In some ways, the Official Drink of Austin competition serves as an unofficial look at the current best bars in Austin. The competition, which returns on Thursday as a benefit for the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, shows off some underrated places, too, that cocktail lovers should have on their radar.
This year’s bar teams hail from Juliet, Juniper, Freedmen’s, Drink.Well, Backbeat, Geraldine’s, Central Standard Kitchen & Bar, and District Kitchen + Cocktails. Of them, Drink.Well is the only veteran.
Taking place at Fair Market this year, on 1100 E. Fifth Street, the Official Drink of Austin allows attendees to sample the various cocktails vying for the Official Drink of Austin title — along with food from local restaurants, to keep the tipsiness at bay. Last year’s winner came from Garage’s Chauncy James, whose Indian Paintbrush drink with Dripping Springs Vodka ultimately won over the voters and judges.
Here’s a look at this year’s participants.
Drink.Well: This North Loop cocktail bar from husband-and-wife team Michael and Jessica Sanders is not only the one bar of the bunch with previous Official Drink of Austin experience; it’s also the oldest one, with the exception of District Kitchen + Cocktails, by a few years. Couple that experience with consistently exceptional drinks and Drink.Well’s got an edge over the competition.
Backbeat: The Sanders might have a hard time cheering on their favorites — they also own Backbeat, which opened a couple months ago on South Lamar Boulevard. Like its sister bar, Backbeat is all about well-made drinks and bar food that pairs with them, but with a rooftop patio offering views of downtown Austin, its funky melody is not likely to be confused with Drink.Well’s.
Juliet: This beautifully designed Italian restaurant on Barton Springs Road might have made missteps with its cuisine, but those problems have never extended to the cocktail program, which was strong from the start with Italian-centric spirits and liqueurs and even a whole roster of Negroni variations. Beverage director Jeramy Campbell recently produced a spring cocktail menu as tasty and nuanced as ever.
Juniper: Another Italian restaurant, this charming east side spot has carved out its own distinct niche. The cocktail list is small but runs the gamut on spirits used — with everything from pisco to aquavit.
Geraldine’s: The Hotel Van Zandt’s fourth-floor restaurant fulfills this town’s love for live music in more ways than one. While local artists play onstage, locals and hotel guests alike are able to sip on music-themed cocktails like the Willie’s Cup, with rye whiskey, sage leaves and hemp-seed milk and adorned with a telltale red bandana. Geraldine’s regular tributes to Austin’s favorite things make it a natural choice for the Official Drink of Austin.
Freedmen’s: A barbecue restaurant with a stellar cocktail list might seem like a strange combination — but not if you’ve ever dined at this campus-area smokehouse and beer garden located in a historic building. There, you can try drinks that have a touch of smoke themselves, like the Pimm’s Cup-like Garden Party on the current menu.
Central Standard Kitchen & Bar: Another hotel restaurant has made the cut, this time from the South Congress Hotel. The drinks from this strikingly designed spot are straight-forward and elegant, such as the Congress Sour with Old Overholt Rye, Fonseca Port, egg and lemon.
District Kitchen + Cocktails: Although it’s the only restaurant in the Official Drink of Austin lineup not located centrally, don’t let its suburbs status fool you. The Circle C spot has a solid cocktail program that both gets creative and goes back to the classics.
The Official Drink of Austin is $55 in advance, $65 at the door. Tickets are available on the Austin Food & Wine Alliance website.