From stage to bar: “Phantom of the Opera”-inspired cocktails now unmasked

A new staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” will keep Austin audiences in suspense this week while it performs through April 30 at Bass Concert Hall.

Try “Phantom of the Opera”-inspired cocktails at El Chile Group restaurants through April 30. Pictured is the Night Rose from El Chile.

Plus, cocktails inspired by the mysterious masked man at the opera house will keep the thirst of the musical’s biggest fans at bay. The show’s sponsors have teamed up with El Chile Group to provide “Phantom”-inspired cocktails at all of the company’s Austin restaurants: El Chile and El Sapo on Manor Road, Alcomar on South First Street and El Alma on Barton Springs Road.

The drinks will be available for as long as the production is in town, through the end of April.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh, who first created “Phantom” with Webber, has reimagined the musical — about a masked man who haunts the halls of an opera house where singer Christine tries to make her big debut — to have vastly different staging, while keeping the music and the script mostly the same. Read our story about the dazzling production ahead of going to see it.

Here are the four “Phantom of the Opera”-inspired cocktails that you can try during the respective opening hours of the restaurants.

  • El Alma: El Fantasma (The Phantom) with La Pinta Pomegranate Tequila, Jimador Silver Tequila, hand-squeezed lime juice, blood orange, agave simple, and a black and white salt rim.
  • El Chile: The Night Rose with blueberry and juniper-infused Jimador Reposado Tequila, St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, rose water, agave simple, lemon juice and a pink salt rim.
  • El Sapo: Phantom of the Sapo-ra with strawberry, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry-infused Tito’s Vodka; lemon juice; house-made ginger beer; and Chambord
  • Alcomar: Midnight Masquerade with Jimador Reposado Tequila, house blackberry puree, lime juice, triple sec, mint-infused agave simple, pink rock salt rim and candied blackberry

Want to make one of your own at home while watching Joel Schumacher’s extravagant cinematic take on the “Phantom,” with Gerard Butler in the title role and Emmy Rossum as Christine? Here’s one of the recipes.

El Fantasma

1 1/4 oz. La Pinta Pomegranate Tequila

1/4 oz. El Jimador Silver Tequila

1/4 oz. blood orange pureé

1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

3/4 oz. agave simple syrup

Shake all ingredients together and strain into a chilled coup glass garnished with a half white salt, half volcanic black salt rim. (To make the agave simple beforehand, combine 1 cup agave nectar, 1 cup hot water in a pan and stir to dissolve.)

— El Alma

Austin distillery creates unusual product, Martine, a honeysuckle liqueur

Knox Photographics. The Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur is a sweet new product that adds dimension to a variety of cocktails, but it's also tasty on its own.
Knox Photographics. The Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur is a sweet new product that adds dimension to a variety of cocktails, but it’s also tasty on its own.

The intensely fragrant honeysuckle plant is common in Texas, but no one had ever tried to distill the sweet taste of the nectar into a liqueur until now.

Martine is the new honeysuckle liqueur from Texacello, a small distillery known for making Paula’s Texas Orange and related products. The co-owner of the business, Gary Kelleher, also produces Dripping Springs Vodka and two Dripping Springs gins with his brothers in their San Luis Spirits distillery, and he’s become known for tinkering with new ideas like Martine, his mind abuzz with what to do next.

He had been thinking about creating a honeysuckle liqueur for awhile, thanks to happy memories of being a boy and plucking the honeysuckle flower from its stem to drink up the nectar within it — memories that evoke feelings of first love and summertime, he says — so he began playing around with early versions of Martine.

That was five years ago. The recipe took half a decade to get right because Kelleher wanted it to seem exactly as though he’d bottled up honeysuckle from his garden.

“Creating new liqueurs and liquors is something I love to do, but this one was hard to get right,” he says. “On the one hand, I wanted it to have the flavor of honeysuckle that’s in the blossom, but the other thing was that I wanted you to be able to taste what you get when you smell honeysuckle. So I wanted the flavor to include the aroma. Getting those two things balanced together took the longest.”

