A decade ago, discussion about Austin’s bar scene rarely included the word “cocktail.” The Capital City mostly slung drinks then, like vodka sodas, whiskey cokes, and Technicolor tooters with enough sugar for Saturday morning cereal, or at least a debilitating hangover.
It was only a matter of time before the city started growing up. That came in the form of a slow-burning local cocktail revolution helmed by pioneers like Tipsy Texan David Alan and the Alamo Drafthouse’s Bill Norris. They introduced a whole new language to the Austin party scene, filled with long-lost incantations like oleo saccharum. More importantly, they distilled drinking back to its essence: booze.
If the shot bars were Austin’s college years, and the classic cocktails its coming of age, the latest trend is a sign that local drinking culture has completely matured. After years of potently celebrating the spirit, bartenders across town are now lightening up with low-alcohol drinks built more for afternoon drinking on a patio than midnight ragers.
Call it an evolution or just a reflection of a health-conscious city, but it's proof that, for Austin, adulting doesn’t have to be hard.
Much of the buzz about the Line Austin hotel’s signature restaurant has centered on its big-name chef, Kristen Kish. But it also has an ace in the hole in its beverage director Brian Floyd. Having previously worked at buzzy bars like Half Step and Weather Up, Floyd has created a cocktail program that shines on its own with the same devotion to using quality ingredients in the drinks that Kish dedicates to the food.
Although much of his menu is heady — think high-octane old fashioneds and martinis — one of the stars of the show won’t have you seeing pink elephants by the end of the night. The Him & Her starts with Pimm’s, the Wimbleton-approved English favorite that clocks in with a modest ABV.
Instead of using the sweeter flavors of the the spirit’s iconic namesake Cup, Floyd anchors his Pimm's with bitter lemon made from quinine and lemon pith and then tops it with two of the spirits most convivial companions: fresh strawberry and cucumber slices. It’s a drink that tastes so summery you can practically hear the cicadas chirp — perfect for a late afternoon reverie.
For a few years now, not a season has gone by without some publication or other boldly announcing each year would be the summer of the Aperol spritz. And yes, each of those years came with a deluge of poolside glamor shots, the sunset color of the sipper seductively positioned in front of blue skies. The trouble is, as much as Americans like looking at them, few are actually drinking them.
We won’t go as far as dying on that hill again, but we are glad to remind Austinites that they should give the fizzy drinks a try. With enough alcohol to ease your shoulders, but not enough to cause a full bar slump, these crisp refreshers are the embodiment of midcentury Italian leisure. The spritzes are equally at home in la dolce vida of Austin in 2018.
Although Austin has many versions — some highlighting the citrus flavors, some hedging on the side of sweet — we tend to gravitate towards Gelateria Gemelli’s classic three-two-one build (that’s three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, and a splash of soda) that doesn’t fix what ain’t broke. It doesn’t hurt that the East Austin shop also has some of the best gelato in town.
Lotus + Cleaver
Some Austin eateries serve low-ABV cocktails as an alternative to boozier drinks. At this newish Domain Northside Chinese restaurant, it’s the entire M.O. Since the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, the mixed drinks only use sake, wine, and beer.
Here, necessity is the mother of invention with drinks that incorporate juniper berry mists, botanical elements like thyme, and barrel-aged sake for deeper flavors not usually found in non-liquor drinks. And the eatery serves them in beautiful tallboys and coupes to give the same sense of occasion as the drink’s headier counterpoints.
All of the cocktails have pluses, but start with the Smoke and Salt. Using Rihaku nigori sake as the base, it plants a potable garden with cucumber, mint, and just enough jalapeño to give it a little sting. Rimmed with smoked alder sea salt, it makes a great sub for a margarita — and it’s far less likely to inspire drunk shopping at the nearby stores.