How to Make a Great Cocktail: Go to TRACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

What are you drinking?

The Right Drink for the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep

Mint Julep made with Basil Haydens

Churchill Downs is the most remarkable of all sports venues the first weekend in May during the running of the Kentucky Derby. There is nothing like seeing the horses line up in the paddock with their racing silks. It’s always obvious which horse wants to run. They toss heads and drag the trainer behind, heels dug into the mud in a vain attempt to hold back 1,500 pounds of rippling muscles. The diminutive jockeys join the horses in matching silks as the trumpets herald the coming of the race, looking like odd toys tethered to their massive equine masters. Ah the pageantry.

Then there are the ladies all decked out in summer fineries and lavish hats like they are headed to a polo match in the Hamptons. Hats so elaborate, they could have been worn to the Royal Wedding. It’s a wink and a nod to the ladies in London that get decked out for the Royal Ascot. Their perfume mixes with the perfume of the roses worn on lapels and wrists. An intoxicating mix of sight and scent.

The scene in the infield is altogether different; frat boys in flip flops yelling at girls to lift their tops, drunks passed out in the sodden mud and revelers wondering whether they are at Mardi Gras or the most prestigious horse race in the U.S. Drunken debauchery on parade wobbly dancing to My Old Kentucky Home.

Tying it all together with a bow of tradition dipped in nostalgia is the “official” drink of the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep. The mint julep has been served to the winning rider and enjoyed by fans for more than a century. No matter whether your horse shows, places, wins or dies on the track, you will feel like you got your money’s worth when you drink that julep. There is nothing more Kentucky than horse racing and bourbon.

Whether you’re at the track or at a watching party, you’ve just got to have a mint julep during the Kentucky Derby. If you’re not fortunate enough to be at the Downs for the eight race of the day, mix up a batch of julpes yourself. Here’s how.


  • 2 cups sugar
  • ¼ cup powdered sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • Several sprigs of fresh mint
  • Crushed ice
  • Liberal amounts of your preferred Kentucky Bourbon (Early Times Kentucky Whisky is the official Derby whisky)

Glass type: Silver Julep Cups or Old-fashioned Glass


  1. Mint extract: make mint extract by removing about 40 mint leaves from the stem, wash ‘em and toss ‘em in a bowl. Pour 3 ounces of bourbon over the leaves and let them soak for 15 minutes. Wring the mint out in a cloth or paper towel over the bowl of whisky. Dip the bundle again and repeat the process several times. Then set aside.
  2. Simple syrup: prepare simple syrup by boiling 2 cup of granulated sugar in 2 cup of distilled water for 5 minutes. Stir it constantly to make sure it doesn’t burn. Set aside to cool. You can prepare it ahead of time and refrigerate it overnight.
  3. Mint syrup: Blend 1 cup of the simple syrup with mint extract. Add the 1 tablespoon of mint at a time to the syrup to get a soft mint aroma. Repeat this with the next cup of simple syrup.
  4. Mint julep: Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and three ounces of Kentucky Bourbon.  Stir briskly until the glass frosts. Top it off with more ice and stir again before serving. Pop in a spring of mint and then insert a straw that has been cut to 1-inch above the top of the cup so the nose is forced close to the mint when sipping the julep.
  5. Finish it with splash of water and a sprinkling of powdered sugar on top.
  6. Drink, repeat

Do you have a favorite julep recipe? If so share it with us so we can try it.

What are you drinking?