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? 

Where to Drink Right Now: 9 Austin Bars Celebrating Bourbon Heritage Month

Bourbon selection at Drink.well.Sometimes our government gets it right. On August 2, 2007 the U.S. Senate declared September as National Bourbon Heritage Month in a unanimous decision. This came years after Congress pronounced bourbon as “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964. It makes sipping bourbon feel downright patriotic.

The Scots and Irish argue over who invented whiskey (or whisky as the Scots, Canadians and Japanese spell it), but bourbon is a completely American spirit. If the whiskey bottle says bourbon, it must be made in the U.S. By regulation, bourbon is made from fermented grains including at least 51 percent corn, it must be aged in new oak barrels and cannot contain any additives, colors or flavors.

There may be a lot of rules for how it’s made, but there aren’t many rules on how to enjoy it.  Jessica Sanders, co-owner of the American cocktail bar, Drink.well., recently returned from her second visit to a week-long whiskey camp in Kentucky full of insight on bourbon.

She shared a few tips for selecting a good bourbon, “Look for whiskies that have been aged for six to eight years. That’s the sweet spot. Love takes time. The younger the whiskey, the rougher the flavor and the more aggressive it will taste. Try whiskey from the old iconic distilleries like Weller 12, Makers Mark, and Old Granddad to get an appreciation for the quality that comes with the heritage of distilling year after year after year.”

Austin bars are pulling out all the stops to celebrate Bourbon Heritage Month. Here are some of the best bourbon drink specials you’ll find around town.

The Blackheart
The Gentleman Caller

Old Grand Dad 114, Antica Sweet Vermouth, Brothers Black Walnut Bitters  

“Big bourbon, high proof meets black walnut in this a unique twist on a classic Manhattan,” said Jeremy Murray, general manager of the Blackheart. “We serve this in an old fashioned glass with a single large cube.”

The back bar of The Blackheart is studded with more than 100 types of whiskey. Amber sunshine brightens the smile of customers with a stellar selection of bourbons including Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old and a solid selection of Texas whiskey including Garrison BrothersRed River Texas Bourbon Treaty Oak Red Handed Bourbon and Balcones Whisky.

Bourbon selection at The Blackheart

Drink.well
Reverend’s Reprieve

Elijah Craig 12 Year Bourbon, cinnamon syrup, fresh lemon, PAMA pomegranate liqueur, baked apple Bitters, Fever Tree Sparkling Lemon Soda, apple slice

“This is an ‘Indian summer’-inspired Highball cocktail,” said Jessica Sanders. “Elijah Craig 12 Year is a small batch Bourbon with a nose and flavor profile that begs for fall — baked apples, toffee, nuttiness—but the anise and mint finish are just bright enough to let the feel of summer linger. The cocktail is long, refreshing and fizzy, but with the warmth and spice of a cooler-weather drink.”

Drink.well. is taking Bourbon Heritage month seriously with a different whiskey offered for half price every day. It’s an impressive list with whiskeys like Four Roses Single Barrel, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Old, Eagle Rare 17 year old and Stag Jr. from Buffalo Trace.

If you want to sample several bourbons paired with food, Drink.well. will be hosting a five course dinner prepared by chef Travis Bennet on Monday, September 15 featuring cocktails and a rare bourbon from the Heaven Hill distillery.

Due Forni
The Drunken Gaucho

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, house made Limoncello, Aperol, Amaro Montenegro, egg whites

This bourbon cocktail with an Italian twist is the perfect way to whet your appetite for a traditional Neapolitan pizza. A perfect balance of booze, bitter and citrus bite with a frothy bit of fun will transport you from the Kentucky hills to the Tyrrhenian coast.

Half Step
Kentucky Colonel

Bonded bourbon, angostura bitters, Benedictine  

Barman, Florian Minier, mixes a variation of an Old Fashioned using 100 proof bourbon and served with a huge, hand-cut old fashioned ice cube. The bonded whiskey gives the drink little more heat to cut through the sweetness of the Benedictine in the cocktail. That huge hunk of ice melts slowly letting the drink mellow as you go.

Half Step has a well selected line up of whiskeys including Michter’s 20 Year Single Barrel Bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 year.

Kentucky Colonel at Half Step

Péché
High West Double Rye Old Fashioned

High West rye, lemon peel, JT bitters 

An Old Fashioned is a whiskey lover’s go-to cocktail. This recipe packs a bit of spice to keep you smiling.

Péché may be known for its absinthe, but it has an impressive selection of whiskey including Angel’s Envy Cask Strength, Jefferson Presidential 21 Year Bourbon and Willett 12 Year.

Searsucker
New Fashioned 

Angel Envy bourbon, orange curacao, orange rind, a mixture of Angostura and Peychudes bitters

“We make a ‘New Fashioned’ with our very own Searsucker blend of Angel’s Envy Bourbon that we call the Suckers Blend,” said bar manager Robin Ozaki. “Angel’s Envy blended a specific batch based on three different styles that they let me experiment with. When I dialed in the recipe that I felt best as a base for a cocktail, they bottled 120 specially branded ‘Searsucker’ Angel Envy Bottles, and sent them to Texas!”

The Tigress Pub
Beggar’s Banquet

Treaty Oak Red Handed Bourbon, maple syrup, lemon juice, Old Speckled Hen ale

“The Tigress loves bourbon,” said owner Pamela Pritchard. “We have just change the menu for September to feature some Bourbon cocktails. The three Bourbon cocktails on the menu are The Scofflaw, The Black Demure and Beggar’s banquet which is our on Tap cocktail. In addition I have some bourbons I don’t normally have on hand like Prichards Double Barreled bourbon, Angels Envy, Elijah Craig 12 year, Willet Pot Still Reserve and Wild Turkey 81.”

You might not get lost in this cozy bar, but it’s highly possible to get lost in thought sipping on one of Pritchard’s elegantly crafted drinks. Stay for a second.

W Austin
The Brother’s Quarrel

St Germain and Canton Ginger, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Laphroaig scotch

The folks at the W Austin share story about the creation of this cocktail. Legend has it that the maker of Chambord liquor challenged his two sons make a liqueur better than his, and better than each other’s. The result of the completion was one made St. Germaine and the other Canton. This drink is an homage to their quarrel with Bourbon and Scotch vying for affection in one glass.

