To meet Ryan Roberts is to understand why and how a place like Cullen’s came to house 500 bottles of whiskey, bourbon and Scotch—officially the largest selection of any bar in Texas—many of which are among the world’s rarest. The sprawling, 38,000-square-foot restaurant recently got a new name: Cullen’s American Grille and Whisk(e)y Bar (yes, those parentheses are intentional, a cheeky acknowledgment of the two different spellings, depending on origin—“whiskey” is Irish, while “whisky” is Scottish).
The bar is but one of several successful establishments under the same roof. Others include an elegant two-story dining room serving such delicacies as duck roulade with foie gras and a fast-casual Italian joint, Bravissimo. Oh, and there’s also a craft beer bar, a catering venue with wedding cake services and a series of banquet halls. “We’re basically a hotel without the rooms,” laughs Roberts, Cullen’s general manager, sitting across from us at a table of whiskey samples, each poured into zaftig, tulip-lipped glasses that let the spirits bloom but trap the fiery nose inside.
Roberts came by his love of whiskey early. Born in County Cork Hospital in Ireland, he grew up splitting his time between Scotland and Houston as the son of an oilman, touring distilleries with his parents on weekends. (“They weren’t necessarily into whiskey,” says Roberts, “but it’s just what everyone did on the weekends in Scotland.”) After 16 years with the Pappas Group, much of it spent as a sommelier for the high-profile Pappas Bros. Steakhouses, Roberts was recruited to help open Cullen’s with owners Kevin and Sandra Munz in 2008. As the restaurant grew, so did the wine and whiskey offerings.
“I’ve been buying Pappy Van Winkle since we opened,” says the longtime connoisseur, whose drink of choice happens to be Elijah Craig barrel-strength on the rocks. From the beginning, Roberts cultivated relationships with distillers all over the globe, relationships that eventually granted him access to rare, limited-batch spirits. “So I had all these primo-picked bourbons, and then the market exploded,” he says, referring to the whiskey craze that began sweeping the country in 2012. That the craze finally arrived in Houston last year, about the same time the new Cullen’s arrived, can hardly be a coincidence, although Cullen’s isn’t exactly in Houston.
No, this Smithsonian of whiskey is housed in a quiet, well-manicured part of Clear Lake, a fact that the Inner Loop’s serious cocktail types must find odd and exasperating. They shouldn’t, though. “This is the third-largest concentration of people with disposable income in Texas,” Roberts says of his corner of suburbia, “and they’re underserved.”
He’s right. There isn’t a good spirits or cocktail bar within 30 minutes in any direction. And Cullen’s boasts cocktails worthy of its staggering booze collection, including a more graceful version of the Cosmo that pairs tart, dry cranberry juice with bitter Campari and Wild Turkey 101 rye. Another mates masterfully blended Monkey Shoulder whiskey and fresh-pressed Granny Smith apple juice that tastes like nothing I’ve ever had in Houston proper.
Should you wish to taste your way through those 500 whisk(e)ys, Cullen’s offers flights of three that range in price from $15 to $130. (At the higher end you’ll find the really neat stuff—pardon the pun—like Glenfiddich Single Cask 1978.) The flights alone would be worth a visit, but Cullen’s offers so much more than sheer variety. Indeed, after a visit to the bar, intimate and chic in that moneyed Texan way, the question may no longer be “why Clear Lake?” but instead a covetous “why not Houston?”