Taste the Official Drink of Austin at returning competition in May

Max Photography. Last year’s Official Drink of Austin winner was the bar team at Geraldine’s, led by Jen Keyser. There will be a different winner this year.

If Austin’s wacky essence could be embodied by a cocktail, what would it taste like? That’s the basic premise behind the Official Drink of Austin competition, which returns May 4 this year at Fair Market.

Early bird tickets for the boozy event are on sale now for $55; wait a little while, and the price will jump to $65 online, $75 at the door. You can buy them at the website of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, the organization behind the Official Drink of Austin.

As in past iterations, the Official Drink of Austin competition involves eight bar teams from local bars and restaurants going shaker to shaker against each other — with each team preparing Austin-inspired cocktails, using at least one local ingredient, that attendees and a small group of judges will taste and evaluate.

The teams this time around are from Drink.Well, Frank, Javelina, Clive, Firehouse Lounge, Alcomar, Kuneho and the Driskill (having all been selected through a previous showdown). Drink.Well, the first local bar from husband-and-wife owners Michael and Jessica Sanders, has participated as a finalist in the competition since the Austin Food & Wine Alliance resurrected it in 2014.

Each of the eight teams will set up a bar representing their establishment. Attendees will be able to taste the drinks at their leisure and pair them with bar snacks from local chefs.

“With the talent and innovation here, Austin deserves a competition like this, and it’s one of the best events in the city,” David Alan, the original organizer of the event, said in a press release.

A professional bartender and author, as well as one of the very first movers and shakers behind Austin’s talented cocktail scene, he helped to create the Official Drink of Austin contest in 2006.

Last year’s winner was the bar team from Geraldine’s, led by Jen Keyser, whose Far from the Tree used Treaty Oak Rum and Paula’s Texas Orange, two local products. Previous winners have included Garage with its Dripping Springs Vodka Indian Paintbrush cocktail and Qui with its Balcones whisky Tepache drink.

Although the restaurant Qui, owned by the James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Qui, closed following his arrest, he returned to the kitchen early this year with new project Kuneho — one of the participants in the upcoming Official Drink of Austin.

Additionally, competitor the Driskill was recently voted the best bar in the state by Southern Living magazine.

Official Drink of Austin runs from 7 to 10 p.m. on May 4 at Fair Market, 1100 E. Fifth St. New this year is a VIP Industry After Party that you can attend in addition to the competition for $125.

For more information, visit austinfoodwinealliance.org.

Be merry & bright with festive drinks from Austin bars, restaurants

Photo by Ashlyn Allison. Freedmen's Fiddlers Flip features Irish whiskey, Guinness syrup, cream,  egg white and smoked almond vanilla bitters
Photo by Ashlyn Allison. Freedmen’s Fiddlers Flip features Irish whiskey, Guinness syrup, cream,
egg white and smoked almond vanilla bitters

With nine days until Christmas, it’s about time we enjoy a seasonal cocktail or two to get us in the spirit (as if we aren’t already feeling jolly thanks to holiday PTO). To that end, a variety of different local bars and restaurants have just the tipples we’re looking for — everything from traditional eggnog recipes to more original creations full of wintry flavors.

In today’s Austin360, I’ve explored the holiday drinks of three such places more extensively, but here’s a larger guide to all the area spots and boozy potions that will help us feel festive.

  • Cantine: As the story notes, the Italian restaurant offers a couple of different holiday drinks, including the Poinsettia (vodka, pomegranate juice, lemon and sparkling wine)
  • The Carillon: Get cozy at the seasonally focused restaurant with mulled wine, served warm. (Or make it at home with this recipe)
  • Craftsman: On East Cesar Chavez Street, warm up with hot cocktails like an Irish Coffee, Mint Hot Chocolate, Hot Buttered Rum and a Hot Toddy
  • Drink Well: The North Loop bar’s winter menu features a twist on the classic flip: Save Room has cognac, orgeat, coffee, ancho chile liqueur, cinnamon and a whole egg
  • Four Seasons Austin: The downtown hotel is once again spreading holiday cheer with the gin-based Dust of Snow Cocktail, a frosty potion topped with bubbles
  • Freedmen’s: You wouldn’t guess from the subtle cocktail names that the campus-area barbecue joint has a quartet of holiday drinks, like the Sukker Plum (blanco tequila, lemon, plum and ginger syrup, vanilla extract and an absinthe spritz)
  • Hopdoddy: The burger bar’s Hot Apple Sidecar (mulled apple cider, Grand Marnier, apple slice and cinnamon stick) has returned

