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? 

 

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? 

Austin’s 10 Best Drink Slingers: Meet the CultureMap Tastemaker Award Nominees for Best Beverage Director

What is the right cocktail to drink while listening to Gary Clark Jr.? What wine will bring out the best in braised rabbit? The 10 nominees for the CultureMap 2014 Tastemaker Awards in the Best Beverage/Wine Program category keep Austin at the forefront of trends in craft cocktails and fine wine.

Whether working at a cozy wine lounge or a fine dining restaurant, this year’s nominees share a passion for constantly studying beverages to ensure they buy and serve the very best drinks available. (They’re also sharing with us the best beverage options for spring.)

CollinsbyNilsJuul-Hansen (1)Craig Collins, Beverage Director, ELM Restaurant Group
Craig Collins became enamored with wine while working at a Texas winery during college. He is currently the beverage director for ELM Restaurant Group where he oversees the programs at 24 DinerEasy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden and Arro. In 2011, he passed the esteemed Master Sommelier Exam, joining an elite club of less than 200 people worldwide at the time. He is an active member in the Court of Master Sommeliers and frequently serves as a featured speaker at wine and food festivals across the country.

What was your first memorable wine? I experienced my “aha” wine while living in Italy with Chef Andrew Curren. It was a bottle of 1998 Brancaia Il Blu, a super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Merlot that opened my eyes to the rest of my life.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? My guilty pleasure is an ice cold can of beer when I get home at the end of the night. Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap always does the trick.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc. The acid of the goat cheese balances out the saltiness of the cheese and cuts through the fat. It is one of the classic pairings that works every time.

What should Austinites drink right now? It sounds a bit cliché at this point, but rosé. We are moving into the hot time of the year and there is nothing better than an ice cold glass of pink wine.

Sam Hovland, Wine Consultant, Swift’s Attic
Sam Hovland has worked at The Austin Wine Merchant, Headliners Club, Sardine Rouge, Demi-Epicurious, Mars Restaurant and Bar and Twin Liquors. Hovland became the wine buyer for East End Wines in 2010 and continues in that role today. He worked with Mat Clouser, the chef at Swift’s Attic, to develop and maintain the Swift’s Attic wine list. As an extension of that partnership, he is looking forward to buying wines for Clouser’s new restaurant, Wu Chow.

What was your first memorable wine? My first experience was with wines pilfered from my father when he was hosting art openings at the Austin Conceptual Visual Artists Association. I then made wine in the early 1980s, and distilled it (thanks, Science Academy). I was really blown away by a 1967 Richebourg, older vintage Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese, Henri Jayer Pinot Noirs and Domaine Huet Vouvray sweet Chenin Blanc early on in my sommelier career.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? I like very cold tallboys of cider after a day of drinking wines for work, vermouth and Cava and 10,000 beers. I once ran out of wine, and had Sauternes poached foie gras on Ritz crackers with ice cold Budweiser standing in a friend’s kitchen in the middle of the night.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? My four favorites are Sonoma Coast or Oregon Pinot Noir with duck (Doritos crusted for extra naughtiness); Alsatian Riesling with escargot soup; Muscadet and oysters; and the classic vintage Port and Stilton.

What should Austinites drink right now? Bubbles, Mondeuse, Sherry, pink wine, orange wine, natural wines and food-friendly wines that are funky with higher acid, lower tannin and lower alcohol.

josh_lovingJosh Loving
Josh Loving has worked in both the front of the house and back of the house at such notable Austin restaurants as Fino, which he helped open in 2005, Vino Vino, Asti and East Side Show Room. Most recently, Loving was part of the opening team at Josephine House & Jeffrey’s, where he served as beverage director. He left Jeffrey’s this year to focus on his own project, and is currently tending bar at Half Step.

What was your first memorable wine? I think it was 2003, I was working a private party for wine collectors and they gave us the rest of their wines including a vertical from the 1970s of Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy from Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret. I didn’t know what they were, but I remember telling myself to remember the labels so someday I could recall what they were.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Cheap beer: Coors, Miller High Life, Tecate, etc. I try to stay away from cheap wine, but I crush cheap beer.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? It’s a tie between Champagne and raw oysters, and fried chicken and Riesling.

