Five Days and Endless Cocktails
Scenes from the 7th Annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference
as told & documented by
Michele Colomb | sansbagage.com
Bartenders, industry professionals, and enthusiasts migrated to San Antonio for five days of educational seminars, classy parties, and endless drinks. From January 10th to the 14th, San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) hosted their 7th annual event in and around the beautiful St. Anthony Hotel, a short walk from the famed River Walk.
The SACC benefits 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 five seminars, and thankfully none started before 10am for us late night cocktail connoisseurs.
The Designing and Branding seminar 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 to not 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 (if you don't know what those are, Google it).
Another seminar I attend was TED: Tolerance, Equality, and Diversity in the service industry was led by a four-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 were 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, which caused 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.
The next seminar I went to was Above the Bar, which discussed industry careers that don't involve bartending. Led by Ohio-based writer and sales manager for Middle West Spirits, Ginny Tonic, alongside her podcast's co-host Charlie Moore (aka "The Charlie Tonic Hour"). Key points were: never underestimate any conversation, ask questions, and reach out. Career options are plentiful and variable, ranging from sales and marketing, to production and distilling, to 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.
My fourth seminar was Reinforce the Source: Reimagining Consumption Practices. This seminar offered three different perspectives : 1) Rum from Martinique, an overseas department of France, which abides by EU laws and French labor practices, and requires businesses to pay a fair wage, offer vacation benefits, restrict pesticides, and offer advanced production technology. 2) Mezcal produced in Mexico, which is 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. And finally, 3) 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 were 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.
Finally, the last seminar attended was Bringing the Kitchen & Bar Together focused on ways the Front of House (FOH) and Back of House (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 the "not my job" mentality. Everyone in their establishment knows how to perform the other jobs. FOH spends time learning BOH responsibilities and vice versa. Keys to success are communication, inclusion, shared ordering, placement, culture, team building, and a core mission. Admittedly easier said than done, with tipping laws and tight profit margins. Balance can be found and, as Rick put it, bartenders are the ambassadors of the establishment. Cheers to that!
SACC offered breaks between seminars with plenty of tasting and networking. Brands set up in suites, nearby bars, or in some cases, pool side, to introduce attendees to their lines 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. The weather was far warmer the following day, and 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 a 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 of the rarest blends of their rum; I felt spoiled and elitist.
Speaking of feeling elitist, each evening had 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. One party, 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. Another sold-out party, Waldorf on the Prairie, was a perfect blend of Edwardian era décor and Texas charm. The 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. But both parties 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-first-sight encounter. That 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, and hot dogs extraordinaire venue.
Hendrick's 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. But how about scheduled massages, a decompressing tent, people to fan you, and a basically simplified but wacky butler service (a mechanical negroni-making contraption and a gin and tonic-creating suitcase).
SACC had 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 me true Texas hospitality. No one could possibly leave without making new connections, yet feeling like they ran into an old friend.