist on the gin julep, made with pink peppercorn-infused Fords Gin, sage gastrique (a reduced sage syrup deglazed with a bit of vinegar), served on crushed ice, julep-style with fresh sage sprigs.
Austin’s first absinthe bar, Péché feels like a little touch of New Orleans on Austin’s Fourth Street. Behind the long, dark wood bar adorned with antique absinthe water fountains, tall shelves are crammed with an insane array of spirits, including one the city’s best whisky selections. The brainchild of owner and general manager Rob Pate, Péché is more than a craft cocktail bar, it’s also a damn delicious restaurant serving French cuisine prepared by Executive Chef John Lichtenberger. Whether you come for dinner or just a drink, the lovely cocktail menu and extensive wine list will keep you well into the evening.
Don’t miss drink: A classic cocktail with a twist, the Fig Manhattan, made with rye whisky, sweet vermouth, cherry vanilla bitters and fig foam.
Katherine Weatherup brought a little Brooklyn to East Cesar Chavez when she opened cocktail bar Weather Up in 2012. Known for its custom cut ice and fat book of complex drinks, Weather Up is a cozy, intimate place to chill in a throwback-style interior with stained glass, polished subway tile and a gorgeous copper bar. Breezy spring days draw big crowds luxuriating on the ample back patio. Chef Kristine Kittrell oversees scrumptious brunch and dinner menus.
Don’t miss drink: El Niña is a summer favorite, made with white rum, strawberry shrub (a mix of fresh strawberries, sugar and vinegar), fresh lime juice, vanilla simple syrup and mint leaves mixed in a slushy machine.
The cavernous two-story stone walls bedecked with religious iconography and some of the world’s best spirits give Whisler’s the feel of a cocktail cathedral. Veteran barman Scranton Twohey opened the bar in a 1917 building on East Sixth Street in 2013 to an eager audience. Known for capable bartenders who readily mix off-the-menu drinks to satisfy any thirst, Whisler’s offers plenty of cocktail cred with an east side vibe.
Don’t miss drink: The fresh and smoky drink, The Grifter, made with mezcal, Aperol, lemon juice, grapefruit, sage and celery bitters.
Occupying the former Cheer Up Charlies on East Sixth Street, Wonderland opened its doors in early 2014. Owned by the La Corsha Hospitality Group, the team that owns the decidedly more upscale Bar Congress, Wonderland aims to serve the same quality cocktails in a dive bar setting. Quirky beers, bar food, live music and a comfy outdoor patio keep a down tempo vibe rolling late into the evening.
Don’t miss drink: The Rumble Cup, made with Pimm’s No. 1, cucumber gin, raspberry vinegar, citrus and herbs, served on tap.
There are dozens of bars throughout Austin that serve excellent drinks, flawlessly prepared with craft spirits and locally sourced ingredients. The rise of cocktails in Austin is riding the same wave of popularity as our foodie craze, with correspondingly high expectations for quality ingredients and impeccable service.
Austin’s bartenders take their jobs seriously, pouring over books, studying with spirits ambassadors, bringing culinary techniques to the bar and competing — and winning — in national competitions.
Nine of the city’s finest bartenders have been nominated for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards for Bartender of the Year. Meet them below.
After stints at swanky cocktail dens in New York, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles (where he won the Best Cocktail Bar in America award at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail), Bostick returned to Austin dripping with drink cred to start Half Step on Rainey Street. At Half Step, he oversees a serious cocktail program complete with custom cut ice.
“Opening Half Step is by far the biggest accomplishment in my career to date,” says Bostick. “It was such an undertaking that involved an incredible amount of work. The success of Half Step has made all of the hard work extremely gratifying.”
Must try: The Ginger Paloma, on tap at Half Step, featuring Tequila Ocho Plata, fresh lime and grapefruit as well as Jarritos Toronja Mexican Soda.
Dunavant has brought a smile to Austinites while working at several top-notch bars including Whisler’s, Drink.Well., Odd Duck and Sawyer & Co. This Memphis native has been bartending since college, and has earned prestige by winning the Bombay Sapphire Competition in Austin, competing in the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition in Las Vegas, which was featured in the GQ miniseries America’s Bartender. She recently took over the helm of the bar program at the new JW Marriott, which has Osteria Pronto, Corner Restaurant, Burger Bar and Lobby Bar.
