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Justin Elliott On The Past, Present & Future of ATX Booze

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Welcome to the first in an occasional series of interviews wherein Eater Austin asks some of the city's best bartenders, beer experts and general managers what's happening in booze these days. Is there a particular bartender or scene spot you'd love to hear from? Drop us a suggestion down the tipline.

Qui barman Justin Elliott joined Eater Austin for an afternoon beer or two—specifically a couple of Austin Beerworks Pearl Snaps—and a walk through his boozy world as one of Austin's premiere behind-the-bar professionals. His resumé includes turns at Midnight Cowboy and the Volstead before joining the Qui team earlier this year, and he's the straightest of shooters when it comes to talking booze.

For example, says Elliott, of trendy mezcal drinks: "A lot of times, I think a mezcal cocktail is just shorthand for an establishment that's trying to look like it knows what it's doing." And when it comes to the whole handlebar moustache-and-suspenders look? Elliott calls that "bartender cosplay."

Read on for Elliott's take on the state of the Austin drinking scene.

How much do you find that price affects what people order?

I think it definitely does with certain types of spirits more than others. I don't know if it's just people's lack of discerning palates or not, but with whiskey it's tough. You get flack for charging literally what you have to charge. People want you to be upside down on Jameson, but those same people will happily pay $9 for a Patron. But with American whiskeys, you find people will pay exorbitant amounts of money for the prestige of drinking allocated whiskeys.

What's more, I think that well tequilas have gone the way of Jagermeister. They have this association with, for lack of a better word, frattiness. With whiskey, maybe it's a democratic thing? Maybe people think, "We should all be able to afford whiskey!" I think people don't understand the variants within the spirit quite as much. It does seem to be totemistic, in a way. People have their own whiskey; everybody has a whiskey.

Every time I see a beer and a shot special, it's always whiskey. Though in New York I saw a lot of tequila shots.

Yeah, at my old bar and a lot of bars we went to, we'd see a couple different ones. There'd be like, a can of Pabst, a shot of whiskey, or there'd be can of Tecate and a shot of tequila.

Cocktail-wise, what have you seen change?

I'm happy to see that there's kind of been, slowly, an integration of tiki cocktails into regular programming, whether it be a regular tiki night or what have you. I think it's fun, because it's nice to take the gimmick back out of it. It doesn't have to be an event. You don't have to put on a lei necessarily. What' I'm really hoping that I do see with that is an honest-to-god, top-notch tiki bar, with like Chinese Polynesian fusion food. I would be over the moon if that could happen.

I think tiki drinks make a tremendous amount of sense for Austin, and they'll continue to get traction. People are still a little spooked by rum, which is really sad to me. There's just so much variance with rum that goes unappreciated. Rums from different areas are made with different processes and techniques, depending on the island that each comes from. You get such wildly different products.

Have you had Kenny Chesney's rum?

I can't say I have. Kenny Chesney is the accidental racist guy, right?

No, that's Brad Paisley. Kenny Chesney is trying to do the second coming of Jimmy Buffet type of thing. I wonder if Kenny Chesney's rum is going to spark like a rum revolution?

I wouldn't be surprised. Nothing surprises me anymore. I'm as fascinated by the marketing of spirits as I am the actual manufacturing of them. You look at like what Sidney Frank did, inventing the super premium market; it blows my mind. It bums me out if someone creates artificially creates a super premium rum category – that would be really sad to me. It would basically devalue the other rums that are actually priced high because of super involved technique. Didn't Ron Jeremy have a rum that came out two years ago? Ron Jeremy?!

Celebrity spirits is an interesting sort of avenue, isn't it?

Clooney's got a tequila coming out now, and talk about trends: that one's apparently not going away any time soon. I think it kind of depends on the niche the celebrity is coming from. Have you had the ? oh, what's his fucking name? The Oklahoma guy? Toby Keith! He has a mezcal. I don't even know if it's in Texas or not, but I read about it like a year ago.

And Guy Fieri is making wine! Very exciting.

