The Rise of the Cocktail in a City on the Rise

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The Toscana Martini: midori, Bombay Sapphire, sour apple, cherry sync.

Richard Wilder's "Toscana Martini": Midori, Bombay Sapphire gin, sour apple, cherry sync. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Jeret Peña, owner of Brooklynite. Photo by Steven Starnes.The San Antonio cocktail scene has been steadily climbing over the last three years. When I began to work for Partida Tequila six years ago, there was not a single classic cocktail bar in San Antonio – let alone cocktail conferences and competitions.

There are now nearly a dozen places where one can imbibe and partake in an ol’ timey tradition that dates back more than 200 years.

Also, next Saturday’s “Cocktail: The Event” party and craft cocktail competition hosted by the San Antonio Current is a sign of the blossoming culture. Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s Casa Rosa, formerly the Museo Alameda, will be filled with live music, food from some of the city’s most highly regarded chefs, and signature cocktails shaken and stirred from 10 competing bartenders (including myself). Find out more about the competition and purchase tickets at www.cocktail.sacurrent.com. Proceeds go to the SA Current’s Media Scholarship Fund.

During the 2013 San Antonio Cocktail Conference, expert bartenders from Austin and SA share the long bar at the Majestic Theatre to mix and serve craft cocktails from sponsoring brands. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

During the 2013 San Antonio Cocktail Conference, expert bartenders from Austin and SA share the long bar at the Majestic Theatre to mix and serve craft cocktails from sponsoring brands. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The 2013 Cocktail Conference successfully attracted, entertained, and/or educated more than 5,000 participants, and next year’s third annual conference, Jan. 16-19, should be bigger and better. Local and international talent will provide educational talks and (of course) the fine cocktails that we’ve come to expect. This year, organizers are adding another charity to join HeartGift, the Austin-based nonprofit that flies disadvantaged children from around the world to doctors that can perform life-saving surgeries: ChildSafe, an advocacy center that specifically works for abused and neglected children in Bexar County. Go to www.sanantoniococktailconference.com or follow its Facebook page for updates.

But where did this all come from? How and when did this happen? Many find it hard to pinpoint the exact moment that San Antonio’s cocktail industry was born. Perhaps, as someone who has worked in the craft cocktail industry and has opened up my own shop, The Brooklynite,  I can shine some light on that question. One thing is for sure: almost everyone who is currently making legitimate craft cocktails in San Antonio has lineage that traces back to a small handful of bars.

First Wave: Soho, Mon A Mi, Green Lantern

The primordial soup for the cocktail culture in San Antonio is spread out among three places, starting about six years ago; Soho Wine and Martini Bar downtown, Mon Ami on Broadway, and The Green Lantern in Stone Oak.

The Green Lantern, at 20626 Stone Oak Parkway. Courtesy of the Green Lantern's Facebook page.

The Green Lantern, at 20626 Stone Oak Parkway. Courtesy of the Green Lantern’s Facebook page.

Due to their environment, each bar adopted a different way of shaking, stirring and building drinks that was so unique, you can still see them in action today. Even the aesthetics at each location seemed to have different genetic makeups.

The boys from Soho became known for making dessert-style cocktails and keeping their recipes under lock and key. They were technically the first in San Antonio to attempt craft cocktails.

Olaf Harmel has since partnered up with Steve Mahoney to serve classic and modern cocktails at Blue Box Upstairs. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Olaf Harmel has since partnered up with Steve Mahoney to serve classic and modern cocktails at Blue Box Upstairs. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Then, quietly out of nowhere, Olaf Harmel arrived from Corpus Christi (who would have guessed that any cocktail talent would come out of Corpus Christi – of all places).

With his trusted Savoy Cocktails book (first published in 1930, many consider it to be the Bible of craft cocktails), he embarked on his own long journey to recreate many of the book’s classic cocktails at Mon Ami.

Stephen Mahoney at the Green Lantern introduced the Kold-Draft ice machine in San Antonio, which enabled us to work with big, beautiful pieces of ice.

The Kold-Draft machine’s origins are to be found  in old gentlemen clubs around the country, where patrons enjoyed their whisky with as little dilution as possible. This particular machine produces a superior piece of ice larger than most.