He won’t reveal the full recipe since there’s nothing like it on the market today, but he will say that it’s an infusion of sugarcane-derived spirits with an emulsion “that is a combo of honeysuckle blossoms, fresh fruits like orange and nectarine, and a blend of botanicals including vanilla.”

The result is undeniably sweet, and there’s only one way to describe it: Martine tastes like honeysuckle, precisely as Kelleher intended, to the point that you can drink it all by itself if you want. It’s meant to also add extra nuance to cocktails, he says.

“I wanted to create something that was delicious to sip by itself and evoked those memories of summertime,” he says. “But at the same time, it needed to be something that would fit into the mixology world. Something that you could use to enhance the flavor of cocktails, to create new flavor profiles with. That was really the idea behind it.”

Wanting it to mix well in a variety of different drinks meant that Kelleher, in the recipe creation process, had additional testing to do — making sure that it enhanced each of the spirits, from gin to tequila to whiskey, without being overpowering.

Right now, as Martine hits shelves, he’s discovering that all that hard work is paying off because bartenders and liquor store owners alike are showing interest in it, and “no one has turned us down,” he says. “It’s shocking; it’s wonderful. It’s a product no one has heard of, but everyone is willing to give it a shot.”

Martine will be pretty easy to find for home bartenders looking for a fresh liqueur to play with: Kelleher says it’s going into Twin Liquors stores, as well as Total Wine & More.

The Martine Cocktail

1 oz. Martine

4 oz. Sauvignon Blanc

Garnish lemon twist

Have the Sauvignon Blanc chilled ahead of time. Fill a wine or coupe glass with the Martine and wine and stir them together. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Como La Flor

1 oz. Reposado tequila

1 oz. Martine

1/2 oz. lime juice

1 tsp. simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake. Pour into a coupe glass, sans ice, and garnish with a slice of lime.

— Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur

Try a Moontower Comedy Fest cocktail at the Townsend

Although the Austin Food & Wine Festival was canceled today because of soggy grounds on Auditorium Shores, one festival will lift your spirits up this weekend in its place: the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival.

The fifth annual celebration of live comedy, from Wednesday to Saturday this year, even has a cocktail that you can drink in Moontower’s honor — it was created especially for the festival from one of Austin’s best cocktail bars.

The Townsend's Justin Elliott has created this refreshing drink in honor of the Moontower Comedy Festival.
The Townsend’s Justin Elliott has created this refreshing drink in honor of the Moontower Comedy Festival.

Across the street from the Paramount Theatre, the main Moontower venue, is the Townsend, where Justin Elliott will be offering the Artist’s Lament for $8 starting Thursday through Saturday. The Townsend is serving as another festival venue, with comedians vying for laughs in the bar’s intimate live music room.

The Artist’s Lament, which features Dolin Dry Vermouth, Bigallet Amer China-China, simple syrup, lemon juice and Scotch whisky, is a swizzle drink full of crushed ice and garnished with a mint sprig. Proving he’s got a sense of humor of his own, Elliott created it as a bitter twist on a classic cocktail.

“Loosely based on the classic Artist’s Special, I present — in honor of the miserable lot that we all know comedians to be — the Artist’s Lament,” he said in a press release. “Basically it has a lot of the tasting notes of an Artist’s Special, but it’s way more bitter and it’s definitely smoking about a pack a day.”

Won’t be able to make it to the Moontower Comedy Festival this weekend? Comfort yourself by making the Artist’s Lament using the recipe below.

The Artist’s Lament 

1 oz. Dolin Vermouth Dry

1 oz. Bigallet Amer China-China (a liqueur made from sweet and bitter orange peels)

1/2 oz. simple syrup (which you’ll get by bringing equal parts water and sugar to a boil)

3/4 oz. lemon juice

1/4 oz. Port Charlotte Islay Scotch Whisky

Swizzle ingredients together with crushed ice and garnish with a mint sprig.

— The Townsend’s Justin Elliott

Tickets, including four-day passes, are still available for Moontower, which you can purchase at

Make merry with holiday cocktails from around Austin

Icenhauer's You'll Shoot Your Eye Out is a holiday cocktail available this season.
Icenhauer’s You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out is a holiday cocktail available this season.

