Calling the Shots
The women defining Austin's cocktail culture
I love the feeling of camaraderie that springs from sitting at a bar and chatting with the bartender. I love watching them work, learning their style, and enjoying the result as a lovingly crafted beverage appears in front of me. Once I feel comfortable at a place, I like to return. Eventually, you get to know your bartender. If the image you get of that booze slinger is automatically a man, you haven't been paying much attention.
I first met Jen Keyser when she worked as a manager at Whip In in the early days of serving beer on-premise, where her easygoing nature and friendly professionalism made her a favorite. Turns out she has had plenty of practice. Keyser started her bartending career at a young age, working at her father's Fork Cafe in Wimberley. Back then, the gig required minimal skills; a copy of Bartending for Dummies helped her mix simple drinks like vodka soda. After two years, she was ready to move to the big city, where she found work as the bar manager at Spider House about a month after they first got a full liquor license. While the drinks she served were not craft cocktails by any means, they were a little more complex, and she learned a few key techniques. She returned home to work at her father's Ino'z Brew & Chew for the next couple of years before getting the itch to return to Austin and landing that Whip In gig. I was sad to see her leave the South Austin pub, but super excited when I next ran in to her at the then-newly opened HighBall.
That's where she found her calling. "This is where I first went, 'Oh, drink recipes! I actually have to memorize stuff,'" she says, chuckling. The job definitely had its challenges. "It was still a high-volume bar, but we were crafting actual cocktails." Although she was not creating cocktails herself, she enjoyed making complicated concoctions like the Heirloom – a savory martini-style drink made with pepper-infused vodka, tomato water, basil, and a smoked-salt rim. After two and a half years, she went on to open sister bar 400 Rabbits. Within three months, celebrated beverage guru Bill Norris thought Keyser would be a good fit at their higher-end bar Midnight Cowboy. "This was my very first time creating a cocktail, the Jitterbug, which was a boozy blend of Kümmel [a cumin and caraway liqueur] and a spiced beet syrup I made. Working there was my craft cocktail experience going through the roof. Since then, I am all about technique, knowledge of spirits, and mathematics. I love the idea that there is a formula for making cocktails," says the lively redhead. "I never thought I'd use math as much as I do as a bartender!" Working with experienced mixologists like Norris and Brian Dressel solidified her passion and interest in craft cocktails and helped to grow her knowledge. While working at Cowboy she took a part-time job at Contigo so she could save some money to travel. After returning, she took a full-time position, and within a year, jumped at the opportunity to apply for the vacant position of bar manager. She got it, and hasn't looked back since. She now runs Contigo's cocktail program and has the chance to create her own signature cocktails, with input from staff and owners. She brought back her beet syrup in a refreshing take on the Tom Collins which she calls Root Down, a name inspired by a Beastie Boys song. "Naming the cocktails is really the hardest part," she says. "I want the name to evoke what the drink entails." The former art student has found an outlet to focus her creativity, and she loves it. "From the shape of the glass, to the color of the drink, to the garnish, it's all an artistic endeavor to me. It's easy to make people happy with a drink, but I want the wow factor. Just like a chef."
If you're near the North Loop area, a visit to the Tigress Pub is de rigueur. A native of Santa Barbara, Calif., Pam Pritchard opened her homey mini-pub and cocktail lounge in 2010 with barely enough room for 20 patrons. Today, she has doubled the space to accommodate legions of dedicated regulars. Pritchard is a gregarious lady who will gladly serve a side of friendly conversation alongside the classic cocktails that comprise her menu. Her small, seasonally changing cocktail list features pre-prohibition standards served in appropriate glasses from her collection of vintage thrift store finds. "I like to change the list about every six weeks; it keeps us happy behind the bar, and it's a great way to learn new cocktails," she tells me. "When I opened, I think I knew about three cocktails without looking at the recipe cards. I was often scared and excited for hours on end. Now, I'm much more a manager-leader-creative gal. I experiment a lot, but often using the classic cocktail structure as a starting point for most cocktails I create. I tell my customers that I think of a cocktail like this: featured spirit, supporting spirit, with the sweet and juice as the yin-yang part, and bitters as the salt and pepper." A recent example: a cocktail named "That's MY Rabbit," blending rye whiskey, Cherry Heering, Cointreau, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, and Peychaud's bitters, described as "inspired by an episode of season four of The Walking Dead, where Daryl is forced to go halfzys on a dead rabbit."
But Pritchard is, first and foremost, a great host. "I like to tweak a cocktail for a customer to make it just what they might enjoy best. Because I've changed it dozens of times now, I don't usually have staples on the menu. However, we can usually make something from our greatest hits list. At the Tigress, you will always be able to get a French 75, Blood & Sand, Ward 8, Moscow Mule, Manhattan, Sazerac, or Old Fashioned. If you can't remember it, we will help you!" When asked about the incredible success of her little endeavor, she is humble and sweet. "I had no idea so many people would enjoy what I was doing, I just went into it knowing I liked good cocktails and people, and believed the rest would fall into place somehow."
Finding a comfy bar with good drinks does not require liquor. A creative bartender can concoct wonderful creations with low-alcohol spirits like wine, aperitifs, or house-made syrups infused with herbs and spices. Lucy Taube, bar manager at Cafe Josie, does just that. A native of rural upstate New York, Taube spent her early adulthood in the Bay Area, where she moved to attend college. There, she discovered farm-to-table and craft cocktail scenes that embraced a fun, creative environment. But the aha moment arrived while working at a small Italian restaurant where famed mixologist Scott Baird was a consultant. From there, she knew her calling was to create pleasing drinks using fresh ingredients and cooking techniques.
Taube moved to Austin in 2010 following a friend, and fell in love with our growing food and cocktail scene. "It has a non-pretentious spirit about it," she says. She landed right on her feet with a job at Fino, working behind the bar with award-winning barman Josh Loving. "He has an incredible palate. I learned so much from him; he was a great mentor." The opportunity arrived for her to branch out on her own as a manager at Snack Bar on SoCo. The catch: They don't have a liquor license. "I learned about low-alcohol spirits at Fino. I knew they were fun ingredients to play with, so I set about redesigning the cocktail menu at Snack Bar." She did so well that one of her first creations, the Paloma Punch, is still on the menu and has its own cult following.
For the last year, she's been working at the re-imagined Cafe Josie. She started as a server, but it wasn't long before co-owner Cody Taylor discovered her mixology skills. "I created a white sangria for one of the Wine Me Dine Me dinners," she says, "using ingredients that were in season, like fresh citrus, and made a syrup with fennel and rosemary from our courtyard. It was so well received that Cody asked me, 'Hey, do you have a few more of those up your sleeve?'" Since then, her task has been to create and serve a rotating menu of seasonal wine-based cocktails that pair incredibly well with the food. "It's great to have a venue to be creative, have fun, and be empowered to create a cocktail. The kitchen guys are really supportive, offering suggestions and comments. It's amazing to work with people that have such incredible palates, so when they say your drink is good, it's a great compliment."