Bartenders of the Year
These 11 bartenders are the crafty people pouring Houston's best drinks
UPDATE: The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, originally scheduled for April 2, will now be held on August 6. The story has been updated with the new date.
In lieu of a formal introduction to the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards nominees for Bartender of the Year, here’s a quick anecdote.
Recently, a friend shared the story of a young bartender who asked that he be listed as a “mixologist” on his business cards. Since most bartenders reject the term as overly pretentious, she began to quiz him about his experience in the service industry. He revealed that he had never visited Anvil, a deficiency she sought to correct immediately.
Upon entering, the would-be mixologist quickly realized how little he knew about his craft. He had never seen a bar with such an extensive selection of spirits or so many complex cocktails. The lesson became clear; he had much to learn about making good drinks and providing hospitable service.
Needless to say, our 11 nominees might be worthy of the title of “mixologist,” but they would never want to be labeled that way. They are bartenders, and that’s more than enough.
Who will win? Find out August 6 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We’ll dine on bites from this year’s nominated restaurants before emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy tickets (at special early bird pricing!) now.
Anna Wilkins - Better Luck Tomorrow
Having worked at establishments such as Julep and Eight Row Flint, Wilkins had a busy 2019. She served as lead bartender at Squable where she worked with general manager (and former bartender of the year winner) Terry Williams to craft a menu of reliable classics to pair with the restaurant’s innovative food. Now, she’s back at BLT, where she contributes to the bar’s seasonally-inspired cocktails.
Jessica Johnson - Wooster's Garden
This general manager of one of Midtown’s finest cocktail bars may be known for the speed with which she makes drinks, but Johnson is more than just a master of shaking and stirring. Her outgoing personality sets the tone for the elevated service that’s a core part of the Wooster’s experience. Don’t be surprised to see her singing along to the bar’s soundtrack; she picks the playlists.
Jordan Pitts - Anvil Bar & Refuge
In the story above, one specific bartender demonstrated to the would-be mixologist that he had a long way to go, and that’s Pitts. His good humor, thorough knowledge of spirits, and precise technique make him the latest rising star to emerge out of Houston’s most-acclaimed cocktail bar. Catch him on a weeknight, when things are a little slower, to have the same experience.
Justin Ware - Johnny's Gold Brick
Keeping track of all the bartender competitions can be difficult for those outside of the industry, but Ware earning $15,000 in the prestigious Heaven Hill 2019 Bartender of the Year event merits attention. He’s brought the same creative energy to Johnny’s, where the monthly cocktails specials always offer intriguing choices. Coming soon, Ware and business partner Patrick Abalos will lead the team at Night Shift, a promising new bar in the East End.
Kristine Nguyen - Cantina Barba/El Segundo
During two years at Nancy’s Hustle, Nguyen evolved from her role as a bar manager creating amaro-forward cocktails to helping run service for the ultra-popular restaurant. In January, she started at Cantina Barba and El Segundo, giving her an outlet to indulge in agave spirits. Cantina Barba’s companion Mijo Mezcal Bar enhances the restaurant’s spirits program with a wider selection and even more of its signature slushies.
Lindsay Rae Burleson - Two Headed Dog
The Grand Prize and Poison Girl veteran took a major step forward in 2019 when she partnered with Billy Boyd to open Two Headed Dog. While Burleson will always be happy to serve people a beer and a shot, the bar’s cocktail offerings demonstrate her passion for housemade ingredients that expedite the time it takes to make a drink. Her unique sense of humor comes through in the bar’s programming, which has ranged from cocktail pop-ups to vibrator races.
Matt Dulaney - The New Potato
The San Antonio native worked at places like the Nightingale Room and Bosscat Kitchen before being tapped to help Penny Whistle Pub establish an independent identity from its former iteration as The Harp. Dulaney achieved that goal with a menu of affordable, well-executed classic cocktails. Find him geeking out about his latest creation at The New Potato or wait from him to make his triumphant return to Montrose at the eagerly anticipated 6s & 7s.
Sarah Crowl - Penny Quarter
At Coltivare, Crowl helped build on the restaurant’s reputation for drinks that used seasonal ingredients that matched the quality of the food coming from the kitchen. She's quietly moved on to Penny Quarter, where we expect her to expand the cafe’s cocktail offerings while delivering the friendly, knowledgeable service one would expect from someone who spent years working at Uchi. Crowl is also known for her creative non-alcoholic cocktails, which would fit with Penny Quarter’s recent shift to healthier, plant-based dishes.
Thomas Marsella - 13 Celsius
At a bar that’s famously a destination for first dates, a bartender needs to have a deft touch — smart and thoughtful enough to make people comfortable but not too intrusive. Marsella succeeds by possessing a deep knowledge of 13C’s extensive cellar and a warm, welcoming personality. Thankfully, his hospitality isn’t just limited to those seeking romance; anyone can turn to him for assistance in selecting the right vintage to suit their mood.
Tommy Ho - Anvil Bar & Refuge/Penny Quarter
Hailed by Anvil owner Bobby Heugel for his combination of speed and hospitality, Ho added Penny Quarter to his responsibilities in 2019. Those qualities earned him recognition as a Rising Star Bartender by StarChefs, a national organization devoted to identifying up-and-coming culinary talent. While his job requires a serious amount of work, he also displayed a sense of humor by posing for the Slinging Love calendar that raised money for the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Zach Hornberger - Nancy's Hustle
A veteran of bars such as Spare Key and Miss Carousel, Hornberger found a new home at Nancy’s Hustle. Sitting at the bar has always been a way to expedite the wait at the ultra-busy restaurant, and Hornberger knows how to make guests feel welcome. The restaurant’s original cocktails typically include an amaro component, but the team will also craft a high-quality take on just about any classic.