It seems like just a few short years ago when Austin was a sleepy college town. When “Austin City Limits” referred only to our local PBS live music show, and our primary cultural export was SXSW. The “Mexican Martini”—essentially a top shelf margarita served in a martini glass—represented the pinnacle of local drinking and would have been the city’s official drink, were it not for the even-more-ubiquitous frozen margarita.
That all began changing in the late 2000-aughts when a handful of intrepid bartenders began importing ideas from top bars on the east and west coasts. Austin’s cocktail scene flourished and, like our population, has grown exponentially since. There’s no better time to drink in Austin.
In the spring of 2012, Michael & Jessica Sanders opened the neighborhood bar you wish was in your neighborhood. Its focus: craft cocktails, unique beers and good pub food—all for a reasonable price. The cocktail menu changes with the season, and the friendly bartenders are equally versed in the classics. The bar has a cozy vibe (so cozy that it can be hard to find a seat at times), with the benefit of not being downtown.
What to drink: Classic Gimlet or Old Fashioned Drink.Well, 207 East 53rd St, 512-614-6683
Image courtesy Claire McCormack
Half Step has perhaps the most storied pedigree of any bar in Austin. Managing partner and Austin native Chris Bostick came back to town fresh off a stint at the Varnish in Los Angeles (named Best American Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2012). At Half Step, Bostick has assembled a stable of some of Austin’s best bartenders in a gorgeously restored historic house on Austin’s Rainey Street. Half Step is many steps ahead of its neighbors: The bar features its own icehouse out back, where large blocks of ice are trimmed to the bar’s specifications. The state-of-the-art water carbonation system and other customized features make this bar a one-of-a-kind mixological destination. The spacious patio is served by an outdoor bar; the front porch offers priceless people-watching opportunities.
What to drink: Floradora (Gin, lime, ginger, raspberry) Half Step, 75 ½ Rainey St, 512-391-1877 Image courtesy Claire McCormack
Mezcalería Tobalá sits atop Whisler’s, a laid-back east Austin bar that is as good for a cocktail as it is for a cold beer. Up the stairs you find a tiny candle-lit bar, and the city’s best selection of traditional mezcales, curated by bar manager Cesar Aguilar. Whether you are a novice or an expert on the subject of tequila’s genetic ancestor, there is something for you here. No industrial mezcales are offered: Every selection is from an artisanal producer and include not just the cultivated espadín, but also rare wild agaves. The menu at this bar couldn’t be simpler: mezcal, bottled Victoria, and Topo Chico. No cocktails.
What to drink: Mezcal Mezcalería Tobalá, 1816 East 6th St, 512-480-0781
It is impossible to talk about this Austin institution without mentioning its heady past (pun intended). The bar is named for the Midnight Cowboy Modeling/Oriental Massage studio that previously occupied the space, and now the former brothel is one of Austin’s most bespoke cocktail lounges. Though you still have to brave a stretch of downtown known as “dirty Sixth” in order to get there. There is no sign, and you must be buzzed in at the door (hit the buzzer marked “Harry Craddock”). At only eleven feet wide, the space is as intimate as the business dealings of its former occupants, and reservations are the only way to guarantee a seat. Once seated, you are in for a treat—an oasis of calm in Austin’s raucous entertainment district—where some of the finest bartenders in town are at your service.
What to drink: Choose one of the offerings that are marked for tableside service and your drink will be made from a cart that is wheeled to your table. Midnight Cowboy, 313 East 6th St, 512-843-2715
The bar at Qui produces some of the most innovative cocktails in Austin, fitting for the highly celebrated restaurant in which it resides. Justin Elliott heads the bar program and shows a deft hand at incorporating even the most academic ingredients. In Elliott’s hands, high-falutin ingredients serves a higher culinary purpose than mixological grandiloquence. The bar is a perfect place to prepare yourself for a meal in the dining room, or make the bar the main event. For a unique experience, try the Pulutan, a menu of bar food items from chef Qui’s native Philippines, with large-format cocktails to share.
What to drink: Pastis Service (Ricard pastis, Tenneyson absinthe, coconut water)
Bar at Qui, 1600 East 6th St, 512-436-9626 Image courtesy Adrienne Breaux
Located in an old car rental lot across from Austin’s repurposed Mueller airport, Contigo is about the last place you’d expect to find a top farm-to-plate restaurant and exceptional bar. The restaurant takes its name from the family ranch of co-owner Ben Egerton, and the ranch-like atmosphere and hospitality pervades the space. Dining at long tables under the Texas sky, it’s easy to feel transported. The bar features a great selection of American and Mexican spirits and local beers, and the simple, thoughtful cocktails are the perfect accompaniment to chef Andrew Wiseheart’s uniquely Texan cuisine.
What to drink: If it’s hot out, order whatever the featured drink is on the frozen drink machine; if it’s cold out, order from the acclaimed annual Hot Toddy menu. (Since most of Contigo’s seating is outdoors, seasonal drinking is a must.) Contigo, 2027 Anchor Lane, 512-614-2260 Image courtesy Knoxy Photographics
Housed in an old train depot and some converted rail cars, Donn’s is a classic hangout for generations of locals. It is the rare bar where you are as likely to run into your high school teachers as you are your high school friends—or maybe even their parents. Honky tonk music is played live most nights, and twice a week you can see the bar’s owner and namesake tickling the ivories. Nothing fancy on the menu—unless your idea of fancy involves complimentary popcorn, or a ladies restroom housed in a caboose.
What to drink: Whiskey on the rocks Donn’s Depot, 1600 West 5th St, 512-478-0336 Image courtesy Hitcher.com