Food & Drink

Houston's Bartenders of the Year Are Ready to Pour You a Drink This Weekend

Published On 10/31/2016 Published On 10/31/2016
Alba Huerta
Alba Huerta of Julep | Julie Soefer Photography

Alba Huerta

Julep

Address and Info

Washington

Houston is lucky to have Alba Huerta, who some may say is the best bartender in Texas, and who others say is the best bartender in the country. With her belt buckle holding up Anvil, The Pastry War, and her own bar, the always-sophisticated Julep -- which opened in 2014 to pretty much the best reviews ever and has been rocking top-bar lists ever since -- you’d think maybe she’d sit back and rest on her laurels for a hot second. Not Alba. She’s slingin’ harder than ever, constantly reinventing the Southern roster at Julep, shining her light onto this year’s Texas Monthly Whiskey Affair, and stepping in to redevelop the drink menu at Houston institution Ninfa’s on Navigation. Raise your Pappy and say “cheers” to many more years of Alba topping lists.

Courtesy of Arthur Ave

Josh Bearden

Arthur Ave

Address and Info

Heights

You wouldn’t think a red-sauce Italian joint -- albeit a hip one -- would have one of the most visionary cocktail programs in the city. But it does, and that’s thanks to bartender Josh Bearden and beverage director Lainey Collum (more on her next). Bearden, whose background includes serious locales like Julep and Prohibition Supperclub & Bar, is a rising star in Houston’s cocktail scene. The vision at Arthur Ave is an American bar with kitschy Italian influences, infusing The Boot’s flavors into classic American tinctures in a way that seems like it was kismet (like the Martini Caprese, with Josh’s house vermouth, juniper gin, and white balsamic vinegar). Sit at the bar and watch as Bearden perfects the White Russian soft serve, which requires a deft hand in order to balance all that booze and cream. You can take solace in the fact that he nailed the recipe.

Courtesy of Arthur Ave

Lainey Collum

Arthur Ave

Address and Info

Heights

Lainey may not be the sole reason Arthur Ave is as impressive as it is, but as beverage director, she’s a nice slice of it. Before she got there, she had stints at The Pass & Provisions and The Hay Merchant, then made even more of a name for herself as she breathed life into Prohibition Supperclub + Bar. There, Lainey mixed nostalgia with decadence and put on a show through barrel-aged Old Fashioneds and original inventions blending fun stuff like bourbon, aged tequila, and coffee bitters. Her imagination undoubtedly expanded in 2016. Earlier this year, she co-hosted a Purple Rain-inspired party at Zimm’s after the loss of Prince; and then came Arthur Ave, where her dreamed-up concoctions include an amaro fizz with homemade limoncello and Aperol; or the house herb-infused gin & tonic that you’ll probably end up ordering every time you dine. Make your best effort not to, because there’s so many masterpieces to try (there’s even a house amaro in the works).

Julie Soefer

Jessey Qi

Anvil Bar & Refuge

Address and Info

Montrose

Fact: Jessey will travel to Scotland tasting Scotch at 50 distilleries for two weeks straight just so he can pour you some when he gets back. That’s how passionate the Anvil assistant general manager is about his craft (it doesn’t hurt that Anvil supports the travel program, but still). The Scotch lover wanted to be able to describe every label he poured from first-hand experience, and he did so at the highly coveted Lessons from Scotland tastings earlier this year. His travels didn’t stop there. Qi spent a week turning Chicago’s Lost Lake, a fellow James Beard Award semifinalist, into a “Texas Tiki Disco” bar along with Anvil owner Bobby Heugel and general manager Terry Williams. As long as he keeps bringing his valuable experiences back home, we’re cool with that.

Andrew Calisteri

Elyse Blechman

Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge

Address and Info

Downtown

Another rising star, Elyse is constantly reinventing her game, with an effervescence for the beverage industry that is downright infectious. Just ask anyone who walks into Bad News Bar and declares her their favorite, or ask any of the bars around town that welcome her for lessons as a brand ambassador for Aviation Gin. Of course, there’s also the annual Speed Rack competition, a national competition featuring top female bartenders that she’s already started training for, despite the competition not taking place until next year (not that we’re surprised about that). Captain Foxheart’s owner Justin Burrow may have stepped back behind the bar a bit after a staff shake-up late last year, but with talent like her on the team, he may not have to for long.

