This year's finalists for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year are an interesting mix. Four are returning finalists from last year, but two of them are in new roles.
The rest of this year's class are the sort of talented up-and-comers who probably should have been recognized years ago and savvy veterans who provide consistently excellent service year after year. Either way, they're all great at making drinks and delivering memorable experiences, which is why our panel of former Tastemaker Awards winners has chosen to recognize them.
Who will win? Find out at the Tastemaker Awards party presented by Woodford Reserve on March 27 at Silver Street Studios. We’ll reveal the winners, sip cocktails, and dine on bites provided by the nominees. Tickets are on sale now.
Alphonso Quiñones, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar and Spirit Lodge
To be successful at Bad News Bar, a bartender has to be equally adept at making drinks as quickly (and accurately) as possible on busy weekend nights and willing to nerd out on the intricacies of cocktails on slower weekdays. Quiñones, who came to the downtown cocktail temple after a stint at Johnny’s Gold Brick, keeps things moving when the bar is three-deep. More importantly, he’s there at quieter times to recommend a spirit he thinks someone might enjoy or discuss the finer points of how a cocktail is made. Those moments are when turn customers into guests, and they’re the reason he’s nominated for this award.
Jessica Johnson, Wooster's Garden
It would be easy to praise Johnson for her speed or her friendly demeanor — anyone who’s watched her at Wooster’s can observe those qualities. But those who really want an insight into her personality need to listen to the bar’s soundtrack. She curates the playlists the pump out an intriguing mix of current hits and surprisingly deep affection for indie rock from the early aughts. No one’s saying that being a fan of The Faint and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club should qualify someone for a Tastemaker Award, but knowing how to keep the party going while leading a talented Wooster’s crew certainly counts for a lot.
Julie Rogers, Nancy's Hustle
Rogers built her reputation as bar manager at Coltivare and opening general manager at Night Heron. A Certified Cicerone, she has a deep knowledge of both beer and cocktails. At Nancy’s, she’s part of the nationally-recognized team that’s made the restaurant such a success. Frankly, she's too skilled to be "just" a bartender at a restaurant, even one that's as good as Nancy's Hustle. Rumors about her next move are swirling; whatever she does will be worth
Justin Ware, Johnny's Gold Brick
Creating a bar that works as both a neighborhood hangout and a polished cocktail bar requires deft skill. Ware does all the usual neighborhood things: recognizes regulars, engages in banter, even lends a sympathetic ear when called for. In addition, his success in national cocktail competitions shows off his passion for his craft and his attention to detail. Patrons get to experience those qualities, too, when they opt for one of the bar’s monthly specials. As hard as it is to pass on one of Johnny’s signature $8 Old Fashioned, those who sample one of these limited-time-only concoctions are in for a special treat.
Kristine Nguyen, Nancy's Hustle
When Nancy’s Hustle opened, Nguyen’s tidy menu of five cocktails seemed perfectly matched to the restaurant’s carefully-prepared cuisine. Now that Nancy’s is a year in, Nguyen’s cocktail menu has expanded considerably — having someone as talented as Rogers around certainly doesn’t hurt — but the amaro-oriented list of house cocktails are still designed to stimulate diners’ palates ahead of a meal. A rotating selection of well-executed classic cocktails helps show off her skills, too.
Lindsay Rae Burleson, Grand Prize
Hard to believe it has been almost three years since Burleson became Grand Prize’s beverage director, but time flies when you’re having fun. So, yes, she’ll still offer patrons a beer and a shot of Jameson when they walk in the door — sometimes that’s just what people need. She’ll also make sure all the prep has been done so that Grand Prize’s staff can execute the complex, flavorful cocktails that have always undermined some people’s attempts to describe it as a dive bar. Get a sense of her artistic side by attending a performance of NeoBenshi, the monthly performance she helps organize.
Monique Cioffi-Hernandez, B.B. Lemon
In her role as beverage director for Ben Berg’s New York-inspired casual restaurant, Cioffi-Hernandez is responsible for creating drinks that can stand on their own — for people who are hanging out at the bar — or stand up to the bold flavors coming from the kitchen. Thankfully, she brings 20 years of experience to her role, including a widely acclaimed stint at Field & Tides. By focusing on drinks that utilize housemade syrups and high quality spirits, she’s able to craft cocktails that are both flavorful and able to be executed quickly and consistently. When combined with the straightforward menu and appealing atmosphere, it’s easy to see why B.B. Lemon has gotten off to such a strong start.
Sarah Crowl-Keck, Coltivare
The former Uchi server has found a home behind the bar at one of Houston’s most-acclaimed restaurants. As the delicious banana bread she sells at Greenway Coffee & Tea demonstrates, Crowl-Keck has legit culinary chops that are on display in Coltivare’s always-intriguing cocktails. She’s also the primary force behind the restaurant’s decision to offer a full selection of non-alcoholic cocktails that are just as complex as their spirited counterparts. Together with general manager and sommelier Leonora Varvoutis, Crowl-Keck leads a team that offers friendly, accommodating service — something that’s particularly important at an establishment where waits can run an hour or more.
Sarah Troxell, Nobie's
Three years of practice and training finally paid off for Troxell when she won the South Central finals of the Speed Rack bartending competition to advance to the national finals in Chicago. Win or lose, Troxell is poised for a busy 2019. Later this summer, her affection for all things tiki will reach full bloom when she assumes control of The Toasted Coconut, the new bar and restaurant from Nobie’s owners Sara and Martin Stayer. If the turnout for a recent preview pop-up of tiki drinks and bites is any indication of the excitement surrounding the project, Houstonians can’t wait for Troxell to put her spin on boozy, rum-based drinks.
Stuart Humphries, Tongue-cut Sparrow
Working as head bartender at Bobby Heugel’s intimate, Japanese-inspired cocktail bar requires a serious passion for the craft of bartending. Thankfully, Humphries, a veteran of both TCS sister bar Anvil and The Pass & Provisions, has the right combination of experience and confidence to deliver the polished service that matches the bar’s elegant decor and fine details. Plus, he looks sharp in the bar’s uniform of a white dress shirt and bowtie.
Tommy Ho, Anvil Bar & Refuge
Nothing written here is going to be better than what Anvil owner Bobby Heugel wrote about Ho on Instagram last year, so here’s that post:
In a Fantasy draft of American bartenders, I’d pick @tommyho832 first every single time. And, I’ve sat in front of just about every other person you’d consider instead - he’s the best. Not sure that I’ve ever worked with a more well-rounded bar professional in my entire career. He’s faster than everyone else behind the bar, but has a guest sensitivity that is decades beyond his age. We have a very busy year ahead, and a lot of the opportunities we’ve been able to take advantage of lately are because we have people like Tommy on our side as General Manager at @anvilhouston and in a greater role in the future. • • • • • #houston #bartender #htx #mixology #htown #houstontx #mixologist #cocktail #cocktails #bartending #bartenderlife #ighouston #houstoncity #cocktailbar #bar #houstontexas #barman #craftcocktails #craftcocktail #bartenders #barlife #igofhouston #drinks #booze #cocktailtime #liquor #713 #thirsty
Oct 22, 2018 at 8:27am PDT