What should Austinites drink right now? Sherry. I feel like I say this every year, and every year it gets a bit more traction. But yeah, Sherry.

Bill Norris, Alamo DrafthouseBill Norris, Beverage Director, Alamo Drafthouse
For 20 years, Norris has poured drinks in venues across the country, winning numerous awards and cocktail competitions along the way. He was on the opening staff at Fino, where, according to the Austin American-Statesman, he “planted the sacred seeds” of the modern cocktail in Austin, before creating the nationally recognized bar program at Haddingtons. Norris is currently the beverage director for Alamo Drafthouse, overseeing the cocktail and beverage programs at Midnight Cowboy400 Rabbits and other Alamo properties.

What was your first memorable wine? It was probably a Chablis Grand Cru. One of my early jobs was at a restaurant in New York City where all the wines were from Skurnik’s book, and he led a tasting. I just remember thinking, “So, this is why people like white wine!”

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Vinho Verde from the lobster bottle (Santola). There is nothing better for an Austin summer Sunday afternoon.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Vintage Champagne and potato chips. And I’m not joking.

What should Austinites drink right now? It’s springtime in Austin, so I recommend rosé, preferably Provençal or Spanish. Or Champagne. Champagne is always good.

Paul Ozbirn, Olilve & JunePaul Ozbirn, Wine and Beverage Director, Parkside Projects  
Ozbirn got his start in Austin’s restaurant industry in 2006 as a server at Vin Bistro, which sparked his passion for wine. He held various positions at Botticelli’s, Wink Restaurant and Paggi House while studying to attain Certified Sommelier status through The Court of Master Sommeliers. Ozbirn became the Beverage Director for Parkside Projects to hone the predominately Italian wine list at Olive & June. He is expanding his role to manage the beverage and wine programs at The BackspaceParkside and Chavez.

What was your first memorable wine? My first memorable wine was Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2002. My dad couldn’t find it in Birmingham and asked me to buy it at my local wine shop in Huntsville. It was the start of a long relationship with said wine shop and my love for the balanced, lush and fruit-forward wine. I still love the wines today despite the fact that I’ve really moved away from buying and drinking that style.   

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? After a long day of tasting and discussing nothing but wine, the last thing I crave is wine. If I’m at a bar, I’ll drink Hops & Grain ALTeration, but I’m always up for a Lone Star with a lime. Another guilty pleasure is chilled Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka!

Your favorite food and wine pairing? A big glass of Lambrusco with the new late-night burger at Vino Vino is a pretty stellar meal. I’m always up for Riesling with just about anything.

What should Austinites drink right now? We’re really diving into the orange wine thing at Olive & June. We serve an abundance of small bites like quail, pork and meatballs that pair really well with either full-bodied whites or lighter style reds. Orange wine is perfect for those plates and introduces tannin to white wine drinkers in a much more approachable way. My favorite at the moment is Ezio Trinchero Bianco 2007.   

Brian Phillips, Eddie VsBrian Phillips, Manager and Sommelier, Eddie V’s Restaurants Inc.
Over the past 14 years, Phillips has worked in venerable Austin establishments such as The Driskill Hotel and Haddingtons and currently manages the beverage program at Eddie V’s Prime Seafood. He not only serves wine, he also makes wine called “Ground Up” from Texas Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional grapes tended and harvested by the team at Pedernales Cellars.

What was your first memorable wine? My first memorable wine was a sip of my mom’s Beringer White Zinfandel when I was around 10 years old. It was memorable because it was so bad. I can’t quite recall one wine that sent me down the rabbit hole. It was a natural progression with an endless quest to find wines that make me stop and look both inward and outward at the same time.   

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Like all somms, at the end of a long day serving our guests we want something clean and simple like beer, or a cold, classic martini. My guilty pleasure is a shot of really cold silver tequila (no salt, no lime, no mixology). 

Your favorite food and wine pairing? My go-to wine and food combo is spicy and sweet Asian with the classic off-dry wines of the world. I am super happy with Thai food and an assortment of Loire Chenin Blanc, German Riesling and fungus infected Alsatian beauties. 

