Interview: bartender Adam Bryan (Congress)

Bartender Austin

Congress bar manager Adam Bryan is a Portland native who worked in San Francisco at Slow Club and sister restaurant Serpentine before pointing his motorcycle toward Texas. In Austin, he started at Lamberts and Eastside Showroom and left to head Congress, a three-part concept in the ultra-chic Austonian that consists of upscale Congress restaurant, Second Bar + Kitchen and the 22-seat Bar Congress. During the 10-month lead-up to the Congress opening, Bryan even found the time to help his family revamp the Pine Cone Tavern in the coastal Oregon town of Brookings, where loggers once drank with impunity during Prohibition. We recently met at Bar Congress prior to the start of his shift, and Bryan better explained his background and approach.

Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?

I’m not sure if it’s the first cocktail, but I do remember the beginning of my drinking career always starting with very dirty gin martinis. I would never admit to it now, nor would I order it at a bar. That’s probably the most embarrassing things I drank in my career.

Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?

I think cocktails. I was drinking spirits, but not in any sort of geeky way. I enjoyed them on their own, from tequila to whiskey. I wasn’t sitting around sipping gin neat or anything, but I think cocktails came as an interest first.

What was your first bar job?

I actually began as a janitor. I just turned 21 and there was a little beer pub, a little neighborhood, divey pub that paid me $10 a shift to mop their floors and clean their bathrooms.

This was in Portland, Oregon?

This was in Portland.

What was the name?

The Basement Pub. A couple really great guys ran it, and they generally paid off the $10 in beer at the end of my mopping. I did that twice a week and eventually moved up to bartending there, and eventually to managing their bar. It kind of went from there.

Was there a moment you know you’d bartend for a living?

I’ve always wanted to build a career in the service industry – restaurants, bars, hotels, things like that – but I don’t know if I started out thinking I’d bartend for a career, but that’s how it ended up, I guess.

You went from Portland to San Francisco?


Serpentine and Slow Club, not necessarily in that order.

When I left Portland, I was working at a bar called Victory Bar on Division Street, and that’s really where I learned the basics of cocktail theory, history and technique of classic drinks. I kind of took that knowledge with me to San Francisco. I started at Slow Club, and they were just opening Serpentine, so when they finally did open the doors, I got to move over there and worked with some good people there too. Then I left.

We talked about this some the other day, why you ended up moving to Austin…

It was really a spur of the moment thing. I’d never been to Austin. I didn’t know anyone in Austin. I didn’t know anything about the town. I knew they had this giant festival called South by Southwest, that I’d never been to. That was really all that I understood about Austin. So I decided to pack up my motorcycle, point it towards Texas, and everything I came here with was packed on the bike. If I didn’t pack it on the bike, I didn’t bring it with me. I really started here with some clothes and a few electronic items of mine. Other than that, I just kind of built from there. I got here and started bartending right away and eventually, two-and-a-half, three years down the road, here I am at Bar Congress.

So you started at East Side Show Room?

I started bartending at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, right down the street from here, actually. I was working there when I met the future owner of East Side Show Room, the designer and builder, Mickey Spencer. We decided to put together a bar program for it, which I headed up. That was really during a time in Austin where there were no proper cocktail bars. There was one restaurant – Fino – that was doing a good cocktail program, run by Bill Norris. Other than that, it was really kind of a no man’s land. We opened East Side Show Room with a pretty aggressive cocktail program that started the ball rolling a little bit in Austin for getting it to the public on a big scale. I’m pretty proud of what we did there.

How did the Congress opportunity come about?

I worked a lot of hours in the Show Room and I was kind of wondering what I was going to do next. And I was looking for a little bit of time off to kind of relax and get my head together. Right before leaving Showroom, within the last few days I was there, a guy named Scott Walker came in and said, “I like what you’re doing with the program. We have a new project going on in town and would like to talk to you about it.” We met, he gave me a brief idea of what was going on down here, and 10 months later we opened the doors. It was a long process to get it open, but it’s definitely worth it.

Would you say that you have any mentors?

Personally, the two gentlemen who ran the Basement Pub – Tim Harris and Joel Hartzler – that I started mopping those floors at, had a big impact on the way I looked at the bar business, the way I looked at the guests and customers who come to the bar business, who are in the bar. So that had a big personal impact on me, and as far as the technical inspiration, that was Yoni Laos at Victory Bar. He kind of opened my eyes to the classic cocktails.

Who are some other bartenders you really respect, who can work anywhere, who you haven’t worked with?

Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a gentleman who I actually didn’t know when I was in Portland. I’d heard of him. Through his blogging, I think that not only I, but a lot of bartenders, have been able to see a lot of the techniques being put out there and having them lined out so we all know what’s going on. He’s done a great job of putting bartending on the internet.

Other people I look up to, there are the people responsible for bringing it back. There are quite a few of those people out there. The list could go on and on, but Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s probably the guy I would site for keeping me inspired.

Do you still have family in Portland?

I do. I actually just went back to Oregon between the time that I was at Show Room and opening this, I went back to help my family open a little bar on the coast of Oregon called the Pine Cone Tavern in Brookings, Oregon. It was an old logger, kind of divey tavern that had been around since 1914 and was in constant operation since 1926, which is interesting, because that was the time of Prohibition. But out in a tiny town in coastal Oregon, I don’t think anybody was paying attention. We revamped it and put a lot of hard work into it. We have a little cocktail lounge, kind of middle of nowhere between San Francisco and Portland.

What was your approach there?

It was definitely to make it accessible for that type of community. Having a good everyman’s beer list was essential to bring people in, and maintaining the structural integrity of that building was pretty high on our list of things to preserve about it. The building really says more about the personality.

What are the criteria for a cocktail that goes on the house list at Congress?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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