“My biggest accomplishments are the relationships I’ve built with all the amazing bartenders and industry people in Austin and across the country,” says Dunavant. “I’ve been extremely lucky to get to work side by side some of the best and most talented people Austin has to offer. If it weren’t for all these passionate, creative, and crazy people, my life wouldn’t be the same.”
Must try: A classic margarita made with the large selection of tequila in the Corner Restaurant.
Elliott started at The Tavern and has been in the drinks business ever since with jobs at Brooklyn dive bars and now leading the bar program at Qui. Last year Elliott’s Tepache Collins, a traditional Mexican street drink made with barely fermented pineapple agua fresca, was named the Official Drink of Austin.
“The thing I’m most proud of, though, is my staff,” says Elliott. “We’ve created a really great culture at Qui. Really thoughtful, progressive cocktails are hard enough to put out, especially in a fast-paced environment. To be part of creating a team that makes cocktails look and taste great all the time in a super fun environment is incredibly rewarding.”
Must try: The spring cocktail menu at Qui features an Underberg-spiked Death in the Gulfstream with Genever and lime.
Hankey earned a reputation for making serious cocktails behind the stick at The Good Knight and then as bar manager of Bar Congress. Now he is drawing crowds to King Bee on East 12th Street with killer craft cocktails and delicious pizza.
“When Colette and I first started dating, in fact on our first date, we told each other how much we wanted to open our own place,” he says. “We want to influence everything from fare all the way down to what was on the jukebox. Almost five years later, we have that place. King Bee embodies love and support, the same love and support I get from Colette every day.”
James has honed his impressive bartending skills at damned fine Austin bars such as East Side Show Room, Volstead and Arro. He now leads the bar at Garage, the covert spot tucked inside the American National Bank parking garage. James recently crafted The Official Drink of Austin 2015.
Must-try: The Indian Paintbrush (The 2015 Official Drink of Austin) made with vodka, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, rosemary syrup and Peychaud’s Bitters.
After working for 25 years as a medical technician, Pritchard made a significant career change and opened the Tigress Pub on North Loop in the spring of 2010. The cozy bar packs in cocktail lovers with its ever-rotating menu of classic and Pritchard-made drinks. The tiny bar recently expanded from 20 seats to about 40.
“I feel pretty good about being in business for five years,” says Pritchard. “I’m loving what I do and especially loving all the great people that have come into my life.”
Must try: The White Dove, made with white port, dry vermouth, elder flower, served in a tall glass with ice and fruit garnish.
Robbins has been a fixture behind the bar at Drink.Well. since 2013. She is as deft with a classic Sazerac as she is with a flaming tiki drink.
“I think the importance of a fantastic bar team is very underrated. It’s always been one of my biggest priorities. When people have the right chemistry behind the bar it translates into customers’ ultimate experience, from the drink on their table to the overall atmosphere,” she says.
Must try: The Daiquiri made with Smith & Cross over-proof Jamaican rum and lime juice.
Sanders opened the neighborhood cocktail bar and restaurant, Drink.Well. in 2012. Since then, she has made waves in the Austin cocktail scene by competing regularly in national competitions, gathering accolades, and serving as the president of the local chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild.
“When I am behind the bar and I see someone walk into Drink.Well. for the second, third or fourth time … that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating,” Sanders says. “I am proud that I’ve helped create a space where people come to be made happy and feel welcomed to return again and again.”
Must try: Martini made with 50/50 gin and vermouth with a lemon twist.
As the director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, Stevens presides over the drinks at cocktail mecca Bar Congress as well as Second Bar + Kitchen and its second location in The Domain. He also has a hand in the soon-to-open Boiler Nine Bar + Grill in the Seaholm development.
“I’m most proud of convincing my mom to stop making margaritas with bottled artificial mix,” Stevens says.
Must try: Barolo 12 year grappa and a Real Ale Han’s Pils chaser
The Bartender of the Year will be announced at the 2015 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards on May 12 at Brazos Hall.
This story was originally published on CultureMap.
Austin’s best cocktail bars battle for recognition and bragging rights.
There are a lot of places to get a great cocktail in Austin, but only one bar gets to say it has the Official Cocktail of Austin. To earn that honor, the winners were one of six teams that had to run the cocktail gauntlet at the Official Drink of Austin 2015 event hosted by the Tipsy Texan to benefit the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. Teams from some of Austin’s best cocktail bars, including drink.well., Half Step, Odd Duck, Garage, Licha’s Cantina and the soon-to-open VOX Table, battled it out in front of a panel of judges to earn the title.
