David Alan is having the busiest year of his life. Between appearances at Food & Wine festivals in Austin and Aspen, organizing Texas Tiki Week with other members of the Central Texas chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild, preparations for this month's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, brand representation, the monitoring of crucial distilling bills as they worked their way through the Texas Legislature, and important consulting jobs, Alan is also promoting his first book, Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State, at book signings and cocktail parties. A lesser man might lose track of his calendar, but Alan is an accomplished multitasker who describes himself as "a big-picture guy." We found time to chat over breakfast recently, because I was curious about how the man who has had such a major influence on our local craft cocktail culture became the Tipsy Texan, with everything that recognizable brand now implies.
Like many folks, Alan's introduction to the hospitality industry happened when he was still a teenager. "I was fresh out of Austin High in the summer of 1996 when Barry Katz hired me," Alan recalled. "It may sound hokey to people now because things have changed so much, but at that time, Katz's was the place to witness Austin nightlife. Everyone came through there. It turned out to be a great place for me to learn the business. I worked for Barry for seven years." It wasn't just exposure to the bright lights/big city scene that made the job at Katz's worthwhile for the young man who grew up in Oak Hill. Alan also learned just about every job in the restaurant, and the younger Katz encouraged him to take some affordable culinary courses at ACC when he needed help stabilizing the kitchen. Alan moved to Houston in 2000 to help his boss open a Katz's Deli outpost there and ended up working three years in the Bayou City. He returned to Austin in 2003 as a sales representative for Texas Coffee Traders, and, in addition to selling coffee to the hospitality trade and finishing a degree at the University of Texas, Alan also set up a coffee booth at the Downtown Farmers' Market every Saturday morning.
"Working at the farmers' market, getting to know the farmers and artisan food producers, and seeing the produce change with the seasons really began to shape my ideas about the importance of using fresh, unprocessed, seasonal ingredients in cocktails whenever possible," Alan reflected. "Lemons and limes are the backbone of a bar and they'll have to come from wherever they grow, but I began to realize that using fresh, local fruit juices and herbal infusions in season would only enhance the quality of the cocktails I could create." By the time Alan met Edible Austin publisher Marla Camp at the farmers' market in 2007, he had already begun reaching out to the hospitality community by volunteering to serve coffee or drinks at charity events as the Tipsy Texan.
Camp would turn out to be another important mentor in Alan's life. "The thing I remember most about David at that time is how people responded to his animated, social self. Like when he changed [from Texas Coffee Traders to Katz Coffee], the coffees were both good, but you could tell what people wanted when they bought coffee was to interact with David himself," Camp recalled. Alan's personal magnetism at the coffee booth also attracted his life partner, Joe Eifler. "After we got together, Joe admitted he came to buy coffee just to flirt with me," Alan remembered with a grin.
Alan's first "Tipsy Texan" column ran in the spring 2008 issue of Edible Austin. Five years of quarterly columns (the column is currently on hiatus while he promotes his book) helped him distill his personal vision for Texas cocktails and gave him an opportunity to interview and write about people in Texas' emerging distilling industry, forging strong bonds. Alan also regularly volunteered as the Tipsy Texan to serve drinks at Edible Austin community functions and was instrumental in helping Camp add the "drink" aspect to the magazine's annual Eat Drink Local Week events that take place every December. "David's column has been a wonderful addition to the magazine, but his natural ability for reaching out to the community and drawing people in at the same time is invaluable," Camp said.
While Alan was selling coffee and building name recognition as the Tipsy Texan, he also found time to take some high-profile bartending and/or consulting gigs at fine dining outlets around town like Annie's Cafe & Bar and he realized there were more niches that needed filling. "In 2008, a few of us – Rob Pate, Bill Norris, Moxie Castro, and I – got together and formed a Central Texas chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild," Alan recalled. Membership in that group has grown significantly, and they just hosted their second annual Texas Tiki Week with more than 30 different statewide events for the public and the trade industry. Then in 2010, Alan and his pal Lara Nixon formed Tipsy Tech, the facet of his enterprise that has probably had the biggest impact on the development of Austin's current craft cocktail culture to date.
"We didn't feel like there was any kind of comprehensive education program for bartenders and enthusiasts, something that offered history and information about the distilling process for each category of spirit, in addition to the practice of making cocktails," Alan said. He and Nixon developed a 12-week course of study that offered lectures, guest speakers, tastings, field trips, and written exams for under $400, garnering Tipsy Tech recognition as the Best Tippler Teach-ins in our 2010 Best of Austin awards.
Although Alan points out there is no place in the code of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission for educational practices, Tipsy Texan classes were presented weekly at the Twin Liquors Marketplace in Hancock Center, adhering to the laws that govern the marketing of alcohol. The classes drew professionals and enthusiasts from around Central Texas, and Tipsy Tech grads include many of Austin's top craft bartenders: Pam Pritchard of the Tigress Pub, Joyce Garrison of the W, Ben Edgerton of Contigo, Michael and Jessica Sanders of Drink.Well, Jason Stevens of Congress Austin, Brian Dressel of Midnight Cowboy, Mary Stanley of the Turtle in Brownwood, and Mindy Kucan, who now works in Portland, just to name a few. Lara Nixon has since moved on to found her own bitters company called Bad Dog Bar Craft, and Tipsy Tech took the spring semester off, but Alan assures me classes will relaunch in the fall. He'd ultimately like to move it to a location that would allow for more flexible policies regarding mixing and tasting cocktails, and that's why Alan is so excited about Senate Bill 905 becoming law in the fall.
"Now that it will be legal for distillers to sell spirits as well as bottles to consumers on their premises, that opens up a whole world of possibilities for the distilleries; destination tourism, social functions, all kinds of things," Alan explained. "It will be good for the beverage industry and good for the economy." Currently, Alan is consulting with Daniel Barnes on a new facility for Treaty Oak Distilling near Dripping Springs, an area which is attracting more distillers and craft brewers all the time. "The new place is being designed to showcase spirits and to offer training for both consumers and the trade. It's going to be great, and I'm really enjoying working on it with Daniel," Alan said. By the time the new Treaty Oak facility is completed, David Alan will be well into future projects. There's that second book his publisher is talking about and a wellness program he's interested in developing for the USBG. "At some point, I realized that if I intend to have a long, sustainable career in the beverage industry, there had to be a healthier way to do the job," he told me. Spoken like a man with his eye on the big picture.
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.