What should Austinites drink right now? Everyone should be drinking wine, period. There has never been a better time in the history of wine to drink it in terms of quality and world representation. When treated right, wine is restorative, contemplative and, in turn, good for society. Every region and corner of the globe produces something special and we owe it to those producers to try it and give it its moment of silence.    

Nathan Prater, The Red Room LoungeNathan Prater, Sommelier and General Manager, Red Room Lounge
A native Austinite, Prater is currently the general manager of the Red Room Lounge, a hidden gem of vinous solitude. He began his education with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2007, and after six years of dedicated study and practice, he sat for the Masters Exam in 2013, passing the service portion. He plans to take the other sections of the Masters Exam in Aspen, Colorado in mid-May. Part of his study is the pursuit of the perfect gin martini, which he calls the “elixir of quietude.”

What was your first memorable wine? A bottle of 1983 Château Lynch-Bages sparked my interest for wine, while a 1978 Bodegas Muga Prado Enea inspired the drive to become a sommelier. 

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? A third gin martini.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? French rosé and escargot.

What should Austinites drink right now? Sidecars, Aviations, Micèl Prosecco, Domaine Houchart rosé or a Gibson with three onions.


Paula Rester, CongressPaula Rester, Wine Director, Congress

Paula Rester worked at Congress from its opening in December 2010 until January 2012 when she left to become the general manager of Vino Vino. In October 2012 Paula rejoined the Congress team as the Sommelier. Rester draws on her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to bring a spirit of performance and presentation to wine and food. She is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators.

What was your first memorable wine? Travaglini Gattinara, for the shape of the bottle and the aromatic nature of the Nebbiolo.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Rye whiskey manhattans.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Champagne and French fries.

What should Austinites drink right now? Rosè! Because (in my best Game of Thrones voice…) summer is coming. My favorites include Inman Family Endless Crush Olivet Grange Pinot Noir Rosè 2013 and Clos Cibonne Cotes du Provence Tibouren Rosè 2012.

June Rodil, Qui

June Rodil, Director of Operations, Qui
Rodil leads operations of Paul Qui’s flagship restaurant, Qui, and the multi-location casual concept, East Side King. She has an extensive wine background and has served as the beverage director for the Uchi Restaurant Group and Congress Austin. Rodil relishes the perfect pairing and believes that this can be accomplished when a chef and sommelier have mutual respect for each other and have the same goal: happy guests.

What was your first memorable wine? I first started really getting into wine and food when I was a server at the Driskill. I went in to dine there for a birthday celebration to see what the tasting menu was all about. I scoffed at the buttery Chardonnay that was on the tasting menu, but the simple butter poached halibut with tomatoes was transformed into something else altogether by the wine … It always reminds me not to turn my nose at a wine. There are definitely moments for each wine, and if not moments, then at least dishes that go well with it.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? A Lone Star tallboy and a shot of bourbon after a long shift. It gets me every time.

Describe your favorite food and wine pairing? Champagne, Champagne, Champagne, and anything! Champagne and French fries are a must. For complete dishes and something that I like to do at Qui, I suggest a red Burgundy with saba. It’s really a stunning pairing and one that I love introducing to people.  

What should Austinites drink right now? This is the season for rosé! Rosé in any style to satiate any palate. The range of grape flavors, texture and fruit concentration is huge. It’s available in everything from bubbles, to a salty, barely pink Côtes de Provence.

Dhal Smith, UchiDhal Smith, Beverage Director, Uchi/Uchiko
Smith joined Uchi in 2009, where his extensive travels in Asia fueled a fascination with the history and culture of the wine and sake on the menu. Rodil, who was beverage director at the time, encouraged Smith to become a certified sake professional. That education was the beginning of his passion for food and beverage pairings and how the right match can elevate the experience.

What was your first memorable wine? It was a Châteauneuf-du-Pape about six years ago with a former roommate who was a wine rep. I was struck by all that it had going on. There was great depth of fruit, leather, tar, savory, and it had this really meaty texture. They are still some of my favorite wines.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Jameson. 

