Creative bartender helps stir the cocktail revival in Austin
"Red wine with white vermouth and Coke, mixed together."
Mindy Kucan is recalling the strangest drink requests she's received during a bartending career that includes five years at the Hilton Austin hotel and a new gig at the vintage cocktail theater known as the East Side Show Room.
That vermouth concoction came courtesy of a visiting British woman. "I had one guy order a margarita," she said. "But he was like, 'Will you leave out the lime juice and do orange juice, and can you put Grand Marnier, and can you do the añejo and can you half-salt and half-sugar the rim?' And it was all one drink. ... You could tell that he didn't get out much."
In a town full of musicians, filmmakers, Web-site wizards and other creative types, the art of conceiving cocktails might not get the attention it deserves, at least outside a bar. And although nobody (that we know) calls Austin the cocktail capital of the world, there's some interesting stuff going on, and Kucan is in the middle of it.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Mirjana "Mindy" Kucan (pronounced "KOO-chahn" — she's a first-generation Croatian American) takes a back barstool to no one. In 2007, she won Hilton Hotels' Top Bar Chef competition with a cool concoction called Hot Summer Night, using locally sourced ingredients. With a few well-practiced motions, Kucan puts one together. Made with vodka, Paula's Texas Lemon, Sprite, lemon juice and fresh thyme, it's a clear drink, second cousin to a mojito, but more ethereal, almost mysterious — sprigs of thyme bestow an herbal tinge and there's a bitter bottom note, but the drink feels like sunlight, a perfect summer refresher.
The Hot Summer Night was her ticket to greater recognition not only for herself but, as Kucan's friend and local mixologist David Alan puts it, the nascent serious-cocktail scene in Austin.
"I sort of credit Mindy with being the first to reach out to the national movement," said Alan, who also writes a blog called the Tipsy Texan. Kucan is interning in the Tipsy Texan's 12-week mixology course taught by Alan and blogger/educator Lara Nixon.
After Kucan won the Hilton contest, Alan said, she was sought out by cocktail stars the likes of Las Vegas-based über-mixologist and consultant Tony Abou-Ganim.
"We all started going to Tales of the Cocktail," Alan said, referring to an annual New Orleans festival (think South by Southwest for bartenders, scheduled for July this year). "We weren't on anybody's radar, so once we started networking — our movement was growing, we were all basically teaching ourselves — we started getting some attention, (and) these national mixology people are now coming to Austin."
Raised in the Houston area, Kucan started out waitressing in a seafood place in the coastal town of Kemah. After tending bar at a Hilton hotel in Houston, Kucan found her way to Austin, which she now considers home. Although her métier is alcohol, her work ethic is cold-sober serious. Since November, she's been commuting to Houston one day a week to apprentice at the Anvil Bar & Refuge, considered a strong Texas outpost in the classic-cocktail movement, led by 26-year-old Bobby Heugel, whom Kucan befriended in 2007 at Tales of the Cocktail.
Serious young mixologists like Heugel are all about making drinks from scratch with fresh, top-quality ingredients, very precise measurements, several infusions of creativity and more than a dash of style. They aim to re-create — and in some cases, improve — cocktails from the 1890s to the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, and they would like these drinks to take their place in the public's estimation, alongside jazz, as an authentic American art form. ("All mixology is American cocktail mixology," said Kucan.)
Meeting the top people in the field also inspired Kucan to step up her game. Although the 28-year-old is the founding president of the Austin chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild, "I realized I knew very little about the craft of the cocktail," she says. "Eventually I will want to open my own concept of a bar, but right now I need to learn, study and practice."
Dark-haired and energetic, Kucan is innately stylish and affable, a person who looks you straight in the eye and laughs frequently. She regularly enters her creations in local bartending contests (typically sponsored by a company looking to showcase their own brand of spirits or soft drinks) and has won several awards, which have involved trips to places such as New Orleans and Puerto Rico. In her off hours, she steeps herself in the lore of her craft, devouring books about pre-Prohibition cocktails.
"The thing I really like about Mindy is she has such a great personality for talking to people," said Heugel by phone from Houston. "Having an outgoing personality is a great trait in a bartender, for sure. She does a really great job about communicating what the cocktail is. A (good) bartender is somewhat passionate about serving drinks — not just taking orders, but trying to steer your steps in the right direction, trying to find out what flavors you want."
Kucan stresses the importance of understanding the history and character of not only a finished drink, but its components. "There's a difference between drinking and drinking well," she says. These days, when cocktail competitions typically involve not only strawberries, mint and lemon peel but (holy molecular mixology, Batman!) habanero peppers and infusions of bacon, the bar is raised ever higher.
