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Meet the Tastemaker

Craft cocktail guru Adam Bryan finally goes on record with plans for his new neighborhood bar

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Adam Bryan Photo by Jessica Pages

If you like craft cocktails, and you’ve been a regular on the Austin bar scene for the past few years, then you’ve probably run into Adam Bryan. A 2012 Tastemaker nominee, Bryan is the mild-mannered, serious looking gentlemen behind the bar sporting a signature curled mustache. 

Bryan is one of five nominees up for a 2012 Tastemaker Award in the category of best mixologist. In the four years he has lived in Austin — by way of Portland — he has consulted on a number of cocktail menus, launched the cocktail program at Eastside Show Room, and introduced the art of craft cocktails to the fine dining scene at Bar Congress.

But in January, Bryan quietly exited his lauded role at Bar Congress leaving a bewildered flock of fans — including myself — wondering where their favorite bar hand had gone. And while the rumor mill quickly began churning out whispers of his plan to open his own concept, Bryan has remained very hush-hush on what exactly those plans might be. 

But now he’s ready to talk. Turns out he’s working on a new bar that he hopes will bridge the gap between the casual dive bar around the corner and fine dining cocktail bar that has wooed many Austinites in the past year. Motel, aptly named for its vague-yet-familiar connotation, will open on the corner of MLK and Chicon sometime in the early summer. 

Motel, aptly named for its vague-yet-familiar connotation, will open on the corner of MLK and Chicon sometime in the early summer. 

What can we expect? As Bryan explains it, Motel will be a neighborhood bar, first. Something he feels he took for granted while living in his home region of the Pacific Northwest, where he didn’t have to drive clear across town to get a well made drink delivered with great service.

Instead, he was used to having a few options well within walking or biking distance from home. 

“When I got here four years ago, trying to find a proper cocktail in Austin was next to impossible,” says Bryan. “Bill Norris was doing some great things at Fino and Péché was just getting online. But that was it. Once we opened the doors to the Eastside Show Room, we really introduced Austin to cocktails.” 

From there, Bryan describes his progression in the craft cocktail scene as a zero-to-sixty acceleration from pre-prohibition drinks straight into serving sophisticated ingredient-driven drinks at Bar Congress. And then Bryan realized that something was missing: 

“Once Bar Congress was up and running, what became strikingly apparent to me was that we forgot the middle ground,” says Bryan. “We went straight to 60 without driving 30-miles-an-hour first. People may want a great, quality cocktail, but not everyone is interested in having that in a fine dining atmosphere.” 

In his mind, the clear choice was to create a more relaxed locale that toned down what some may consider “pomp and circumstance,” without diminishing the caliber of the cocktail or the attention to detail in service. 

“With Motel, our goal is to take the best of the high end cocktail bar with the spirits, staff  and attention to detail that go along with that and combine that with the approachability of a regular bar somewhere in a neighborhood environment.”

When Motel finally does open, we can expect a sleek and very intimate lounge with a decisively mid-century design and an extensive, yet approachable menu of classic cocktails — and a few snacks from a yet-to-be-revealed outsourced restaurant kitchen. With only 17 seats inside, opening to a more spacious enclosed patio with somewhat limited seating, we can’t over exaggerate just how "intimate” this new place will be. 

Though Bryan has guarded architectural renderings of the space from the general public, imagine Southern California circa the 1950s with a modern Danish-meets-Asian clean lines and polish. Having seen the designs, there’s almost a certain feel of early James Bond crossed with hints of the classic mid-century design we’re reminded of from hit shows such as Mad Men. (Though with a little less commercial intention.)

 With only 17 seats inside, opening to a more spacious enclosed patio with somewhat limited seating, we can’t over exaggerate just how "intimate” this new place will be. 

“This style is personal to me,” says Bryan. “It’s a point in time design wise that I’ve always loved. The Danish modern styles with the Southern California influences. It’s an aesthetic that really appeals to me.” 