Your favorite food and wine pairing? I really love pairing sweeter wines with meat. Instead of red wine, choose Riesling Spätlese or Chenin Blanc that has some richness that goes great with beef, lamb and pork. The acid cuts right through the fat and the ripe fruit balances the savoriness. A pairing that I love to do at Uchi is a Norwegian mackerel with truffle oil and yellow tomato on top with Royal Tokaji dessert wine. The mackerel is quite gamey and savory along with the truffle and the fruit and acidity of the wine is a perfect match.   

What should Austinites drink right now? Craft beer is blowing up right now and I think that brewers are really pushing the boundaries seeking out new and different nuances. Whether it’s barrel-aging or the use of some indigenous yeast, beer is becoming so varied — and almost wine-like in some instances. For wine, I choose Riesling because it is so versatile and it’s possible to find one that will pair with almost anything. They will age for decades and continue to gain complexity.

Tickets for the third annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, which take place May 7 at Brazos Hall, are available here.

This story was originally published on CultureMap. Disclosure: I am a CultureMap Tastemaker Award Judge.

Photo Credits:

  • Craig Collins – photo courtesy of Nils Juul-Hansen
  • Josh Loving – photo courtesy of Bill Sallans
  • Bill Norris – photo courtesy of Bill Sallans
  • June Rodil – photo courtesy of Qui
  • Dhal Smith – photo courtesy of Uchi/Uchiko
  • All other photos by me.

What are you drinking? 

 

Win tickets to “Official Drink of Austin” cocktail competition and Texas spirit showcase

Official Drink of Austin What is better than a room full of skilled bartenders from the top bars in Austin mixing excellent cocktails for you? Getting free tickets to the Official Drink of Austin competition courtesy of Austin Food & Wine Alliance and What Are You Drinking! That’s what.

 The reincarnated booze bash returns this Thursday, February 20, after a two year nap to test the skills of six bar teams from drink.well., Four Seasons Hotel, Midnight Cowboy, qui, Weather Up, and Whisler’s to see who wins the title of the Official Drink of Austin. The cocktail competition, hosted by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance and Tipsy Texan will be held 7–10 pm AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center to raise funds for culinary grants awarded by the Alliance.

AT&T Conference Center Map“We want to showcase the Texas spirits industry in this event,” said Austin Food & Wine Alliance executive director, Mariam Parker. “When the Official Drink of Austin contest was started by the Austin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and Tito’s Vodka about a decade ago, Tito’s was the primary distillery in the state. Now there are more than 40 distillers operating in the state and 13 participating in our event.”

Book your cab ride ahead of time, because tasting your way through this party could make you a tipsy Texan. The competitors will be set up in the middle of the room, showing off their skills and serving samples to guests. They will be surrounded by a phalanx of Texas distilleries and local chefs. Not only will you be able to taste the Official Drink of Austin contest entries, but you will be able to sample cocktails featuring Texas spirits including Deep Eddy Vodka, Dripping Springs Vodka, Dulce Vida Organic Tequila, Genius Gin, Paula Texas Spirits, Red River Whiskey, Tequila 512, Tito’s Vodka, Treaty Oak Distilling, White Hat Rum, and Z Tequila.

Bob your head to booty music provided DJ ulovei while noshing on nibbles served by some of the hottest chefs in town including Josh Watkins and Plinio Sandalio of The Carillon, Peter Maffei of Finn & Porter, Camden Stuerzenberger of Fork & Vine, Jean Pierre Lacoste of Frank, John Lichtenberger of Peche, Lawrence Kocurek of TRACE, Mat Clouser of Swift’s Attic, Kristine Kittrell of Weather Up, Eric Silverstein of The Peached Tortilla, Scott Higby of TRIO, and Anthony Sobotik and Chad Palmatier of Lick’s Honest Ice Cream.

The format of the competition has changed a bit this year, with a change to a team competition rather than individual bartenders battling. The six participating a five-member bar teams were chosen from a field of twenty entrants who submitted three drink recipes made with at least one, one-ounce Texas spirit as the main ingredient.