Yeah, he bought a vineyard, didn't he? So it's going to be like a whole estate. I'll try it. I'll try anything once, man. Ludacris had his cognac out for a while there. He was in this little investment with these Frenchmen. It was great. He was at least pretending to be involved in the process, which is more than you can say for a lot of these guys.

Do you see people more interested in local spirits?

No, which surprises me. Local beers are very popular, but it's just cheaper to make beer. Local spirits generally aren't cheap. You're talking like nine bucks a glass, 10 bucks a glass for super crafty product, and that's fine, but there doesn't seem to be that big of an appetite for it. And I don't know as the local guys have done that good a job of branding themselves. You talk about bars being like the Marines for rolling out products, well, spirit-wise, it's tough. Rolling out products for consumers in general, I think, has been tough for the local guys. It's so expensive. Local gin is probably the trickiest, because I don't think gin is ever going to be universally cool. I don't think it's going to be the thing that the gutter punks and the yacht club crowd agree on. Unlike with whiskey – some variant of whiskey will always be happily accepted by any class of person, but I don't think gin will ever have that universal appeal. It does have a nerdier appeal, perhaps. I wouldn't be surprised if someone started doing a local brandy. There's a lot of wine that's produced in Texas. I know brandy's not hip, but it could happen. I would like to see it happen, certainly. Texas doesn't have a ton of diverse grain. This isn't America's bread basket.

Cocktail-wise? I might be wrong, it might just be a lull, but I feel like places are kind of getting more back-to-basics, which is good. Across the country and around here.

It does seem like there's more of an understanding of what people are ordering, and there's more education when it comes to what makes a really great, basic drink.

Yeah, and there's still a lot of great stuff that's yet to be learned. A lot of people still get way too excited about throwing a lot of crazy flavors together. And if I see St. Germain on another menu, I'm going to lose my fucking mind. It's called "bartender's ketchup" for a reason. Also, shame on you if you brought something to my table and it doesn't look right. It's all about going back to basics. We will continue to see people who take the time to learn a real preparation technique – people who think about why things are done a certain way. There's always going to be people who have a lot of money and a big dream who want to spend a lot on a room, and then assume everything will fall into place. That's going to keep happening as long as the city keeps growing at the rate it is, and keeps being prosperous the way it is, we're going to see a lot of that. My goal, on my side of the world, is just to every day make things better, cleaner, tighter. I would maybe hopefully manage to influence people and staffs that I work with, and then they would go out to other places and remember to keep an eye on technique and details.

There's this other thing that's started to emerge, which I like to call "bartender's cosplay." You know what I'm talking about – when bartenders dress up in the vest and the bow-tie. I think we'll be seeing more of that. I'm going to put it on the trend watch list.

All the bartenders I know are drinking Fernet.

It's funny, because the thing used to be what we called the "bartender's handshake," and now we're seeing more funny variations on that. The 50/50 has been around for a while, and that's an absolute delight. And we're seeing more quirky, "other" things; like at Peche, we're doing the "33 And a Third," also known as the "Naked Gun." Obviously it's going to reach a critical mass; we'll see what those are as they develop. I know that just simple shots of Ango has been a thing. I even have a bottle of Jeppson's Malört – it's something you can only get in Chicago-land. It's originally Swedish, but distilled in Florida of all places; yet, popular in Chicago. Go figure. It's a wormwood cordial: it's just real bitter and real boozy. You don't really taste that much, except for this slightly herbaceous, grassy, just really bitter punch in the craw. Now that's a fun thing that I would like to see spring up locally.

You know who's a goddamn genius? I've said this a thousand times, but I'm going to keep saying it until he retires: Jason Stevens. The shift shots he has on Bar Congress are just unbelievable. You know, pocket cocktails, if you want to call it that. It's these unstirred, undiluted mixes of a spirit and a bit of liqueur. That's one of those things that bartenders get excited about – when it's time to have a shift-shot. There's an old joke called the 2X4 shot, where you find a bottle of Chambord, and you mix it with half of whatever is two bottles to the left, and then half of whatever is four bottles to the right. You don't actually get rid of the Chambord: it's just a placeholder for whatever is to the left and right!

