Taste of the Tastemakers
Craft cocktails are seeing a resurgence across the country, but we would argue that Austin bartenders shake, stir, sizzle and blend better than the rest. From sexy speakeasies like Midnight Cowboy to casual haunts like Contigo, the most talented people in the country are using science and savvy to create some truly magnificent cocktails.
But when they're not making magic behind the bar, where do Austin's best bartenders spend their time? What's they're drink of choice? Before we celebrate Austin's culinary and cocktail scene on Wednesday, May 7 at the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, we decided to check in with some of our favorite folks behind the bar.
Brian Dressel, Midnight Cowboy
Brian Dressel has an impressive pedigree, having cut his proverbial teeth at such places as East Side Show Room and Bar Congress. He is currently the manager of Midnight Cowboy.
Hometown: I was born in Houston, but raised in Atlanta.
Current Austin neighborhood: Brentwood
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at Midnight Cowboy? I rarely get out at night when I'm not working, so usually I'm drinking at my house. When I do make it out, I really dig what's going on at Half Step, Firehouse and Wonderland.
What are you drinking there? At home: Micheladas. At bars: A dark beer and a shot — or something "rummy."
In your opinion, what's going to be the next trend in craft cocktails? High-volume cocktail bars. I'm seeing more and more cocktails on tap around town. I think we need to take that idea and run with it. Also, bartenders mastering classic recipes. There is a good deal of "whiz-bang" stuff going on right now, but many of us still need to nail down the basics. Learn how to properly make an Old Fashioned before you focus on your own bitters recipe.
Carley Dunavant, Odd Duck
Chances are if you frequent great Austin cocktail joints, you've had a drink made by this prolific bartender. Carley Dunavant has spent time behind the bar at such celebrated spots as Whisler's, drink.well. and Odd Duck and even made it to the finals of GQ's Most Inspired Bartender competition. Currently, she splits her time between Odd Duck and drink.well.
Hometown: Memphis, Tennessee
Current Austin neighborhood: Allandale
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at Odd Duck or drink.well.? The Liberty
What are you drinking there? Strongbow
What is the weirdest thing someone has ever ordered? Once, a girl ordered a low-calorie mint julep. Before I could even respond, she opened up her bag and said, "Here ya go. I brought my own Splenda." So, I muddled my very first "splendid" julep.
Justin Elliott, qui
This just may be Justin Elliott's year. After his Tepache was named The Official Drink of Austin, you would think Elliott would take it easy. Instead, he's continuing to churn out a truly magical menu at the oft-lauded qui. Before landing at the east side restaurant, Elliott spent time at The Volstead and Midnight Cowboy. He currently manages the bar team at qui.
Hometown: Austin by way of New York City, by way of Austin, by way of Houston.
Current Austin neighborhood: Just this weekend my wife and I moved to a tiny north Austin neighborhood called Wooten. Or as I have just now decided to call it, "Tha Woo."
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at qui? The list is long — and distinguished — and also not advisable to attempt in one day. First, martinis at Clark's, Americanos at drink.well, Cointreau Collinses at Weather Up ... and that's just before sundown. After work, [I'm drinking Austin Beerworks] Pearl Snap and a bittered Metaxa at Whisler's; 50/50 and a tiny High Life with some Waterfall Pork at Wonderland; Coors and Fernet at The Liberty; or Bruichladdich Islay whisky out of my trunk in the qui parking lot.
What are you drinking there? See above.
What do you think the next big trend in craft cocktails will be? "Draught-tails" is starting to rear its head for sure. I think it speaks to a broader trend of some of the most talented people in town starting to feel comfortable enough to experiment more. Eventually [they will] deploy truly creative, forward-thinking programs that serve the space in a way we haven't seen much of yet. A move away from "one size fits all" programming, I suppose.
Bill Hankey, Second Bar + Kitchen
Another Most Inspired Bartender veteran, Hankey is a self-taught bartender who made his name at the The Good Knight. He is currently the bar manager at Second Bar + Kitchen.
Current Austin neighborhood: Oak Springs
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at Second Bar + Kitchen or Congress? It really depends on my mood and location. I go to Half Step, drink.well, Bonneville, Peche, Takoba, White Swan, Contigo, Wonderland, all for varying reasons, but really anywhere I can sit and relax and listen to good tunes.
What are you drinking there? If cocktails are a potential, Daiquiris. Daiquiris are so versatile; you can have all sorts of enjoyment trying them with different rums. I really like the Ron Barrilito 3 Star the best. If not Daiquiris, a good cider and a stiff whisk(e)y.
What is your proudest accomplishment? I've accomplished a lot over the years, and I am very proud of what I've done. But truth be told, the moment that gives me the most clarity as to why I continue to tend bar is seeing people walk away with a smile. You can't please everyone in the world, but it doesn't hurt to try.
Pamela Pritchard, The Tigress Pub
Proprietor and woman-behind-the-bar of The Tigress, Pam Pritchard has garnered a reputation for serving elegant, spot-on cocktails at her tiny North Loop locale. Though this spring has seen an expansion of The Tigress, it hasn't changed the cozy atmosphere or delicious drinks.
Hometown: Santa Barbara, California
Current Austin neighborhood: About nine miles northeast of The Tigress.
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at The Tigress? Midnight Cowboy is still my favorite. It's so cute and unexpected.