    Photo by Julia Keim. The Sheraton Hotel in Georgetown has created the Candy Cane Cocktail, with Absolut Vanilla Vodka, Godiva White Chocolate, white cremé de menthe, white chocolate syrup, and half and half.
    Photo by Julia Keim. The Sheraton Hotel in Georgetown has created the Candy Cane Cocktail, with Absolut Vanilla Vodka, Godiva White Chocolate, white cremé de menthe, white chocolate syrup, and half and half.
  • Hotel Ella: On the morning of Dec. 18, enjoy special cocktails during Santa’s Workshop brunch, including White Apple Sangria and a Peppermint Mojito (white rum, minted simple syrup, fresh lime and seltzer)
  • Houndstooth Coffee: They aren’t boozy, but red- and green-colored cappuccinos, the Rhum Nut and Cinnamon Spice, will make your morning more merry at both locations of the coffee shop
  • Icenhauer’s: The Rainey Street bar is again offering seasonal specials named after Christmas movies, such as Clark’s ’Nog and Buddy’s Buzz Brew (coffee and vanilla-infused bourbon, muddled orange, simple syrup and bitters)
  • Lucky Robot: South Congress’s sushi bar has created holiday favorites with Japanese flair in the Apple Rum Sake Cider and the Rum Sake Egg Nog
  • Odd Duck: The barrel-aging program this time is maturing eggnog. One is already ready, while another one will be released after Christmas. Order a cup and it’ll come served with a fresh gingerbread man.
  • Peche: In the Warehouse District, the French restaurant is midway through the Six Weeks of Eggnog special, which features an original recipe of eggnog by one of the Peche bartenders each week
  • Revelry Kitchen & Bar: Shortly after hiring a new beverage director, the East Sixth Street spot has a small menu of seasonal sips like the Apple Cider Toddy (Jim Beam Honey, housemade apple cider, honey, lemon cinnamon)
  • Sheraton Georgetown Texas Hotel & Conference Center: A trio of tipples — the Yule Tide Mule, the Hob-noggin and the Candy Cane Cocktail — are downright infused with the holiday spirit
  • Small Victory: Keeping it as classic as ever, the downtown cocktail bar is happy to whip up traditional winter offerings like Tom and Jerry and even an aged eggnog

5 Austin bars where food is as good as the drinks

Knoxy Knox. Backbeat opened as a cocktail bar (with beer and wine as well), but its owners made sure to have a small menu of well-made food items as well.
Knoxy Knox. Backbeat opened as a cocktail bar (with beer and wine as well), but its owners made sure to have a small menu of well-made food items as well.

Tomorrow’s Austin360 cover story — which is online now — will be all about the best places in town to get a good drink, whether you’re looking for wine, beer or cocktails, a casual outdoor atmosphere, or live music befitting Austin’s title as the Live Music Capital of the World.

There was one category I had intended to include in the story but cut it for space — bars where the food is as good as the drinks. Because quality can so often be lacking for either one, I’m including that roundup now. Look for the American-Statesman restaurant critic Matthew Odam’s dining guide in a big spread online and in print on Sunday, when he’ll spotlight Austin’s top restaurants.

Drink.Well & Backbeat

207 E. 53rd St., drinkwellaustin.com; 1300 S. Lamar Blvd., backbeat-atx.com.

When local bar owners Michael and Jessica Sanders, who had helped transform the North Loop area into a budding entertainment district with cocktail bar Drink.Well, announced they were opening a second space, Backbeat, on South Lamar Boulevard, they made it clear that both places were going to be very different from each other.

But Backbeat hasn’t differed from Drink.Well in one regard. Both serve as well-rounded hangouts where food items like chicken liver mousse or a spicy kimchi reuben are as thoughtfully crafted and delectable as the cocktails. Drink.Well, in particular, focuses on the seasons for both programs and has recently released its fall menus, with drinks such as the Jinn’s Tonic (Old Tom Gin, apricot, grapefruit, cardamom, rose water and Mediterranean tonic) specifically intended to pair with the dishes.