Dustin Courtright, libationist at the W, recommends drinking the layered cocktail with a straw to let ingredients’ flavors evolve as you sip. “The scotch will come down into drink and fuse into it, then you’re left with a bourbon-Scotch marriage.”

While you are there, try the single barrel Eagle Rare that chosen and bottled specifically for the W Austin.

The Brother's Quarrel at the W Austin

Whisler’s
Lion’s Tail  

Bourbon, St. Elizabeth allspice dram, lime juice, demerara syrup, 2 dashes of Angostura bitters, lime wheel  

“This is not your typical citrus-driven cocktail,” said general manager Cesar Aguilar. “By adding dram and angostura bitters, it makes a bright bourbon cocktail, where the bourbon’s sweetness is highlighted and accented with notes of all spice and clove, and it pairs well with the oaky character of the bourbon.”

Kick back with one of three featured bourbon cocktails at this easy going east side hot spot. The nights are cooling off just enough to enjoy whiskey on the patio.

A version of this story was originally published on CultureMap

What Are You Drinking? 

Texas Tiki Week returns to 10 Austin bars this week

Texas Tiki Week

Break out your coconut bras and Hawaiian shirts, it’s time for the Third Annual Texas Tiki Week taking place Tuesday, June 24 through Monday, June 30.

The world owes a debt of gratitude to Donn Beach (a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber) who established the first Polynesian-themed tiki bar shortly after the end of Prohibition in 1934 in Hollywood, California. The former bootlegger single-handedly created this tropical drink genre in an attempt to bolster interest in lowly rum. He introduced 70 original cocktails, such as the Scorpion and the Zombie, using the recipe for the Jamaican Planter’s Punch as a starting point.

During Texas Tiki Week, bars in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio will pour special tiki cocktails and feature tiki seminars led by cocktail experts from around the country. Participating bars in Austin include Bar Congress, Contigo, Drink.Well., East Side Show Room, Half Step, Péché, Pleasant Storage Room, Red7, The Tigress and Whisler’s.

“Texas Tiki Week was initially designed to be Austin’s contribution to all of the many cocktail weeks that are popping across the country,” says Jessica Sanders of Drink.Well., who is also co-founder Texas Tiki Week and president of the Austin chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG).

“Austin is a bit eccentric and quirky, which makes it ripe for a week that celebrates Tiki, which is also a bit left of center in the cocktail world. Tiki is fun, whimsical and there is an elevated level of theater watching a tiki cocktail come together. You can’t help but smile.”

This year’s festivities start on Monday, June 23 with the Official Kick-Off Party at Pleasant Storage Room with renowned New York barman and tiki master Brian Miller mixing classic and contemporary tiki cocktails. The event is open to USBG members and invited guests only, but Pleasant Storage Room will reprise the cocktail menu for the public through Sunday. Don’t look for a tired mai thai. The menu will include more interesting classics like Don the Beachcomber’s original Pearl Diver Punch and new drinks like the Na Poli Death Toll.

Here are just a few of the most anticipated Tiki Week events.

Tuesday, June 24
Tuesday, June 24: Drink.Well. will host the Grease 2-inspired “Rock a Hula Luau” with five tiki cocktails, including a tiki twist on the classic Pink Lady and the “T-Bird,” variation of the classic Jungle Bird with rhum agricole, pineapple gomme syrup and aperol. Mindy Kucan from the Hale Pele tiki lounge in Portland will be the guest bartender.

Wednesday, June 25
Bar Congress‘ Tiki Night will feature modern twists and tiki classics including the Flaming Bowl of Cong’s Navy Grog and the Baba Yaga tiki amuse booze’ shot featuring rums, spices and Amaro.

Thursday, June 26
The Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter will host a “Cinema Cocktails” screening of the Elvis Presley classic Blue Hawaii with a tiki menu created by Bill Norris, Alamo Drafthouse beverage director, and the cocktail team at 400 Rabbits.

Saturday, June 28
Red 7 presents V2, a special live performance by Leon Taylor and Bob Spalding of “The Ventures,” one of the most iconic surf rock bands in history. Cocktails from the Red 7 team will feature Sailor Jerry rum. Opening acts will include the Del-Vipers and King Pelican.

If you’d rather sip a tiki-inspired drink at home, Pleasant Storage Room has provided the classic Pearl Diver Punch and Jungle Bird recipes.

Pearl Diver Punch (Don the Beachcomber from the 1930s)
The Pearl Diver screams exotic: spicy, refreshing with a lovely balance of tart with a hint of sweet. The booze isn’t afraid to let you know it’s steering this sailboat. Dive in.

  • .75 ounce El Dorado 8 year Demerara Rum
  • 1.5 ounce Puerto Rican Rum
  • .5 ounce Jamacian Smith and Cross N.S. Rum
  • 1 ounce orange juice
  • .75 fresh lime juice
  • 1 dash house-made falernum
  • 1 ounce pearl diver mix – an elaborate mix of sweet butter, nutmeg, allspice and other awesome ingredients

Blended and served over pebble ice in a tiki mug, garnished with mint and lime

The screams exotic. Spicy, refreshing with a lovely balance of tart with a hint of sweet. The booze isn’t afraid to let you know its steering this sailboat. Dive in.

Jungle Bird (Aviary Bar at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton 1978)

  • 1.5 ounces Hamilton’s Jamaican  pot-still blackstrap rum
  • .75 ounces Campari
  • 3  ounces pineapple juice
  • .5 ounce lime juice
  • .5 ounce roasted pineapple juice
  • 1 pinch black salt

Shake ingredients hard over ice. Strain into a tiki mug and garnish with a pineapple frond.

This drink is no joke. While you could try to make it at home, its better to go see an expert during Tiki Week to get the full experience.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

 

 

 

Whiskey: Everything you ever needed to know about the drink for every man

This story originally ran in the Winter issue of Austin Man Magazine. It looks way better in print than it does here, so go pick up a copy at your closest newsstand. Story and photos by Matt McGinnis, hand-lettering by Chelsea Patitillo. 

