Some city’s have a few notable bartenders, but Austin has an embarrassment of riches. So imagine how difficult it was for our judges to winnow down the nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Bartender of the Year.
These eight finalists stand out not just because they make a good drink, but because of their unflagging commitment to hospitality and innovation. Get acquainted with them below before joining us in toasting the winner at our annual awards ceremony and party held April 10 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Ricky Cobia, Watertrade
While last year Ricky Cobia was a nominee for former Georgetown restaurant The Hollow, he now can be found at Watertrade, the bar serving South Congress Hotel’s Otoko. The move suits him. There, he is still able to showcase his far-ranging palate, this time working with one of the most astounding selections of sake and Japanese whiskies in Austin.
Brett Esler, Whisler’s
Patrons can still find Brett Esler behind the bar at Whisler’s, but his influence can be felt far beyond. He’s been featured in everything from industry magazine Chilled to Maxim — not to mention every local outlet imaginable. There’s a reason food and drink reporters reach out to him as their go-to guy. Esler has a wealth of knowledge and a killer palate, creating some of Austin’s most innovative drinks without an ounce of snobbery.
Caer Ferguson, The Roosevelt Room
Caer Ferguson already wears two hats in The Roosevelt Room organization, bartending at the main lounge while serving as the bar manager to The Eleanor next door. Now, she is trying on a third. On March 22, she will be debuting Daijoubu, a pop-up featuring Asian flavors and techniques, along with fellow Tastemaker nominee Sharon Yeung. The concept is already a winner. Featured drink Ramon’s Revival, a sesame horchata-infused tequila sipper, won a 2018 Espolon cocktail competition.
Laura Maddox, Small Victory
When she is not at Small Victory, Laura Maddox also works in conservation, which makes poetic sense. As head bartender at this downtown speakeasy, she is involved in protecting a different sort of natural treasure: the rich tradition of American cocktail culture. Her work at Small Victory is helping to create and execute a menu of new classics, ranging from the pre-Prohibition era to modern times.
Robert Bjorn Taylor, The Eleanor
A fixture in Austin hospitality, Bjorn Taylor has worked at some of the Capital City’s finest restaurants, including Freedmen's, Qui, Emmer & Rye, and Otoko. Now, folks can find him at downtown’s The Eleanor or working with Sourced Craft Cocktails. Wherever he works, patrons can be assured they will be served a damn fine drink. (Fun fact: Taylor's equally skilled at graphic design.)
Sarah Rahl, Live Oak
The downtown Four Seasons Hotel may have been around for more than three decades, but new guests would never know it when they walk into the lobby bar. In addition to a 2018 remodel that transformed Live Oak into a dreamy contemporary spot, Sarah Rahl’s drink program is very much in the now, with cocktails like the serrano pepper-infused The Grackle that play off Tastemaker Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee Abril Galindo’s Guadalajara-inspired food.
Patrick Ruby, Nickel City
One of the newest nominees to the local scene, Patrick Ruby is best known for a stint at Academia before landing at Nickel City. And though Ruby has only been in Austin two years, among the city's drinking class, he has already become a household name. His sociable personality certainly makes him easy to remember, but that’s back up with some serious bar bonafides.
Sharon Yeung, The Roosevelt Room
It takes an extra degree of talent to be a bartender at The Roosevelt Room. Owners Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis are famously exacting, running their staff through timed pre-shift tests. So we can only imagine what it took for Sharon Yeung to earn the head bartender position. Her decade-plus of experience undoubtedly helped, but it’s her commitment to making the customer experience memorable that really stands out.