By Jeff Berndt
Photography by Hannah Vickers
A natural makes the difficult look easy. Those who master their craft move with a certain confidence and grace, not only at ease, but putting those around them at ease as well.
Welcome to the tale of the bartenders: a band of professionals whose careers are based on serving others. At times they go unnoticed, and at times they are on center stage, engaging an audience. On any given night they may play the role of friend, parent, counselor, listener or tourism guide, always keeping rolling without letting anything spin out of control.
In his collegiate days at Texas A&M University and Hardin-Simmons University, Drew Garison admits he wasn’t a scholar. But beyond the campus, he became a serious student, consuming books about his trade and spending considerable personal time pursuing and refining his craft. His travels of study have taken him to conferences in New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio and points between working with producers of wines and alcoholic beverages, as well as well-established bartenders. He works side-by-side with “star tenders” from elite New York City and Miami Beach establishments, honing his craft at each event.
“I used to sit at some of the better bars in Austin and Dallas and study what was happening behind the bar. I could sit and watch for three or four hours at a time,” said Garison, who manages the bar at Public Haus, which opened in January in downtown Abilene.
“I was always told that one of my faults was that I was a ‘people pleaser’,” Garison said, “Now I’m fortunate to have a career that requires me to be a people pleaser. This business is not about the bartender, it’s about making sure the guest is having a good experience.”
Garison was on the verge of leaving Abilene in hopes of locating his dream job when approached by Ryan Feerer. Feerer was in the initial stages of launching Abi-Haus and Public Haus and knew of Garison’s passion for creating unique drink experiences.
“I asked him if he would rather be a pioneer and help change the perception of downtown Abilene, or go somewhere else and be a pawn, lost in the crowd,” Feerer said of his pitch to keeping Garison in Abilene.
The pitch worked. After launching Abi-Haus restaurant, the tandem launched Public Haus in January. The atmosphere is a stylized, contemporary bar featuring an 80-drink cocktail menu with well, wine and designer and standard beers available. After nearly leaving Abilene, Garison found his dream opportunity didn’t require him to vacate.
“I learned a lot from some of the best bartenders around, and they were great about sharing knowledge, but I needed the right situation, and it wasn’t here,” Garison said. “Then the discussion about opening Abi-Haus and Public Haus came up, and I got the call and heard the vision. It’s perfect for what I want to do, and they’ve trusted me to get it done.”
One of Garison’s traits is to identify what’s going on in the life of his guest. It helps him understand his client, the circumstances and make the right recommendation for a drink when asked. Events can range from divorce and marriage, to promotion or loss of a job, to a casual night among friends or couples gathering to relax over a glass of wine. He sees and serves them all.
On a mid-week, winter evening, the downtown streets are nearly bare. But inside the Beehive Restaurant the dinner hour is buzzing and bartender Jarod Newberry is on the move.
Inside the bar leading into the restaurant, there is an eclectic mix of guests: A birthday party in one corner, a cowboy sitting at the window, young professionals at the bar, a couple of girl friends sharing conversation and a glass of wine, and a group of couples waiting for a dinner table to open. The reggae, island sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers drifts in the background, attempting to wash away the sub-freezing temperatures outside.
Newberry moves fluidly around the room without missing a beat. His comfort carries over to guests, who talk, laugh and tell jokes with him. In a 20-minute period, he mixes 30 drinks, pours 16 glasses of wine, pops the tops off of countless beers without looking at bottles, and mixes seven of the house’s specialty drink: Long Island Iced Teas. He’s in his element.
“We have a two-drink limit on the Long Island Iced Tea,” Newberry said, while mixing up a couple heading for the dining room.
A nearby guest laughs, “You can get three, but you gotta know the password.”
Without hesitation, Newberry smiles. “I don’t even know that password.”
After watching the Long Island Tea come together with a final splash of the restaurant’s secret blended ingredients and a quick splash of Coke, a two-drink limit appears responsible. It’s clear that a third 16-ounce drink might transport guests beyond the East Hamptons and Montauk of Long Island to somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. But the Beehive’s goal is to make sure guests have an enjoyable night, not an irresponsible one. The ancient family secret mix is safe with Newberry, who has been with the Beehive since it’s opening seven years ago. The evening of the last Willie Nelson concert in Abilene, more than 240 Long Island Teas were produced.
