For much of the country, fall begins with the first cold front of the season, usually in September. There's a chill in the air, the leaves begin to change color and everyone starts looking forward to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In Houston, we know it's fall when Starbucks rolls out the pumpkin spice lattes. Well into October (and, this year, November) it's still hot and sticky outside, and the live oak leaves stay as green as ever, so we have to rely on other means to denote the changing season. But who wants a hot pumpkin drink when it's 85 degrees outside? Not me.
I want a cool, refreshing cocktail. But, you know, maybe with some pumpkin in it.
I asked bartenders around town to suggest their favorite fall cocktails so we no longer have to be stuck in this PSL/caramel apple cider cycle, and they came up with some great ones. Henceforth, you shall know it's fall when the Screamin' Banshees or the Junmai Cobblers return to menus.
You heard it here first.
Anvil Bar & Refuge Anvil isn't launching its winter menu until December 1, and the current one is still a list of late-summer drinks, but the bartenders there immediately knew what to serve when I asked for something evocative of fall. The "bourbon and brandy milk punch" is a decadent cocktail made with whole milk, bourbon, cognac, vanilla extract and a little turbinado sugar. It's shaken with ice for what seems like an eternity (though not as long as the Ramos Gin Fizz) to break up the ice and make it light and frothy -- almost like a milkshake. It's served in a tall, skinny Collins glass and sprinkled with a bit of fresh nutmeg for a little extra spice.
Milk punch is a traditional Southern drink always made with brandy or bourbon and milk and usually served during the holiday season. Egg nog is a type of milk punch to which an egg has been added, so Anvil's drink tastes a lot like egg nog. But somehow better, sweeter and smoother.
Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar and Spirit Lodge The new fall/winter menu for Bad News Bar is coming out next week, but I got a special preview of one of the drinks created by bartender Cheryl Gibbs. It's called a Riverboat Bobsled, partially because it contains bourbon, which was often transported on riverboats on the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers, and partially because owner Justin Burrow thought the image of a riverboat sliding down a snow-covered mountain was pretty funny.
The drink is made with Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, a bit of Casoni (an herbal liqueur), walnut liqueur, a dash of orange bitters and a dash of angostura. It's stirred (not shaken!) and served with ice. It's a fairly strong drink -- everything in it is alcoholic, even the bitters. I asked Gibbs what makes it a fall drink, aside from the fact that it's on the fall menu, and she explained that the walnut and orange combination is very indicative of fall and winter flavors. Pair it with a malty bourbon, and you've got a sweet cocktail that will warm you up from the inside out.
El Big Bad The newest restaurant/bar from the people behind El Gran Malo hasn't even opened yet, but the bar is already turning out great cocktails. I was anticipating getting a lot of whiskey and bourbon in my fall cocktail roundup, so I approached El Big Bad because I wanted some tequila in the mix. And I was not disappointed.
Though the bar is still under construction and won't officially open until the end of the month, a bartender met me there to whip up what he's calling a Cozumel Sour. It's made with tequila aged in whiskey barrels, Vallet Amargo Angostura (a liqueur made of angostura bark with macerated cherries and spices), an egg white, lime and lemon juice, and a hint of agave nectar. Shaking this mix with an egg white makes it light and frothy, while the angostura liqueur turns the drink a beautiful shade of dark-reddish purple. The spice notes from the liqueur are reminiscent of the baking spices we all associate with fall, while the whiskey barrel-aging softens the bite of the tequila for a warm, smooth finish.
Goro & Gun When I asked bartender Alex Gregg to make me something I could drink all fall, he explained that most people immediately go for baking spices. But he does not. To Gregg, fall is all about citrus, since most citrus is in season now through January or February. I make this association as well, having grown up with citrus trees in my backyard that started producing ripe fruit about this time every year. So to showcase some nice citrus flavors while still keeping the drink out of the summer realm, Gregg made a cobbler.
Traditionally, a cobbler (the cocktail variety, not the kind with a crumb topping) is made from wine or sherry mixed with ice, sugar and fresh fruit. At Goro & Gun, they do things a little differently. To pay homage to the restaurant's Japanese namesake, Gregg made a Junmai Cobbler using Junmai sake. First, he muddled some fresh oranges in the bottom of a lowball glass, then stirred in the sake, apricot liqueur, allspice dram and a bit of angostura before topping off the whole thing with crushed ice and giving it a good stir. The Junmai Cobbler definitely doesn't taste like a traditional fall cocktail, but the mixture of sake and fresh orange does take me back to picking those first fruits off my trees in mid-November.
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Mongoose Versus Cobra Bartender Acuna (yes, just the one name, like Cher) explained that his new favorite fall cocktail, the Screamin' Banshee, was invented as part of the Wild Whiskey Wednesdays the bar has been hosting for the past several weeks. Every Wednesday night, Mongoose will feature a whiskey special for $5. Acuna admitted that on some Wednesdays it might be nothing more than a shot of whiskey, but for Halloween he invented the Screamin' Banshee.
This seasonal cocktail isn't always $5, but Acuna would be happy to make it upon request. It's a refreshing mixture of Irish whiskey, ginger beer, Grand Marnier and orange bitters, with a delightful orange peel shaped like a rose as a garnish. The ginger reminds me a little of pumpkin pie, while the orange liqueur and bitters bring in some of that awesome seasonal citrus.
Reserve 101 Owner Mike Raymond got pretty excited when I asked him to create a fall cocktail, mainly because he'd acquired several bottles of pumpkin spice syrup and wasn't quite sure what to do with them yet. As soon as he heard "fall cocktail," though, he had it: A Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned.
Traditionally, Old Fashioneds contain sugar, bitters and either bourbon or rye whiskey. Since Reserve 101 is a whiskey and bourbon bar (if you haven't been, you really must see the quantity of whiskey stocked in that bar), Raymond has just the right stuff to make a stellar classic Old Fashioned. But in this case, he diverged from the classic recipe just a bit by using pumpkin spice syrup (instead of sugar or simple syrup) and muddling some cranberries and oranges with the mix before straining it. The Pumpkin Spice Old Fashioned is still loaded with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, though, so it doesn't taste that far off from what you're used to. Hurry in and try this fall drink before Raymond uses up his small quantity of pumpkin spice syrup. I hear coffee shops in town have bought most of it up, but we all know which drink makes better use of the stuff. Coffee versus bourbon? Please!