Located inside the W Austin, The Secret Bar is electric on a Saturday night. A red glow illuminates the small space, where people are imbibing, mingling and unwinding. The scene at the bar seems to be in total pandemonium as Joyce Garrison, the W’s libationist, mixes and pours drink after drink for the rows of thirsty patrons waiting in line. Drink orders are being shouted from every angle, but she has total command of this stage.
“If you find something you really like to do that makes you happy and you can pay your bills, then do it,” Garrison said. “I found that from the get-go. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
Garrison creates drinks for W Austin, changing the menu about four times a year. She’s the mastermind behind such delicious concoctions as the Midnight Valencia, a vodka-based cocktail with Patron chocolate liqueur, ancho chile powder, orange bitters and orange zest. She brings taste to the forefront by infusing spices and herbs to drinks, pairing unlikely ingredients and striking the perfect balance of sweet and sour, all while staying true to her customer’s taste buds.
A perfect example of Garrison’s work is her signature Cranberry Basil Margarita, the highest-selling drink of W Austin’s fall menu. She starts by popping fresh cranberries with a muddler to squeeze out all the juice and then adding agave nectar. After slapping some basil and tossing it into the cranberry juice, she adds lime juice and Jose Cuervo Tradicional. The drink is so popular that it will be part of the spring menu.
Forget about calling Garrison a hoity-toity mixologist. She’s exactly what you want your bartender to be: chatty, bubbly, and easygoing. She’ll also make you laugh, delivering quirky punch lines. Many Austinites agree she is one of the best, nominating her to be on the Austin Chronicle’s Best Mixologist list every year since 2008. Not to mention, she’s got skills. She has participated in many competitions, even beating two of the city’s best mixologists, Bill Norris and David Alan, in Edible Austin and AMOA-Arthouse’s “Hot Spots, Cool Drinks” contest.
According to Garrison, the only downside about working at W Austin is that she doesn’t have time to do improv comedy shows anymore. She has been making audiences laugh for 15 years. She watched her first improv show at River City Comedy Center while living in San Antonio. When she met the improv troupe, Comedy Sportz, after the show, she felt an instant camaraderie. After grabbing a drink with the group, she was invited to join them and has been in love with improv ever since.
Garrison finds similarities between bartending and improv. For one, she is fueled by adrenaline when she’s either on stage or behind the bar. And without her teams, she also couldn’t do the things she loves most. Her improv troupe is always there ready to swoop in when she drops the ball, while her bar back is ready to swoop in and hand her a new bottle.
For 19 years, Garrison has been slinging drinks, which supplies her with a wellspring of experience. By this time, her hands know the exact liquor pour for each memorized cocktail recipe.
After moving to Austin in 1994, 19-year-old Garrison landed a job at a lesbian bar, Nexus, where her out sister, Jenn Garrison, had connections. “I was scared to death of lesbians,” she said. “I definitely was not out yet.”
When she started off in Nexus as a busser, Garrison bustled through the bar with a case of beer on each shoulder. She worked tirelessly, all the while getting feedback from her tough superiors. “I was raised by militant lesbians,” she said half-jokingly. She soon worked her way up from busser to bar back to finally a bartender. “You’ve got to get in there in the trenches and get your ass kicked,” she remarked about starting from the bottom.
Garrison will always remember the advice given to her by veteran bartenders during her first bartending lessons. “‘Now Joycey May, (my middle name is not May) you’re really cute right now. (And I was, I was really cute.)’” Garrison said, reenacting the scene. “‘But that cute is gonna go away, so you’re gonna have to learn how to make some drinks and you’re gonna have to be good.’”
Growing up, Garrison was the classic “good girl”: honor roll student, president of different clubs, church choir member. She also had no idea women could be gay until her sister, Jenn, came out when Garrison was 16. Throughout high school, she dated guys and was even engaged to a man at one point. Once she figured out women could be gay, she realized she never really had an attraction to men.
After working at Nexus for a while, Garrison developed a crush on her lesbian manger, who was ten years older. They started living together, but that first year nobody knew they were dating. Working at a lesbian bar, and having support from her sister, made it easier for Garrison to fully embrace her sexuality. Since Jenn had come out years before Joyce, coming out to her father wasn’t too hard. Her father awkwardly asked her if she was “like” her sister. “I told him, ‘You know, Dad, I tried to be straight. It just didn’t work out,’” she said.
