Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a Texas bar with a spirit list that would take you years to get through.
NAME: Anvil Bar & Refuge
LOCATION: Houston’s Montrose neighborhood
ON THE JUKEBOX: The Suffers, Johnny Cash, The Roots
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): The Brave cocktail: Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, Tequila Cabeza, Averna amaro, Royal Combier liqueur and Angostura bitters
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): A 1-ounce pour from the Break-Even Bottle (see below)
WHY WE LOVE IT: Around the corner from one of the largest private art collections in the country is one of the largest liquor collections in the country. “We have about 800 spirits right now,” says Bobby Heugel, owner of Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge. “Our selection is one of the best, both in terms of its size and how it’s curated.” Heugel personally visits a dozen distillers around the world each year to hand-select which spirits to include in the collection. Next year he plans on adding 200 more bottles. “We don’t just carry things because they’re popular,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s a craft spirit or one of the largest spirits produced in the world. What matters is if it’s well-made.”
When it opened in 2009, Anvil was Houston’s first dedicated cocktail bar. Heugel, a Houston native, hadn’t even been to another cocktail bar. This year Anvil was nominated for four Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail. “Classic cocktails aren’t hard,” Heugel says. “It’s like three or four ingredients and you put them in a glass and you shake it or you stir it. People act like it’s rocket science maybe to preserve some image of that scene.”
Not that Anvil’s cocktails are elementary. (Although most people who know about the bar’s unique spirit list come in and ask for their alcohol neat, and want to talk about the bottles.) Anvil’s cocktail list is 116-drinks long and features swills like a Fernet daiquiri served over crushed ice and The Brave, an uncompromising mezcal and tequila concoction. “Houstonians eat really spicy, bold food,” he says. “They aren’t afraid of flavors. Our cocktail style is like that. Intense.”
For Heugel, the real challenge is keeping the local crowd happy in the often rowdy shotgun-style bar. “Houstonians are really casual in terms of how they relate to bars; they aren’t going to tolerate lines or reservations,” he says. “So we just deal with it.” On a Friday or Saturday night, Anvil can get 1,200 customers, a challenge for any bar, especially one with only five bartenders and 60 seats.
As a thank-you to the customers who keep coming back, Anvil offers a one-of-a-kind, rotating bottle program. “We have what we call a Break-Even Bottle,” Heugel says. “At any time you can walk in and ask for a pour. It’s a bottle of some really crazy, high-end liquor that we sell at-cost. We don’t make any money off of it. It’s a chance for people to try something cool that they probably otherwise wouldn’t be able to try.”
The Break-Even Bottle is one of those special features that only the regulars really know about. “It’s almost like you’ve got to go to a bar a dozen times before you really get an understanding of everything that they have to offer,” Heugel says. “I’m not just talking about the volume of inventory. You may not realize a certain photo that’s been hanging on the wall of your favorite dive until you’ve been going there for a year. You may find a new album on the jukebox months later or you might meet the 70-year-old owner who rarely makes it in. Really great bars just have so many layers to them. That’s why they never get boring.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She is based in Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep