Meet the tastemakers
These 6 Austin bartenders are serving up the city's best sips
To outsiders, Austin is all about the bars: the insanely crowded, virtually anonymous bars slinging alcohol as fast as possible. To insiders, it’s even more about the bars: the ones with drink menus that highlight unusual ingredients, with mocktails that make flavor top priority, and with friendly staff that protect the neighborhood's character. It all comes down to the bartenders to maintain that balance.
The 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards reflect how deeply connected and consistently innovative our favorite bars are. This year, five out of six nominees for Bartender of the Year have another Tastemaker connection. Some have past nominations, one even a past win. Others work with a current bar or restaurant nominee, or have even worked with each other.
Read about these six unshakeable Austin bar scene trailblazers. Then, come join us at Fair Market on April 28 for our annual Tastemaker Awards tasting event and awards ceremony. We'll unveil the winner in this category and many others — tickets are on sale now.
Erin Ashford, Olamaie
Olamaie appears four times across categories in this year’s Tastemaker Awards, and this time it’s thanks to the efforts of beverage director Erin Ashford. The Southern restaurant focuses partially on what one might expect — whiskey, bourbon, mezcal, and rye — but brings in other lighter flavors like melon with Texas-made Treaty Oak gin and midori, or as the star in a mocktail. Ashford won the bartending Tastemaker Award in 2018, has been featured in Imbibe, PUNCH, and The Somm Journal, and is working on opening a new cocktail bar this fall called Holiday.
Amanda Jones, Nickel City
Another cross-category Tastemaker Awards nominee, neighborhood bar Nickel City celebrates a corresponding nominee in bartending. Amanda Jones has been on the scene for 14 years, spending three of them at Nickel City. Jones is the people’s bartender, protecting Nickel City’s history as a dive, and bringing some fun new twists. Famous for its seasonal pop-ups, this bar is all about attitude, and great drinks are an added bonus.
Ricky Cobia, Big Country Foods
Ricky Cobia, a multi-year Tastemaker Awards nominee, is always doing something new. Best known for his time at Watertrade — the very moody, very upscale bar servicing omakase restaurant Otoko at the South Congress Hotel — Cobia has finally canned that bartending charisma. He lends his talent to Big Country, a hard seltzer brand, working on every step of the canned cocktail process from lab to marketing. The team has perfected two cans so far: a grapefruit and lemon “Cowpoke,” and a hibiscus and ginger “Jenny Lane.”
Justin Lavenue, The Roosevelt Room
The Roosevelt Room, up for Bar of the Year, has been a local favorite since 2015 for its extensive historical drink list and elevated atmosphere. Co-owners Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis are at the helm of it all. Whether Lavenue is teaching patrons about a particular liquor, giving bartending demos, or launching a gorgeously renovated mobile bar (with a jaw-dropping 75-drink menu), he’s all about elevating the community. Unwilling to slow down, the decorated bartender is currently pursuing a Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) Master's certification.
Cory Starr, Tiki Tatsu-Ya
When Tiki Tatsu-Ya arrived in Austin last October, this theme park of a bar created its own niche. Up for 2022 Bar of the Year in its first year, it never misses an opportunity to dazzle in the campiest way possible. Beverage manager Cory Starr dove straight into that excess with 200 bottles of rum, reported the Austin Chronicle. Tackling perhaps the most widely recognized (and heavy handed) genre in mixology, Starr’s strong sense of tiki whimsy is balanced by impeccable recipe-making skills honed over five years in Hualalai.
Sharon Yeung, Half Step/Daijoubu
Sharon Yeung, another multi-year Tastemaker nominee, just brought her pop-up Daijoubu out of Texas for the first time, heading straight to her hometown. Born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Yeung teamed up with her Japanese-Californian friend Caer Maiko to bring “super Asian cocktails” to Texas bar-goers’ attention, after the pair noticed each other’s annoyance at the underdeveloped beverage lists at Asian restaurants. The charismatic bartender at Half Step has been featured in Esquire, Imbibe, and the Daily Beast.