Bar Beat

As Julep Nears Opening, Alba Huerta Talks Southern Cocktail History

"Who knew I could exercise so much patience?"

Alba Huerta laughed as she recounted the two-year process of getting her new Southern cocktail bar, Julep, from conception to opening. Well, almost opening. According to Huerta, we'll be sipping bourbon from beneath the shade of our wide-brimmed sun hats within the next three or four weeks.

Huerta is more than just an award-winning bartender from Anvil and The Pastry War, though. She's also quite the cocktail historian, as she's happy to prove whenever asked about the concept behind Julep.

"The julep that was once medicine," Huerta says, explaining that the strong mint flavor would cover up the taste of harsh medicines. "Then it was a cocktail, and then a status symbol. It became important after the Civil War. The cost of ice was three times more than the cost of dairy, so if you could afford a julep filled with crushed ice, you'd made it."

Soon, we'll all be able to feel like we've made it, too, when Julep opens at 1919 Washington. Huerta admits that the neighborhood isn't what it was when she acquired the space two years ago, but she's so pleased to open a lively bar in an area where the neighbors have embraced her and the concept. She says many people have asked about the Washington location; most other businesses under the Clumsy Butcher restaurant group umbrella are either downtown or in Montrose.

It turns out the space for Julep was secured even before Clumsy Butcher started extending its reach downtown with The Pastry War, so Huerta frequently has to defend the Washington Corridor as a hip spot for a new bar.

"I really liked the neighborhood, and the people who live there are really wonderful," Huerta says. "It fit the concept well. I felt like I wanted it to be a neighborhood bar more than anything else. And I think the neighborhood will really welcome it. Downtown wasn't an option at the time, but it turned out for the best. The layout of the space and the type of building -- there aren't a lot of spaces like that in Houston."

Befitting Clumsy Butcher's ideals about historic spaces, the building that will house Julep was originally a uniform factory when it was constructed in the 1880s. Now, according to a press release, "Alba's feminine touch is prevalent with lace curtains, light colors, large windows and other textures. The center bar with a copper bar top complements the Southern cabinetry behind it." And, most important, "There's a large porch in the back, perfect for sipping a julep or a Champagne cocktail."

To create the signature juleps and other cocktails on the menu, Huerta turned to vintage Ladies' Home Journals, where she found recipes for drinks even she wasn't completely familiar with, like a cherry bounce. This ingredient can trace its roots all the way back to Martha Washington, but a more recent recipe in Ladies' Home Journal and Southern cookbooks called for cherries to be soaked in bourbon, rum or cognac, then allowed to rot and ferment, imbuing the liquor with a sour cherry flavor.

Huerta's favorite drink on the menu is the Embers of Paradise, a julep made with the spices you might find in a classic Christmas Tom & Jerry punch. Burnt cinnamon, allspice and cloves are added to a mixture of rum, applejack and falernum, then combined with the mint and simple syrup, which are necessary for a drink to be called a julep. Huerta says this drink has a nice smoky flavor that you don't often find in a julep.

Of course, no Southern cocktail bar would be complete without some Southern food, but Huerta's interpretation of that is different from the usual grits and barbecue and fried-chicken sensibility. She notes that throughout most of the 19th century, ice was the greatest symbol of wealth in the South. Juleps indicated a drinker was well-to-do thanks to the large quantity of ice served in a silver cup, but seafood was also a telltale sign of affluence.

The kitchen will be run by Adam Garcia, formerly of Revival Market & The Pass and Provisions, who will create "raw options of every sort -- oysters, razor clams, mussels and a classic, decadent caviar service."

As for Huerta, well, she's just as excited as the rest of us for Julep to finally open. She's looking forward to introducing Houston to her carefully crafted cocktail menu at last.

"Every single drink is the same way -- we really thought about it," Huerta says. "I mean, I had two years to think about it!"

Once it opens (we'll let you know as soon as we do), Julep's hours will be 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week.

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Kaitlin Steinberg