David Alan, Tipsy Texan

The six finalist bars were chosen to compete in an intense process by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance executive director, Mariam Parker, Alliance board member, Michael Bepko, and professional bartender and drinks author, David Alan (aka the Tipsy Texan) who was instrumental in establishing the original Official Drink competition.

“It was not easy to pick the six finalists by any means,” said Parker. “To earn a spot in the competition, bar teams had to bring something unique. We wanted to see special cocktails. For example, one of the drinks the Drink.well team submitted featured a foam made with Jester King beer. We have such a creative community and many of the bartenders are artistic. It will be fun to see how their ideas translate into the cocktail. ”

At the Official Drink event, contestants will present a set of cocktails for each judge that are made with no more than six components including alcohol and non-alcohol elements like drops, rinses and dashes. They will be given 17 minutes to wow the judges with showmanship, creativity, craft and taste. The crowd will be in on the act awarding People’s Choice points to each team’s overall score. The two teams with the highest scores will throw it down in a drink off live on stage, mixing their best cocktails for the judges.

Jason KosmasThe judges will have their work cut out for them. The panel is packed with exceptional credentials. Jason Kosmas, has made his mark in the cocktail world as co-founder of the 86 Company and helped spark the classic cocktail scene New York City as co-founder of Employees Only and Macao Trading Co. He will be looking for touches of Austin when marking his ballot.

“It will be important that the cocktails represent the city by capturing the balance between the funkiness, the nerdiness, and the fun,” said Kosmas.

He is also looking for drinks that aren’t over done. “The cocktail scene has gotten into the place where drinks have gotten crazy with bold ingredients,” said Kosmas. “It’s been said that the greatest technique that any chef can exercise is restraint. The same is true for cocktails. Don’t make it too complicated. It doesn’t need to be complex, it just needs to taste good. Sometimes bartenders just need to stop before they put their last ingredient in.”

That sounds like a recipe for success. The winners get the honor of touting the title of Austin’s Official Drink for the entire year. The official drink will be featured at Austin Food & Wine Alliance events throughout the year.

Win free tickets!

Tickets are $65 each to attend the event, but one lucky winner will receive two tickets. All you have to do is answer the following question:

“What two Texas spirits were included in the winning cocktail recipe from the 2011 Drink Local Night?”

Submit your answer in the comment section below. One winner will be chosen at random from all correct submissions.

What are you drinking? 

Photo of Jason Kosmas taken by Dallas Morning News Staff Photographer

5 favorite holiday cocktails of Austin movers and shakers

Ruby Jule and Coco LectricIn between the office parties, your neighbors’ holiday parties and your friends’ crazy Christmas parties, there are bound to be a few times during the holidays when you find yourself without an invitation for an evening out. That’s no reason to bypass holiday cheer. Five prominent Austinites share recipes for their go-to seasonal drinks to order at a favorite bar or to mix at home.

Booze and Burlesque

Ruby Joule and Coco Lectric, co-founders and headliners of The Jigglewatts Burlesque troupe, keep a busy schedule with performances every Friday at theGibson Lounge in Maggie Mae’s on Sixth Street, at private events, as well as in other singing and acting gigs. They also take the show on the road, with performances in places such as Las Vegas and Montreal, where burlesque is see a high art.

All of that work is paying off for the electric duo, with accolades piling up. Joule, a classically trained ballet dancer, has been named “Crown Princess of Burlesque,” at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival 2013. Lectric, a classically trained dancer, actor and vocalist, has landed the No. 5 spot on the “Burlesque Top 50” list compiled by 21st Century Burlesque Magazine.

It’s not all silky long gloves and twirling tassels. Joule and Lectric like to sip and enjoy an occasional cocktail at home or in quiet bars where they can linger over a conversation. The Gibson Lounge, where they have a Friday-night residency, fits the bill with cozy furniture. “I like the Gibson because the serve all-fresh squeezed juices here,” says Joule.