What are you drinking there? I like my cocktails to have complex flavors. I like all liquors.
What drew you to craft cocktails? I've always enjoyed a good cocktail, however, at times, a great cocktail is hard to find. So I set off to discover why. I have a background in clinical science, so in my former life I was in labs mixing solutions. Once I got the hang of it, mixing cocktails has became something very comfortable for me to do.
What keeps you doing it? I would say the No. 1 thing that keeps me in the business is the customers. I like people, talking and just finding out what's going on with them. I very much enjoy having a business that is provides a safe haven and comfort to my customers.
Steven Robbins, Contigo
The bar at Contigo, helmed by bar manager Steven Robbins, has a reputation for not only creating dynamic new drinks, but nailing the classics down perfectly. His program has drawn talent from some of the best bars in Austin, so don't be surprised if you see a few familiar faces mixing up your Old Fashioned.
Hometown: Mobile, Alabama
Current Austin neighborhood: Windsor Park/ Mueller
What are you drinking when you're not drinking at Contigo? For coffee, I go to Houndstooth because they are just the best. When the mood for cocktails strikes, you can find me at Half Step. I also go to drink.well. There's this cute Russian bartender there that is awesome. The rest of the staff ain't so bad, either. Whisler's has a great patio and I go to Midnight Cowboy because Brian Dressel is the coolest guy in the world. I like Weather Up for Sunday afternoon Americanos.
For beer, I like Whip In and Draught House and Easy Tiger. Vino Vino and Bufalina for wine. I also go to Nomad often; it's a great neighborhood bar. My absolute favorite bar would have to be the Sahara Lounge.
What are you drinking there? Fancy Laiphroiag, Old Fashioned, Chartruese swizzle and Tapatio neat with a cold beer. If I also like Amontillado Sherry, Bonal or Ferrari shots with friends.
In your opinion, what will be the next big trend in craft cocktails? I think consumers are more educated about cocktails and expectations are higher. This is great for the scene because it is becoming less acceptable to have lazy bartenders that just pop beers and pour shots and roll there eyes when someone orders a basic thing like a Manhattan. Standards are higher so execution should become elevated across the board. As these service standards raise, bartenders are learning to smile again because pretense is unacceptable.
Nicole Rossi, Justine's Brasserie
Ah, Justine's. How do you describe this East Austin gem? Romantic, sexy and utterly cool, Justine's is the kind of place you through caution to the wind and indulge in decadence. With Nicole Rossi behind the bar, expect the perfect accompaniment to your perfect Parisian-inspired evening.
Hometown: Oakland, California
Current Austin neighborhood: East Austin
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at Justine's? Longbranch Inn, sitting at the bar.
What are you drinking there? Scotch when it's cold, beer when it's hot.
What is your idea of a perfect night out? A spontaneous night with friends, dancing wherever we find ourselves and laughing until our faces hurt.
Jessica Sanders, drink.well.
When drink.well. opened on North Loop, Austin cocktail enthusiasts flocked to the cozy restaurant to nosh on homemade Twinkies and sip on some truly magnificent cocktails. As co-owner, Jessica Sanders has not only been an impressive force on the craft cocktail scene, she handpicked a dynamite staff to put behind the drink.well. bar.
Current Austin neighborhood: I’ve lived four houses down from drink.well. in the North Loop neighborhood for quite a while now, but I am about to join the cool kids on the east side. I’m really excited for [my husband and drink.well. co-owner] Michael and I to immerse ourselves in this eclectic part of Austin. Some of my favorite bars and restaurants will be within walking distance — dangerous!
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at drink.well.? I try to stay fairly “low octane” most of the week, but love to grab a beer at the Wright Bros Brew & Brew. Aside from a killer craft beer selection, the hospitality is always on point and the space is bright and airy. For cocktails, I’m just not sure it gets much better than Jason Stevens’ program at Bar Congress — it’s elegant, intimate and the bar has an incredible treasure chest of spirits. I never leave that bar uninspired.
What are you drinking there? The Vieux Carré is among my top three favorite classic cocktails and the one at Bar Congress is just magnificent. They use armangac in lieu of the more traditional cognac — if it's possible to take that drink the next level, that unexpected twist certainly does it.
What is your proudest accomplishment? We moved to Austin almost exactly at the tipping point for the current food and beverage scene here. I’m really proud that drink.well. elevated the conversation around craft spirits and cocktail service in a neighborhood pub environment. We set out to build a place that was a service-focused, back-to-basics but with an inspired twist program. It is what we work hard to achieve daily. I’m really gratified by that. Oh, and running the New York City marathon last fall. That was a helluva day.
Jason Stevens, Bar Congress
Sure, we could tell you about Jason Stevens' impressive resume including stints at East Side Showroom and The Tigress before heading up Bar Congress and the newly-opened Wonderland. We could remark on how even a simple gin and tonic is stirred into a masterpiece at the hands of his bar staff. We could talk about his awards or his celebrated bitters line. But perhaps the most telling thing about his impact on Austin's bar scene is that somehow along the way, Stevens became synonymous with our city's cocktail movement.
Hometown: Eugene, Oregon
Current Austin neighborhood: West Campus
Where are you drinking when you're not drinking at Congress or Wonderland? Love Goat
What are you drinking there? Negroni layback
What is your idea of a perfect night out? Night drive far away from town, flea market mix tapes, air pot filled with sangria, old tiger blanket and stars.