There's no argument that Julep is one of Houston's most important bars. Helping to tell the story of Southern cocktails, it came alive just as the city's spirits game was taking off. It also boosted the already strong reputation of its owner, Alba Huerta, who came from the Anvil pipeline and helped open The Pastry War.
Huerta, who in 2018 authored Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned, and her crew are marking five years of Julep with a party Sunday evening. A pig roast is planned. And it should be a wild night, honoring the success of a bar that has developed a deep roster of bar and restaurant professionals, and has brought plenty of smiles to patrons near and far.
In those early days, it was all hands on deck.
"It’s a huge leap from being a bartender to a bar owner, especially if you’re in a city like Houston where there aren't a lot of levels of management," says Huerta. "So at that time, I was still behind the bar after opening Julep. I was the main bartender, the main janitor. I was doing everything for the next three years."
Perseverance has paid off. We spoke with Huerta about hitting the five-year milestone, the balance of a cocktail menu, and the bartenders who've gone on to further their careers.
Before Julep, you definitely had opportunities to go elsewhere, try something different, but you stayed in Houston.
"It was the place where I wanted to be. It wasn't like 'I have to make this work.' It's 'I love this place. I love Houston and everything it has to offer.' People in this industry are in that category of jobs where they can go anywhere and see the scene. That's a beautiful part of this industry, especially in the beverage sector. There's such a cohesive network of individuals who have learned different things, so you just have friends all over the country that you can go work with, but the decision to stay in Houston just sang to me."
How did you come up with Julep, and how did you know it was the right time for it?
"What I was seeing more over the course of time—and I really have the Southern Foodways Alliance to thank for this—is there was more of a focus on not just the spirits, but on the people who were consuming drinks in this particular region. That's important: to play off what your consumer is into. How can we emulate a cocktail culture that's serving people in a region they're not familiar with? So you give it a sense of place. And we still do that in our menus and ideas, and writing the book was really instrumental in that.
"And it's not just the history of cocktails in this region, but it's also about the future of cocktails in this region. That gave us a more well-rounded approach, so it could relate to my guests from Texas or Houston."
So you thought that Houston was ready for a historic cocktail bar that could also look ahead?
"Houston is so great in that we're so familiar with so many ingredients. We are this very international, very immigrant city. I can speak to that perspective of emigrating to this city (from Mexico), and living that and growing up in that really gave me the upper hand in understanding flavors and how they're used. I grew up in that environment very comfortably. So. I really have Houston to thank for this. We're so open to trying ingredients. Everybody in this cocktail culture gave us this opportunity to explore and be.
"And when you think about the South, you think about specific places, but there's no specific lineage. With the mint julep it had this allure of being a part of so many things and so many places, and in constructing the first couple of menus, they were about regions and about people and about the saltwater South."
Has it been challenging creating the menu, swapping things out?
"We have cocktails on the menu that we can't take away. There this one particular drink, the Cherry Bounce Sour (the cordial Cherry Bounce, Mellow Corn whiskey, lemon, turbinado sugar). That was on my first menu, and I don't think it's ever coming off. It's 'I've had the worst day, I need the Cherry Bounce Sour.' You came here for something, so we're not gonna disappoint. That’s a lovely way to live. That's a lovely way to be."
What's the strength of Houston's cocktail scene?
"Houston's this thing in a beautiful way. It doesn't happen to every cocktail culture in the country, but what I'm amazed at is how these bar staffs develop. There's a shared information there that can only be if someone in the staff is great at what they do, be it spirits, or cocktail competitions, or ideas, or generating training. What I've seen is a cohesive network of groups around the city that have become really, really good. That's a testament to the knowledge of what we share and how we train our staff."
What's the biggest thing you've learned or discovered over these past five years?
"One of the systems that I've become very supportive of is that of creative management. Managing creative talent is so important to know if you want to be in the cocktail industry. How to manage creative people—a lot of times you're doing it without doing it. Over the last few years, managing talent has been amazing. I get a lot of different people that work for me that want to work for me for different reasons, and it's always talent-based. I love that so much. Everybody's good at something. How do we change the system to get different ideas to make people flourish?"
Julep's five-year anniversary party lasts 2 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Included is a pig roast, hand-rolled cigars, drink specials, a DJ, and more.