Houston's most famous cocktail bar, Anvil Bar & Refuge, is celebrating its seventh anniversary starting at 4 p.m. on March 20. The team is re-creating a fun, successful cocktail pop-up they recently held in Chicago in their own hometown of Houston.
When Anvil Bar & Refuge opened in 2009, it quickly became known for a few things: its list of 100 Cocktails Everyone Should Try, a commitment to quality ingredients and a conscious effort to steer patrons from neutral vodka to more flavorful, adventurous spirits, like gin, rum and whiskey. Not too much later, the bar started hosting decidedly casual Tiki Tuesdays.
Their Tiki Disco Party pop-up at Lost Lake in Chicago drew much more on that part of Anvil’s history than on the more serious side. It came about when Lost Lake's owners wanted to take the entire staff to Martinique to learn more about rum. Rather than shutting the bar down for a week, they asked Anvil's staff to come run it in their stead. Anvil has only about nine staff members, but somehow the crew managed to run two of America's busiest bars, over 1,000 miles apart, for a week.
It’s based on a “conspiracy theory” that tiki bars met their downfall in the ’70s thanks to the rise of disco. The cocktails are based on the idea that tiki and disco can, indeed, coexist. To that end, attendees at the bar’s anniversary party will be exposed to the bar’s interpretation of an “alternate reality” menu featuring trippy tropical cocktails accented by edible "disco balls" (melon balls rolled in edible glitter), lit by LEDs (large enough not to be swallowed and dropped right into the bottom of the glass); sharable punch bowls, Midori Sours and, of course, some classic tiki drinks, too.
Would the Bobby Heugel of 2009 be appalled by this cocktail menu? "Maybe he wouldn't be that surprised by the whole thing," said present-day Bobby Heugel. "Three years before Anvil, I was working at a nightclub and serving plenty of Midori. I think everyone in the cocktail movement has known for some time it was going to get more casual. Anvil had to take a stand on what its identity was to carve out that niche in the market, but I also think we knew over time we could be more relaxed. It's now less important to make a point because there's more general knowledge. We've transitioned from trying to be an iconoclast to being able to relax and not have to argue for a definition of what our product is anymore."
Anvil Bar & Refuge's dedication to defining its craft led to a new generation of Houston cocktail bars. Most of its early staff went on to either run their own cocktail bars or take on high-ranking positions developing bar programs for well-regarded restaurants.
Just a few examples of what some of the early Anvil bartenders went on to accomplish: Justin Burrow runs Bad News Bar, Alex Gregg leads Moving Sidewalk, Robin Berwick founded Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails, Chris Frankel has Spare Key and Matt Tanner is the concept beverage manager for Pappas Restaurants.
Aaron Lara developed the initial cocktail programs for The Pass & Provisions (with fellow Anvil alumni Alex Gregg and Sebastian Nahapetian), the defunct Lillo & Ella (again with Nahapetian) and The Durham House (James Caronna has since taken over the cocktail program there). Mindy Kucan has been lead bartender at tiki bar Hale Pele in Portland for the past five years. Linda Salinas would become bar manager at La Grange.
As the founding trio — Heugel, Floyd and Flippo — started considering adding more concepts, they formalized the ownership group and called it Clumsy Butcher. Anvil employees were tapped to head up the new concepts. Co-owner Kevin Floyd eventually was able to fully embrace his passion for beer and open The Hay Merchant (under the Clumsy Butcher umbrella). Alba Huerta would help open mezcal- and tequila-focused The Pastry War and finally be a co-owner at long-awaited Julep, which takes its cocktail inspiration from the Deep South. Another former Anvil employee, Kenny Freeman, is the perpetually friendly face behind the counter many nights. Mike Criss runs The Nightingale Room, Clumsy Butcher's first live-music venue.
Heugel said, "Anvil is like this now because of all of those people and what they contributed. The best team and the best culture exists in the bar currently and that's because of all of the standards that were established. Now, we have Terry [Williams] and Jessey [Qi], who are the best management team we've ever had. Terry's demeanor — how he handles the staff and how he talks to guests — is better than anything I ever did as an operator when I was managing the team directly. We're lucky to have all the people that we have."
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Revelers who get to the anniversary party early enough will be able to score cocktails for a dollar. Every bartender at Anvil has to go through a rigorous training program, and the last step is to make every cocktail on the list for a dollar. Trainee Westin Galleymore is the “lucky” graduate who’ll be making those.
Starting on March 27, anyone who had to miss the anniversary party will still be able to order a tiki drink in a branded Lost Lake glass from the new spring menu. Anvil Bar & Refuge is serving it as a tribute to their host in Chicago.
Heugel has an additional drink recommendation from the spring menu — bartender Tommy Ho's invention called House of Lancaster. "Spring is always an interesting time for stirred cocktails," said Heugel. "Our reaction is to drink light, refreshing things, so we drink a lot of stuff on crushed ice and a lot of shaken cocktails. Tommy has a new cocktail with rose liqueur in it. It's a beautiful drink — spring in a glass stirred and poured over a large rock."
It's just one more innovation and another step forward on the path of craft cocktails that Anvil Bar & Refuge defined for itself seven years ago.