All Good Things Poured: A Look at Public Services Wine & Whisky

Vouvray splashes elegantly into a glass at Public Services Wine & Whisky
Vouvray splashes elegantly into a glass at Public Services Wine & Whisky
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Public Services Wine & Whisky is on the first floor of the historic Cotton Exchange building at 202 Travis. The place feels a bit like the giant living room of an old Southern mansion. Everywhere you look, there are elaborate, carefully preserved or restored details: intricately carved crown molding, antique light fixtures and elaborate paintings on the ceiling. It's as good of a place to sit and be thoughtful as it is to hang out with a group of friends or coworkers on the plush sofas.

It's only a block's walk away from the more bustling nightlife scene at Congress and Main--just down the block from Hearsay. Yet, it's so genteel that it feels a world away. Its closest cousin is the Bad News Bar, which also has an old-time feel to it. Yet, where Bad News Bar is all decked out in dark woods, Public Services is the lighter side of that equation, with eggshell white walls and golden accents highlighted by gleaming light sources.

The concept is a world away from the shake-and-hustle scene as well and it is by design. There's no clank of ice into metal shakers, no shaking and very little stirring. This bar is about drinks that need no assistance, other than a good chill or a few drops of water. As the name indicates, the bar pours wine and whiskey. Beer lovers need not despair: there's a good selection of both local and Belgian beers, too.

There are actually a few cocktails, including a righteous Old Fashioned, but the bar mixes and bottles it right before service. All it needs is to be poured over ice and given a quick stir. That means customers don't have to wait five or 10 minutes for a cocktail.

Justin Vann pours wine while general manager Sean Jensen looks on.
Justin Vann pours wine while general manager Sean Jensen looks on.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

There are several exceptional whiskeys, sold in both three-quarter ounce and one and a half-ounce pours. The smaller pours allow you to more economically taste your way around the menu.

Many are aged in wine barrels, which give extra depth and roundness of character. Longrow "Red" Cabernet Sauvignon Finish, Glenlivet "Nadurra" Oloroso Finish and Bruichladdich Port Charlotte D'Yquem Sauternes Finish are just a very few of what's on the list. All parts of Scotland are represented: Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and more. There are Japanese whiskeys here, too: Nikka, Hibiki, and Yamazaki.

Sommelier Justin Vann and Sean Jensen (formerly of Shade and The Hay Merchant) oversee the daily operations. Vann is also the force behind the intriguing, eclectic and reasonably-priced wine selection at D&Q Beer Station at 806 Richmond Avenue. If you've ever stopped by and had a hearty laugh at the edgy and hilarious index cards taped to the shelves that describe the wines, you can thank Vann for that.

Antique lamps, ornate ceilings and elaborate paintings are only a few of the appealing aspects of Public Services.
Antique lamps, ornate ceilings and elaborate paintings are only a few of the appealing aspects of Public Services.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Over the past several years, Vann has steadily built a résumé that on more than one occasion has grabbed national food publication attention, including being named one of Food & Wine magazine's Top Sommeliers in 2013. Only 10 sommeliers in the country received this honor.

At the time, he was the sommelier at Oxheart and took a somewhat odd path to get there. Vann started as a sommelier at Vic & Anthony's and was promoted to be its wine director. He was only 25 years old. In time, he left for an entirely different position: wine and beer manager at Central Market.

This story continues on the next page.  

Every good establishment should have a money pig.
Every good establishment should have a money pig.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

In retrospect, that was a more savvy and interesting move than it might appear. It gave Vann an opportunity to interface one-on-one with customers and expose them to new wines and beers to try at home. His passion and humor is infectious. It's hard to not love a guy who waxes philosophically about Belgian "bretty beers" and insists you try a wine because it will "blow your face off." Vann is the exact opposite of the snotty, uptight, judgmental image some conjure in their minds when they hear the word, "sommelier."

In his customer-facing position at Public Services, he has that opportunity again and is just as passionate and influential as ever. He's excited about the whiskey he carries and it sells well but he's still a wine guy at heart.

"I want to sell more wine," he says. "The whiskey sells good here, but I want more people to think of this as a wine bar, too. I have two Vouvrays by the glass. I don't think many places can say that."

Indeed, roughly half the wine list is available by the glass in both three- and six-ounce pours. You can have just about anything you want: sparkling, fortified, red, white and rose.

Vann and Jensen are both constantly playing around with ideas. I had no idea amaro went so well in cold brew coffee until they introduced me to it. Then, there's the "Happy Meal" concept they came up with, where they pair a whiskey with a glass of wine that has a relationship to it.--for example, port served alongside whiskey aged in the same type of port barrel.

Public Services has a great deal to offer those who are looking for a place that's good, relaxing and sophisticated, but not uptight. It feels like a bar for grownups, but it doesn't sacrifice any of the fun.

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Public Services Wine & Whisky

202 Travis
Houston, TX 77002

publicservicesbar.com


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