Alphonso Quiñones has been in the industry for a little under a decade, starting as a parking garage attendant, and currently serving as a bartender and an ambassador for both single malt whiskey brand Westward and Casa Magdalena rum. This is his story.
The following interview has been lightly edited.
Where are you currently working?
I’m currently working at Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge, and I’ve been in the industry for nearly seven ... eight years now. I can’t really pinpoint my beginning years, but I know it’s in that realm.
What got you into the industry?
I used to be a parking garage attendant in college, and I would get frustrated going to bars and seeing the differences in drinks and thinking, “Why is this drink different from this person’s drink?” I took about a year and half to two years, while working the parking garages, reading everything and watching videos, seeing what works to become a home bartender. Originally when I wanted to go into the culinary field, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and become a chef, the reason being that he was the one who showed me how to cook ... then I realized that making cocktails are similar. Take for instance your protein, which is a steak ... your main spirit is rum, so you’re literally making a braised dish in two minutes, so it opened up my eyes and realized that this is the same art form.
What is your your specialty cocktail?
I have a couple. A Sazerac—a stirred drink that’s been a favorite of mine—and a mai tai, which is a shaken, refreshing cocktail. Those are two drinks that get bastardized a lot. For example, in the Sazerac, people add angostura bitters to it. Technically, by the book, angostura does not go into it, but I always find that a dash of it every so often in a spirit can create a different type of Sazerac, such as a brandy Sazerac or a (rhum) agricole Sazerac. With an agricole I like to add more bitters and more angostura, so we are no longer going by the book since it’s not rye whiskey, and we can go off on the deep end.
Where do you like to hang out when you're off the clock?
I don’t get the chance to come out here a lot, but I love Lei Low. This is the first bar my wife and I came to when we moved to Houston. We literally dropped the moving boxes all over our place, ordered Pink’s Pizza, and I told her I wanted to check out the tiki bar—and so did she. For that, it’ll always have a special place in my heart. Some other places: Johnny’s Gold Brick, my old alma mater, is a place I really love. Better Luck Tomorrow, everyone there is super friendly, welcoming, and on-point with what’s going on. Poison Girl you can never say no to. I’m not a fussy drinker when it comes to my days off—I’m more of the type to drink beers and shoot whiskey.
What does it mean to be an ambassador for spirit brand?
I don’t really like to say I’m an ambassador ... I’m more of a brand supporter. But if you’re going to be an ambassador you have to live, breathe, and understand where it comes from. Too many times I’ve seen people working for companies that they really don’t enjoy, just because they want to get a job.
What’s an underrated cocktail?
Whenever anyone calls out a Hotel Nacional I’m left wondering who the hell they are. Reason being, it’s a daiquiri variant; I’m Hispanic of Puerto Rican descent, and rum’s always been in my veins. Hotel Nacional comes with white rum, lime, apricot, and pineapple juice; it’s one of those drinks that’s a variant on a daiquiri with different flavors that are delicious. It’s a summertime daiquiri, and especially in this Houston heat, it just hits better.
You have three stools and an empty bar, who are you pouring for and why?
Mixologists and bar managers Angus Winchester and Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and—I’d have to bring him back from the grave—Hemingway. But he’d have to sit between [them]. You have Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who's very opinionated but is set in his ways; Angus Winchester has been around the world 17,000 times over and has so many crazy things to talk about; and Hemingway is a drunk that’s seen the world and can bullshit anywhere. I’m curious about the banter between the three of them, just to be standing there behind the bar with my arms crossed.
Can you name three people in the industry that you admire?
That’s tough. I’d have to say Bobby Huegel—he’s paved the way for what Houston’s becoming ... he started Anvil 10 years ago and is making Houston what it is. Someone who I don’t see behind the bar that much anymore, but whenever I do I really enjoy, is Peter Jahnke. He used to be at Tongue-Cut Sparrow; before that, Anvil; and before that, he was sailing the world and cooking food, and any time I see him work, it inspires me to work harder. And I hate for this to sound like I’m copping out, but Joshua Ibañez. who’s a very good friend, who’s worked hard and has been behind BLT for a very long time ... it’s always good to see him. I also have to add Kristine Nguyen over at Nancy’s Hustle; she’s someone who always makes people feel comfortable and welcomed. The third choice would have to be split between them.