Editor's note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve started to see certain big name chefs grow to demi-god celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars, and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unspoken. Next in Line is a series celebrating back of the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Cesar Aguilar
Position: Bar Manager
Hometown: I’m from McAllen, Texas. I’m from the Valley and I got here in 1995 to attend school. I went to UT and all the while I didn’t have very much money so I had to work full-time jobs. And the only one that really allowed me to do my studies and make money and still manage my schedule had always been the service industry, so I got started pretty young.
What was your first service industry job? I started off as a busboy, at 16, at one of the Ninfa’s restaurants there. It’s an old Tex-Mex institution that originated in Houston. Then, when I first got to Austin, my first job was at Thundercould Subs, making sandwiches and then from there I got into waiting tables. I waited tables at Ninfa’s for a couple years, then I started waiting tables at Mother’s Cafe. I left Austin for a little while, returned home, and when I came back, that’s when I started bartending, first at Vivo, and then from there I was at Fonda San Miguel, La Condesa, and then [Whisler's].
Where did you first become acquainted with classic cocktails? I had a limited knowledge concerning classics coming into Whisler's, but I was very acquainted with doing craft volume via La Condesa. I knew a few of the basics, like old fashioneds, Manhattans, Negronis, but through Whisler's I've expanded that repertoire quite a bit. The exciting part of this bar is that we are all on this journey together. Some of my staff comes with a classic cocktail background and others don't, but this allows us to discover these drinks together and adapt them to the Whisler's context. For education, we rely on the usual suspects: Dale Degroff, Jim Meehan, David Wondrich. I even wrote a letter to the BarSmarts program, a basic bar education program, and was able to provide the education courses and exams to my staff. That's how we intend to make this staff one of the most gifted in town.
I have utmost respect for all the classic drinks and I think that they develop someone’s technique, but I think what’s most appealing to our customers is our signature drinks. And typically those come from a nod to classic drinks. And, moving forward, I think that’s what’s most important to our concept. There’s so many great classic drinks and I can respect them all, but it is the 21st century, and I think the drinks we’re making now should be drinks people are referencing in the mid-century and the end of the century. I want us to be progressive.
Who were your biggest inspirations along the way? You know, it’s an interesting industry and there’s a revolving door so you end up meeting a lot of people. The first person who gave me a good impression of how to run a business was this manager at Ninfa’s named Stuart. He was the most friendly, cordial person but he was also very precise. And when it came down to making a decision that was business-oriented, he didn’t hold back — he was super stern. If you were late, you were fired. There was no grey area with him. He was super fair, but he was also not to be taken advantage of. So, in a managerial capacity, I do remember him having a nice impact on me.
And then in bartending, I had a dear friend who’s now passed, but he was the one that trained me. And he was just this big, barrel-chested guy named Chasen Lewellen [at Vivo], tattoos all over his arms. And he was a volume bartender. He knew how to crank out drinks and crank out drinks fast. So he taught me raw bartending. Bartending has changed so much now, with the cocktail culture. But with him I learned how to be fast and efficient and how to organize myself... With drinks, it’s an interesting thing because, with the craft movement, people have a certain expectation with how soon they want to receive their drink. Where I cut my teeth was learning how to make drinks fast, and now I find myself trying to reconcile both worlds.
And then there’s Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki, from when I was at La Condesa. I would not think about food or drink the way I do if I had never come into contact with these two wonderful people. They got me to think about big, bold flavors, beautiful presentation, balance, subtlety, and just an overall product that you can be proud of. They were so meticulous, neat, and the epitome of people that don't cut corners. They really helped shape my ideas of what a business can be. It's this fusion of art and business! I'm very grateful for that impression they left on me.
What do you love about love most about bartending? For me, it’s the opportunity to engage with a customer... We run a cocktail bar so, to me, the cocktail is a bridge. The cocktail is something we make but it’s a privilege for us — it’s a bridge between us and the customer. So my favorite part about bartending is that: the whole show we put on, the beautiful ambience, the environment, the setting, the genuine happiness behind the bar. I want that transmitted to our customers. When that is transmitted, that’s my favorite part. We’re into making drinks but, most importantly, I’m into making memories. So that’s what bartending at 36 years old affords me... having that opportunity to engage with somebody on a very human level.