By “classic cocktails,” I mean the type that gave rise to the “three-martini lunches” of the 1960s, including whiskey-driven drinks such as the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the whiskey sour, as well as gin-based cocktails such as the Tom Collins, the sloe gin fizz and of course, the classic gin martini. Looking for fruity or playful seasonal menus to rotate through every few months? This isn’t your bar. Bryan wants to stay true to the classics in an effort to give his customers a really foundation for where many of today’s modern beverages derive. 

“I want it to be something that is reliable and consistent as well as impressive and delicious,” says Bryan. “What does drink 'X' at the newest bar in town really mean to someone if they don’t know the roots of where it came from? That’s not the direction I want to go. I want to offer a classic menu staff trained on the history of our drinks to give customers what they’re looking for when it comes to knowing a certain standard for classic cocktails.” 

In the past few months, Bryan has done his best to stay focused on bringing Motel to fruition. But he’s had a few welcome distractions including a regular bar tending session on Monday nights at the Dive Bar Lounge on Guadalupe.

He’s also helped a few of his cocktail crafting colleagues to open up their new bars including Drink. Well. and Midnight Cowboy, the former brothel on East 6th Street that opened this week as a new high-end, reservation-only cocktail bar downtown from Alamo Drafthouse’s celebrated Austin bar man Bill Norris (a fellow Tastemaker nominee) and business partner Brian Dressel (Eastside Show Room, Congress) .

“If I can stop helping other people open their bars for 5 minutes, I could get this new bar open,” jokes Bryan, who concedes he’s really happy to see a thriving cocktail culture developing with the likes of Contigo, Tigress, Haddington’s and through new places such as Drink.Well, the Midnight Cowboy and the soon-to-open 400 Rabbits. (Another Alamo Drafthouse/Bill Norris concept.) 

With a throng of bars such as these making their mark across town, you would think competition would be fierce. Perhaps in another city. But in Austin, the general sentiment among this growing pack of rising star bartenders is “the more the merrier.” (Double entendre fully intended.) In fact, if Bryan’s “guest bar tending” gigs are any indication, when one new place opens all hands are on deck to help get it off to a good start. That warms the heart just as much as the drinks they serve.

In Austin, the general sentiment among this growing pack of rising star bartenders is “the more the merrier.”

“The truth is we all just really like to drink,” Bryan says jokingly. “If we can create an event or purpose for us to all get together, we end up having a great time and end the occasion with a bottle of Fernet. In general, we’re really a fun loving group of people.” 

Considering the number of drinks these guys churn out on a busy night, creating ways to have a good time with it is understandable. 

“When we’re behind the bar, we have to be focused,” says Bryan who has, at times, come off as being “too serious” behind the bar. “It’s not easy mixing a lot of the drinks we make while customers are talking to us at the same time. If you try to talk to a chef when he’s making a dish, you probably won’t get the best result. I’m not really as knee-jerk friendly as a lot of Texans. I’ve just never been a ‘smiley’ kind of guy. But I also don’t take myself too seriously and people who know me know that I like to have a good laugh.” 

If great drinks and a good laugh from Bryan are the least of what we can expect from Motel in a few months, I think we’re all in for a stellar new addition to the Austin bar scene. And though Bryan doesn’t have any official plans set in stone, he’s hoping that Motel will be the first of a handful of similar bars for him to open in pockets around town. 

While Bryan puts the finishing touches on Motel, he will also be working on a cocktail with Waterloo Gin from Austin-based Treaty Oak Distilling for the 2012 Tastemaker Awards. Having been a fan of the distillery’s original release, Treaty Oak Rum, he’s also impressed with the Waterloo Gin.

“The Treaty Oak Distilling guys are just nice guys and that goes a long way in my book,” says Bryan. “I think their products are solid. Their Waterloo is a great interpretation of Texas gin. It’s the best Texas has to offer so far.”

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