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Houston’s First Lady of Cocktails

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Houston’s First Lady of Cocktails
Written by Paula Disbrowe | Photo by Julie Soefer

Alba Huerta shares her mixology secrets in her first book

Even before the chilled coupe glass touched my lips, I was intoxicated with Julep, Alba Huerta’s acclaimed cocktail bar in Houston. First it was the visuals: a whimsical, Deco-era sculpture in a bed of crushed ice, voluptuous pewter-colored banquettes, and twinkly lights evoke the charm and old-school refinement of the bar’s namesake drink. In other words, Julep is a stylish refuge where you sip—not slam—flawless elixirs, nibble tasty bar snacks, and admire a wall of pretty, pedigreed bottles that make you anticipate your first (and second) drink. Then there’s Alba herself, unapologetically feminine with sleek chestnut hair and scarlet lips, swiftly and meticulously mixing cocktails while sharing details about spirits, obscure amaros, or an ancho-flavored liqueur. She makes it look easy, because the 38-yearold Houstonite has been working behind a bar since before she was legally able to drink. After learning the initial skills (speed, charm) at neighborhood watering holes, she moved on to master craft cocktails at Anvil Bar & Refuge in 2009. A couple years later, Huerta teamed up with Anvil’s owners to launch the Pastry War, a buzzy, lovingly curated mezcal bar. Turning her attention to refashioned Southern classics—bourbon, whiskey, and rum—Huerta opened Julep in 2014. Since then she’s stirred up numerous accolades from national publications, and become a leader in her industry—she serves on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance and as beverage chair for Houston’s annual No Kid Hungry fundraiser, and donates her talent to Rebar Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps rebuild homes damaged by recent hurricanes. “It’s important to give back because it gives deeper meaning to your life,” Huerta says. “I might not always remember all the parties and dinners I’ve thrown in my career, but I will always remember the day we tore down those moldy walls in Mrs. Wilson’s house and the day we put them back up.” Out this month and brimming with sixty-five recipes, as well as colorful stories and quirky rituals about the South’s drinking culture, Huerta’s first book, Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned (Ten Speed Press), is essential to anyone serious about their home bar. Cocktail recipes range from her iconic mint julep (along with six playful riffs, including one spiced with allspice, cinnamon, and clove) to modern creations like Topps & Bottoms, made with sunflower seed-infused overproof rum. Julep’s chapters are arranged by historically relevant themes like “The Saltwater South” and “Trading with the Enemy,” which is informed by the stories of North-South trade that continued across battle lines during the Civil War. A dozen enticing bar snacks—fried anchovy stuffed olives, deviled eggs flavored with garlic aioli, fried fideo with parmesan and cayenne—and striking photos make it a book to reference while planning your next brunch or backyard fete.

Alba Huerta

There are plenty of tips for home bartenders, including her list of essential tools—like why you need three strainers—and techniques such as muddling and pressing fresh citrus juice. You’ll learn when drinks should be dry shaken or fine-strained. Passionate imbibers can geek out on a section devoted to ice cubes and get the lowdown on of-the-moment ingredients like bitters, vermouths, and aromatized wines such as Byrrh, an aperitif made from red wine; mistelle, made from grape juice and alcohol that’s commonly added to fortified wines; and quinine.

Huerta urges readers to always use freshly squeezed juice, invest the time to make homemade simple syrup, and pay attention to the other details (like choosing quality spirits and the right glass) that transform a good drink into a great one, and a watering hole into a cocktail destination. “My book tells the story of my first years owning and operating Julep,” she says. “I hope readers are able to gain insight into the intent and care that goes into owning a bar.”

Genevieve's Garden

To celebrate her book’s release, Huerta developed the following five cocktails just for TLP. Fragrant with fresh fruit, along with floral and citrus aromas, drinks like the Wayward Sailor, Melon-Ball Fresca, and the spicy Cactus Thorn (made with tequila, ancho verde, muddled tomatillo and serrano chile) are guaranteed to put a spring in your step.

Melon-Ball Fresco

Born-Again Buccaneer

Cactus Thorn

The Wayward Sailor

Genevieve’s Garden