An “Official Drink of New York” contest would probably go something like this: mixologists from the two drinkin’-est boroughs (you know who you are) gather on top of the Empire State Building (rain location: Sbarro’s). After they unpack their wares—top-shelf spirits, a rainbow of house-made bitters and tinctures, and any necessary Tiki/swizzle/flaming accoutrements—a referee fires a starting pistol. But just as stirring and shaking commence, a fight erupts over the virtues of The Manhattan vs. The Brooklyn, ending in a fatal “West Side Story”-esque dance battle. Because New York can’t have just one official drink. We have 10 "original" Ray’s Pizza. But Austin—a city with a nubile young cocktail market just stepping out of its historicism adolescence—can, and has, for eight thirst-quenching years.
"This year's Official Drink of Austin contest was an amazing reminder of how far the bar talent in our city has come,” says last year’s winner, Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris. “Picking a winner was almost impossible.” Fortunately for competitor Houston Eaves, it wasn’t. “In the end,” says Norris, “Houston took the crown because his drink was amazingly creative, presented beautifully, and, most importantly, tasted great. I’d order any of the drinks again, but that was the one that pushed every element to the next level.”
It’s not surprising that Eaves—who won despite his first name—shot for that next level. The Contigo mixologist is part of “a small group of bartenders who are really passionate about what we do,” he says. “Our consumers are still a little more accustomed to a lot of the throwbacks,” Eaves admits, referring to a recent local obsession with speakeasies and destination drinking in general. “But people are absolutely opening up their eyes, trying new things.” His Smokin’ Gypsy, newly crowned the Official Drink of Austin, is now among them.
Eaves’ assertively Austinian play on the classic Gypsy combines local ingredients like Tito’s Vodka (an Official Drink of Austin competition partner), Balcones Brimstone whiskey, Bad Dog “Fire and Damnation Bitters,” and Rio Star grapefruit. The result satisfies both the spice-addicted Austin palate and Eaves’ own dedication to well-structured classics. “I wanted it to be an actual cocktail,” he says, “bold and big and flavorful.” Thanks to some Texas scrub oak-smoking, the “extremely smoky” Brimstone provides a lot of the big and bold, which Eaves evens out with nearly two ounces of Tito’s. And just one dash of those locally made bitters (a smokier iteration of the classic “Hellfire” recipe) gives an extra kick of earth and spice, which, when combined with the sweet complexity of the Benedictine, achieves some of the savor of barbecue—“also something we are kind of known for.”
With professional judges like Norris at the helm, Eaves’ win might be more of an industry ass-pat than a consumer vote. But that means it’s a good predictor of the future of the Austin drinks scene—where the industry goes, consumers follow, especially in Austin. “Austin in general is very open and adventurous,” says Eaves. And for the next year, at least, he’ll be the guy in charge of their Official Drink. No switch blades or hate-snapping required.