Austin bartenders turning their bars into kitchens of experimentation

Trey Jenkins doesn’t mind when his drinks look a little silly.

His tiki-style cocktails at Isla might be brightly colored with an elaborate garnish poking out of them — the dolphin made out of a banana peel is a popular one in tiki culture, for instance — but he thinks their ostentatious appearance helps to belie the occasional seriousness of the craft cocktail movement.

Perhaps no Isla cocktail better embodies his point than the Blue Hawaii, made with light rum, coconut, house-made blue curaçao, pineapple and lime. It’s the color of cotton candy, and it comes with a little umbrella and an orange slice stuck out of the mound of ice on top.

“People see it and they laugh because of how obnoxious it looks. And that’s OK; they should laugh,” Jenkins said. “But then they try it and see that it’s more than just a joke drink. It’s actually really good. I like that juxtaposition of silly presentation and great taste.”

At the heart of the Blue Hawaii — and by extension, the downtown tiki bar itself — is the ingredient that gives the drink both its name and its color. Blue curaçao is a common ingredient in island-style cocktails; it’s not, however, often made in-house. Isla is one of the many cocktail bars and restaurants these days whose bar is becoming increasingly like a kitchen: a culinary-focused laboratory where bartenders tinker with and make the ingredients that will go into their drinks.

And not just simple syrups, bitters and infused spirits, either. Jenkins’ homemade blue curaçao is an example of how far bartenders are willing to go to create fun, playful concoctions like the Blue Hawaii. Bars like his and Half Step, Drink.Well and Whisler’s, which open later in the day, have the time to devote to whipping up more involved ingredients (the blue curaçao, for example, takes a few days to get ready). But places that are open for lunch don’t let less time stop them, either.

Clark’s Oyster Bar on West Sixth Street and the Hightower on East Seventh Street are among the restaurants offering lunch and dinner that seek to make their bar programs as strong as their food menus.

“Our chefs like to have every element of control in the kitchen, so whatever ingredients we can make, we do,” the Hightower’s bar manager Robin Ozaki said. “They even make their own tofu. The shrub and the (allspice) dram that I do really just reflects the practice of the Hightower as a whole.”

Those are two of the more unconventional cocktail ingredients that Ozaki has decided to produce himself: a strawberry-basil shrub for the oft-ordered Tequila Fresa Press and an allspice dram for the High Tail with rye, honey syrup and lemon.

Shrubs — made with the polarizing addition of vinegar — are slipping back onto cocktail menus after a long dry spell. They were contributing an acidic bite to drinks as early as the 1700s, when rum was a young, rough spirit that needed the balm of something pleasant to be palatable. And they contribute a lot to a drink: Ozaki makes the Tequila Fresa Press with only reposado tequila and the strawberry-basil shrub for a tart treat of a cocktail that he said the Hightower’s diners can’t get enough of.

“A lot of people honestly don’t know what a shrub is; I wait for them to try it before I tell them what it is, and they go, ‘Vinegar?!’” he said. “On paper, a shrub sounds disgusting, and really not a lot of bars are doing them. They’re not new, but they’re new for today’s bar menus.”

Weather Up also makes a couple of shrubs, including a watermelon shrub for the sweet Seabrooke, which also contains tequila, Aperol, lime juice and Angostura bitters. (Tequila, reposado in particular, is a good spirit to pair with shrubs because its mellow agave soul soothes the acid burst of the shrub.) Weather Up’s Kyle Gundlach said the bar’s chef, Kristine Kittrell, creates the recipes for all the house-made cocktail ingredients, and bartender Brian Floyd prepares them.

And like Jenkins and his cognac-based blue curaçao, the East Cesar Chavez Street bar also makes a liqueur that just as easily could be purchased. On the menu is a $7 house-made Fireball shot that comes with a can of Lone Star beer, and “it’s better than Fireball. Nice spiciness at the end there,” Gundlach said.

The secret recipe of Weather Up’s Fireball features bourbon, Averna, habanero shrub, chocolate mole bitters and cinnamon simple syrup — a mixture that’s become so well known, people will say they want to close out their nights with it, Gundlach said. “When we created it, it was just our way of having some fun,” he said. “We didn’t expect it to take off the way it did.”

At Clark’s Oyster Bar, two of the cocktails are made with orgeat that bar manager Alex Holder and his staff make themselves. This almond syrup can be tricky to produce because doing it wrong will result in something too bitter to enjoy, but Holder does it for the same reason that Jenkins, Ozaki and the Weather Up staff do: Relying on their own recipes for these cocktail ingredients, rather than a store-bought version, is quite simply better and often cheaper.

Making the orgeat “is a fairly involved process,” Holder said, noting that it’s important in Clark’s Classic Mai Tai and in the after-dinner drink the Alpine Sour. “But we get the best of both worlds in the end. It’s less expensive, and it tastes better.”

Nearby the Hightower, LaV’s bar manager Casey Petty also makes his own liqueur, as well as “anything and everything I can to stand out,” but the amer picon that he creates with cinchona, gentian, orange peel and a few other botanicals is special. The classic French bitter orange liqueur isn’t on U.S. retail shelves. Plus, in Europe, many modern versions are watered down.

“I wanted to bring it back to form,” the way it originally was in 1837 when it was first created, he said. The potent amaro makes for a complex addition in cocktails, but I prefer to savor it slowly on its own. At LaV, it’s not an ingredient in any of the drinks on the current menu; that’s, of course, not stopping Petty from making it. Sometimes, bartenders just like to experiment for fun, shaping up their skills.

“We’re just looking to make things better when we play around,” Jenkins said of why he makes the blue curaçao — and why he isn’t the only one getting extra experimental behind the bar.

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