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BELLY UP TO THE ANVIL IN HOUSTON
By Chris Barnett
March 18, 2010 -- Fifty years ago, fin-tailed Cadillac Eldorados and cherried-out Ford pickup trucks ruled Houston's roads, many using the Firestone store at 1424 Westheimer Road as a pit stop for a blown tire or a wheel balance. In the 1980s, the car shop about 30 minutes from Houston's Intercontinental Airport morphed into the Daiquiri Factory, which sold a pre-mixed, slushy version of the rum-and-lime cocktail that oozed out of a machine.

But that same boxy brick building is now a hot, local saloon called the Anvil Bar & Refuge. Anvil's owners have shifted into the new concept in mixology: potent cocktails authentically built from original recipes using rare liquors, fresh ingredients and infusions. They are all served in mismatched glassware rescued from thrift shops and sell for $8-$10 each.

Houston's cocktail culture has been shaken up by the young entrepreneurs/partner/bartenders behind Anvil: 27-year-old Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd, best buddies since high school, and 32-year-old Justin Burrow. And the partners sunk their money into what they pour, not the interior décor.

The 50-foot-long bar top is made from 12-gauge steel that "sat outside in the rain forever," explains Heugel. "The foot rail is a piece of old railroad track and the back bar shelving is rusted steel found outside a piano store." Tables are built from reclaimed oak wood. Six leather couches were bought secondhand. Only the chairs and bar stools are new and that's only because they were too tough to build. Windows and a set of French doors were added for sunshine. The tire store's original exposed brick walls and concrete slab floor weren't touched at all.

First timers often get the wrong impression about the Anvil. They think it's just another Texas tavern on a busy boulevard. But scan their A to Z list of "100 Libations to Try Before You Die" and it's obvious the owners are cocktail connoisseurs and not just "blender tenders."

The list starts off with an Absinthe Drip (the long-outlawed but now legal Absinthe, water and sugar) and ends with a Zombie, a mind-numbing, tasty tropical potion created in the Tiki era of cocktailing from the mid-30s to mid-60s. Anvil's version is a mixture of three Jamaican rums; fresh lime, lemon and pineapple juice; passion fruit syrup; brown sugar; and Angostura bitters.

Along with American classics, Bobby and his buddies wisely included popular cocktails native to other countries. Example: The Vesper, an odd marriage of gin, vodka and Lillet in a stemmed cocktail glass. James Bond buffs will remember him ordering a Vesper in his early novels because it was the cocktail of choice for his creator, British novelist Ian Fleming. The Vesper finally debuted on film in 2006's Casino Royale. But hard-core cocktail fans know that The Vesper is an anachronism: The French aperitif has been reformulated since Fleming originally referenced the drink in his first Bond novel, 1953's Casino Royale.

(The full list of 100 "try before you die" potables is posted on Anvil's Web site.)

Anvil's three amigos have also created their own selection of signature drinks. The best known is a complex cocktail called The Brave, which has its roots south of the border. It's a muscular mixture of Del Maguey Mezcal; Sotol, which has an earthy, tequila-like taste; Amaro, the bitter Italian digestive liqueur; and Orange Curacao. The inside of a wine glass is misted with Angostura bitters and orange zest is rubbed around the rim, then set aflame to caramelize it.

The Brave is served in a wine glass with no ice. "We accentuate the aromatics at room temperature and balance the sweetness and the bitterness of the botanicals of the different spirits in the glass," explains Heugel.

Now for the shocker. In a day when virtually anything in an iced, tall-stem glass is branded a martini, Anvil's drink wranglers make the martini the way it was originally created. "No vodka, no olive, not shaken and not dirty," insists Heugel. "It's properly made with two parts gin--I use Bombay because it's a classic dry, juniper-forward gin--one part Dolin French vermouth and two dashes of orange bitters."

The owner/bartenders are purists, so don't ask for an extra dry 10-to-1 or 20-to-1 martini, either. That takes guts when it's your currency in the cash register, but the Anvil's owners hold their ground: No dry-as-dust gin martini or the ultimate sin: a vodkatini.

Anvil is light on wine--it carries only a few obscure vintages by the glass and a dozen aperitifs--but the beer lineup is long and robust. There are a dozen hard-to-find draughts and 50 bottles of suds, mostly from American microbreweries.

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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.