Houston native Alba Huerta has spent more than a third of her life behind the bar, pouring beers and highballs at a neighborhood pub before she could even legally drink. In the nearly 15 years since, Huerta served classic cocktails at spots like Branch Water Tavern and Grand Prize Bar before joining the staff of Anvil Bar & Refuge, the cocktail den credited with ushering the "craft" approach into Houston back in 2009. "The city stands behind its local talent," Huerta says of the local scene. "It's not pretentious. It's very, very kind. Hospitality's still first. It's definitely a united front on everyone's behalf to create that vibe in the city."
Less than two years after joining Anvil, Huerta teamed with co-owners Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd to launch a mezcal-focused bar, the Pastry War. But in August 2014, Huerta opened the doors to her Southern-inspired cocktail bar Julep, focusing on bourbon drinks like Seelbachs, Boulevardiers, and the namesake cocktail — to which Huerta sometimes adds brandy, Cognac, and sparkling Gamay to the bourbon and mint. "It's been something I always thought about," Huerta says. "I think it's a dream that everybody has: They want to have their own bar." Here, Huerta talks about the Southern hospitality infused into the Julep experience, including why the act of "giving" is more important than being the world's best mixologist.
How did you get into bartending?
I was 20 at the time, because you were allowed to serve at the age of 18. I started working at this pub called the Timberwolf Pub. I would go into this bar because my friend, my roommate in college, worked there, and I would bring her lunch. I would go into the bar when I wasn't legal to drink and I knew that I didn't really belong there. I would come in and I was always overly friendly so that I wouldn't get kicked out. They never served me or anything: I was just really happy to be lounging around.
"I was terrible... I never drank. I had no familiarity with the product."
One day I walk in right before they opened and there was this storm-out moment from somebody that worked behind the bar. It was a very tense situation and I was walking in, just standing there like, "Hi, guys! How's it going?" [The owner] was like, "Hey. Come here. Do you know how to bartend?" Mind you, this was in 2000. It was a highball and beer pub. He was like, "You're smiley. Come here. Get behind this bar." I started working that night. I was terrible at my job. First of all, I never drank. I had no familiarity with the product. None whatsoever... I couldn't use a jigger. They just kept me around because I was nice and smiley. I knew that I had to be the nicest person on the planet.
When you finally turned 21, what was the first liquor you wanted to learn about?
Honestly, I always liked whiskey. It's the smell. When you can't drink and you have to smell a product all day [in lieu of tasting], that one had the most decadent smell: Cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg. It had this baking spice quality to it. That was the one that had the most tempting culinary quality to it, the most bold. I was drinking Wild Turkey 101: Later I found out I should probably restrain myself a little bit, because that was not 80 proof.
You joined Anvil in 2011: What was appealing about that job for you?
Anvil still is a bar that I have a whole-hearted devotion to. You can't leave Anvil, because it becomes a part of your being. It stays with you forever. The thing that attracted me most was what it represented in the city — it was much larger than just a bar. It represented this new wave of cocktails and it represented this general interest from a consumer to be educated. It was the first bar in the city to just devote itself to this one thing [its owners] loved. There was something very wholesome about it.
You mentioned that you were naturally drawn to whiskey first, but why the idea of focusing on mostly bourbon-based cocktails at Julep?
We definitely have a whiskey, cognac, and rum focus on the house bar. A lot of it is from the story of those spirits relative to the South and how [they] came to be important in the drinking culture of the South. A lot of it has to do with the general public and the things that they want to consume, pleasing our local demographic and our general consumer. They want to learn about whiskey, they want to talk about whiskey.
I read also that the menu was at least partially inspired by old issues of Ladies' Home Journal. How did you stumble upon all of these old magazines?
I would look for ads that were for glassware or home goods. Just for graphic style, for graphic ideas, and general knowledge to see how cocktails — if we were making cocktails at home [during that time] — where would you get that glassware. Just general curiosity, I think. The ads, to me, became very funny reading them 150 years later, but the overall design of the graphics resonated. [It's] this very beautiful, genteel, innocent type of culture and I really enjoyed using those ideas and applying them to the general menus. It was more or less for the idea of abstract design versus the actual content [of the cocktail recipes].
I wanted to ask about the LHJ thing because the word "feminine" comes up frequently when people are talking about Julep. Does being asked about being a female bartender — as opposed to a bartender — bother you at all?
