Cocktail History, Southern Style

Alba Huerta was just out of her teens when she began her successful career behind the bar. She’s been in the industry for a long time, and from bartender to manager to owner, her enthusiasm hasn’t waned. So what keeps her excited about a profession many see as just a job? One word—education.

As long as I could remember, I had the initiative to learn about product and the way things were produced and how these things came to be.

All About Agave

Visit The Pastry War, Alba’s mezcaleria collaboration with business partner Bobby Huegel, and you’ll be treated to an encyclopedic knowledge of agave spirits. Mezcal versus tequila, regulatory councils, production standards—Alba knows her agave history. That knowledge provides an immediate authenticity, reinforced by the fact that Alba won’t serve anything in the bar if she hasn’t personally visited where it’s made. That means lots of trips to Mexico, since all agave spirits are from specific regions of that country. These frequent trips, and the family businesses she visits, hold special meaning for the Mexican-born entrepreneur. “We know where they come from and we have a better attachment to them. It goes back to family; these spirits are still being produced traditionally by these families, so those are the people that we wanted to support.”

Story Time

Julep, Alba’s cocktail bar dedicated to Southern drinking culture, explores the unique history of the region.

Every drink at Julep has to make its argument as to why it’s Southern.

“Each of the house cocktails have a story that will tell you why we chose to make this drink and why we think it fits into our drinking culture.” Before opening Julep, Alba carefully researched the history of southern drinking culture but found few sources of information. “When I started researching the classic southern cocktails, there was very little documentation.” She read everything she could find, and sought guidance from The Southern Foodways Alliance, whose stated mission “documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.” After this extensive research, Alba built her menu around traditional favorites like the Sazerac, Mint Julep, and Ramos Gin Fizz.

But she’s not stopping at the classics. Alba has plans for distinct quarterly menus at Julep. The first specialty menu is called “Cocktails of the Rural South” and features drinks with names like “Snake-Bit Sprout” and “Cajun Fig Soda.” The focus is on using native ingredients “to tell a story of perseverance, resourcefulness, and Southern identity.” Alba is working on the next menu, tentatively titled “Saltwater South.” She says it’s “about the beginning of mercantilism in the South and how all of the port cities facilitated that movement.”

Continuing Education

So how does Alba keep her staff up to date on the history behind the drinks they serve, as well as the latest techniques? She brings in experts for weekly talks on everything from wine to craft ice. It keeps everyone interested and motivated and, for Alba, continuous learning is the difference between having a bar program and just working in a bar. Cultivating a respect for the past and continuously striving to improve the future seems to be the perfect recipe for Houston’s premier cocktail entrepreneur.

Connect with the Bartender

Alba Huerta owns The Pastry War and Julep in Houston, and was named one of the Top 10 Rising Star Mixologists by Food & Wine in 2015. You can connect with Alba on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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