When it comes to deciding where you spend your time and money, labels are important. A fine dining establishment offers a different experience than you get at a food truck. Similarly, one would expect different things from a visit to a cocktail bar as opposed to a speakeasy, as opposed to a tiki bar. Labels, names, and categories are important. And yet, there are those places that defy categorization. They won’t be pigeonholed into just one.
The first time I visited Small Victory, I was under the impression this was a tiki bar that also called itself a speakeasy. When I had trouble finding the entrance, it made sense: speakeasies are hidden. By the time I made it to the bar and found a menu full of tiki drinks, I was sure: this was a tiki bar. As has been my experience on this speakeasy tour, however, not everything is as it seems.
“We consider ourselves a classic cocktail bar, which sounds very general,” Laura Maddox, Small Victory’s floor manager told me. “We are trying to bring back the drinks that held up the golden age of American cocktails.” So Small Victory is a classic cocktail bar, with tiki bar and speakeasy elements. A melding of genres that nevertheless makes it worthy of my next speakeasy series feature.
The Entrance to Small Victory
As we’ve covered in past articles, some speakeasies are harder to find and gain access to than others. There isn’t a password, or a code, to get into Small Victory, but I had more trouble locating the entrance than I expected.
Located on 7th Street, just east of Congress, you won’t see a bar jumping out at you. Rather, look for a spiral stairway attached to a large parking garage. There will be an “S.V.” on the window. Follow the stairs up until you’re in what looks like a corridor with warm lighting. You’ve made it to Small Victory.
“We get called a speakeasy because we don’t have a sign outside, and we’re fine with that,” Maddox told me. “It’s a tiny enough bar that it works for us.” Maddox explained that Small Victory’s falling into the speakeasy category was not intentional, but the team embraced it. Not a bad category to be a part of here in Austin!
Small Victory opened over the holidays in 2014. Josh Loving, the general manager, owner, and operator–along with Maddox–had immense respect for the location. Before Small Victory’s arrival, the space had been closed for two years, but prior to that the location had quite a history. For at least 20 years, this was a beloved dive bar burger joint called Nick’s Pub. “I love being in a space that people have a multi-generational connection to,” Maddox, a native Austinite, explained.
When Small Victory moved in, Loving and his team stripped out everything in the space, leaving a cement room in a parking garage. Then came the aesthetics. The goal was to make the space timeless, immune to current trends. Pastiche, even. And thus, the Baroque wallpaper, subway tile, and hanging antique lamp. Small Victory achieved its goal of timeless decor.
And the drinks are timeless, as well.
Classics Done Right
You can go in a number of directions when you’re ordering drinks at Small Victory. The specialties are perhaps the martinis and Manhattans. Martinis are such a big part of the story that the menu even has a martini chart in the back, to answer all the questions you might have about how martinis are made. What does dirty mean? What does dry mean? What’s going to be in this kind of martini? For a martini novice like myself, this chart was extremely helpful.
Most popular cocktail? Well, that takes you down the road into tiki drink territory. And again, Small Victory does not consider itself a tiki bar. It’s a classic cocktail bar, but that doesn’t stop it from serving up the best Singapore slings, hurricanes, and painkillers in Austin.
The secret? All ingredients are housemade. That means that all juices are fresh and all syrups are made in-house. Even the coconut cream is fresh.
And then there’s the rum. “We can pull off a lot of tiki drinks because of our selection of rums,” Maddox told me. Certain tiki drinks require specific rums, and these mixologists are ready for all of them.
“We have recipes that are perfect and tweaked, and we will bring drinks back that have stood the test of time,” said Maddox. Hence the “classic cocktail bar” label.
“There’s something about being able to execute these drinks that people made for over 100 years.” Small Victory also gets a lot of off-menu orders, and this is in large part due to the skill of the bartenders. Every bartender is adept at all classic cocktails as well as “just freestyling,” as Maddox put it. People often ask for something the bartender likes, or that they’ll like. You can’t go wrong when ordering at Small Victory.
Ice, Ice Baby
Remember when I said all the ingredients are made in-house? Well, that includes the ice. Small Victory is one of, if not the only, bar in Austin that makes its own ice. “This is the old school style of ice, before ice machines,” Maddox explained. Ice machines, I learned, freeze ice so fast that the cubes end up having air bubbles and impurities throughout. This causes ice to have less potential energy, and the ice consequently won’t get as cold. Neither will the drink. Denser ice stays colder for a longer period of time.
Okay, chemistry class is dismissed, but it’s for this reason that Small Victory freezes ice slowly over time, at a large scale. The ice comes out clear, in large sheets. The next step is to use a food grade safe, oiled up chainsaw to cut the large blocks into manageable sizes. Big rocks for certain cocktails, spears for other, and cracked ice for the remainder.
Because the water is so pure, and it doesn’t come from a machine with chemicals, Small Victory’s ice doesn’t taste like anything. All you’re tasting is your delicious cocktail. This is a devotion to the craft that not many bars are willing to match.
Happy Hour, Food, Et Cetera
Small Victory has one of the best happy hours in Austin: every day from 5-8 p.m. I love a bar that offers happy hour on the weekends. Come for the 50 percent off daiquiris, beer, cider, and fortified wines.
While Small Victory is a great spot for a date, or to catch up with a friend, the vibe gets more upbeat as the evening progresses. DJs currently perform every other Wednesday, helping to get the party going if that’s what the crowd wants.
Perhaps you’re looking to get something in your belly, so you can keep on dabbling in the delicious cocktails. Small Victory’s charcuterie board, prepared and sliced to order, is well-known for a reason. With plenty of delicious meat and cheese, as well as marinated olives and pickles prepared in-house, you should not miss out on the perfect complement to your cocktails.
A Part of the Community
With the intimate setting and cocktails that are laboriously concocted, every Small Victory visit feels special. That’s the best way I can describe it. This place is relaxing and homey, and that is intentional. It’s a labor of love.
“I have a deep connection to what I’m doing here because it is my hometown,” Maddox told me. “I want to be able to have my foot in the door with my own community; it feels like I’m carrying the torch.” This classic cocktail bar/speakeasy/tiki bar/whatever the label you choose is certainly worthy of the effort.
108 E. 7th St. – Website
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you visited Small Victory yet?
“For at least 20 years, this was a beloved dive bar burger joint called Nick’s Pub.”
No, it was called Mike’s Pub. And Mike made perfect burgers and fries, and they had giant schooners of beer. It was there at least since the late 1970s.