Meet the Tastemakers

Rabbits, Cowboys and Highballs: A conversation with cocktail wizard Bill Norris

Rabbits, Cowboys and Highballs: A conversation with cocktail wizard Bill Norris

Austin Photo Set: News_Tom_meet the tastemakers_bill Norris_april 2012
Bill Norris Photo by Bill Sallans

If you've ever gone in search of a classic cocktail in Austin, odds are good that you've enjoyed the work of Bill Norris. An Austin transplant since 2004 by way of the East Coast, Norris has come to represent all that is right about the cocktail movement: He's out to entertain, educate, and improve the Austin drinking scene, and we're all benefiting from his handiwork.

Norris' first high profile role was behind the bar at FINO, where he worked for five years before departing for Haddington's in 2010. After establishing the cocktail and bar program there, Norris was offered a dream job last year: He's now the beverage director for all Alamo Drafthouse venues across the country, including The Highball, the in-theater bars and the new tequila-focused satellite bar 400 Rabbits at Alamo Slaughter.

The Drafthouse has also just opened a new, reservations-only craft cocktail bar called Midnight Cowboy in the former location of a "modeling studio" on East 6th Street. Mr. Norris called us last week while commuting back from a Houston Drafthouse to discuss his two new projects, the Culturemap Tastemaker awards, and the mise en place required to make great drinks for a busy crowd.

CM: You have two Austin bars that have opened in the past month, and I wanted to start by asking about 400 Rabbits. When you first found out about the project and the Southwest Austin location, was it an interesting challenge since there's really nothing else in terms of Circle C area bars?
Norris: It's an interesting opportunity, I think. I think it's a real opportunity to build something that is a neighborhood place. Where we have a group of people who are there once, twice, three times a week, who live locally, who aren't there to go to a movie, but are just there to go to 400 Rabbits because they like it and it is in their neighborhood.
CM: And the focus of tequila and mescal, was that inspired by your travels to Mexico when you were doing the tours of the different distilleries a while back [as documented here]?
Norris: Somewhat, yeah. You know, when I started at the Alamo, the plans were already in place to build a separate bar there. . .Austin loves tequila. It's one of the biggest tequila markets in the country. And so if we can do something that would take a spirit that is often misunderstood, and thought to be this kind of raucous frat boy — not very good thing, and [showcase it]. Because actually, at its best, it is truly a world class spirit that I would put on par with single malt scotch, or cognac or any of that.
CM: Do you feel like it is an easier sell, perhaps, to people that are novice cocktail drinkers to get them to try a tequila drink than maybe something more brown and stirred?
Norris: I don't know if it is easier! People have, I think, some very pre-conceived notions about tequila out there. If you had a bad experience with a bottle of bad tequila when you were young, which happens to a lot of people — the "spring break" bottle — it might be hard to get you back there.
I just think that the flavor spectrum between, even in a single brand, between the silver and the añejo is so broad, that you can appeal to people who like lighter, white spirit-driven drinks, or you can appeal to those people who like whiskey or booze-forward brown drinks, so I think you can do more with it.
CM: With that space, and with The Highball, the volume of drinks served seems like it would really be a challenge compared to what you experienced during your days at FINO or Haddington's. How do you actually create your drink recipes so that they can be served in that kind of...speedier pace?
Norris: I think you always have to be conscious of it, but at the same time, for inspiration I looked at a bar like Anvil in Houston, which does incredibly intricate drinks at an incredible volume, so….or Rickhouse in San Francisco. It is setting up the actual physical facility in a way that allows the bartenders to produce more quickly. . .You don't have to step in any direction to make it, [everything you need] is just right there ready to go. But yeah, there are certain things that I've thought about doing that we haven't done, and that's more related to the theater I think than the 400 Rabbits, where we have to be cognizant of how much time it takes to produce something. 
CM: I wanted to also talk about Midnight Cowboy, that has been open now for about two weeks, was that originally…
 "[Midnight Cowboy] is so small that it has to be good all the time, or, you know, we're not gonna make it." - Bill Norris
Norris: Yes, two weeks today, I think.
CM: Was that your idea? Or did the Leagues already have that in motion when you joined up last year?
Norris: When I first started to talk to Tim, he mentioned a potential future project that was going to be a cocktail bar, but he didn't tell me what the location was; he hadn't finalized the deal for the building, and then I think they closed on the property right about the same time that I agreed to take the position. So I knew it was coming. Looking at the space, it was a building that was only 11 feet wide. So we had to figure out how to get some value out of that space in a way that…would be awesome. It's so small that it has to be good all the time, or, you know, we're not gonna make it.
CM: You're using a reservation system for entry. How have the first couple weeks been in terms of appointments and drink minimums. Are people adapting quickly to the initial system?
Norris: Yeah. We had a couple early in the first week who said: "You know, I thought, two hours was gonna be way too long — too long of a time to spend here and it just flew by." It's so relaxing to walk in there, especially when Sixth Street is jumping. When that door closes behind you, you can see people's shoulders relax. People have taken to it really well. It's a very relaxed, laid-back, blast. It's been a lot of fun.
CM: In the initial press release about Midnight Cowboy they mentioned that you were going to curate some guest drinks from other bartenders around the country that you admire.
Norris: Yeah, absolutely.
CM: When will that start to happen?
Norris: We'll be rolling those in I hope next week. For the opening, we kind of pulled back a little bit, and just wanted to get the core down solid, because we know South by Southwest was going to be so busy. We have a drink from Matt Tanner at Anvil in Houston, and we have a drink from Josh Harris from San Francisco. And Andy Seymour from New York gave us a drink called the Grand Mar Fresco that's crazy good.

