Now in its second year, the Time Out Austin Bar Awards is a celebration of all the best bars and bartenders—and the phenomenal drinks they make—that keep our city's drink scene at the top of its game. To help decide on the nominees and winners that truly excelled this past year, we enlisted the help of local industry experts who narrowed their picks down to an all-star cast of Austin's best talent. After plenty of deliberation, these are the best bars, bar crews and cocktails that took home the top prize. Cheers to all of the nominees and winners—and thanks for keeping our city hydrated.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Time Out Austin Bar Awards
Meet the winners of the 2018 Time Out Austin Bar Awards
Veteran Austin bartender Scranton Twohey opened Whisler's in the summer of 2013, and the bar soon became a veritable destination for both locals and visitors alike. What's not to love? The cocktail program is ever-changing and wildly unique, thanks to the creativity of its bartenders like all-star Brett Esler; the spacious patio has become the ultimate spot for post-work drinks and all-day weekend hangs; and the attached upstairs bar, Mezcalería Tobalá, is a wonderland of mezcal. If you haven't been back since their new spring menu launched, try the Beware of Sleestak made with whiskey, celery, lemon, rice wine vinegar, fenugreek and wasabi sesame seed.
Judge's take: “Whisler's has impressed me since day one, and every time I come back (often) I'm reminded of how perfect this bar is: the drinks, the atmosphere, everything. And it just keeps getting better.”
Photograph: Courtesy Whisler's/Brian Flannery
Consider drink.well. the quintessential neighborhood bar, offering both a great menu of hearty fare and inspired cocktails—all in a relaxed, friendly setting. Owner Jessica Sanders is always coming up with creative concoctions, like the Oaxacan Maid, a vibrant libation made with 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 its low-key vibe has made it a local favorite since opening in 2012.
Judge's take: “Drink.well. manages to remain an enigma in the over-ceberal realm of Austin cocktail culture. Keeping it accessible, refrained, and superbly fixated on simplicity, the friendly cocktail haven is an unforgettable Austin staple. You can always find an exceptional sip and memorable conversation with the family (both behind and in front of the bar) that this North Loop hero has fostered.”
Photograph: Courtesy drink.well./Claire McCormack
Aviary Wine & Kitchen
Our Best Wine Bar winner is a relative newcomer—the bar completed its transformation from a boutique decor shop to a full-blown wine bar in late 2017—but it's already become a bonafide South Austin gem. Owners Marco Fiorilo and John Coronado have created a space that makes wine fun again, offering educational classes and a wine list, curated by beverage director Alex Bell, that categorizes wine by icons such as Willie Nelson, Biggie Smalls and Robin Williams. Their Wednesday happy hour is a must, with half-off their "dirty dozen" bottles.
Judge's take: “Aviary has been a welcome addition to the bar scene in Austin, with on-point, current selections; delicious food options; and wonderful service. Alex Bell is working his magic behind the bar, to be sure.”
Photograph: Manny Pandya Photography
If you were disheartened to see the former Longbranch Inn go, your tears quickly dried when it was transformed into Nickel City, a refreshingly unpretentious cocktail bar with classic cocktails, inventive variations and a legit Detroit-inspired food truck out back (shout-out to Delray Cafe). Since opening in early 2017, the Nickel has become a neighborhood dive bar staple—even if it's not in your neighborhood. You'll find everything here from $4 local beers to NOLA-inspired frozen drinks, and the tiny Cash Only bar in the back allows talented industry friends to test out new creations. Plus, with weekly events like trivia and whiskey flight nights (hell, there was even a recent euchre night), there's always something going on.
Judge's take: “How is it that Nickel City showed up and immediately felt like it had been there for years? If I'm not ending my night there with a Coney dog and some whiskey, then I did something wrong.”
Photograph: Hunter Townsend
The original ‘Midnight Cowboy Modeling & Oriental Massage’ sign has been taken down, but a single red bulb still lets you know where to find this hidden bar that has become a beacon of refuge amongst Dirty Sixth’s bush-league. This past year saw new bar manager Tacy Rowland reinvent Midnight's menu with inspiring cocktails like the The Icebreaker made with gin, St. Germain, saffron rice syrup, green tea and basil; or the tiki-inspired Deja Vu that comes out with an absinthe flame. Stay tuned for their new seasonal menu dropping soon.
