"Pre-Prohibition," "craft cocktails," "mixology:" We're talking highbrow drinking here, folks. When the old standbys (Margaritas, Mexican Martinis, and lately even the Moscow Mules) cease to thrill your tongue, head to one of these boozy establishments for a classy pick-me-up.
Word to the wise on Peche: Owner Rob Pate is there almost every night, so when you arrive, ask for him. In lieu of a cocktail menu consultation, simply wave Rob to your table, and ask him to predict a drink that you will like. Rob is a libations soothsayer, and though this is an absinthe bar (Austin's first), the real treat is taking that first sip of a drink specifically predicted to suit your taste buds. This is how I discovered the (off menu) Fig Manhattan -- earthy, rich, and perfect.
When it opened a few years back, Second Bar + Kitchen almost instantly became my equal opportunity hangout spot for in-law visits, workish happy hours, girls nights, and birthdays. And bar manager Billy Hankey -- who used to operate the much-missed Good Knight on east 6th -- is a big reason. You see, Billy is a throwback, the kind of bartender who doesn't forget a face (or a drink), the kind who will get your drink started for you as hobble up to the bar, the kind who has prompted my family members to say, "and I didn't even know I liked ginger beer!" Under his watch, cocktails are simply and classy, like the Gin + Jam: Literally a shaker of gin with a spoonful of housemade preserves. Just stir and sip.
So, Rio Rita is a coffeeshop-cum-dive bar, with ripped-up vintage furniture and cool art strewn about, as well as a killer jukebox. But the reason you should stop by here for a drink is Rio Rita's preoccupation with liquor infusions, such as the jalapeno garlic vodka: It's the secret ingredient in their famous Bloody Mary's.
Vietnamese food is having a moment in Austin right now. It's always pretty good (in my book), but Elizabeth Street Cafe pushes the French end of things a bit more, resulting in their sparkling punch list. Play it safe with a Mandarin Mimosa, or get my favorite, the Shady Blonde: It's made with sparkling wine, Lillet, grapefruit and thyme.
I met Pam Pritchard three years ago during one of Tipsy Texan's cocktail classes, when she handed me her card with a picture of a black and white tiger on the front. "I'm starting a pub, but one where you order cocktails, not just beer," she explained. Just a few months later, I found it on North Loop: The Tigress, a tiny, best-kept-secret of a bar, where each drink costs $7 and packs a mighty punch (just like, I imagine, how a real tigress might). Try Brown Sugar Snow: Rye whiskey, Averna Amaro, lemon juice, and brown sugar syrup.
Bar-wise, Haddingtons opened with such a flourish in 2010: Famed Austin mixologist Bill Norris (who hates being called a "mixologist") designed their cocktail menu and worked the bar. But just because Norris is at the Alamo Drafthouse now doesn't mean Haddingtons bar isn't still a force to be reckoned with. I know, because I tried a Duck Fat Sazerac there recently: Rich, fruity, and utterly bizarre, I think you should try one, too.
Run by husband-and-wife team Michael and Jessica Sanders, Drink.Well is a newish bar on North Loop that not only boasts two award-winning lady bartenders (one of them being Jessica herself), but a clever cocktail menu that ranges from light and ladylike to heavy and Hemingway-esque. On the manly end of that spectrum, I'm a particular fan of "Pass the Dutchie," a husky whiskey drink made with Bols Genever, Cocchi Americano, cardamom bitters, and lime oils.
I was a big fan of East Side Show Room's cocktail menu when Adam Bryan manned the bar, but since Adam crossed I-35 for Second Bar + Kitchen (and now back to the east side for his own project, Motel), he left a solid drink list in his wake. Kelly O'Hare is ESSR's current barkeep, and the menu is a mix of classics (Moscow Mule, Pimm's Cup, Bee's Knees) and refreshing surprises, like the Pear Blossom: A mixture of Pear Eau De Vie, St. Germain, lime, and prosseco. Effervescent and feminine.