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Creating a scene: Tavern bartender builds cocktail menu far beyond the well

Emma Janzen

With the rapid growth of Austin's cocktail scene, bars that previously only served appletinis and cosmopolitans are asking bartenders to come up with original cocktails and mix up classics that haven't seen the light of day since the 1800s.

How do you create and implement a successful cocktail menu when you haven't spent years with your nose buried in cocktail literature, and your patrons are used to drinking shots of Patron and Bud Lights instead of Sazeracs and gimlets?

You get advice from the pros and improvise.

In 2010, Darren Makowsky took over the bar and began developing a craft cocktail menu for the Tavern, the restaurant and bar perched on the corner of 12th and Lamar streets otherwise known for beer and sports.

Since taking over the program, he's created a series of original drinks and riffs on prohibition-era classics that his customers are slowly but surely accepting. Meet your new-school bartender from the Tavern, lead bartender Darren Makowsky.

How long have you worked at the Tavern?

I have been at the Tavern for almost two and a half years. I took over the bar in 2010.

What made you want to be a bartender?

To be honest, I never thought that I would be behind the bar. I used to do administrative work and serve until one Sunday the manager told me he fired the bartender and asked if I could do that as well. I said sure. He grabbed a cocktail book and handed it to me. It was not as easy as I thought, I had no idea where anything was or what anything was; I tried and almost lost my mind. I was thrown to the wolves but ended up loving it.

What kind of challenges did you face creating a cocktail program for the Tavern?

The real challenge is that we have been a beer and shot bar for a long time. We only had commercial sweet and sour mix, which I switched to a fresh housemade version. We had lots of vodka. When I started I never thought we'd ever have anything like Sazerac rye or creme de violette. We didn't have Hendricks gin or absinthe of any kind. My favorite spirit, Domaine de Canton, was a dream. So that was a big hurdle, getting some of the ingredients needed to make cocktails.

How did you decide on what drinks would go on the menu?

I sought the help of Billy Hankey of Second Bar and Kitchen to help me start my first cocktail menu. My manager wanted a focus on Prohibition-era cocktails, so I researched the drinks, changed certain ingredients and that is our now our house cocktail menu. We went from a grape-tini to our absinthe mojito which is absinthe (Le Tourment or Tenneyson), a splash of creme de violette, mint and my mojito mix. I now have two seasonal cocktail menus on top of the house menu as well. I do have one taster, my girlfriend. She has been a huge supporter of mine so I listen to her suggestions and this helps me tremendously with deciding what I put on the menu.

How are your customers taking to the change?

With passion and hard work driving the bar, people are beginning to order and enjoy our cocktails. Teaching customers and helping them find drinks they will enjoy is something that I am very passionate about. It has taken a large amount of time, patience and training. We are not done though; we still have a lot of ground to cover.

What's your favorite part of your job?

I love the chaos, the times when you are so busy that your mind shuts off and your body takes over. I love being able to help the guests and teach them about new drinks and spirits. I love the creativity. I get a few people who come in and have me make them a drink from scratch, which is fun because it's a challenge. I would like to say that I hit their mark most of the time, but more than anything it's fun and it shows that they trust me, and for that I am very thankful.

What trend would you most like to see die? What ‘dead' trend would you like to see return?

I feel like there is a rising trend of pretentiousness around town. Some cocktail people give off an air of smugness and look down on others for drinking this or that. It is up to us being behind the bar to make people feel at ease and not overwhelmed. It's the rapport between the bartender and the person on the other side that keeps people coming back. Hospitality is a trend that needs to return.

What do you like to drink?

My favorite thing to drink is half Fernet, half Canton. One of them chilled, served up. I also enjoy half Jameson and half Macadamia liqueur. I have this neat in the winter and two cubes in the summer. This drink is awesome.