Whiskey’s caramel-colored glory is just as at home in the coarsely calloused mitt of the rancher as it is in the well-manicured grip of a technology tycoon. Its appeal spans not only socio-economic status, but also nationality and age. It is the drink of the everyman for every man. Whiskey is an elixir that stirs the soul. Under its spell, we speak more eloquently, love more ferociously and fight more passionately. Its allure is as deeply rooted in its traditions as it is in its magical character-enhancing powers. Whiskey’s broad appeal, its adherence to tradition and its ability to transform moods and moments make it the perfect gift for the holiday season and the perfect drink at your holiday parties.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHISKEY, WHISKY AND BOURBON?

Not all whiskey is bourbon, but all bourbon is whiskey. Bourbon is not whisky. Got it? Whether its spelled “whiskey” or “whisky,” we are talking about many types of alcoholic spirits with the commonality that they are made from fermented mash of grain, distilled at less than 190 proof, aged in oak barrels. The spelling boils down to geographic preference. The Scots, Canadians and Japanese are adamant about spelling it “whisky,” while the Americans and Irish refer to it as “whiskey.”

Whisk(e)y from Ireland and Scotland is made with grains that have been dried with smoke, giving it that characteristic peatiness and smokiness. Canadian and American whiskeys can be categorized as bourbon, Tennessee, rye, corn, wheat and blended varieties. Unlike Scottish or Irish whisk(e)y, American whiskey is made using grain, so it typically has a rounder taste. So what is bourbon? Bourbon is a variety of whiskey made to meet exact regulations stipulating that it is made from fermented mash of grain including at least 51 percent corn. The rest of the bill of grains can include wheat for a more mellow flavor, rye for

Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof. It is unthinkable and illegal to add any colors, flavors or anything other than water to bourbon before it is bottled. Bourbon must be aged in brand new, charred oak barrels. The selection of the oak barrel, how it is toasted or charred and where it is stored has a huge impact on flavor. Storage of whiskey barrels in a rick house (a warehouse where whiskey barrels are stored) exposes it to temperature swings, which draws whiskey in and out of the wood, gives the whiskey its caramel color and adds oak, vanilla and spice flavors.spice and bite, and malted barley for chocolate and fermented sugars.

Another big regulation for bourbon is that it must be distilled in the U.S. In fact, in 1964, the U.S. Congress recognized bourbon as a distinct American product and passed an Act of Congress that declared bourbon “America’s native spirit.” While the majority of bourbon is made by 13 big distillers in Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the U.S. Some say there are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky. Whether its whisky or whiskey, rye or bourbon, it has been a beloved elixir for hundreds of years because of its enchanting ability to paint a moment of clarity across our minds like a streak of sunset blazing across a glass skyscraper before the fog rolls in and blurs it all in to obscurity.

 

INSIDER’S TIPS

There are two terms to look for to find high-quality whiskey.

Bottled-in-Bond: The Bottled in Bond act of 1897 may well have been the first food regulation in the U.S., and was established by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. to create a set of regulations that dictate the highest standards for whiskey. Bonded whiskey must be produced by one distiller during one distillation “season.” These whiskeys are federally regulated to be 100 proof and aged four years. There are fewer than 20 labels, like EH Taylor and Evan Williams BIB, carrying this designation.

Barrel Proof: Whiskey that is bottled at the same level of alcohol-by-volume (abv) as it is during aging in the barrel is called “barrel proof” or “cask strength.” Many whiskeys are diluted with water before bottling to bring the alcohol level down to about 40 percent abv to take the edge off. Barrelproof whiskeys typically weigh in at about 60 percent abv. These straight-strength whiskeys often come from barrels stored in the center of the rick house, where they aren’t subject to quite as great fluctuations in temperatures. The result is the barrels in the sweet spot of the rick house don’t lose as much water from evaporation. Less “angel’s share” is a good thing.

THE RIGHT WHISKEY FOR HOLIDAY GIFTS

A distinctive bottle of whiskey makes an excellent holiday gift no matter how deep your pockets.

  • For your Boss — Black Maple Hill Small Batch, this bourbon is lesser known, but has huge street cred with whiskey lovers. It says you recognize he is cooler than most people at your company without kissing too much ass. $40
  • For your Best Man Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013, the 12th limited edition, small batch and highly sought after whiskey is a perfect gift for your best friend. It says you recognize his discerning taste in whiskey and in friends. $55
  • For your DadElijah Craig 21-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon, named for the father of bourbon, this well aged and refined collectors bottle is worthy of the man who gave you life. It says you value the finer qualities that come with time. $140
  • For your DIY Bookworm FriendGuide to Urban Moonshining; How to Make and Drink Whiskey, an informative book on the history of whiskey, and an insightful guide to making and enjoying it. $25

THE RIGHT WHISKEY GLASSWARE

The Standard-bearer. The Glencairn whisky glass bills itself as “The Official Whisky Glass,” and many an aficionado agrees that its size and shape make it the only glass for properly smelling and tasting whisky.

The Contemporary Style-hound. The hand-blown, lead-free crystal Sempli Cupa rocks glass created by designer Daniele “Danne” Semeraro spins when you set it down, aerating your whiskey while looking stylish as hell.

The Practical. Use an ordinary white wine glass for a handy way to get the most out of tasting whiskey straight.

The Traditionalist. The rocks glass, aka the Old Fashioned glass, aka the lowball glass, is as at home in a whiskey bar as it is in your hand cuddled with a cigar.

 

BALCONES DISTILLERY INTRODUCES THE WORLD TO TEXAS SINGLE MALT

Chip Tate is a mad scientist. His feverish work in the distillery and his amazing beard helps to enhance that persona.

The founder and head distiller of Balcones Distillery, based in Waco, constantly checks the quality of the white dog straight from the still. He also tastes dozens of barrel samples in his lab every day to ensure his whisky is just right. (He spells it without the “e” because he makes a Scottish style). Tate doesn’t just fixate on the whisky itself, but he also obsesses about every aspect of how it is made. He demands the absolute best quality in his barrels because of their essential role in building the flavor.

