Ask almost any spirits professional, and they’ll tell you without batting an eye that opening a bar is one of the most challenging—and time-consuming—undertakings in the industry. It can take months, even years, for partners to find the right venue, agree on an initial roster of drinks or even settle a debate over whether or not Edison bulbs are played out. Opening a bar in just a couple of months seems, well, downright impossible.
But not for Anvil Bar & Refuge owner Bobby Heugel and longtime friend (and former Anvil bartender) Peter Jahnke, who took their new cocktail spot, Tongue-Cut Sparrow, from concept to opening in just seven weeks.
Tongue-Cut Sparrow’s Daiquiri No. 4, left, made with rum, maraschino liqueur, pineapple and lime; and Pimm’s Spritz, made with Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, Champagne and lemon (image: Elizabeth Conley)
Yes, you read that right. The Houston-based duo spent just shy of 60 days plotting how to turn the former VIP lounge turned storage area above The Pastry War (also co-owned by Heugel) into the kind of service-focused, internationally inspired 25-seat bar that would rival any on the global scene with its commitment to warmth, professionalism and detail. And what do you know? It worked. Tongue-Cut Sparrow is an unequivocal bar for grown-ups.
“Tongue-Cut Sparrow is a pretty interesting situation that doesn’t come up very often in Houston,” says Jahnke. “A 25-seat bar is a pretty rare thing here, but because of the way the lease was organized [for The Pastry War], there was a bar above the bar that had just been sitting as storage for quite a while.”
Bobby Heugel, left, and Peter Jahnke in Tongue-Cut Sparrow’s back bar (image: Julie Soefer)
Everything at Tongue-Cut Sparrow has a focus on quality over quantity, from the bar’s diminutive size and pared-down cocktail menu (16 classics, four originals) to a wafting soundtrack of strictly jazz. The bar also seeks to emulate many of the finer points of guest relations and ambiance that Heugel and Jahnke have picked up throughout their travels.
The most distinctive, and noticeable, of these is the influence drawn from the Ginza bars in Tokyo: the use of metal picks, three-piece shakers and thoughtful, complimentary bar snacks. Jahnke points to not only well-known spots like Bar High Five, Bar Martha and Bar Radio as inspiration but lesser known, low-key places in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood. (The bar’s name is also a well-known Japanese folktale.)
Tongue-Cut Sparrow’s French 75, left, made with gin or cognac, Champagne and lemon; and Rusty Nail, made with scotch and Drambuie (image: Elizabeth Conley)
And then, of course, there’s London. “Outside of Tokyo, I’d say some of our biggest influences are bars in London, like American Bar at The Savoy. It’s close and personal without losing any of the quality of service.”
But if you’re looking to launch your own bar at warp speed, though, Jahnke would, nine times out of 10, advise against it. “If someone wanted to open a bar as fast as we did, I’d tell them we had a lot of things going for us,” he says. “Getting permitting done is the worst, but we didn’t have to go through those processes because the Tongue-Cut Sparrow space was already under the umbrella of The Pastry War. That kind of stuff can really slow you down.”
But if you still want to give it a go? Hiring the right people makes all the difference. “I never had any doubt that it would work out,” says Jahnke. “Bobby is a force. And one of the best aspects of opening this bar so quickly is that we didn’t have time to develop any systems, so there was a whole lot of weight given to the bartenders. The first couple of weeks, it was like, take care of the customers, and do the right thing. They’ve responded beautifully to that. It has been a team effort.”