[Image: San Antonio Cocktail Conference / Facebook.]
Local wine and cocktail aficionados have likely sat across the bar from Josh Loving a time or two. The affable and knowledgeable bartender and beverage director has run the wine program and the bar at FINO, helped launch Weather Up, bartended at Midnight Cowboy, and is now working with Larry McGuire at Jeffrey's and Josephine House. This resume makes Loving uniquely qualified to dish about the current state of Austin's cocktail scene. For Eater Cocktail Week, he gives the lowdown on his favorite new spirits, what Austin bars are still doing wrong, and how to up your home bartending game.
Austin cocktail and wine lovers know you from a number of spots. Tell us about your current projects.
I am employed by McGuire Moorman Hospitality - my official job is beverage director for Jeffrey's and Josephine House. That has morphed. I started as a bartender at Josephine House and set that up. They wanted me to stay on, so I did in a consulting role. I helped steward the bar program, train people, and set up the cocktails and the spirits. I tended bar there just to make sure things were up to snuff and standard. But then the wine director left, so they offered me a packaged role at both Jeffrey's and Josephine House. So now I kind of cover everything from Pellegrino to espresso and all of the wine and spirits in between.
Are you still consulting for other restaurants and bar programs?
I have one consulting gig right now. It's through my friends who are opening Olamaie. I worked with Michael at Fino and he asked me to help about a year ago. He was always thinking about Austin, but that was when it became a reality: "Hey, I'm moving back and this is the deal." I think when we first talked about it I was still bartending at Weather Up. That's pretty much the only consulting thing I'm doing outside of Jeffrey's.
Is Austin cocktail culture still changing. And is it improving?
There are definitely more bodies! When I took over FINO, there weren't many of us. There was Bill Norris, me, Adam Bryan, Brian Dressel, Houston Eaves, Justin Elliott, you know what I mean? Just kind of the same names going around. But now - I am a member of the USBG, and the amount of bar talent in this town has multiplied by a factor of at least four. So I feel like that is one of the things that has definitely changed. With all the new places that are open, they work both competitively and with each other. Friendly competition, I guess. It makes standards go up. With that comes greater quality across the board both in the talent of the bartenders and in the consistency and the quality of the drinks.
Have we hit a tipping point yet in Austin where a nice, new restaurant can't get away with a below average cocktail program? Do you still feel like we have work to do?
We definitely have a lot of work to do. We'll always have a lot of work to do. Not that restaurateurs in general don't take it seriously, but there are a lot of old habits and ways. There are so many products out now that should be the standard. For example, I don't care who I'm throwing under the bus, but Grenadine and Rose's Lime Cordial - those are no longer an acceptable back bar item. It's corn syrup and it's awful. Grenadine is the easiest thing in the world to make, even if you tweak it. And I feel like now, especially in restaurant bars where chefs are making strides to be local and seasonal, the bar has to be in step with that or else it's an irrelevancy.
Do you any new favorite ingredients you've been experimenting with either for fall or because they are new to the Austin market?
Yeah, there are a couple I've been digging. Amaros are always a bartender favorite because we're bitter, bitter people. There's a new to Texas product called Bigallet. It's kind of an analog to Amer Picon, which is not available in the US. In a bunch of classic cocktail books, Amer Picon is a standard like chartreuse or maraschino. It's been one where you either have to make it or fudge it. And there have been a few great Italian amaros we've substituted. But this is French, like Amer Picon, and has the quintessential blood orange and bitter orange flavors. So I've been playing around with that a lot, even on its own. It's really good. It's not as saccharine as Campari and not as bitter as other traditional amaros. In the same wheelhouse, Vallet is here now. It's a Mexican product from an old French family known as Henri Vallet. He makes a fernet that is really cool and an Amargo Vallet with bark of Angostura - it's basically a drinking Angostura bitters. That's really good stuff because you can add it to a cocktail the way you would Angostura, but a bit more. If someone likes that Negroni-style cocktail, but wants a little more brooding or bitterness, you can do that. I think of those types of ingredients as being good fall and winter ingredients, because they have cinnamon and cloves and allspice and all those essential fall flavors.
You had a bitters recipe produced and bottled nationally by the Bar Keep line a couple or years ago. Is that still available?
It is! They're going strong. I still get my quarterly check and this one was better than the summer check. People are bulking up for the fall! In all seriousness, there are two cocktails on the menu right now at Midnight Cowboy with the Chinese bitters. I have a non-alcoholic drink at Jeffrey's and Josephine House that I use them in. Every now and again, I'll reach for it to incorporate that spicy, savory thing that they have. I see them around town, which is a nice show of support. I think they're at the Austin Wine Merchant. It's a pretty recognizable bottle.
When you talk with bar patrons that are trying to make cocktails at home, do you have a piece or two of advice to make their drinks better?
I always say less is more. Bill Norris was really my first bar tending mentor. We worked closely at FINO. He was bar manager, and I was wine director. He'd come to me and ask, "What does this need? What doesn't it need?" He's so well regarded as a bartender because he is a "less is more" bartender - I learned that from him. He would make something awesome out of three or four ingredients, not seven. It's not like bouillabaisse, where the more you add the better it gets. A few cocktails like that can be cool, like tiki. Tiki's an interesting balance of how much stuff you can cram in a drink and still make it really good. But I always reference the classics. The reason that a Manhattan has been ordered time and again since the 1870's is because it's the perfect balance of three ingredients. The daiquiri, the old fashioned, the Sazerac, the drinks that every serious cocktail bartender orders as maybe his first or second drink at a bar - they're simple. If I go to a bar and I'm specifically there for the cocktails, I might get something off their menu first, but I'll most definitely get a Manhattan or a daiquiri or something second.
I think a lot of times people bartending at home tend to overthink it. It's not rocket science. It's just trying to strike a good balance of sweet, savory, and sour, whatever you're going for. You do need to use a base level of quality ingredients. And you don't always have to have the most expensive brand of stuff, but always ask your favorite bartender: "What rye should I use? What tequila should I use?" I always recommend something affordable but useful for across-the-board cocktails. Also, squeeze fresh juice. Or Whole Foods juice is fine. The freshest juice possible is always the best way to go.
Are these spirit picks like Rittenhouse Rye and Cana Brava Rum and the like?
Yes, exactly. Those deliver on all points. Those are well-made products. So, in sum, good baseline ingredients, and make it as simple and fresh as possible.
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· All Cocktail Week 2013 Coverage [EATX]