The Drink/Drank/Drunk Issue: Different Drugs, Different People, Different Effects

Fusebox Festival's Hank Cathey talks alcohol and its attendant joys

Now that's a sweet smile.
Now that's a sweet smile. (Photo courtesy of Jic Clubb)

Yes, this is the same Hank Cathey featured in Robert Faires' current "Drama & Tonic" article about alcohol in the theatre scene.

But we wanted to showcase the man a bit more fully, to infuse this issue's menu of mixology and mind-altered mafficking with a higher concentration of his take on what makes our culture of liquid inebriation and spirit-enhanced beverages so compelling.

The dapper and affable Cathey, in addition to his Fusebox-related program activities, is a longtime employee of local educational-media firm Thinkwell and reps that company's wares across the nation; this affords the North Carolina native (but dedicated Austinite) at least a casual, after-work knowledge of the drinking vibe in other cities. Still, our main focus here is Austin, of course, and so that's what we mostly speak of in this brief interview …

Austin Chronicle: Hank, it seems like you've known about cocktails and general mixology forever. Your head's got a fierce database on the subject, and you certainly know your way around a swizzle stick. Were you way ahead of the trend?

Hank Cathey: [laughs] No, I got started in the craft cocktail scene when it came to Austin. Probably the first place I started paying attention to the cocktails was The Peacock – the now-defunct Peacock. I'd read an article in Bon Appetit about good cocktails, and it made me think, "OK, this thing they're talking about isn't something that I've had." So I went to the Peacock and asked for a martini. And, yeah, there it went: It was good, it was real good. So I've come up with the whole Austin cocktail scene – which has grown rapidly. It's more than just the drinking of the cocktails for me: I'm very interested in the culture, I love the ingredients and all the spirits. I'm a big fan of American whiskies in particular, bourbons and ryes. So my interest is somewhat larger than just your normal guy-who-goes-to-his-local-bar-and-has-a-drink: I'm a studier, a scholar – of the bar. As my Dad always says, "I might've been born yesterday, but I was up all night studying."

AC: Well, let's get right down to it: What are your three favorite bars in town?

Cathey: I think more about bartenders than bars … so when I say "I'm going to this bar, it's my favorite bar," that means: On the nights that a certain bartender is working, this is the bar I'm going to.

AC: Then let's switch the question: Who are your three favorite bartenders in town, no matter where they are? Because it's about their skills and their personalities?

Cathey: Oh, trouble, trouble, trouble … [laughs] OK: Jason Stevens. He's a great friend of mine, but also I just love drinking with him – I think he's so talented. And I appreciate his hospitality, his manner with his customers – I like watching him work. And, ah, I always enjoy Adam Bryan, wherever he ends up. And I'm very excited to go to his new bar, MOTEL, whenever the City of Austin lets it happen. It's gonna be close to my house, I like the bartender, it's gonna be great – so, c'mon, City of Austin! And – OK, these aren't in any particular order. I really like Brian Dressel, over at Midnight Cowboy, I think he's an especially talented bartender. And there are a few bartenders out there in the mix, like I don't really know where Josh Loving is working right now, but he's definitely one of Austin's best. I miss seeing him behind a stick somewhere. But it really depends on my mood: Different nights call for different drinks, call for different bartenders, you know?

AC: OK, now back to the bars. And let's use Jason Stevens as the constant. So: There's however many bars in town, and whichever one you go into, Jason is the bartender. Like he's been cloned and quick-grown and his memories and personality have been replicated or whatever, alright? So now only everything else is what's different. Which would be your three top bars?

Cathey: Well, strangely enough, not Bar Congress – which is where he works. The only reason I go to Bar Congress is because he's there all the time; otherwise, the vibe there is, ah, a little sterile for me. But, OK, I like Drink.Well – especially for Sunday brunch, when Jeremy [Bruch] is cooking. And I like going to The Grackle for whiskey and beer – and there's East Side King in the parking lot, so that's hard to beat. The Tigress is one of my favorites – I love that space: It's just so comfy and neighborhood-bar-y. But I go out of town a lot, too, and so, beyond Austin, I really love going to the Esquire Tavern in San Antonio – that's run by Houston Eaves, who bar-managed Contigo before he went down there, and I think he's done a fantastic job. It's one of the old bars of Texas; it has longest – or maybe the oldest? – wooden bar in Texas. It's a bar bar. And I like The Windmill in Dallas quite a bit – it's another just bar bar. Rittenhouse Old-Fashioned for $7.50, multigenerational crowd, mixed-gender old people laughing and drinking gin down at this end, industry people over here having a drink before their shifts, neighborhood people, and the bartenders are easy-going. It's a nice spot. And PKNY in New York – Painkiller – it's a tiki bar, and it's absolutely one of my favorite places I've ever been. It was so amazing. In Seattle, Needle and Thread, Bathtub Gin, Spur … when I travel, I visit a lot of places. When I'm alone in the city, I go find a bar and make friends and have a nice evening.

AC: Ah, yeah, that sounds great. But now here's a question that gets a little deeper into the heart of the subject. We know why people drink. You've covered that, the why of it, very well yourself in this conversation. But – why do people get drunk? Why are certain levels of intoxication part of this whole thing?

Cathey: Um … I have a hard time with "why" questions that ask me to suppose what people are thinking. I know, I think, that getting intoxicated is important to people – and we see other primates do it. It's like, just above Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs comes intoxication. As soon as we get all the hierarchy done, then we start getting high – in one way or another. Now why? For myself, it's the lowering of inhibitions, the raising of convivial feelings toward one's fellow human. I think there's something to the romantic idea of the wise drunk of the village – that there's a way of knocking yourself off your regular path that lets you come up with new ideas and see things differently. "To forget, to remember," all the old saws. And I think it's a way to demarcate free time from work time. It's a different way of being when you start getting intoxicated, and that is a way that only happens in leisure time – when you're doing it right. [laughs] Any drug is a potential danger, so of course there are people who don't get it right – but we'll focus on the ones who do.

AC: OK, and here's an even closer focus: If getting stoned on marijuana was completely legal – and here we are, we've moved beyond the hierarchy of needs, we're up to that extra notch above it – why would a person choose to get drunk instead of stoned?

Cathey: Well, personal preference would probably be number one. I certainly know a lot of people who don't consider that an either/or situation, who are happy to enjoy both drugs for their individual charms – as well as for their synergistic charms. But unless our culture changes, there's still no place like the bar. The bar is a convivial place. This is a different kind of business, it's a business we go to in our free time – to talk, to consume things. And of course, if marijuana was legal, perhaps there'd be places like this for cannabis smokers to gather … but I also think that alcohol contributes more to a loud and raucous environment that's more conducive to interacting with strangers, to a celebratory spirit. Whereas smoking pot makes a person a little more mellow, and maybe they'd prefer to just watch a TV in the air conditioning or something like that, y'know? Not to stereotype things too much. Because, you know: Different people, different drugs, different effects.

Read more stories behind the bar and deep in the jigger at The Austin Chronicle's Drink Drank Drunk issue hit stands Wednesday, July 3.

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