The San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) is just around the corner of this new year, Jan. 16-19, but don't let the "conference" portion intimidate you. It's really part downtown festival and part hands-on education for industry buffs and the general public alike.
Event Coordinator Jenny Rabb described the conference as an ever-evolving endeavor.
"When we started (in 2012), the craft cocktail scene was in its early stages," she said as we sat in the functionally messy "War Room," situated in Bohanan's office space which is dedicated at the moment to organizing the SACC. "Part of it was introducing cocktails to the city."
Now, the scene has blossomed into a sustained industry complete with local distilleries.
"We have regrouped and restructured (our planning) because there are so many people involved and we want to include everybody," Rabb said. "Any of the evening events have a wide variety of brands – more like a cocktail party, more mingling with a wide variety of cocktail styles."
For its third year, SACC proceeds will go to HeartGift, the Austin-based nonprofit that flies disadvantaged children from around the world to doctors that can perform life-saving surgeries. SACC raised $75,000 for the nonprofit last year by selling about 5,000 total tickets to the events combined. This year organizers have added another charity, ChildSafe, an advocacy center that works specifically for abused and neglected children in Bexar County.
The charity aspect of the conference is one of the many appeals for attendees – not to mention, well, the cocktail parties – and was a key piece of the event for one of the founding organizers, Sasha Petraske.
Petraske, born and raised in New York, is often cited as one of the founding fathers – or at least instigator – of the modern craft cocktail movement. Milk and Honey, his tiny, hole-in-the-wall speakeasy, opened in 2000 – before it was cool to wait more than two minutes for a drink. It's now one of the most talked-about craft cocktail bars in NYC.
"This information was hard-won," he said of finding that there was indeed a market for "polite" cocktail bars. They barely pulled out of debt, but what really sealed he and his partner's success was "proving that the customers value what we do ... (because they are) willing to wait and pay a little bit more."
Petraske was certainly instrumental in bringing the craft to San Antonio when he was retained as an on-site consultant for Bohanan's bar on Houston Street, one of the first modern craft cocktail bars in San Antonio and founding sponsor of SACC.
"(I'm) extremely proud to be a part of the creation,” Petraske said while we sat in the successful downtown bar and restaurant during his recent visit to San Antonio.
Not long ago, those in search of a relaxed environment in which to enjoy a craft cocktail had to look long and hard in San Antonio. Sports bars, night clubs, hotel bars – places where customers were often less discriminating.
Post Prohibition, the industry standard became one of trying to give the customer the least while charging the most money, Petraske explained. Even ice machines were designed to make ice that melted quickly to convince the customer they were getting more drink for their buck. There was a rise in flavored or "infused" vodkas to avoid the need of fresh ingredients.
The rise of cocktail culture has "seriously been very much on the back of food movement," he said. "This would not be so big if not for the massive expansion of interest in 'real' food. I'm a big fan of the slow food movement.
"My main interest is and was to create a drinking environment that is not to cut loose and party – (rather) to provide an example to young people that there is a different way to drink than they did in high school in college (and that is) drinking for the experience of it and not for the inebriation," he said. "In order to experience the inebriation, you can’t get too inebriated.”
As the saying goes: "Always buzzed, never drunk."
His goal has been to create quiet, polite bars – "a bar where you could leave your sister alone and know she's in good hands," he said. "Make young men and women drink like grown-ups to remove the notion that the alcohol content is the most important component.”
In some circles, cocktail culture has become a "snobby, intellectual thing," Petraske said, wincing as he thought of the notion.
"On the other side of the cocktail resurgence are people that believe that it’s just as important as art ... they need to sniff it and say something about it,” he shakes his head. "That's the furthest thing from what we’re trying to do. It pains me terribly that people associate me with that kind of thing.”
A customer should be able to walk into a bar knowing nothing about cocktails. It's the bartender's responsibility to suggest and craft a drink, he explained. "Most of our sales are bartender's choice.
"We believe (the customer) doesn’t need any knowledge whatsoever," he said. "We don’t believe this is an intellectual endeavor, nor is it an art. This is a craft – a cocktail needs to be experienced, not conceptualized ... Calling a bartender a mixologist is like calling a janitor a custodial engineer." Janitors need not be ashamed of the title, nor bartenders.
