Austin bar makes Esquire’s list of 24 best cocktail bars in America

Laura Skelding / American-Statesman. Half Step specializes in making classic cocktails like the Old-Fashioned. Its attention to detail has earned it a spot on Esquire’s best bars of America list.

According to Esquire, Half Step is a whole leap ahead of the rest of Austin’s watering holes.

Esquire has once again released its list of America’s best cocktail bars, and the powder blue bungalow bar on Rainey Street is at the top of it.

“Prop an elbow on the padded bar and watch your cocktail materialize from the fresh ingredients cooling on ice. Pick the bartender’s choice. Or call for the Medicina Latina, which mixes tequila, mezcal, ginger, and lime to cure what ails you,” according to the list put together by Esquire editors.

Half Step opened in early 2014 as the Texas outpost from the masterminds of the venerated Los Angeles bar the Varnish. Although there’s a menu of cocktails, Esquire is sure correct about one thing: Go with bartender’s choice for something truly tailored to your tastes. The bar team knows its booze and has a wide arsenal of drinks, both classics and modern riffs alike, from which to pull.

Once you’ve had a drink or two at Half Step, don’t call it a night: Esquire recommends heading over to fellow Rainey Street bar Craft Pride, where Texas beers and Detroit-style pizza reign supreme.

The men’s publication organized the list by city in alphabetical order, which made Half Step the first item you read. Some cities, like New York, have multiple bars featured. And Austin isn’t the only Texas city to impress: Houston also made the cut with the Southern-inspired bar Julep from cocktail maven Alba Huerta.

Agree with the publication’s recommendations? Sound off in the comments or share your opinion with me on Twitter or Instagram. My handle on both platforms is @ariauber.

Close out SXSW with Swig & Swine at Half Step Sunday

Drink.Well's Rain King, with tequila and Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, is among the drinks that will be at the Swig & Swine Sunday.
Drink.Well’s Rain King, with tequila and Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, is among the drinks that will be at the Swig & Swine Sunday.

If you’re still able to get out of bed on Sunday, Rainey Street’s Half Step is throwing one final South by Southwest party featuring the hospitality and design group behind San Francisco’s acclaimed Trick Dog bar (a place that’s high on my list of must-visit spots).

Called Swig & Swine, the charity barbecue is a sister event to the Bon Vivants’ Pig & Punch fundraiser at the Tales of the Cocktail, the largest cocktail festival in the country held every year in New Orleans. Sunday’s event will provide attendees — who need only pay $30 at the door, no SXSW badge or RSVP required — with a very meaty meal and plenty of punch poured straight from large barrels.

Among the all-stars chefs preparing all that pork for your happy consumption is Scott Baird, one of the Bon Vivants, as well as the local line-up of Sway’s Alexis Chong, Salt & Time’s Josh Jones and Dai Due’s Jesse Griffiths.

Three local bars, Half Step, Drink.Well and Weather Up, are helping to provide the punch. These will be $10 or $11.

It’s money for a good cause. All proceeds and additional donations, according to a press release, will be donated to KIPP Austin Public Schools, a charter school network.

Not convinced you’ll want to make it to one more SXSW event on Sunday? Here’s a look at three of the punches that will be provided.

  • Half Step’s Rainey Street Revival: Templeton Rye, Carpano Antica, Fernet, fresh ginger syrup and lime ($11)
  • Weather Up’s Moreno Swizzle: Don Q Anejo, King’s Ginger liqueur, Luxardo Amaretto, pineapple, lime, Bad Dog Fire and Damnation Bitters and Angostura bitters ($10).
  • Drink.Well’s the Rain King: Don Julio Blanco, Ancho Reyes liqueur, pineapple puree, Giffard Ginger liqueur, lime and Bitter End Thai Bitters ($10)

Swig & Swine at South by Southwest

What: A charity barbecue featuring live music and signature punches from local bars

When: 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: Half Step, 75 1/2 Rainey St.

Cost: $30. No RSVP necessary.

Vox Table among this year’s Official Drink of Austin participants

Photo by Laura Skelding / American-Statesman. Half Step Bar, whose Queens Park Swizzle is pictured here, is one of the participating bars in the Official Drink of Austin competition this year.
Photo by Laura Skelding / American-Statesman. Half Step Bar, whose Queens Park Swizzle is pictured here, is one of the participating bars in the Official Drink of Austin competition this year.

Only one bar that participated in last year’s Official Drink of Austin competition is returning to try and make the cocktail that defines Austin. North Loop pub Drink.Well will be joined Feb. 26 by newcomers Garage, Half Step, Odd Duck, Licha’s Cantina and Vox Table, an upcoming restaurant on South Lamar Boulevard.

The competition, which I announced last month would return in late February, pits local bar teams against each other in a friendly match-up to find out who has the best Austin-inspired cocktail. Although the five judges have the ultimate say in who will take that title, you’ll also get to try each of the offerings from the six bars and vote on which one is your favorite for a people’s choice prize. (And in case you’re worried all that boozy sampling might be too much, you’ll have bites from local eateries such as the Hightower, Gardner, Freedmen’s and Epicerie to keep you sharp.)

Judging this year’s Official Drink of Austin are Jason Kosmos, co-founder of the 86. Co. and a pioneer of New York’s cocktail scene; Jack Gilmore, chef and owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen; Justin Elliott, last year’s competition winner and bartender at Qui; Jason Stevens, bar manager of La Corsha Hospitality Group’s restaurants; Dan Gentile, Thrillist writer; and Gina Chavez, an Austin-based singer/songwriter. They’ll be looking for an original, expertly made cocktail that in some way reflects Austin’s quirky spirit.

Although Vox Table is new this year — expect it to open in late February, early March — the small plate-focused restaurant’s beverage director, Travis Tober, sure isn’t. A longtime bartender, he competed for the Official Drink of Austin title last year with the Four Seasons team, helping it to take home the people’s choice award for the Treaty Oak bourbon-based Red Handed Stranger. Expect Vox Table’s drinks program to be centered around low-alcohol cocktails, house sodas, boilermakers and even a “Market Price Old Fashioned menu” that “sells drinks by weight rather than by the glass,” according to Details magazine.

The boozy event, held from 7 to 10 p.m. Feb. 26 at Fair Market on East Fifth Street, raises money for the Austin Food & Wine Alliance’s culinary grants program. To purchase the $55 tickets, visit the organization’s website at austinfoodwinealliance.org.