Whether neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, Houstonians are drinking more whiskey than ever before. From bourbon to Scotch, whether it's made in Tennessee, Texas, or Taiwan, bottles fly off the shelves and rare vintages command as much as $750 for a single pour.
Less than two years ago, Cullen's built an entire dinner around sampling 50-year old Balvenie and sold it out. The cost? Only $2,900 per person to get a taste of a $38,000 bottle of Scotch (and a few other choice vintages). The trend shows no signs of slowing down.
With so many places advertising whiskey, it's hard to know where to find the best selection and the most knowledgeable staffs. This list attempts to separate the places that are obsessed with whiskey from places that merely have a lot of it. For example, Pappas Bros. has a huge selection of rare and highly allocated spirits, but it's hard to imagine ever going there and passing up the restaurant's widely celebrated wine list for a one-and-a-half ounce pour that might cost more than a bottle of wine.
Even in a town full of whiskey-obsessed bartenders and bar owners, Reserve 101's dedication to its drams stands out. Over 340 spirits lines it shelves, and co-owner Mike Raymond is always working to bring in both reasonably priced spirits and the rarest pours in the world. Raymond's obsession is Houston's gain, and he's ready to engage his customers about the fine points of their favorite sips.
Recently, Raymond and co-owner Steve Long created the Annasach 25, a custom blend of four spirits that are all at least 25-years old. Priced at a reasonable $35 for a 1.5-ounce pour (compared to something similarly high end like Johnny Walker Blue, which doesn't have an age statement), the Scotch shows notes of Sherry, vanilla from French oak casts, as well as the expected smoke and caramel flavors. It's even available for purchase at Tony K's for $250 per bottle.
Don't let the pinball machines and the giant Kool-Aid Man fool you. This Montrose institution's shelves are lined with one of the city's finest collections of American whiskey. Recent visitors from Southern California told me they'd never seen such an extensive selection anywhere in their state, and they own a whiskey bar. Poison Girl is a busy place, and the staff may not always have time to talk. While lessons may be light, eagle-eyed, experienced whiskey hounds who peer at the shelves will find bottles that are either long sold-out or weren't available elsewhere.
Anvil Bar and Refuge
After seven years in business, this Montrose bar may be best known for its cocktails, but recent renovations also allowed for a dramatic expansion of Anvil's inventory. Over 20 pages of the bar's spirits list whiskey (and whisky) from European, North America and Asia. The availability both half-pours and the bar's celebrate "Break-Even Bottle" allows patrons to sample rare spirits at a more affordable price.
Last year, general manager Terry Williams and co-owner Bobby Heugel traveled to Japan; feel free to engage them on all topics related to Japanese whisky.
Cullen's American Grille and Whiskey Bar
Clear Lake residents don't need to head north to sample one of the Houston-area's most extensive whiskey collections. With over 300 American whiskeys and 150 international whiskys, Cullen's boasts one of the city's most extensive selections. Best of all, they're available as flights that consist of three, one-ounce pours. Ranging in price from $15 to $130, the flights offer a way to taste a wide variety of spirits.
Looking for a treat? The $40 level appears to be a sweet spot that includes highly coveted small batch bourbons like Jefferson's Ocean, Japanese favorites like The Yamazaki 12-year, Scotch from Anthony Bourdain-endorsed distillery Balvenie, and even two Van Winkle labels (the 12-year bourbon and the 13-year rye). Just be sure to raise a glass in tribute to former Cullen's general manager Ryan Roberts, who assembled this collection prior to his tragic death last year.
Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar and Spirit Lodge
As Bad News Bar owner Justin Burrow noted in an interview with CultureMap last year, his downtown cocktail bar has one of Houston's best collection of unusual spirits, including a serious commitment to both bourbon and whisky. While weekends can sometimes see patrons standing two or three deep to order another round of drinks, week days tend to be a little more sedate, which offers enthusiasts the opportunity to engage the staff about what's new, interesting, or rare.
Eight Row Flint
Co-owner Morgan Weber describes bourbon as an "obsession," and it has been given a home at this recently-opened icehouse riff in The Heights. The selection includes all the small-batch, highly allocated spirits one could want, but that isn't what sets Eight Row apart.
Seven barrels, each personally selected by Weber, are displayed along the back bar. They aren't mere decoration — there's bourbon in those barrels. An innovative tap system allows the spirit to be poured straight from barrel to glass. Want to get really geeky? Try the "Eight Row Exploratory Finish," which consists of a custom blend of six whiskeys that's been aged in a Sherry cask from Texas winery La Cruz de Comal.
Public Services Wine & Whisky
Speaking of Sherry, Houston's foremost advocate of fortified wine is none other than Public Services owner Justin Vann. The downtown bar features an extensive selection of Sherry by the glass, which it invites patrons to pair with its extensive selection of whisky that's been finished in Sherry casks. In an email, Vann recommends matching Talisker Amoroso sherry finish with El Maestro Sierra Amoroso or Navazo-Palazzi Single Grain Palo Cortado cask with a glass of Emilio Hidalgo palo cortado to discover the ways one spirit influences the other. Think of it as an elegant boilermaker for a more civilized age.
Naturally, a bar named after a bourbon cocktail features one of the city's best selections of spirits. That includes a flight of the entire Van Winkle line: a half-ounce pour of the 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23-year old expressions that costs $250 (for anyone wondering, my birthday is in May). Three-quarter ounce half pours make trying those spirits a little more affordable.
In response to demand from her customers, Julep owner Alba Huerta will soon host a series 12 one-hour classes on all aspects of whiskey. Of course, they will also feature plenty of samples. Anyone who completes the entire series will be invited to help Huerta select a barrel of bourbon for Julep. Pricing is TBA, but it might be the ultimate insider whiskey experience in Houston.
The British-American tavern's extensive list of Scotch and whiskey from around the world isn't what separates it from other nearby restaurants like Ka Sushi and Southern Goods that also feature surprisingly extensive spirit selections for being in the dry section of The Heights. Recently, Hunky Dory started using five, one-liter barrels to provide custom finishes to a few of the spirits it serves. For example, Yamazaki 12-year spends a week in a barrel that once held Kelt XO Cognac and Laphroig 10-year cask strength has been finished with Gosling's Black Seal rum.
The results of these experiments exist somewhere between an infusion and a barrel-aged cocktail; it maintains the flavor of the base spirits but also adds new components. Sometimes they even pair well with wood, as in the taking a bite of Hunky Dory's signature sticky toffee pudding while sipping Auchentoshan three wood that's finished with Tia Maria coffee liqueur.
A few places around town specialize in Japanese and Taiwanese whisky, which have rocketed from cult favorites to mainstream obsession in only the past few years. However, no place in Houston combines Ninja Ramen's selection of these spirits with its unpretentious atmosphere and eminently reasonable prices.
Don't be surprised if your favorite bartender is sitting next to you. Late night hours and a seriously tasty bowl of noodles have combined to make it a favorite after-work hangout for members of Houston's restaurant community.
Federal American Grille
Since he took over the former Branch Water Tavern three years ago, Federal Grille owner Matt Brice has grown the restaurant's extensive whiskey selection to almost 400 spirits, including every Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, and ultra-rare Scotch like Glenfiddich 50-year. A selection of flights allow customers to taste different expressions from the same producer, as in Glenfiddich 12-year, 15-year Solera, 18-year Bourbon Cask, and 21-year for $42. In an email, Brice says he even keeps a few off the selections for enthusiasts, so feel free to ask him what he's particularly excited about.