How many mixologists does it take to make a Moscow mule? One. To open a bottle of ginger beer, then moan about how nobody respects his craft.
Bartenders with artisanal dreams swim against the current to begin with, because so much of the standard bar repertoire is a sugary trainwreck of ways to move bottom-shelf liquor. Bar Congress is proof that cocktail art is more than artifice. I'm a believer now that a $13 cocktail is worth every bit as much as a $13 glass of wine.
That $13 cocktail is called Preferred Lies. I like to smoke the occasional cigar, but I like cigar shops even more, drawn by their collected aromas of tobacco and wood, uneven parts Spanish cedar and must and smoke. Preferred Lies brings it all flooding in, bracketed by the pearled glow of bergamot from Earl Grey-infused bourbon, an astringent element that civilizes the liquor's mottled twang. It's crowned with foam made from Canton ginger liqueur and egg white, finished with a single sweet Luxardo cherry that drives the tobacco bouquet home, adding a sense-memory twist of candied pipe smoke.
Bar manager Adam Bryan encourages poetic immersion, himself a study in pre-Prohibition style, with a precisely twirled mustache and professorial manner. He walked us through history and flavor theories, showed us how the big square ice cubes from a notoriously cranky brand of ice machine can be shattered into smaller bits with just the thwack of a bar spoon, then broken down further in a canvas bag with a wooden mallet bigger than a House speaker's gavel.
Bryan's attention made a Tam Tam Swizzle ($12) rise above its monocle-sporting name, combining smoldering crema de mezcal and batavia arrack liquor made from rice and sugar cane. Bryan used a bar spoon like an agitator, rubbing it with his palms like he was starting a fire in the woods, a campfire crowned with whole herbs.
At Bar Congress, you can cherry-pick the menus of Second and Congress, seated at the bar or a lounge-style banquette or the sidewalk patio. The bites swing from $5 honey-roasted nuts or $6 black truffle pomme frites to a $12 Congress Burger. It's the one place you can order a la carte from Congress' multicourse menus. We ate dessert there, escaping the beehive of Second with lemon icebox pie ($6) as dense and firm as cheesecake, set off with icy lemon granita and toasted coconut. Small bites of oatmeal cookie ($4) with foie gras buttercream were perfect with a reverently sweet glass of Brother Thelonius Belgian dark ale from California ($8).
A Lion's Tale cocktail ($11) in a little tulip glass was a juicy window-shade red, a bourbon blend seasoned with allspice dram and angostura bitters. The Congress GT ($8) brought together gin hopped with my favorite beer-brewing hops (Cascade, like a bright bouquet of pine needles and grapefruit zest), a shot of seltzer, quinine and grapefruit bitters. It was an ideal palate cleanser for the hundreds of bad drinks it took to find this one.
200 Congress Ave. at the Austonian. 827-2755, www.congressaustin.com/bar-congress .
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays-Saturdays.
Alcohol: Cocktails $8-$14. Draft beer $5-$9. Wine and sake by the glass $9-$20.
Food: Snacks, small plates, cheese boards and charcuterie $5-$18. Plates from $12 to $34 and beyond.