The Ritual of the Shift Drink: Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge

The hallowed ritual of the shift drink may take a different form at every bar, but it inevitably serves the same purpose: letting the staff exhale at the end of service. This it how it all goes down at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston.

Anyone who has the pleasure of spending a quiet afternoon at the long, L-shaped bar nestled inside the slip of a building that once housed a Discount Tire can tell you that Anvil Bar & Refuge—widely considered to be Houston’s first serious cocktail bar—is operated by a bunch of nerds. For those as obsessive about cocktails and cocktail culture as Anvil’s staff and regulars, this is a definite term of endearment. Order something off the “100 List,” a rotating selection of classics the staff thinks you should try, and you’re likely to get your cocktail served with a sidecar of knowledge.

On a Saturday night, guests walking in off busy Westeimer Road into the even busier Anvil get to witness a marvel of skill and efficiency, as the small staff pours any of those 100 classics, along with a rotating selection of house cocktails and damn near anything else you can throw at them, for a crowd so deep there’s no point in assigning a number.

While these two faces of Anvil feel very different, they’re both driven by a focus on training and education—the goal of which is not just to present a perfect cocktail, but a great experience. Starting with an intensive staff training course that includes numerous speed tests and blind tastings, this dedication carries right on through to the nightly shift drink, where even the post-shift shots are as much R&D as R&R.

At twenty minutes to close, the thinning crowd is still boisterous, the last happy few well-known to the staff. In the gravel parking lot across the street, couples offer passionate farewells; doormen congregate on the patio. Behind the bar, the staff is pre-cleaning their wells, wiping down bottles and tidying the back bar. “Sidework,” shrugs bartender Alex Negranza. A barback squeezes past with a rack of glasses, one of a dozen such trips he’ll make during the next half-hour. One final straggler, clearly interested in Anvil’s studious side, talks no-age-statement Japanese whiskey with closing manager Terry Williams, who is fresh from a trip to Tokyo and brimming with enthusiasm for the subject. Then he, too, is off into the night. Aprons come off. Shirts are untucked.

“The drinking doesn’t start until the barbacks are done, or at least until they tell us they’re done,” Williams explains, wiping syrup and citrus from the screen of a POS terminal. The staff then hangs a black curtain along a section of window in the back of the bar (“it’s our Cloak of Invisibility, protection from Westheimer”), pushes a few tables together and gets ready for class.

Over the years, Anvil’s staff has perfected the “Recommended If You Like” strategy, guiding customers through the spirits and cocktails on offer toward shores that taste familiar even if the labels don’t look the part. The staff’s educational shift drinks are key to that process, giving bartenders the foundation to steer a Glenlivet drinker toward the similarly gentle tones of Glenmorangie, saving the oilier, funkier notes of a Clynelish for another night, or offering a taste if the customer seems keen on trying something new.

“Every night,” says Williams, “the closers sit down and taste something the least senior bartender wants to learn more about.” It’s not so much a habit as a directive from owner Bobby Heugel, and emblematic of Anvil’s approach to, well, pretty much everything.

Bobby Heugel, Terry Williams and Alex Negranza talk post-shift 50/50s, “kill bottles” and Anvil’s educational approach to the shift drink.

Bobby Heugel, Owner

Shift Drinks: “For me, I want to try the things that are new in whatever bar I am working in. Sure, I have my favorites just like everyone else, but we have so many spirits moving in and out of the bars. If you’re not taking every chance you can to learn about them, you’re missing so much.”

On winding down: “The things that stress me out are if we are short-staffed because someone is sick, or if I dropped a glass in the ice in the middle of the rush. Nights like that might call for a little Grand-Dad 114 during closing.”

On post-shift cocktails: “I would love to meet the bartender who wants to make a Ramos Gin Fizz at the end of a shift. All of our post-shift drinks are neat pours, maybe over ice, or a beer.”

On community: “Never [drink a shift drink] by yourself! That would be so rude… also kinda sad.”

Alex Negranza, Bartender

Shift Drinks: “Maybe half a glass of beer, along with whatever bottle(s) we’re tasting that night.”

On Anvil’s approach: “If you’re at this bar, you’re here because you’re a nerd. You love it. You’ve embraced it.”

On the importance of sharing a shift drink: “It’s not often that our time in the bar is tranquil. Sometimes, the first time you’ve spoken with the guy working right next to you is when you’re breaking down a well at the end of the night.”

Terry Williams, General Manager

Shift Drinks: “I won’t lie, if I am the one getting to pick the spirit after a busy weekend shift, I’ll lean more towards something that goes down a little easier—Irish whiskey or rum. The calmer shifts are great nights to taste stranger things, like absinthe or amari.”

On winding down: “Nitro Cuba Libre, Nitro Cuba Libre, Nitro Cuba Libre.” [Editor’s Note: One of the bar’s signature drinks, created by former bartender Matt Tanner, the Nitro Cuba Libre is the quintessential rum, coke and lime cocktail reformulated for service on tap from a system running nitrogen, giving the drink a luxuriously creamy texture and turning an easy-drinking, laid-back classic into something altogether more interesting.]

On 50/50s: “It’s a 50/50 shot of a spirit and a liqueur. Sometimes we blind-test the staff with them. Bobby and I got this from Employee’s Only: We only went in for one Gin & Tonic, then the lights were up, chicken soup was coming out and we had six of these sitting in front of us. We got most of them…”

On “kill bottles”: “Sometimes, we’ll do 50/50s to use up the last bits of bottles from a previous menu that didn’t disappear completely, just to kill the bottle. Once, I did Campari and Giffard Banane du Bresil. It was surprisingly not terrible, so I tried it in a Boulevardier, and it was absolutely delicious.”


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