You won’t go wrong at Backbeat, either, where the list of original cocktails are divided by flavor profile and types of spirits, and the food options include the sorts of higher-end snacks befitting such classy drinks, whether it’s a beet salad or a paté melt that you’re desiring. Backbeat also has seasonal menus to choose from.

Hopfields

3110 Guadalupe St., hopfieldsaustin.com.

Is it a charming French bistro? A laid-back beer bar in the campus area? Hopfields, a gastropub with French-inspired fare, manages to straddle both identities seamlessly. Here, you’ll find one of the best burgers in Austin — juicy, with creamy camembert cheese and caramelized onions — as well as a tap list that regularly features sought-after brews like Lakewood Brewing’s French Quarter Temptress or the AleSmith English Nut Brown. Don’t miss out on Hopfields’ pomme frites, with herbs and aioli, either. They’re an indulgence you won’t regret.

bangers-oktoberfest-0522
Contributed by Banger’s. On Rainey Street, Banger’s has sausages, a large outdoor area and craft beers to lure the crowds.

Banger’s

79 Rainey St., bangersaustin.com.

Although the feat of having more than 100 taps of beer — often ones you can’t find anywhere else — often overshadows all the other things Banger’s has to offer, the Rainey Street bungalow bar draws regular crowds for its dog-friendly patio and its food as well. The kitchen here specializes in gourmet hot dogs that run the gamut from more traditional fare (sausages like andouille and bratwurst) to the more exotic (sausages made from rabbit and South Texas antelope). It’s your chance to be as adventurous with your carnivorous side as with your craft brews.

Isla

208 W. Fourth St., islaaustin.com.

The sister bar to French-focused Peche in the Warehouse District, Isla is meant to feel like a Caribbean cantina that you’ve just stumbled into in the middle of downtown Austin. That theme plays out with both the food and the rum-filled cocktails like the Tituba (rum, coconut cream, lime, basil and jalapeño — a see-saw of spicy and sweet). The dinner menu is full of island specialties, including three types of ceviche, jerk-spiced beef rib and cast-iron lime chicken with Cuban beans and rice. Ready? Your tropical paradise awaits.

Waller Creek Pub House

603 Sabine St., wallercreekpubhouse.com.

Across the street from another beer haven, Easy Tiger, this downtown pub opened last year with 30 rotating beer taps and a menu of straightforward bar food. Waller Creek Pub House — named for Austin’s first mayor, Judge Edwin Waller, and the creek near the bar — has pub grub such as wings, grilled cheese and burgers, all the sorts of things we want in our bellies after a night of multiple pints. Get one of the “heaps of fries” baskets, which come as either plain, Greek, Asian or Italian-flavored fried potatoes.

Austin women make Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 list

Jessica Sanders and her husband, Mike, are preparing to open their second bar in Austin in the spring.
Jessica Sanders, of Drink.Well and Backbeat, was named to Wine Enthusiast’s recently announced 40 Under 40 list.

The publication Wine Enthusiast scoured the country to find the top 40 “tastemakers” who are changing how America drinks — and two local women in Austin’s bustling bar scene made the cut.

Wine Enthusiast published the list yesterday, including a mix of winemakers, distillers, importers, distributors, sommeliers and cicerones. Jessica Sanders, co-owner of Drink.Well and Backbeat along with her husband, Michael, was featured, as was June Rodil, a master sommelier who oversees the wine and beverage program for McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group.

Both of them were highlighted for their love of wine. The magazine, which will hit newstands next week but has the 40 Under 40 list in full online, noted about Sanders that her newest bar, Backbeat, has a much wider selection of drinks than the first one.

“Backbeat boasts room for 100 and a dynamic wine list,” Wine Enthusiast writes. “That includes a champagne program with a rotating selection of grower producers and a ‘break-even bubbles’ program that offers select wines at cost. With a reputation for inventive cocktails that use trendy bases like vermouth and rhum agricole, the two bars are at the top of Austin’s tippling game.”

Rodil is in charge of the beverage programs of McGuire Moorman’s seven restaurants — no small task, as Wine Enthusiast notes.

A seventh (restaurant), June’s, opened this summer,” according to the publication. “‘Yes, I’m pretty embarrassed about the name, but I got outvoted, and now it’s growing on me,’ says Rodil. The namesake bar is a kind of place ‘where you can drink champagne while wearing shorts and flip-flops,’ she says.”