Joshua Black Wilkins

Morgan Weber

Agricole Hospitality/Eight Row Flint

Address and Info

Heights

Along with Ryan Pera, Morgan is the mastermind behind Agricole Hospitality, which was already running game with Revival Market and Coltivare before opening up the whiskey-soaked, revisionist icehouse Eight Row Flint at the end of last year. In addition to being the bossman, he’s in charge of nurturing the hospitality group’s cocktail programs, and his distinguished work at Eight Row Flint earned him a spot in this list. The deep lineup of whiskey, cocktail, and proprietary single-barrel selections of bourbon cherry-picked by Morgan himself and served straight from the cask via custom-built taps has allowed the program to rival other well-established ones in the city. The bar has also been popping off a Tuesday night outdoor cooking series featuring everything from rabbit paella to cold picnic chicken, and Weber seems to pair the menus with the perfect beverage every damn time.

Alex Gregg

Leslie Krockenberger

Moving Sidewalk

Address and Info

Downtown

It’s been a hell of a year for Leslie Krockenberger (née Ross). More accurately, a hell of a few years. After killing it as Treadsack’s bar director, in which she morphed into Superwoman and miraculously created standout beverage programs for three bars simultaneously, she went on to open the first concept of her own, Canard. Not surprisingly, the French-smooched stunner opened to rave reviews, even being named one of Playboy’s50 Best Bars in the U.S.” despite only being open since March. Leslie has amicably parted ways with Treadsack and Canard since, moving on to join the already-powerhouse team at Moving Sidewalk, which has obviously welcomed her with arms open wide as hell. Co-owner and drink guru Alex Gregg mused, “Her creativity, her intensity, attention to detail, ability to think outside of the box -- hell, even her tattoos! -- fit right in.” Somehow, in the midst of all this, she also found time to get married abroad. Now that we think about it, is she Superwoman?

Alex Negranza

Tommy Ho

Anvil Bar & Refuge

Address and Info

Montrose

Completing the rigorous training program at Anvil requires that you pass a “Blind 50” spirits test, where you have to use your sense of taste, smell, and touch (maybe) to identify 47/50 spirits correctly. That may seem nearly impossible, but of course Tommy passed. He’s one of the fastest in the business, and he’s straight-up inspirational when it comes to thinking up cocktails, always playing an integral part in Anvil’s seasonal rollouts. In the summer, it was the Peddling Fiction, a refreshing blueberry and rum cocktail with hints of spice. This fall, it's a clever Pandanime, with rum, apple brandy, pandan, cream, and orgeat. If you can’t make it to Anvil, good news! You can craft his spirits at home, as he shared his recipe for Minch’s Lure -- a delicate Scotch, sherry, and pear brandy tincture -- with the JBF.

Julie Soefer

Alex Negranza

Anvil Bar & Refuge

Address and Info

Montrose

You shouldn’t be surprised that three Anvil bartenders made this year’s list. The team there is serious about continuously educating themselves, and allowing up-and-coming talent the room it needs to thrive. Now a senior team member, Alex has thrived this year without a doubt. For starters, he won the national 2016 Eater Young Gun award and championed Negroni Week. But it wasn’t just that. He told Thirsty Mag, “Between the Eater award, being a senior staff member at Anvil, being the Negroni Week Chapter Lead, Education Chair of the United States Bartenders' Guild chapter here in Houston, working with Bar Institute Austin for outreach in Houston, and planning Anvil’s pop-up at the conference, all on top of being a Global Brand Ambassador for Scrappy’s Bitters… it’s a lot.” Looks like he can handle it.

