The city of Austin grows by 110 people per day — a town shooting up so quickly that it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the number of joints, bars and other establishments. We’ll do these venue reviews in the hope that if you come to Austin, you’ll know exactly where to go since we’ve already been there for you. And, clearly, the venue format also gives us an reason to review some of the things we most enjoy.
Half-Step is one of the latest additions to Rainey Street, a cluster of bars in central Austin. It’s a district that began five years ago with the development of the legendary (and recently closed) Lustre Pearl. While the crowds have grown and some of the low-key vibe of the entire street has been lost, Half Step retains the kind of neighborhood bar feel that made the street attractive in the first place.
Stephen’s been wanting to go to this place for quite some time. He kept bringing up the bar’s signature, the homemade ice the staff creates for its cocktails. I thought this sounded finicky and a little too precious (“What is this, ice?”) but hey, y’all needed a new whiskey review! We tried to go to the bar once before, but it looked empty or closed. Half Step opens at 7 except for on Mondays, so we got a little nervous when it was 6:55 with no sign of life on the inside. After a quick jaunt around Rainey, we returned to find that the gate opens precisely at 7. Half Step is in a renovated bungalow with a high porch, and there’s a shed in the back where the staff makes the ice every day.
The bartender, Floyd, informed us that he’d woken up in Bushwick that morning and flown back into Austin just a couple of hours before. He asked us what kind of base we wanted and we branched off from there. Bourbon or one of the other big four? Shaken, stirred, fizzed or strained? While Half Step serves cocktails with each kind of liquor base, the bartenders all seem keen on variations of the Old-Fashioned. These guys are passionate about bourbon, y’all. Floyd took his time — no “Cocktail” buffoonery going on here. The conversation was good as we talked about Half Step’s ownership (six friends went in on the bar together), old movies (William Faulkner writing lines for Humphrey Bogart, eventually resulting in this cocktail classic) and where the bartenders hailed (mostly the South after spending some time in New York).
I opted for a bourbon with citrus, and Floyd whipped up something off-menu called the American Trilogy. Starting with Old Verholt Rye, he poured in nearly equal amounts of Laird’s Apple Brandy (100 proof) and Regan’s orange bitters. After shearing off a long strip of an orange peel, Floyd crushed one and set it sideways in the glass. The result was a clear drink, the orange peel and oils the only opaque aspects. This deceived me – the drink tasted syrupy and intense. The enormous ice cube eventually opened the glass up, but seeping oil from the peel continued to dominate the flavor profile. I couldn’t taste any apple flavor, though the brandy did give the drink some chewiness and bridged the density between the rye and bitters.
I enjoyed the American Trilogy overall, but asked Floyd if he could make something less sweet. I’m glad I did. For the Kentucky Colonel, Floyd poured out some Elijah Craig 12, Benedictine liqueur, and a small dash of Angostura bitters. He also added a lemon peel. Damn! Light clover on the nose, orange in the far back, with just enough of that Elijah Craig rich oak on its foundation. Though it smelled like a bright yellow Skittle, the taste was complex and evocative without being too sweet. Definitely the kind of drink tailor-made for a patio.
While Stephen and I were originally the sole customers in the bar, patrons had trickled in while Floyd was educating us on the best cheap bourbons. Chris, the bar’s majority owner, went around talking with everyone. Stephen (still excited about the ice) asked him about it, and as Chris explained, the ice is definitely a feature — but what Half Step really deals in, instead, is great bourbon, good conversation and a friendly atmosphere. He is dead-on right. Next time, we’re bringing cigars.