From female bar owners to all-female sommelier teams, Houston’s curated beverage scene is littered with unmistakable talent. Despite challenges faced by women in any industry these days, many of Houston’s most talented female bartenders are blasting past the stereotypes of this male-dominated industry of yesteryear and rising to the top. In their arsenal are imaginative beverage programs (basic cocktails don’t apply here). Their approach to service is paramount, but evolving with the way that people are drinking today is how they are making their names. With its illustrious glow up of culinary talent, Houston is full of top-tier pros in the food and beverage industry, and many of these bar professionals are implementing their years of careful practice into respected leadership roles. It is high time that these females bask in the recognition they deserve. Here is Houstonia’s list of ladies kickin’ butt in the booze world:
Alex Faulkner, Captain/Sommelier at MARCH
One of three talented women on the sommelier team at posh Montrose tasting menu restaurant MARCH, Alex Faulkner, 28, has brought a wealth of knowledge and sophistication to the wine list from her ripe seven years in the business. A native Texan, Faulkner studied in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York and spent a portion of last year traveling through Europe, honing her craft. “What grows together, goes together,” is one of the adages she took away from her trip to Italy and France. A village wine paired with traditional food that’s from the region is how they do it, she explains. But opinions on red versus white wine don’t have to follow a hard and fast rule. “There are always those who want only red or white wine year-round, and it is my sincere belief that people should drink what they like.” Of the substantial list at MARCH, she says the importance of having options is key. “Having a diverse wine list can fill those needs, both seasonal and not.”
Kris Sowell & Laurie Harvey, Owners of Ladies of Libation
Appropriately coined the “Ladies of Libation,” Houston hospitality veterans Kris Sowell and Laurie Harvey run a full-scale consulting company that aims to assist bars and restaurants in bringing their vision of a successful bar program to fruition. What do the ladies consider hot at the moment? “Agave spirits are on fire, and so is champagne!” With their savvy outlook on cocktail and spirit trends, the duo has built cocktail programs, including visually appealing libations and mixed flights at waterfront destination Pier Six Seafood in San Leon and sexy, late-night lounge Sugar Room on Washington Avenue. Their latest victory, however, was the release of a single barrel bourbon with Old Forester in 2021. A more tuned-in consumer base is keeping them on their toes. “With more folks crafting drinks at home, we know that customers are more educated on spirits than they were 10 years ago, so the expectation for great cocktails is high.” They point out that versatility is key. “What works at a beachy, seafood-focused restaurant like Pier Six with frozen cocktails and blonde hurricanes doesn’t work at a fantasy bar program like the plush speakeasy concept like the Sugar Room.”
Emily Schmeltz, Bar Manager at Potente
Resident bar chef and manager at Potente, Emily Schmeltz, 33, is a pro at helping guests pair the perfect Apricot Sidecar or Espresso Martini with chef Danny Trace’s famed Spaghetti al Tartufo. Like Trace, she pays careful attention to sourcing fresh and local ingredients to incorporate in her bar program. She believes that bartenders should revert to the simplicity of what they can find around them, as in fresh produce and fragrant herbs from the local farmers market, in the same way that many chefs do. “Just because you can source a product or exotic liqueur from halfway across the world, it doesn’t mean you always have to!” Schmeltz’s passion for food, cocktails, spirits and wine stems from more than 15 years of working in hospitality; she admits. She continues to educate herself even when she’s not behind the bar by browsing new concoctions on Instagram and Pinterest, or watching cooking shows.
Mary Ellen Angel, Bartender & Owner of Angel Share
After a decade as general manager of beloved Downtown charity bar Okra Saloon, Mary Ellen Angel, 42, made a true boss move, purchasing the bar and rebranding it Angel Share, a moniker based on her surname and the bar’s vision to donate to local charities. In the brief time that it has been open, organizations like The Women’s Fund and Champions for Children have benefitted from donations, with a long list of others in the queue for ‘22. Angel, who has more than 25 years in the industry, is a force to be reckoned with. This unique concept, boasting a bar menu of classic cocktails and riffs on local beer, begins a new phase. And Angel is ready. “We built up a fun clientele over the years — with travelers, sports fans and locals supporting charity and bar hopping at the same time,” she says, noting that her slice of Downtown, situated neatly between Main Street and Market Square Park, is still that charming pocket surrounded by historic buildings and great views of the Houston skyline. Naysayers tell her that she’ll never strike it rich running a charity bar, but Angel is not bothered, saying she’s looking to make her mark in the world. “I can help many organizations through this bar — simply by having a drink and hanging out in the community. That’s what drives me, making the world a better place.”
Alba Huerta, Owner of Julep
With 20 years of experience under her belt, Alba Huerta, 41, is considered one of the city’s top beverage experts. And for good reason. The seasoned bartender runs a successful cocktail bar named Julep and penned a cocktail book in 2018 by the same name. “I have wanted to own my own place since I stepped behind the bar two decades ago; it was just in the cards for me,” she admits. As a professional in an industry that is constantly changing and trending in different ways, Huerta says she does her best to stay informed. “I read something focused on spirits almost every day — a chapter in a book, an article, you name it, I read it,” she says. “And, I’m a menu junkie — I like to read both food and beverage menus to see what ingredients are being used, and what story the creator is trying to tell.” Like notes in a song, she views written menus as a different kind of a language. “They tell a story of ingredients and a story of people.” That knowledge of spirits and ingredients is reflected in Julep’s wondrous cocktail menu, which journeys through a healthy balance of time-honored classics like a well-balanced bramble or a boozy and bitter Manhattan.
Sarah Troxell, Bar Manager at Nobie’s & Toasted Coconut
When the super-skilled Sarah Troxell, 33, isn’t manning the bar at Nobie’s or its sister concept Toasted Coconut, she is training and competing for Speed Rack, an all-female high-speed bartending competition that spotlights talent from around the country. The Galveston resident, who has been active in the biz for more than 15 years, says there is much in the beachy town that stimulates her creativity. “I am inspired by the coastal plants, the birds, the salty ocean air and daydreams of what may be arriving on boats into the ship channel from another part of the world.” The constant flow of culinary juices has resulted in Troxell achieving the title of Culturemap Houston Bartender of the Year and National Winner for Speed Rack Season 9. She may be a talented — and speedy — shaker and mixer of things, but she is also blazing a trail for other females by sniffing out upcoming talent. “My biggest challenge is hiring more female bartenders. I want more boss babes on my team!”