If the service industry of the new American South could elect an official spokesperson, they’d be hard pressed to find anyone more perfect than Alba Huerta. The longtime Houston resident emigrated from Mexico as a young child with her parents and has spent nearly two decades behind the bar, helming influential spots like Grand Prize Bar and Anvil. She helped establish, and served as president of, the Houston chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild; she collaborated with Anvil owners Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd to open the mezcal-focused bar The Pastry War; and in 2014, she opened her ode to Southern drinking culture, the much-lauded Julep Houston. With her first cocktail book, Julep, releasing now, Huerta reflects on the creation of a regionally focused bar and what service to her city truly means.
How did you get started in bartending?
You’re allowed to serve [alcohol] when you’re 18 in Texas. You can’t drink, but you can serve. I was about 19 years old when I started bartending in Houston at a bar called the Timberwolf Pub. I was a freshman in college, and I ended up loving it. I moved to Las Vegas to make the decision on whether I wanted to stay in the industry, just to see a different city with a bigger service-industry focus. I loved it, but it was a bigger risk at that time—to say you wanted to bartend or open a bar. No one was writing about cool cocktails or anything. But it’s the only job I’ve ever had. Bartending was just for me, and it still is.
How did the scene back in Texas influence you as a bartender?
When I came back from Las Vegas, I helped open a bar called Grand Prize Bar—it’s one of the greatest cocktail dive bars in America. And I opened up another concept called Branch Water Tavern, which was a whiskey concept with a cocktail focus. Going to Anvil, it was a really good time in Texas for a cocktail movement and to be part of that community. It became a great home for people who felt passionate about creating cocktails. There were lots of forward-thinking cocktail programs. I managed at Anvil while Kevin [Floyd] and Bobby [Heugel] were creating all these other businesses. It was a great, hectic time.
What was your goal when you opened Julep in 2014?
It culminated into this bar after many years of being involved with the Southern Foodways Alliance and understanding how cocktail culture was a part of that. Julep became a program that really resonated with everything I’d done up to that point. I was learning more about regionally focused ingredients, and it resonated with our clientele. I think it was a combination of trying to choose something and allowing it to become something, and nurturing that. It was constantly creative. In 2011 in Texas, we were all just thinking about “How do you make your Old Fashioned?” and just getting the classics under our belt. By the time I opened Julep in 2014, the menus had gotten very thoughtful and charming, and it was a great combination of what was classic and progressive, which I love.
How did the book come together?
We wrote the book chronologically following the order the menus came out. The intention wasn’t, “Hey, let’s write a book,” it was more like, “Hey, this looks like a book.” Thinking about the launch of a Southern regional cocktail bar, how do we define it through a liquid culture of menus? We looked at it as a very long timeline, thinking it would take at least a year or year and a half of menus, thinking about seasonality, to have someone understand the mission of the bar. Then it got a little more micro-organized—looking at the different ingredients from each season, and even more so, the kinds of stories we want to tell and the characters we want to represent. It was so great to have the history of all those menus.
What draws you to the South, and what’s the hallmark of drinking culture there?
I’m an immigrant, and I think that’s a big part of why the American South calls me. I was brought here by my parents, and in Houston I always felt included. I got to grow up in a city that was very multicultural and constantly culturally changing, and I see a lot of that in the new American South. Plus, the food is a big component for me! I think it’s the familiarity of having those ingredients that remind you of your childhood or family gatherings—something that really resonates with your palate. I think one of the cocktails that’s a great example of that for me is the Tops and Bottoms (sunflower seed-infused rum, quinquina, pamplemousse rose). It really tastes like going to a baseball game—like sunflower seeds and hot summer days; it’s a memory lane kind of cocktail.
What does your average day look like now?
I’m frequently behind the bar, and I’ve been very blessed to have a great core staff. But always working on drink development is a part of everyday life; it’s like exercising a muscle and not letting the product get too far away from you or your guest because, ultimately, my guests are there to see me and say hi. But I’m sure you heard a little something about this hurricane we had. There’d been a lot of irons in the fire and talk of another Julep in another city, but then you see your city go through a crisis, and you realize there are so many things you can do and so many ways you can focus your energy. At the moment, I’m working with some friends to build a nonprofit to restore homes in low-income neighborhoods. During Hurricane Harvey, the restaurant community really came out and did a lot of disaster relief and facilitated resources in need. So that’s where my attentions are for the next few years.
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