The event has changed throughout the years and has grown with the rise of craft cocktails.
“We saw remarkable support for the event this year from the bars: Twenty-six venues submitted menus for the competition, a record for us,” says event originator and founder of Tipsy Texan, David Alan. “Furthermore, many of them were from restaurant bars, not just the usual-suspect cocktail bars you see in many competitions. As the scene matures, it becomes harder and harder each year to narrow it down to just six contestants. This was the best lineup we’ve ever had and we sold out of tickets, and could have sold a hundred more if we’d had them. My voice isn’t loud enough to sing the praises of this community.”
The competition not only shows off the talent of local bartenders, but it also shines a spotlight on Texas spirits. The thirsty crowd sampled drinks from each of the competing bars, as well as various cocktails from locally owned distilleries, including Balcones Distilling, Deep Eddy Vodka, Dripping Springs Gin, Dulce Vida Organic Tequila, Garrison Brothers, Genius Gin, Paula’s Texas Spirits, Revolution Spirits, Tequila 512, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Treaty Oak Distilling and White Hat Rum.
Rivers of booze were flowing and people voted for their favorites with the People’s Choice Award. A panel of drink experts, including Chef Jack Gilmore, Gina Chavez, Dan Gentile, Jason Stevens, Jason Kosmas and last year’s winner, Justin Elliott of Qui, cast a critical palate on each concoction.
Kosmas let us in on his judging criteria., “Of course it’s got to be a great drink,” he says. “The scrutiny is if it really represents Austin. We see some great cocktails here that don’t have an Austin feel. You can’t fake it.”
Led by Chauncy James, the team from Garage, the covert bar tucked inside the American National Bank parking garage, brought its A game. In so doing, they won the People’s Choice Award. However, the judges selected the Half Step team led by Chris Bostick as its winner. That set up an onstage shake-off between Garage, with its vodka-based drink, The Indian Paintbrush, against Half Step, with its smoky version of a michelada called the Don Brimstone.
Garage emerged victorious, earning The Indian Paintbrush the title of The Official Drink of Austin 2015.
The Indian PaintbrushAka, The Official Drink of Austin
1.5 ounces Dripping Springs Vodka
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
.5 ounce fresh lime juice
.5 ounce rosemary syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Pour all ingredients into a tin, shake over ice, double fine strain into a Tom Collins glass and add ice and garnish with rosemary.
While it is a ton of fun, the event also raises money for a good cause.
“The purpose of what we do is to raise money and reinvest it in the community,” says Mariam Parker, executive director of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. “Proceeds from the event help provide money for culinary innovation grants. The event also highlights the incredible talent we have in town.”
Cocktails have been around since the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until the past handful of years that bars in Austin started making pre-Prohibition-style cocktails in earnest. In the early 2000s, the craft-cocktail movement swept from the barstools of places like Milk & Honey and Employees Only in New York to the West Coast and then to Austin.
Now Austin has dozens of places scattered throughout the city that serve classic and unique drinks immaculately prepared with small-batch spirits and locally sourced ingredients. The rise of craft cocktails in Austin mirrors the impressive ascension of the culinary crusade, with similarly steep expectations for top-notch ingredients and service.
Through participation in organizations like the United States Bartenders’ Guild, as well as competitions and events like the San Antonio Cocktail Conference and Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Austin bartenders have honed their skills and are being recognized nationally. The Austin craft-cocktail world has been shaped by talented people like David Alan of Tipsy Texan, Bill Norris of Alamo Drafthouse and Josh Loving of Small Victory, as well as the next wave of cocktail mavens like Jessica Sanders of drink.well., Chris Bostick of Half Step, Larry Miller of Peché and Cesar Aguilar of Whisler’s.
What makes a great bartender? Mark Shilling, founder of Austin-based Revolution Spirits, has visited his fair share of bars and believes there is more to the job than just making excellent drinks.
“Being a great bartender takes knowledge, creativity and excellent service,” Shilling says. “Bartenders need to know the craft enough to be able to serve a customer what they are looking for. Doing the job well requires that a bartender break rules to come up with new drinks. Above all, bartending is as much about personality and relationship management as anything. At the end of the night, it’s not just about the drink; it’s about the experience.”
Here are three outstanding bartenders from the City’s Hottest Restaurants who are at the forefront of the craft cocktail movement.
Jason Stevens is more than a bartender. As the director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, he presides over the drinks at Bar Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen and its second location in The Domain, as well as the soon-to-open Boiler Nine Bar + Grill in Seaholm and a new project brewing in Marfa, Texas.
Each bar has a common thread, but each has its own identity hinged on different drinks, styles and an ethos all its own. Each menu has to fit the clientele. At Bar Congress, that means the menu has a variety of drinks, from light and refreshing to really boozy, to satisfy a diverse range of palates.
What Are You Drinking?: What got you into bartending?
Jason Stevens: Bartending was a happy accident for me. I stumbled on cocktails when I attended Tipsy Tech, a course taught by Lara Nixon and David Alan. I learned about this whole world of tastes and flavors I never had before. That really got me going, so I started reading books and devouring the subject. I was enamored when I realized cocktails are a beautiful balance between culinary art, science and hospitality.
WAYD: What is your favorite part of the job?
JS: The people: the team I work with and the customers who come in. We have formed a team that has agreed to a contract to do exactly what we need to do to make sure the guests have incredible experiences. There is a lot of camaraderie in that. And not just with co-workers, but with guests too. They put faith in us to give them an exceptional evening. There is a kinship built by going through a great night together.
WAYD: What does it take to be a standout bartender in Austin?
JS: Some people say it’s winning competitions or getting in magazines. I think it’s about quality and execution. It’s about focusing on getting the drink the guests love and sometimes delivering a few surprises. It takes an understanding of the word “hospitality.” To paraphrase the Esquire Drink Book from 1956, hospitality is 10 percent presence and being nice to people, and 90 percent preparation. That’s what it’s all about.
Drink of the Moment
The Bar Congress cocktail menu is a compilation of classic recipes from famous hotel bars. One of Stevens’ favorites is the Queen’s Park Swizzle, an early Tiki-style rum drink developed at the Queen’s Park Hotel in Trinidad in the mid-1930s.
Presiding over the bar at Qui on East Sixth Street, Justin Elliott creates drinks that reflect the principles of the kitchen rather than those that might compete with the food. Instead of making fussy cocktails, he shoots for craveable flavors and drinks made with local ingredients that are seasonally appropriate and served in an elegant way.
Two drinks on the current menu that sum up Elliott’s guiding principle for cocktails are the Shore Leave pumpkin seed horchata and the Tepache Collins. Both are delicious twists on traditional drinks that don’t challenge the notion of what can be in a cock- tail, but are still unexpected.
What Are You Drinking?: What got you into bartending?
Justin Elliott: I’ve been in the business for 14 years. I paid for my final year of college by working nights at The Tavern. I’ve always gravitated toward neighbor- hood bars, but when I came back to Austin, I started to push deeper into the “fancy-mustache” cocktail world. In part, that stems from hanging out with my friend Tom Chadwick, who owns the Brooklyn cocktail bar Dram, back when he was working happy hours at a dive bar and he was just getting started doing cocktails. I took to the confluence of culture, commerce and art, and dove in headfirst.
WAYD: What is your favorite part of the job?
JE: I love making drinks on a Friday night. I get to hang out with super cool people who are here to have a great time. We serve them excellent food and drinks, and they leave riding that wave of feeling good. I want our guests to feel like I want to feel when I go out. I constantly challenge myself to develop new and interesting cocktails that make people happy. That’s rewarding.
WAYD: What does it take to be a standout bartender in Austin?
JE: I follow my instincts and put myself in my guests’ place. I surround myself with the kind of staff I want to visit, make the kind of drinks I want to drink and create the kind of environment I want to be in. I want people to walk into our bar, see a cocktail and say, “Yeah, that speaks to me.” It’s important to spend time trying to grow creatively and learning something new. I work with the Rémy Cointreau bartender outreach program to throw little parties [and make] famous old cocktails. Things have changed a lot in 150 years, but it’s still just as important to learn the classics.
Drink of the Moment
Elliott’s Tepache Collins, which was named the Official Drink of Austin in 2014 in a competition hosted by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance and the Tipsy Texan, is an interesting variation of the traditional Mexican street drink made with barely fermented pineapple agua fresca.