Her go-to holiday potion is a twist on the Cherry Frost, a combination of black cherry liqueur, brandy and crushed ice, topped off with sparkling white wine that is at home at any Christmas party. Joule says, “The brandy has a warming effect for cold days, the champagne makes it fancy and cherry liqueur gives it that little pizzazz. Of course, it’s gluten-free and vegan.”

Ruby Frost

  • 3 ounces champagne
  • .25 ounce Cherry Herring liqueur
  • .25 ounce brandy

Pour all ingredients together and garnish with a cherry.

Lectric likes to imagine escaping the chill of December to soak in the sun on a tropical island. She says, “I prefer an escapist drink that is light and tart. I like to indulge over the holidays with extra treats, so a crisp drink made with fresh-squeezed lemon juice and tequila hits the spot for me. Besides it’s Paleo friendly and gluten free.”

Coco’s Island Getaway

  • 1.25 ounce Tequila Avión Silver
  • .75 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • Fill with club soda

Shake and strain over ice and serve in a tumbler with a lemon garnish.

If they fully gave in to the mood of these drinks, Joule and Lectric would dance on stage together inside a dueling duo of oversized margarita glass and champagne tulip with sugared rims. Lectric purrs, “I love Latin dances, and tequila makes everyone want to dance extremely sultry dances with a lot of hips.”

Joule counters, “I would have a lot of rhinestones on in my dance, because I need to sparkle like the champagne. The music would be a dirty, bluesy swing. Underneath the glitter, I like a little grit.”

I’ll drink to that.

Keith KreegerThe Old Fashioned Potter

Keith Kreeger, the creative hands behind the art flowing forth from the Kreeger Pottery studio, is enjoying a rocket ride of success, with his art showing up in such swank restaurants as Pearl & Ash in New York and the ultrahot Qui here in Austin. He’s come a long way from his humble beginnings as a summer-school pottery student at Skidmore College.

Kreeger recalls, “I took one potter class in college and completely fell in love with the process. I was in the studio 14 hours a day and made a ton of ugly pots that I thought were great.”

After completing school, he owned a craft gallery on Cape Cod for a dozen years. The gorgeous Texas weather and his wife’s family’s ties to the state eventually brought him to Austin. “When you marry a Texan, you tacitly agree that someday you, too, will be a Texan,” he says.

It turns out that becoming a Texan is a really good thing for Kreeger.

“Austin has been really good to me,” he says. “I thrive in this creative community. I’ve always had my pottery followers, and I really appreciate those craft lovers. The past couple of years, the trend of people being deeply interested in the origin of their food and wine has carried over into people caring about the kind of plates the food is served on. I’ve been fortunate to be in some good places, and things have grown really well.”

His days at Skidmore in the bitterly cold winters of Saratoga Springs, New York, influenced his taste in cocktails, too. When he was a senior, a professor took him to the cool, grown-up whiskey bar 9 Maple Ave and introduced him to the Old Fashioned. “It felt cool ordering it, because none of the other students were in that dark, mahogany-paneled bar,” said Kreeger. “It became my cocktail. Now I drink it when it gets cold outside.”

Kreeger’s Old Fashioned

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 healthy dashes orange bitters
  • 2 dashes Angostura
  • 2 ounces Angel’s Envy  Bourbon

Muddle the sugar cube with the bitters in the bottom of a rocks glass. Stir in one ounce of the bourbon over two big ice cubes until the sugar is dissolved. Add the remaining bourbon and stir with two more ice cubes. Garnish with an orange twist.

Kreeger makes a mean cocktail at home because he is drawn to process of making them, just as he is with cooking and in the studio. He believes in following the right steps to get the right result. He is just as happy to order an Old Fashioned at Whistler’sor Weather Up, as he enjoys the experience, the craft and the process that goes into those places.

Kate Hersch Cocktail Napkin Queen’s Morning Crush

Even if Kate Hersch didn’t display her wry wit on linen cocktail napkins, the twinkle in her eye would reveal the cleverness bubbling under the surface. Hersch, owner of August Morgan, started the company seven years ago by repurposing vintage needle point pillows and selling them at stores like Barneys and One Kings Lane. She is now branching out into other home accessories, such as acrylic trays, blankets and those whimsical napkins.

Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice trying to find a place to contain all of the water, Hersch uses August Morgan as a place to try to capture her overflowing creativity. She seems to be a never-ending fount of droll cocktail humor splashed across tidy white cloth napkins.

“My inspiration comes when I drink,” muses Hersch. She started creating the cocktail napkins two years ago with four patterns and has been continually adding designs ever since.

For Hersch, the holidays are an excuse to start her inspiration engine early in the day. She said, “My holiday cocktail of choice is a Bloody Mary to start the morning off right. I like them spicy with a lot of olives. I like to keep it local with Deep Eddy VodkaDripping Springs Vodka or Tito’s Vodka.”

To keep things going, there is no reason to mix just one at a time.

August Morgan cocktail napkinsHersch Bloody Mary

  • 12 ounces Deep Eddy Vodka
  • 3 cups tomato juice
  • 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • .5 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1.5 cloves garlic, passed through a garlic press
  • .25 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. steak sauce
  • 2 tsp. cracked black pepper
  • 2 tsp. celery salt
  • 2 tsp. Tabasco
  • 1 tsp. wasabi
  • 1 tsp. dried ginger powder
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • Several speared olives to garnish

Excluding the vodka and garnishes, marry the ingredients in a blender. Fill a glass pitcher with ice, add the vodka and stir in the tomato mixture. Pour into ice-filled pint glasses, then garnish with a totem pole of olives and a stalk of celery. Makes 10 drinks.

When I asked her what new cocktail napkin design this Bloody Mary would inspire, she barely paused before she quipped, “Do you know those Chinese Crested Dogs? You know the ones that are bald except for a flowing tuft on its head, paws and tail? I’d have a picture of one of those with its paw perched on a tipped over bottle with a caption underneath saying, ‘hair of the dog.’”

I think we may see several new cocktail napkin designs from August Morgan after this holiday season.

Tim League Alamo Movie Mogul’s Midnight Run

Tim League, the founder and CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, the theater chain known for its indie films, quote-alongs, film festivals and in theater dining, has a deep appreciation for good movies, food and cocktails. When League gets a hankerin’ for holiday hooch, he doesn’t have to go outside the bars in his theaters. However, he prefers to head to Midnight Cowboy, a former brothel turned cozy cocktail lounge that he opened across the street from the Alamo Ritz along with Alamo Drafthouse beverage director Bill Norris and bar manager Brian Dressel.

League would rather head to the Cowboy for a cocktail than go through the machinations on his own. “At home,” he says, “I don’t make too many complicated cocktails.  I usually drink beer or wine. My dad and I built a wine cellar a couple of years ago, so I tend to open a bottle rather than stir a cocktail. I go to Midnight Cowboy regularly for my cocktails. I love their creations, and I can justify regular visits by calling it quality control assurance work.”

For his Christmasy cocktails, League leans toward classic whiskey drinks, such as twists on an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Vieux Carre. “This year, though, I’ve been quite smitten with a riff on the Vieux Carre that is built with rum instead of whiskey,” he says. “They [the crew at Midnight Cowboy] call it the Navesink Towers, named after the Navesink Lighthouses in New Jersey, home of Laird’s Distillery, the producers of the Bonded Apple Brandy in the drink. Javier and Brian from Midnight Cowboy perfected the drink, and it has become my 2013 favorite holiday cocktail.”

The Navesink Towers

  • .75 ounce Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy
  • .75 ounce Smith and Cross Navy-Strength Rum
  • .75 ounce Cocchi Americano
  • .25 ounce Apfelkorn
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 dashes Josh Loving’s 5-spice bitters

Stirred and served over a large ice cube in an old fashioned glass and garnished with an orange twist.

When asked which film he would to watch to pair his holiday drink, League replied, “The Vieux Carre is a New Orleans cocktail, so if I were to watch a movie while sipping a Navesink Towers, I would have to go with the greatest New Orleans film of all time: Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant.” Damn, that’s a good choice.

Whether you head to your favorite bar or make these drinks at home, these Christmas cocktails are sure to make your eyes twinkle and your cheeks rosy.

What are you drinking?