- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
Whiskey has never been in more of a heyday — and neither have the bars specializing in selling it.
One of those watering holes is the recently established Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, from the same Los Angeles hospitality group that expanded to Austin to open Rainey Street cocktail bar Half Step in 2014. Three years later, 213 Hospitality has brought a Texas-tinged outpost of Seven Grand, also in Los Angeles and San Diego, to an old brick-walled building on Seventh Street.
Large and stately, with plaid carpeting, dark wood, taxidermy animals and stag-shaped lamps, the bar houses more than 400 bottles of whiskey from around the world and plans to grow the collection to more than 700. Each bottle is displayed along wall shelves, the very top of which are reached via sliding ladders behind the bar.
Much of Seven Grand’s design takes its influence from the iconic pubs of Ireland, the country where the history of whiskey largely begins. Other aspects, such as the taxidermy and the Lady Bird Lake-inspired diorama by the entrance with vintage fishing poles and empty booze bottles, suggest more of a hunting lodge vibe.
“There’s a bar in Dublin called the Stag’s Head that has been the core inspiration for this concept,” 213 Hospitality’s director of operations, Andrew Abrahamson, said. “With that said, it definitely has Irish pub elements, but it’s not really like Irish pubs in America where they double as sports bars. It’s more of a public house.”
Visitors can order cocktails made from other spirits (the bottles of which are hidden from view) and Texas beers such as Zilker Brewing’s Marco IPA and Real Ale Brewing’s Axis IPA. But whiskey is the main star of the show — from the popular wheated bourbon Maker’s Mark, which serves as the base in all of Seven Grand’s classic cocktails, to far more esoteric offerings such as Charbay’s Hop Flavored Whiskey.
And all those bottles aren’t just props, any more than the ladders are.
At Seven Grand, you can get as in-depth an education on whiskey as you want, whether you’re looking to expand your vocabulary of tasting notes (say, that the Suntory Hakushu 12-Year-Old Japanese Whisky reminds the nose of delicate cherry blossom) or want a veritable history of the world through the lens of whiskey, once a humble farmer’s valuable trading tool and not just a boozy balm for societal ills. Or if you simply want a small taste of something special, that’s OK, too.
The infectious enthusiasm Abrahamson and other 213 employees, such as the California-based spirit guide Pedro Shanahan and his local equivalent at Austin’s Seven Grand, Rashid Barrett, hold for whiskey is easy to catch.
Although it’s still not as ubiquitous as vodka, the aged spirit made from fermented corn, rye, barley and other grains has become prized for its quality and depth of flavor — maybe a little too much. Seven Grand’s proprietors worry that whiskey, tagged with labels like “ultra-premium,” is becoming a little inaccessible for the everyday drinker, in marked contrast to its humble roots.
“The history of whiskey is that it was always made by farmers,” Shanahan said. “It was what people used as money. It was the commerce of the Old World. And the idea that some of these marketing firms have put on it, that it’s for some old boys’ network, is completely false. It’s a fabrication.”
To remedy that, Seven Grand is bringing its Whiskey Society to town. It’s a relaxed meet-up, “an enthusiast’s group that will be open for folks in Austin to take part in,” he said, “with brand ambassadors and master distillers coming in from all over the world to educate the public and taste-test and talk to us about the spirits they make.” Barrett, previously of Peche and Half Step, is the organizer.
Moving behind the bar at Seven Grand has been an easy jump for Barrett to make. To ready for the job, he traveled across the country for 18 months talking to distillers, biochemists and food scientists about flavor and how our bodies perceive it. Being able to turn customers’ flavor preferences into the right dram of whiskey or whiskey cocktail is crucial, he believes, as is helping them develop the vocabulary to describe what they’re looking for.
“I feel like that’s the last bastion in terms of being a really good bartender: having a way to communicate with the customers who aren’t sure what they want or why they like what they like and introducing them to things they wouldn’t otherwise have,: he said. “Explaining whiskey using culinary words. That’s been a passion or, actually, an obsession.”
Of course, if you just want your usual pour of Buffalo Trace Bourbon (or whatever whiskey best wets your whistle), Seven Grand can be the place for a good old-fashioned unwinding. The bar doesn’t have food on offer, but you can play a game of pool at one of the several billiards tables while you drink.
“We don’t do any molecular mixology, anything really cutting-edge. We’re just focused on the classics,” Abrahamson said. “You can’t really get more classic than that.”