Austin has some of the best bars in the country. The vibrant food and beverage scene has drawn talent and influence from other great cocktail cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago and mixes it with Austin's fierce creativity.
And behind those stellar bars you'll find a community of dedicated bartenders with a healthy rivalry that inspires each to be better in service, operations, and in the quality of the drinks they serve. “We’re all just a bunch of buds. I think that definitely makes for a better drinking culture, not just for us, but for the entire city,” says Madelyn Kay of Vox Table.
The competition is real for 10 of the best bartenders in Austin nominated for Bartender of the Year in the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. The winner will be announced on May 17, but first, sip on these tidbits from the nominees.
Chris Bostick, Half Step
Chris Bostick has had a high-profile cocktail career in New York and Los Angeles, gathering accolades such as the 2012 Best Cocktail Bar in America award. He founded Half Step on Rainey Street in 2014 and it quickly gained a reputation for its custom ice and thoughtful cocktail program. Bostick leads a team that is dedicated to hospitality, allowing guests to fully relax and enjoy the space. Whether listening to live music or enjoying a lovely cocktail in the massive backyard, Bostick and team have created a can’t-miss bar for Austinites.
Barkeep's call: The Half Step ginger paloma and margarita on draft. “These might be the best tequila cocktails in Austin.”
Justin Elliott, The Townsend
With 15 years of experience in the bar industry, Justin Elliott knows his way around a cocktail. In 2014 he won the Official Drink of Austin with his creative take on a traditional Mexican fermented pineapple agua fresca, the Tepache Collins. Just over a year ago, he helped open swanky cocktail lounge The Townsend. He works tirelessly to take incredibly good care of guests with warmth and delicious food and drinks. Elliott and his team labor over the tiniest details of the food, cocktails, and the atmosphere — right down to the old punk rock playing in the elegant setting.
Barkeep's call: The Townsend’s "break even bottle." Every Sunday, The Townsend offers a rare bottle for Austinites to taste at a great price, such as a bottle of 108-year-old Madeira for $20 per pour.
Billy Hankey, King Bee Lounge
Billy Hankey dazzled Austin with incredible cocktails at The Good Knight and Bar Congress before opening his own joint, the King Bee Lounge, in 2014. Hankey and fiance, Colette Dein, preside over the cocktail den at the intersection of East 12th and Chicon streets with the relaxed air of neighbors serving wicked cocktails in their living room. The couple has created an oasis of chill away from the chaos of downtown, complete with live music, a laid-back patio with games, and damn good pizza. The cocktails are killer, and you have to have at least one frozen Bees Knees.
Barkeep's call: Mezcal Vago Mexicano “served in a glass with a couple of friends.”
Chauncy James, Garage
With an impressive resume laden with stints at some of Austin’s best bars, Chauncy James developed some mighty fine bartending skills before opening Garage, the secretive downtown lounge hidden in a parking garage. His skills were on display last year when he won the Official Drink of Austin competition.
James takes a holistic approach to making sure Garage is a go-to bar. “If I were to write a bar book it would be three pages long: Turn down the lights, turn up the music, and pour strong drinks,” he jokes. In reality, James obsesses over every aspect of the design, music, vibe, booze selection, cocktails, and even employees' health. He helped provide healthcare for full-time employees, which is pretty unique in the bar industry.
Barkeep's call: The 2015 Official Drink of Austin, the Indian Paintbrush. “It’s simple, well-made, and delicious.”
Madelyn Kay, Vox Table
Madelyn Kay earned a reputation for making badass drinks while behind the bar at several Austin hot spots before joining the talented team at Vox Table when it opened in 2015. She’s known to show her stuff in cocktail competitions and recently won the 2016 Speed Rack Texas, held in San Antonio, and will compete in the finals in New York on May 22.
At Vox Table, she is committed to making the best possible drinks for its intricate cocktail program, while making sure it’s not a stuffy bar. Bars are supposed to be fun, and Vox definitely is. Kay has been known to serve a round of pink snaquiris for everyone at the bar to do a shot together to keep the good times flowing.
Barkeep's call: The Golden Fiore at Juliet. “Jeramy Campbell knocked it out of the park with his spring menu. That drink is absolutely beautiful.”
Jennifer Keyser, Geraldine’s
Before joining Geraldine’s as chief of bar operations last fall, Jennifer Keyser had been a fixture at other Austin cocktail havens Contigo and Midnight Cowboy. At Geraldine’s in Hotel Van Zandt, she presides over a nice lineup of Texas beers, a kick-ass library of whiskeys, and stellar cocktails. She credits the management and owners of Geraldine’s with building an outstanding team of local talent to cultivate an Austin vibe in the bar and restaurant.
Barkeep's call: Geraldine's frozen Gold Rush with Knob Creek Rye, honey, and lemon. “Have one on our pool deck at the moment that’s boozy and delicious.”
Justin Lavenue, The Roosevelt Room
It’s been quite a year for Justin Lavenue, co-owner of The Roosevelt Room. He was named the Most Imaginative Bartender in North America at a competition in Las Vegas for his cocktail The Poet’s Muse, which landed him a feature in GQ Magazine in December. He was also named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Mixologists for 2015.
While the Roosevelt Room has been open less than a year, it has already earned great acclaim for its thoughtful, well-made cocktails. Lavenue stresses the importance of providing great service, making personal connections with guests, and ensuring everyone has the best time possible while having great drinks.
Barkeep's call: The Roosevelt Room’s Cigar Box “is one of the best cocktails being offered in the city, and it has developed its own cult following among mezcal lovers in town.”
Josh Loving, Small Victory
Josh Loving was part of the first wave of bartenders making craft cocktails in Austin. He was a driving force in shaping the cocktail programs at several bars, such as Vino Vino, Asti Trattoria, East Side Show Room, Midnight Cowboy, Weather Up, Josephine House, and Jeffrey’s before launching his own bar, Small Victory, late last year. Loving describes the intimate space as “a bar built by a bartender for bartenders.” Small Victory makes its own large format ice in-house and uses fresh-made syrups and juices to make high-quality drinks. The talented staff wins plenty of praise among Austin’s cocktail cognoscenti.
Barkeep's call: Alessio Bianco Vermouth “in a cocktail, with tonic or soda, or even on its own. It’s perfectly refreshing in the Texas heat.”
Ania Robbins, drink.well.
Moscow native Ania Robbins tended bar in London and Mobile, Alabama, before joining the drink.well. team in 2013. Whether she is mixing cocktails at drink.well. or at its new sister bar, Backbeat on South Lamar, Robbins effortlessly makes new riffs on classic cocktails. As she has transitioned to Backbeat, Robbins is able to stretch out a bit more with a bigger bar and creative cocktail menu.
Barkeep's call: The Sherry Cobbler. “I’m really into low alcohol cocktails especially in warmer weather.”
Jessica Sanders, drink.well.
Since opening drink.well. on North Loop Boulevard in 2012 with her husband, Michael, Jessica Sanders has been a driving force in the Austin cocktail scene. She has served as president of the local chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild, is a fixture at Speed Rack competitions, and was nominated for Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Mixologist of the Year.
With a keen focus on continually pushing the envelope with new and inventive cocktails, as well as providing top-notch hospitality, Sanders has created a neighborhood bar that is regularly recognized as one of the best in Austin. And with Backbeat's opening, Sanders is poised to expand her influence on the drinking culture of Austin.
Barkeep's call: Sherry! “It makes so much sense — a hot Texas day, some salty snacks, and a glass of sherry or a savory sherry-based cocktail — what could be better?”