With only a few more days left until Christmas, we’ve still got plenty of time left to cozy up to holiday cocktails — from classics like spiked eggnog and hot chocolate to more original concoctions — while making merry with friends and family.

Austin bars and restaurants have exactly those kinds of drinks for the next week or two. Here’s a roundup of them to keep your spirits bright this holiday season, as well as a couple of recipes in case you’d prefer to make them at home.

Warm up with Contigo's Classic Hot Toddy in the days leading up to Christmas.
Warm up with Contigo’s Classic Hot Toddy in the days leading up to Christmas.

Contigo: This East Austin restaurant focused on ranch-style dining has a hot toddy menu that will keep you warm and toasty as you enjoy dinner inside Contigo’s outdoor tent. The menu includes a classic toddy for the traditionalists out there — made from lemon, honey and allspice and your choice of bourbon, rye or aged rum — but more adventurous drinkers can also seek out a cocktail called the Teacher’s Pet, with applejack brandy, apple cider and cinnamon.

East Side Showroom: Indulge in East Side Showroom’s special Holiday Toddy, which comes in a large mug and has El Dorado 5 Rum, lemon, cinnamon syrup, allspice dram, angostura and chocolate bitters, as well as a clove-studded orange zest garnish. It’s large enough to be the only cocktail you enjoy that night and tasty enough that you won’t mind.

Half Step: The seasonal drink at Half Step will remind you why ’tis the season for not counting calories. The Rainey Street cocktail bar is offering the Orchard Warmer, with Cognac, 100 proof apple brandy, maple syrup, unsalted butter and hot water for your yuletide merriment, not for your waistline.

Treat yourself to an Italian-style eggnog at Hotel Granduca Austin.
Treat yourself to an Italian-style eggnog at Hotel Granduca Austin.

Hotel Granduca Austin: You’ve probably already had plenty of eggnog by now, but have you enjoyed it Italian-style? That’s what you’ll get at the relatively new Hotel Granduca, off Loop 360, whose bar and restaurant are serving up two holiday drinks: the Zabaglione and Vin Brulé. The Zabaglione, made with egg yolks, sugar and fortified with Cynar, will renew your appreciation for eggnog’s cold sweet grip, while the Vin Brulé, served hot, will keep you warm. It’s an Italian spiced mulled wine made from Paolo Scavino Rosso, a blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto grapes. You can try both of these even on Christmas Eve and Christmas because Hotel Granduca’s Visconti Ristorante & Bar isn’t closing for the holidays.

Icenhauer’s: Only a few days after Thanksgiving, this Rainey Street bar goes full Clark Griswold with Christmas decorations galore. Even the trees in the front courtyard are decked out with colorful ornaments. And the cocktail menu, of course, is similarly festive. You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out, with candy cane-infused chocolate vodka and Bailey’s Irish Cream, is a maddeningly easy sipper, as is Griswold’s Eggnog, spiked with spiced rum and Kahlua and topped with freshly grated nutmeg (recipe below). You’ll have to remind yourself both of them have lots of booze; otherwise, you’ll find yourself turning into the Grinch the next day.

Lustre Pearl: Among the cocktails at this newly resurrected bungalow bar is a trio of winter warmers. You can sip on the classic Hot Toddy, made with Tullamore DEW Irish whiskey, lemon and honey, or go for something a little more original, like the Far East Tea, an herbal blend of Grand Marnier, Luxardo Amaretto and Earl Grey Tea. Another option is the Spiced Apple Cider.

Punch Bowl Social: Holiday parties with lots of people can try drinks in large batches at this Domain entertainment space. Among them is Punch Bowl Social’s holiday punch: Grandma Got Run Over by a Punch Bowl. It’s a bittersweet treat of Averna Amaro, Old Forester Bourbon, apple and lemon juices, and cinnamon syrup. If you’d like it for at-home entertaining, the recipe is below.

