Thirsty Thursday: Alba Huerta, Houston’s Mix-Mistress

For this week’s Thirsty Thursday, I was lucky enough to interview Alba Huerta. Alba is a BFD (Big Freakin’ Deal) down in Houston as the GM of Anvil, Bobby Heugel’s innovative craft cocktail bar—and deservedly so. Alba and Heugel are part of the reason that Houston has become such an exciting place to eat and drink in recent years. They just opened The Pastry War, a mescal bar in downtown Houston, and this winter Alba will be opening Julep in Houston’s Sixth Ward. Alba is the SFA’s cocktail mix-mistress in residence at this year’s Women at Work Symposium.

photo courtesy of Alba Huerta
photo courtesy of Alba Huerta

1. How did you get into bartending?

I’ve been in the business for thirteen years. I started when I was 20. It was kind of a happy accident. My friend worked at The Timberwolf Pub [no longer in business] and in Texas you can actually serve when you’re 18. So they asked me one day if I’d like to be a bartender since someone had just quit. And I was horrible at it at first. I still have nightmares about it.

The first couple of months were rough. But I’m self-taught; I learned by “sink or swim.” I still have regulars from my Timberwolf era. It was a really good home. I stayed there two years then I went and worked in downtown Houston. After that I moved to Vegas for a couple years. It’s where I really gained my industry knowledge and figured out if this is what I wanted to do for a living. It was a place where food and beverage people were the dominant consumer and it was a test that made me feel more comfortable and confident in owning my own business.

I came back to Houston in 2006, 2007. Downtown Houston was pretty desolate, it was right around the time the market crashed. I never thought I’d be opening a bar in downtown Houston today, which is where The Pastry War is.

Three years ago I went to work at Anvil as their General Manager. Bobby [Heugel] had been running the bar by himself but he needed to step out to open The Hay Merchant. I took the job very seriously because I was an external hire. I still take it seriously. It’s still a big deal to me; my heart still pumps a little harder when I walk in the door. I’ve acquired such a love for it. Once you work there it never leaves you. I think it’s safe to say I’ll be behind the bar for a very long time. I recently read an article on [legendary Seattle bartender] Murray Stenson, who’s been behind the bar for 40 years and still enjoys every bit of it. So I don’t think there’s such a thing as too old to be behind the bar.

Anvil

2. What inspires you?

At the end of the day, that’s when you really need the inspiration—to reconvene and reconsider all of your choices. Because the morning is all about running to meetings. I’m very happy in knowing this is where I belong. I grew up in this industry. Sometimes being a bartender and owning a bar isn’t looked at as a valid profession. That’s why we started the Houston chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild to make people feel a part of something. I just did Camp Runamok in Kentucky [an annual bartender summer camp] this summer. It’s a passionate group of people who are incredibly resourceful and have always done things their own way. I’ve always loved that spirit. That’s what’s so inspirational.

I read trade magazines but I also like non-fiction. You never know where you’ll find inspiration! You’ll never have a good cocktail name if you’re not reading history. When you want to strike a chord with customer, you want to read everything.

I think I find the most inspiration when I’m eating, I love to create things that are memorable. For instance, I tasted marigolds in my bundt cake the other day, and it brought me back to a childhood memory of being in a hail storm in New Mexico and smelling marigolds.

3.      What do you like to drink after a long night of work?

It’s different every time honestly. Every now and then I’ll have some champagne.Most of the time there’s a new spirit I have to try, so I’ll be opening bottles and seeing how I feel about them. I generally try to taste anywhere between 10-15 spirits a week. Even if I’ve already had it, I want to refresh my palate. It’s tough with my job because I really can never have a full glass of anything, I just have to have a sip, because I need to be clear and level-headed the next day!

I actually really love making juleps. The cocktail itself is what draws me to it. It’s iconic of a Southern drinking culture and when you get the perfect one–it changes your whole day. I try to make the right drink for the right people. Juleps have all these different steps–it needs to be in a particular glass and it has to be frosted. The presentation is gorgeous–it’s very genteel. [See below for her mint julep recipe.]

4.      Can you tell us a little bit about your new bar Julep? When does it open? What can people expect? Will you be serving, well, mint juleps?

We’ll definitely have the classic mint julep. I think I’ll have at least three renditions. The opening date is most likely the end of this year or early year.  It’s taken awhile because the building is from the early 1900s building with a 1930s addition and it needed a lot of work.

It’s pretty grandiose and Southern. It’s going to be a Southern regional cocktail bar. The  focus is in putting together a beverage program that’s not just symbolic but also asking, how do we as Texans fit into the Southern culture? Texas is its own thing. We do like the autonomy. But there’s a certain spirit in Southern people that can be shared among so many. Whether it’s the southern part of France or Italy, there’s this common thread among Southern cultures. It’s very open and embracing. Maybe it’s the weather.

We spend a lot of time in our cars in Houston because we can’t walk everywhere. We yearn to be social. We look for those public places where we can unite with people—that’s my intent with Julep. We want this sense of community. We put it in a neighborhood so it can be approachable and accessible, not isolated and alienating. Julep is in the Sixth Ward of Houston, on the east end of Washington Avenue. It’s very neighborhood-like and the people who own businesses there are creative and kind.

Photo courtesy of Julep

5.      What are you most excited about for the upcoming Women at Work symposium?

I’m excited about meeting all of these awesome women! And I’ve never been to Mississippi.

Alba was kind enough to share the recipe for her Southern-style Rum Mint Julep:

  • 10-12 mint leaves
  • 3 bar spoons Turbinado simple syrup
  • 2 ounces Pierre Ferrand Cognac 1840
  • 1/2 ounce Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum
Add mint and syrup to a Julep cup and lightly press with a muddler. Add cognac and fill the cup 3/4 full with crushed ice.  Stir 20 times for dilution. Add enough ice to create a dome, pack lightly. Pour 1/2 ounce Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum over dome and garnish with mint sprig.