On the Town

By David Alan
Photography by Jenna Noel

A short time ago, the “cocktail revolution” began to blossom in major cities across the country—an uprising against pre-made mixes and poor-quality spirits; a renaissance of classic cocktails. The revolution produced a wellspring of world-class cocktail lounges in cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Texas, however, didn’t fall under the spell quite as quickly. But things appear to be changing.

At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail—an annual conference not unlike a South by Southwest for mixed-drink lovers—the Texas delegation numbered several dozen strong and included powerhouse notables such as Bobby Heugel (Anvil, Houston) and Beth Bellanti-Walker (Tito’s Vodka, Austin).

FINO bartender Bill Norris was the first to put Austin on the mixology map. Norris’s career began in the cosmo-fueled nightclubs of 1990s New York, but a visit to the Rainbow Room provided an epiphany in the form of a different, more authentic way to prepare cocktails. When Bill took over the bar at FINO in 2005, he began crafting cocktails as weekend specials, which eventually worked their way onto the menu. Over the years, Norris’s menu of classic and innovative libations has garnered the attention of the local press, and the patronage of loyal regulars. In 2008, Bill competed in the 42BELOW Cocktail World Cup and won the regional semifinals, earning a ticket to the world finals in New Zealand where his team placed second.

Mindy Kucan of the downtown Hilton is one of Austin’s most award-winning bartenders, and one of the most outspoken advocates for the cocktail arts. Mindy splashed onto the scene by winning the Top Bar Chef competition for Hilton Hotels in 2007, which put her in contact with national figures such as mixologist rock star Tony Abou-Ganim. With many more awards under her belt, Kucan founded an Austin chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild last fall, and is currently a Bartender Ambassador for Partida Tequila.

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In Austin’s Warehouse District, Péché offers a top-notch selection of spirits, an expansive list of craft cocktails and a new food menu by Chef Jason Dodge. Péché is the brainchild of Rob Pate—also proprietor of the popular Cedar Street Courtyard. Whereas Cedar Street is known for energetic music and big crowds, Péché is all about handcrafted cocktails made one at a time from premium and fresh ingredients. Péché has a classic cocktail-bar feel with its long bar, library ladders, absinthe fountains and vest-clad barmen.

I can’t write about Austin’s cocktail scene without mentioning my own current venture at Annie’s on Congress. Only premium spirits are poured and all juices are fresh-squeezed daily—no pre-made mixes or artificial ingredients. The menu consists of classic cocktails and modern innovations in equal measure, with regular in-season “garden-to-glass” specials.

A lot has changed for cocktail fans in Austin over the course of the last year. From La Condesa on West 2nd Street to The Good Knight on East Sixth, the revival continues to gain ground with many more projects currently in the developmental stage.