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Bartender mixes traditional precision with flair for invention

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

"Eat," Garrett Mikell begs. "Please eat."

That's a New Year's Eve message from the other side of the bar, delivered by an award-winning Austin bartender, formerly of Starlite, Péché and the Woodland.

"We're not trying to sell you our food," Mikell says. "We're just looking out for everybody."

Mikell's just as eager as anyone else to celebrate on the big party night. In fact, he admits feeling mildly jealous about nonworking revelers. Yet he's dealt with enough guests who've had too much to drink on empty stomachs.

"There's always the one who sips only a few drinks a year," Mikell says. "But then, there she is, on her second bottle of champagne. We watch all patrons with our peripheral vision to make sure they are OK."

Ex-military, compact, brown-topped with a reddish beard, Mikell looks like he can handle any customers who reach their happiness limits. Or who pass over into rudeness because they feel entitled to a good time.

"With any large, happy crowd, it could go either way," he says.

Following an afternoon moving furniture from Clarksville to South Austin, then competing in a late-night club-bartending contest, doughty Mikell met me at Snack Bar on South Congress Avenue for a morning Topo Chico mineral water (him) and decaf (me).

Still fairly new to the bartending game, Mikell quickly ascended the hierarchy of local "mixologists," a word he finds too prissy. He won an Austin-wide contest to make something inventive with Bombay Sapphire gin, then competed with bartenders from across the country in the Las Vegas finals with his Bombay Bacon and Eggs.

"What idiot would put bacon in gin?" asks the Mississippi-born traditionalist with a rebellious streak. "But once I decide to use some ingredient, I work until I get it exactly right."

In the bacon case, the "aha" moment came when he ran across a photograph of a melon. Bacon and melons go together, right? Why not pair them with gin? Mikell was featured in the December issue of GQ magazine for his discovery.

The internal strain between the conventionalist, who wants to preserve cocktail recipes going back to the 1920s, and the still-young man, 25, with an incorrigible appetite for fun, goes back to childhood. He claims to be "part redneck, part Cherokee," and grew up in Oxford, Miss., son of a microbiology professor, but without his own academic focus.

"It was a really small town with nothing much to do," Mikell says. So he took a job cooking at City Grocery, a nationally recognized restaurant. "My palate developed in the kitchen," he says.

That training in taste combinations serves him well when bartending. His chance came when he was bussing tables at the former Starlite on Colorado Street. When the bartender didn't show for one shift, Mikell found himself uncorking $80 bottles of wine — very carefully.

"I broke the cork on the very first one," he said. Panicked, Mikell informed the head server, who showed him how to pull the cork halfway out. "Then I tried to refill a glass with a corked bottle. "

Accomplished after only two years behind the bar, having also worked at Peché, one of the city's top cocktail destinations, Mikell is taking time to cook up the right recipes.

"When conceptualizing a drink, I look at a cookbook first," he says, rattling off a precise recipe for a classic Sazerac.

Recently, Mikell devised a cocktail list for the exclusive Hotel Saint Cecilia, "a twist on Prohibition drinks that stay true to the hotel's rock 'n' roll sensibility," he says. Now Mikell is noodling on a drink menu for Takoba, an interior Mexican restaurant slated for East Seventh and Onion streets.

Although a proselytizing supporter of bartender guilds, Mikell remains pretty modest. No Tom Cruise-style bottle juggling for him.

He's not even completely comfortable with the wider recognition: "Recently, I realized that I knew a lot more about booze than I ever wanted other people to know."

mbarnes@statesman.com