2017 San Antonio Cocktail Conference

Now rated as “one of the top three cocktail conferences in the country” by Fodor’s, the San Antonio Cocktail Conference returned for its sixth year last week for five days of seminars and events for cocktail enthusiasts and professional mixologists. Over the five days, attendees were treated to seminars on a wide variety of topics that catered to all levels of experience.

The conference started in 2012 and was headed up by Bohanan’s Prime steaks as a way to highlight San Antonio’s fast growing cocktail culture and benefits Houston Street Charities. It has grown with the guidance of cocktail guru Sasha Petraske, the conference has become a powerhouse that takes over most downtown San Antonio with pairings, dinners, tastings and bar crawls. Such the ever popular the ever popular ‘Waldorf of the Prairie”, a social event featuring dozens of cocktails and culinary combinations held at the historic St. Anthony Hotel, once referred to as the Waldorf of the Prairie because of its East Coast style opulence. 

As with each year I have attended this conference I selected a few key seminars and events to attend. After all, one can’t attend them all, as that would be just down right irresponsible. Here are a few highlights of this year’s conference:

Absinthe Mise-en-Place: History, Production and Classic Cocktail Appreciation.  

Made popular by the movie “Moulin Rouge” Absinthe has long been a drink of the sophisticate and shrouded in of mystery. Even the likes of Aleister Crowley, Oscar Wilde, Picasso and Degas partook.

A perception of glamour has also surrounded this drink, a drink that is a dry spirit, a concentrate and was never meant to be consumed straight. In fact, as its popularity rose in the 1800’s, excessive use of Absinthe was thought to cause insanity and though not accurate, the effects of Absinthe were enough for the United States to ban its use in 1912, with France following suit in 1914.

With no clear definition as to what constitutes Absinthe, Switzerland remains the only country with a legal definition of the spirit. Absinthe is typically derived from the medicinal plant Artemisia absinthium, also known as wormwood, with green anise and fennel. In fact, when served, it is not poured over a sugar cube and lit on fire as has been popularized. A little water added will be enough to bring out the flavor and aroma of Absinthe.


Libations: Lost in Translation.

Many of the cocktails we know today were originally prepared differently than we now enjoy them. Cocktails such as an Old Fashioned and Martinis have evolved with the taste preferences of consumers. We like what we like, but many mixologists cringe when asked to shake a Martini.

It can be a fine line between what is traditional and what is presently preferred or what is perceived as the correct way to make a particular cocktail.

For example, a Martini is never shaken. This is a myth popularized by our favorite British Secret Service Agent in the movies. After Bond famously ordered his Martinis ‘Shaken, not stirred’, many ordered theirs this way, with the perception now being that stirring a Martini somehow watered it down. “Simply not true”, says local mixologist Angel De la Vega.

In fact De La Vega feels that many bartenders, or mixologists, should make a cocktail the way their customer wants, but also educate them on the correct way.


The Art of Pairing.

As a society, we love to pair our alcohol with our food. We delight in the endless combinations we can create.  Most popular are wine pairings and dinners, though beer pairings in recent years have gained a lot of steam. Just like beer though, the grain-based nature of mist distilled spirits lends them to wonderful and almost perfect pairings with a variety of different foods.

We first taste with our eyes, then our nose and then our tongue. In fact, the nose accounts for around 8- percent of we taste and the tongue only 20 percent.  Even stress and anxiety have an effect on how we taste food and drinks.

Our tongues though are quite complex and our taste buds can detect at least five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. With the latter being savory flavors, such as meats and cheeses.  Alas, our taste buds begin to decline in our mid forties. Ironic, since better taste tends to evolve with age.

Spirits often elicit multiple flavors, building upon the mouthfeel and texture of the spirit your pairing with your food, as well as your basic tastes. There are three standard ways of pairing spirits with various foods: Emphasizing the spirit over the dish; the dish over the spirit; or a perfect balance of the two.


Gin and Tonic.

Aaaaaah Gin. You smooth, subtle and perfect spirit you. Mixed with a little tonic and you have the perfect, most pure cocktail around.

Gin came about during a war with the Dutch, when the British found their enemy drinking a juniper forward distillate.  When the British tried to recreate it using juniper and other botanicals, they made gin.

Though we know a fair amount about what we think we know about tonic itself is minimal to most. Myself included.

Traditionally tonic is not the carbonated; clear liquid we buy at the liquor store. In the 1600’s the Spanish arrived in Peru and found that the locals were boiling the bark from the Cincona tree as a drink. Not long after, it was discovered that this concoction was also a cure for malaria, due to its quinine content. Tonic used with spirits did not come into place until the early 1800’s when British officers began adding soda water, sugar and yes, gin. Lime and even lemon were later added to help battle scurvy afflicting the British officers in the navy.

At one time the Dutch had massive plantations of the Cincona tree, however in the last hundred years it has all but disappeared from its native Peru, though recently the tree has started a come back in Peru.


Tasting Suites

Held on multiple floors of the Valencia Hotel, this event featured spirits brands from all over the United States and ranged from gin to rum to whiskey and tequila. It was a great opportunity to talk with either representatives from the larger brands such as Bayou Rum and Stolichnaya to smaller boutique brands such as Bimini Gin out of Bedford Maine of all places.


Pierre Ferrand Rare Cognac Tasting

Despite my love of gin, I’ve always had a deep appreciation of cognac. That beautifully smooth Brandy from the Cognac region of France. After all, all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.

This event treated attendees to many different Pierre Ferrand cognacs from their cellars ranging from seven to seventy years old. What an opportunity this was to compare and contrast each year and see what the difference a few decades in a barrel can make.

Also included was the first glimpse at Ferrand’ new Renegade Barrrel and Double Cask reserve cognacs.


Friendly Beer Break

Also in its sixth year is local Ice House The Friendly Spot’s ‘Friendly Beer Break’. Giving conference attendees a bit of a breaks from the spirits, the event features beers from local San Antonio and Texas breweries, as well as others nationwide with an opportunity to meet and talk with representative from the breweries.

Though I always enjoy the tow to three days of improving my spirits and cocktail knowledge, a beer is needed after a while.