Bartender Chat: Adrienne Byard of Grand Prize

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I first met Adrienne while visiting a friend in New York in 2009. She was working at an art gallery in the Lower East Side for the summer, and after the internship was over, she moved back to Austin to finish school at St. Edwards, getting her degree in photography.

Adrienne moved to Houston and started working for Ralph Smith, a food and beverage photography studio. After her stint at Ralph Smith, Adrienne tells us that bartending just sort of...found her, becoming a great outlet for creativity that incorporated her love for damn good food and drink.

She bartends at Haven and Grand Prize, which is where we chatted on a sorta chilly mid-November evening. While we caught up, she occasionally glances at her new (like, two hours old) tattoo, a dagger, on the inside of her left forearm. "Daggers are used in close combat...I guess life has just been close combat, lately," she said.

The building, about 70 years old, was most recently home to Ernie's on Banks. It's a pretty big bar with two patios-- one upstairs in the front and a larger in back. We sat on a picnic table out back, and I sipped an Adrienne-made cocktail containing Campari, gin and Italian vermouth. I had never had anything like it before -- it was intense and really good in that "kinda makes my arm-hair stand up" way.

Where are you from originally? I was born in California but only lived there until I was four. We moved to Houston, so I'm from League City...the 'burbs...now I live in Montrose.

How long have you been bartending? About nine months. I feel like it's been a very accelerated nine months because of who I've trained under, Aaron Lara and Justin Burrow, and I've learned a lot.

How would you describe the bar's aesthetic? It's somewhere between a total dive and a really nice cocktail bar. We have one of the best back bars in the city, all kinds of weird, different and new spirits, things most bars don't have and things most people don't know exist. We get to play around a lot and make some cool things. Creativity is encouraged here.

Is the vibe upstairs different from downstairs? Upstairs tends to be more of a cocktail bar than downstairs. People will go upstairs on weekends because they know Sebastian is working. Downstairs can be a little rowdier, but yeah we like to call the upstairs bar "Grand Prize Sparkle Bar, Home of Cocktology." We're real fancy here at Grand Prize.

How would you describe the crowd? The crowd is really fun. It's young and everyone has a really good time. It's really known as an industry bar, which is cool because when people get off their restaurant or bar jobs they come here and know they can get a good cocktail. And when the food trucks are here they can get the weird, cool food they like.

Do you have a specialty or a drink you pride yourself on? I pride myself on making drinks the right way. I like to make Negronis, Manhattans and Sazeracs...things like that. I think my specialty is just bitter drinks. I enjoy the taste of amaro and vermouth. There's going to be a cocktail on the new menu called The Holy Spirits. It's a super-bitter take on a Negroni with Smith & Cross, which is a funky, copper-pot distilled rum, gin, a little angostura and Cynar and other fun stuff.

You get three songs on the jukebox. What do you play? Motorhead- Speedfreak, Black Sabbath- War Pigs and something from this Italian cinema CD we have called Beat at Cinecitta. Something about it just fits the bar.

What are your favorite spots to get a drink or something to eat? If I'm just getting out of work and I want a little bite and a drink, I'll almost always go to Anvil. It's where my fascination with cocktails began. That bar taught me a lot about good drinks whereas before, I only knew about wells. The care that's taken there is incredible. For restaurants, anywhere from Los Dos Amigos to Fufu Cafe to Xuco Xicana...and I'm excited for Chris Shepherd to open up Underbelly.

What is one thing that would make Houston a better city? It would be great if Houston was a little more pedestrian, or if we were allowed to be a little more pedestrian. There are a lot of politics involved that I feel keep it from being built up or keep it from being bike-able. People like Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd and others are getting really involved in local politics, trying to get indie restaurants more recognized, trying to make this a better city.

***Wildcard: If you knew a nuclear war would begin in two hours, what would you do? I'd get a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem or Bollinger Vieilles Vignes, sit back in a chair outside and watch it burn.

By the end of the evening, I had "sampled" about four of Adrienne's fantastic libations, and by "sampled," I mean "drank all of." Luckily, The Modular was parked just outside the bar's front door so you can bet I laid into some of that. New food truck Stick It has also recently been seen on the premises. Remember kids, never booze on an empty belly!

Stop by Grand Prize or Haven and let Adrienne mix up a delicious, carefully crafted cocktail you're sure to love. Hell, it might even put hair on your chest. To find where she's working, you can follow Adrienne @adriennebyard.

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