Despite being a college town where booze flows like water, Austin was once a cocktail desert, where cinnamon whiskey, watermelon pucker and Long Island iced teas were the norm. But thanks to a much-needed food and drink renaissance in Austin, classic cocktail culture has been resurrected—for proof, look no further than the stellar libations found in this city. From casual dive bars to swanky rooftop lounges, here are some of the excellent craft and classic cocktail bars defining our city’s modern bar landscape.
Austin's best cocktail bars
Owner Josh Loving’s Small Victory is actually a huge victory; the bar serves cocktails borrowed from the past in a gorgeous space that still feels like a secret—despite all of the acclaim. Nestled in the corner of the parking garage behind the Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Hotel, Small Victory is found up a flight of stairs and behind a heavy wooden door. The former dive bar has been transformed with new plush banquette seating that spans the length of the room, as well as a large, round booth in the back that you just know is the epicenter for wheelings and dealings. The Artist’s Special—adapted from a 1927 bar book—is a great example of Small Victory’s style. It’s a variation on the whiskey sour using Scotch instead of American whiskey to add smokiness to the sherry, lemon and grenadine.
Garage exists in the category of Austin’s kind-of hidden bars—it’s the former parking attendant booth tucked in the garage on Colorado Street between 5th and 6th. The raw concrete interior with soaring ceilings and structural columns is lit solely by candles and the glow of a circular bar. The menu is organized in clever car terms: in the “custom” section, you’ll find Garage’s signature drinks; “vintage” is where the classic cocktails are; “refurbished” features modern takes on classics and “GTO” are the $25 upper-echelon cocktails. Go with the Indian Paintbrush (vodka, grapefruit juice, lime, rosemary) for a light herbal option and the Penicillin (Earl Grey Scotch, lemon, ginger, honey) for something a little more brooding (but still appropriate for warmer weather). Also, don’t miss their impressive selection of Japanese whisky.
Nerd alert: If you love reading, science and booze, this bar in downtown's warehouse district has your name on it. Academia comes to us from Russell Davis, a former Bar Rescue co-star and co-owner of bar consulting firm Unlimited Liabilities. As its name suggests, the bar is designed to be a tribute of sorts to higher learning, with high ceilings, brick walls and university-esque banners that give the cocktail lounge a library feel. The bartenders here—a staff curated from talent across the country—act as patient professors, taking you through cocktails like the Raw Dill, a drink that might remind you of your favorite lox bagel in the best possible way, or the Trinidad Sour that goes down smooth as silk.
If you're visiting from out of town, The Townsend is an ideal bar to find yourself in. It has a dark and elegant interior but isn’t stuffy, a refined cocktail menu but also a killer burger and fries, and it’s quiet but not boring. In purist fashion, the flavors found in their cocktails often come from amaros, aperitifs and herbal liqueurs instead of over-the-top tinctures and complicated syrups. This is especially evident in one of our absolute favorite hot weather drinks, the Toronto Buck—a tiki-inspired combination of Knob Creek Rye, Fernet Branca, lemon, ginger beer, orgeat and aromatic bitters served over crushed ice and garnished with a bouquet of fresh mint.
Aside from the fantastic bar program at Odd Duck just down the street, this stretch of South Lamar was desperately in need of a proper cocktail bar. Thankfully, Backbeat not only filled the need but surpassed expectations. The creativity and talent here are evident in every cocktail—take, for example, the Swedish Punsch (made with anise-tinged Aquavit, funky Batavia Arrack, dry Riesling, lime and aromatic Earl Gray tea cordial) from the “oddball” section of the menu. The interior is a sleek nod to mid-century style, and in true Austin fashion Backbeat also has a rooftop patio with views of our ever-changing skyline. Backbeat is the second project from the owners of Hyde Park’s drink.well., one of Austin’s best neighborhood bars.
Consider drink.well. the quintessential neighborhood bar, offering both a great menu of hearty fare and inspired cocktails. Owner Jessica Sanders is always coming up with creative concoctions, like the Oaxacan Maid: mezcal, fresh cucumber, lime, orange blossom honey and wild fennel. The space is intimate—37 seats with just a handful of highly coveted bar spots—and on weekends it’s packed to the gills with couples and groups.
A signless, two-story house situated on a corner lot on East Cesar Chavez, Weather Up Austin is a sister bar to the Brooklyn and Tribeca locations. The inside drinkery is a blend of cool, white tile and warm, glowing copper, while the patio with white wrought-iron furniture offers a breezy garden vibe. Beautiful tasting (and sounding) cocktails like the El Nacional (tequila, hibiscus grenadine, Bénédictine, lime, rosewater) are served in gold-rimmed vintage coupes alongside offbeat picks like the $7 housemade Fireball which comes with a cold 12oz can of Lone Star.