Tepache Collins, aka official drink of Austin 2014
2 to 3 large leaves of Thai basil, spanked
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce honey syrup 1 ounce Balcones Rumble
1 1/2 ounces house-made Tepache
Combine all above ingredients in a Collins glass, give it a quick tap-tap muddle, then add Tepache. Fill the glass with crushed ice, and garnish with a straw, mint sprig and Thai basil leaf.
Casey Petty cut his teeth in the restaurant business at a small restaurant, attended culinary school and worked his way through multiple positions, from dishwasher to manager. He brings that deep well of experience and a competitive intensity that he honed playing football, lacrosse, soccer and basketball to his position of bar supervisor at laV.
The swank setting of the Eastside’s newest darling restaurant may seem like a far cry from the sports battlefield, but it too requires a commitment to digging deep to achieve the best results. Petty brings creative treatment to classic cocktails that play well with the rest of the laV team—the city’s largest wine list.
What Are You Drinking?: What got you into bartending?
Casey Petty: I love to cook and to create things, and serve delicious drinks to people to make them happy. I like the opportunity to serve something new and have people like it. I’ve learned the basics of making great cocktails from colleagues on the job over the years. Once I knew I enjoyed it, I wanted to get really damn good at it. Now I want people to remember that I’m a part of a restaurant and bar that matters.
WAYD: What is your favorite part of the job?
CP: I love any opportunity I can take to help a guest discover something new, like an exotic liquor, such as Liquore Strega or amaro, the Italian herbal digestif. In fact, laV is striving to have the largest selection of ama- ros in town. We have a huge spectrum to explore, with everything from Amaro Nonino to Amaro dell’Erborista. I love learning and bringing new and exciting drinks to satisfy diverse tastes at our bar. We get everything from people in the rock ’n’ roll industry coming in as regulars, to people coming in to order a $500 bottle of Burgundy on any given night.
WAYD: What does it take to be a standout bartender in Austin?
CP: To stand out, you have to really understand what people like and know how to work with it. In addition, it’s important to be hospitable and humble. I’m not a vodka drinker, but that has no impact on my passion to make a vodka cocktail for people who like them. Constantly trying new things is essential to the job. I like to make up cocktails like our new Age of EnFranklinment, which is a take off of the Jester King Figlet smoked sour ale. I make ours with aromatic bitters smoked in a pit with fig compote, Rebecca Creek whiskey, Maraschino liqueur, yellow Chartreuse and lemon juice. I also make our own house-made amer picon, a French version of amaro, which hasn’t been available in the U.S. since the 1960s.
Drink of the Moment
Capturing the spirit of experimenting with classics is Petty’s take on the Cibola. Instead of using the traditional whiskey base, he gives it a contemporary twist, using smoky mezcal.
What are you doing on Thursday night? Do you want to go watch some of the most talented bartenders in Austin mix amazing cocktails in hopes that their concoction is crowed “The Official Drink of Austin”? Do you want to taste everything they make? Do you want to do it for free?
Now, this’ll be a straight cocktail-off, old school rules. First bartender mixes; second bartender duplicates, then elaborates. Okay, boys – let’s go to work! … or something like that.
It won’t be David Bowie judging this competition. Nope. The esteemed judges include Jason Kosmas, co-founder of The 86 Company; Jack Gilmore, chef and owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen; Justin Elliott, last year’s Official Drink of Austin winner and bartender at qui restaurant; Dan Gentile, writer for Thrillist; and Austin singer/songwriter Gina Chavez. Like Bowie, many of the judges will be wearing leather pants and excessive makeup and trying to make it with David Alan.
Did I mention the drinks? There will be gallons of delicious Texas booze poured from the generous distillers at Dulce Vida Organic Tequila, Treaty Oak Distilling, Balcones Distilling, Garrison Brothers, Deep Eddy Vodka, White Hat Rum, Dripping Springs Gin, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Genius Gin, Revolution Spirits, Paula’s Texas Spirits,Tequila 512, and more. Plus you can wiggle your tushy to the groovy cuts spun by DJ ulovei.
Its not just for braggin’ rights. These selfless bar heroes are raising money for culinary grants too. The Austin Food and Wine Alliance raises fat sacks of cashfor culinary grants, giving away $75,000 since 2012.
Tickets are $55, but here is your chance to win a pair. All you have to do is answer the following question:
“What Texas spirit was included in the winning cocktail recipe from the 2014 Official Drink of Austin?”