Barrels matter so much that Tate is even drying his own Live Oak staves to have custom barrels made with Texas wood. That

kind of attention to detail has produced award-winning whiskys. In late 2012, the Balcones Texas Single Malt won the prestigious Best in Glass competition held at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in London. It is the first American whisky to win the prize and beat out storied whiskys like Balvenie, Glenmorangie and Macallan to take home first prize.“Barrels add wood profile during aging as the whisky evaporates and adds oxidative effects as the barrel breathes in and out,” Tate says. “We use barrels made with slow growth, yard-aged wood, with extra-fine grain and a custom toast profile charred to my specifications.”

Adding to its awards collection, the fifth anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon won the Sweepstakes Best in Show at the 2013 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition. Balcones was the first Texas-made whisky on the market in 2009, and it now makes seven styles of whisky: Rumble, Rumble Cask Reserve, Baby Blue Corn Whisky, True Blue, True Blue 100 Proof, Texas Single Malt and Bimstone, a smoked whisky. It has also produced special edition bottling like the fifth anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon.

We make an original style Texas whisky made with Hopi blue corn,” Tate says. “Our whiskys have a lot of similarities to Scottish malt, but a taste all their own.”

The Baby Blue and True Blue are readily available in stores, restaurants and bars. Tate calls Baby Blue the “Reposado of whisky” because it is a youthful whisky that is lighter in color. It’s slightly lower in alcohol at 46 percent and is made to be drunk straight. True Blue is hearty, spicy, vigorous and assertive at 61 percent alcohol with caramel and pear flavors.

Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky is hard to find, but worth the hunt and worth the $80. It is made with 100 percent malt, fermented for seven days and is double distilled. After aging in various sized oak barrels, it has rich flavors of caramel, brown sugar, nutmeg and vanilla with ripe pear, a hint of citrus and roasted chestnuts. This is a fantastic whisky to enjoy while burrowed in to a cozy lounge chair. After a couple glasses of this, I imagine myself sounding like Tom Waits speaking intently to a burro that nonchalantly acknowledges my presence.

Balcones was set up to make about 6,000 cases a year, but is retrofitting the distillery, which is housed in a cramped 1880s welding shop, to keep up with demand. Installing new stills in the

existing distillery will triple the capacity. Balcones has also purchased an enormous former manufacturing facility that will house a new distillery, which Tate hopes to have online by the beginning of 2015.

Did I mention that Tate obsesses about every aspect of his whisky production? The mad scientist handmade his copper stills right on site at the distillery. In fact, everything in the distillery is custom built to fit exactly in the tight space. Balcones whiskys are sold in 20 states, the U.K., Australia, Sweden, Norway and Japan. Balcones whiskys are available in Austin at liquor stores and bars like The Four Seasons, The Tigress Pub and Fino.

TREATY OAK DISTILLING CO. RED HANDED WHISKEY

Texans are awfully proud people. We like to buy products made in our state. Flying in the face of that, one Austin distiller, Treaty Oak Distilling, is brazenly buying bourbon distilled in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee and selling it under its own label with a picture of Texas right on it. The gall! Red Handed Bourbon was released in November and is the first whiskey from Treaty Oak.

The name is a wink and a nod to acknowledge that they’ve “stolen” their whiskey. The distillery buys the bourbon and then blends it and re-barrels it to age for 12 to 15 months onsite in Austin. It’s actually a common practice and producers who do so, like Jefferson’s, Bulleit and Willet, are known as NDPs (nondistiller producers) in the industry. Think about it: There are dozens of brands of Kentucky bourbon on the shelf, but only a handful of distilleries.

“This is bourbon worth stealing,” says Daniel R. Barnes, owner and distiller of Treaty Oak Distilling. “We got lucky with buying really good bourbon to use for Red Handed. It was a rare opportunity for a distillery of our size to acquire the quantity and variety that we did. The oldest batches are from 2006 and the newest bourbon in our blend is from 2010. It’s fun to play with other people’s whiskeys. It tastes so different after we’ve blended and aged it.”

Treaty Oak started the distillery making rum, then gin to showcase craft spirits, before moving in to whiskey. Barnes, an avid whiskey collector with more than 300 bottles of bourbon and several antique bourbons, has been interested in making whiskey since the start of the distillery. He has been making whiskey behind the scenes for seven years, trying out different flavor profiles, but hasn’t released any yet. In preparation for making his whiskey, Barnes worked at a few distilleries in Kentucky to learn bourbon distilling. The relationships with distillers and his experience in Kentucky led to the decision to go the NPD route.

“We wanted to know how to blend whiskey before we put ours on the market,” Barnes says. “It’s an education to work with other distillers’ whiskey to make it our own. We are grateful to the guys in Kentucky who welcomed us with open arms to learn, distill and sell to us. There is great camaraderie among those distillers.”

So if it’s just purchased liquid, what makes this a Treaty Oak product? Barnes says it’s the selection of the blend and re-barreling and aging in Texas heat that makes it pop. Treaty Oak specified the bill of grains for each batch of whiskey and then assembled the exact blend desired. In addition, Barnes hand-selected the new American oak barrels with a three-level char. Treaty Oak ages the whiskey in a warehouse where the temperature doesn’t exceed 95 degrees.

Red Handed is a bold, spicy bourbon made with 60 percent corn and a heavy hand on the rye, with more than 30 percent. Barnes likes it both as a sipping whiskey and also thinks it’s well suited for cocktails like the Old Fashioned. The oaky whiskey has plenty of sweetness with vanilla, caramel and toasted pecan flavors, accentuated by black pepper and ginger. This whiskey should be enjoyed while listening to old Dinosaur Jr. albums on vinyl in a dimly lit room. Its early introduction has been well received. Red Handed has already won a gold medal at the 2013 Great American Distillers Festival. It sells for $34 a bottle at local shops like Spec’s and Twin Liquors, and it’s featured in a cocktail at the W Hotel.

Treaty Oak has enough stock of Red Handed for three years of allocated small seasonal releases of about 300 to 500 cases. That will be enough to get them through until they release their own in-house-created whiskey. Barnes intends to introduce a four-grain whiskey with an equal mixture of wheat, rye, corn and barley in about one year. It will be aged four years to get the desired complexity. Treaty Oak is opening a tasting room where visitors can sample Red Handed and its other spirits in its North Austin distillery. Barnes is in the process of building a new distillery in Southwest Austin off Highway 290 near Argus Cidery and Jester King Brewery.