Garrison worked in various lesbian bars like Nexus, Rainbow Cattle Company and Sidekicks in their heyday in the ‘90s. Now there’s only one bar in Austin that caters to lesbians, Lipstick 24. She remembers those lesbian bars as community clubhouses, where friends could hang out, and as a place to rally the community if a person or an organization needed help. Garrison has volunteered her bartending skills many times for nonprofit community fundraisers such as Out Youth, gay and lesbian softball teams and other great causes. She expressed disappointment that lesbian bar scene is not what it use to be.
PARTE DE LA FAMILIA
Garrison met her partner of eight years, Angela Briones, while working on a CD release party for Jen Foster, a Texas-born musician. At that time, Garrison’s only day off was Sunday. Coincidentally, Sunday afternoon was the perfect time for Briones to go to a gay bar. The two were finally introduced to each other as they worked on the party. There was definitely a spark between them, Garrison said.
After Garrison’s then-girlfriend broke up with her, she asked Briones out. They have been together since Christmas Day 2005.
Garrison made an impression on Briones on their first dates at Uchi and South Congress Café. “Our first date was definitely an eye-opener. I thought she is so much different than I am but in the best way possible.”
According to Briones, who was shy and quiet, she stepped out of her introverted shell once she met Garrison. “Joyce has opened up my entire world. It’s her personality. She taught me how to break down the barriers that I keep up for myself and not be so secluded and quiet.”
After four months together, the couple went on an Olivia cruise, the ultimate lesbian travel experience. Their estate room had a balcony with a beautiful view and was the perfect backdrop to Garrison’s proposal. If the moment were part of a story, it couldn’t have been written any better, Briones said. “I remember thinking, ‘Thank you for reading my mind,’” at the moment Garrison asked her to marry.
A week later, the couple selected their engagement rings at the lauded jewelry store, Tiffany & Co., while in New York City. Almost three years later, they boarded another Olivia cruise and were married along with 24 other couples. “The cake was huge!” Garrison said.
In many Hispanic families, talking about sexuality is taboo, perpetuating an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Briones family is no exception. But that didn’t stop them from loving Garrison unconditionally. Because Garrison’s father and sister don’t live near Austin, she is happy to be part of her partner’s family. “I’ve gained so much family,” she said. “I’m wexican por vida.”
Garrison has become very close to Briones’ mom, frequently calling her and taking her out to lunch. She recently accompanied Briones to her grandpa’s funeral, where she was introduced as an “adopted daughter.”
FRESH VS. ARTIFICIAL
Garrison was working at a small restaurant when an old bar regular, Terry Marks, who worked at W Los Angeles, was in town to help open up W Austin. After chatting over dinner, Garrison told her friend that she was interested in joining the W Austin team. Soon after Marks turned in Garrison‘s resume and referred her for the position, she was hired to be a bartender at W Austin.
After working in nightclubs for years, Garrison had the speed, the accuracy and the people skills to be a great bartender. But when she came to W Austin, there was not a drop of artificial flavoring available. Instead, she was armed with a muddler and a fruit tray. “When I came here, I was totally out of my element,” she said.
Garrison researched, read books and collaborated with other bartenders to take her cocktail mixing to the next level. After the first libationist stepped down to pursue a different life path, she was asked to fill in his shoes. She was floored but ready for the challenge. “When I got here, I went from being a night bartender to a real bar chef.”
Garrison described the difference between working in the nightclubs and in W Austin as night and day. “It’s fresh versus artificial.” She went on to explain that she used artificial flavors, like root beer schnapps, to mix drinks. Now she uses fresh ingredients to make them. For an apple martini, for instance, she may go as far as fetching an apple from TRACE’s kitchen.
“All bartenders want to be in the culinary field and all culinary people want to make drinks,” Garrison said. She loves to cook, but most of her friends and family usually want her to make them a sandwich. To Garrison, a sandwich is not just a piece of meat and cheese in between slices of bread. Sandwiches are personal and should take some serious thought into layering flavors. “You should always accept a bartender’s dinner invitation,” she said. “Bartenders have great taste buds.”
Garrison‘s ultimate goal is to open up her own place. She envisions it as being a hybrid bar/coffee shop that the LGBT community can call home but where everyone is welcome. It would have a stage for concerts, improv shows and open mic nights.
“I can’t wait to open up my own place,” she said. “I know people will come because they will be welcome.”