Cesar Aguilar and Scranton Twohey. [Photo: Nicolai McCrary/EATX]
One of the biggest recent successes on East 6th is Whislers, an atmospheric and approachable cocktail bar in the former Rabbit's space. The bar is an equal hit with neighborhood residents, the massive weekend crowds, and chefs and bartenders on their nights off. The secret formula? A thoughtful and unpretentious approach to cocktails, and a large space perfectly balanced between an intimate interior and a large, lively patio scene.
Eater spoke with owner Scranton Twohey and manager Cesar Aguilar about the bar's first year, including their surprise addition of upstairs mezcal bar Mezcalería Tobalá. Both are determined to create a business focused on passion and education, and seek to help Austin grow responsibly, while remaining rooted in the past.
What was the genesis of Whislers?
Scranton: I opened and ran all of Bridget Dunlap's bars on Rainey Street, and then took a year sabbatical. I drove by here, and I saw Rabbit sitting with his buddies, so I introduced myself. The next week, his son called me and we started working on a deal.
What was Rabbit's like when you acquired the space?
Scranton: It was a dive bar on the east side that you loved. Low ceilings, a lot of Corona banners and neon. It was a big political bar in the 70's and 80's. The more history I learned, and the more I learned about Rabbit, the more I realized what an honor it was to get this space.
I was really careful about how I wanted to design the bar. My good friend Charyl Coleman helped me design it, even though I couldn't afford her. Cesar came in when it was nothing but rubble. I remember him filling out his paperwork sitting on a pile of rocks.
Cesar: I was overcome by Scranton's charisma. I said, I'm standing in a pile of rubble and I don't know what will happen, but I'm in.
What was your biggest challenge before opening?
Scranton: Lack of knowledge. I opened up all the bars on Rainey, I worked with contractors, but it wasn't my money. It was Bridget's. I went in thinking I've run four bars in four years and they've all been successful, but it turns out I didn't know anything.
Then there's this whole craft cocktail thing. I'm a novice. I come from high volume, but I wanted to be a part of something slower. I did 27 bars in 3 days in New York, and researched all over Texas.
Why does a craft cocktail bar have a different vibe?
Scranton: It takes pride to make a craft cocktail. You're not memorizing the Cosmopolitan or the Woo Woo shot. I never researched when I was making margaritas at Trudy's.
The craft cocktail world gets flack for being pretentious, but they're trying to level it out and not be so snooty-tooty. You don't see the uniform with suspenders and a bow tie as much. You see girls behind the bar in teeshirts and tattoos, playing rock n' roll.
Cesar: This is also not to take away from what people are doing at turn and burn volume bars. Every bar has its place, and those bars can be great businesses.
Here we've created this family setting where we're trying to build each other up. We draw inspiration from a lot of people, but ultimately I would love for this bar to be an Austin, Texas cocktail bar. The greatest compliment on earth would be for someone to say, Oh, you're going to Austin? You have to go to Whislers. Or I'd love for people to say, I worked at Whislers and it taught me every good habit I have.
Scranton: I have kids. They're six and seven. When I started the bar, my wife and I decided if this is what we were going to do, we didn't want the kids to grow up around debauchery and four letter words and depression, everything a bar can bring. So we made this project about creation, and education.
Cesar: Bars inherently have this danger to them. We're trying to offset that by being very passionate about it, and even bringing a sacredness to it. This place has a very identifiable soul.
You've recently opened an upstairs mezcal bar. Will that be a bigger part of your identity?
Scranton: When we talked about the upstairs bar, I wanted to do something different at first. And Cesar just said, Dude will you please let me do a mezcal bar? It was meant to be. I opened a mezcal bar for Bridget, I'm good friends with people who own a mezcal company, and I knew his passion for mezcal.
Cesar, where did you passion for mezcal start?
Cesar: I was at Condesa, and we had a small selection of mezcal. It piqued my interest. I knew it was from Oaxaca, and I had a superficial understanding of the state.
The guys who make Wahaka mezcal lead a trip down there. We started out in a sweat lodge before drinking anything. For an hour and a half, this Oaxacan healer woman and her daughter are singing songs in Spanish and praying. I was transported to my grandparents. Before that, I was filled with anxiety, I was a strange man in a strange place. But after the ceremony, I knew I was where I needed to be. This was going to be the beginning of a lifelong journey.
What I want to do here is transport people out of Austin, Texas for an hour or two. I buy from people producing responsibly, with a respect for the culture. This is not about driving units. In a village in Oaxaca, one individual can be elevated if their mezcals are sold in the U.S., but then that whole village comes together and figures out how to elevate everyone. So in addition to having a fun exciting mezcal bar, we want to make sure we're affecting positive change.
The biggest challenge is that when mezcal comes across the border, it's expensive. When I was down there, I'd go to one of my favorite bars, and I'd be tasting and it was a shitshow of glasses. The guy is freely pouring, and at the end he'll give you a bill. But he was giving me these small pours.
So here, we do half pours in clay copitas, and a full pour in these traditional votive glasses. There will people who are one and done, but at least I've gotten you to have one. I hope to make converts out of a lot of people. A lot of us in the mezcal world joke we're spreading the gospel. There's a reason our benches look like pews.
The East Side, especially East 6th, is rapidly gentrifying. When you guys opened, you were the bar furthest east on this emerging nightlife district. Is that an issue you addressed?
Scranton: It was all about respect. I've been here since '90. My kids are going to grow up in Austin. The building's from 1917, and I wanted to keep the original feel, so that in five years it will feel like it's been there forever. I wanted to be a part of the growth of Austin, but also part of the history. The old Austin and the new Austin.
Cesar: The east side is gentrifying at an alarming rate. But we are very conscious of the fact that we are an East Austin business. We put ourselves right in the thick of it, and seek to be respectful and honorable, so we hopefully have blessing of people who have lived here for decades. I live in East Austin, so does Scranton. I've been here since '94, and this is my home. Being a part of this bar is my effort to preserve everything I fell in love with when I got here. There are a lot of people raising the white flag and saying, It's growing too fast and I'm out. I'm willing to fight tooth and nail for Austin to grow responsibly, to maintain the parts of the city we love.
What are those things you want to see survive?
Scranton: People in Austin let their freak flag fly. No matter how much we grow, we still have the freedom to be who we want to be. I can't think of a better place for my kids to grow up.
Cesar: What attracted me here was this weird wavelength everyone was on. All the black sheep in the United States, we all get together here. Now we tip our hats to each other.
· All Whislers Coverage [EATX]
· All One Year In Interviews [EATX]