Classic Cocktail Guide
The 10 best bars in Austin for classic, no-fuss cocktails
Today, savvy drinkers seek out classic cocktails without the pretension. "Classic" doesn’t have to mean snooty with a side of mustache wax. Here’s a guide to the best spots in Austin to enjoy vintage libations without the fuss.
Simple and accessible classics
Simplicity and accessibility are two common factors in classic cocktails. Jason Stevens of Bar Congress, this year’s Tastemaker Bartender of the Year winner, describes a true classic as the "powerful synergy of a few ingredients complementing each other in perfect ratio harmony." Minor flaws have no room to hide when there are so few components, so using quality ingredients is essential.
For that reason, Half Step and Weather Up have implemented in-house ice programs to ensure they freeze top-notch slabs. Peché showcases timeless drinks made with only three ingredients, such as the Manhattan, Sazerac and the French 75.
A long, cumbersome wait-time is something that many bars now strive to extinguish. Isla and Sawyer and Co. serve classics on draft for quick and precise execution. Whisler’s focuses on quick service by pumping out classics at lightning speed to appease its demanding crowd. Continuing in the no-nonsense theme, Tigress Pub and drink.well. are casual choices for proper libations in the North Loop 'hood.
Meanwhile, some classics are simply complicated. Behind the curtains at Bar Congress, the Vieux Carré requires Rittenhouse Rye, Marie Duffau Armagnac, Cocchi di Torino, Benedictine, and a combination of bitters. Stevens calls this complex combination "the king of [the] handsome, boozy cocktail."
Midnight Cowboy’s obscure Lawn Tennis Cooler calls for a whole egg, along with cognac, lemon juice, simple syrup, ginger beer, mint, and freshly grated cinnamon. Brian Dressel describes this frothy concoction as "an easy transition for the Moscow Mule crowd."
Sawyer & Co. offers the famously labor intensive Ramos Gin Fizz, originally instructed with 12 minutes of constant shaking, by replacing a line of bar-backs with an electric shaker.
Some playful bartenders throw their own spin by using modern ingredients. Brian Floyd, the founder of The Barman’s Fund, presents both an original and a contemporary version of the Martinez at Weather Up. Both renditions contain orange bitters and maraschino liqueur. The original recipe, dating back to 1886, utilizes Old Tom Gin, which results in a slightly sweeter and rounder beverage. His modern version uses London Dry Gin and vermouth for a punchier translation.
Similarly, the team at Half Step stirs up the traditional Old Fashioned as well as a range of revamps. Just ask your bartender. On Monday nights, Whisler’s also offers four interpretations of the Old Fashioned, including rum and brandy versions.
As far as new classics go, the consensus across the board is that the Penicillin, created by New York bartender Sam Ross, is here to stay. Garage shakes up this Scotch-based drink with honey and ginger in its sultry, hideaway location. Weather Up serves its version in a rocks glass with hand-cut ice and a slice of candied ginger.
Other modern classics that bartenders predict will stick around include French 77, The Final Say, The Paper Airplane and Red Hook.
Classic cocktails at home
To recreate classics at home, cocktail lovers can begin by stocking the bar with a bottle of dry gin, rye whiskey, sweet and dry vermouth, and bitters, and build upwards from there. Stevens describes how versatile the basic ingredients are:
"If you really enjoy an Old Fashioned, get a nice bottle of rye and some bitters. To that, add a little sugar and lemon and you’ve got a Whiskey Sour. Orb[add] maple and lemon for a Maple Leaf. Add a splash of soda to the sour and you’ve got a Whiskey Collins. Add some ginger beer in place of soda and you’ve got a Whiskey Buck.
"Next, get a bottle of vermouth and you can make Manhattans, add bottle of cognac or Campari to the equation and you’ve got a Vieux Carré or a Boulevardier. Remove the rye from the Boulevardier and add some seltzer and you’ve got an Americano, or use the cognac in place of rye in a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned." And the classic combinations go on and on.