After whipping up their signature summer drinks for our July cover story, two of the state’s most innovative mixologists—Robert Heugel, of Houston’s Anvil Bar and Refuge, and Justin Beam, of the Ritz-Carlton’s Rattlesnake Bar, in Dallas—chatted with us about the importance of ice, the blossoming of our homegrown microdistilleries, and what Texans should (and shouldn’t) be drinking.
Anvil Bar and Refuge, Houston
You opened Anvil Bar and Refuge in March. What sets it apart from other watering holes?
We don’t take any shortcuts at all. Every ingredient that goes into a drink gets put in separately. You hear people say that they use fresh juices in all their drinks, but we take it to a whole other level. Our juice is juiced fresh every single day, and it’s not pre-mixed with anything before it’s put into the drink. We don’t use vodka in cocktails because it’s odorless and tasteless and cocktails should showcase the spirit as part of a flavor component in the drink. We use a Kold-Draft ice machine, which is the best type you can buy. It makes ice upside down, and it makes completely airless 1 1/4- by-1 1/4-inch cubes. The ice machine has its own three-ton air-conditioning unit that keeps it cold.
We don’t use commercial glassware, which isn’t what cocktails should be served in, so we have glassware that we’ve found in thrift shops around Montrose. We serve 20 times as much rye as we do bourbon and 25 times as much gin as we do vodka. We’re not afraid to do things the way that they should be done and the way that they were done a long time ago.
The drink you’ve created for us—the Alamo Fizz—calls for an egg white, which might raise some eyebrows.
I love making drinks with egg whites, not only because they taste incredible, but because it forces people to recognize that there’s a difference in how we make drinks. Everybody knows what an egg is, but using it in a cocktail asks you to question two things that you know: You know what a cocktail is and you know what an egg is, but you don’t assume that they should be put together. The use of eggs in mixed drinks predates even the cocktail. People didn’t start mixing spirits until about three hundred years after people were mixing eggs into beer and wine. Using eggs is a great way to ask people to step outside the box.
Do you have to convince people to try a drink with raw eggs in it?
Customers always ask, “Well, can’t you get salmonella from that?” And I always ask, “Did you drive here today? You’re four times as likely to die going home as you are to get salmonella from an egg.” We spend our time converting people into accepting a different approach to cocktails, so we’ve got to be ready with a response.
You used Austin-based Treaty Oak rum for this recipe, but are there other Texas spirits that you like to use?
I love Paula’s Texas. They’re doing some great stuff that I don’t think anyone else is doing, like hand-zesting every single piece of fruit that they put into their products. And they’re really the only place in the country that’s creating an orangecello and a limoncello of that quality. No one else is touching them. I’m actually working on a gin recipe that Paula is going to produce. This type of collaboration is something you can do with microdistilleries that you could never do with a larger company. I think that helps create a more interesting market.
And then there’s Railean, which is a rum company out of San Leon. I really like what they’re doing because they’re producing the first commercially aged spirit in Texas. That they’re taking the effort to age it—and not just distill it and bottle it—really shows that we’re growing. I have a post on my blog, drinkdogma.com, that talks all about Texas spirits.
So are we going to continue to see more distillers popping up in Texas?
I think so. It’s similar to what happened previously with American craft breweries. People are realizing that you can do something on a smaller scale that is more quality-focused. As a consumer you can support someone local, which I think is more important to Texans than anything else. Texans love to buy something that’s from a Texan.
One of the great things about Texas is that we have so much local produce and so many unique local products available, but I think people are underutilizing them. It’s difficult to imagine why cocktails being made in restaurants and bars across the state are so stagnant. We have the ability to use fresher ingredients than people who are living up north. I want to see more people incorporating local Texas flavors, from pecans to peaches. It’s the same transition we’ve seen in the culinary community. People are beginning to note how much better food tastes when it’s fresh and locally available, so why not use the same ingredients for your drinks?
Rattlesnake Bar, Dallas
What’s your philosophy when it comes to making drinks?
It’s the same philosophy that Tom Colicchio or Dean Fearing or any great chef takes to food: Use things that are growing now. You’ve heard the saying, what grows together goes together.
Balance is also key to making a great drink. As with any savory menu item or dessert, if it’s overly sweet or too salty, things get out of whack. Like any chef you have to know the basics before you can master any of the crazy things that people are doing nowadays. One of the things I learned while working at Craft is that you should keep things simple but not simplistic.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when making drinks at home?
Using too much alcohol. And ice is a difficult thing to get right at home too. If you talk to any mixologist, you’ll learn that ice is a huge factor in how cocktails work. We try to use larger cubes