GARRISON BROTHERS DISTILLERY

Tucked in to the rolling hills about 10 miles west of Johnson City, the Garrison Brothers Distillery is making bourbon in Texas wine country. Former ad man Dan Garrison fired up his whiskey distillery in Hye, Texas, to make its first batch in 2008. It’s one of the first whiskeys legally made in the state after prohibition.

The flagship Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon is made with 64 percent Texas-grown corn, giving it a sweet profile. The remainder of the all-organic grains in the mash bill is winter wheat grown on the ranch in Hye and barley from the Pacific Northwest. The distillery’s location makes a difference. The water used is filtered through the limestone beneath its ranch, much like the water used in Kentucky bourbon is filtered through limestone. The Texas heat speeds up the aging process by accelerating oxidation and evaporation for the whiskey in the barrel. It’s made in Texas for Texans.

“We have no plans to sell outside Texas,” Garrison says. “As long as the Texans keep drinking, we’re in good shape.”

The Texas corn, heat and water give Garrison Brothers bourbon sweet flavors of caramel, molasses and maple syrup, along with spices like black tea, vanilla and nutmeg. It has a little kick at 94 proof, but is silky smooth on the way down. This is a sipping whiskey best enjoyed with a lump or two of ice while sitting on the back porch with your favorite dog. Garrison Brothers bottles its bourbon twice a year in fall and spring, and vintage dates each batch. Each bottle is hand numbered and hand sealed in black wax. The distillery filled about 1,300 barrels this year. The fall 2013 vintage will be available after it has been aged about three years.

In addition to its flagship bourbon, the company released the special edition Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon Whiskey in May this year. This barrel-proof bourbon was uncut, unfiltered and bottled straight from the barrel, weighing in at 136 proof. You can still find it in some bars, but the small batch of 600 small 375-millileter-sized bottles of Cowboy sold out quickly, even at the steep price of $169. That’s a lot of cash for a small bottle. Why so expensive?

“In Kentucky, they lose three to four percent of the whiskey to evaporation,” Garrison explains. “We lose 12 to 13 percent annually. That’s a lot of ‘angel’s share.’ Our Cowboy Bourbon is expensive because after five years of aging, the barrel is only half full. A lot of the water is gone, leaving the whiskey more concentrated.”

If you didn’t get your share, never fear. Garrison has already selected the barrels he will use in the 2015 bottling. He plans to produce 5,000 of the larger 750-millileter bottles, and make it a little less expensive. The distillery is a great day-trip destination. Garrison Brothers provides informative tours of the facilities, which conclude in the tasting room. Garrison Brothers has done a good job of getting bars and restaurants to carry its whiskey, so it’s readily available throughout the state. It retails for about $75 a bottle and you can find it at major steakhouses like Vince Young Steak House, bars like TenOak, and the W Austin sells it by the bottle.

BARTENDER’S WISDOM

It is a good sign that a bar might be a good whiskey bar when you walk in and see a wide selection of whiskey labels that are out of the mainstream. The second important element is a bar staff that knows their stuff. That’s what you get at Drink.Well. on North Loop. Not only does the bar have more than 75 kinds of American whiskey, but Co-owner Jessica Sanders knows her corn from her rye. Sanders not only has studied all things wine, beer and spirits as a board member of the Austin chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild and as a sommelier, but she also recently attended a week-long camp about bourbon in Kentucky. She uses that knowledge for good, teaching whiskey classes and by droppin’ science behind the bar at Drink.Well.

“Drink.Well. specializes in American craft spirits,” Sanders says. “Bourbon and American whiskey are the ultimate American craft sprits. Bourbon is a national treasure. Having a big whiskey selection is critical to our concept. It has become a life-long mission to learn about all of them.”

Tasting a whiskey properly can also improve the enjoyment. Smell it twice by inhaling with your mouth and nose simultaneously with the glass away from your face. Smell as slowly as you possibly can. That way, the alcohol level is turned down and you can smell the fruit and the balance of the spirit. Don’t bury your nose in the glass like wine or it will burn your nose hairs off. Next, sip twice. The first sip acclimates your palate to get past the first burn of alcohol. The second sip is what counts.

Now, think about the various flavors and separate the notion of heat from spice. Whiskey can have great spice flavors of black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg that are completely different from the burn of alcohol. Mind you, that alcohol heat can be there, particularly in the higher alcohol and barrel-strength styles, which can be up to 110 proof. A big swig of that without warming up your mouth will be like getting kissed by a fist.

Whiskey can be intimidating to some with its rough-and-tumble fire-water reputation. Sanders recommends beginners start with bourbon like Maker’s Mark, which has an approachable flavor. Its creaminess, vanilla and sweetness make it a suitable gateway whiskey. As people progress and want to discover the types of whiskey that they enjoy most, Sanders recommends people branch out from whiskeys they already like. Ask the bartender about whiskeys that are in the same family as your favorite.

“Don’t jump from Maker’s Mark to Bulleit,” Sanders advises. “It’s a high-rye bourbon that is spicier. Make the process a gradual one. Drink different spirits until you find the ones you don’t like and the ones you like best.”

A great way to explore different whiskeys is to order a flight, which allows you to compare both complementary and contradictory styles to see which you like better. It might be difficult to know if you prefer the Eagle Rare versus the Elijah Craig 12 if you drink them a week apart. Tasting in flights also helps find preferences among different styles of whiskey. Do you prefer the sweetness of bourbon that corn brings? Do you gravitate to spice rye or softer wheat whiskey? Or are you a big fan of the bold peatiness of Scotch? Sipping whiskey on its own is definitely an enjoyable pastime.

Purists may thumb their noses at mixing whiskey with anything but a cube of ice or a dash of water, but there are many delicious classic and signature cocktails worth exploring.

Battle of New Orleans at Drink.Well

A classic cocktail recipe that’s perfect for Sazerac drinkers who like a little variety.

