Austin’s Best Bartenders:

Three bartenders who are shaking up the Austin scene

Austins best bartender

This story was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Austin Man Magazine

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, Bar Congress

Jason Stevens swizzle
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

Queens Park Swizzle

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.

Queen’s Park Swizzle

  • 1 1/2 ounces aged El Dorado 12 Demerara rum
  • 3/4 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaican rum

  • 1/2 ounce Piloncillo sugar simple syrup
  • 
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice Fresh mint

  • House-made Seven League bitters

Justin Elliot, Qui

Justin Elliott Qui (2)

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

Qui Tepache Collins

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, laV


Casey Petty laV

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

laV Cibola

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.

Cibola

  • 3/4 ounce Vida Mezcal
  • 
3/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse

  • 3/4 ounce Cointreau

  • 3/4 ounce lemon juice

  • Heavy rinse of the glass with absinthe 

What are you drinking? 

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.

 [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-B-UZhVi8g[/youtube]

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?