How have your tastes changed? What influences what you like to drink?

I'm super peculiar about my drinking. Like, I drink all over the place—it has to be in relation to the time of day, or a meal. It's really driven by the venue. I would never go to Hotel Vegas and ask for a margarita. There's one thing that I'm still really waiting for it to get picked up on here, and that's coursing of meals, and where drinks fall in relation to that. It can be a production, and that's the greatest pleasure in my life: a really well coursed service. Hopefully we'll see more cocktail bars, and more than that, programs at restaurants that really embrace that and focus on executing great drinks while the sun is still up.

That takes a lot of education of your servers.

It does! It absolutely does. What we're doing at Qui is rigorous. We're trying to make sure that we provide that. We want the back waiters to be just as versed in coursing something out and pairing something as your average bartender. We're not going to inundate people with a whole litany of classics, though we will know them well. But we're not trying to be Peche, or Weather Up.

In working nights, I don't go out drinking as much, so I've kind of lost touch with what it's like to go out drinking at night. I do most of my drinking in the afternoon, and I like it that way. I drink a lot of Americanos, and if I think someone can do a daiquiri well? god, I love a daiquiri. Take a drink like the Hemingway daiquiri: that is such a peculiar drink if it's not done right.

I remember, when I lived here during college, 10-12 years ago, there was a place called Ocean's 11. I think it's where Headhunters is, but don't quote me on that, because it's been a long time. [Editor's note: he's right.] Anyway, they had a half-assed tiki menu, but I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen, being 21 years old at the time. Shit that I'd read about in Hunter S. Thompson novels—bring it on, man! Even now, I'll go on record and say this isn't even that guilty of a guilty pleasure, but I love the Hula Hut. I would love to see more of that happening in Austin. Everybody is so hung up on margaritas. You know, I don't make a lot of money. Cocktail bartending is a labor of love. But I do it because, you know, I don't want to work in an office. Regardless, I'm happy to go blow a bunch of money at a great place and just drink a bunch of mezcal by itself, with the proper preparation. The trend that I have seen that I'm not a big fan of is mezcal cocktails. It's such a beautiful product, and I feel like, in a lot of ways, it just withers in cocktails. That's not to say it can't be done – I've had some good ones—but a lot of times, I think a mezcal cocktail is just shorthand for an establishment that's trying to look like it knows what it's doing.

Do you think ice is going to happen?

God I hope so. That's a trend that's real unfortunate: business owners always looking at the bar program for cuts first. There are people in town that you can buy a beautiful 300 pound block of ice from. Weather Up is doing it, but nobody else is doing it regularly. We did it one night at Midnight Cowboy, and it's definitely labor intensive. And it's not cheap – a 300 pound block of ice that's been frozen and cured for four days or whatever it is. That's a lot more expensive than paying like $45 per month for one of those ice machines.

Ice is here. The appetite for ice is here. If a bunch of bars and restaurants all decided at once to do it, which is what happens in other cities, it would probably be possible to negotiate a good price on that kind of ice. It's fun and I think it does make a difference, but at the same time, Austin is always railing against pretension. What a lot of people don't realize is how beautiful and special ice is. I think people would be really into the Japanese bar style, which puts 10 seats at the bar, and that's it. Keep it simple, keep it tiny, but keep great service for those 10 seats. But Austin hasn't shown much appetite for tiny bars in that way yet. I think Tigress is one of those places that set out to be small. Drink.Well is committed to the small environment, but it still gets nuts in there. The bars that size would be the candidates to try and do something amazing with ice. I think it'll take the next wave of bars to make things tip in that non-gimmicky, artisan kind of way. I think we're still a little hung up on vests and bow-ties, and wandering saxophone music.

I think as restaurants focus more on their bar programs, that'll help with the patron education, generally.