Submit your answer in the comment section below. One winner will be chosen at random from all correct submissions.
Updated Tuesday, Feb 24, 7:40 pm: Thanks to everyone who entered! Bryce Boltjes had the correct answer, Balcones Rumbles was the Texas spirit used in the Tepache. Many of you had the right answer, and Bryce’s response was chosen by drawing a random number. I hope to see you there on Thursday!
I had the privilege of hosting Treaty Oak Distilling’s first ever media event to announce that Daniel Barnes has received the prestigious 2014 Distiller of the Year award by MicroLiquor. He was selected among a field of more than 400 distinguished craft distiller entrants in the United States.
The event felt like a party with friends as a group of bloggers and journalists were greeted on the front porch with a refreshing La Mariquita cocktail made with Graham’s Texas Tea mixed by David Alan, the Tipsy Texan. The group then gathered in the cozy Lenoir dining room to nibble on incredible charcuterie, like octopus pastrami, prepared by Chef Todd Duplechan.
Barnes shared the news of a few more awards that Treaty Oak has collected. It has won:
1. Triple Gold medal in the MicroLiquor Spirit Awards competition for Treaty Oak Barrel Reserve Rum. Treaty Oak Rum is made with molasses sourced from the last sugar mill in Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley that is brewed into rum beer with an initial fermentation that takes four days and then distilled. The Platinum Rum is aged for two years in 60 gallon new American white oak barrels to make the Barrel Reserve Rum.
2. Triple Gold medal in the MicroLiquor Spirit Awards for Waterloo Antique Gin, a barrel aged gin. Waterloo gin was one of the first modern Texas-made gins when it was released at the end of 2011. It’s made with 11 botanicals including juniper, lavender, rosemary, pecans, grapefruit, lemon, and orange zest, coriander, ginger root, licorice root and anise in is a juniper-forward London Dry style gin with a Texas twist. Waterloo Antique Gin is made by aging the original product for a full year in a first-use heavy-charred barrel, giving it rich whisky notes of cinnamon, clove and anise flavors, while letting the juniper and floral flavors come through.
3. The Fifty Best awarded a Double-Gold medal to Graham’s Texas Tea Vodka in the “Best Flavored Vodka” awards for 2014. Graham’s Texas Tea is made with premium Nilgiri tea blended with turbinado sugar, Hill Country water and vodka. Barnes tasted around 50 different teas before picking and Nilgiri because of its intense flavors, strong fragrance and balanced body. It’s starkly different from the American and English breakfast teas.
After describing the awards and how the spirits are made, we all had the opportunity to sip both the Platinum and Barrel Aged Rum side-by-side, followed by the Waterloo Gin and the Waterloo Antique Gin. Good stuff.
David Alan showed off his cocktail acumen by preparing a classic daiquiri with Treaty Oak Barrel Aged Rum and a twist on the Old Fashioned made with Waterloo Antique Gin. Both were fantastic.
Treaty Oak Distilling partner, Nate Powell, ended the evening by sharing a little glimpse at what’s next for the distillery. The current Treaty Oak distillery in north Austin is bursting at the seams. To keep up with demand, Treaty Oak needs a lot more space and a lot more capacity. The company recently broke ground on new facilities that will be located on the 30-acre Ghost Hill Ranch near Dripping Springs right up the road from Jester King Brewery. Its going to be quite the booze tourism destination featuring a state-of-the-art distillery capable of increasing production allowing the brand to continue to expand nationally, along with a brewery, tasting room and cocktail house.
Thanks Treaty Oak for a fun night of cocktails, nibbles and news.
Disclosure: Treaty Oak Distillery hired me to organize the media event and to provide PR consulting. They did not request this post and are not sponsoring it.
In its third year, the Austin Food & Wine Festival drew some of the biggest names in the culinary world to demonstrate their talents. It wasn’t just the national celebrity chefs who drew applause. Homegrown beverage experts had the juice to attract crowds in Butler Park.
True Texas Spirits
At mid-day Sunday, cocktail expert and author David Alan, aka the Tipsy Texan, hobbled on stage with a crutch and his foot in a medical boot. He swore the injury was from a skiing accident rather than a drink-induced mishap. A likely story.
He quickly changed the subject by offering a birthday toast to his sister with a mixed shot made with Treaty Oak barrel-aged gin for the crowd. It was a fantastic way to start his session.