The Broken Spoke is one of the Four Seasons' wild west-themed holiday drinks.
The Broken Spoke is one of the Four Seasons’ wild west-themed holiday drinks.

The Four Season’s Lobby Bar: Each year, the hotel has offered holiday cocktails that pair thematically with the large gingerbread village displayed in the lobby starting in November. This time around, the Four Seasons has gone a little country with a “Wild, Wild West” theme, and the drinks are no different. Through Dec. 31, try the likes of the Broken Spoke, featuring Ron Zapaca rum, brown sugar and lime juice, or the Rock & Rye with holiday spice-infused Rittenhouse Rye that’s accompanied only by a rock candy garnish. The rock candy will melt as you sip, imbuing the boozy treat with even more sweet flavor.

Griswold’s Eggnog

1 1/2 oz. spiced rum

3/4 oz. Kahlua

2.5 oz. eggnog

Add all ingredients into a shaker over fresh ice. Shake vigorously and strain into martini glass. Top with freshly grated nutmeg.

— Icenhauer’s Stuart Thompson

Grandma Got Run Over by a Punch Bowl

6 parts Averna Amaro

2 parts Old Forester Bourbon

4 parts apple juice

1 part lemon juice

1 part cinnamon syrup (see below)

Use 1 oz. as your 1 part to yield a bowl that serves 4. Mix all of the ingredients and pour over ice. Serve in a large punch bowl and garnish with a lemon wheel and a maraschino cherry.

Cinnamon syrup

Boil 1 cup of water for each cinnamon stick for 1 hour. Add equal parts sugar to the cinnamon water to make the syrup.

— Punch Bowl Social

National Bourbon Heritage Month in Austin

Travaasa's New York Sour is the perfect cocktail to toast National Bourbon Heritage Month with this September.
Travaasa’s New York Sour is the perfect cocktail to toast National Bourbon Heritage Month with this September.

Bourbon is a distinctly American creation, like country music or football played by large men in tight pants. That reason alone means it’s a spirit worth celebrating, and it’s probably why we’ve devoted a whole month, rather than just one single day, to commemorate the whiskey.

September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, as serious a fake holiday as you’ll ever find — the U.S. Senate itself made this observance in 2007 after calling bourbon America’s “native spirit.” The legislature was on to something, albeit maybe a bit ahead of the times. (Wait, did I just write that the government is forward-thinking? Whoa.)

Now more than ever, people are sipping on this brown aged spirit, especially in Texas, where many producers are helping to dispel the notion that a whiskey can only be called bourbon if it’s made in Kentucky. That’s not true: Call it bourbon if it’s made in the U.S., aged in new charred oak barrels and comprised of a grain mixture that’s at least 51 percent corn. Many Texas distillers, such as the Garrison Brothers Distillery and Treaty Oak Distilling, have mastered these parameters and make stellar examples of the spirit.

In honor of National Bourbon Heritage Month, Jack Allen’s Kitchen is recognizing the talent of the Hye-based distillery and has built a veritable five-course feast around bourbon cocktail pairings using Garrison Brothers’ whiskey, including a tasting of the new, highly sought-out Cowboy Bourbon that’s probably already sold out by now.

On Sept. 28, the Oak Hill restaurant will serve up cocktails like the Hye in Texas to sip on with each delectable course. By the end, you’ll probably have forgotten bourbon ever originated from Kentucky.

Drink.Well.'s Gold Rush with Red Handed Bourbon has been one of the North Loop bar's special National Bourbon Heritage Month cocktails.
Photo by Matt McGinnis. Drink.Well.’s Gold Rush with Red Handed Bourbon has been one of the North Loop bar’s special National Bourbon Heritage Month cocktails.

But if you can’t make that dinner — the $120 price tag certainly is steep — you can try making yourself any of these bourbon cocktails or visit the places where they are made. Many bars around town, like Drink.Well on North Loop, Congress Avenue’s the Townsend and Icenhauer’s on Rainey Street, are highlighting National Bourbon Heritage Month specials throughout the rest of September.

