Bartenders, industry professionals, and enthusiasts migrated to San Antonio for five days of educational seminars, classy parties, and endless drinks. From Jan 10 to the 14th San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) hosted their 7th year in and around the beautiful St Anthony Hotel, a short walk from the famed riverwalk.
The SACC benefits those San Antonio residents who have not yet reached the drinking age. Since the conference’s beginning in 2012, SACC has donated over $500,000 to local children’s charities HeartGift San Antonio and ChildSafe. Managed by Houston Street Charities—a non-profit founded by Mark Bohanan in conjunction with the SACC—these funds have supported causes from lifesaving heart surgeries to advocacy efforts for children traumatized by abuse or neglect.
Seminars paired with cocktails covered the gamut, ranging from educational origins of spirits (mezcal, tequila, whisk(e)y, shochu, sherry, and more), to more heated topics like equality, and consumption practices. I attended 5 seminars, thankfully none started before 10am for us late night cocktail connoisseurs.
Designing and Branding discussed concept menu layout, creative bar theme ideas, and the addition of merchandise for increased sales. Pouring Ribbons in NYC brought a wealth of knowledge. They touched on the importance of researching a theme idea, investing in a quality logo (specifically one that looks good in black and white), printing in house to save money, and above all don’t be married to a menu. Examples of their fun and creative ideas included an 80’s theme bar menu put on the back of floppy disks (don’t know what those are, Google it).
TED: Tolerance, Equality, and Diversity in the service industry was led by a 4 person panel and a moderator for an open discussion on the problems faced by women and minorities and potential solutions. Three of the panel members and the moderator are women so the topic stayed on women’s concerns for the most part but the issue of race was brought up. The one man on the panel shared experiences with would be vendors making inappropriate comments in front of his wife/business partner and daughter. Causing him to end future business with that company. Solutions ranged from boycotting with your dollars, to communicating with brand leaders, and reaching out to non profit support groups and local chapters of the USBG.
Above the Bar discussed industry careers that don’t involve bartending. Led by Ohio based writer, sales manager for Middle West Spirits, Ginny Tonic with her podcast other half Charlie Moore aka The Charlie Tonic Hour. Key points were to never underestimate any conversation, ask questions, and reach out. Career options are plentiful and variable. Ranging in sales and marketing, production and distilling, events managers, consulting, and bar ownership. While they described each option and the basic needs on a resume to be qualified for these careers, and the potential downfalls, they really didn’t touch on how to get started except to say you have to put yourself out there, no one is going to come to you, and success will only come from asking for it.
Reinforce the Source: Reimagining Consumption Practices offered perspective from three different directions. Rum from Martinique, an overseas dept of France, abides by EU laws and French labor practices. Required to pay a fair wage, offer vacation benefits, restrict pesticides, and offer advanced production technology. Mezcal produced in Mexico, admittedly not as well governed as France, relies on the integrity of the distiller to produce a quality product without sacrificing the people of the region or the environment. The same can be said for coffee grown and produced in central and south America. Coffee companies like Dark Matter Co support farms who take the extra step by focusing on biodiversity, education, energy use, and sustainability of the workers and land. (To avoid being Debbie Downers cocktails and coffee was offered). All three presenters shared a connection to the people, culture, and land. Setting examples of balancing what’s best for the future of the planet while still growing profitable products in the industry.
Bringing the Kitchen & Bar Together focused on ways the FOH and BOH can work together for the overall benefit of the establishment. Owners of The Last Word in Livermore, CA presenters were Rick and Theresa Dobbs. They believe owners/managers need to foster a supportive environment and there’s no room for “not my job” mentality. Everyone in their establishment knows how to perform other jobs. FOH spends time learning BOH responsibilities and vis versa. Keys to success are communication, inclusion, shared ordering, placement, culture, team building, and a core mission. Admittedly easier said then done with tipping laws and tight profit margins. Balance can be found and, as Rick put it, bartenders are the ambassador of the establishment. Cheers to that!
SACC offered a break between seminars with plenty of tasting and networking. Brands set up in suites, nearby bars, or in some cases pool side, to introduce you to their line of spirits. On a bitter cold day I was grateful for the Glenmorangie/Ardbeg single malt Scotch tasting. The balanced peat in my glass and the windy bite of the air outside reminded me of Scotland. Far warmer the following day the Kimo Sabe Mezcal Agave Bon Voyage offered an educated adventure in the flavors of mezcal and the comparison to tequila. Lots of laughs and cups were passed as we cruised the scenic riverwalk by tourist designed barge. My favorite by far was the Plantation Rum voyage through the terroir of rum hosted by the popular bar Juniper Tar and presented by Maison Ferrand. This limited seating tasting offered some the rarest blends of their rum and made you feel spoiled and elitist.
Speaking of feeling elitist, each evening was a special themed party. Taking place in grand ballrooms and closed to the public art spaces, these events were full of class, well crafted cocktails, and flavorful bites from reputable restaurants. Women Shaking it Up was set to celebrate women superheros in the industry. Many people dressed up, I lost count of how many Wonder Woman costumes I saw. Yet for us out of towners, I had no idea who any of these women were and had hoped for more signage or direct contact at the event. Waldorf on the Prairie sold out event was a perfect blend of Edwardian era décor and Texas charm. Drink of the night had to be the ground black ants and sea salt rimmed tequila cocktail from Camarena. Under the Sea brought out the mermaids and a blackened negroni from Zephyr Gin. Both were overshadowed by puppies. Yes puppies, brought in by Tito’s Vodka For Dog People campaign from a local humane society in order to promote adoption. I witnessed at least one love at 1st site encounter. Easily could have been me if I didn’t need to catch a plane back to Portland.
For people who wanted to keep the party going there were city wide pop ups and bar takeovers. Ranging from a tiki theme to Girl Gang’s Honky Tonk fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. If by the end you were feeling a little guilty the Gin & Redemption party by Maritine Honeysuckle Liquor offered church themed drinks and a confessional upstairs at Franks. A former church turned bar, event space, hot dogs extraordinaire.
Hendricks Gin Ministry of Relaxation was there at the end to offer a room full of service and amenities. Morning cocktails, coffee, and light food sure. How about scheduled massages, decompressing tent, people to fan you, and basically simplified but wacky butler service (a mechanical negroni making contraption and G&T creating suitcase).
SACC has so much to offer in a short period of time but never felt overwhelming. Industry workers have a way of bonding and friendships are formed in elevators on the way to the next event. The San Antonio Cocktail Conference showed true Texas hospitality. No one could possibly leave without making new connections yet feeling like they ran into an old friend. Thanks Y’all!