Last week for five days San Antonio rolled out their finest red carpet to host their fourth annual Cocktail Conference, one that was well attended by the best bartenders not only in Texas, but from across the country, and beyond. Like its bigger brother in New Orleans, the annual Tales of the Cocktail, there are plenty of cocktails consumed while attended he various events. Those events include both industry and public fetes, all festooned with a variety of spirits, brews and even wine – all with glamour and sometimes a hint of kitsch.
For some attendees it was a time to hone their craft, for others it was about the exchange of thought and trends in the industry. For the public, it was high moments of revelry and a chance to celebrate all things cocktail. All this which raised awareness and plenty of cash for Houston Street Charities, a non-profit set up by restaurateur Mark Bohanan, owner of the premium steakhouse in San Antonio, Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood.
More than $240,000 was donated in the first three years, all divvied up among a host of children’s charities. 100% of the take is given back to the charities through Houston Street Charities which is overseen by Cathy Siegel, Executive Director.
That said, it was truly inspiring to watch a city rally over an event that last year had over 6,000 participants. Everywhere you went, from pubs, restaurants and even drug stores, random people had the events on their lips. The local buzz is amazing to say the least. Dallas could take a page from this type of enthusiasm.
Stay Classy San Antonio
There were certainly many opportunities for the industry and the public alike to learn more about the craft of cocktails with the seminars held each day. Here you had an opportunity to experience hands on the future of cocktailing.
A particularly delicious trend in the industry is taking the bar to the kitchen. We have seen some of this locally where Bonnie Wilson, beverage program manager for Frontburner’s Fork It Over Restaurants which includes The Ranch in Las Colinas, Mexican Spice, and Whiskey Cake, where she has been using sous vide techniques to infuse some her spirits she offers at the restaurants. We have also seen bar-to-kitchen technique, and even brigade, at the new Remedy on Greenville Avenue where concept bar director Mate Hartai has even set up a bar expeditor – a position used in virtually every kitchen as quality control. In one particular seminar we visited the escalating molecular gastronomy trend behind the stick, with the use of gels, foams, and chemical emulsifiers in many drinks.
We also learned that mezcal will continue be the spirit of choice for barmen, using the smoky and complex flavor to mix up cocktails that are appealing to even the entry level mezcal palate. Ask for a mezcal negroni at your next visit to your favorite mixology bar, or perhaps a fruit juice based cocktails like a strawberry-mint mescal blend.
Other trends we visited in the seminars were low-proof cocktails made with sparkling wines such as one I sampled made with Roca Patron tequila, cherry heering, and Segura Vidas sparkling cava. This is a festive cocktail that separates from the sparkling pack led by the classic French 75.
Other trends include the use of sherry in cocktails. Head out to Proof and Pantry in One Arts Plaza for a perfect example of a drink made with sherry.
Party On, Garth
Barmen are notorious partiers. As you might expect, the brand ambassador’s job is to keep your favorite bartender informed, well trained and spirited. This said, there were plenty of opportunities to enjoy a whole host of brands at the conference this year. Some of the parties were more clandestine than others, but all were spectacular in their own right.
A majority of these events were kept on the down low, and not for public consumption. Details of these events are a bit sketchy, however, the largest tasting is absolutely free and open to the public with the purchase of any event ticket. This is particularly special to the SACC, as most conferences of this type it will require a pass at the cost of nearly $300. This free tasting room is open each day during the conference, and your key to meet brand owners and ambassadors, taste their spirits and specialty cocktails they have prepared, and most importantly find your next favorite drink that you can share with your own wolf pack.
Two of the best parties open to the public and very well attended. The first is the stroll on Houston where revelers wind down the boulevard tasting boozy concoctions and nibbles from local restaurants. The hot action begins at Bohanan’s Restaurant & Bar, snakes through the Sheraton Gunter Hotel, then a short walk through the IBC Plaza where many restaurants and bars are loaded for action, and finally to John Besh’s restaurant, Luke where they have a complimentary oyster shucking station and plenty of bars set up. A visit to the High West booth netted a few tastes of The 36th Vote Barrel Manahttan, a curious and powerful premix. This blew my mind as I didn’t think anything premixed could be so fantastic.
A visit to the after party is a must, and also open to the public. Held at the historic Empire Theatre and served up by some of Texas’ best bars:, Half Step (Austin), Moving Sidewalk (Houston), Parliament (Dallas), Public-Haus (Abilene) and The Last Word (San Antonio). Live performance on stage by Deke Dickerson and Los Straightjackets. This is where you were able to sample Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Fernet Branca cotton candy. I would mention more about this party, but I honestly do not recall anything after the cotton candy.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Sunday things started winding down. A brunch at the Esquire was in order, and I will write more about that separately. Just know that besides amazing drinks, they also serve foie gras pancakes. Seriously insane and inspired.
There were two more evens on slate for the last day, the first was the cocktail competition where Dallas was extremely well represented Brad Bowden and Carlo Biddle of Parliament, and Daniel Guillen who heads up the cocktail program for all the La Duni Latin Kitchen’s in Dallas. I have had an opportunity to judge many cocktail competitions in the past, and have seen these three talented barmen throw down. Brad Bowman always scores very well, and has a polished presentation. Carlo Biddle is fairly new to the competition game and has excelled greatly in past months. His showing in San Antonio was stunning. But there can be only one winner at these things, and our own Daniel Guillen won the big prize of $2,000.
Guillen is a star performer. The barman has skills and it always shows at these competitions. At this event he prepared an Improved Menyul Veracruzano julep (made with Sailor Jerry rum, panella syrup, Tio Diego amontillado sherry, Lustau rare cream sherry, Amargo angostura vallet, mint leaves, three coffee beans) in a tin can. His presentations and garnishes always go beyond the glass, and serves a themed platter festooned with appropriate garnishes that are derived from key ingredients. As a judge, this is wow factor. Just know that Guillen beat out some amazing competition. The conventional wisdom had Houston’s Leslie Ross as first place, she takes these competitions often. Ross served a tequila-based cocktail inside a veladora and topped it with a watermelon rind and sal de gusano. For the win, we send kudos to our local guy Guillen.
The conference ended with a closing party at the Aztec theater where things wound down after nearly a week of learning, enjoyment, and camaraderie. Mark the date and plan to visit beautiful San Antonio next year for this truly perfect event.
Thank you to all our city’s industry leaders who attended and made for a fantastic week. Special thanks to the organizers of San Antonio Cocktail Conference 2015 for a spectacular job done very well.