The cubes are so cold and dense, one can shatter a car window – if thrown hard enough. Don’t ask me how I know that…

Second Wave: Bohanan’s, Le Midi, Esquire

The next cocktail bar has become one of the cocktail giants in San Antonio: Bohanan’s on East Houston Street. Mark Bohanan opened a bar beneath its restaurant’s location near the Majestic Theater — complete with an antique bar – in 2008. Originally run by Don Marsh, the bar had its roots in classic cocktails, but was progressive in most of its menu. Marsh, now the proprietor of Bar 1919 in Southtown, is literally a walking encyclopedia of beer, whiskey and tequila. While at Bohanan’s, he employed the current generation of cocktailians: Tim Bryand, Rob Millican and yours truly.

Jordan Corney prepares a cocktail at Bonanan's, 222 E. Houston. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Bartender Jordan Corney prepares a cocktail at Bonanan’s, 222 E. Houston St. Photo by Steven Starnes.

But this party did not last long. We soon began to disperse to other venues, or launch our own new projects.

I worked at Bohanan’s for two months under the pretense that I would leave upon finding a bar management position elsewhere. I found such a position at the Green Lantern in January to run its program, but I soon returned to downtown and landed in the little bar on Houston Street formally known as Le Midi (currently Toscana).

Richard Wilder pours a martini at Toscana Ristorante (formerly Le Midi), 301 E. Houston St. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Richard Wilder pours a martini at Toscana Ristorante (formerly Le Midi), 301 E. Houston St. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Rob Millican left to land a job at the Westin La Cantera and, shortly thereafter, left to open his own concept in Austin known as the Fire House. Tim Bryand stayed at Bohanan’s for almost three years, where he was fortunate enough to be trained under Sasha Petraske, who took the helm in 2010 when Don Marsh left for the Green Lantern.

Petraske was a cocktail celebrity a.k.a. “bar star” in the United States and he brought with him a wealth of knowledge unequaled by any locals. I was working down the street at Le Midi when Sasha came to town.

An Old Fashioned, Bohanan's style. Miced by Jordan Corney: sugar cube, angostura bitters, burbon (Buffalo Trace), orange zest/peel. Photo by Steven Starnes.

An Old Fashioned, Bohanan’s style. Miced by Jordan Corney: sugar cube, angostura bitters, burbon (Buffalo Trace), orange zest/peel. Photo by Steven Starnes.

What followed was the true arrival of a fast-growing cocktail culture in San Antonio, with new venues, new customers and with Petraske leading the way, a new reverence for the classics. Sasha did away with the old cocktail menu and implanted a strictly classic cocktail menu. While Petraske was hired as a consultant for Bohanan’s bar, he also mentored others, including Chris Ware at Arcade Midtown Kitchen and Jake Corney. Sasha has since moved back to NYC.

While at Le Midi, I still paid homage to the classics but I began to develop where we left off at Bohanan’s B.S. (“Before Sasha”). I began to experiment with new style of making cocktails that had a classic approach.  I would take classic cocktails and substitutes new age flavors. Half a year goes by and the once quiet bar of Le Midi was a cocktail haven for the downtown San Antonio Crowd.

That summer I hired one of the finest barmen in San Antonio, Robert Gourlay, who still works with me at The Brooklynite. A business man named Chris Hill, a/k/a owner of the Esquire Tavern, who I now count as a friend, heard about me and sat in on one of my seminars. He invited me to meet with him at the Esquire Tavern.

Stephan Mendez expertly crafts a  "Texecutioner" cocktail. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Stephan Mendez expertly crafts a “Texecutioner” cocktail at The Esquire Tavern, 155 E. Commerce St. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Now, I sure as hell remember the Esquire Tavern from when I was a pup, drinking downtown. I would only go during the day after a long night of drinking on a Saturday night, a place to find hot menudo and a cold beer.

Hill called and caught me on the toilet at Le Midi one day, and asked me to manage the beverage program at the Esquire Tavern on Dec. 26, 2010.  Under the circumstances, I humbly accepted.

The Esquire was an extension to what I was doing at Le Midi, only in a much larger format. While at the Esquire Tavern we received huge accolades, and I hired the next wave of cocktailians who would take the town by storm.

New Wave: Blue Box, Bar 1919, Nao, Arcade, Brooklynite … and on and on …

Owner Don Marsh and his whiskies at 1919, downstairs within the Blue Star Arts Complex. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Owner Don Marsh and his whiskies at 1919, downstairs within the Blue Star Arts Complex. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Nearly half-a-dozen places have opened since the Esquire Tavern returned from its five-year closure with a craft cocktail vengeance.

