San Antonio Cocktail Conference Aims To Bring Craft To The Masses

Culinary tourism is so 2010. Today's travelers have become used to checking websites and scouring online reviews as they plan their "eat-inerary" for vacations or to make sure they maximize the use of their expense accounts on a business trip. So of course, the next frontier must be to focus on the drinks over the food when considering travel options, and the best way to ensure that you're tasting the best that a city has to offer is to attend some sort of cocktail/industry event.

Cocktail conferences have been around for awhile, with New Orleans's Tales of the Cocktail the acknowledged granddaddy of the drinking calendar since 2003. Every year in July, sweaty hordes of partying mixologists take over the French Quarter to learn about their profession, meet the ambassadors of their favorite brands, discover new spirits and drink. Mainly drink.

Tales, as it is known colloquially by attendees, has spread internationally, with stops in destinations like Vancouver, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Other popular cocktail conventions around the country include Portland Cocktail Week, organized around advanced industry education, the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival for serious cane-heads and the Aspen Aprés Ski Cocktail Classic, where people richer than you sip on crafty cocktails after their last run of the day down Little Nell.

While all of these events are quite entertaining and educational, you'll notice that most of the focus is on members of the industry behind the bar and selling the brands instead of on the casual cocktail enthusiast. That's where the San Antonio Cocktail Conference stands apart from the pack. SACC recently completed its extended weekend of tastings, parties and educational seminars for a sixth year, and organizers feel like this was the best yet.

Cathy Siegel is the executive director of Houston Street Charities, the organizer of the event and beneficiary of the money raised. Established to distribute 100 percent of the profits of the conference between various children's charities in San Antonio, Houston Street has divvied up almost $500,000 during the first six years of the conference, an event that has consistently seen an increase of 10 to 15 percent each year.

Siegel believes that SACC's success comes from a combination of its structure and its mission. "The key difference is that it's not necessarily as industry-oriented. We also embrace the end consumer. I believe people choose to come because it's educational and entertaining. Plus it's a huge bonus that the money goes to help children's charities."

The San Antonio Cocktail Conference was envisioned by a group led by the ownership of Bohanan's, one of the premier cocktail bars on Houston Street downtown. Despite the fact that San Antonio is the seventh most populous city in the U.S. (go ahead, look it up), it had yet to gain much of a national reputation as a cocktail town, especially in the shadow of neighbors like New Orleans and Austin.

The Bohanan's crew thought that an extended cocktail event might help shine a spotlight on their city and reached out for inspiration and execution to a resource that was already nearby. Famed New York mixologist Sasha Petraske was best known for opening Milk & Honey, a cutting-edge cocktail bar on New York City's Lower East Side, in 1999, and Bohanan's had hired him to serve as a consultant for its fledgling craft cocktail program. Mark Bohanan asked Petraske to help start up and energize the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, and he agreed to give it a try with the understanding that proceeds would go to charity.Siegel recalls, "Basically Mark asked his friends to jump off a cliff with him, and nobody even checked to see if there was any water below." Their timing was excellent because cocktail enthusiasts were thirsty for education about classic cocktails in this margarita town. "I compare it to wine," explains Siegel. "Where before customers just asked for red or white, now they request particular varietals, regions and vineyards. In San Antonio, we've trained people to go beyond just naming their drinks to also calling for a brand."To be certain, the national spirits brands are definitely involved in SACC and see it as an opportunity to introduce new products and create new fans at several lavish tasting events throughout the weekend. Sharp eyes might notice that the pneumatic young blonde praising that particular brand of organic potato vodka tonight might have been wearing an eye patch and slipping you a pirate-themed rum drink last night. Not that there's anything wrong with that....

SACC draws locals and tourists alike to the revitalized downtown district to showcase the cocktail scene that has been developing. The Esquire Tavern is the oldest bar on the famed Riverwalk, a welcome respite for cocktail and craft beer fans from the Señor Coyote O'McGillicuddy's joints that tend to draw the tourist crowd in for fruity sweet dranks. Daily seminars and tastings are split between an Embassy Suites, the Valencia and the venerable but reinvigorated St. Anthony Hotel. The St. Anthony has quite a history as the city's first luxury hotel, built in 1909 as a place for wealthy cattlemen to stay while they conducted their beefy business.

Besides being haunted as hell, the St. Anthony oozes with class, decorated with antiques collected from around the world and furnished with marble and hardwood everywhere. The resulting vibe earned it the nickname of "the Waldorf on the Prairie." On the cocktail side, the bar in the middle of the lobby has an important historical role as well. Since liquor by the drink was not legalized in Texas until 1971, the St. Anthony Club was where the city's elite and distinguished visitors came to enjoy a cocktail in a private (and legal) setting.It was the site of many a famous deal over drinks, from the planning of the 1968 HemisFair world exhibition to entrepreneur Red McCombs's negotiating the purchase of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs in the early '70s. The bar was also where Herb Kelleher drew a map of a proposed airline network between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio on the back of a St. Anthony cocktail napkin — a diagram that eventually became Southwest Airlines. David Siguaw, director of sales and marketing at the St. Anthony, definitely recognizes the value of connecting San Antonio's hospitality history with the city's current cocktail culture. "The conference brought together the finest mixologists and culinary masters from around the world paired with some of the largest beverage and food brands in existence. The St. Anthony in partnership with the city of San Antonio truly welcomed these cocktail connoisseurs with open arms who not only brought a unique cultural flair to the city but also a wealth of unique knowledge to interested patrons."

That knowledge was shared primarily during the series of education seminars, organized in tracks for "cocktail rookies," "cocktail aficionados" and "cocktail industry" veterans. Topics covered included investigations on "The Allure of the Dive Bar," "The Art of Pairing Cocktails and Food," "Liquid Alchemy: Using Bitters" and a lifting of the curtain of some spirits brands titled "Sourced Whiskey Is Not a Dirty Word," where the purveyors of purchased whiskey explained the art of selecting and finishing spirits that were not made in their own facility.

Attendees who pay attention in class (despite the fact that multiple cocktails are served in each session) should stagger away as more informed consumers, and that's the goal of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. Siegel explains, "We don't want to have an event that's just about drinking a lot of booze. That would be a disservice to the craft. Our goal is to increase the cocktail competency of the consumer, because without educated customers, cocktail bars can't survive."She continues, "I can modestly say that if you look at the growth of craft cocktail bars in San Antonio over the past six years, it correlates very closely with the growth of the SACC. We believe that we are modeling what is happening in the country with the growth of culinary and cocktails as hot topics. We see ourselves as a vehicle for the bartenders to show off their skills, a place for the brands to demo their products and as an opportunity for industry professionals to share their knowledge." Like the 1:1:1 ratio of a proper Negroni, that sounds like a simple recipe for success!