The Best Cocktail Bars in Houston

Absinthe old fashioned at Ready Room.

The late 1990s and early 2000s are regarded as a renaissance period for cocktails. Time-honored, cocktail-making practices rapidly expanded and evolved, inspiring hundreds of new cocktail bars to emerge. Compared to many cities around the United States, such as New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, Houston was late to the party. While practices were improving, and there were a few craft cocktail spots, there was not a boom in truly refined drinking experiences until Anvil Bar and Refuge opened in 2009, catalyzing the growth that’s turned Houston into one of the best destinations for mixed beverages. Between 2011 and 2020, this pacesetting bar was considered for a James Beard Award 10 times; two of those times as a national finalist for Outstanding Bar Program. It never won, but its impact is undeniable. 

Houston’s cocktail bar scene has continued to grow; albeit sometimes on unsteady legs. A high concentration of top-quality bars near Congress and Main in downtown Houston — including The Pastry War, Tongue-Cut Sparrow (both with the same owners as Anvil; the latter had a brief second life in Montrose), Moving Sidewalk, Public Services Wine & Whisky and The Honeymoon — were decimated by either uneven weekday business levels or the COVID-19 pandemic. However, instead of cocktail bars tightly clustered in a few inside-the-Loop areas, a growing number are opening in the suburbs or outlying towns, such as Spring Branch, Clear Lake and Old Town Spring. That makes excellent cocktails available in many more neighborhoods; no need for a long haul across town. 

The city’s drinking options range from elegant and intimate to neighborhood dives, all of which offer quality cocktails. This list focuses on the more-refined spots that go above and beyond to create wonderful drinks, atmospheres and settings. At these bars, the adventure as a whole is almost as important as the drinks that are being served.

Looking for great drinks in more casual venues? Check out our list of The Best Casual Cocktail Bars in Houston.  

cocktails at Refuge
A selection of cocktails at Refuge, the 50-seat bar above Anvil and Tongue-Cut Sparrow. Photo by Jenn Duncan.

Anvil Bar & Refuge, 1424 Westheimer: In opening this Montrose landmark, Bobby Heugel and his business partners, Steve Flippo and Kevin Floyd (who would later separate from the partnership) catalyzed a new age for Houston cocktails. Consistent great quality is Anvil’s greatest strength, thanks in part to weeks of rigorous training required of every bartender. Anvil is also known for having its 100 classic cocktails list that every bartender is expected to know by heart, a phenomenal Widow’s Kiss and Bobby’s own modern classic, The Brave, are both on the menu. The bar also offers seasonal drinks, as well as one of the largest selections of spirits in the state. 

The one drawback to visiting Anvil is that it gets uncomfortably crowded. We highly recommend visiting Sunday through Wednesday before 7 p.m. 

It’s also worth noting that while Anvil Bar & Refuge meant only one bar for a dozen years, Refuge is now its own thing. Specifically, it’s an upstairs cocktail bar in the space that used to house Penny Quarter and Tongue-Cut Sparrow after its brief relocation from downtown. We’ll share our thoughts on Refuge in a forthcoming article.  

Dead Man Walking cocktail at Bandista.
Dead Man Walking cocktail at Bandista. Photo by Ryan Baker.

Bandista at Four Seasons Houston, 1300 Lamar: There was a time when if you wanted to find craft cocktails, hotel bars were your best bet. Bandista, hidden in the Four Seasons Houston, continues that legacy with style. A neo-speakeasy, Bandista is well-hidden and requires a reservation, a guide and potentially a passkey to get in. Seating is limited, split between the bar top and a small lounge with a few couches and tables. All of these details, in addition to over-the-top drinks, create an atmosphere of exclusivity. The drinks come with a Four Seasons price tag, but that cost is often justified. Many of the cocktails utilize higher-end spirits, while other drinks include multiple servings, such as the Sazerac Flight with rye, cognac and tequila variations or the Dead Man Walking, clarified gin cocktail served in a ship-in-a-bottle decanter. The service at Bandista is also part of the experience, with a friendly, knowledgeable staff ready to guide your visit.

The bar at recently opened Blind Finch.
The bar at recently opened Blind Finch. Photo By Ryan Baker.

Blind Finch, 5210 FM 2920, Spring: Sometimes, a bar opens and immediately fires on all cylinders. Modern speakeasy Blind Finch has only been open to the public for a few months and is already delivering the best drinks and service in the Spring/Klein area. The bar easily competes with most of the well-established spots in Houston. The spot is driven by its staff of bartenders, who are well-trained and capable, as well as eager to grow and develop the bar. Blind Finch is designed to make guests feel like they are stepping into a 1920’s lounge, with wood on and above the bar, vintage photos on the walls and eclectic furniture to match the soft jazz that’s usually playing on the overheads. The room is dark, and even when there’s a crowd, the environment is still relaxed, making it easy to interact with the bartenders and explore new drinks. One drawback is that Blind Finch is still a young bar, so the spirit selection is still limited. The bar’s first menu fits to the speakeasy theme, featuring takes on pre-prohibition classics such as a play on the Tipperary renamed Tip of The Hat and a New York Sour.

Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar and Spirits Lodge, 308 Main: Imagine walking up the stairs to a law office, opening the wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) door, and walking into a cocktail bar that feels like it’s pulled from an old mobster film. Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar (usually just called the less-wordy Bad News Bar) is long, narrow and dimly lit, mostly by stylish, green-shaded banker’s lamps, and it is one of the few survivors of the numerous cocktail bars that opened near Congress and Main in 2013. The lengthy bartop, which spans most of the shotgun space, can seat at least 20 patrons. The rest of the seating is geared towards comfort, with large booths and some couch seating. There’s also a spacious, beloved balcony overlooking Main Street. Despite whatever chaos might be going on below, the outdoor setting still manages to offer a relaxing and somewhat romantic vibe. 

As for drinks, the bar rarely disappoints. The house cocktail menu changes occasionally, with cocktails that make great use of the bar’s massive spirit selection. The menu also has a list of classic favorites to enjoy. If you have a good sense of humor, famously crotchety owner Justin Burrow is an amenity. 

cocktail served with a movie at Diversion.
Cocktail served with a movie at Diversión. Photo by Ryan Baker.

Diversión, 7202 Long Point: Recently named one of the best bars in the country by Esquire, this is the perfect date-night spot. Located in Spring Branch — away from Houston’s louder, busier and more crowded neighborhoods — Diversión’s atmosphere and meticulous setup help set it apart from other cocktail bars. In addition to the setting, the drinks in the “Immersive” section lend dramatic flair. These beverages include Bone Marrow, which features two hollow ceramic “beef bones” filled with spherized spicy margaritas. For literal drama, Diversión has a smoked drink called Movie Night, served with popcorn and an iPad playing short films.

Julep, 1919 Washington: There is a reason this Southern-inspired cocktail bar is perpetually presented with nominations and awards. Julep’s owner, Alba Huerta — who is also Houston’s newest James Beard Award winner — has a knack for filling in the smallest details. Every inch of the bar, including the menu, daily fresh flower arrangements and wood-plan ceiling, feels deliberate and in place. The genteel touches also evoke a sense of Kentucky-styled Southern culture. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the immaculate setting can come across as a little impersonal but the lengthy, rounded and well-organized cocktail menu makes up for that with drinks for every palate. It goes without saying that the menu at Julep would have more than one version of its namesake beverage, such as the Mint and Tepache, with sous vide pineapple and mezcal.

Ready Room, 2626 White Oak: From the moment it opened in 2018, this small lounge raised the craft cocktail benchmark. However, due to a minuscule reopening budget following the COVID-19 shutdowns, Ready Room was forced to completely reinvent how it operated. Peter Clifton and Cody Northcutt, both bartenders and partners in the business, put their skills to work, creating weekly menu that allowed Ready Room to cut overhead costs by relying on spirits it already had. Since putting the new program in place, the staff has created over 200 different cocktails, including a Malort Old Fashioned and what may be the best sazerac in Houston. On top of the drinks, Ready Room features live jazz musicians every weekend, as well as rotating performers on Thursdays. On the slower time, the staff, drinks, and size of Ready Room work well to create a friendly, cheers-type bar where all of the regulars know each other by name. On the weekends, the lighting and live music create one of the more intimate atmospheres in the city, making for a great date night.

Ready Room has recently started training a new generation of bartenders, so it is a treat when you get served a drink by either of the original managing partners.

Sabbatical Spirits, 606 Rayford, Spring: If a guest enters Hop Scholar Ale House and walks straight to the back, past the tap wall and all of the tables, they will find a hallway that leads to one of the most pleasing bars the Houston area has to offer — both in terms of drinks and aesthetics. The bar is stunning, with the bar top, chairs, back wall shelves and even the ladder all crafted from wood. The number of spirits guests can choose from rivals that of Anvil, and the way they are displayed several rows high make the selection seem endless. The cocktail program is well developed with several pages organized by base spirits, and a menu dedicated to old-fashioneds created by the staff. Unlike most of this list, Sabbatical also has access to a kitchen and serves a diverse menu of food.

MARCH martini
The MARCH martini. Photo by Julie Soefer Photography.

The Lounge at March, 1624 Westheimer: If you only have one shot to impress a date, this is the safest bet in Houston. Every detail in the bar, such as the delicate glassware, the mood lighting, and comfortable seating, create an atmosphere that feels like a movie set. The room only holds a handful of guests, giving an even greater feeling of exclusivity than the previously mentioned Bandista. The spirit selection is potentially the smallest among bars on this list, but the menu is so pristinely curated that skipping out on the cocktails, like the March Martini, made using the bar’s seasonal housemade vermouth, would be a mistake. The remainder of the drinks are named for their flavor profiles, such as Apple/Cherry or Apricot/Vanilla.

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