Presenting the 10 finalists for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year. These talented individuals stand out by making great drinks, of course, but they also excel in their commitments to customer service and constantly trying to improve their creations.
Selected by our judges’ panel of Houston restaurant industry experts, patrons can sit in front of any of these bartenders and know that they could learn a little more about the spirits they’re sipping. Or not. They aren’t trying to show off or overwhelm anybody.
Our finalists demonstrate these qualities and serve as positive examples for their peers. Also, they’re just really fun to sit in front of and have a drink. That counts, too.
Who will win? Find out May 25 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We’ll dine on bites from this year’s nominated restaurants before emcee Bun B reveals the winners.
Abner Barrientos - Formerly of Coltivare
A veteran of establishments such as The Pastry War, The Toasted Coconut, and Georgia James, Barrientos found an audience at Coltivare, Agricole Hospitality’s Italian-inspired restaurant in the Heights. The bartender tells CultureMap that he learned a lot during his time at the restaurant, including learning how to tweak recipe’s to suit a customer’s taste and how to create non-alcoholic cocktails that are as compelling as full-proof sips. Always eager to learn more about the world around him, Barrientos uses Instagram to showcase his creative pursuits in cocktails, drawing, painting, and more.
Derek Brown - Riel
A veteran of restaurants led by top New York chefs such as Daniel Boulud and David Chang, Brown has the responsibility of creating drinks that pair with the polyglot cuisine created by chef-owner Ryan Lachanie and chef de cuisine Peter Nguyen. Brown’s cocktails include menu staples such as the Maple Old Fashioned, a frozen take on the ultra-trendy Espresso Martini, and the My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me, a margarita variation with yellow Chartreuse. On Thursday nights, find Brown behind the bar at James Beard finalist Blood Bros. BBQ, where he creates drinks for the weekly Nhau happy hour.
Rebecca Burkart - Johnny's Gold Brick
As the general manager of Johnny’s, Burkart oversees a team known for its ultra-creative monthly cocktail menus. Her detail-oriented approach prompts her to focus on every aspect of a cocktail’s creation — down to finding just the right element from the bar’s garden to garnish a drink. She says her favorite thing is to present a spirit in a way that changes someone’s perception of it; don’t be afraid to ask her about her favorite Scotches.
Andy Charlton - Formerly of Julep
This hospitality veteran has worked everywhere from the Stag’s Head Pub to a lengthy stint at Mongoose versus Cobra. During the pandemic, he operated Julep’s cocktail truck, battling Houston traffic to bring freshly made to homes and other venues throughout the city. Although Charlton will make a customer anything they’d like, he prefers boozier concoctions like rum Old Fashioneds and Negronis. While he recently left the Washington Avenue bar to attend to some health issues, expect Charlton to find a new gig later this summer.
Sarah Crowl - Better Luck Tomorrow
Known for her use of seasonal ingredients and elaborate garnishes, Crowl has made her mark on the Heights patio bar. As she did at Coltivare and Rosie Cannonball, the bartender has improved BLT’s zero proof offerings and refreshed its brunch cocktails with creations like the Continental Breakfast, a potent combination of bourbon, macadamia, coffee liqueur, banana, Maple, and bitters. BLT owners Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu have been open about their desire to add a second location, and Crowl will play a key role in any future growth.
Máté Hartai - Refuge
This bartender’s detail-oriented nature has served him well in the formal environment of Tongue-Cut Sparrow, so it’s no surprise that owner Bobby Heugel and general manager Tommy Ho have included him on the team at their newest project. Hartai will play a key role in helping Refuge achieve its goals of setting new standards in service and atmosphere. Later this year, he’ll shift to Hotel Lucine, the Galveston hotel project Heugel and chef Justin Yu are helping bring to fruition.
Taylor Wright - Trash Panda Drinking Club
After departing Night Shift, Wright found a new home at this intimate bar in the Near Northside. He writes that it’s been a bit of an adjustment — “you have to be pushing 100-percent of your best self 100-percent of the time” — but feels like the experience has been a positive overall. Recently enamored with the Crescent City cocktail, Wright hopes to add a take on the rum-based concoction to Trash Panda’s menu in the near future. Having worked at a number of bars and restaurants around town, Wright adds that he’s eager to share any knowledge he has with fellow bartenders who also want to grow in their careers.
Chad Matson - March
Making the move from casual Better Luck Tomorrow to March compelled this veteran bartender to appreciate all the little details that make a meal at the Mediterranean-inspired fine dining restaurant so memorable. Working alongside March bar manager and former Tastemaker Award winner Alex Negranza, Matson cites the restaurant’s “Celery/Basil” cocktail as one he’s particularly proud of; inspired in part by the classic Pimm’s Cup, it uses a mirepoix to balance being both savory and refreshing.
“I think it's important to share that I really love the Houston service industry.” Matson writes. “This is a community that sees the value in sharing a table, talking about spirits, and talking over good food. I'm really lucky to be a part of that.”
Alejandro Medina - Anvil
After joining the opening crew at Tongue-Cut Sparrow, Medina has been working behind the bar at Anvil since 2018. While he expresses interests in both brandy and agave spirit, he note that drinking a well-made martini can be a “profound experience.” Anvil’s popularity means interactions between staff and customers can sometimes be limited, but Medina likes to connect with his patrons. Go during the week and ask him about his favorite updates to the bar’s list of 100 classic cocktails.
Zulcoralis Rodriguez - Anvil
After spending more than four years at San Antonio’s legendary Esquire Tavern, Rodriguez moved to the Bayou City. Her preferences for bitter and savory flavors is demonstrated with the Double Take, a rum-based cocktail that gets a bitter kick from Suze, a French apéritif. Eagle-eyed 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 writes. “I’m open to the dialogue if anyone wants to explore this industry with a disability.”
Christian Tellez - Rosie Cannonball
After working at Public Services for its entire five-year run, Tellez joined Goodnight Hospitality’s casual restaurant. Diners who sit at the bar may find that he persuades them to try a new amaro or vermouth, as he’s developed an interest in digestif. Asked about something readers should know about him, he mentions that he struggles to name his creations. “It's probably my least favorite part about coming up with a drink,” he writes.