The Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston: Where Cocktails Are Cuisine

Co-owners and childhood friends craft cocktails for a mixed crowd of revelers, businessmen and couples.

America is in the midst of a cocktail revolution. After slowly building up steam since the late 1990s, bars dedicated to classic cocktails are entrenched along the coasts, in cities like Boston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Rather than slinging pedestrian, mixed drinks and light beers, these bars are dedicated to the craft of classic mixology and serve well-balanced cocktails made with the best spirits and freshest ingredients. This is the way bars operated prior to Prohibition, when bartending was a respected art. In recent years, this trend has filtered down to Texas, and no Texas bar better embodies the cocktail revival than Anvil Bar and Refuge, Houston’s own cocktail oasis located in the eclectic, culture-heavy Montrose neighborhood.

Sidle up to the bar on a crowded Friday evening and you’ll find co-owners and childhood friends, Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd, crafting cocktails for a mixed crowd of young revelers, businessmen and couples. The bar boasts a huge selection of liquors, freshly squeezed juices, house-made infusions and bitters that surface in the bar’s 10 house cocktails. Flip through the menu, past the small selection of fresh meats, cheeses and pizzas and past the selection of hard-to-find draught beers, to a list of 100 cocktails Anvil recommends customers should try at least once. The list includes classic cocktail staples like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, plus more exotic drinks like the Corpse Reviver #2, Satan’s Whiskers and Vieux Carré. “The list started out as part of our training program,” said Heugel. “Anvil bartenders have 45 days to learn all 100 drinks. But customers kept asking to see the list, so we eventually added it to our menu.”

Anvil is located on Westheimer Road in what was originally a Bridgestone-Firestone store dating back to 1959. The Anvil team gutted everything in their remodeling effort, and have fashioned the bar into an industrial-modern space, with exposed brick walls, open duct ceilings and a custom bar top made from weathered steel plating. The bar’s foot rail was constructed from railroad track; the kitchen and bathroom doors are reclaimed meat locker doors found in a Texas ghost town, and the bar shelving is from the piano store where Heugel and Floyd worked as kids. More than a style statement, the bar’s design is a product of necessity. “We did it on the cheap,” explained Heugel. “With the exception of some plumbing and electrical work, we built this place ourselves.”

The seeds for Anvil were planted long before its March 2009 opening. Heugel began bartending in college and worked at bars and restaurants from Amarillo, Texas, to Normal, Ill., to his hometown of Houston, where he tended bar at local favorite Beaver’s with his friend, Kevin Floyd. It was during these bar stints that Heugel developed an appreciation for drinks and advanced his knowledge of flavor combinations and classic cocktail techniques. In 2006, Heugel created a blog, Drink Dogma, to chronicle his interest in cocktails and spirits, and to learn from the growing community of like-minded bloggers.

In 2007, Heugel, Floyd, and friends Steve Flippo, Morgan Weber and Justin Burrow began taking steps toward opening their own bar. Drink Dogma was a free advertising medium for the future bar, and it helped to create buzz and anticipation around Anvil long before it served its first drink. “Drink Dogma allowed us to keep in contact with our readers and to update everyone on the progress of the bar,” said Heugel. Awareness garnered from the blog turned into advice and feedback from readers, interest from investors and, eventually, a slew of curious Houstonians filling the bar on opening night.

On weekdays Anvil draws small gatherings of after-work drinkers. The bartenders talk drinks with customers while shaking, stirring and muddling ingredients with painstaking attention to detail. Weekends draw bigger, louder crowds that challenge bartenders to keep the drinks coming quickly without sacrificing the quality that customers have come to expect. The majority of patrons order cocktails, trusting the menu or bartender recommendations. Beer, wine and a vast selection of spirits are available as well. Just don’t expect to substitute vodka for gin in one of Anvil’s drinks, which are crafted in the classic tradition and won’t be compromised. Heugel notes that while he refuses to substitute, he wants everyone to feel welcome and is happy to work with customers to find a drink they like.

“It’s arrogant to think that people come to your bar for just your drinks. People go to bars on their night off, or to relax with friends. It’s all about treating people right, and we do our best to ensure everyone has a good time.”

So far, it’s working. In just the few years since opening, Anvil has gained a loyal following of customers and has put Houston squarely on the map as a can’t-miss stop on the classic cocktail tour of the country.

Kevin Gray
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