Interview with Mixologist Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge – Houston, TX

March 2011

Emily Bell: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, to mixology?
Bobby Heugel: I needed a way to pay for school. That’s how I got into it. I was really fortunate to have early exposure to a focus on quality in spirits and fresh ingredients, in particular. I just got addicted in the beginning. It was at this restaurant called Abuelo’s in Amarillo. Since then, it’s morphed into a concept, a chain. But I worked at the very first one; they had a really extensive tequila selection. We really focused on knowing what each tequila tasted like so we could help match the guest experience—what they should eat with it and what fresh ingredients to use in the drink. I had to learn so much, but I treated going to work like another class that I had.

EB: Were you trained in bartending or mixology?
BH: People ask me that a lot. I’m kind of self-taught. Everything that I’ve learned in terms of cocktails has been through a lot of reading, a lot of independent trial and error. I think other people, people in New York, have clear pedigrees. I don’t have any stories like that; I’ve just had people who were supportive of me trying things.

EB: What inspires you when creating a cocktail?
BH: It always begins with the spirit. It’s about whatever the primary base spirit is. People lose track of that frequently. Our menu reflects that. It’s divided into categories of base spirits. That’s the most important thing. People get ingredients, ideas about ingredients, and say, “I’m gonna do a cocktail with this or with that.” For me what’s most important is the base spirit. We’re really just trying to show the distiller’s respect for something they’ve created.

EB: How long does it take to create a new cocktail?
BH: I’ll make a cocktail 100 times, 100 different ways with all kinds of spirits, and tweak and tweak before we ever put it on the menu or we’re even close to satisfied with it. You can get things that go well together like tequila and grapefruit, but how you get those things to uniquely go together, it’s a trial and error process. It takes a long time.

EB: What is your favorite cocktail to drink?
BH: My favorite cocktail that we do is called The Brave. It’s the only cocktail we’ve never taken off the menu. Tequila is one of the things that got me into it. But my favorite spirit is mezcal. The Brave is one of our simplest cocktails; it’s not diluted or cold, and it contradicts people’s expectations of what a drink should be. But we do that on purpose. It’s a cocktail with a very specific purpose. It’s not something you want to drink all the time, but it mirrors what we’re doing with different cocktails in different contexts.

EB: What are you favorite flavor combinations?
BH: I love tequila and grapefruit. As a general theme, I like taking classic culinary or classic cocktail pairings and kind of reinventing them. What we did with our Paloma is an example. We have a partner who’s a crazy home brewer, so we have a naturally fermented grapefruit soda that we use in our Paloma. Tequila and grapefruit are to me just outstanding. Even more so with lime. It’s the lighter floral notes that let the tequila really jump through; it doesn’t cover it up, and it’s not too acidic. Bourbon and maple is also a classic combination.

EB: What is your favorite mixology resource book and who is the author?
BH: Can I say the Internet? It's what’s really fed the cocktail movement in cities like my own, where you don’t have access to the people who have styles and opinions already. Books are great, and there are so many great books out, but the Internet is a great way for professional bartenders interested in cocktails to exchange ideas and to ask each other, “how do you accomplish this in your bar?” Sometimes those are just as important as learning how to make it work with a book. A lot of interactions I’ve had with people via the Internet in cities where they were just getting started have been the most valuable sources of information.

EB: Do you have a blog or do you contribute to any blogs?
BH: Haha, I loosely maintain We did put a post up last night. I used to do that a whole lot more before I opened Anvil. But it’s still something we do to communicate techniques. I also occasionally write for the Houston Press here in Houston.

EB: What is the mixology scene like in Houston?
BH: I would say it is the most genuine mixology scene in the entire country, without a doubt. And I’ve been to every major city doing cocktails in the United States. There is a very firm idea from everybody that’s into cocktails that we are making drinks for the city of Houston. All cocktail bars in Houston have this great understanding that there’s something about a cocktail bar here. Maybe it’s because we don’t have that formal pedigree. We love drinks, we love fresh ingredients, we love classic cocktails, but we’re not gonna forget where we’re from.

Too often people try to emulate drinks, things from New York for instance. But a speakeasy is not going to work in Houston. And I think that we just have a very distinct perspective on cocktails.

EB: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?
BH: There are a lot. There was one the other day that I was going on a rant about. If I can say tequila again, I’d like to say that again. I just think tequila gets overlooked too often. We weren’t used to getting finely crafted tequila in the United States at height of golden age, the pre-Prohibition era; many people are fascinated with the classics from that era. But that means a lot of the time tequila doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It doesn’t get used in cocktails as much as it should because it has no historical precedence. But really it has so much complexity, both tequila and mezcal. To grow the plant to reach maturity, it takes eight to 12 years, where other grain-based spirits take one year to mature. And what it does in cocktails is really special.

EB: Why do you think people haven’t caught on to tequila?
BH: The big problem with tequila is that all quality tequilas are shifting their techniques. In Texas, there are only five or six brands that I’ll tell people to buy. A lot of brands are taking shortcuts nowadays. There’s a huge flux of influences; some aren’t even drinkable anymore because they’ve changed so much. We’re used to taking tequila in this really poor quality context that’s over-marketed. It’s tough to get people to try brands they haven’t heard of.

EB: What does success mean for you?
BH: I don’t know. I’m still really young and trying to figure it out. Not messing up? It’s really exciting to be a business owner and get support from the community. It’s exciting to be a resident in community where a lot of us are actively trying to be a part of it. Success for me would be to be a part of a surging food and drink community that makes living in the city that I grew up in better.

This ties into fact that people who own cocktail bars focus on cocktails too much and not enough on the bar part. A bar is supposed to be a gathering place for a community. That’s what a bar is. That’s why we call ourselves Anvil Bar & Refuge.

EB: Where will we find you in five years?
BH: I wouldn’t be anywhere but Houston. I don’t see myself leaving Anvil anytime soon, but we’re working on Underbelly, which is a restaurant that’ll be operated by [2011 Houston Rising Star Chef] Chris Shepherd and me. There are so many talented people in Houston who just don’t know how to get to the point of owning and operating their own businesses. We want to be a part of letting other people present their perspectives in a restaurant. I want to be the starting point for other people to show their own perspectives. I think that’s what makes this an exciting community. I think you’ll see us get involved with people in an assisting way, not in an ownership way.

EB: What would be your last cocktail?
BH: I’d have a martini. I’d have a classic gin martini.