I recently returned from San Francisco exposed to one of those coastal trends which eventually seep into the interior by the time they've burned through their "cool quotient" at home: the high-end cocktail bar. I had the pleasure to visit Bourbon & Branch, a hip establishment firmly attached to the Prohibition-era speakeasy atmosphere, with less than the customary 1 month in advance reservations thanks to friendly connections.
When I say Bourbon & Branch wears speakeasy on its unassuming facade, it's a compliment to the attitude it intentionally evokes. Reservations are not only a date and time for your drinking party to commence but also to receive the appointed evening's password. The bar's outside is an ode to illicit days past, displaying a sign for the local chapter of the Anti-Saloon League. You press the electronic buzzer located next to the front door, an obvious anachronism but not a mood killer; a panel on the front door slides back and the hostess requests the password. Spirited conspirators, we were quickly admitted and shown to our table.
The interior was dimly lit, the tables extremely long and narrow, all the better to crowd more crooked kin into the bootleg hall while protecting their privacy. It's difficult to comment on the decor since it was so difficult to see it but it felt very quaint and intimate. Here you are supposed to linger, sipping complex creations and absorbed in discussion. The experience isn't one to rush but an opportunity to pause for an hour or two in an increasingly always connected, instant response required world and instead reconnect with company in flesh and blood and booze.
You won't find a simple rum & coke or a vodka tonic on the menu. Bourbon & Branch traffics only in the sophisticated end of the mixology spectrum. Classic bourbon, whiskey, gin and such cocktails of the era plus modern concoctions fill out a rather extensive list of choices.
I mention Bourbon & Branch and this rapidly emerging high-end cocktail culture to give you some idea what Austin's newest bar, Townhouse, is trying to import to a little corner of 5th street in the Southwest. We met the bar's proprietor Juan-Carlos Rubiralta, or J.C. as he introduced himself, on Friday night and were treated to an introduction to the Townhouse philosophy as well as the services of it's mixologist-in-chief. Both men went out of their way to present a new attitude towards drinking.
Austin sits at the nexus of several nightlife cultures: a college town, seat of government, live music capital, and youthful affluence thanks to tech industries such as Samsung and Dell. Such an auspicious financial environment coupled with the density of bars on the nationally (in)famous 6th street and growing prominence of the Warehouse district on 4th and a new hub springing up on 5th naturally and easily leads to a bar-hopping lifestyle. But Townhouse seems to want to be an animal of a different stripe.
Like Bourbon & Branch, the interior featured very dim lights but instead of booths with long, skinny tables, the bar featured cozy couches to assemble your party around for intimate discussions as you sample some of the inventive cocktails. The bartenders are also quite helpful and are eager to uncover your tastes and make recommendations. I found it interesting to see the bar's full menu, ingredients included, displayed on a placard that stretched from floor to ceiling. The backlit row of infusers behind the bar to stir up such chimera as catnip vodka also conjure a unique environment.
Drinks are an assortment of ingredients, many exotic to those uninitiated with cocktail culture, and come with a price tag ($11-14) that may be off-putting to the casual drinking crowd looking to grab a quick shot, assess the singles prospects, and then forge ahead to new hunting grounds. But for those looking to try something a little different, Townhouse has creativity and atmosphere in spades.
Only time will reveal if this experiment in the leisurely, sedentary drinking, savoring flavor over the chase, that's currently so popular in trend-setting American circles, will succeed here in Austin. I certainly believe J.C. and his crew are off to a good start.
Good luck! Looking forward to that catnip vodka next time I stop in for a drink.
305 W 5th St
for club info dial 512-472-5288