What’s your idea of a great bar? Is it a place where you can drink a beer while listening to your favorite tunes on a jukebox and playing pool, or is it smoking a fine cigar while lounging on brass-studded leather furniture enjoying a rare single malt served by a bartender wearing vest and tie? Or is it perhaps enjoying something made closer to home and discussing the nuances of the mash-bill of a local craft whiskey with a tattooed hipster mixologist?
Seven Grand, the single-spirit-concept whiskey bar at 405 E 7th St in downtown Austin, is all of those and more. To say it’s an unusual concept might be pushing it, but it’s not a stretch to say they take the fine/ funky whiskey bar to a fine new level.
The original Seven Grand, aptly located at the corner of Seventh and Grand streets in downtown Los Angeles, was inspired by The Stags’ Head in Dublin. Cedd Wilson, founder, and Los Angeles based serial saloonkeeper, was inspired by the warmth, friendliness, and ambiance he experienced and decided to replicate it in LA. That included the hunting trophies on the wall, the dark stuffed leather booths, and the focus on whiskey. Seven Grand took that focus to its extreme and dedicated itself exclusively to whiskey. To some people, that sounds like heaven. To others, it’s intimidating as hell. Facing a thirty-foot-long bar fronting shelves with over four hundred different whiskeys CAN be daunting.
So how do you make a wall of bottles with unpronounceable names friendly, warm, and inviting? Deftly, through the passion, dedication, and attitude of the management and staff. Their ownership group’s name, Pouring with Heart Hospitality, gives a strong clue to their commitment to making their bars a place where people love to go and can even feel at home. According to Tom Koerner, Spirit Guide (already an unusual management title for a bar) at Seven Grand Austin, “Our main goal as an organization is community, and our core values serving those goals are taking care of each other as if we are friends and family. So, we start with the people we work with and then extend that across the bar to whoever walks in the door.”
At its core, Seven Grand is just a bar. The cocktail menu is centered around five core whiskey cocktails, Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Rye Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, and Mint Julep, but their staff is trained to make you just about anything. They have local Texas beers on tap, house red and white wines, and if you must have a gin and tonic, they can accommodate you, but for those that want to explore the wall, there is the Whiskey Bible, the full catalog of available whiskeys. Steve White, general manager of Seven Grand and her adjacent sister bar, Las Perlas Mezcaleria, says the guiding principle behind what they carry is a balance between opinion, price, and interest. “While there are some very cool and interesting whiskeys out there, and we as a Seven Grand team seek them out to enjoy, more often than not, the general public couldn’t care less. On the other hand, they do look to us as a resource and guiding light to steer them towards something they will enjoy. That, above all else is paramount: will the guest enjoy it.”
Steve and his team make sure they can stand behind any whiskey they include “because if we all understand and appreciate the intricacies of the spirit and the effort that goes into making it, then it is an easy win-win suggestion. I want to put something in front of somebody that is delicious AND affordable – though it doesn’t have to be affordable. OK, Delicious first, then affordable. I would like something for everybody, and that also includes the guy who insists on Macallan 25.”
Steve notes that the customers keep them on their toes, too. “The public is aware of a lot. Like, all of it. All the time. People ask for things even I didn’t know existed. I try to keep up, but there is a new whiskey released every day it would seem.”
Mainly his focus is on expanding lineups from the current distilleries they know and love. Chances are, a company that has been producing whiskey for decades, is going to put out some good juice in their new and innovative expression, so I fill the empty spaces with those first. Lastly, there are what I like to call “street cred” bottles or “baller” bottles. These are the whiskeys we can’t pass up because they’re just too good, too rare, one-offs, LTOs, or unicorns, etc. It’s the bottle that when someone sees it, they say “whoa! You guys have that?!” – “Those are always fun to seek out.”
A big part of Seven Grand’s community building is education. With so many whiskeys on the wall, it can be hard to know what to ask for first. The staff wants you to feel comfortable asking your bartender for suggestions – they’ll be delighted to share their knowledge but won’t push it on you. “It’s always a conversation, never a lecture.”
If you want to go for deeper knowledge, attend some of their Whiskey Society events (you can book the inexpensive tickets through their website). These are informal tasting and speaking series occurring at least once a week and frequently more often.
Tom Koerner uses his extensive connections in the industry, getting distillers, blenders, and brand ambassadors from around the world to come to Seven Grand and spend a couple of hours sharing and tasting their whisk(e)y (all spellings welcome here) with groups of customers. They range from exclusive tastings of rare Japanese whiskeys to blind tastings of screw-top bourbons and anything in between.
Tom really shines, though when collaborating with Texas whiskey makers. “It’s been so fun to work with the Texas whiskey producers. “We’re not just the LA whiskey bar. We’re here in Texas because Texas loves whiskey, and we love whiskey, so as we connect with the guys that are doing some amazing stuff, we want to be a mouthpiece for them and get them the exposure they deserve.”
Not surprisingly, the four Seven Grand bars (LA, San Diego, Denver, and Austin) share a look and feel borrowed from the original location. They all have the same tea-stained bird-hunting-themed wallpaper. They each have a proprietary tartan design used somewhere boldly in the bars. They all have taxidermy on the walls, and they all have a diorama at their entrance. Austin’s tartan is used in their carpet, and the wall-mounted trophies include a few jackalopes. Their diorama is a bird-hunting one featuring pheasants. Austin’s Seven Grand also shares a patio, food counter, and point-of-sale system with its sister bar, Las Perlas, next door. You can open a tab in one bar and close it at the other one. Recently, they began offering live music on the weekends.
At Seven Grand, they take ‘community’ seriously, and it’s true throughout the Pouring with Heart group. They want their staff to feel like part of a growing company with a personal future and a career within it, not just a hop from bar to bar making tips. Additionally, every location has a special cocktail that donates money to homeless charities.
The original bar was purposefully located in a downtrodden part of downtown LA in 2007 to contribute to its now-successful revitalization. Seven Grand Austin’s location – less than a block from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless – was not an accident, but a continuing commitment to trying to revitalize the city center.
Though it’s only one block over from Austin’s famous 6th Street bar zone, the vibe is much more real than the neon, and the crowds there would have you believe. A sad reality is that downtown Austin isn’t a party for everyone. Seven Grand is aware and wants to help build a community that can make a difference. Amazingly, they would like you to be a part of it.
By Harry Jarvis