- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
The idea of a speakeasy — dark, cozy, perhaps a little hard to find — isn’t as novel now as it was when Midnight Cowboy debuted several years ago as a sophisticated antidote to the shot-bar chaos of Sixth Street.
And yet there remains something alluring, almost romantic, about the long, lushly decorated room inside an almost shockingly drab exterior. It’s about as narrow as an alleyway and easy to miss along Austin’s row of ribaldry, rather like 12 Grimmauld Place in Harry Potter’s London: hidden until you are given the instructions on how to see it. You have to know which buzzer to push to gain entry, and only then will one of the bartenders let you in.
But with ever more hideaway places where you can grab a good drink in Austin, Midnight Cowboy must continually deliver with fun, thoughtful cocktails. That’s where Tacy Rowland, hired on as general manager of the bar just before South by Southwest last year, comes in.
Late last year, she completely overhauled the menu by launching a conceptual group of new cocktails called “The Art of Conversation.” These drinks showcase why the bar remains among the very best in town: They are nuanced experimental offerings, often twists on classics, with ingredients as wild as ricotta cheese, saffron rice and pickled mustard seeds, and many awaken the taste buds to unexpected flavors.
The menu starts with A Proper Introduction (apricot eau-de-vie, Caperitif, honey, lemon, ricotta, jam and sparkling wine), and subsequent cocktails are called Small Talk, Back in My Day, Punch Line and the Awkward Pause. Creating the menu was a monthslong collaborative effort between Rowland and the bar staff, who helped her with flavor profiles and coming up with the themed names.
She remembers when Midnight Cowboy launched in early 2012 as a boozy side project from the Alamo Drafthouse. To her and other bartender friends, the bar was “such a trendsetter in town.”
“I just wanted to bring that energy back to it and incorporate some things I have experienced — some adventurous flavor profiles I’ve come across in traveling,” Rowland said.
Like Midnight Cowboy, she was an early fixture in Austin’s now-thriving cocktail scene. Working at downtown Mexican restaurant La Condesa, she realized bartending could be a career thanks to the influence of La Condesa’s then-executive chef Rene Ortiz. Her next mentor was Houston Eaves, with whom she worked at the then-newly open Contigo in East Austin. He is now beverage director at one of San Antonio’s best bars, the Esquire Tavern.
Both men have been inspirational, she said, as has been Bill Norris, beverage director for the Alamo. He brought Rowland in and helped form “The Art of Conversation” menu concept, though she spearheaded the project overall.
“We liked the idea of a conceptual menu with kind of a direction to it, and this place has always been about conversation,” she said. “The idea that you can come in and have a space that’s set aside for you and your guests, and you’re not going to be interrupted by the insanity of Sixth Street outside.”
That has been a tenet of Midnight Cowboy from the beginning. Guests are encouraged to make a reservation ahead of time, though walk-ups are welcome depending on availability. You then have two hours to enjoy at least a couple of drinks while sitting at one of the leather booths lined along either side of the narrow main room. Most of the time, you won’t see the cocktails being made, but bartenders do help you understand the menu and find the flavors you are seeking.
And, boy, the flavors can be rather unexpected. Take A Proper Introduction. It’s served in a long test tube-like glass held up by a three-legged metallic stand and almost looks more like a wacky science experiment than a drink. But rest assured that it’s delicious and quite different from other sparkling wine drinks, which “tend to be light and bright,” Rowland said. The ricotta lends a creamy texture, the apricot jam some depth.
For Rowland, incorporating traditionally culinary ingredients and techniques into her bar program is paramount.
“To me, that’s what’s fun and exciting,” she said. “There’s been kind of a move back toward classics and three-ingredient cocktails. I understand the appeal, but at the end of the day, I feel like we’ve pretty much all had those before. We have more access to ingredients and techniques and spirits and flavor profiles than we ever have, so why not take advantage of it and have fun with it?”
A few of the drinks on the menu are stirred rather than shaken, and their relative simplicity allows the bartenders to make them in front of you with help from a bar cart. One of those is Talk Dirty to Me (gin, vodka or mezcal; tarragon-soaked vermouth; caperberry juice and lemon oils). Order it with mezcal, as the Alipus San Baltazar pairs sublimely with the briny backbone of the caperberry juice.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that Rowland’s best new offering is this playful twist on the dirty martini. The man, after all, who helped make the martini the benchmark drink it is today is Harry Craddock — the name everyone buzzes for entry into Midnight Cowboy.