Located in the landmark Houston Cotton Exchange Building in downtown Houston, Public Services bills itself as a “wine & whisky” bar, and the choice of nomenclature provides a pretty good idea of what to expect.
Though at first glance, one might be inclined to view the bar as two dueling concepts living under the same roof, Vann views the project in terms of a hybrid identity. “The wine and spirits program exist together, and were created around one another,” he explains. “So we wanted to find a way to express the relationship between to these two product groups.”
On the wine front, the selections read a bit like the “greatest hits” from Vann’s previous gigs, most notably as wine director of Justin Yu’s Oxheart—one of Houston’s first natural wine destinations, where he introduced the city’s drinking public to things like pét-nat and skin-fermented white wines. While the current program at Public Services skews slightly in favor of France’s classic natural wine canon (Foillard, de Moor, Ganevat, et al.), with a smattering of Italy, Germany and Spain, it also speaks to Vann’s fascination with that movement’s nascent New World pioneers, like Australia’s cult Jauma winery and Louis-Antoine Luyt’s minimalist Chilean bottlings.
“It’s sort of my own personal playlist,” he says.
Perhaps most notable, however, is the bar’s obsession with fortified wines—especially sherry and Madeira—which are easy to read as yet another testament to Vann’s personal legacy (he’s remained one of the category’s most passionate champions over the years). But in light of Public Services’ larger identity, the serious attention given to those expressions serves a higher purpose, highlighting their intermediary status between the worlds of wine and spirits.
“To me, the fascinating thing about fortified wine is that it represents this midway point between table wine and hard liquor,” he says. “So it really excites me to think about fortified wines in the context of our large whiskey selection, and vice versa.”
This is precisely where Vann’s approach enters novel territory. In exploring the dynamics of this relationship, it occurred to him that the most intimate area of intersection between whiskey and fortified wine comes in the form of the casks they share. As a result, he deliberately organized the wine and spirits programs with this bond in mind.
“I’ve found that one of the best vehicles to teach people about fortified wines is talking about them in the context of the cask finish on whiskies,” he explains. “So something really fun we’ve started doing is collecting spirits that were aged in barrels of certain fortified wines that we offer by the glass, and pouring them side by side.”
What he’s found is that it’s one thing to discuss a whiskey’s “sherry finish” in the abstract, but another in practice. Even if customers have a general sense of the flavor profile that the cask imparts to a spirit, it’s a completely different (and far more specific) experience to take Vann’s advice and drink the Tallisker Distillers Edition, a whiskey aged in amoroso (aka cream) sherry barrels, for example, alongside an actual shot of amoroso sherry. Another favorite, he says, is pairing the Navazos Palazzi Spanish single malt whiskies, which are finished in Valdespino palo cortado casks, with a glass of the bodega’s own palo cortado sherry.
“The flavors of fortified wine pair with the flavors of whiskey so well that it just makes sense to pour them side by side,” he says. “We’ve tried some combinations that haven’t worked so well—but PX sherry with Lagavulin aged in PX barrels? Now that’s fucking incredible.”