The Blue Box with Steve Mahoney, Olaf Harmel upstairs. Bar 1919 with Don Marsh. Nao Restaurant with one of my first generation bartenders Steven Raul Martin. Arcade Midtown Kitchen with Chris Ware. My own bar, The Brooklynite.

The Pearl Brewery complex has become a centerpiece in this most recent wave (Blue Box, Arcade, Nao and Steve McHugh’s new project, Cured, slated to open this fall).

Steven Raul Martin mixes up "The Entrance" cocktail at Nao Restaurant. Ingredients: Pisco, asperol, grape fruit/zest and lemon juice. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Steven Raul Martin mixes up “The Entrance” cocktail at Nao Restaurant. Ingredients: Pisco, asperol, grape fruit/zest and lemon juice. Photo by Steven Starnes.

A few other bartenders from my Esquire days are months away from opening new projects which will bring even more fine establishments to drink in San Antonio.

Jonathan Yumol, formerly of the Esquire and Nao, just opened his project called TBA, just north of The Pearl on St. Mary’s Street in June.

Patrons at a recent media preview party sample Jonathan Yumol's work at his new bar, TBA, which opened in late June at 2801 N. St. Mary's St. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Patrons at a recent media preview party sample Jonathan Yumol’s (center) work at his new bar, TBA, which opened in late June at 2801 N. St. Mary’s St. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Since the first crew at Bohanan’s more than three years ago, seven craft cocktail bars have opened. All owe some allegiance to either The Esquire Tavern or Bohanan’s.

A Craft Linked to Downtown Revitalization, Economic Growth

The cocktail is here to stay. Naysayers will say that cocktails are a fad which will die hard and fast. We cocktailians believe we have won that war by proving the viability of conference, competitions, and partnering with large organizations and events such as the James Beard Society. In 2011, cocktail bars across the country opened their doors to host competitions for their prestigious, bearded award.

The Toscana Martini: midori, Bombay Sapphire, sour apple, cherry sync.

Richard Wilder’s “Toscana Martini”: Midori, Bombay Sapphire gin, sour apple, cherry sync.

Local media is also paying attention to the cocktail community. Local columnists like Jennifer McInnis at the Express-News and Ron Bechtol at The Current have supported the cocktail community over the last three and a half years by spreading the word about the craft and its dedicated practitioners.

Maybe because my childhood dream was to live  in  the “big city” that I feel the continuing growth of San Antonio is one of the most impressive things I have witnessed.

Throughout history, alcohol has been woven into the very fabric of our society. Is it a coincidence that a more quality-conscious food/beverage scene and the revitalization of the center city are both currently on an up-tick? I think not.

The real question is, when will our universe cease to expand? I guess it all depends on the decisions we make in the next few years. Lets face it, it’s not about the act of drinking nor is it about getting drunk. It’s about culture, growth and the maturity of a city. And right now, I can say with much pride and enthusiasm, San Antonio is waking up – turning that childhood dream into a reality.

Let’s have a cocktail. What’ll it be?

Jeret Peńa, owner of Brooklynite. Photo by Steven Starnes.

Jeret Peńa, native San Antonian, owner of Brooklynite. Photo by Steven Starnes.

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7 thoughts on “The Rise of the Cocktail in a City on the Rise

  1. Well done Jeret!! As an outsider to the cocktail industry this is really fascinating. It also gives me goosebumps to see such a colorful scene exploding in San Antonio. Keep leading the charge!

  2. Kudos Jeret! The passion you have for your craft is always displayed in your work and conversations. The Brooklynite is a true gem in San Antonio where you will taste and learn about quality cocktails. Keep up the wonderful work!

  3. Love TBA, which is within walking distance from my house. I’ve been following all you guys’ moves with these different venues, as has the rest of the city. Cheers to classiness and a fine, craft drink.

  4. Jeret well done. Having move back to San Antonio from Chicago on what is now approaching three year ago, I was hesitant to embrace my hometown for the fear that I was going to be let down. How glad I am that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The boom in cultural and creative development is nuts. And it just keeps going. Thanks for helping this process along man.

  5. Great write-up on the development of bars in San Antonio. This town needs more waves of great cocktail establishments!

    Although SoHo may be first, for me it was Olaf at Mon Ami who was the first in town to really bring real classic cocktails to life.

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