Michael Neff is the beverage program creator at The Cottonmouth Club in Houston, TX.
Better Bartending: You’re known for The Holiday Cocktail Lounge, among other spots in New York City and nationally. What brought you to Houston for The Cottonmouth Club?
Michael Neff: Mike Raymond and I met at Tales of the Cocktail about eight years ago, and kept in touch. We worked on some pop-ups together, and talked theoretically about opening a place. As I started to work more in Houston, I began gaining a greater appreciation for the market. At the same time, Mike found a great space that I was able to tour with him, and things sort of snowballed from there.
BB: The Cottonmouth Club has been described as “the least cocktaily cocktail bar we could come up with.” Can you explain?
MN: We love cocktails and we love bars, but there has been a growing perception in the public about what it means to be a “cocktail bar,” as opposed to a bar that makes cocktails. People assume some kind of speakeasy vibe, or think of a cocktail bar as the place where they have to put up with any number of snotty young mixologists.
That said, there are a lot of great bars in Houston, and a lot of great cocktail bars. But there are also a lot of people who say they don’t like cocktails because they think of them as too fancy, or too snotty. We want to make a different impression—though we also want to make kick-ass cocktails.
BB: The Cottonmouth Club includes a “reverse-speakeasy” concept upstairs for which there is no set menu. How does that work?
MN: Downstairs we have all of the mixers and juices and things you expect every bar to have. Upstairs, I have a much more limited palette, but I also have unique things that don’t work as well downstairs.
The entire idea of the reverse-speakeasy is that we start from the experience and work backwards until we get to a cocktail. It’s an exploration for me, for sure, and the guest, as well. It’s meant to be nontraditional and about a bartender hosting his guests.
BB: The Club’s downstairs features a menu of classics with a twist. What’s currently the most popular cocktail?
MN: Most popular is the Old Fashioned, by far. From our House Originals, I’d say it’s a pretty even mix, depending on the day. The Sanity & Wits is a crowd-pleaser, which is our take on a French Martini. It’s made with Charbay Meyer lemon vodka, a really nice Cassis de Dijon, St. Germain and pineapple juice.
BB: You also have a whiskey program that involves blending expressions and aging the blend in bourbon barrels from Houston’s Yellow Rose distillery. How is that project coming?
MN: That is coming along very well. We decided to make an American whiskey blend much like the process they use in Scotland to make blended Scotch. We start with a relatively neutral base-whiskey and add layers of other American whiskeys to ultimately create a profile that we like.
The result of that is aged in a barrel for anywhere from nine days to three weeks. At least so far—every batch is different. Batch Two was perfect in an Old Fashioned. We’ve just released Batch Three, which is very much a sipper, though I’m excited to try it in a cocktail as well.
BB: What is your go-to cocktail at the end of a shift or long day?
MN: Speaking of the Old Fashioned, I’ll drink that at the end of a long day if I have a cocktail at all. Most likely, I’ll have a bourbon neat. Or a shot of Fernet and a pilsner or pale ale in as small a glass as I can find.