Cocktails are big business in Austin, but they wouldn’t be anything without the people behind the bar. That’s why we annually celebrate the talent that keeps our city thumping with our annual Tastemaker Award for Best Bartender.
From a beverage director at a huge hotel to a bar manager at a tiny downtown watering hole, the nominees this year are all at various stages in their careers, but they share a common commitment to quality and hospitality. If you are unfamiliar with these names, pay them a visit before our killer awards ceremony and tasting held on April 12 at Fair Market. We promise they’ll give you something to cheer about.
Erin Ashford, Olamaie
If you are waiting for a table at chef Michael Fojtasek’s graceful showcase, grab a seat in the parlor or veranda and order a cup of bar manager Erin Ashford’s daily punch, a sipper as tied to the DNA of the restaurant as those famous flaky biscuits. Her approach to the bar at Olamaie is similar to that of the kitchen: ingredient-driven first and mindful of a rich Southern heritage (notice her use of chicory and Steen’s cane syrup). It’s an essential reason why Olamaie keeps winding up on so many “best-of” lists.
Jayson Black, Garage
When Jayson Black became bar manager of downtown’s subterranean lounge, he inherited quite a legacy. Since the Best Bar Tastemaker Award was created in 2015, Garage has been a mainstay in the category (it appeared as a finalist in 2015 and 2016) and with Black leading the way, they secured a spot on the 2018 list. With drinks like Molto Buono (an Italian remix of the Mai Tai using grappa, Cynar, and pistachio orgeat) and the Coachwhip (a milk-washed drink using matcha-infused gin and blueberry grenadine), Garage’s cocktail program is as personal as it is scientific.
Ricky Cobia, The Hollow
It used to be that the Austin area’s best bars could only be found a few city blocks, but thanks to pros like Ricky Cobia, the cocktail revolution has reached almost every corner of Central Texas. Although The Hollow sadly announced it would be closing March 16, we are still honoring Cobia for leading a beverage program that honors the history and the culture of his craft, while moving the needle forward with unexpected ingredients like smoked grapefruit or North African spice blend ras el hanout — an approach that just happens to meld beautifully with chef Jacob Hilbert’s wide-ranging menu. Yet ask him about the philosophy of his drinks, and he remains understated, saying succinctly: “Never serve a bad cocktail.”
Brett Esler, Whisler’s
At just five years old, Whisler’s is already an elder statesman of Austin’s constantly evolving nightlife scene. One of the big reasons for that is barman Brett Esler, who is a pivotal part of the team creating Whisler’s ever-changing and wildly ambitious menu. He’s not exactly unsung — his work at Whisler’s and upstairs hideaway Mezcaleria Tobalá has received plenty of national and local press — but any conversation about Austin’s cocktail scene would be incomplete without mentioning him.
Caer Ferguson, The Eleanor
If you were one of the few hundred revelers who struck Instagram gold with a selfie at December’s Miracle on Fifth Street pop-up, thank Caer Ferguson, the person primarily responsible for the over-the-top holiday design. Of course, that’s really just the bow on a package that included a stint as assistant bar manager of the Warehouse District’s Péché and a stretch at downtown’s famously exacting The Roosevelt Room. Now she executes those same rigorous standards as bar manager of Roosevelt’s next-door event venue, The Eleanor.
Andrew Grenz, Fairmont Austin
Need an introduction to Andrew Grenz’s razor-sharp drink making? Look to his 2017 entry into the Austin Food & Wine Alliance’s Official Drink of Austin, made while he was beverage director of Kuneho (full disclosure: I was on the judging panel). A clarified horchata made with mezcal, it didn’t have the flash of some of the other competing cocktails, but the minimalist jolt of flavor is what contemporary craft is all about. Currently, he is the beverage director of Fairmont Austin, where he oversees a program truly worthy of a luxury hotel.
Tacy Rowland, Midnight Cowboy
The general manager of Sixth Street speakeasy Midnight Cowboy, Tacy Rowland is no stranger to the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, having won 2013’s Best Craft Bartender nod for her work at Drink.well. She is also a strident advocate for women in the bar industry, both as a mentor and a participant in competitions like Speed Rack that highlight their contributions while also benefiting breast cancer research (she won the Denver leg in 2015). This year, she is giving Austinites a whole new reason to talk about her as the creator of Midnight Cowboy’s adventurous “The Art of Conversation” menu.
Becca Yannone, Nickel City
It’s fitting that Becca Yannone made her name at neighborhood spots, where the hospitality across the bar is every bit as important as what is stocked behind it. Her inimitable charm and undeniable skill has made her the kind of bartender customers follow no matter where she is pouring drinks. Luckily, her career has included some of Austin’s most storied bars, including the much-missed Eastside Showroom and her most recent gig at buzzy dive Nickel City. Putting smiles on guest’s faces is her favorite thing, she says, “whether it be from sass or flaming tiki drinks.”