What’s your favorite music while tending bar? When I’m doing inventory, I do this thing called Inventory Radio to help me get by because I’m usually here on very little sleep and delirious. So I’ll post what I’m playing on Facebook and people will reply back. It helps me get by because I feel like I’m doing inventory with someone else. So, today I was playing country by the Louvin Brothers, a great album called Satan Is Real.
But when we’re back here, we’re super conscious of the fact that this place is an intimate kinda setting, when all the candles are lit. So the vibe has to be good back here and the music up front, we kinda let it fly. We have two different Spotify accounts and we encourage the staff to play stuff that nobody’s ever heard before.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? I’m a vegetarian, but I’m a big old ball of contradictions, because I’m an avid fisherman. It’s purely as a meditation. Fishing to me is where I go out on the water and get myself straight. I’ll turn on a fishing program on TV that’s not like Bass Master’s Classic or whatever, it’ll be people fishing and talking about what it means to them, and they’ll always have this semi-religious experience. My girlfriend will be there and I’ll be like, "See babe? That’s what I’m doing when I’m out on the water, getting my soul straight!" So I love doing that. It just gives me a chance to be alone. In the bar business, when you’re kinda overseeing all the operations, there’s really no turning off. Any single thing can come up and you’ve got to fix it... so that means my head is constantly buzzing, all this clamor. But when I fish, it’s just me and the water and the fish.
I also play guitar and I play every day. I like writing songs, too. I don’t get to do it as much as I used to, but it doesn’t change the fact that I still love it. If it got to the point where music and other artistic activities that are important to my life were completely trumped by what I was doing, then I’d have to reevaluate myself. Because if I don’t have that balance, then I’m of no real good use to anyone.
What’s your favorite drink on the menu at Whisler’s? People keep asking about this Weedwacker cocktail that we made, and it was basically a rip on a Diablo, with a spicy blackberry and serrano syrup as opposed to using a creme de cassise. That one’s been really successful. I made this really nice cocktail that was mezcal, Cocchi Americano, really nice grapefruit peel notes and then we made a grapefruit cinnamon shrub and added a touch of lime juice. It’s smoky, it’s citrusy, and then it gets a big ol’ grapefruit swab right over the top.
It’s funny because cocktail people rarely crave a cocktail! You’re around them all day long and there’s so much production and logistics involved, by the end of it you’re just like... you know what? I just need a break from you! I love you, but I need a break!
Understandable! What do you typically find yourself drinking then? I’m getting prepared to drink like an old man, so lately I’ve just been drinking mezcal neat. I’ve been drinking a lot of sherry, a lot of brandies and cognacs. I’ll start off with craft beer and then that’ll make me full so I’ll go to something that’s a sipper like brandy or sherry or mezcal.
Favorite places to drink in Austin? On Sunday night, I love to take my gal to Weather Up. They’re great friends of ours and they’re all great behind the stick back there. I’m a friend of Mike Sanders at Drink.Well and I love their bar for good eats and a nice drink. Believe it or not, I’m a huge fan of all the craft beers that are happening. So, I like visiting Craft Pride and ABGB, and I like visiting the guys at Black Star Co-op. One of my favorite places to go is Gourmands. It’s close to my house and I go in there so much to do computer work and drink a 512 IPA. It just feels like home.
As far as bar programs go, I keep a close eye on what Jason Stevens is doing. He's made one of my all time favorite cocktails at Bar Congress, I believe it was called the Scarlet Lantern. Tequila, Zucca, strawberry something or other, and anyway it was great. I wish him the best with his new projects. I also keep track of Justin Elliot as he seems to be gaining some traction down at Qui. It's nice to see East Austin getting love that it deserves. And I can always rely on Brian Dressel and the Midnight Cowboy crew to put out a solid product. There is great sense of camaraderie down there and I always have a great time. I'm also looking forward to the Half-Step crew making a big splash this year.