A few years ago, a bar in Houston was just a place to get a drink and the people who worked there were just part of the service industry. Chefs were rock stars and everyone else was fairly invisible.
In the last few months, there have been multiple bartenders who have become worthy of notice in their own right. Chris Frankel of Anvil Bar & Refuge and Underbelly was the subject of an Alison Cook write-up regarding the aromatized wines he's been concocting for Underbelly. Sheridan Fay of El Gran Malo recently placed fourth in a national-level Don Q Rum competition at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in New York City. And that's not all.
Ornella Ashcroft of Anvil won an Angel's Envy bourbon competition a few weeks ago, which netted her a cash prize as well as a bottle of the bourbon signed by the master distiller. The challenge was to create a julep that appropriately reflected the confluence of Cinco de Mayo and the Kentucky Derby. (As one of the judges for that competition, I can tell you that she succeeded mightily with a julep infused with fresh papaya and spiked with mescal.)
Hal Brock was at Hearsay Gastro Lounge when he won the local USBG Campari competition, which also garnered him a trip to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. He's now at Anvil.
Perhaps most exciting was that two Houston ladies placed in the top two positions at the national level Speed Rack competition. Yael Vengroff worked in New York when she won the Speed Rack competition there. She recently relocated back to her hometown of Houston and went back to win at the national level. Anvil's Alba Huerta won Houston's local Speed Rack and then went head to head with Yael to get a hard-won second place.
Both women have extensive backgrounds in the industry. In New York, Yael worked at Tailor, Pegu Club, Woodson & Ford, Peels, Maison Premiere and ultimately became the head bartender at Painkiller (now PKNY thanks to a lawsuit over the name), one of the most famous bars in the world. She now works with Justin Burrow at Fitzgerald's and the pair is escalating the cocktail night that Burrow started on Tuesdays several months ago. It will be called "More Taste of Tuesdays with Bitters and Soda." He's Bitters; she's Soda. Yael will also be working at the upcoming Mongoose versus Cobra.
For her part, Alba has worked at Branch Water Tavern and Grand Prize and later became general manager at Anvil. She is also the president of the Houston chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild (USBG).
Houston's USBG chapter has led to increased education and participation in competitions. The USBG, along with various spirits manufacturers, sponsors many of these competitions.
The Houston chapter has a weekly educational event for bartenders as well, and the focus shifts from week to week. One week might be a spirits class, while the next focuses on wine. Another topic is beer (which is exploding just as much as the cocktail scene, if not more so), and other subjects include skill improvement and the business aspects of running a bar.
Alba and Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Anvil, shared the goal of Houston's having its own chapter. "We wanted to add a level of respect for the industry," said Huerta. "It is important to support others, and the USBG empowers people to became educated."
Joining the USBG also offers another benefit that is often too lacking in the food and beverage industry: medical insurance. Thanks to group buying power, Guild members have access to something that is often nearly unachievable to their food-service compatriots who work for small, independent restaurants.
Did the road to success start at Anvil -- which has been mentioned in the "best bar" lists of one magazine after another, including Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure and even in unexpected publications such as Men's Fitness? Most of the bartenders noted in this article either worked there or used to work there.
Undeniably, Bobby Heugel's influence and desire to build a community and escalate Houston's food and beverage scene has had an impact and when that philosophy is passed on to others, interesting things happen. Yesterday, Anvil was nominated for a Tales of the Cocktail® Spirited Award® for Best American Bar. This follows closely on the heels of the James Beard Outstanding Bar Program nomination it garnered earlier this year, and Bobby Heugel's own nomination as an Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional in 2011.
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But don't expect Anvil to dominate the Houston cocktail scene forever. The accolades are starting to spread around. El Gran Malo has made quite a name for itself with its infused tequilas. Grand Prize Bar is not only a favorite low-key hangout but has its own cocktail program. You can not only get a great cocktail at the Tiki-influenced Double Trouble, but tasty espresso drinks as well.
And that has always been the point of building a bartending community: to inspire a diverse scene that suits a variety of customers and produces high-quality cocktails. Now, if we could just get some of those great cocktails outside the Loop...