Compared to previous years, this year’s CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year finalists are a little unusual. Not because they don’t make excellent drinks, but because a few of our nominees are working for different establishments in 2017 than they did in 2016, their former positions are the primary reasons our panelists of restaurant industry experts nominated them for this award.
Alas, bars can be just as turbulent as restaurants, and at least these talented individuals still have venues where patrons can enjoy their skills.
After all, in an impersonal world where even food is just a click away, bartending remains a personal experience. Belly up to the bar, talk any of our finalists bartender about your personal preferences, and await a drink that suits your mood.
Josh Bearden, Helen in the Heights
Speaking of candidates that have recently changed jobs, Josh Bearden earned this nomination for his work at Arthur Ave where, working alongside former Tastemaker Bartender of the Year Lainey Collum, he brought an Italian accent to classic American cocktails. Herb-infused gin and tonics, a martini with the colors of caprese salad, and a frozen White Russian all made drinking at Arthur Ave as satisfying as dining there. Soon, we’ll get to see what Bearden does with Greek flavors when the restaurant reopens as Helen in the Heights.
Elyse Blechman, Tongue-Cut Sparrow
New rule: if you’re the first Houstonian in five years to win the Texas regional of the prestigious Speed Rack bartending competition, you get to be a Tastemaker Awards finalist. Of course, Blechman is more than fast; her engaging presence behind the bar makes patrons comfortable. Recently, she moved from Bad News Bar to Tongue-Cut Sparrow, where she brings her attention to detail to the intimate bar’s carefully-prepared libations.
Rebecca Burkart, Worcester’s Annex
Although she worked at a few bars around town, Burkart came to prominence during her time at Canard — Treadsack's cocktail bar that was originally a showcase for ideas developed by another Tastemakers nominee, Leslie Ross Krockenberger (more on her below). To Burkart's credit, she stayed at Canard through the bar's final two weeks, providing friendly, efficient service as the masses descended to drink the bar’s liquor selection dry at deep discounts. Soon Burkart, who advanced to the finals of the prestigious Most Imaginative Bartender competition, will get to ply her trade at Worcester’s Annex, the cocktail bar at Heights Bier Garten, the new concept from Wooster’s Garden owners The Kirby Group.
Alex Gregg, Moving Sidewalk
Just as Moving Sidewalk remains one of our panelists' favorite bars, so too does its owner, Alex Gregg, remain one of their favorite bartenders. If Gregg doesn’t pull quite as many shifts behind the bar as he used to, he still serves as the creative force behind the bar’s innovative menus, and his work in delivering crystal clear, hand-cut ice to a number of places around town has made drinking in Houston better. His old school, customer-oriented work ethic serves as a model for the next generation of bartenders and owners.
Stuart Humphries, The Pass & Provisions
As it approaches its fifth birthday, The Pass & Provisions has established itself as one of Houston’s best restaurants and its bar program has always been a major component of that success. Humphries brings his Anvil training to the bar’s cocktails, which change seasonally to match the food. At an establishment headed by two strong personalities in chef-owners Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner, Humphries’ slightly cocky persona behind the bar fits right in.
Alex Negranza, Tongue-Cut Sparrow
The talented bartender earned a prestigious Eater Young Gun award for his work at Anvil. As a trained barista-turned-bartender, Negranza brings a slightly different perspective to the flavors he incorporates into cocktails, but his positive attitude works well at all times of day. For now, he’s working at Tongue-Cut Sparrow, but soon he’ll make the transition to bar manager at Better Luck Tomorrow, the new bar that Anvil owner Bobby Heugel is opening with James Beard Award winning chef Justin Yu.
Jessey Qi, Anvil Bar & Refuge
Thanks to its delicate layers, the Pousse-Cafe is a cocktail that takes a few minutes to assemble, but, since it’s a shot, gets consumed in an instant. That bartender Jessey Qi developed a recipe for Anvil’s version either makes him a bit of a masochist or at least someone who understands that delivering a great experience to his customers is worth a little extra effort. With Anvil have completed its renovations, Qi is focused on training the next class of bartenders who will preserve its reputation as Houston’s preeminent place for cocktails.
Leslie Ross Krockenberger, Reserve 101
Like Rebecca Burkart, Krockenberger's nomination primarily stems from the work she did at Canard. The look, feel, and drinks all reflected Krockenberger's experiences traveling to bars across the U.S. and Europe. The results — drinks that looked as good as they tasted while utilizing unusual ingredients — earned Canard a spot on Playboy's list of the country's 50 best new bars. Recently, she’s landed at Reserve 101, Houston’s best whiskey bar, where she can discuss the finer points of the over 300 bottles with even the bar’s most-obsessive patrons. She also poured a couple of well-heeled Super Bowl visitors a $55 Johnnie Walker Blue and Coke, because making her customers happy is always her first priority.
Justin Ware, Johnny’s Gold Brick
As originally conceived, Johnny’s Gold Brick straddles the line between a dive and a cocktail bar by painting its menu of $8 drinks on the wall. However, under the direction of general manager Ware, the intimate Heights venue has stepped things up considerably, with a rotating monthly menu that features unusual spirits and complex preparations. Ware also represents Houston in national bartending contests, including the United States Bartenders Guild World Class competition.