"The fact that I'm a woman and I've been doing it for so long makes me very proud."No. I think there's no question that I am a female bartender. [Laughs] For me, I'm going to be labeled one way or another. The way that I feel about it is I'm very proud to be a female bartender, to be a woman behind the bar. That's more to do with the fact that I've been behind the bar for 14 years and that's a really long time for anyone: to still be developing programs, to still be the fastest force behind the bar, to not only develop the program, but on top of it to come in and work it. Very few people can do that and the fact that I am a woman and I've been doing it for so long makes me very proud. I've also been that person for as long as I can remember. The very beginning of my career was a little rocky, but once I got the hang of it, once I became very skilled I was always the fastest. I was always the most knowledgeable and I was always the one that had the best attitude to come to work. That I'm really proud of. The fact that I'm a woman is hard to not notice.
At Julep, what's the average weekend night like in terms of the vibe?
We're in a neighborhood. A lot of familiar faces. The space, the music, the lighting, everything about the bar we can control, [but] the bar's not yours anymore once it's occupied by other people. It belongs to them. I see a lot of groups of people coming in and enjoying the space. I'm very happy with that. I'm very proud to provide a space for people to enjoy and live a memory or live a moment. The space is so special that I think once people come in here, that's definitely the experience.
Tell me about some of your favorite regulars.
Oh my God. I have to talk about him: One of my best friends in the whole wide world; I've been serving this guy drinks for 12 years now. His name is Dr. Jay. He has looked the same since the day I met him. I believe Dr. Jay is probably in his late 70s now... an incredible, kind man. He likes to drink beer and every now and then he'll have a highball. He's very predictable. When he's here, when you're within three feet of him, you're in his world. He's telling you all his stories about his daughters and his grandkids and he just wants to have a good time. He wants to be your friend. It's like he's running for political office. He has a social genius unlike anyone I know.
"It's beautiful that I have that relationship with this person because of the profession that I've chosen."
I've been serving this man drinks for 12 years. I feel very happy and privileged that he's been to every bar I've ever worked at. For him, it's about the people and he wants to be around people. Every single staff I've ever had, I tell them about Dr. Jay: "He looks like this, you can't miss him. He's going to want to be your friend and it's going to be awesome." I'm 34, so I've known him for more than third of my life. It's beautiful that I have that relationship with this person because of the profession that I've chosen.
Conversely, do you get a lot of out-of-owners or visiting bartenders?
We get a lot of people from out of town, either from relationships that I built personally or just the people who will research the city and research personalities before they go somewhere. It's [also] definitely a place where, if you work in a city for 14 years, the bartenders come to see you. It's almost like a mentoring program here, at Julep. Absolutely, on both ends.
What happens when someone comes in not knowing much about bourbon, or not really knowing what they're looking for?
My responsibility as your bartender — and as your personal drinking guide — is to let you know what's out there in the world. You build a relationship. If someone were to ask for a Cosmo and you give them a Manhattan, you've lost the trust with someone who was looking to learn or looking to have a new drink. I think building relationships is really important. I used to have a couple that loved to come in and drink gimlets. The gimlet I have in the program was made with Old Tom, and they were like, "No, we don't want any gin. We want it with vodka." So I was like, "Okay, you got it." I made them their vodka gimlets for as long as I can remember, then one day, they were like, "All right, let me try that Old Tom gin." And then they switched!
But it was on their terms. They gained trust, and once they started drinking gin gimlets, they were drinking South Sides and Gin Mules. They couldn't believe they liked gin, which I thought was cool. But that's a relationship that took a couple months [to develop], and the whole time it was enjoyable. None of it was unenjoyable. That's one of the true blessings of the job: We work in an industry where those relationships can happen. You have to allow them to happen, though. [Laughs]
What's your must-have barkeeper tool?
There's a few. I like to hire people that are giving: whether it's a little bit of their time, or that are willing to accommodate, that are giving in that sense. Because it's a job [where] — whether you're making the best cocktail in the world or you're the best bartender in the world — at the end of every single day, you would have given people hundreds of things. You would have given them menus, you would have given them your attention, and you would have given them great service. Or you would have given them suggestions. It's important to hire someone who has that kind of compassion, to be able to do that over and over again through the day. Because it's one thing that doesn't stop. It's the one thing you do all day: You're constantly giving something.