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The Ice House Cometh

On rowdy Rainey Street, a new, surprisingly refined spot for meticulously made cocktails.

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The Half Step, located in the middle of the Rainey Street nightlife madness, fits neatly into the ongoing craft-cocktail revolution, yet it doesn’t really bear a lot of characteristics of that trend. There are no fussy homemade syrups or arcane foodstuffs in the drinks. The decor recalls a classic Chicago tavern, or maybe a bar from Raymond Chandler’s L.A., not some kind of designer steampunk nightmare.

The drinks, like classic versions of the bourbon-soaked Kentucky Colonel and a non-blended rum daiquiri, are delicious, made with precision and care, using fresh, familiar ingredients and carefully curated spirits like Evan Williams Bonded Bourbon and Diplomático Añejo tequila. And, since this is Austin, the atmosphere is casual and friendly, without any waxed-moustache-and-bowler-hat costume drama. It’s the bar that Half Step founder Chris Bostick always wanted to own.

Bostick grew up in Austin, and has lived here much of his life. But he also served long stints working in the restaurant and bar industries in New York and Los Angeles, seeing how legendary modern bars like Dutch Kills, Milk and Honey, and especially L.A.’s Varnish go about their business. “We’ve been able to carry that torch and run with it while evolving it into something that works in Austin,” he says.

The Rainey Street house that the Half Step calls home was a wreck when Bostick and his partners bought it, but it’s been restored without taking away its wooden-porch historical charm. Inside, there’s vintage-looking wallpaper, booths, lights that look like antique gas lamps, intricately tiled floors, and antique beadboard ceilings. The speakeasy vibe changes into something much more casual outside, with an enormous back lot—and identical outside bar with beer and cocktails on tap—big enough to host official SXSW showcases.

The Prescription Julep

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The Icehouse

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But if you want to understand what the Half Step is really about, you have to visit the icehouse out back. Bostick has a Clinebell, a machine that produces four enormous blocks of ice a week. It’s broken down by hand, first with a chain saw, then with chisels, and stored in traditional, classical bar shapes, designed to perfectly calibrate the Half Step’s classic cocktails. “It’s like putting a brisket in a slow smoker,” he says. “Ice gives us more control over the final outcome of the drink.”

Bostick has nearly 20 years in the industry, and he trains his bartenders, like Brian Floyd, a recent import from New York, in the ethos of how to make cocktails right. Every day, the bartenders prepare an intricate mise-enplace, from fresh-squeezed juices to perfectly sliced cucumbers, and mix cocktails according to classical standards, but without pretension.

“I never want it to seem fussy,” Bostick says. “Keep it simple. Let the ingredients do the talking. And it’s not a shtick. I really am passionate about the whole thing.”

Bostick’s passion seems to be working—and spreading, too. One of his bartenders, Josh Loving, will open his own craft cocktail bar, A Small Victory, on East Seventh Street sometime in the next few months. The same attention to detail will be in evidence there. Bostick has trained his guys well.

“There nothing worse than pomp and circumstance and then you look at your drink and it’s crap,” he says. “You could have kept it simple and gotten the same result. I’m selling snake oil here. But it’s snake oil that tastes really good.”

Credits

Photography by Bill Sallans

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