Hye in Texas

1 1/2 oz. Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey

1/4 oz. yellow chartreuse

1/4 oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

1/2 oz. Carpano Antica

Add all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice. Stir with bar spoon while in the glass, approximately 10 times. Strain over rocks or serve up.

— David Toby, Jack Allen’s Kitchen

Gold Rush

2 oz. Treaty Oak’s Red Handed Bourbon

1/2 oz. wildflower honey syrup (equal parts hot water and honey)

3/4 oz. fresh lemon

Shake and fine strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. No garnish.

— Drink.Well

New York  Sour

2 oz. Maker’s Mark Bourbon

1 oz. lemon juice

1/2 oz. honey syrup (equal parts honey and water)

1 oz. Malbec

Combine all ingredients and shake over ice. Strain into an old fashioned glass over cubed ice. Float Malbec on top. Garnish with lemon peel and speared cherry.

— Edward Morgan, Travaasa Austin

The Roosevelt Room’s Justin Lavenue wins big in gin competition

Justin Lavenue has made a trio of different gin drinks while competing in the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition.
Justin Lavenue has made a few original gin drinks while competing in the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition.

Justin Lavenue has had a banner summer. A couple of months ago, he and his bartending partner opened the cocktail-focused Roosevelt Room on West Fifth Street, with plans to turn it into an even bigger bar — but that’s not all he’ll want to remember. He’s capped off the season with another notable milestone: Lavenue just won the Bombay Sapphire Gin competition, a cocktail-crafting throwdown that at one point pitted him against 27 other top bartenders from the U.S. and Canada.

“I’m truly speechless,” he said. “It’s been years of hard work leading up to this point, and I’m so happy that all the preparation has finally paid off! I’m enjoying it now but already looking ahead and getting ready for the global competition next year.”

Spirits competitions help bartenders hone their skills behind the bar and also give them exposure to others in the industry. The 9th Annual Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition is no different; he’s had to create a few varied gin drinks for it and met up with finalists from Montreal, San Francisco, New York and other big cities whose craft cocktail scenes are, arguably, much bigger and more developed than Austin’s.

His win means that in December, he’ll be on a cover of GQ magazine’s special “Men of the Year” issue. He’ll also advance to the global finals next year to vie for the next title of Bombay Sapphire World’s Most Imaginative Bartender.

In the meantime, try his winning cocktail yourself — it’s got several steps to it but is, clearly, well worth the time and effort to make it.

The Poet’s Muse

Justin Lavenue is one of Zagat's 30 Under 30 for his attention to detail behind the bar.
Justin Lavenue recently won Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition.

2 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin

3/4 oz. Poet’s Cordial (see below)

3/4 oz. Yuzu-Lime blend (see below)

2 dashes Umami tincture (see below)

Hard shaken over a large ice cube. Strained into a large coupe glass with the large ice cube dropped in. Garnished with a lime peel rosette. Served on a Zen Garden.

Poet’s Cordial

1 L Pistachio Milk (1 park unsalted pistachio meat, 2 parts water, blended and strained)

800 ml wildflower honey

2 cinnamon sticks

4 Star Anise pods

1 vanilla bean

2 tbsp. Matcha Green Tea Powder

Combine ingredients, mix well and let rest for three days. Fine strain and bottle.

Citrus Blend

15 parts fresh lime juice

1 part Yuzu concentrate

Mix well and bottle.

Umami Tincture

30 shiitake mushrooms, chopped

2 tbsp. unsalted butter

6 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin

1 tbsp. Himalayan salt

Saute the mushrooms in butter for 10 minutes. Add Bombay Sapphire and salt and steep for another 10 minutes. Strain mushrooms off and freeze to let fats coagulate. Strain off fats and bottle.

— Justin Lavenue, the Roosevelt Room

Bone Spirits Distillery bottles a Texas bourbon

After five years of spiriting up all manner of hard alcoholic beverages — a vodka, a gin and a pair of whiskeys — Bone Spirits Distillery is gearing up to release its latest, one that the founder and distillers have been waiting on for quite some time.

Photo by Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Bone Bourbon is a Texas whiskey made with corn and rye for a bold, spicy finish.
Photo by Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Bone Bourbon is a Texas whiskey made with corn and rye for a bold, spicy finish.

