The Best Cocktail Bars in Austin

Here Nor There
Courtesy of Here Nor There

Austin has a lot of bars that serve booze and cocktails, but that doesn't necessarily make them great cocktail bars. To be truly great, a cocktail bar needs more than just Instagram bait; it needs to rise above the hype, exclusivity, and novelty, consistently delivering well-made mixed drinks by experienced bartenders who know their craft. While there's nothing wrong with getting a Tito’s-and-soda every time you go out, Austin's best cocktail bars are the ones that make you want to bust out of your low-calorie rut, Kool-Aid-Man-style, and then reward you for doing so. From super-secret speakeasies to bars focused on a single spirit, these are the cocktail spots you should know.

The Roosevelt Room
The Roosevelt Room | Eric Medsker

West Fifth
Art deco-inspired lounge with a historic selection of classic cocktails

The Roosevelt Room is the crème de la crème of cocktail bars. You'll order your drink from the list of 53 tried-and-true classic cocktails, guided if necessary by highly trained bartenders who have an encyclopedic knowledge of booze. Organized by era, the drinks span from the mid-1800s Sazerac to Prohibition’s Corpse Reviver #2, to modern classics like the Penicillin. The bar’s house creations are not to be missed, either; try the best-selling Cigar Box, a smoky blend of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, smoked black tea syrup, lavender bitters, and tobacco essence, served on an ashtray with a scorched cinnamon stick. Whether you're looking to celebrate, seal the deal, or just generally make a lasting impression, you can't go wrong here.

Hyde Park
Modern drinks and casual pub fare in a cozy space

Drink.Well. is almost always referred to as a “neighborhood bar,” but that’s a pretty modest moniker; you won’t find any rotgut well liquor, bad karaoke, or self-serve popcorn machines of questionable cleanliness. What you will find is a warm and inviting space, often standing-room-only during busy hours, as well as a knowledgeable and friendly staff, and cocktails that are both interesting and accessible. Into boozy and bright? Try the crisp Sunseeker: Ford's Gin, Pisco, Aperol, Dolin Génépy, pineapple gomme, fresh lemon, and grapefruit bitters. How about rich and complex? You’ll love the Exile in Argyll: Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon, Laphroaig 10 Year Islay Scotch, Campari, PX Sherry, and sea salt.

Whisler's | Mark Weatherford

East Sixth
Popular cocktail hangout with a large patio and mezcaleria

One of Austin’s coolest (and most popular) cocktail bars, Whisler's is set inside a gutted stone building and features a great patio, a food truck, and a tiny mezcaleria upstairs for agave aficionados. If you’ve ever sat at Whisler’s bar, you know that the patrons who yell drink orders into the back of your head are sort of obsessed with two drinks: Old Fashioneds and “Tito’s and soda with extra limes.” There's nothing wrong with having a go-to, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore Whisler’s seasonal cocktail menus. Right now, try tiki-inspired The Witch Hunt (tequila, Strega, pineapple, ginger, Fernet, and lime) or the spiced Slumdog Trillionaire (house-infused chai rum, brandy, pineapple, and lemon).

Small Victory
Small Victory | Robert J. Lerma

Tiny, classic cocktail spot with old-school appeal

Walking into Small Victory has always felt like an elitist act, entering through an unmarked door above a parking lot into a small, narrow room that forces you to lower your voice and whisper as you maneuver through the tight space. A small plaque marks the entrance these days, but the menu and vibe continue to ooze old-school-cool, as seen in the cocktail menu of recipes plucked from dusty cocktail volumes of yesteryear. You’ve probably never heard of most of these drinks but don’t let that steer you in the direction of a boring vodka soda. Try the Artists’ Special: Scotch whisky, sherry, lemon juice, and grenadine, for an interesting take on the whiskey sour.

La Holly
Courtesy of La Holly

East Sixth
Laidback ice house/mezcal bar known for margaritas and tacos

La Holly Cantina is a total sleeper; it looks like your quintessential neighborhood ice house, but a closer look reveals not just a nicely curated selection of Mexican spirits (mezcal, tequila, sotol, raicilla) and great tacos, but a cocktail menu that also deserves some props. As we approach perfect spring weather, La Holly’s patio becomes the place to sip on frosty cocktails. Choose from the spicy frozen margarita and the jamaica and mezcal, an icy blend of housemade hibiscus syrup, lime, triple sec, and Kimo Sabe mezcal. If you’re a Paper Plane fan, you’ll love the Mezcalero Desnudo: a mezcal-based riff on the modern classic.

Little Brother Bar
Courtesy of Little Brother Bar

Rainey Street
Coffee & cocktail counter serving “solid bevs” with tongue-in-cheek attitude

By day, Little Brother Bar is a walk-up coffee counter serving good beans, lunch from Better Half, and retro vibes. As the sun sets, the tiny space switches gears to moonlight as a full bar in which highly qualified bartenders serve perfectly executed cocktails and boilermakers while operating a VHS player. This is the third spot from the same crew responsible for Wright Bros Brew & Brew, Better Half, and the upcoming Hold Out Brewing and Little Brother Bar on South Congress.

