What makes a great whiskey bar? Is it about carrying the finest, most expensive whiskey available? Or is it more important to offer spirits that are accessible to everyone's palate (and wallet)? In Austin, you can find it all, from killer well whiskey at one of Austin's best dive bars to $125-a-pour whiskey at fancy cocktail bars to Japanese whiskey paired with the best Japanese food in town. The next time you're on the hunt for outstanding brown liquor, head to these Austin whiskey bars that are stocking the best bottles in the city.
Austin's best whiskey bars
Seven Grand Austin comes to us from the acclaimed 213 Hospitality group (Half Step, Las Perlas). Initially starting with 400-ish premium whiskeys, the bar’s plan is to grow to over 700 selections from around the globe (as well as offering classic whiskey cocktails). "The main goal is to have the best and most complete representations of each distillery or producer available," says Steve White, GM of both Seven Grand and Las Perlas. "Sometimes Rashid [Barrett, also of Seven Grand/Las Perlas] and I will hop in the car and drive across town with only a moment’s notice because we caught a lead on a special bottle we absolutely must have—it’s like treasure hunting." Standout whiskeys currently in Seven Grand’s collection include Scapa 16 yr (Isle of Orkney; discontinued); Glengoyne 17 yr (pre 1980's bottling, over 50 years old); Yamazaki 18 yr; and Booker's Rye (limited and discontinued) in addition to six private single barrel selections.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that legendary dive Longbranch Inn closed its doors forever and that neighborhood bar Nickel City has taken over its spot. Although Nickel City maintains the relaxed spirit of it’s former incarnation, the weird smell is long gone and has been replaced with cocktails, tasty bar food from Delray Cafe and a killer whiskey selection. Operating partner Travis Tober says Nickel City stands out from the pack in terms of selection and affordability—they have the largest single barrel selection in town and charge only $6 an ounce for these special spirits. A couple of Tober’s favorites include Russell’s Reserve—hand selected by Eddie and Bruce Russell, the son and grandson of Master Distiller Jimmy Russell—and the only single barrel of Copper & Kings American Brandy in the country, customized by Tober to a whopping 100 proof. Also rad: Select bottles of Nickel City’s single barrel whiskeys are for sale next door at J&J Spirits.
Photo: Hunter Townsend
Despite the Grackle’s dive-y persona, their back liquor wall is beyond impressive, housing around 170 different whiskeys and bourbons (give or take a few). The bar carries the entire Antique Collection from Sazerac and possesses a nice back stock of the first four Orphan Barrels that have been long gone from production. Owner (and self-proclaimed glass washer and sink fixer) Tim Murphy is also proud of the fact that, twice a year, they purchase a barrel from Buffalo Trace and pour Buffalo's single barrel bourbon as a well whiskey—at no additional cost.
Kemuri Tatsu-ya’s Japanese whiskey selection is not the largest in town by any means, but it's a perfect journey through the many varieties that exist under that umbrella—unlike Scotch and American bourbon, there are no rules regarding Japanese whiskey production aside from the spirit originating in Japan. From sweet, floral Suntori Toki to the smooth nuttiness of Nikka Coffey Grain to Yamazaki’s smoky Single Malt 12 yr (which verges on Scotch), silky texture and quality is the tie that binds them. Michael Phillips, beverage director at Kemuri, is currently a fan of Mars Komagatake's 2012 single bourbon cask and Ichiro's Chichibu floor malted 2015, but you can also find four local whiskeys—including two from Balcones Distillery, located in Waco.
Photo: Jody Horton
Watertrade, the intimate cocktail bar found next to Otoko at South Congress Hotel (from hospitality group New Waterloo), carries an extraordinary amount of Japanese whiskey and sake. Expect spirits which exist in limited quantities like Suntory Yamazaki 12 and 18 yr and Hakashu 12 and 18 yr, as well as unique offerings like Ichiro’s Malt & Grain, which blends in whiskeys from the U.S., Canada, Scotland and Ireland.
Half Step’s whiskey list is a collection of tried-and-true (and reasonably priced) spirits from distillers who consistently focus on quality over marketing. “We try to consider diversity in mash bills, distillation techniques and mingling/blending practices,” says GM Steven Robbins. In addition to a solid selection of whiskey, rye, bourbon and Scotch, they also have a couple of oddballs like Taiwanese Kavalan Single Malt and Amarut Fusion from India. “We also keep a nifty little back stock of special stuff tucked away which we like to pour for our regulars from time to time,” says Robbins. As if you needed another reason to frequent this bar.
Nothing goes better with Texas BBQ than whiskey; luckily, Freedmen’s handles both like a pro. General manager Myria Free oversees a collection of over 160 spirits which are available on their own, in cocktails or via curated flights like the Finishing Touches trio, featuring pours of Maker’s 46, Hudson Maple and Jefferson's Ocean. Is fancy, limited release whiskey your jam? Treat yourself to Blade & Bow 22 yr or Orphan Barrel’s Rhetoric, aka liquid gold. Prefer cocktails? Try the shareable The Gold Dollar, a blend of Bulleit 10 yr bourbon, Ron Zacapa 23 yr, dry curacao, smoked pineapple syrup, lime and grapefruit; it serves two to four people.
Photo: Ashlyn Allison
At this cozy downtown bar, you’ll find a wide range of whiskey styles, brands and regions, but some of the most common brands are not available. Small Victory owner Josh Loving prefers to give lesser known brands the opportunity to be discovered. A few of Loving's favorites include Buffalo Trace and Springbank, the latter of which he says “is the perfect sweet spot between peat smoke and barley malt.”