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Why Texas has a ‘world-class’ cocktail scene, according to a celebratory new book

Arianna Auber
The new recipe book "Texas Cocktails" will help you make cocktails like the Hatchback, featuring two of Texans' favorite things: tequila and grapefruit.

Texas might not have birthed much more than two classic cocktails in its statehood, but our bartenders today, according to a new book, are among the friendliest, most inventive bar folks you’ll ever meet — making nearly all corners of Texas some of the best places to go for a proper drink.

In the newly published “Texas Cocktails,” author Nico Martini (yes, that’s really his surname!) explores the bars and mixologists responsible for having transformed this state into such a powerhouse for well-made cocktails. The book, divided into sections for cities like Austin, Houston, Dallas and beyond, includes drinks recipes from such top cocktail bars and distilleries like the Roosevelt Room in downtown Austin and Revolution Spirits in Dripping Springs.

He had originally been hoping to highlight Texas’ contributions to the classics that remain on bar menus after decades — like the Old Fashioned or the Vieux Carre — but what he found is that it’s what’s happening now, in bars all across the state, that defines Texas’ role in cocktail culture.

“Frankly, the only two cocktails I could find that legitimately come from Texas are the Chilton and the Ranch Water... and we built the frozen margarita machine, for which we are both sorry and not sorry,” he writes. “I decided that I would let the best bars and bartenders represent our state, and I’d do my best to get out of the way. Over a hundred cocktail recipes later, you have ‘Texas Cocktails.’”

You can thank Texas for certain trends that aren’t so much fads as simply part of the bar scene at large now. It’s not hard to guess one of them: We sure love our margaritas.

There’s been a “staggering rise in popularity of tequila and mezcal,” he writes. “We might have had something to do with that. The idea of adding spice to cocktails? Hell, y’all’s peppers aren’t even hot. While the history of Texas spirits may start with Tito (Beveridge of Tito’s Vodka), we’ve been working with Mexican spirits since we were, well, Mexico.” 

The chapter on Austin in “Texas Cocktails” (Cider Mill Press, $19.95) points out that our love affair with craft cocktails began in 2005, when Bill Norris — now of the Alamo Drafthouse — took over the beverage program of now-defunct Fino, a Mediterranean restaurant named for Spain’s savory fortified wine, sherry. Since then, bars like North Loop’s Drink.Well and the East Austin neighborhood pub Nickel City have dazzled with their boozy creations.

But even though Austin has now become “ a force on the national cocktail scene,” we haven’t lost our identity as the laid-back college town we’ve always been, according to Martini.

Austin “is a relentlessly casual town,” he writes. “More often than not, fanciness is condemned, and this creates a fantastically approachable food and beverage scene. Austin cocktail bars focus on making great tasting, fresh, and approachable drinks for folks in anything from cowboy boots to flip flops.”

Although he recommends visiting these bars in person, “Texas Cocktails” offers a recipe from featured ones in the book so that you can make the drinks at home. Here’s the recipe for the tequila-based potion the Hatchback, from one of Austin’s ‘craft dive’ bars, Firehouse Lounge, hidden behind a bookcase in a downtown hostel.

The refreshing, well-balanced Hatchback features fresh grapefruit juice — as many Texas cocktail recipes do, to showcase that “we have the best grapefruit on the planet, and frankly, it goes pretty well with agave spirits,” Martini writes.

The Hatchback

1 ½ oz. blanco tequila

¾ oz. Campari

½ oz. fresh lime juice

½ oz. fresh Texas ruby red grapefruit juice

½ oz. simple syrup

Topo Chico

Orange twist

Shake and strain all ingredients, save for Topo Chico, into an ice-filled mason jar. Top with Topo Chico and garnish with an orange twist and a straw.

—Paul Neuenschwander, assistant manager and lead bartender at Firehouse Lounge

You can also celebrate the launch of “Texas Cocktails” at the King Bee Lounge from 3 to 6 pm. on May 19.