Their new Bone Bourbon has been aging for more than two years in charred white oak barrels but is just about ready for bar and store shelves. Try it first this weekend at the distillery during an all-day launch party for the whiskey, where you’ll be able to sip it straight or mixed into a cocktail.

No matter how you try it, Bone Spirits founder and owner Jeff Peace promises that it won’t be like other bourbons you’ve had before.

For one thing, the bourbon might have the majority corn mash bill required of all whiskeys that want to call themselves bourbon, but it’s also got a lot of rye for a lean, spice-filled backbone. Although many bourbon producers tend to favor accompanying the corn with wheat for a slightly sweeter finish, Peace found himself preferring rye’s bold stamp of flavor.

“Wheat makes for a soft, sweet bourbon,” Peace said. “We wanted to veer a little from the pack and chose to make ours with the more spicy profile of the rye.”

To do that, however, required the Bone Spirits distillers to step away from an important philosophy of the distillery: making each spirit with as many Texas ingredients as possible. Rye doesn’t grow here — it thrives in colder environments — but it was so integral to Peace’s vision of the bourbon that he decided to source the rye from Hennessey, Oklahoma, in the northern part of the state.

Using the rye, Peace said, turned out to be so very worth it. Indeed, the bourbon is remarkable in part because of how well the rye, the corn and the wood of the barrels get along with each other. Take a whiff of the Bone Bourbon and you’ll pick up aromas of walnut, cinnamon and cherry. Take a sip and you’ll relish the striking mix of vanilla and pepper on your tongue. A rye-forward bourbon like this one can have a bite to it; in this case, it’s a nip that finishes dry and easy and leaves you clamoring for more.

Peace aims to sell out of all cases of the distillery’s Bone Bourbon at the release party on Saturday (where you can keep yourself clear-headed with a lunch or dinner of brisket from Zimmerhanzel’s), but in a couple of weeks, bars and retailers will get their supply of the bourbon on shelves as well.

After that, keep an eye out for additional Bone Spirits beverages: Peace said in the next couple of months, an aged gin will be available at the distillery. And just in time for the holidays, Bone Spirits also plans to release an aquavit — the dream of one of the distillers, whose Norwegian family and friends have been calling for one.

“No matter what we do, we’ll keep it Texas-focused,” Peace said. “Made from scratch here, aged here, bottled here.”

The Scofflaw

2 oz. Bone Bourbon
1 oz. dry vermouth
1/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. grenadine
2 dashes orange bitters

Add all ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

— Bone Spirits Distillery

Bone Spirits’ Bourbon and Brisket Party. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. Free. 802 NE First St., Smithville.

Hill Country Distillers play around with cactus & jalapeño moonshine

Texas terroir takes center stage in a pair of moonshine spirits whose ingredients are locally grown.

Hill Country Distillers in Comfort, a small town south of Fredericksburg, has been making moonshine out of fermented prickly pear cactus and jalapeños, both primarily sourced from Texas ranchers or growers. The moonshines, available since earlier this year in bottles at a handful of Austin liquor stores and bars, have no corn or grain added — which the distillers say makes for consistently smooth spirits.

Founded by John Kovacs, the distillery also makes sweet liqueurs, or dulces as he calls them, that are created from the cactus moonshine. He already has plans underway to release many more boozy small-batch projects, including a gin made with the berries from ash junipers (which is the longer name for cedar, the tree that gets Austinites’ allergies flaring every winter) and brandies featuring Fredericksburg peaches, Medina apples and San Antonio plums. Most will only be available at the distillery’s tasting room.

“We keep it all Texas, best we can,” Kovacs says.

Ever wondered what Texas would taste like if you distilled it into moonshine and bottled it? The Hill Country Distillers, with their cactus and jalapeño spirits, may have found your answer.
Ever wondered what Texas would taste like if you distilled it into moonshine and bottled it? The Hill Country Distillers, with their cactus and jalapeño spirits, may have found your answer.