  • 1.5 ounce bourbon
  • 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • 1/4 teaspoon Herbsaint
  • 1/4 teaspoon Meletti Anisette

Stir all ingredients and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel.

The Atlantic Avenue at Drink.Well

This variation on the classic Manhattan is homage to the Brooklyn cocktail, using Swedish Punsch, which is a popular Scandinavian liqueur that’s based with Batavia Arrack. Combine all ingredients with ice and stir until properly diluted and chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail coupe and express a lemon peel over the drink.

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1/2 ounce Swedish Punsch
  • 1/2 ounce Bonal
  • 2 bar spoons Amontillado Sherry
  • 1 dash baked apple bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters

WHERE TO DRINK WHISKEY IN AUSTIN

Bar Congress

This intimate lounge carries 60 to 70 American, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Japanese and other regional whiskeys available, including an allocated Black Maple Hill 16 year and a rare bottle of A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Reserve. Bar Congress is known both for making solid classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Vieux Carre and Black Manhattan, and for signature drinks like The Roundabout.

Bar manager Jason Stevens: “I’m a huge fan of the Suntory Hibiki 12 year with an extended preparation. I will start a guest with the Hibiki neat, having them take a few sips to get used to the flavor then add ice, a few sips more and then finally and slowly elongate with Topo Chico soda. It’s incredible how the flavors change and how different elements fade and become pronounced throughout.”

Drink.Well

This North Loop neighborhood bar has more than 75 types of American whiskey like E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond and St. George Single Malt Whiskey. Drink.Well. offers flights of four whiskeys to let you taste the difference between a Whistle Pig Straight Rye 11 year and a Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch.

Péché

The absinthe selection might draw you in and then the whiskey will catch your eye with a selection of about 100 bottles. Péché carries special whiskeys like a hand-selected single barrel Buffalo Trace bottled just for it and a Talisker 40-year-old Scotch.

Jack Allen’s Kitchen

Known for periodically hosting whiskey dinners, Jack Allen’s Kitchen carries 25 different whiskeys, including Texas whiskeys, Kentucky bourbon, Irish, Canadian and Rye. The Texas lineup includes Firestone & Robertson Distillery, Rebecca Creek Spirit Whiskey, Garrison Brothers and True Blue from Balcones. They have a hand-selected barrel of Eagle Rare 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon bottle especially for them.

tenOakTen Oak

This whiskey bar has 220 to 250 whiskeys from throughout the world, including 127 bourbons and as many as 30 American whiskeys. They love to pour Texas whiskey like the Ranger Creek Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey and Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon. They have rare and special whiskeys like the Buffalo Trace Experimental made with rice and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year.

Vince Young Steakhouse

While it may not have the largest list of whiskeys with more than 65 on hand, it has some of the most exclusive labels in town. Vince Young Steakhouse carries full sets of whiskeys, like all five Macallans, from 12 year to 30 year, and four bottlings of Pappy Van Winkle.

Disclosure: Samples were provided for tastings by Balcones, Treaty Oak and Garrison Brothers. 

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Trick-or-treat for adults: The spookiest Halloween cocktails in Austin

The older I’ve gotten, the more selective my sweet tooth has gotten. Gone are the days when I can plunder an overflowing candy bowl with the reckless abandon of Charlie Sheen in a hot tub full of hotties. Don’t get me wrong. I still like a treat every now and again. This Halloween I’ll opt for Halloween Cocktails.

Grab your trick-or-treat sack and traipse around Austin’s to try out some spooky libations at the bars that are in the ghoulish spirit. Let’s start our do it yourself haunted bar hop downtown.

Péché: Corpse Reviver #2Halloween Cocktails Corpse Reviver #2

Our first stop is Péché on West Fourth St. for a classic cocktail that is rumored to have the ability to bring the dead (or at least the hungover zombies) back to life.

Corpse Reviver #2

  • 1 ounce gin
  • 1 ounce Cointreau
  • 1 ounce Lillet Blanc
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1 dash absinthe
  • ice cubes
  • Shake all ingredients in a shaker, strain into a chilled glass and garnish.

Sullivan’s Steakhouse: Dracula’s Kiss

Next we’ll walk around the corner to Sullivan’s Steakhouse on Colorado St. for a vampire drink that doesn’t suck.

Dracula’s Kiss  

  • Halloween Cocktails Dracula's Kiss.5 ounce Grenadine
  • 1.5 ounce Effen Black Cherry Vodka
  • Fill with Coke
  • In a highball glass add grenadine then ice, vodka and Coke in order to create a distinct red layer at the bottom of the glass

W Austin: Pumpkin Spice Martini 

Down the street, Joyce Garrison at W Austin Hotel just released her new fall cocktail menu with updates on classics and a little something that is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Pumpkin Spice Martini

  • 1.5 ounce vanilla vodka
  • .5 ounce Pinnacle Whipped Cream Vodka
  • .5 ounce Bailey’s Irish Cream
  • .5 ounce pumpkin spice liqueur
  • 1 tsp vodka whipped cream

HandleBar’s Old Fashioned Pumpkin Pie

Now we’re going to walk a little bit east to try another jack-o-lantern-inspired cocktail at HandleBar on Fifth St.

Old Fashioned Pumpkin Pie

 

  • House-made simple syrup — made with pumpkin puree, pumpkin pie spice, sugar and vanilla extract
  • Halloween Cocktails Candy Corn Catdaddy Spiced Moonshine, a corn-based, un-aged whiskey with hints of vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon

Icenhauer’s: Infused Candy Corn

Let’s continue heading east to Icenhauer’s on Rainey Street for a completely adult approach to candy.

Infused Candy Corn

  • A shot of vodka (or mixed with club soda) infused with house-made candy corn

drink.well.: The Devils Tritone

We’ll end the night at North Loop’s drink.well. with a devilish nightcap.

The Devil’s Tritone

Named for an unstable musical interval between two pitches that is a full three “whole tones” apart, this cocktail mixed by Michael Sanders is alchemy of smoke, sweet, spice flavors.

Halloween Cocktails the Devil's Tritone

  • 2 ounce Balcones Brimstone Smoked TX whiskey
  • 1 ounce Jester King Black Metal syrup fortified with mezcal
  • 1 dash Bitterman’s Hellfire Bitters
  • This bad boy is set on fire with a spray of Bad Dog Fire and Brimstone bitters, Lemonhart 151 and an orange twist.

