The cocktail scene in San Antonio is serious. While there are plenty of places where you can order a cosmo or Jack and Coke; Moscow Mules, Old Fashioneds, and Rickeys are fast entering the local late-night lexicon. Downtown and beyond is bustling with high-end cocktail bars where patrons can learn of the complexities, ingredients, and history of drinks rather than simply slinging back Jägerbombs on the drunken train to oblivion.
The origins of the cocktail scene were recently explored a soon-to-be-released documentary, “Cocktail Culture: City on the Rise.” Another key component in the rapid adoption of this culture is the San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC). The event will be celebrating its fourth year this January and was recently named by Fodor’s as one of the best cocktail festivals in the country.
HOW THE COCKTAIL CONFERENCE CAME ABOUT
SACC is the brainchild of Scott Becker, general manager at Bohanan’s and board member of Houston Street Charities, Bohanan’s nonprofit organization that runs the Cocktail Conference. In somewhat of a fluke, the space below Bohanan’s became available years ago, and management thought to develop it into a craft cocktail bar. It just so happened that there was turnover at the bar manager position, so the team had the opportunity to build something from scratch.
Becker is not a “bar person,” he said – but he can recognize passion and dedication.
“We jumped on an airplane and started going around the country and spent a lot of time in New York seeking out those bars that we thought were as dedicated to the craft that we were in the restaurant,” Becker said. “Those are the magic words: dedicated to their craft. That means taking the extra time to make sure you have the right glasses at the right temperature with the right precision in the cocktail every time.”
After touring New York, the Bohanan’s group encountered Sasha Petraske‘s bars that the team found to be above the rest. In a savvy move, Becker hired Petraske as a consultant to the bar program at Bohanan’s.
“I decided to give ourselves something that we could aspire to, somebody that preached the gospel,” Becker said.
That move had ramifications well beyond the bar at Bohanan’s. It impacted the San Antonio cocktail scene at large.
“Every bartender that comes in here, Sasha comes down and trains. He’s probably trained most of the bartenders in the city now because (many of them) have all branched off now and opened their own bar,” he said.
After working with Petraske and seeing the bar program grow, Becker had the idea of holding a conference centered around cocktails in downtown San Antonio as a way to get the restaurant involved in the community.
“I didn’t invent a cocktail conference, we’ve been to one up in New York and New Orleans,” Becker said. “We wanted to promote our craft. We had a new bar that just opened and I thought that it would be a valuable exercise to promote the craft and get ourselves involved in the community.”
FOR EXPERTS AND ENTHUSIASTS ALIKE
Whether you’re a cocktail aficionado who makes your own bitters in-house, or a novice whose sole cocktail knowledge is that James Bond prefers his drink shaken (not stirred), the San Antonio Cocktail Conference has something for you.
“The conference aims to not just entertain, but educate – and not just educate those that already have some base knowledge of cocktails. With anything that has a particular skill and craft to it, I think it can be intimidating,” said Cathy Siegel, executive director of Houston Street Charities. “But I would like to think that someone who knows nothing could come to the conference and at least feel competent when they go into a craft cocktail bar and order a drink.”
The SACC schedule hosts a mix of classes designed to give the average person a better understanding of spirits and drink preparation, the bar professional the ability to create more consistent and appealing drinks, and the industry expert access to master classes to further his or her education on particular spirits.
“In the same way that we’re trying to appeal to those coming to the conference as a complete novice, we are also able to provide some significant education to people who are already in the industry. These professionals can learn from some of the best,” Siegel said.
For example, this year’s conference has a class on mezcal, one of the hottest spirits right now, where two mescaleros will discuss the spirit’s production and experts will talk about the differences between Oaxaca and Michoacan varieties – with a tasting included. One of the best parts of this conference is that, during every session I’ve ever attended, there has been a cocktail to accompany the instruction — if only every business conference could adopt this philosophy.
BIGGER AND BETTER: MORE PAIRED DINNERS AND EPIC PARTIES
I learned a great deal about the composition of a good drink after attending the conference last year. High quality ingredients are just the beginning — variables including the type of ice and how it melts, the style of glass used, the aroma you smell before sipping, and how it looks all impact the experience of that cocktail.
In the same vein, the venues, food, music and parties all add to the SACC experience. And each one is getting bigger and better. So big, organizers have released an online magazine that’s also part tour guide, Cocktail Journals, which is also available as a mobile phone application for iTunes and Google Play.
“We’ve done paired dinners before, but we are doing some smaller paired dinners this year the week before the cocktail conference,” Siegel said. “There is an experience to be had that is cocktail-related, but in more intimate settings.”
These 11 different paired dinners were designed to be up close and personal with the talent, the chef, and the brand ambassador with the spirit brand.
Additionally, there are two larger paired dinners right before the conference opens. Two Bros. BBQ Market will host a BBQ and Bourbon dinner, and Biga on the Banks will host a larger paired dinner with Glenfiddich scotch whiskey. More information about the paired dinners can be found on the Conference’s website. Be sure to get your tickets now as they are quickly snatched up.
The parties at the Cocktail Conference are always a hit, and the opening party at the Majestic Theater is raising the bar. Literally. Guests to the opening night party on Thursday, Jan. 15 will enjoy flooring installed over the top of the theater seats, effectively doubling the amount of space to party. Music will be performed by national R&B soul artist Mayer Hawthorne, and you’re certain to find a cocktail or two to enjoy at the event.
Saturday’s Stroll on Houston Street is a way to gain access to three classy establishments: Lüke San Antonio, Sheraton Gunter Hotel, and Bohanan’s Restaurant and Bar. Each venue will have live music to enjoy along with signature beverages. If you’re looking to get a little fresh air, make your way over to IBC Plaza and enjoy the sounds from an 18-piece orchestra. If that isn’t enough for you, the Empire Theater will be hosting an after party with 86 Co. and music by Deke Dickerson and Los Straitjackets. The Stroll on Houston Street can quickly turn into a stumble, so be sure to leave the driving to someone responsible.
POURING THEIR HEARTS OUT
Everything above makes the San Antonio Cocktail Conference one of the premier events in the country, but what puts it over the top is the fact that Houston Street Charities donates 100% of all money raised during the conference to children’s charities.
Over the past three years, $240,000 was raised by SACC events to benefit children in need.
“We’ve made a commitment to benefit children’s charities in a significant way,” Siegel said.
This year’s donation will benefit the Children’s Shelter, ChildSafe, HeartGift San Antonio, and Transplants for Children. So whether you attend a class, party, or even just stop by the tasting room, know that your ticket purchase goes towards helping each of these charities.
This conference is special not only to the charities it benefits, but also to the city as a whole.
“If you look at the history of what’s happened with restaurants and bars in San Antonio, as the cocktail conference has grown, so has the culinary and craft cocktail world grown,” Siegel said. “I would like to think that we are a part of that. People come from all over to the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. We are on their radar, and that is a testament of what is happening in the city at large. We are a culinary and cocktail destination year round.”
*Featured/top image: Bartender Jordan Corney pours out a craft cocktail at Bohanan’s. Photo by Scott Ball.