 "[Balcones] are not afraid to try crazy stuff. They're kind of iconoclastic and strange, and they're innovative." - Norris

We're looking to maintain, and rotate the menu in the same way that a really nice restaurant will. You might come in one week and then the next week that thing you had might be gone, but if we still have the ingredients we'll make it. We're always gonna be trying to look for better and better things to do on that menu.
CM: You were nominated for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award, and as part of that, you're going to be collaborating with, a Texas spirit company to do a drink at that ceremony, and you chose to work with Balcones Distilling. What are you planning for the awards, and how will the flavor profiles work for the "Tastemaker" drink?
Norris: I haven't quite nailed that down yet! I've been a little busy. [Laughs] Right now, a little bit every day, I'm just tasting the different things in the Balcones line to see which of their products I want to use and I'm leaning towards either the Brimstone [Corn Whisky] or the Baby Blue right now.
I'm hoping to do something that is both a little bit challenging and also accessible, and I don't know exactly what that's going to be. I chose to work with them because I think their product is really awesome. They're doing stuff in ways that nobody is doing else right now in Texas. They're not afraid to try crazy stuff. They're kind of iconoclastic and strange, and they're innovative.
CM: Obviously your hands are full with two new bars and all the things happening at the Drafthouses right now. What's on tap for the rest of the rest of the year?  Anything else coming down the pike, or is this current phase going to keep you busy for a while?
Norris:  I think the next thing we are scheduled to open is in Denver, it'll be an Alamo Drafthouse, and, I'm looking forward to getting out there a little bit and I hope we can time it so I can get out of town maybe in mid to late summer when it's really hot here.
CM: It would be good to go have a lot of Colorado beers in August.
Norris: We're going to do a 400 Rabbits-type bar in that theater as well, but it won't be a tequila-focused bar. It will have a different focus, and I'm not sure if it's been announced yet, what exactly it is, but it's going to be pretty cool. It's fun to do these theaters with the little bars attached which I hope we do more of. We want to always look at what the local area is about, and there is some really interesting stuff in the Denver area in terms of spirits right now. So that's next.
CM: Thanks for talking with us, Bill.
Norris: Thank you. I'm really looking forward to the Tastemaker event.