Small Victory triumphs at classic cocktails made with Loving’s touch

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016 Austin360

Whether you like it dirty, easy on the vermouth or garnished with a lemon twist, you probably have a strong opinion about your martini — and downtown cocktail bar Small Victory knows it.

Co-owner Josh Loving, a longtime local bartender who developed a love for good cocktails working at restaurants like fine-dining Jeffrey’s and now-defunct Fino, created a martini flowchart to serve as one of the key components of Small Victory’s bar menu. The chart, which starts by asking whether you’d prefer vodka or gin, then whether you’d want it dry or dirty, helps you personalize the classic martini based on your preferences.

And if it’s your first-ever martini, you’ll probably walk away understanding why the martini became one of the most popular drinks in the American zeitgeist.

“It’s the most personal drink for people. No one says, ‘My Artist’s Special is made this way,’” Loving said, referring to another classic drink on the Small Victory menu. “Not that people necessarily say ‘my martini’ either, but it’s almost a psychological thing that no other cocktail is.”

The martini flowchart is so integral to the bar program at Small Victory that it was part of the business plan early on. Though it offers options — three different types of garnishes, for instance, and ratios of dryness based on how much vermouth you want — the chart nonetheless limits drinkers from the free-for-all martini craze of the 1990s, when bars and restaurants would create their own wild riffs (apple-tini, anyone?). What’s on the chart is what you get.

At Small Victory, keeping to the classics is key. The tiny, dimly lit bar located on the second level of a parking garage offers a well-rounded menu of cocktails created during the latter half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th. Each one is made with ice sculpted in-house and the best possible spirits and liqueurs before going into beautiful vintage glassware.

This attention to detail is all part of Loving’s vision, dreamt up after more than 10 years behind the bar. He met Small Victory business partner Brian Stubbs when they helped open Fino together in 2005, before craft cocktails were standard, and found they both had a thirst for drinks beyond the margarita. Loving was a server, Stubbs was general manager and Bill Norris, now the beverage director at the Alamo Drafthouse, was a bartender.

Together, they “ravenously” consumed issues of Imbibe and other cocktail-related publications, eager to learn more and discovering “oh, there’s a right way to do this,” Stubbs said.

He now acts as a consultant and bookkeeper for many bars and restaurants in town. For him, it was a no-brainer to join forces with Loving on opening Small Victory, so named because of the difficulty they had renovating the former Mike’s Pub space off East Seventh Street and Congress Avenue. It’s 800 square feet, guaranteeing a streamlined bar program.

“What I like about Josh’s vision here is it’s just, ‘Let’s just do the basics. The fundamentals. The best we can do them,’” he said.

That’s why cocktails like the sublime Singapore Sling — gin, pineapple and lime juices, cherry heering, Bénédictine, triple sec, grenadine, Angostura bitters and soda water — tend to be priced $11-$13 at Small Victory. But rest assured that you get what you pay for.

“We made conscious choices that we were going to use the best spirits, the best ice and the best glassware. After that, it’s just gilding the lily,” Loving said. “It’s not to say that we don’t have the chops to make 100 percent creative cocktails, but at the end of the day, this is what we’ve decided is important.”

Besides the martini menu, one of the first things that Loving created when planning Small Victory was a bunch of drawings encapsulating his ideal bar: a space with three identical workstations providing each of the bartenders making drinks all of the same supplies. He and the designer, Matt Dungan, were especially challenged by the limited space they had to work with but found a way.

“Josh is the product of a restaurant bar. And restaurant bars are ultimately the last available real estate in the restaurant,” Stubbs said. “Most restaurant owners are coming from a back-of-house perspective, so they design their dream kitchen or their dream number of seats or whatever will be most profitable. The motivations are never, ‘Oh, let’s build the most beautiful, functional bar and make everything else fit around it.’”

But Loving did, guaranteeing that “the bartenders are set up to succeed in all fashions,” he said. “They can connect with the guests on a personal level because they don’t have to stress about re-learning the map each time.”

That’s one of the best parts of Small Victory: the back-and-forth that you can establish with the bartenders if you come a time or two. They make you feel welcome in the cozy space and also like you are watching mad scientists at work in their laboratory of cool liquids and shiny silver tools.

Establish a connection with them and they just might go off-menu, whipping up a cocktail just for you.

“When there’s engagement, that’s when we do our creative stuff,” Loving said. “You said you want mezcal with a booze-forward profile, and we have the back bar for it. That’s when we start riffing and have this personal experience where there’s a good bet that whatever mezcal, booze-forward drink you asked for from (your bartender), the next time you’re in and (the bartender is not), you can’t get that drink. And that’s OK. Because that was a personal experience that is the whole reason bars exist.”

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