A wealth of spirited talent took over River City for the third annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) at the start of this year.
“…we’re about to experience a critical mass in downtown San Antonio that hasn’t been seen since the beginning of the 20th century.”
Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail, facilitated a guided pisco tasting, Sasha Petraske shared tips for making bulk cocktails for parties, and Dushan Zaric led an industry discussion on how to build the ideal bar team. The line-up of classes and events featured mixologist all-stars from around the country.
Mark Bohanan founded the conference, modeled after both the Manhattan Cocktail Conference and Tales of a Cocktail in New Orleans, and it was the first event of its kind in Texas. The classic Bohanan’s, where one can hear live jazz six nights a week, is also partly responsible for kickstarting San Antonio’s cocktail culture into what it is today.
“There are a lot of people doing cocktails but some of the strongest in the business come from [the Bohanan’s] philosophy.” -JERET PEÑA
After opening across the street from the historic Majestic Theatre in 2008, Bohanan brought cocktail guru Petraske (proprietor of New York’s Milk & Honey and Dutch Kills, LA’s The Varnish, and partner/consultant for many more, including Austin’s new Half Step) to train the staff, including current bar manager Jake Corney, winner of this year’s SACC competition.
“(Petraske’s training) was the true beginning of the dominant cocktail culture in San Antonio,” remembers Jeret Peña, proprietor of The Brooklynite. “There are a lot of people doing cocktails but some of the strongest in the business come from
that particular philosophy and that tree trunk.”
Many past Bohanan’s barkeeps are the very same ones shaking things up all around town today. “Bohanan’s has been the stomping ground where everyone originates,” says Corney. “And the thing about San Antonio that’s cool is that the bartenders are all very close to each other. There’s no competition–we all get together and drink and play cards together.”
Don Marsh, Bohanan’s first bar manager, moved on to Steve Mahoney’s Green Lantern before opening Bar 1919 in Southtown. Bar manager Chris Ware went on to run the cocktail program at Arcade Midtown Kitchen. Tim Bryand assumed the role of beverage manager at Nao, Rob Millican left to open Fire House Lounge in Austin, and Jeret Peña tended the bar at Green Lantern and Le Midi before Chris Hill brought him in to revamp the bar program at Esquire Tavern.
While at the Esquire, Peña was named StarChef.com’s Rising Star Mixologist for Austin/San Antonio and was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award’s Outstanding Bar Program. These accolades gave Peña the final push he needed to dive into his first solo project in the fall of 2012, and The Brooklynite has been on everyone’s lips since then.
Located on Brooklyn Avenue, in an unassuming spot between downtown and the Pearl Brewery complex, the Brooklynite serves truly innovative cocktails created by Peña and his team, using housemade ingredients like dram and ginger beer, shrubs and syrups, and fresh, cold-pressed juices. They’ve also been experimenting with cocktails on tap and a rotating menu of bold tiki cocktails each Tuesday. True to form, the space features just the right amount of ambient light glowing from vintage lamps, and cozy clusters of armchairs tucked away in different rooms. On most nights, and certainly each weekend, the bar is standing room only.
“It’s been really interesting to see it all progress,” says Peña. “Four years ago, no one had a Moscow Mule on their menu. Now, in all the restaurants along the Riverwalk, you’re starting to see Moscow Mules, French 75s–the cocktail world has expanded exponentially here in San Antonio, more so than the food I think.”
“The San Antonio cocktail scene is growing, and still figuring itself out,” describes Houston Eaves, who once led the bar at Austin’s Contigo, but relocated to become the current bar manager at the Esquire. “It’s been a lot of fun getting to know the unique charm and quirks of San Antonio and its people. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this city looks in a few years!”
Peña is building a sustainable bar program called the Boulevardier Group…
consisting of bartenders who have all trained with him.
Peña thinks it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. Before Prohibition, he explains, San Antonio was one of the largest cities in the United States–and certainly the largest city west of the Mississippi. Great musicians and actors would come to town–and it all died out once the Volstead Act was enforced.
“And not since then have we seen a true downtown-centered, thriving San Antonio. And that’s changing as we speak,” raves Peña. “Everyone’s buying land, everyone’s buying property, everyone’s trying to open up operations because we’re about to experience a critical mass in downtown San Antonio that hasn’t been seen since the beginning of the 20th century.”
Peña is focusing on building a sustainable bar program with lots of room for growth by creating a management team called the Boulevardier Group, which currently consists of Peña, Rob Gourlay, Javier Gutierrez, Jorel Peña, and Joe Hernandez– bartenders who have all trained with him and will now be a part of heading up future projects.
“They obviously have the technical skills to make drinks, but I’m including them in my business because I think it’s essential for growth,” says Peña. “They’re so talented, I can’t imagine losing them. They are part of what has made me successful, and it would be foolish of me to think I could do business without them.”
Besides working on a documentary chronicling San Antonio’s evolving cocktail culture and planning an upcoming Texas bar takeover in Houston, Dallas, and Austin with Ware and Corney, Peña has been consulting the beverage program for Hot Joy’s new brick and mortar, and he just recently signed a contract on a space downtown on Houston Street which will be called The Last Word.
“It’s exciting because, as a kid, I always talked about wanting to live in a big city… wanting to experience what it’d be like living in an urban jungle,” he says. “And, little did I know, that staying here and living here, I’d see that happen from the ground up.”
Photography: Chris Perez
Food & Beverage Columnist
Veronica Meewes is a freelance writer and photographer in Austin, TX.
Specializing in lifestyle, travel and food her work has appeared in several outlets including Forbes Travel Guide, Serious Eats, and The Today Show.
Veronica spent her childhood in New Jersey, and traveled around the country before deciding on the sunny capital of Texas.