Bartender Chat: Alex Gilbert of Grand Prize and The Honeymoon (Coming Soon)
Don't ask him to mix up something crazy and creative. He's all about the classics.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.
Alex Gilbert is really excited about his new job. Later this spring, he'll be moving from his post as a bartender at Grand Prize to a new cafe/bar called The Honeymoon, located on the rapidly evolving block of 300 Main downtown.
It's a partnership between Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse (of Bad News Bar, Grand Prize and Goro & Gun) and the folks behind Boomtown Coffee, Matt Toomey and Charlotte Mitchell. The idea is to create a New Orleans vibe by combining a coffee shop with a bistro/cafe and a bar. The space will be NOLA-inspired, and judging by the awesome look of Goro & Gun and Bad News Bar (you're okay, too, Grand Prize), it should be a pretty cool space in which to eat and drink the day away.
Gilbert has been brushing up on his classic New Orleans cocktails in preparation for the move. He's been working on perfecting his Sazerac, often thought of as the oldest cocktail in America. As of 2008, it's also the official cocktail of Louisiana.
In case you're wondering, Texas doesn't have an official cocktail. We don't even have an official beverage. But that's neither here nor there.
Part-time musician Gilbert is looking forward to the move downtown and the opportunity to flex his classic cocktail skills. Though if you ask him what he wants to drink, he'll probably just order a beer.
How long have you been at Grand Prize? Almost exactly one year.
How long have you been bartending? About four years. Off and on. I moved back from NYC after an unsuccessful brief stint looking for work. It didn't work out very well. Never move to New York during winter. Any idiot would know that. My friend Claire Sprouse, who's actually a bigshot bar person in San Francisco now, was the bar manager Beaver's. I started on as a bar back, and when someone didn't show up for work one day, I became a bartender. I knew what I was doing pretty well by that point, but it was still trial by fire.
How did you end up at Grand Prize? I had done a bunch of other things and was back at Beaver's, and I got a call from Brad and Ryan one day. They offered me the position, and I was totally happy to accept. I knew I really wanted to work with those guys, and I knew this would be a great opportunity for us to get to know each other. I had hoped we could work together in the future, and I'm really excited to be moving on to The Honeymoon.
If you weren't bartending, what would you be doing? I play music. I'm in a band called Far Out. I sing and play guitar. It's sort of like a power pop trio. I would like to have all the time in the world to do that. I'm hoping to open a business sometime in the near future, the details of which I will not mention now. I'm really looking forward to having something of my own.
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A Sazerac is difficult to make because each measurement must be exact.
When you're not here, where do you go to drink, and what's your favorite thing to drink? As far as my favorite thing to drink, I typically drink beer. Every once in a while, I'll have whiskey, but that's kind of rare these days. I'm particularly fond of Session, which is a light lager, perfectly drinkable, thus named "Session," because you can drink certain amounts of it in a sitting. I like Poison Girl a lot. I'm a big fan of the Robins (Robin Berwick and Robin Whalan) who own Double Trouble. And...that's probably it.
What's your favorite thing to make? You know, I don't really have one. I guess whatever somebody likes. Whatever makes somebody happy, that's good. If it's really basic, if it's just a beer, that's fine. We're here to help people have a good time. It is kind of satisfying to make a complex cocktail for someone and have them appreciate it, but it's fun in smaller doses.
What's your favorite ingredient to use? Here's the thing: I'm not really heavy on the creative side of making drinks or the cocktail world. For instance, the term "mixologist" is one of those terms I think we can all agree to never use again. I'm just more knowledgeable about classics, and I'm happy to make classics or even twists on classics. I wouldn't say that I have a particular favorite thing. Although, I've been thinking of doing something with cantaloupe juice and mezcal. Oh my God, did I just say that? That sounds so pretentious. Sort of an agua fresca.
Do you have a least favorite thing to make? Anything that involves an egg. Not that those aren't delightful drinks, but it is an intense workout. You usually have to shake those things for at least a few minutes. It doesn't sound like much, but when you're shaking, it can get intense. You'd think I'd be a lot more ripped, but apparently the Shake Weight is a scam.
If you could have a drink with anyone living, dead or fictional, who would you choose, and why? Bernie from Weekend at Bernie's. He seems like he would be a good listener. And I would probably drink something tropical like a daiquiri or a piña colada or a mai tai.
What's one of the craziest things that has happened since you've been working at Grand Prize? After close one night, a kid -- who actually is a regular, and I'd love for you to print his name because he's really a jerk -- broke into the upstairs patio doors. He's like a real-deal cat burglar. The definition of cat burglar is someone who enters on any floor other than the first. I think he climbed up our really nice crepe myrtle. He didn't realize that a couple of the staff were still here closing, and they heard a commotion upstairs. So as he attempted to make his getaway, they detained him until the police arrived. He was begging for leniency, and he asked one of the staff, "Come on, haven't you ever done anything like this?" And the guy was like, "Um...no." That's one of the crazier things that's happened here.
Tell me a little more about The Honeymoon. It is a really cool collaboration between Ryan Rouse and Brad Moore and the Boomtown folks, Matt Toomey and Charlotte Mitchell, as well as a lot of the partners from Brad's and Ryan's current projects including Grand Prize and Goro & Gun and Bad News Bar. It's really going to fill in a missing hole in that part of downtown. It'll be a place to get a really good cup of coffee. Matt is moving in a giant new coffee roaster, so we'll be roasting our own coffee, and we've got this really wicked espresso machine called The Slayer. The food is being done by Amanda McGraw, formerly of Brasserie 19. We did a tasting the other night, and the food is fantastic. It's a lot of continental sandwiches, salads and cheese plates. It's a great marriage of cafe and bar that's sort of New Orleans-style. It's going to be absolutely gorgeous. It's going to be a really pleasant place to hang out any time, day or night.
What will the bar program be like? We've got a really nice list curated by Justin Burrow of Bad News Bar. There will be things like French 75s, and we'll be doing a Hurricane, which is not actually a classic, but of course it's associated with New Orleans. This is a particularly delicious Hurricane. It's not your Pat O'Brien's version.
2 ounces rye whiskey ½ ounce 1-1 simple syrup 5 heavy dashes of Peychaud's bitters Absinthe Lemon
Mist absinthe into an old-fashioned glass or do an absinthe rinse. In a separate glass, mix whiskey, simple syrup and bitters. Add ice and stir until you've diluted an ounce and a half of extra liquid. Pour into absinthe-rinsed glass. Garnish with lemon peel and serve.
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