Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Bobby Heugel and the Power of Good Vodka

Bobby Heugel, the owner of the beloved Houston bars Anvil Bar & Refuge and The Pastry War, is probably most well known for his unrelenting admiration for agave. Let the record show that Heugel is no vodka-hater—and he thinks you shouldn’t be, either. We talked to Heugel about the magic of well-made booze and what vodkas are speaking to him at the moment.

You have a reputation as an agave-spirits advocate, and your bars offer progressive craft cocktails. Tell us about your vodka conversion.

I had someone who came to visit us, who was tasting us on a bunch of spirits. One of the spirits in the person’s bag was a vodka. The person said, “You don’t want to try that.” It’s good to continue education and learning, so I said “I’d love to try that vodka.” It was DSP-162, and it was delicious. It’s a well-made spirit. You could taste the distiller’s skill.

One of the things I’ve been working on at Anvil this year is expanding our list of spirits. I want it to be one of the biggest but best-curated selections in the country. I said, why would you not include something this well-made on the list? There’s nothing about it that wasn’t just perfect. I think it’s irresponsible to ignore the skill that goes into making something like that.

So does that mean you’ll be adding vodka cocktails to Anvil’s line-up?

We’re happy to make them when they’re called; they’re just not on the list. It’s not done with any intention. We just haven’t fully made that adjustment yet with our service. I’ve been working on our vodka Martini specs, so if someone orders one, it will be just as good as any other drink in the bar.

Are you getting flak from other industry pros since you’ve added vodka to Anvil?

I don’t think so. If anything, we’ve gotten compliments from people. There’s also a growing conversation about what makes it a vodka versus an eau de vie, which is clear but not neutral.

I was specifically looking for vodkas that were not neutral. That’s really how we buy in every spirit category, whether it’s mezcal or Scotch or vodka. We look for interesting, exciting spirits with some type of cultural heritage. So we picked vodkas that are made in a manner that is reaching for a quality goal, which stands out in a crowded category but also emphasizes the art of distillation.

Which vodkas are in Anvil’s “Captain’s Cabinet?”

There are a few.

Aylesbury Duck: That’s our house vodka. It’s made from winter wheat and pot-stilled. It’s an exceptionally clean spirit that also has a silky, almost oily texture. It’s just a straight down-the-middle example of how to do really well what people want when they order vodka.

Belvedere Unfiltered: It’s a 100-percent diamond rye, unfiltered, pot-stilled. It has more spice to it, more pop. It adds a little bit more flavor.

DSP-162: It’s a blend of three different types of grapes, supplemented with wheat. Germain-Robin makes it in pot stills. It’s a beautiful spirit, bordering on eau de vie with its grape base, but it’s extremely clean. It was an eye opener for me.

Hangar 1: A blend of Viognier grapes and wheat, also pot stilled. It’s more neutral, cleaner, with a real creamy texture.

St. George: Made from corn and Bartlett pear, and also in a pot still. Pear is the iconic base for so many spirits that they do. This one has a little bit of a fruitier note.

The Vodka by Ransom: A blend of corn, barley and rye. The most debatable on whether it’s a vodka or rye, because it’s made from 67-percent corn, 30-percent barley and 3-percent rye. They pot-still it, and filter 70-percent of the product. The other 30-percent is not filtered, so it’s basically a triple-distilled white dog. It’s intentionally adding flavor to what they call their vodka. It really challenges modern conceptions of what vodka is.

What else do you think people should know about vodka right now?

I think that people should honestly think of it as just another spirit on the back bar. It doesn’t have the same historical context for cocktails as other spirits, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it. It doesn’t have to be this fork-in-the-road spirit category. I think we need to stop sensationalizing it. It should just be a category we buy because guests want to drink it, and it should be evaluated in the same way every other spirit category is. We should just buy it based on how it’s made.

Kara Newman is a New York–based spirits and cocktail writer, and author of Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books).