That's the front lines of the battle, which will hopefully be followed by good restaurants taking form. I think we've got adventurous food down: people are more prone to go on that journey if there's food at the end of the establishment. When people go out to bars, however, in large part, I think they're just going out to get drunk. I think we're getting closer to doing stuff with great technique, but without pretension. I know that's something of a national trend right now, and I hope it'll keep filtering through to what we're doing here in Austin. We'll see. Austin does like gimmicks. Austin likes elevator pitches.

Yeah, why does Austin like that gimmicky shit?

I don't know. It seems like, with so much else in this town, it wouldn't like stuff like that, but clearly there's places that tend to stand pretty tall. This town is a mystery, and it grows so goddamn fast that we don't have time to settle into anything. Clearly it's an aspirational town, which is why you see kind of out of nowhere the cocktail scene just exploding. Certain aesthetics hearken back to what's expected of prohibition influenced [establishments]. One thing I do talk about with people all the time is the idea that, in speakeasies in the '20s, they weren't listening to, like, Bach; they were listening to contemporary music. So why are we opening these time capsules? What is it to make thoughtful, proper cocktails now, in an environment that is contemporary? We're not seeing a lot of that—I bet Bar Congress is the only absolute modern cocktail bar in the city.

It does seem like there's a lot of that bartender cosplay going on, where you have to be either Don Draper or Charlie Chaplin.

Right, exactly. I have a lot of problems with cocktail naming conventions, too. I think that's done an incredible disservice to the real growth of cocktail culture. It kind of bums me out, because, on the one hand, we do need to have things kind of codified. But then at the same time, because we do that, we wind up fetishizing the past so much. With cocktails, there's only a handful of basic techniques you can employ to prepare these things, so we get really spooked when someone tries to update something. But because of that, we're not really working to update things as much as we can, so to me, it's kind of a fine line. I feel like there are a handful of cocktails that you can't do anything new to, but I think there are other cocktails where you do have a responsibility to adapt them to the modern palate. That said, you should shake a Negroni precisely one more time than you would shake a baby. [Laughs].

I think moving forward, I'm going to stop naming my cocktails. I think I'll just describe it. You know, like "Untitled Gin Fizz" or something like that. I think that, in order to move the discourse forward, we do have to stop fetishizing the past, and we also have to find new ways to innovate, like to build drinks from the ground up. You know, Vino Vino actually has my favorite menu in town right now. They have several classics, with some straight up preparation of a few, but then they have others that feature some kind of variation on a classic cocktail. I think it's such a deft way of handling problems with naming conventions. It's a really clever workaround for some of the things that hold us back, in my corner of the business. But yeah, check out Vino Vino.

It can be hard, where things come up so quickly in a city, to maintain your presence in that space, like Vino Vino does.

Yeah, Austin is definitely big on the historic places or the brand new places. If you've been open forever, it can be tricky to remain relevant. Take East Side Cafe – the first time I walked into there I felt like I was entering a hospice situation. But they were one of the first places to really take a stab at doing their menu locally, and god bless 'em for trying. I can't imagine what it would be like to wake up one day after 20 years in business and be like, oh, our ship sailed. That's when you've got to hire people to come in and tell you all the things you've been doing wrong. I mean, this town has changed immensely in just the little over two years I've been back in it. And it's only changing more.

This isn't really a career service town. It should be, but it isn't. It's a lot of college kids.

Maybe it's a tall order, but you can still inspire people. And the people you can't inspire, you fucking don't hire, and you make sure that your restaurant is great—the one where all the badass lifers want to work, and expect no less. Don't expand if you can't staff! But that's why I'm so excited about Qui: we're doing the legwork up front to get the training done to have the bare minimum level of service that should be expected at any restaurant. Hopefully at Qui we'll set a precedent for what great service is in this town. Hopefully, in a year or two, you will no longer be rewarded for just having a gorgeous room.

—With Emma Kat Richardson

· Qui [Official]
· All Cocktail Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]
· All 'The Drink' Coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]

Photo: courtesy of Justin Elliott.

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