Alba Huerta, arguably the best bartender in Texas, chats about serving cocktails in Houston.
Bartending is the only job that Alba Huerta has ever had, and it’s the only job she has ever wanted. Her family moved to Houston from Monterrey, Mexico, when she was six, and she began serving up adult beverages a year before she could even legally drink. After perfecting the art of the cocktail at Houston’s celebrated Anvil Bar & Refuge, she became the bar director of the business group that owns it, Clumsy Butcher, and, with Anvil owners Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd, established the buzzy downtown mezcaleria the Pastry War. Last year, Huerta turned her attention to Southern cocktail culture, opening Julep in the Sixth Ward.
Francesca Mari: What appeals to you about bartending?
Alba Huerta: I always tell people that before I was making cocktails I was making friends behind the bar. Wherever I work, I want to make sure it’s a place where people feel welcome.
FM: How does that play out in the design of Julep?
AH: A lot of the design was meant to be timeless. Guests walk in, and we tell them we’ve been open only a year, and they can’t believe it. We have a very light color palette, a lot of natural light—even my back bar feels like a pantry—so it has this warm, homey feel.
FM: What cocktails best suit Texas?
AH: There’s seasonality, and then there’s also how I feel today. So if I’m walking around outside in 100-degree weather, and I walk into a bar, I’m going to want a drink that’s refreshing. That’s why we love drinks that are sour, tart, refreshing, spicy, and sweet.
FM: Is that why we love margaritas? Because they’re citrusy and sweet and it’s hot here nine months out of the year?
AH: I certainly think so. That’s proven itself with the Saltwater South Menu that we’re currently launching at Julep. That menu draws ingredients from different port cities and coastal regions. With Houston being on the Gulf, the menu’s been very well received because of its acidity and sodium. The cocktails have a little bit of salt and lemon.
FM: Do you get your inspiration for cocktails mostly from ingredients?
AH: Ingredients, themes, and people. If I come across something like a honey-dried fig and we can make a soda out of it, that’s great. And then the soda becomes the mixer, so we have to find the right spirit.* And sometimes our guests have requests and sometimes that leads to creating something.
FM: Who are your guests and what do they want?
AH: The city itself is very diverse, so you can have a multitude of cultures walking in the door. And we try to have something for just about everyone, so the flavor profiles on the menu go from being bitter and boozy to light and refreshing to something that’s a little bit sweet.
FM: The Spiced Julep** seems to speak to Houston’s place as part Deep South, part Lone Star State. Was that on your mind or were you just trying to construct a great drink?
AH: All those things. That Julep was created from two hot drinks that I usually serve the two chilly days of the year. Converting them into a julep made them cold and refreshing to enjoy more year-round. And the Spiced Julep is for the more adventurous drinker. The spices get lit on fire.
FM: Do you have any tips for the home mixologist?
AH: Always have fresh ingredients—fresh-squeezed lemon juice, fresh-squeezed lime juice—and invest the time to make things like simple syrup yourself.
FM: What staples should a home bartender have?
AH: A good home cabinet is tequila, bourbon, and gin. You can play with those spirits in so many ways, and they translate into so many different recipes. Just having those three things would make most of my days very, very happy.
*Desert Spoon Highball
In a highball glass, pour 1.5 ounces of Texas Sotol, 1 ounce of honey-fried fig syrup, 1/8 ounce of acid phosphate, and 2 ounces of Topo Chico over ice. Stir lightly and garnish with a fresh fig slice and a mint sprig.
Honey-Fried Fig Syrup
Sauté 12 fresh mission figs stemmed and halved lengthwise, 1 ounce of Texas wild honey, 1 ounce of Layla butter, 1 ounce of añejo tequila in a saucepan until figs are dissolved, or syrupy. Chill mixture overnight, and skim the solidified butter off the top before use.
**The Spiced Julep
Soak a tea infuser filled with 5 allspice berries, 1/2 a cinnamon stick, and 5 cloves in a cup of overproof rum. Set aside. In a metal julep cup, gently muddle 12 mint leaves in 1/2 ounce turbinado syrup. Add 1 1/2 ounces bonded apple brandy and 1/2 ounce Jamaican pot-still rum. With a pair of tongs, remove infuser and discard overproof rum. Using a lighter, set infuser on fire, and drop into the julep cup. Dash aromatic bitters and express fresh lemon oil onto flame. Add crushed ice and stir to dilution, about 10 times. Add more crushed ice and garnish with mint sprig, seasonal fruit, and powdered sugar.