Where to drink now
Where to drink in Austin right now: 3 bars with new takes on nostalgic cocktails
You may have noticed the shift. After years of being obsessed with the precise preparation of pre-Prohibition cocktails, Austin’s best bartenders now have a new inspiration — the trashy cocktails you thought you gave up in college.
The Warehouse District’s Academia has revamped the Cosmopolitan with top shelf vodka, orange oil, house-pressed cranberries, and freshly squeezed lime. Be More Pacific’s Manillalada provides a new escape by substituting the piña colada’s cheap rum with quality gin and subbing in tarter lemon and lime juice for canned pineapple juice. Holy Roller has even brought back one of the most maligned staples of dorm room ragers in the aptly named The Heretic.
What’s driving this growing trend? We talked to some of the town’s beverage pros to find out.
“A lot of these cocktails are accessible because they take you back to a vacation, a wild college experience, or some otherwise wacky memory,” says Drink.well owner Jessica Sanders, who currently features a swanky piña colada at her North Loop neighborhood bar.
"Guests are looking for drinks that are visually appealing and some of these so-called 'trashy' throwback drinks really lend themselves to that," she adds. "After all, if you can’t hashtag it, did you ever really drink it?"
Some customers may be doing it for the 'gram, but the beverage industry vet rejects the notion that bartenders have to ignore their craft in order to make crowd-pleasing drinks.
“You can apply serious technique or highly discerning spirits selection in every drink,” she says, “even if the core concept of the cocktail is fun, irreverent, or one that invokes a sense of drinking nostalgia.”
Drink.well’s version of everyone's poolside favorite shakes things up a bit with a half ounce of Lustau amontillado sherry and a couple of dashes of Scrappy’s cardamom bitters, which Sanders says adds dryness and salinity for a sipper that's not just a “one-and-done sugar bomb.”
"It’s really fun to see that look of pleasant surprise wash over a guests face after the first sip," she says
Ryan Nolen, the beverage director at Pitchfork Pretty, agrees with Sanders. He says, “even trashy things can be elevated.”
Alongside the upscale east side eatery's inventive original creations, Nolen offers a decidedly populist surprise — a Water Moccasin shot.
“The Water Moccasin is a shot that the owner, Seth Baas, drank a lot of when he first began drinking. We thought it’d be fun to recreate it for a little nostalgia," says Nolen.
Although you are more likely to find Water Moccasins in the type of Dirty Sixth bars barking “two dollar, you call it” specials, Nolen uses spirits that are right at home with chef Max Snyder’s exacting standards.
“Instead of peach schnapps, we use D’Arton Les Reserves Crème de Peche,” he explains, “and we use [George] Dickel Whiskey in place of crappy, cheap whiskey, as well as fresh citrus juice in place of sweet and sour.”
The result is a shot that is just as enjoyable when sipped, a suitably adult tipple that is still a little naughty. Really, isn't that what drinking is all about?
The Roosevelt Room
Justin Lavenue is one of the owners of Austin’s most rigorous cocktail bar, but that doesn’t mean he takes imbibing too seriously.
The Roosevelt Room, his acclaimed Fifth Street lounge, even has a whole menu section devoted to the “Dark Ages,” the period of bar craft between the ‘50s and ‘90s known for hangover classics like the Kamikaze, Freddy Fudpucker, and White Russian.
Particularly tasty is the Long Island Iced Tea, much better known for its potency than its delicate blend of flavors. But the Roosevelt Room’s version makes silk out of a sow’s ear.
“Our revision uses maguey sap syrup instead of sugar, which creates a creamy, biscuit-y flavor that pairs nicely with the tequila.” Like Sanders and Nolen, he uses only the best for his clear spirits blend, and the triple sec is made in-house.
But ultimately those touches are not about snobbery. The three beverage pros all agree that they just play to what contemporary customers want.
“[Guests] want to drink things that are delicious, colorful, inventive, and over the top in terms of garnish,” says Sanders, “but they’re also increasingly more literate about well-made spirits and the importance of fresh ingredients.”
But in this nostalgia-consumed age, the experience comes first.
“Sometimes you just want to get the job done,” says Lavenue. “It doesn’t matter if the drink is trashy or fancy.”