Most of us sitting on this side of the bar don’t think much about how what’s in your glass is influenced by the bar’s location, its physical layout, its relationship to a kitchen or a hotel, if there is one … cocktail karma? Just bring me a gin and tonic.
Robert Millican thinks about all of this and more. When we first began our conversation, Millican was bar manager at the sprawling Westin La Cantera, where he oversaw six bars and some 30 bartenders. “I need to make the drinks doable by all the staff,” he said at the time. This put cocktails into an entirely different context.
Millican, now 31, got his bartending start at age 18 in a “family place” in Tucson, where he worked with a 50-year veteran of the bartending trade. Rounding out his education, he pursued certification as a sommelier and a tequilier (with a certificate from the Academia Mexicana del Tequila) and worked in a Tucson fine wine, spirits, and beer store as both manager and buyer. His San Antonio sojourn began in earnest when he was hired to help open the new bar at Bohanan’s. New York cocktail legend Sasha Petraske was also there consulting, and “it was an eye-opening experience,” he says.
Millican arrived at the Westin 19 months ago, just in time to help plan a total remodeling of Steinheimer’s, the resort’s cushy, flagship bar. “If all the staff knows is how to pour a Jack and Coke or open a Bud Light, well … it took six months to turn the tide. But it’s a fun thing to train staff; just teaching efficiency behind the bar is essential if you’re going to have to repeat [some actions] over and over,” he said.
Part of Millican’s new program (and his list of nearly 40 drinks) at the Westin consisted of fresh-squeezed juices, and he didn’t have to twist any arms to get me to try the classic Brown Derby made with spicy Bulleit rye, ruby grapefruit pressed in front of me, and honey. A few quick “Japanese-style” hard shakes later (“You listen to the ice, and it tells you when the drink is ready.”) and a small coupe is filled just to the rim with foamy, amber liquid. Yes — the balance is perfect: not too sweet, not too citrusy, just enough spice.
But Millican apparently had a return to the cozier confines of a more intimate bar in the back of his mind, and almost immediately after the interview he announced a move to just that kind of place. Drew’s, pitching itself as an American-style grill with a “vibrant bar scene” is due to open in the old Watermark location at 1604 and Stone Oak sometime after mid-September, and the changeup seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the differences between corporate cocktails and a small-scale craft-oriented operation.
The drinks will be “less vacationy,” for starters, says Millican. The simple food menu (including, we understand, classic pastrami) with its focus on straightforward, mostly grilled preparation has inspired “more dark spirits,” he says — applejacks, ryes, bourbons, and classic drinks such as the New York quartet of the Manhattan, the Bronx, the Brooklyn, and the Red Hook. And as the bar layout really has to do with the bar menu, just as a kitchen’s would, the bar is being totally redone for efficiency.
He will also have a team of five members plus himself, and “each team member will be proficient in all aspects of the cocktail from stirred to shaken to swizzled … and in the “equation” of cocktail building with sweet, sour, and savory ingredients,” he says.
We won’t be able to evaluate any of this until early fall, but in anticipation I asked Millican what he thought went best with pastrami, and his response was almost immediate: the Brooklyn. “It’s bold and a little sweet with great richness and mouthfeel,” he said. So, thinking rye whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and either Amer Picon or a few dashes of bitters, picture the drink with a perfumy pastrami sandwich on rye bread. Hold that thought until September. (Go easy on the mustard, too.) •
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