Alan shared anecdotes about Texas spirits pioneers and cocktail recipes from his recently published book, Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State. The Texas spirits industry is just a baby. Despite prohibition ending in 1933, the state did not have a legal distillery until Tito Beveridge started Tito’s Handmade Vodka in 1996. When he applied for a distilling permit, there wasn’t even a process in place to get one. Beveridge had to work with state and federal regulatory bodies to get it going. Alan lauded Beveridge for inspiring other distilleries to follow.
“He is the one that got the industry started,” Alan said. “He is the reason we are here today. Independent distilling is one of the biggest movements in the beverage industry. There are now more than 50 licensed distilleries in Texas and business is booming. In 2013, Tito’s hit a milestone that few independents will ever hit. The distillery sold more than a million cases of vodka.”
Tito’s was the lone distiller in the state for a decade. In 2006, Daniel Barnes started a distillery to make Treaty Oak Rum, which Alan described as “quintessentially Texan” because it is completely made in Texas, starting with the raw materials. Treaty Oak Distilling now makes rum, aged rum, Waterloo Gin and barrel-aged gin, and bottles of Red Handed Texas Bourbon.
With the rapidly growing thirst for local, independent distilleries, there are bound to be some corners cut to meet consumer demand.
“Some Texas spirits are all hat and no cattle,” Alan said in an impassioned discussion of the virtues of authenticity versus marketing shenanigans. “How many people believe that when you buy a product, you should know what the hell it is? Nobody wants to be misled.
“If a bottle says ‘Texas whiskey,’ we expect it to be from Texas. The problem is that about half the whiskeys on the shelf that say Texas aren’t from Texas. Balcones, Garrison Brothers and Ranger Creek are all made right here with Texas ingredients. We need to support the folks who are actually making a product here. To make sure its Texan, check the bottle to make sure it says ‘distilled in Texas’ rather than just ‘produced’ or ‘bottled.’ ”
Alan describes the cocktail culture in Texas as being very similar to our culinary influences in that it is a melting pot of Tex-Mex and Southern, with bold flavors, spice and smoke. He encouraged the crowd to be adventurous in their choice of drinks and to use local ingredients in season like grapefruit, homegrown mint and watermelon.
“You wouldn’t eat the same food every day or listen to the same music every day,” Alan said. “So why would you drink the same thing every day?”
To demonstrate fresh approaches to cocktails that feature Texas spirits and seasonably appropriate local ingredients, Alan created two refreshing summer cocktails.
2 750-milileter bottles of sparkling rosé wine
1/2 bottle Tito’s Handmade Vodka
2 cups St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1 quart cut up melons (watermelon, honeydew) and seasonal fruit
Large block of ice
1 cup of carbonated water
Marinate the fruit in the booze for several hours, then it’s ready to serve.
4 large sprigs fresh mint
1/2 cup cubed and seeded watermelon
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1.5 ounces Treaty Oak Rum
3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 ounce carbonated water
Watermelon wedge for garnish
Gently muddle three of the mint springs and the watermelon with the simple syrup. Add the rum and lime juice, and shake the hell out of it. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Top with carbonated water and garnish with mint and watermelon.
The final wine seminar of the Austin Food & Wine Festival featured Austin’s only Master Sommeliers, Devon Broglie and Craig Collins. In their third year presenting at the festival, the renowned wine experts chose to showcase a wine region that they feel is experimenting with non-traditional grapes and new methods in winemaking: California.
“California is one of the regions leading the charge for a new revolution in wine,” said Collins, the beverage director for Arro and ELM Restaurant Group. “In the 1960s and ’70s, Robert Mondavi and others were experimenting with making new wines but retaining European influences for making wine with balance and quality. In the 1990s, the region gained notoriety for pursing big, bold, fruity wines with high alcohol. Now we have pioneers in the industry making sophisticated wine with less prominent grapes with lower alcohol.”
The sweaty and slightly intoxicated crowd at the California Enlightenment session was treated to a tasting of six wines that were selected for new approaches to a well-known grape variety or unheralded grapes. There was one other factor in the wines’ selection.
“The criteria for wines in this tasting is they had to be wines that are loveable,” said Broglie, the Whole Foods Markets associate global beverage buyer. “We’re talking about wines that after you have slammed back half a glass, you stop and realize, holy shit, I love this wine. We wanted to present wines that are enjoyable and that are drinkable with food.”