Judge's take: “Tacy and her team are killing it here. The cocktails are wild without being intimidating, and I learn something new about what I like every time I'm here.”
Photograph: Layla Mays
This third outpost from the team behind Ramen Tatsu-ya has received a slew of national accolades since opening in 2016, but their bar program is just as phenomenal as their Texas-Japanese cuisine. Beverage director Michael Phillips has crafted a playful drink menu that includes mash-ups like the Matcha Painkiller (buckwheat shochu, tequila, pineapple, coconut, matcha tea) and the Okinawa old fashioned using Okinawan black molasses, not to mention the impressive sake and shochu list. Your drink journey here starts even while you're waiting for a table to open up—grab a Sopporo from the tiny bar outside before heading in.
Judge's take: “To be honest, I come to Kemuri more for the drinks than the food. Their sake list is on point.”
Photograph: Courtesy Kemuri Tatsu-ya
Wright Bros. Brew and Brew
Caffeine and alcohol make fine bedfellows at this design-minded East Austin cafe that boasts nearly 40 taps of beer and one of the city’s most ambitious coffee programs. When it comes to beer, they are true champions for keeping it local—on any given day, you'll find Austin Beerworks, St. Elmo, Live Oak and Pinthouse on draft, and Jester King and Hops & Grain in bottles. Pair your brew with on-site bagel partners, Rosen's Bagel Co., and your day is set.
Judge's take: “Brew & Brew is one of my favorite places to meet friends, get some work done, and enjoy spectacular brews of all types.”
Photograph: Courtesy Wright Bros. Brew & Brew
The Roosevelt Room
Co-owners and operators Justin Lavenue and Dennis Gobis have created something truly impressive with the Roosevelt Room—and it extends beyond this cocktail bar's top-notch service and phenomenal cocktails. They've created the best bar crew in Austin, a superhero squad of talented professionals like Sharon Yeung, Eric Day, Alex Shoemaker, Brice Lane, Caer Ferguson and more, all of whom are all-stars in the profession. Our advice? Become a regular here and get to know each and every one of the Roosevelt Room's team members—and buy them a drink while you're at it.
Judge's take: “The excellent, talented crew at Roosevelt Room functions like an Olympic dream team: no weak players, no loose ends and unparalleled consistency in execution. They distill the sometimes larger-than-life sophistication of classic cocktails into a friendly and approachable experience for every single person that walks through the doors.”
Photograph: Courtesy The Roosevelt Room
Seven Grand's 400-plus (and growing!) whiskey collection is nothing to mess with. The downtown whiskey haven opened in the summer of 2017, and has quickly been established as the place to start—or further—your whiskey education. Decked out in cabin-inspired decor, the bar offers five classic whiskey drinks (old-fashioneds, Sazeracs, etc.) in addition to beer, wine and other craft cocktails, but you should really put your fate into the hands of Seven Grand's knowledgeable staff, who will guide you through their copious collection.
Judge's take: “The selection [of whiskey], level of talent and experience from the team—including the Whiskey Society bringing in the biggest names in whiskey to educate—is beyond anything anyone in Austin is doing. They deserve this award.”
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman
Frozen Bee's Knees at King Bee Lounge
King Bee Lounge has remained a stalwart in Austin's dive bar scene, thanks in part to a cult favorite: the Frozen Bee's Knees, which takes home this year's Best Cocktail in Austin award. Made with gin, honey and lemon juice, the simple but refreshing cocktail is topped with an edible flower. Order a couple on a hot night and you're golden.
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Darcy W.
Puff Puff Pass at Kemuri Tatsu-ya
Kemuri Tatsu-ya took home its second prize of the night with the Most Instagrammable Cocktail award for the Puff Puff Pass, a tongue-in-cheek creation meant for two IG-happy drinkers (good thing, since it's price tag is a cool $24). Served in a giant blowfish bowl, the drink is made with sweet potato shochu, aged rum, pecan, grapefruit and five spice bitters. And yeah, sure, it's great for the ’gram, but it's also an incredibly good cocktail.
Judge's take: “Puff Puff Pass is so photogenic you just can't NOT take a picture! Plus, the name is always good for a laugh.”
Photograph: Jody Horton