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 CultureMap Tastemaker 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 CultureMap Tastemaker 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 Siembra Valles plata 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 Vieux Carré 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.
Disclosure: I am a CultureMap Tastemaker Judge.
This story originally ran on CultureMap.