2010 Seghesio Arneis
The Seghesio family settled in California from Italy in 1895 and has been producing wine ever since. Seghesio is well known as a pioneer and major producer of Sonoma County Zinfandel, but less known for its Italian white wine varieties. Arneis is a white grape from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy that makes clean, crisp wine that is high in minerals. Seghesio grows its grapes on small acreage in the Russian River Valley, which has a cool climate. The result is fresh, bright, medium-bodied wine with guava and tropical flavors that is perfect for a summer picnic. It’s available for about $23 at Austin Wine Merchant or Whole Foods Markets.
In 2008, Matt Licklider, a wine importer, and Kevin O’Connor, wine director at Spago Beverly Hills, partnered to start an urban winery to make pinot noir and chardonnay that reflect the terroir of California. They chose to break the mold of California wineries making overblown wines. Rather than age the wine with new oak barrels that can hide the flavor of the wine with vanilla flavors, Lioco uses stainless steel and neutral barrels to create a full yet crisp wine that lets fruit and acid shine through, for a citrusy wine with grapefruit and lemon flavors that pairs well with shellfish. The Sonoma County chardonnay is available for $22 on the Lioco website.
“Cappellet is one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley, starting the winery in 1967 in storied Pritchard Hill vineyards,” Collins said. “The area is considered a grand cru of Napa because the magical mountain makes the cream-of-the-crop wines.”
The volcanic soils stress the grape vines, and the high elevation allows for a large swing between nighttime versus daytime temperatures, which helps grapes ripen better. Not only is Chappellet making wine with a less popular grape, chenin blanc, it is also taking a non-traditional route to make the wine. It is fermented in a combination of neutral French oak barrels, stainless steel tanks and a concrete “egg” that gives the wine extra weight and richness while retaining high acid levels that give it massive zippiness. It has vivacious floral scents and honeydew, lemon zest and hazelnut flavors that bring roast quail to life. It goes for about $30 a bottle.
Everything about Donkey and Goat is non-traditional. The winery got its start when Tracy and Jared Brandt decided to make natural, Rhône-style wines with minimal intervention.
“They put 50,000 miles on their Toyota Prius looking for the right grapes to make wine in an urban winery in a warehouse in Berkeley,” Broglie said. “This is an example of a new trend in California winemaking where the winery doesn’t need vineyards or a fancy château.”
The grenache was made with grapes grown in El Dorado County using natural yeast to ferment them, and it was left unfiltered, giving it a slight haze. The red berry flavors and earthiness will go well with grilled meat.
“This wine makes me want to bury a goat in the yard and roast it in the pit,” Broglie said.
The Food & Wine Festival was fortunate to land a handful of cases to serve, but the 246 cases made have sold out immediately.
California zinfandel has earned a reputation for being inky dark with enough alcohol to give you a buzz by just smelling it. Broc Cellars throws that playbook out the window. The Vine Starr zinfandel is true to its intended character, a gorgeous translucent ruby color, bold aromas of ripe fruit, cream strawberry flavors and the zip of black pepper on the finish. And its only 12 percent alcohol.
“It’s all of the things I like about zin without the things I hate,” Collins said. “I like the bold aromatics and ripe fruit, but not the high alcohol.”
Broc is another one of the small-production urban wineries and only 800 cases of this juice were produced. It sells for about $30.
The last taste of the day, which I’m sure some of the drunks in the tent downed in one lustful gulp, was Stony Hill Napa Valley cabernet 2010 from Spring Mountain. Stony Hill Vineyard has been making wine since 1952. They are predominantly a chardonnay producer. No matter the type of wine, they have not chased the big scores of some wine reviewers by making wines with big flavors, and instead have stayed true to their heritage of making refined, balanced wine. The 2010 cabernet is only the second vintage of cab Stony Hill has produced. It has blackberry, ripe, juicy red fruit, green pepper and herb flavors with a subtle earthiness. Less than 400 cases of this wine were made and only six of those cases made their way to Texas, one of which was poured at the festival. This was my favorite wine of the entire festival.
Whether you are in to obscure grapes, natural wine or inventive approaches to winemaking, Collins summed up a solid maxim for drinking wine (and maybe for life).
“What do you want to put into your mouth now?” he asked. “It’s not about what is right. It’s about what is going to make you happy.”