East MLK
Low-key neighborhood whiskey bar

Picture this: a chill, low-lit bar with a small patio in a shopping strip next to a laundromat. Ok, now imagine this bar has a respectable selection of booze and employs bartenders who are friendly, knowledgeable, and know how to make a perfect Old Fashioned. The Wheel is highly underrated (and its regulars would probably like it kept that way), but we’d be remiss not to mention this dog-friendly, whiskey-focused cocktail bar where you can hang out at while you wash your king-sized comforter. For a fragrant spin on the classic Old Fashioned try The Madison: stirred rye whiskey, vanilla bean syrup, orange bitters, and clove.

half step
Half Step

Rainey Street
Skilled bartenders serving a small drink menu in a low-key bungalow

Half Step is the crown jewel of Rainey Street, a beacon of light in an otherwise fairly dismal party district. Like many of its neighbors, Half Step is housed in an ancient bungalow, its interior stripped of anything not made of wood. The bars are a jumble of various unmarked liquids --  fresh juices, housemade shrubbs, and bitters. The classic cocktail menu is concise, but note that the folks behind the bar are capable of making literally anything you can call. Try a brooding Reposado Martinez (tequila reposado, Punt e Mes, maraschino liqueur, and Mexican mole bitters) or a summery Ginger Paloma on draft (tequila, ginger, lime juice, grapefruit juice, Jarritos grapefruit soda).

Midnight Cowboy
Courtesy of Midnight Cowboy

Sixth Street
Swanky speakeasy in the heart of Dirty Sixth

Austin’s OG speakeasy continues to evolve, constantly pushing the creative envelope with highly conceptual menus that blur the line between cocktail bar and performance art. The current menu, The Field Guide to Evil, is based on the film of the same name, an anthology of eight dark folklore narratives from around the world. Each story has a corresponding good and evil cocktail, each taking inspiration from the country and the mythology. The upcoming, yet-to-be-announced menu drops in March 2020. Make a reservation and escape the chaos of Dirty Sixth by buzzing “Harry Craddock” on the unmarked door.

Garage Bar
Courtesy of Garage Bar

Former parking lot booth transformed into a high style cocktail hideout
Garage is a strange, circular, cement room that formerly served as an attendant’s office for the parking garage it's tucked within. The cocktails and level of talent in this bar are what consistently pack Garage with all types of people. The vehicular-themed menu includes several categories: Custom (accessible signature cocktails like the best-selling grapefruit and rosemary-infused Indian Paintbrush); Vintage (classics like the Old Fashioned and spiced Lion’s Tail); Refurbished (modern classics with a twist like the Earl Grey-infused Penicillin); and GTO (aka the out-there category with complex, boozy takes like the Full Circle, an herbal flavor bomb made with Fords Gin, Italicus bergamot liqueur, green Chartreuse, aquavit, and orange bitters).

seven grand austin
Seven Grand Austin

Smoking room-style bar with hundreds of whiskey options
Seven Grand is a whiskey/whisky nerd’s dream come true with over 400 from all over the world to choose from. The decidedly “gentlemanly” bar is outfitted in lots of leather and wood, pool tables, taxidermy, ample seating and a patio that adjoins to its next-door sister bar, Las Perlas. Sit and marvel at the library of spirits, from rare Scotch and Japanese whiskys to Texas bourbons. Enjoy your spirit neat or in Seven Grand’s five classic whiskey cocktails, including the Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Rye Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, and Mint Julep. Overwhelmed by the choices? Don’t worry, the highly-knowledgeable bar staff is always standing by to offer thoughtful recommendations.

Relaxed, Oaxacan-style bar with Austin’s largest selection of agave spirits
Whether you fancy yourself a mezcal connoisseur or aspire to learn more about Mexico’s mythical spirit -- and its cousins tequila, sotol, and raicilla -- you owe it to yourself to visit Las Perlas. The back bar features over 400 agave spirits (with an emphasis on mezcal), and the bar staff possess an in-depth knowledge of the individual makers and the often primitive processes they use. Try the Spiced Daisy: Pueblo Viejo Tequila shaken with fresh-pressed jalapeños, fresh cucumber, and cilantro. Oh, and the tacos from Asador on the back patio are required eating. Get the quesadilla, and then try not to get two more.

King Bee Lounge
King Bee Lounge | Amerykah Trevino-Martinez

East Twelfth
Neighborhood gem with craft cocktails and pizza

It’s simple: King Bee has fantastic cocktails, fantastic pizza, and owners with hearts of gold who are loved by friends and strangers alike. When you walk into the spacious bar on the corner of East Twelfth and Chicon, your eyes will take a moment to adjust to the sparse lighting and you will be stopped in your tracks by the overwhelming smell of pizza being baked. Step up to the bar and order from the handwritten cocktail menu; while it will shapeshift seasonally, the perennial favorites remain the frosty Bee’s Knees (gin, local honey, lemon juice) and the Gin + Jam, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Green and White Grocer pizza -- hand-tossed crust, pesto, goat cheese, and diced tomatoes -- is a favorite, but like the drink menu, there are rotating pies that should not be missed.

Courtesy of Watertrade

South Congress
Intimate drink den slinging luxe yet understated cocktails

Otoko is one of Austin’s most exclusive (and priciest) meals, with just a handful of seats and reservations often booked weeks or months in advance. The omakase’s adjoining cocktail bar, however, is open to both guests of the restaurant and those of us who are merely in search of fancy cocktails. Instead of overburdening guests with a list of obscure spirits and ingredients, the cocktails are listed using lovely adjectives, like “frothy + crisp + aromatic” in the case of the Capt. Koyake (Indian Rum, Fernet Vallet, lime, pineapple gomme, Banana du Madagascar, roasted coffee salt, and aged egg white).

Here Nor There
Courtesy of Here Nor There

Formerly members-only cocktail club
Here Nor There’s new cocktail menu is about to drop, and while we don’t know details yet, we can assure you that Here Nor There stands out from the crowd by providing impossibly high-end drinks but more importantly, an experience. Request a reservation, and upon approval you will be texted the (mostly) unlisted address along with a personal gate code. You’ll be greeted, led down a graphic black and white stairwell and into a subterranean den of boozy delights with house rules designed to maintain an air of mutual respect. Download the app for Android or iPhone to request a reservation and/or to apply for a $500 annual membership.

Kalimotxo | Julia Keim

Small plates and drinks inspired by Spain’s Basque Country
Kalimotxo (pronounced ca-lee-mo-cho) is the Basque-style pintxos bar adjoining Hestia, the new restaurant from the team behind Emmer & Rye. Named after the iconic red wine and cola cocktail from the Basque region of Northern Spain, Kalimotxo serves wine, sherry, and a solid cocktail menu inspired by the flavors and spirits of the region. Try the Rye Not? (rye whiskey, Bauchant liqueur, Spanish Amontillado sherry, Gran Clasico, and lemon oil) or the Spanish G & T (gin and elderflower tonic over ice punctuated with the aromas of clove, juniper, and thyme). Kali’s interior seating is limited, but there's also comfy street-side seating with a pretty sweet view.

Troublemaker cocktail
Courtesy of Troublemaker

East Seventh
Casual bar and record shop serving San Diego-style burritos

Happy hour haven The Hightower may have closed, but the owners quickly replaced it with Troublemaker: a casual and colorful concept serving booze, burritos, and bar food. The electric blue Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea is a frozen blend of Jack Daniels, coconut rum, pineapple, lemon, and blue curacao that's delicious and not overly sweet. Folks with a savory tooth will love the equally vibrant Indian Summer, made with Cana Brava rum, mango, turmeric, lime, and a spicy Tajin rim. Order the fries topped with guacamole, cheddar, pico, crema, and your choice of carnitas, pollo asado, or vegan Impossible chorizo.

Lefty's Brick Bar
Lefty's Brick Bar | Jenna Kahn

East Sixth
New Orleans-inspired modern cocktails and hearty fare

ARRIVE East Austin hotel on East Sixth is home to the open-air Lefty’s Brick Bar, whose cocktail and food menus both read like a love letter to NOLA. Try the Du Monde Old-Fashioned (bourbon, rye, chicory, turbinado sugar), inspired by the iconic French Quarter cafe. For a tart and fruit-forward classic punch, go for the Apothecary’s Punch (vodka, arrack, Campari, pineapple, orange, lime). Handled by Todd Duplechan of Vixen’s Wedding and Lenoir, Lefty’s Cajun/Vietnamese/Southern food offerings are seemingly casual, yet executed deftly; try the O.G. Banh Mi and fried chicken.

Gin Bar
Gin Bar | Brittany Bosworth

East Sixth
Gin-focused, rooftop cocktail bar with fire pits and cozy seating

The rooftop bar at ARRIVE East Austin carries over 90 different gins from all over the world. Try the spirits neat via flights like the Gin Ne Sais Quoi, which showcases gins with particularly exotic botanicals; or in a cocktail crafted by Midnight Cowboy alum, Madeline Ridgway. Try your gin of choice in a martini, Negroni, gin & tonic, or house cocktail like The Daisy (agave-based Gracias a Dios gin, yellow Chartreuse, agave nectar, and lemon). Gin Bar is found behind Lefty’s, marked by a giant neon sign that reads (of course): I LOVE GIN!

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Anastacia Uriegas is a Thrillist contributor.