Jack Opatrny

Laurie Harvey

Cherry Pie Hospitality

Address and Info

Various locations

A few years back, Laurie Harvey brought Triniti and Sanctuari Bar’s beverage programs to the forefront (along with Leslie Krockenberger); and now, she’s doing it all over with Cherry Pie Hospitality. As beverage director, the experimental cocktail queen oversees all things liquid for State Fare and Pi Pizza, two 2016 concepts that benefit endlessly from her expertise. Her cocktails feel polished, but unstuffy. A cinnamon- and cayenne-spiced Pineapple Express frozen with a Grizzly Hawaiian pizza? Uhh, yes please. Black-Mission-fig-infused Manhattan with a smoked, root-beer-glazed double pork chop? Hell yeah! Harvey’s passionate about fashioning smart cocktails that stand on the highest-quality fresh ingredients and spirits available. That way, her funky, never-tired flavor profiles shine like the celestial bodies they are.

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1. Julep 1919 Washington Ave, Houston, TX 77007 (Washington)

Julep's got an old-school, punky Southern charm that's soaked in bourbon, just like you'll be after a few masterfully crafted cocktails and cold seafood dishes from former Pass & Provisions Chef Adam Garcia. Housed in an industrial 1880s uniform factory, the space features a gorgeous copper bar and a sophisticated back porch. There are masterful odes to the bar’s namesake drink, but the list runs on into a boozy Southern history book with classics born in the region and a seasonal lineup that plays with Southern inspirations.

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2. Arthur Ave 1111 Studewood St Ste B, Houston, TX 77008

Named for the famous street in New York's Little Italy, industrial-chic Arthur Ave is cooking classic Italian fare with the utmost care, using only the freshest handmade ingredients. From the caprese salad with hand-pulled mozzarella to the chicken parm with organic, spatchcocked chicken, the dishes here are approached thoughtfully and plated beautifully. The star is the penne alla vodka, made with Martelli pasta fresh off the boat from Italy and blanketed in a heavenly mascarpone cream sauce. Exposed brick, chandeliers, and banquettes add to the curated feel, as do drinks from the spacious bar, like the house herb-infused gin in the “old world meets new” G&T.

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3. Anvil Bar & Refuge 1424 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006 (Montrose)

This ever-evolving, cool-as-hell industrial Montrose space offers up expertly crafted, spirit-forward cocktails made with house-made sodas, infusions, liqueurs, and even flames. Make your way through the bar’s “100 list,” a refreshed library of classic drinks the barkeeps think everyone should try at least once in their lifetime. Speaking of the bartenders, all of them are highly trained and skilled, and many Anvil alums have gone on to open their own bars.

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4. Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirits Lodge 308 1/2 Main St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

Be prepared to feel the effects after just one of spirits guru Justin Burrow’s boozed-up, classic cocktails laced with unexpected flavorings like elderflower and spiced wine syrup. But before you can enjoy the drinks, you’ll have to find them behind a nondescript door in Downtown Houston. Climb the dark, narrow staircase to the dark drinking den at the very top, where you’ll revel in your libations and the views of the city in a small, sultry space.

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5. Eight Row Flint 1039 Yale St, Houston, TX 77008 (The Greater Heights)

Eight Row Flint is a modern Texas icehouse in the Heights featuring over 100 whiskey selections (and named after the heirloom corn first used to distill whiskey in the US). To pair with your whiskey flight or bourbon on tap are tacos via food truck, located on-site, and delivered to your post at the bar. They offer five kinds of tacos, chips, guacamole, and of course, queso. And while the whiskey is the star of the beverage program -- and you should definitely drink it -- Eight Row Flint appeals to the non-whiskey drinker with 16 beers on tap and a larger selection in bottles, as well as craft cocktails served shaken, stirred, or frozen. And if you’re feeling fancy, their “Cheap Thrills” is a $3 whiskey shot, offered (and suggested) alongside a High Life for just $1 extra.

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6. Moving Sidewalk 306 Main St, Houston, TX 77002 (Downtown)

The late Goro & Gun was transformed into this sexy cocktailery that flaunts liquid-nitrogen-chilled glassware and an "emotional beverage guide" for the indecisive. Are you happy and perhaps overly optimistic about your new lady friend? A French 75 should do the trick. Something on your mind? Looks like you’re taking a beer and a shot to get you out of your funk!