He and Sean Smith, a family friend who’s been involved with Hill Country Distillers from the beginning, perfected the recipe for their cactus moonshine after lots of trial and error early last year, before opening up the distillery tasting room last July.

They discovered that the moonshines — which aren’t moonshine in the traditional or modern senses of the word — taste best after only one distillation, and they’re also not filtered. That’s not typical of many spirits on the market these days, which achieve their high proofs and smooth out their harsh alcoholic edges with more than one distillation. Still, the easy-drinking cactus moonshine clocks in at 102 proof.

“It was basically happenstance,” he says. “We had planned on multiple distillations; we also planned on filtering. But when we did those things, we ended up with such a neutral product. It pulled out all the character. When we filtered it, it was like 100-proof water. It didn’t have any life to it.”

But that wasn’t Kovacs or Smith’s desired result for either. They wanted to showcase the intricate vegetal soul of the cactus and the bold spicy twang of the jalapeño, a goal of Kovacs ever since his wife had brought home moonshine after a trip to Bandera, another small Texas town. Hill Country Distillers went back to one distillation and found those elements shine through.

“It all started with the cactus, and that one little plant drove everything we’ve done,” he says.

Their focus now is on Texas-grown fruits and vegetables in general. Because they’re fermenting ingredients that are normally supporting players in an alcoholic beverage, versus the fermented base of it, Hill Country Distillers has always — since first trying to get permitting approval from the government — had trouble defining the spirits made from the 100-gallon and 250-gallon copper stills in the distillery. Getting people to try these unusual spirits has also been a challenge.

“The cactus and the jalapeño aren’t really moonshine, but we called them that for lack of a better word,” Kovacs says, noting that moonshine isn’t technically a recognized category of spirits in the U.S. It’s less stringently defined, however, than others like gin or tequila.

Smith, who peddles the bottles of moonshine at primarily liquor stores and bars in the Central Texas area, has had to get good at describing both of them. “I’d say (the cactus moonshine) has some of the same earthy organic characteristics that a tequila has, but the same kind of clean smoothness of a vodka,” he says.

The jalapeño moonshine, he says, isn’t overpoweringly spicy like the green pepper can be. That’s because even though the distillers throw the entire pepper, stems and seeds and all, into the fermentation, the oils that provide such intense heat don’t survive the distillation process.

Both moonshines, as Kovacs and Smith have learned, make tasty alternatives to vodka, rum and tequila in cocktails like mules, mojitos and margaritas — which are just some of the drinks that Hill Country Distillers mixes up at the tasting room bar in Comfort. It’s open 2 to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Fridays and 12 to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and well worth the drive west, Kovacs says, in part because visitors can make a day of it by traveling to wineries in the area.

“We’re part of the renaissance of Comfort, Texas,” he says. “Comfort’s been sitting quiet for a long time, but now everybody’s saying Boerne and Fredericksburg are getting too crowded, and they’re coming to Comfort. We haven’t had that in a long time.”

In Austin, look for the bottles at liquor stores like Total Wine or in bars like Shiner Saloon or the Gatsby.

The Moonshine Mule

1 oz. Cactus Moonshine

1 oz. simple syrup

1 oz. lime juice

2 mint leaves

2 to 3 oz. Fever Tree Ginger Beer

Muddle the mint leaves in a shaker with simple syrup and lime juice. Add the moonshine and ice. Shake and strain over ice in a copper mug. Fill mug with ginger beer.

Hill Country Distillers

Enjoy National Tequila Day at Austin bars

Jacoby's Livin' the Daydream is a fruity and refreshing cocktail that shows off tequila's bright side. Try it today for National Tequila Day.
Jacoby’s Livin’ the Daydream is a fruity and refreshing cocktail that shows off tequila’s bright side. Try it today for National Tequila Day.
Yeah, yeah, there are a lot of these hokey national holidays that celebrate pretty much everything under the sun, from NASCAR to crossword puzzles, but National Tequila Day is actually a good one. At least from my point of view. Celebrate by stopping by an Austin bar for happy hour when you get off work today — or you can recreate their tequila concoctions in your own home with these recipes. Consider these your recommendations whether you go out or stay in.