“This doesn’t feel like a job,” Newberry said while mixing a Manhattan. “This isn’t a corporate style bar pushing drinks at people. Our food is amazing, there’s a personal touch in what we do, and our owners are involved. You don’t have to call an 800 number or send an email and wait for three days to get a response.
“Knowing your guest is one of the keys,” Newberry said of being a quality server. “Getting to know the special twists and stuff people like in their drink is part of the challenge and fun of the job.”
At that point, a waiter and waitress show up at the window and Newberry is back at his task.
For the past 15 years, Steve Currie has been serving drinks at Perini Ranch. He has seen wine go from a dormant experience to a continually-expanding trend. The growth led Perini Ranch into hosting an annual wine summit for the past decade.
“When I first started at Perini’s, wine wasn’t that big of an item for us,” Currie said. “It’s tripled in the past 15 years. It’s become more sophisticated and diverse and our selection continues to grow to meet the demand.”
On a typical weekend night, Perini’s will serve dinner to 200 guests, representing roughly 400 drinks. Currie points to margaritas and martinis as two of the more popular cocktails. The experience of being behind the bar is based in simple terms and tasks, one that took Currie time to understand.
“I’ve learned to listen closely to our guests and that communication is essential. I’ve memorized most of our local customers – what they like and how they like it,” Currie said. “I think all of us have learned to pour everything we have into what the customer wants and try to brighten their day.”
Known as one of the premiere steakhouses in the area and beyond, Currie says the bar places equal emphasis on the quality of ingredients behind the bar. The goal is to give the customer a total dining experience.
During his Perini’s tenure, Currie has served the likes of Robert Duvall, Rick Perry and Billy Bob Thornton – as well as the local mix of cowboys and area business clientele. His passion for bartending originated from his dad’s involvement during the days of Old Abilene Town, where he bussed tables and watched intently what was happening behind the bar as a teenager. Once he turned proper age, his days of mixing drinks, serving his clients and fine-tuning his skills began. He’s been serving drinks in the Big Country for more than two decades.
Contrasting the ranch house motif of Perini Ranch is the vaulted, high-ceilings and classic elegance of Copper Creek. The double-sided, horseshoe shaped, marble top is where bar manager Victor Gloria is crafting his art of mixology. Like painters working with various styles and brush strokes, Gloria applies blends of mixes from other masters and then adds his twist to create unique cocktails.
The 25-year-old Gloria credits his predecessor Raul Garcia for teaching him key points to creating a unique bar experience for guests. Garcia’s experience of tending bars in Austin, Miami Beach and New York City was passed down to a willing listener who took the advice to heart. For the past three years, Gloria has been gradually enhancing and building off of those cornerstones – while researching books and the internet for innovative ideas.
“I learned a lot from Raul, and he shared so much knowledge with everyone. I soaked it all in because I want to the best bar manager possible,” Gloria said. “Copper Creek has allowed me to excel and allows me to be as creative as I want to be. They’ve told me not to be afraid to push the boundaries.”
When it comes to pushing boundaries, Gloria says the key is to have working knowledge of liquors, wines and beers to create a balanced menu. He also knows, like any good cook, the need to experiment in a controlled environment before serving the public. He tastes and has others test new blends prior to adding to the mix.
But Gloria claims his most important ingredient doesn’t come from a bottle. Two key elements are 60 to 90 minutes of preparation prior to a shift to be ready for the pace and possible rushes of the evening. The other is the ability to interact with guests.
“You might have someone come into the bar who might be having a not-so-great day and it’s our job to flip it,” Gloria said. “Our job provides us with an opportunity to get to know people. Once you know them, it allows us to create a drink that fits their personality.
“You have to work with pace and poise and compartmentalize in order to deal with a crowd,” Gloria said. “There’s no telling what may happen on a given night, so being prepared before a shift is crucial to a good night.”
Just then three guests enter the room, Gloria receives two hugs and a handshake, then asks what they want to drink. Two ask him what he thinks might suit them, so he shares ideas and gets nodding approvals on his recommendations before heading off to the bar.