"Americans really like syrupy, sweet cocktails," she said. "Europeans, less sweet — Fernet Branca, Campari. South Americans like a little more sour," such as the caipirinha. (When Kucan goes out on the town herself, she said, "I change it up every drink or so. I like to have something different. I tip well.")
What does she do when customers hit on her? She laughs at the question, but it's a real occupational hazard. Bartenders are performers of sorts, and attractive female bartenders are natural focuses of attention. At the Hilton, some male customers left their room numbers along with a tip. "Usually you just kind of laugh it off — 'We'll see, we'll see, ha ha ... ,' " she said. "(In) other instances, when I worked as a cocktail waitress, they're a little harder to get away from because you're on a one-on-one basis, very close to that person."
Of course, Kucan's gender also helps get her noticed in a good way, by her fellow bartenders and mixology gurus. "There aren't that many famous women bartenders, and the ones that are are superstars," Alan said.
Fairly soon, Alan said, serious cocktail geeks won't have to drive to Houston to drink at an Anvil-level bar: "I can pretty much guarantee that it'll be here before the end of the year. There are a couple of projects in the works." And Heugel gives props to one Austin bistro, East Side Show Room on East Sixth Street, where Kucan tends bar a couple of nights a week. It's less than a mile from the Hilton, but worlds away.
"To say it's a young movement here is an understatement," Alan said. "If cocktails are part of the culinary arts, we've got nowhere to go but up in Austin."
And don't be surprised if Mindy Kucan turns up behind the bar.
3 Kucan concoctions
Not content to fall back on old favorites, Austin mixologist Mindy Kucan worked up three inventive cocktails to accompany this article, the recipes for which she's sharing here for the first time: the I (Heart) Fernet Branca, the Floral Fizz and the South of the Border Swizzle.
I (Heart) Fernet Branca
1 egg white
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz Bärenjäger honey liqueur
11/2 o.z Fernet Branca
You want to start with the cheapest ingredients first, so in a mixing glass, crack an egg and strain out the egg white. Add lemon juice, Bärenjäger and Fernet Branca (nectar of the bartending gods). Shake hard (see note) for 30 to 45 seconds with a Boston shaker and strain into a stemmed 5 oz. glass. Garnish with a heart stencil placed atop the froth and spray with Peychaud Bitters. Remove the stencil and serve with love in your eyes, or at least the glass.
Note: The best shaking technique depends on the quality of your ice. Ideally you want thick, dense ice that will keep the drink cold and aerate the egg white, but if you do not have access to this kind of ice, do what is called a dry shake first: Shake the ingredients without ice to get the egg white fluffy, then add ice to cool the drink and shake for 20 to 30 seconds. Strain with a Hawthorn strainer into a 5-oz. glass. Remember, you are shaking an egg white, and when oxygen is added to egg, it gets fluffy and expands, so you want a glass big enough to hold the expansion.
My friends call me the "flower girl," so naturally I had to include a flowery cocktail. Here's to you — you know who you are.
1 egg white
1/2 oz. grapefruit juice
3/4 oz. St. Germain elderflower liqueur
3/4 oz. Hendrick's rose petal- and cucumber-infused gin
1 bar spoon of crème de violette liqueur
1-2 oz. Champagne
In a mixing glass, crack an egg and strain egg white into the glass. Add grapefruit juice, other ingredients and ice. Shake hard (see note, above) and strain into a 7 oz. skinny Collins glass. Top with Champagne and garnish with an edible flower or berries that are in season.
South of the Border Swizzle
I call this South of the Border Swizzle because the flavors are naturally found south of our Texas border. The aged rum is from Puerto Rico, the mezcal from Mexico; pickled carrots are served as an appetizer in Mexican restaurants; Mexican locals do shots of tequila with an orange slice and cinnamon; and Falernum is from Barbados. To include Texas, I use Texas grapefruit juice and serve with Southern hospitality.
11/2 oz. Don Q Extra Añejo rum
1 oz. crema de mezcal — mezcal sweetened with agave nectar
1 oz. carrot juice
1/2 oz. grapefruit juice
1 bar spoon of John D. Taylor's Velvet Falernum
1 cinnamon stick 6-8 inches long to use as a swizzle and garnish
Build ingredients inside a 7- to 8-oz. Collins glass. Fill glass with crushed ice and swizzle with the cinnamon stick. Some dilution will occur, so fill with more crushed ice and build a snow cone on top of drink. Leave the cinnamon stick inside for garnish and serve with a straw.