Houston, We Have Problems

Testing the absurdity of the speciality cocktail craze: As if wine bars weren't bad enough

Testing the absurdity of the speciality cocktail craze: As if wine bars weren't bad enough

Places-Drinks-Anvil Bar & Refuge
When did cocktails become more annoying than wine bars?
Anvil is not a place where you drink quick. Courtesy photo
Old Fashioned
Give me an Old Fashioned — or three. Photo courtesy of Bon Appetit
Places-Drinks-Anvil Bar & Refuge
Old Fashioned

Everyone knows Texans love to drink. In fact, I bet that when Sam Houston and the revolutionaries were debating independence from Mexico they spent hours pondering the fate of the margarita. Yes, we may win our freedom but will the Mexicans take that delicious salty drink with them? It’s not worth it, I say!

Gulp, gulp, gulp.

For most of my adult drinking life, which started in the sixth grade at St. John's, I, like most of my friends, switched between the standard choices: Beer, wine, cocktails, and mixed drinks. A few years ago, the wine bar craze came about and drinking became somewhat more pretentious. Texas men like myself, just wanting to relax after a long day, were forced to swirl, smell and activate our impaired cognition to make some ludicrous description like “fruity but taut.”

There was no escape from the wine bar, they multiplied across the Loop like horny summer mosquitoes, and in 2009, there were probably as many wine bars as Starbucks stores, with some drunks getting so confused between the two that they would walk into Max’s Wine Dive and order a grande skinny no foam chardonnay.

The wine bar explosion has subsided. Some are still fun like Block 7 but that is more of a restaurant than a wine bar. I still like the food at Max’s or the patio at The Tasting Room Uptown, but neither seem as popular as they once were. In fact, in a telling indication, the National Register of Historical Places recently designated TTR Uptown as worthy of preservation for being the place where the first “cougar” was spotted.

(The National Association of Women’s Houston chapter, which has one member, a transplant from New York, promptly objected to this misogynistic designation, and rightly wondered why the old bald fat rich men in blazers who troll for younger women at TTR don’t have their own nickname. I propose bullwalrus). 

So, while we are almost rid of the two-ounce $14-dollar pour, I have noticed a new and even more pretentious trend in Houston drinking: the specialty cocktail. All the hot restaurants, from Canopy to Kata, now offer a specialty cocktail list, many of them created, I’m sorry “hand-crafted” by the establishment’s bartenders.

Actually, almost all the restaurants, even the not-so-hot ones, now offer a specialty cocktail list, so when you sit down at your table, you have a menu, wine list and cocktail list, giving you three leather bound volumes to study. Whoever says Americans don’t read anymore should know we are perfectly willing to do so when it involves food and booze.

Anyway, I was a specialty cocktail skeptic. Not sure how any one can improve a Manhattan or a martini or my favorite, the Old Fashioned (try one at Branch Water Tavern). But I’m willing to try new things, no matter how lame they sound, as anyone who saw me at that West University key party knows.

It is universally acknowledged that the place most responsible for the cocktail craze in Houston is Anvil Bar & Refuge on Westheimer. I decided to check it out a few nights ago and give the specialty cocktail a tryout.

And if you, after reading this article, decide to go to Anvil, I recommend having at least three stiff drinks before you deal with their Montrose-area parking situation. Take a sober person along to help interpret the “no parking signs,” negotiate with the tow truck driver and possibly defend you against an irate local resident who doesn’t want you parking in front of his porch.

Anvil, which is located in a remodeled tire store, has a soft, industrial feel. It was crowded with thirtysomethings. I pushed my way to the bar and looked at the menu. It had drinks on it named The Secret of Monkey Island, Mustard Punch, and Golden Gate Swizzle.

I was not impressed. I don’t like monkeys; I don’t want mustard in my punch; in fact I can’t think of anything worse except maybe mayonnaise lemonade. As for the swizzle, that’s what my friend called his member during a good run with the ladies on Washington Ave last year.

Da Swizzle is coming out at Ei8ht Bar tonight! A statement that was later used against him in his divorce proceedings. 

After the bartender, in typical fashion, served all the good-looking girls in a 10-mile radius, he took my order. I decided to go off menu and asked for a cocktail that I liked from my LA days — the Ivy gimlet, which is sort of like a vodka mojito.

The bartender shook his head. “We don’t make vodka drinks.”

Evidently, as he patiently explained to me, vodka, unlike rum or gin, kills the flavor of a cocktail.

I patiently explained the popularity of the Ivy restaurant and their beloved gimlet and noted criticizing vodka was an insult to the people of Russia and could reignite Cold War tension.

“You don’t want to piss off Putin do you?” I asked. “Now give me my Ivy gimlet.”

He shook his head again.

“Fine,” I said. I opened up the menu and picked the worst-sounding drink I could find: the Butternut Squash Flip. The ingredients were butternut squash infused rum, oats, hefeweizen, whole egg. I figured there was no way oats, egg, and squash rum could add up to much.

The bartender went to work. It should be noted here that if you want to drink quickly, Anvil is not your place. In the time it took to make my drink, I could have built a toaster oven. 

Finally, the drink arrived. It was a frothy beige mixture in a flute glass. I took a deep breath and took a sip. It was shockingly delicious. Maybe there was something to this hand-crafted specialty cocktail stuff. I chugged the rest of the drink and ordered one of their Houston-inspired concoctions, the Frothy Bayou.

All right I made that one up. But I did stay and try some of the other drinks and recommend you sample something from the next specialty cocktail list you find. And while we may still need Mexico for its drugs, beaches, and queso, we are no longer dependent on them for great drinks.

Doak Weyburn is the heir to an East Texas moonshine ring. He wrote this article after drinking three Old Fashioneds.