"Those of us who are really doing it want to disassociate from all that silliness ... For me, (SACC) is an educational event to spread that ethos ... this is the grudge match against more intellectual strains.”
Bartenders depend on open source information. They'll share recipes and teach one another techniques to anyone who will listen, he said. But at the end of the day "you can buy the sheet music, but you have to learn to play."
“Being a good bartender is much more a question of character than knowledge,” he said. "You can’t copyright or keep secret a cocktail recipe (because) we can always reverse engineer it – it’s a matter of execution.
"Right now, New York doesn’t have any technical edge anymore – perhaps due to the Internet. At their best, the cocktails bars in San Antonio are the equal of any in the world.”
For the first time, this year some of San Antonio's leading bartenders are delivering lectures alongside nationally recognized peers. Olaf Harmel of Blue Box upstairs will lead a talk entitled, "The Cellar Master's Approach to Creating Elegant Cocktails" at 11 a.m. on Jan. 18. Chris Ware and Jake Corney, both trained at Bohanan's bar, will share the "The Five W's of Drinking" later that day at 1 p.m. Both events are at the at Sheraton Gunter Hotel.
There are a few different ways to experience the conference, depending on your level of interest, time and budget. All-access passes are $250 and $300, depending on the selected schedule. Though some events are not included even with this purchase, including lectures/seminars, the pre-conference paired spirit dinners, and the Sunday night closing party at The Brooklynite.
Even for the casual cocktailian, Rabb said the entire schedule should prove to be accessible, but there are some events that are especially so for newcomers including happy hours, tastings dinners and more:
- The opening night party at The Majestic Theatre ($100, includes hors d'oeuvres and drinks) will, of course, be the place to be on Thursday night. More than 25 different brands will be represented, several based in Texas, and a wide variety of cocktail styles.
- Mixology 101: Build Your Own Signature Cocktail ($75) 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 17 at Sheraton Gunter Hotel's Quadrangle Room.
- Making Cocktails for Your Home Cocktail Party ($30) 11 a.m. on Jan. 17 at Sheraton Gunter Hotel's Alamo Room.
- Texas Spirits Night ($75) Rio San Antonio Cruises on the river from Weston Centre. Boats launch continuously from 6:15 – 8 p.m.; the Pearl event runs from 7 – 11 p.m. and transportation back to the Weston Centre is available throughout the evening.
- Stroll on Houston Street ($75) 6 p.m. Jan 18. On the street, parties at the glittering Bohanan’s Bar and courtyard, and overlooking the River Walk at Lϋke. Between the two venues? Music, music, music.
- Movie Screening: Hey Bartender ($10) 2 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Aztec Theatre. The documentary focuses on two bartenders (a former U.S. Marine and a former bank executive) trying to achieve their dreams through the world of tending bar.
- Cocktail Competition ($10) 5 p.m. at the Aztec Theatre. Contestants prepare an original cocktail for a chance at cash prizes. Each contestant will have 10 minutes to make a cocktail for the guest judges from his or her own original recipe.
- Closing party at The Brooklynite ($40) 9 p.m. Jan. 19. Toast another successful SACC at one of the city's most popular bars. Jeret Peña opens The Brooklynite to six of Texas' best bartenders and their creative cocktails. Stay inside for the music and drinks; step outside to food trucks for chow, included in the price of admission.
There are advanced classes and seminars that beginners can enjoy, though some are definitely directed toward industry buffs, for example: "The Team Equation: Building Family vs Hiring Staff," "To Comp or Not to Comp: The Art of Buyback," "Yoga for Vampires (aka Bartenders, Cocktail Waiters and People Who Enjoy the Nightlife)" and "Beyond Mainstream Trends: Market Segmentation's Role in the Beverage Industry."
There's certainly something for everyone to enjoy. Check out the full SACC event schedule here.
“I travel a lot for business.. but (San Antonio) is the only place that I have any real connection to,” Petraske said. “I’m born and raised in New York. If i was a young person looking to be part of a city, I could see going to Detroit – but San Antonio is definitely (on the) up ... and business is good in Texas."
His partner recently opened a bar in Austin that originally was going to be in Los Angeles, and he's looking now at opening in San Antonio.