Tres G Manhattan 

From Rainey Street’s El Naranjo

1 1/4 oz. Tres Generaciones Añejo
3/4 oz. Averna Amaro
3/4 oz. Old Tawny Port
Garnish orange peel

Combine the tequila, amaro and port in a mixing glass with ice and gently stir. Pour into a coupe glass and garnish with an orange peel.

Livin’ the Daydream

From Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile

1 1/2 oz. El Jimador silver tequila
1 oz. strawberry/rosemary simple syrup (see below)
1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 dashes of peach bitters

Shake over ice and strain over ice into a high ball glass. Top with a splash of soda and add a strawberry coin or rosemary garnish to float on top.

Strawberry/Rosemary Simple Syrup

1 quart chopped strawberries
1 quart sugar
1 quart water

Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Macerate strawberries and strain. Place four 3-inch pieces of rosemary into syrup and chill.

The JW Marriott in Austin specializes in tequila and mezcal drinks like this one, the Tranquilo, which features Qui Tequila and a mezcal rinse.
The JW Marriott in Austin specializes in tequila and mezcal drinks like this one, the Tranquilo, which features Qui Tequila and a mezcal rinse.

From Carley Dunavant at JW Marriott Austin

1 1/2 oz. QUI Tequila
1/4 oz. good mezcal for rinse
1 oz. fresh watermelon juice
1/2 oz. bell pepper syrup
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
Pinch of Maldon salt

In a shaker, combine the tequila, watermelon juice, bell pepper syrup, lime juice and salt. Add ice and stir. Rinse rocks glass with mezcal. Strain the other ingredients into the rocks glass with fresh ice.

The Clare

From Icenhauer’s

1 1/2 oz. of Espolon Blanco tequila
1 oz. of yellow chartreuse
1 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
3-4 medium size mint leaves
1 large round slice of cucumber
1 oz. simple syrup or agave nectar
Pinch of kosher salt

Add tequila and chartreuse in a mixing glass. Combine the mint, cucumber and pinch of salt to muddle. Add lime juice and sweetener. Shake well over ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with cucumber wedge and mint leaf.

Austin bartenders swarm New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail

You might notice some of your favorite bartenders around Austin aren’t in their usual spots behind the bar this week. That’s for one very good reason: Tales of the Cocktail, the biggest annual cocktail conference in the U.S., is setting up boozy shop in New Orleans for the next few days.

But don’t feel left out of all the five-day fun of seminars, tastings, networking events and more. Create your own little Tales of the Cocktail event right in your own home with this gin drink recipe from Whisler’s bartender Brett Esler, one of the industry professionals rendezvousing in Louisiana currently. He’s gearing up to defend his title as the Broker’s Bowler Cup Champion in one of the various Tales of the Cocktail competitions and has created this cocktail to present to attendees on Friday afternoon at the Broker’s Bowler Cup.

Whisler's bartender Brett Esler has created this gin drink for a cocktail competition at Tales of the Cocktail this week.
Whisler’s bartender Brett Esler has created this gin drink for a cocktail competition at Tales of the Cocktail this week.

As one of the finalists, he’s hoping An English Summer, with Broker’s Gin, honeydew juice and an absinthe spritz, will become the crowd favorite and, thus, the winner. This floral and fruity cocktail makes a good case for it — try it for yourself and see what you think.

An English Summer

2 spritzes of Lucid Absinthe
2 oz. Broker’s Gin
1 oz. fresh honeydew juice
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
¾ oz. lemongrass syrup
Sprig of rosemary

Spritz a Collins glass with absinthe and add ice. Mix remaining ingredients in a pint glass. Shake and strain into Collins glass. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Lemongrass syrup

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 stalks of fresh lemongrass

Remove the outer layer of lemongrass stalks and discard. Cut the remaining lemongrass into pieces.

Mix equal parts water and sugar in a pot. Add the chopped lemongrass. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat, simmering for 10 to 15 minutes. Cool and pour in a jar with a lid.

— Whisler’s Brett Esler