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Firehouse Lounge & Hostel
Photograph: Courtesy Firehouse/Maggie Svoboda Bee's Knees at Firehouse

The best cocktail bars in Austin

We're raising our booze-filled glasses to this fair city at the best cocktail bars in Austin. Cheers!

By Anastacia Uriegas
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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

The Roosevelt Room
Photograph: Courtesy The Roosevelt Room

1. The Roosevelt Room

5 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars Warehouse District
Lit with candles and dressed in jewel tones, The Roosevelt Room is not only the best cocktail bar in Austin, but one that manages to constantly excite patrons and critics alike. There's a balance between finesse and playfulness here; the latter is personified in the frozen, dark rum-based Huli Pau!’s coconut/pineapple creaminess which incorporates peanut, tarragon and bright mint, and is then served in a tall hurricane glass dressed with a Hawaiian lei. Or try the elegant Silver Meadows, made of tequila, pisco and sake along with foie-gras-washed St. Germain and clarified (clear) lime and grapefruit juices. For those looking for a challenge, The Roosevelt Room introduced a Classics Card; try all 53 drinks and get your name on a plaque and a t-shirt.

2. Midnight Cowboy

5 out of 5 stars
Bars Greater Austin
The former massage-parlor-turned-speakeasy was one of Austin’s first high-end cocktail bars located, oddly enough, smack dab in the middle of Dirty Sixth. Don’t expect rowdy students inside the low-lit, narrow space lined with booths, though: a two-hour, two-drink-minimum reservation must be made via their website. Approach the unmarked door, buzz the name “Harry Craddock” and be sure to adhere to the “no flash photography, no PDA and no bothering other patrons” rule. Midnight Cowboy’s cocktails are sophisticated but accessible, like the refreshing Mesmer. It’s a stirred drink of gin, blackcurrant liqueur, bitter Cappelletti, lemon for acidity and topped with sparkling rosé.
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3. Small Victory

4 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars Congress Ave District

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
Photograph: Julie Cope

4. Garage Cocktail Bar

5 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars Downtown

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.

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Academia
Photograph: Annie Ray

5. Academia

5 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars Downtown

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.

6. The Townsend

4 out of 5 stars
Nightlife Congress Ave District

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.

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Geraldine's
Photograph: Whit Preston

7. Geraldine's

4 out of 5 stars
Restaurants American Town Lake
Anyone who travels for work knows that hotel bars are notoriously depressing—a lame beer selection and aggressively-shaken negronis are major bummers. Geraldine’s is not only an exception to the sad hotel bar rule, but has an absolute knock-out cocktail program. The Van Zandt Hotel off Rainey Street is a boutique gem, and Geraldine’s is located on the fourth floor. The spacious restaurant has an open kitchen, a stage for the many live acts who perform here and a separate lounge for those enjoying drinks and bar food. On sweltering days, try the Ancho and Lefty, a spicy take on a traditional margarita made with Milagro silver tequila, Ancho Reyes lemon, honey and aromatic harissa.
Backbeat
Photograph: Courtesy Backbeat/Knoxy Knox

8. Backbeat

4 out of 5 stars
Bars Zilker

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.

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9. drink.well.

4 out of 5 stars
Bars Gastropubs North Loop

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.

10. Whisler's

5 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars East Cesar Chavez
Located in the old Rabbit’s, the former gathering place for Eastside politicos, Whisler’s is a happy hour destination everyone in your gang can agree on, especially with ample patio seating and popular food truck, Thai-Kun, out back. The exposed stone, salvaged architectural elements and Virgen de Guadalupe altar (complete with a board of handwritten peticiones, or wishes) give Whisler’s a romantic, ruin-porn type of beauty. Try the uniquely flavorful The Stem & The Stone, where smoky mezcal blends with tropical mango and citrus, a hint of aromatic cardamom and a dash of bitters. Upstairs from the bar you’ll find Mezcalería Tobalá, an Oaxacan-style mezcal bar with a curated selection of the agave spirit served traditionally in terra cotta copitas with orange slices and sal de gusano (worm salt).
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11. King Bee Lounge

4 out of 5 stars
Restaurants Pizza Central East Austin
King Bee Lounge lies just beyond the well-worn paths of East 6th and East 11th, on the corner of 12th and Chicon. It doesn’t look like much from the outside; the facade is painted solid black with heavily tinted windows boasting handpainted promises of “draft beer, cocktails and dancing” next to a giant 8-ball. But step inside and you’ll be greeted warmly by owners Billy and Colette behind a bar glowing with oodles of bottles, many of which are mezcal. The chalkboard cocktail menu changes regularly and the top two are almost always frozen drinks; the slushie version of a Bee’s Knees (gin, honey, lemon) has become a permanent fixture here. Take a seat at one of the many tables illuminated by Mexican veladoras (religious candles), sip on a frozen cocktail or an old-fashioned and be sure to order the pizza.
Firehouse Lounge & Hostel
Photograph: Courtesy Firehouse/Maggie Svoboda

12. Firehouse Lounge

4 out of 5 stars
Hotels Lounges Congress Ave District
The entire concept for Firehouse Hostel and Lounge is pretty fascinating: a firehouse built in 1885 was transformed into a European-style hostel with a “secret” bar located behind a false bookcase. Sans windows and painted in vibrant red, it’s easy to lose track of time in the lounge's playful atmosphere. The staff here are friendly, knowledgeable and unpretentious—qualities not common this close to the 6th Street shot bars. Sit at the tall bar and order a simple, classic cocktail like a Bee’s Knees or Daiquiri while chatting up your bartender or other patrons. Oh, and be sure to visit Firehouse Lounge during their very generous happy hour from 5-8pm every day.
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13. Weather Up

4 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars East Cesar Chavez

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.

Half Step
Photograph: Claire McCormack Photography

14. Half Step

4 out of 5 stars
Bars Cocktail bars Town Lake
Rainey Street haunt, Half Step, has achieved a rare feat—they consistently churn out top bar talent and never compromise their integrity and commitment to perfect cocktails despite the shrieking, stumbling masses right outside their door. The baby blue bungalow has pew-like wooden booths, walls lined in tea-stained floral wallpaper, and a large open patio with picnic tables. The drink menu is a short list of classics (think daiquiris and prescription juleps) for purposes of efficiency, but the skilled bar staff here will make you anything you like. Just keep it classy and leave the Fireball for 6th Street.

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