For the full list of 40 Under 40 notables, visit winemag.com.

Meet the Official Drink of Austin bar teams

Photo by Whit Preston. Geraldine's offers locals and hotel guests alike the chance to dine and drink as live music plays.
Photo by Whit Preston. Geraldine’s offers locals and hotel guests alike the chance to dine and drink as live music plays. It’s one of the bars participating in Official Drink of Austin.

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.

Like sister bar Drink.Well, Backbeat offers well-made cocktails and food, some of which will be on special during happy hour.
Like sister bar Drink.Well, Backbeat offers well-made cocktails and food.

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.

Drink.Well’s Jessica Sanders highlighted in Imbibe magazine

Jessica Sanders and her husband, Mike, are preparing to open their second bar in Austin in the spring.
Jessica Sanders is preparing to open her second bar in Austin in the spring with her husband, Mike.

In March, Jessica Sanders and her husband, Mike, will open their second bar in Austin — and their growing booze empire has caught the attention of a national magazine.

Imbibe, all about beer, wine and spirits and the people who love and drink them, has compiled “The Imbibe 75: People, places and flavors that will shape the way you drink in 2016.” The cover story includes Jessica Sanders, as well as fellow Austinite Bill Norris, a longtime figure in this city’s bar scene.

Sanders is one half of the husband-wife duo planning to open the two-story bar Backbeat on South Lamar Boulevard, the sister spot to the Sanders’ first bar, Drink.Well. The musically themed bar, which will have a 400 sq. ft. rooftop deck with lovely views of the downtown skyline, is located in an area of Austin that’s got plenty of dining options but far less places devoted specifically to enjoying a tipple or two. It’s no doubt going to be one of the big openings of 2016 thanks to the caliber of talent the Sanders are bringing to the project.

Here’s some of what Imbibe’s got to say about Sanders.

“After moving from the publishing industry in New York City to Austin in 2010 to open North Loop’s Drink.Well with her ‘partner in business and in life’ Michael, Sanders has worked tirelessly to elevate Austin’s drinks scene… She’s co-founded and helped curate events like the annual Texas Tiki Week. Her newest focus? Backbeat, a South Austin neighborhood bar conceived by the couple and named after the natural rhythm that emerges from a night at the bar.”

For the full story on Sanders — and the 74 other influences on our drinking habits next year — pick up an issue of Imbibe’s January / February issue or visit Imbibe’s website for a digital read.

#Austin360Drinks: Holiday cocktails from local bars

Photo by Ricardo Brazziell / American-Statesman. Drink.Well's spiked hot cocoa comes in one of three ways. This one features St. George New Orleans Coffee Liqueur, full of dark roast coffee flavors with hints of hazelnut and chicory.
Photo by Ricardo Brazziell / American-Statesman.
Drink.Well’s spiked hot cocoa comes in one of three ways. This one features St. George New Orleans Coffee Liqueur, full of dark roast coffee flavors with hints of hazelnut and chicory.

In tomorrow’s paper, the Austin360 cover story is all about holiday cocktails from area bars and restaurants. Some are the traditionally sweet favorites of eggnog and hot chocolate; others are the bars’ original creations, albeit with seasonal flavors like cinnamon, chocolate and peppermint.

One that I wasn’t able to fit into the story — but is so worth a mention — is Hopdoddy’s Hot Apple Sidecar, a drink with Grand Marnier Cognac and mulled apple cider and garnished with a cinnamon stick and apple slice. The warm spiced apple drink is available through Dec. 31 for $8 (or $4 for the nonalcoholic version).

But there are countless other holiday cocktails out there, too. That’s where social media comes in. Along with the already thriving #Austin360Eats and #Austin360Cooks that Statesman food writer Addie Broyles started earlier this year, we’re also launching the social project #Austin360Drinks. It’ll work in exactly the same way as the others. Snap photos of all your favorite beverages (they don’t have to be alcoholic; coffee, tea and the like are just as worthy) and tag them on Instagram and Twitter. They’ll get added to this Storify and we’ll also pick a favorite every couple of weeks to be featured online and in print.

So what holiday drinks have you tried at some of your favorite Austin bars this season that I didn’t include? Let me know with the hashtag and use it from now on to catalog what you’re drinking.