With the cocktail movement booming in Houston, it seems as though you can hardly go to a bar or restaurant these days without encountering a list of cocktails. And on that list of cocktails, expect to find a list of the house specialty drinks -- concoctions created by (or for) that bar or restaurant that, ideally, reflect the atmosphere and/or food. But not all specialty cocktails are created equal.
Featured below are our ten current favorite specialty cocktails -- but feel free to leave your own suggestions for our next cocktail list (which we'll write up when the mercury drops below at least 68) in the comments section.
10. Añejo Old Fashioned at TQLA
You may be tempted to order a margarita at TQLA, as well you should. The margaritas here are fantastic -- and I'd expect nothing less from a place named after the drink's main spirit, nor a bar which features about 100 different bottles of the stuff. But when you decide you're in the mood for something different, give this grown-up tequila cocktail a shot: the buttery, oaky sweetness of the añejo (or aged) tequila in place of whiskey or brandy provides a deeply different twist on a standard Old Fashioned.
9. Lonestar Dove at Shade
At first glance you'd think the Lonestar Dove (above, left) -- a play on Larry McMurtry's classic Texas novel, Lonesome Dove -- is a sickly sweet "girly" drink, blushing pink and standing pert in a tall Collins glass. But you'd be wrong. The cocktail is a blend of grapefruit juice, Siembra Azul tequila, Campari, lime juice, lemon bitters and peppy ginger beer. You can barely taste the tequila for the sharp bite of the strongly herbal Campari among notes of citrusy lemon bitters and effervescent ginger beer. In combination with the freshly squeezed juices, it makes for an entirely refreshing and sunny cocktail on a hot day inside Shade.
8. Lonestar Lemonade at benjy's in the Village
There is no actual lemonade in the Lonestar Lemonade at benjy's, and the cocktail might be better for it: There's nothing to distract from the three basic ingredients, all of which are Texas-made. Rebecca Creek whiskey (my own "house whiskey" at home) is combined with Paula's Texas Orange and benjy's own house-made sweet and sour mix, making for a cocktail that has the citrus punch of lemonade with a boozy, adult kick.
7. Frozen fantasticness at Grand Prize Bar
The nightly drink inside Grand Prize's margarita machine varies, but it's almost always a frozen version (and you know we love frozen drinks) of a classic cocktail like an Aviation (seen above) or sometimes even a straight-up daiquiri. They're always delicious and always welcome on a hot, muggy night spent on the Slippery Slope's upstairs patio. Beware, however: These drinks go down fast and are incredibly strong. I once witnessed a grown man bite a woman on the face and then loudly tell every single patron at the bar that he was in love with me after consuming only three. I am not kidding about this.
6. The Trotter at Anvil Bar & Refuge
Hal Brock has spent time at some of Houston's best cocktail bars. These days, he's slinging drinks at Anvil and making signature cocktails of his very own, like The Trotter. Brock employed his Carolina roots to make a "shrub" (an acid-heavy juice made from fruit, sugar and sometimes vinegar) based on Carolina-style barbecue sauce that's heavy with red pepper and vinegar. The result is an incredibly well-balanced cocktail that has the kick of a good East Coast barbecue sauce, offset by the sweetness of pineapple juice, the brightness of lemon juice and the buttery notes of bourbon.
5. Barrel-aged spiced Negroni at Coppa Ristorante Italiano
Coppa is barrel-aging three different cocktails right now, but this is my favorite: This larger one is our barrel-aged spiced Negroni. The Negroni is a really traditional Italian cocktail using Campari, gin and vermouth. Here we are using Tru organic gin, Campari and red vermouth as well as baked apple bitters and black walnut bitters, which is all then aged in our oak barrels. So you get all these great flavors going on with a twist aged on the oak.
4. Modern Man at Hearsay Gastro Lounge
Hearsay's cocktail program has been seriously revamped since its opening just two years ago, when it was determined to steal "Houston's cocktail crown from Anvil." That didn't quite work out, so now the cocktail bar/restaurant has focused on doing its own thing with spectacular results. The Bill's Derby is the only bacon-based cocktail I've ever liked. The Whiskey & Cigarettes is an almost literal interpretation of its name, with a smoky rim that comes courtesy of an open flame and a peaty Laphroaig giving it another layer of charcoal underneath. But the Modern Man is a true triumph: Scotch, dark rum, Swedish punch, Pernod, lemon and bitters. It's risky, strong, bracing, complex and irresistible to anyone bored with cocktails filled with St. Germain and Cocchi Americano.
3. Daisy de Oaxaca at Haven
Haven is one of my secret spots for amazing cocktails, although I realize that constantly trumpeting this fact will make it not-so-secret eventually. Regardless, I love the work that bartenders Aaron Lara, Zachary Adams and Ornella Ashcraft do here -- and with old Anvil warhorse Linda Salinas now overseeing service at Haven, the cocktails are only bound to get better. Ashcraft's most recent addition to the cocktail menu is a Whiskey Daisy with a fun Mexican twist: mezcal. The smoky, funky liquor adds a deep layer of flavor under brighter notes of chartreuse, and the entire thing goes down terribly fast.
2. Formula #4 Manhattan at Line & Lariat
This oft-overlooked hotel bar has one of the strongest cocktail programs in town right now. Go and strike out at Line & Lariat while the iron is hot, and grab yourself one of its five signature Manhattans from its Iconic Manhattan series. My favorite is the Formula #4, which combines vanilla-infused bourbon with peach bitters and Cocchi Americano (hey, I just made fun of that! but seriously, it's a great dry vermouth) to make a stunningly well-balanced cocktail that might even be an improvement on the original.
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1. The Other One at Down House
If Hearsay has polished itself up since opening, Down House has undergone a complete makeover. This is one of the rare restaurants I'd like to re-review because of how amazing it's become since my initial write-up. That's rare. The food menu has been revamped and expanded, the beer list includes hard-to-find selections like Wealth & Taste out of Deep Ellum in Dallas and the cocktail list is a serious connoisseur's dream. Out of that list, my personal favorite is The Other One -- another mescal-based cocktail that tastes like the handsome, bastard love child of a Negroni and a Last Word. If those two drinks make your motor run, you need to excuse yourself from whatever activity you're doing and head to Down House posthaste.