One thing separates the nominees for Bartender of the Year in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards from the other individual categories. As primarily service professionals, they interact with the public in a way that our chef nominees are not required to.
While chefs mostly stay in their kitchens with their colleagues, customers can sit at a bar and have a conversation with a bartender. We suggest that you do, because these 11 professionals know a lot about wine, beer, and spirits. That's part of the reasons why our panel of local restaurants industry experts selected them.
Even more importantly, they’re good at sharing that knowledge without being snobby or condescending. They bring people in. If someone wants a vodka soda or a Jack and Coke, that’s okay, too. They’re here for you.
We’ll find out who wins at the Tastemaker Awards ceremony next Thursday, April 13. Tickets are sold out. For those who missed out, we’re too polite to say we told you so, but hopefully, we’ll see you next year.
Alejandro Medina - La Niña Blanca Mezcaleria
After a lengthy stint at Anvil, Medina moved on to East End hangout spot Lil’ Danny Speedo’s Go Fly a Kite Lounge and La Niña, a pop-up mezcal bar. He tells CultureMap that he’s been traveling to Mexico frequently to meet with mezcaleros and tequileros. His goal is to share the stories behind the spirits in the hope that it encourages consumers to explore beyond the big names.
Christian Tellez - Rosie Cannonball
After working at downtown whisky bar Public Services, Tellez became part of the Rosie team two years ago. At Rosie’s, he leads a cocktail program known for its use of seasonal ingredients and a selection of non-alcoholic creations. When he’s not trying to convince diners to try a new amaro, he’s usually playing guitar — including rediscovering his interest in mariachi.
Elena Vann - Quiote
After spending a couple of years at The Toasted Coconut, the tiki-inspired bar that shares a space with Quiote, she moved to the intimate agave bar when it reopened last year. Vann’s cocktails utilize a range of Mexican spirits, including a martini riff made with Condesa gin that’s distilled in Mexico City. Outside of the bar, her work as a hand-poked tattoo artist can be seen on Houstonians with an appreciation for the art form.
At Musaafer, Desai crafted theatrical cocktails that paired with chef Miyank Istwal’s creative interpretations of classic Indian cuisine and one of Houston’s most opulent dining room. As his Instagram account name @liquid__chef implies, Desai takes pride in incorporating culinary techniques into his preparations, a practice he says he learned while working in Dubai. Although Desai recently departed the Indian fine dining restaurant, we can’t wait to see what he does next.
Josh Alden - Reserve 101
As Reserve 101’s beverage director, this experienced bartender helped evolve the downtown spot from being known primarily for its extensive whiskey selection to being equally well regarded for its cocktails and hospitality. Recently, he’s begun working at Refuge, Anvil’s stylish, service-focused sister concept, where he's already earning raves from regulars for his outgoing personality. “I'm neither a cocktail historian nor a scientist but I take pride in pulling what matters most from those worlds to make great drinks for the person in front of me,” he explains.
Kristen Nepomuceno - Refuge
After working at Squable, Bobby Heugel recruited Nepomuceno to work as head bartender at Refuge due to her outgoing personality and strong interpersonal skills. “I value hospitality in its truest form as act of kindness, respect, and love,” Nepomuceno says. “Lucky for me, I’m able to work alongside a community of people who share those same values.”
Kristine Nguyen - Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirits Lodge
It can be difficult to know what to order from Bad News Bar’s massive (and well-priced) spirits selection, but Nguyen is there to help. She tells CultureMap she sees her role as helping customers have the best time possible. “I believe bartending should be about the people and having fun, not about me and what I like or want people to drink,” she explains.
Rebecca Burkhart - Johnny's Gold Brick
As the bar’s longtime general manager (a role previously held by her husband, Justin Ware), Burkhart guides Johnny’s staff as it creates its signature monthly cocktail menus. She says she considers herself lucky to work with and mentor the bar’s talented staff. For her own cocktails, she works hard to get all the details right, including using garnishes from the bar’s garden.
Taylor Morris - William Price Distilling Co.
A veteran of Onion Creek and How to Survive on Land and Sea, Morris welcomes drinkers to the popular tasting room that’s part of this Garden Oaks distillery. The creative menu uses William Price’s spirits that include rye whiskey, gin, and its signature coffee liqueur. Ask her about one of her favorite cocktails — a classic daiquiri made with the distillery’s Jamaican rum.
Thomas Marsella - 13 Celsius
Navigating the Midtown wine bar’s extensive selection can be tricky for even the most knowledgeable oenophiles, but Marsella has the knowledge and experience to guide the bar’s customers to something they’ll enjoy. Asked about something he’d like people to know about him, Marsella replies that he really enjoys karaoke. “I left behind a previous career as a touring musician to fully devote my time to the service industry, but still love to hop on a stage to perform,” he explains.
Zulcoralis Rodriguez - Anvil
Prior to joining the team at Anvil, Rodriguez spent four years at San Antonio’s legendary Esquire Tavern. Her interest in bitter and savory cocktails can be sampled via the Navarrese Sour, her current contribution to the bar’s seasonal cocktail menu that includes Calvados and pacharan, a Spanish liqueur. Patrons may notice that she wears hearing aids to compensate for being legally deaf.
“I’m very proud to have accomplished so much personally and professionally having in mind the challenges that I face everyday,” she shared last year. “I’m open to the dialogue if anyone wants to explore this industry with a disability.”