Houston is known for hosting a few Super Bowls, ungodly traffic and oil and gas, but to the rest of the country, H-Town isn't quite synonymous with cocktail bars and mixology. That's a shame. In an effort to share the stories of Houston's best bartenders, we're kicking off a series profiling competitive drink makers and their tasty stories.
What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Nathan Reffell and I am a bartender at the Marriot Marquis and an ambassador for Hendricks Gin in Texas.
What got you into the bartending industry?
I came into scene around the time people started realizing, Hey, this could be a real career, not something you just do while you’re in college. I got into bartending around when I was 20 and Anvil opened up on my 21st [birthday] and it inspired me to really look at my job and take it seriously. Besides the money, which was good, but also I think what really sustained me was the travel and networking with colleagues all around the county—the world even.
What is mixology to you?
Mixology is really an understanding of what one is doing, the spirits they are serving, the ingredients they’re using. A lot of bartenders are great showmen, they are great hosts, but they don’t have an understanding of what they are putting into their glass. Once you start caring about that it will improve the quality of drinks you put out and the way you approach making cocktails.
What would you say is to contribute to the influx of bars and mixologists in Houston?
Houston had a big culinary boom and then right behind that, mixology followed suit. As of now we’re experiencing a beer resurgence with breweries popping up every week. I think people wanted more quality—we started seeing it in other major cities, New York, San Francisco, Chicago. It’s in demand! I’d say Anvil was really the catalyst—they didn’t start the trend, but they saw the demand and took advantage of it.
Is there a specialty cocktail that you can say you put your own twist on, and what goes into it?
I’m a big daiquiri person, the perfect daiquiri, hand-squeezed lime juice, a dash of sugar. Adding a splash of absinthe changes the daiquiri, which is great! I like using fresh ingredients. A cocktail I used for a competition in Chicago, it was called the Garden Party, I wanted to use everything fresh—fresh red bell peppers from a farmers market, juiced a cucumber, cracked black pepper, gin. With those botanicals in there, you got really fresh but savory notes.
When you’re off the clock, what are your favorite watering holes?
I love all the bars in the Heights, but the place I’m there like twice or three times a week is Johnny’s Gold Brick. Love the bar. Love the concept. I think that’s where all bars are going. All bars, I feel need to have that hybrid. They need to have that dive bar feel but also be able to make a great cocktail. They have a great team there. Second, Barringer Bar, Robbie Cook and them do a great job! Rose Gold is one of my new favorite bars, recently just opened, also a hybrid bar. Fourth, Wooster's Garden. To be in Midtown, I didn’t think what they’re doing would work, but they do a very good job putting out quality craft cocktails. Finally, Grand Prize Bar, it’s a staple. I grew up with it. I still remember when they first opened. Any time I’m entertaining an out-of-towner I take them to Grand Prize. It’s a bartender’s bar.
What made you choose to meet up at Ritual, where we are today?
I know Peter Clifton, I know the bartenders here, and they run a great program. I do believe this is one of the standout programs that do not get talked about. Peter Clifton knows lots about spirits, and [the team at] Ritual don’t get the recognition they rightfully deserve. This is why I chose it, I try to support that. I’m glad I work for a brand that I can support enthusiastic bartenders and they can support my brand in turn.