Across town at Remington’s, Misty Gonzales is preparing for a Saturday night Bachelorette party while a group of four regulars sits at the end of the bar and the tables are occupied with guests from various walks of life. As director of food and beverage for the Elegante’ Hotel, as well as managing Remington’s, Gonzales is a poised delegator, displays quick instinctive skills in managing a crowd and adds a personal touch with customers.
“As a bar that’s in a hotel, we have a unique experience for out of town guests,” Gonzales said. “Hospitality and personality are critical to everything we do here. Our guests often ask us what there is to do in Abilene, so our job is to listen to what they want and inform them of their options. There’s plenty to do if people will get out and try what’s available.”
A native of Houston, Gonzales moved to Abilene through a family assignment to Dyess Air Force Base. During the past four years, she has honed her self-taught skills at Remington’s and has become one of the bartenders others in town are quick to point out as an innovator for mixology. Unique in her own right, she often points guests seeking an Abilene experience to the steakhouses and downtown scene.
“I’m excited to see the new restaurants and the quality of the unique dining experiences coming to downtown,” Gonzales said. “It helps give Abilene a unique personality and experience for our visitors rather than just sending them to chain restaurants.”
Gonzalez points to the personalities of people and place in creating a unique customer experience.
“Remington’s is Abilene’s best-kept bar secret,” Gonzales said. Her smile is constant and contagious to her customers as she engages their requests. “We’ve brought in live entertainment, acoustic guitars and softer music to create a chilled, pool vibe.”
Among the restaurants Gonzales references is Lytle Land & Cattle, where bar manager Tone’ Castillo hangs his proverbial hat. A former ACU biology student, Castillo left Abilene after school only to return a few years later, citing his deep-rooted love of the community as the main attraction for his return.
“Abilene is home to me,” Castillo said. “This is a strong Christian community that’s fulfilling to me, and I don’t see me leaving. I experienced Dallas and learned a lot, but Abilene is where I’m rooted.”
His return was accelerated by a call from Sharon Riley, owner of Lytle Land & Cattle. During his collegiate days, Castillo had worked behind the bar and Riley reached out to see if he had interest in a return engagement. He didn’t hesitate with his answer. He’s gone from biology to the art of mixology.
“Cocktails are constantly changing and mixology is becoming a big trend, so it’s fun to be able to put together a drink and see someone enjoy what I create,” Castillo said. “I pour my heart and soul into a dirty, Grey Goose martini because I know how much it means when someone does it for me.”
Castillo also pours his soul into the full array of offerings, including the Absolut Texas Bloody Mary, which finished fourth in a statewide competition of roughly 200 entries last year.
However, Castillo points to the passion and compassion of being behind the bar that makes his profession fulfilling, noting that he can have as many as 20 people at the bar and be carrying on 10 different conversations. It’s a recurring theme mentioned by each server, the essence of tending bar.
“We are here to serve not only drinks, but as a willing ear, a part-time counselor and a friend to those who may want to get something off their chest,” Castillo said. “To be a bartender you have to know how to mix a drink, but to excel you have to be interested in people.”
Tips From the Bar
While it’s customary for customers to tip bartenders for quality service and mixes, several of Abilene’s bartenders offered tips to Abilene Scene readers interested in improving their home bar. Here are a half-dozen pointers shared from those behind the bar:
- Always start by drinking what you like, and then blend a cocktail based on it. Build from your personal palette, and you’ll have a more pleasurable experience.
- Use fresh fruit rather than bottled juices. Fresh is best in all ingredients.
- Don’t worry about ruining a cocktail. Cocktails originate from the blending of alcohols, so experiment.
- For enhancing chilled drinks, chill the glass. Or, if working with an unchilled glass, swirl ice around the glass prior to pouring the drink. Swirling ice then disposing of it keeps the drink from diluting.
- Use quality liquors with a home bar to develop a good palette for personal tastes. Vodka, rum, gin, bourbon and/or whiskey, triple sec and fresh fruits. Basic ingredients provide a myriad of drink options.
- Invest in quality shaker, muddler and tall spoons.