Despite being far too old to actually go trick-or-treating, you now have a viable Halloween treat option. Whether or not you wear a sexy costume is totally up to you.

A version of this story previously appeared on CultureMap.

What are you drinking? 

 

Absinthe: Forbidden no more, but still dripping with mystique

The lovely louche of Lucid Absinthe

How many things have you done just because you were forbidden to do them? Have you ever inhaled? Have you ever fooled around with a married person who isn’t wearing a ring you gave them? Oh, you’re that guy. The one who would have eaten the apple. I bet you wish absinthe were still illegal so you could justify dancing with the green fairy every night.

It’s still a fascinating drink, even if it isn’t forbidden. More than a century ago, the magical elixir was believed by the likes of many—including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Vincent van Gogh—to inspire creativity and bring a sense of clarity and mental acuity. Absinthe was legally prohibitted in 1912 because it was believe to have hallucinogenic effects from thujone, a byproduct of the distillation of its main ingredient, wormwood. There is even a ritual of adding ice cold water to absinthe called la louche, which turns the liquor milky and unlocks the flavors of the herbs.

But in March 2007 the almost century-old injunction against absinthe was overturned when chemist and absinthe enthusiast, Ted Breaux debunked the idea that absinthe was laden with mind-altering concentrations of thujone armed with scientific proof that the spirit was no more dangerous than any other booze.

Breaux also created the first absinthe legally imported into the United States, Lucid Absinthe Supérieure and recently shared his views about the forbidden spirit’s new found acceptance in the United States.

Lucid Absinthe getting la louche at Peche

What Are You Drinking?: Why was absinthe banned in the first place?

Breaux: “The accusations levied against absinthe in the 19th century were concocted in an attempt to demonize the entire category, mostly for reasons of economic competition. The only absinthes that were truly deserving of a bad reputation a century ago were cheap, inferior versions that were industrially prepared from chemical adulterants.”

What Are You Drinking?: How did you become interested in absinthe?

Breaux: “I became interested in absinthe in 1993, when a colleague of mine mentioned it in a passing comment. Like most New Orleanians, I knew The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon St., and never put much thought into it. Upon delving into the subject, I was astounded by the dubious information that surrounded it. It seemed odd to me that the subject of so much speculation could be so poorly understood.”

What Are You Drinking?: What was your inspiration for making Lucid Absinthe?

Breaux: “Lucid emerged as an answer to the challenge to distill absinthe on a scale that had not been done since 1915. With our success in overturning the U.S. ban on absinthe, we needed a truly hand-crafted absinthe that would set a standard for quality and authenticity while satisfying the entire U.S. market. Lucid is that product.”

What Are You Drinking?: Does Lucid take its name from the effects of thujone?

Rob Pate, owner Peche

Breaux: “Lucid derives its name from a common observation amongst experienced absinthe connoisseurs that drinking absinthe gives one an impression of mental acuity or lucidity, despite the expected effects from the alcohol. Modern science has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that any such perceived sensations from absinthe are not due to thujone. Notions to the contrary are but old wives tale at this point in time.”

What Are You Drinking?: How did you determine the right amount of thujone to include in Lucid? Was that based on determining thujone levels in your tests of antique, pre-prohibition bottles of absinthe?

What Are You Drinking?: “We distill Lucid entirely from whole herbs, including historically accurate amounts of Artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood), and strictly adhere to 19th century distillation methods. This alone determines the content of the final product. While the practice of cheap manufacturing remains widespread today, one will not find any indication of food coloring, sugar, or any other additives within the fine print on our labels. We neither waste our time nor yours with such fakery. We distill herbs.”

What Are You Drinking?: Why is Lucid distilled in France rather than in the U.S.?

Breaux: “Lucid is distilled in France partly because I was distilling absinthe at the Combier distillery in France long before we re-legalized it in the U.S. However, nowhere in the U.S. can I find an intact distillery designed by Gustave Eiffel, with original 130 year-old absinthe distilling equipment present and functional like at Combier. The Combier is unique in that regard, and has been featured on the show Modern Marvels on The History Channel. Furthermore, certain materials I use are virtually impossible to source in the U.S. Relocating to the U.S. would create more problems than it solves.”

Muscles and Springdale Farms tomatos at Peche

What Are You Drinking?: Do you have any tips for preparation if I don’t have a slotted silver spoon and an absinthe fountain for the louche?

Breaux: “With a quality absinthe, sugar was always optional. Most experienced absinthe connoisseurs, omitted it. Always use iced water, pour it slowly, and add just enough to render the absinthe completely cloudy typically makes the best drink. The louche that emerges when ice water is added to absinthe is due to certain herbal essences being soluble in alcohol, but insoluble in water. Genuine absinthe is a very concentrated product, and must be bottled at relatively high proof. Diluting concentrated absinthe with cold water causes its herbal content to precipitate in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, which evolved into the French absinthe ritual.”

Breaux’s descriptions of absinthe made me want a glass almost as badly as I did when it was forbidden. In Austin you can find Lucid and a wide selection of other fine absinthes at The Austin Wine Merchant, Specs and other respectable shops.

Vieux Pontarlies Absinthe

Or you could go to Peché Austin, which has a selection of 14 or more brands of absinthe and the set-ups to serve it correctly. Owner, Rob Pate, is a walking encyclopedia of pre-prohibition craft cocktails and an absinthe aficionado. He can tell you anything you might want to know about its history, the taste profile of French versus Swiss versus U.S. varieties and recommend good ones to try.

I went in for one of the all-day happy hours, which they have on Sundays and Mondays, serving $5 cocktails and half-off menu items.  Chef Jason Dodge brought out first of the season tomatoes from Springdale Farms, and muscles with fries and house made mustard and ketchup. Rob dropped by and recommended two absinthes that are new to the menu.

First I tried Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe Française Superiéure. This quintessentially French absinthe is made with grape-based spirits. It has a light emerald with milky louche, a creamy anise aroma, with a fruity anise flavor that is sweet enough to drink without added sugar. Even though it packs a walloping 65 percent alcohol, it’s elegant and smooth as a kitten’s cheek.

Next I had Mansinthe, a brand of absinthe developed and marketed by shock rocker Marilyn Manson.  Mansinthe is yellow green with a milky louche that gets watery at the edge. It is a grain based spirit that smells floral and fruity with black licorice. The flavor is as bold and jarring as Manson’s music with racy alcohol and fennel. After downing a glass, I had the inexplicable urge to scream the opening lyrics from the Manson song, “Cake and Sodomy.” That must be the absinthe effect.

Mansithe

Even though absinthe is perfectly legal, isn’t hallucinogenic and may not even make you artistic, it’s still wrapped in mystique. Whether you pick up the first legal absinthe in the U.S., Lucid, or make your way through the menu at Peché, it is an adventure to see if you experience the absinthe effect.

A version of this article appeared on CultureMap.

Deussen Global Communications, Inc. provided a sample of Lucid Absinthe and Bread and Butter PR arranged for samples of Vieux Pontarlier and Mansithe provided by Peche.

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Grown up drinks for grown up tastes: Péché Austin

The mixology movement has hit the country with full force. Cocktail bars specializing in intricate drinks have sprouted up everywhere. Austin, TX is blessed with several gifted mixologists including the folks at Townhouse that I wrote about previously. If you’re hankering for a bar with a broad menu of classic and inventive cocktails and a refined atmosphere, try Péché in the heart of the Warehouse District on 4th Street. One look at the long, narrow room with wood floors, dotted with polished marble tables, wood beam ceiling and the richly paneled wood bar with antique absinthe water spouts, and your mood will instantly melt into relaxation ready to sip a sophisticated drink.   

Beautiful Wife and I went there for dinner recently and we were not disappointed by the focus on excellent drinks. Rob Pate, the owner, sidled up to our table the moment we sat down and asked us if we were interested in cocktails. We had barely glanced at the menu of 50+ concoctions of stalwarts like the Moscow Mule, Bees Knees and the Side Car and twists on the Martini and the Manhattan, when we were presented with the delightful opportunity to have an expert guide help us navigate the fun house.

Rob asked if we knew what we wanted or if we would like recommendations? Beautiful Wife wanted a French 77. Done. I was open to exploration and only gave the guidance that I was in the mood for bourbon. He recommend a Rye-based drink called the “Final Say” and I was game to try something new for an aperitif.

Tip: If you know you are in a bar that really cares about its drinks, put yourself in the hands of the bartender.

The Final Say is a blend of Rye whisky, green chartreuse, lime juice, Maraschino liquor and orange bitters all shaken vigorously with ice.

Look A classic martini glass nestling a misty, pastel emerald with a haze of shattered ice crystals glazing its surface.
Smell Pleasing herbal, lime-zest and a hint of honeysuckle like an embrace after he has been drinking Bärenjäger liquor and she is wearing upscale body lotion from a French salon.  
Taste After the first sip I felt like I was in a British bar car riding on the Orient Express. This is a distinguished drink with lush heather grass tempered by savory lime, and brought to life by the warmth of alcohol. It has a long, sweet finish that obscures the sometimes rough backbone of rye.
Price $10

While Péché has only been open for about two years, Rob is no novice in the restaurant and bar business. His twinkling eyes and complexion ratify a life spent both making and consuming lots of drinks well into the night. He got his start in the restaurant business at the tender age of 15 in summer camp and later worked at the Erwin Center while a student at the University of Texas. He has owned the adjacent Cedar Street bar for several years, but Péché is the first restaurant he has owned.

Now we were ready for dinner. Rob explained that his chef du cuisine, Jason Dodd, has a focus on European comfort food with the same commitment to excellence found in the drinks. He sources his ingredients locally and butches his meats in-house. I ordered a rabbit cacciatore and Beautiful Wife chose the carnaroli risotto with applewood smoked Osso Buco.

We didn’t need to look at the wine list. Rob came back with a bottle of Domaine de la Pertuisane le Nain Violet 2007, a lovely Grenache nick-named the “The Purple Dwarf” from Languedoc-roussillon, France. It was a lovely mid-bodied wine with plenty of fruit and acidity to pair well with both rabbit and pork without obscuring either. Looking at the list later, it’s exactly the bottle I would have chosen, but I was happy to put the decision in an expert’s hands. The food and wine were excellent. Our waiter challenged Beautiful Wife to finish her sumptuous portion of risotto and pork, which she gladly attempted. She declared that it was the best risotto she’s had and would be dreaming of the Osso Buco for days. After dinner it’s time for a nice digestif.

Péché is known as an absinthe bar with nine varieties on the menu. Rob was inspired by drinking a Sazerac in New Orleans, the unique, signature drink made with absinthe. He wanted to bring the distinctive absinthe to Austin to help us enjoy a drink that has long been illegal in the U.S. and widely misunderstood. For my after-dinner drink he chose Germain-Robin Absinthe Superieure, an apple-honey mead brandy-based absinthe made in a small distillery in Mendocino County, Calif. It is served traditionally; mixed with water, but no flame and no sugar to let the full taste come though. 

Look  An elegant Champagne flute filled with the warm glow of breast-milk yellow clouds topped with a creamy ivory mouse. This is an absinthe blanche, meaning it wasn’t infused with botanicals after distillation to give it the traditional green hue.  
Smell Strong nose of anise and fennel with a mild whiff of lemon zest.
Taste The Germain-Robin has a creamy mouth feel and it gently eases into rose and geranium followed by a robust juggernaut of black licorice followed by a velvety junior mint finish. It comes on smoother than Sade and finishes with the cool of a Kool menthol. The haze in the glass will gladly become the haze in your head.
Price $20

I’m embracing the mixology trend. I don’t normally mix complicated cocktails at home because I don’t regularly stock all of the ingredients and don’t have the specialized tools that bring them to life. If you appreciate a well-made drink, whether it’s a classic or a unique original, or you want to have absinthe the way it should be served, try Péché. Grown up drinks for grown up tastes. Stay for dinner. The food is amazing. You can follow their drink specials on Twitter @Peche_Austin.   

What are you drinking?