The best bars in Austin: 11 cocktail meccas

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.

Bar Congress 

Jason Stevens Bar Congress (2)
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.

Drink.Well.

Negroni at Drink.well.
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.

Garage

Chauncy James of Garage
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.

Half Step

Chris Bostick
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.

Midnight Cowboy
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.

Péché

Peche
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.

Weather Up
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.

Whisler’s

Negroni at Whisler's
Mezcal Negroni at Whisler

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.

Wonderland
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.

What Are You Drinking? 

These 9 Austin bartenders are shaking up the cocktail scene

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.

Chris Bostick, Half Step

Chris Bostick
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.  

Carley Dunavant, JW Marriott

Carley Dunavant
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.

Justin Elliott, Qui

Justin Elliott Qui (2)
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.

Bill Hankey, King Bee Lounge

Bill Hankey
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.”

Must try: Château Pradeaux Bandol Rosé

Chauncey James, Garage

Chauncy James of Garage
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.

Pam Pritchard, The Tigress Pub  

Pam Pritchard The Tigress
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.

Ania Robbins, Drink.Well.

Ania Roberts
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. 

Jessica Sanders, Drink.Well.  

Jessica and Michael Sanders
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.

Jason Stevens, Bar Congress

Jason Stevens Bar Congress
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

What are you drinking?