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Brothel-turned-bar serves up classy cocktails

Even a typical weekend night spent on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, is not for the faint of heart. But when the music portion of South by Southwest took over the city recently, the entire downtown area exploded with throngs of hipsters, dueling sound-clouds of music from nearby stages, and all the free sponsored beer one’s heart might desire.

Little did out-of-town passersby know, there was a dark, calm oasis hidden right in the eye of the storm. Midnight Cowboy, a brothel shut down just last year, was recently purchased by Tim League — the mind behind Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a chain of movie theaters that serve alcohol — and reopened as a speakeasy-style bar.

Classic cocktails and creative spin-offs have made as big a comeback in Austin as they have throughout the rest of the country. But even though speakeasy-style bars have been popping up all over bigger cities like New York and San Francisco for some time, this is Austin’s first covert-cocktail venture — and how fitting that its space had a dark side until just recently.

The location previously had a sign advertising “Midnight Cowboy Modeling and Oriental Massage” but now stands unmarked, save for the single red light kept at the front door. Reservations must be made in advance online, and the website lists a number that  gives further instructions for entering by ringing a doorbell labeled “Harry Craddock” — named after the Prohibition-era mixologist who fled the States to bar-tend at London’s Savoy Hotel.

The 48-seat lounge gets its vintage feel from tall, black leather booth seating, marble tables, tin ceiling tiles and the late 19th century-style bar, where a sculpted patron saint of prostitutes looks on. Eye-level mirrors border the room, which is lit by wall sconces that glow like embers; exposed brick walls reach toward the ceiling as a reminder of the swanky lounge’s sordid past. Three former “massage rooms” in the back have even been converted into cozy private rooms for six to eight patrons at a time.

Drinks range from the refreshing Kalamazoo Julep (Dutch jenever, housemade celery syrup, celery leaves, mint) to the boozy and Lindsey’s Lament (single-barrel bourbon, Becherovka, maple, salt tincture, orange oils). Savory and sweet notes are perfectly balanced in both the innovative Joe Buck (Texas Blue Corn Whiskey, mustard syrup, smoked paprika, fresh lemon, ginger beer) and the frothy Pisco Sourgrass (Peruvian pisco, lemon, sorrel-honey syrup, tiki bitters, egg white, cracked black pepper).

Some drinks are also concocted at the table by knowledgeable bartenders, using an arsenal of ingredients and instruments drawn from a rolling cart. “When we saw the room and started to think about what the design was going to look like, it felt like a train car to me,” said beverage director Bill Norris. “So … they’re based around the old Pullman bar carts.”

Norris also looks forward to using the back patio to grow citrus trees and herbs, making for truly hyper-local bar ingredients. “It’s not so much about the menu in here for me,” he mused. “When you’re walking down the street … and you get in here, it’s just sort of that aaah feeling. And (we want) the drinks to be an extension of that aaah feeling.”

Want to get that "aaah" feeling right at home? Try this recipe, courtesy of Norris:

Smoke & Mirrors

  • 1.5 oz Highland Park 12-year-old Scotch
  • 1 oz Bodegas Gongora Duque de Carmona Orange Sherry
  • 1/2 oz Benedictine
  • 3 dashes Bad Dog Barcraft Sarsaparilla Dry Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe. Rub an orange peel around the rim of the glass, flame the oils over the drink and discard.

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