Up close with Houston Eaves, CultureMap Mixologist Tastemaker Award nominee

The old idiom, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is true in the case of Houston Eaves, the award winning bar manager at Contigo. His parents made an indelible mark on him that influences his approach to mixology. He was surrounded by food, drink and travel during his formative years, and attributes his background in hospitality to his success today.

Houston Eaves making a Sazerac

As a kid, Eaves mixed cold cuts on breads while working alongside his father in the family deli in St. Louis, learning an appreciation for customer service. He got the travel bug from his mother who works for an airline. With her perks, he has been able to globe-trot inexpensively and experience what tickles the palates of people in far flung places.

That was just the start of a journey that has led him to be one of the most celebrated mixologists in Austin. Eaves, along with four other talented cocktail curators, is vying for the inaugural CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Mixology. Nominees will showcase their talents, mixing specialty cocktails at the awards ceremony being held Thursday, April 12, at the Driskill Hotel, and benefits the Austin Food and Wine Alliance.

Eaves journey continued as a bartender at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, slinging drinks for the well-healed in need of a nip. While the drinks he mixed at the hotel were not as creative as the cocktails he’s making now, he learned a lot about bartending and guest services in his four years on the job.

Tropical breezes, papayas, mangos and fresh fruit of all sorts formed his next palette. Eaves spent a year in Costa Rica working at a hotel bar where rum was king. Wanderlust then took him to Argentina for a new adventure in drink. Obscure European and Middle Eastern ingredients and adventurous drinks, like the Fernet-Branca mochas, were the order of the day while he worked at an Asian restaurant owned by a creative Israeli mixologist. Eaves feels blessed to be able to travel and live abroad to see global trends. He relishes taking part in big trends and putting a little local twist on it to make it his own.

Back in the States, Eaves was exposed to another world of new drinks as a bar manager at East Side Showroom. He jumped head first into classic cocktails, techniques and history, voraciously reading, studying and tasting as much as he could to absorb the craft. He learned to make hundreds of cocktails. From there he worked at Fino with Josh Loving, whom Eaves describes as having an amazing palate, creativity and an intellectual view of cocktails. There he studied the science of mixology and how to make his own bitters and syrups.  Both were excellent experiences that added to his repertoire.

Eaves’ varied experience and diverse skills landed him the bar manager role at Contigo, one of the hottest new bars in Austin. Here, he’s shaping a cocktail menu that fits the space and the clientele including items like a series of winter hot toddies that went really well with the sprawling outdoor space around the cozy fire pit.

He is also bringing creativity with his own syrups. This month he is introducing a Poteet cardamom shrub, made with fresh Poteet strawberries from south Texas. A shrub?  Cocktail shrubs are vinegar-based syrups sweetened with fruit to give drinks puckering acidity balanced with sweetness. He plans to mix his unique strawberry shrub with gin or blanco tequila.

Eaves has become a local tastemaker by helping people discover new libations that fit their taste preference. “Customer education is big,” he says. “I like to introduce them to something new. People are more knowledgeable about what they are drinking. The whole food movement started the trend toward getting people more interested in what they are consuming and in trying new things. That carries over in the drinks. My approach is paying attention to service and figuring out what people want to drink.”

His expertise has earned recognition as the winner of the Don Q Rum 2011 Ultimate MixOff Challenge and the 2011 winner of the Official Drink of Austin.

The more spirits Eaves tastes, the more he explores, the more he want to taste the spirits front and center in his drinks. He is into boozier cocktails made with mescal, scotch and rum, as well sticking to the spirit forward classics. His favorite cocktail to make right now is the Sazerac, which he considers the quintessential cocktail. His recipe is:

  • Chilled rocks glass
  • In a second mixing glass add a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • Add a little sugar
  • 2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
  • Add ice, stir to chill
  • Dump ice from first glass, rinse with Herbsaint, anise flavor liquor from New Orleans
  • Garnish with wide swath of lemon peel

Eaves is humble about his recent accolades and is flattered to be in the company of other excellent mixologists nominated for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. “I’ve learned from all the other nominees. I’ve worked with them and have been inspired by them. It’s an honor to be in the same conversation with them. I have nothing but respect for the other nominees.”

The inaugural CultureMap Tastemaker Awards ceremony will be held Thursday, April 12, at the Driskill Hotel. Limited tickets are still available. The event will feature cocktails from the nominated mixologists and restaurants. This story also appears on CultureMap.

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