While coming up with a bar concept that would fill the bottom-floor space of a historic building on Congress Avenue, owner Steven Weisburd struck up a revolutionary idea — paying royalties to bartenders who create original, well-crafted cocktails.
The Townsend will do just that once the bar kicks off a residency system later this summer with a trio of cocktails from guest bartenders.
Giving them a 1 percent royalty for each of their drinks purchased is an idea that originated for Weisburd in part because of his background as a lawyer representing artists and record companies in the entertainment industry, among other clients. Musicians and producers receive royalties for use of their work, as well as other artists, so why shouldn’t bartenders, he said?
“The royalty program … is, at bottom, one of the ways in which we want to put some teeth to the notion of respecting those who create great unique cocktails,” he said. “It is one thing to say it and another to put some money where your mouth is.”
Helping to put together this program — which will feature drinks from both local and national rising stars in the bar scene — is cocktail guru Justin Elliott. He recently left Qui to join the team behind the Townsend, a group called Penumbral Strategic Ventures, as director of hospitality projects, a move that has helped to generate curiosity from local cocktail lovers about the brand-new bar.
Leaving Qui hadn’t been his intention, but he realized how good a fit the Townsend would be over the course of doing consulting work for Weisburd.
“Steven just believed in a lot of the stuff I believe in,” he said. “We’re creating a culture here of hospitality and creativity, but not in a super showy way. We want to give this part of Austin a really great everyday kind of bar.”
So in addition to the three cocktails that will be created by guest bartenders, the Townsend offers about a dozen cocktails, all created by Elliott, that mirror the “general sensibility” of the room: simple, timeless drinks with evocative names.
“There’s something about this historic building that really inspired some of the cocktails,” Elliott said. “My aim has been to create cocktails that look like they could be found in any vintage cocktail book but aren’t. I want them to seem timeless. I don’t want anyone to see my hand in the cocktails; I don’t want my fingerprints on them.”
Among them are cocktails with names that almost read like bits of poetry, like the Single Engine Plane with Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum, orgeat, lime and aromatic bitters. This riff on the daiquiri “hits all the notes one loves in a daiquiri,” Elliott said, “but it’s a little more rustic; it’s got a little more funk. It’s like the Clash doing a reggae song.”
He has a special affinity for the Carriage House, with Ransom Old Tom Gin, Tequila Ocho Reposado, Cynar and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. A split-spirit cocktail like the Vieux Carré, this savory drink stays light-bodied while still showcasing the wood elements in the gin and tequila, he said.
The lemon-colored Lamplight, with Old Grand-dad Bonded Bourbon, Drambuie, lemon and Chinese 5-Spice, is as bright and vibrant as its name suggests. Elliott doesn’t usually go for bourbon and citrus drinks, “which can present too tannic,” but the honey in the Drambuie tones that down, drawing out the fruitiness of the bourbon that otherwise gets lost in these kinds of cocktails.
Like Weisburd, Elliott supports the notion that bartenders not on staff at a certain bar should get the credit for creating a cocktail that ends up on the menu, in part because of the naming convention “deeply ingrained in cocktail culture.”
“These drinks with these names very much become associated with these figures,” he said. “To not give them proper credit and compensation, I don’t see how you could make an argument that it’s in any way acceptable.”
The Townsend’s bar program is far from the only thing that will draw you in. The long, warm space, banded on one side by a vintage wooden bar and on the other side by cozy couches sitting below shelves of old hardback books, leads to a smaller room at the very end carefully wired for live music shows. Plus, a menu of upscale pub bites — such as smoked trout pâté, quail knots and street corn risotto — will make the Townsend a worthy happy hour or dinner spot.
It’s now open at 4 p.m. every day except Sunday in the historically designated Townsend-Thompson building, just across the street from the Paramount Theatre, at 718 Congress Ave. For more information, visit thetownsendaustin.com.