The last year has been an exciting one for Houston’s bars and the bartenders who staff them. A new wave of talent is stepping up and making names for themselves.
That's why our panelist of former winners and industry experts has recognized five new finalists for this year's CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year; in addition, a sixth nominee has played a key role in one of last year’s most well-regarded newcomers. Whether a fresh face or an established personality, our finalists are united both by their thorough knowledge of the drinks they serve and their ability to engage their customers.
After all, what good is knowing how to make a great drink if no one is there to drink it?
Who won? Find out at the Tastemaker Awards party on April 4 at Silver Street Studios. We’ll reveal the winners, sip cocktails, and dine on bites provided by the nominees. Tickets are on sale now.
Akiko Hagio, Ninja Ramen
Although she’s worked at high-profile places like Sanctuari and Canard, Hagio has found a home at Ninja Ramen, where she offers guidance on the bar’s extensive selection of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies. While Ninja Ramen has never taken itself too seriously, it does bring a lot of craft to both its food and beverage offerings, which has helped it attract a strong restaurant industry following. Hagio has the knowledge to share fine points on the differences between each spirit (some of which are fairly obscure) while also welcoming those who just want a cold Asahi with their hot bowl of noodles.
Alex Negranza, Better Luck Tomorrow
Already an Eater Young Gun, Negranza made a big change in 2017 by leaving his familiar role at Anvil to step up as bar manager for Better Luck Tomorrow. Together with former Tastemaker Awards winner Terry Williams, Negranza has led BLT’s use of seasonal produce in cocktails that match the quality of the bar food created by its co-owner, James Beard Award winner Justin Yu. Winning this award could be anticlimactic for him — Imbibe magazine already named him its bartender of the year for the entire country.
James Caronna, Doris Metropolitan
Caronna has been a presence in Houston bars for awhile, but he came into his own at Durham House, where he crafted Southern-inspired cocktails to match the restaurant’s cuisine. He’s found a new home at Doris Metropolitan, where he brings a local presence to the Israeli-influenced steakhouse that has sister locations in New Orleans and Costa Rica. An extensive whiskey selection is mandatory for any steakhouse (Doris covers all the bases), but Caronna’s cocktails match equally-well with the restaurant’s vegetable-forward starters and sides.
Jessey Qi, Anvil Bar & Refuge
Like many of this year’s nominees, Qi stepped into a new role in 2017, taking over Anvil’s day-to-day operations when Terry Williams was promoted to an oversight role for both Anvil and Better Luck Tomorrow. That means Qi is responsible for implementing the bar’s famously rigorous training program for new hires, which helps ensure Anvil’s status as the city’s most-acclaimed cocktail bar. Although his signature Pousse-Cafe is off the menu (for now?), patrons can always ask Qi to make them his whatever cocktail he’s most-excited about in the moment.
Julie Rogers, Coltivare/Night Heron
Agricole Hospitality’s growth gives it the ability to provide talented employees with new opportunities, and few people on its deep bench have deserved a shot more than Rogers. The Certified Cicerone already established her abilities at Coltivare, and now she’s leading Night Heron, the company’s new outpost in Montrose. Of course, the new establishment has an eclectic beer list that offers both Belgian brews and local drafts from up-and-coming breweries, but the cocktail menu’s creative twists on familiar classics have made it a particularly pleasant place to drink.
Kristine Nguyen, Nancy's Hustle
Nguyen’s creative cocktails deserve some of the credit for Nancy’s Hustle’s status as one of the city’s hottest restaurants. The Bad News Bar vet has crafted a tidy, five-drink menu that offers subtle twists on favorite cocktails that are designed to match the chef Jason Vaughan’s eclectic menu, but don’t feel limited by what’s on the menu. When asked by friends to create off-menu classics like a Sidecar or an Amaretto Sour, Nguyen has risen to the challenge and earned raves.
Sarah Troxell, Nobie's
The cook-turned-bartender has shined at Nobie’s, where her cocktail offerings change even more frequently than chef-owner Martin Stayer’s dishes do. Her ebullient presence makes dining at the bar a pleasant experience. While her hopes of dominating the annual Speed Rack competition came up a little short, her frantic practice sessions and devotion to the charitable endeavor won her legions on new fans.
Stuart Humphries, The Pass & Provisions
In last year’s article touting his nomination, we described Humphries as having “slightly cocky persona behind the bar” that matched well with the confidence chef-owners Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan display in the kitchen. That promoted the following response from his mother Carolyn: “Stuart Humphries probably honed his ‘cocky’ attitude trying to deflect the constant ribbing among his brothers. He is a triplet. If you ever get a chance to know him, the attitude masks a sweetheart!”