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Boozing it up for a good cause: OKRA Charity Saloon swizzles a Caribbean-inspired cocktail

OKRA, Marcy de Luna, Bottoms Up
CultureMap's Marcy de Luna steps behind the bar with Mike Criss to craft a cocktail that makes everyone feel good. Photo by Joel Luks
OKRA, Marcy de Luna, Bottoms Up
For each drink purchased you'll receive a ticket to cast a vote for one of four charities that rotate monthly. At the end of the month, the nominee with the most votes receives 100 percent of the following month's proceeds. Photo by Joel Luks
OKRA, Marcy de Luna, Bottoms Up
The Queen's Park Swizzle was the signature drink of the Queen's Park Hotel in Trinidad. The hotel may be gone, but the cocktail lives on. Photo by Joel Luks
The Original OKRA Charity Saloon
Get Directions - 924 Congress Avenue Houston

OKRA Charity Saloon, located downtown near Main Street and the Market Square Historic District, is not the first bar to open its doors at 924 Congress St. The original occupant, Casino Saloon, served patrons from 1882 until it closed during the Prohibition. The building has since served as a shell for businesses, including a barbershop.

Bar fixtures back in place, plus an interior that's dotted with flickering gas lights in the exposed red brick walls that support circle arch and barrel vault ceilings, OKRA officially opened last month. (OKRA is an acronym for Organized Kooperative on Restaurant Affairs.)

The establishment is owned and run by an experienced coterie of local restaurateurs and bar proprietors who together founded this charitable community organization. The impressive list of OKRA members includes Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge, Blacksmith Coffee Bar, Hay Merchant Craft Food & Beer and Underbelly Restaurant; Ryan Pera of Revival Market and the upcoming Coltivare; Scott Repass of Antidote Coffee, Black Hole Coffee House and Poison Girl Bar; and Paul Petronella of Paulie's. 

 "We simply wanted to give back to a community and city that has given so much to each of us. We figured the best way would be to give our profits to different charities each month."

OKRA Charity Saloon is the group's first business venture.

The operation may be a collaborative effort, but the unified purpose is singular.

OKRA member Michael Burnett says, "We simply wanted to give back to a community and city that has given so much to each of us. We figured the best way would be to give our profits to different charities each month."

For each drink purchased you'll receive a ticket to cast a vote for one of four charities that rotate monthly. At the end of the month, the nominee with the most votes receives 100 percent of the following month's proceeds. So order up: OKRA Charity Saloon offers a selection of spirits and brews alongside a small food menu crafted by its culinary members, including Revival Market, Oxheart and Paulie's.

When we arrived on an early Thursday evening, several patrons were seated at the central, oval shaped bar chatting with bartender and general manager, the friendly and outgoing Mike Criss. There's no doubt the next time they saddle up for a drink, Criss will remember them by name.

Stepping behind the bar with Criss (see video above), we learn how to make the Queen's Park Swizzle, the origin of which dates back to the 1920s. The cocktail was the signature drink of the Queen's Park Hotel in Trinidad, a then hot spot to see and be seen. The hotel may be gone, but the Queen's Park Swizzle lives on.

What is a swizzle, you may ask?

Swizzles are a type of mixed drink usually made with rum. Traditionally, a swizzle stick, made from a branch of a Quararibea Turbinate tree, native to the Caribbean, is used to mix — not stir — the drink. The twigs have certain inherent angles that control the liquor's movement, limiting it to a back and forth motion (think washing machine as opposed to stirring in a continuous circle). Since swizzle sticks aren't easy to find, your best bet is to use a long bar spoon or muddler.

The ingredients for the Queen's Park Swizzle are similar to a mojito, but the flavor is unique. The well-balanced taste and color layers include refreshing green mint (which also provides a lovely aroma), sweet white rum, acidity from fresh lime that cuts through, and, also offsetting the sweet notes, crimson Angostura bitters.

(Note: Angostura bitters were formulated in Venezuela in 1824 by Dr. Siegert as a cure to settle the stomach. By 1875 the family business moved to Trinidad where the ingredient begins to be manufactured, later ending up in multiple cocktail recipes).

To make the Queen's Park Swizzle, you'll need 10 to 15 pieces of mint, 2 ounces of rum, 1 ounce of simple syrup and 1 ounce of lime juice.

Start by crushing the mint in the palms of your hands and adding it to a tall glass. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Add the rum, simple syrup and lime juice. Holding a bar spoon or muddler between your hands, pierce the ice until you reach the bottom of the glass. Spin left and right as fast as you can by rubbing your hands together. You'll notice a frost start to appear on the sides of your glass. Add more crushed ice and top with a few dashes of bitters. The visual result is layers of green, white and red, much like the colors of the Italian flag. 

OKRA Charity Saloon recently launched a happy hour menu available daily from 3 to 6:30 p.m., during which you can order the Queen's Park Swizzle for half-price.

Cheers and Bottoms Up! from CultureMap and OKRA Charity Saloon!

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