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Everything You Missed at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

Updates on forthcoming Austin restaurants, rock star whiskies, and sipping yurts

The whiskey tasting seminar setup at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel
The whiskey tasting seminar setup at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel
Bethlyn Thornton/EATX

The San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) has decidedly arrived, after starting eight years ago. Once a fledgling nonprofit event in a town not known for cocktails beyond the frozen margarita, the conference now spans a full week in January, drawing an international crowd of presenters and attendees.

In 2019, the conference’s events saw liquor brands spending big to impress the bar owners, bartenders, and restaurateurs attending the conference — though there were also plenty of hobbyists and home bartenders partaking in the boozy fun. Calling SACC the “Spirit South by Southwest” might be overdoing it a bit, but the litany of day parties, pop-ups, seminars, and evening drink showcases certainly feel similar in, well, spirit.

Among the many happenings in downtown San Antonio from Monday, January 14 through Sunday, January 20, there were chef updates on highly anticipated Austin barbecue and taco restaurants Chispas and Interstellar BBQ, new whiskey brands from rock luminaries Metallica and Bob Dylan, several yurts worth of booze, and of course, tattoos and boilermakers from Nickel City. Here’s what happened:

Austin’s John and Leslie Bates of Noble Sandwich Co. served dishes from their forthcoming barbecue restaurant Interstellar BBQ at Friday night’s Waldorf On The Prairie event. Bates called Interstellar his “dream project,” and expects to open in mid-February at 12233 Ranch Road 620. There’s also some Noble Sandwich business to attend to: an airport location is scheduled to open in summer 2019, and the popular sandwich shop is scouting locations for a long-term home for their food truck after nixing those Georgetown plans.

San Antonio chef Jason Dady expressed confidence that Chispas, his new Tex-Mex restaurant in the Warehouse District (and first Austin restaurant), will open sometime before South by Southwest begins, ideally sometime by the end of February. He described the restaurant as simple, focusing on tacos with homemade tortillas, made to order salsas, and strong margaritas. The buildout process has been smooth, as he said: “[Former occupant] Fado was a pub and restaurant, so almost everything we needed in the kitchen and behind the bar was already in place.”

A sipping yurt
A sipping yurt

Austin Japanese-Texas izakaya Kemuri Tatsu-ya’s assistant general manager and beverage director Bryan M. Parsons taught a morning Japanese shochu and Western mixology class. “Shochu isn’t as popular as other categories, but I’m happy to spread the word and get people excited,” he said. “It also helps me refine the material we use to train at our restaurants.”

Austin bar Nickel City hosted a pop-up bar and tattoo parlor at the St. Anthony with Stolen Spirits, turning a nice hotel suite into a working tattoo parlor, complete with cocktails and boilermakers. Tattoos included a glass mug of beer with the name of the bar.

San Antonio steakhouse and seafood restaurant Bohanan’s Prime Steaks (whose owner Mark Bohanan is a SACC founder) hosted a “Whiskey In The Kitchen” seminar with Woodford Reserve. Pairings from chef Heather Nañez included a candied beef jerky, cheddar, shaved ham, and chive biscuits, and a cinnamon milkshake.

At conference headquarters at the St. Anthony Hotel, sponsored bars with vodka bloody marys and both gin and cognac-based French 75s were in operation beginning at 9 a.m. daily. Multiple conference participants simply walked down from their rooms in bathrobes and slippers to collect a cocktail or two to go with breakfast.

On Saturday morning, some St. Anthony Hotel guests and conference attendees attended the Dueling 75 and Breakfast Bloody Mary bars in slippers, robes, and a teacup holster
On Saturday morning, some St. Anthony Hotel guests and conference attendees attended the Dueling 75 and Breakfast Bloody Mary bars in slippers, robes, and a teacup holster

Former Holy Roller beverage director Jen Keyser worked the marquee events from an elaborate pop-up in her new role as Jack Daniel’s brand ambassador. People entered the first space, where she offered neat pours, and then they entered the second space for cocktails.

In a sign of how many restaurant professionals now attend the conference, distillers from craft brands like Nashville’s Belle Meade and even industry names like Shaun Caleb of El Dorado actually worked their booths at the SACC events, giving bartenders and fans a chance to chat with the lauded spirit makers.

Hill Country distillery Dripping Springs Vodka and Gin threw a swanky happy hour, complete with large martinis, fresh oysters, and canapes from Dady’s posh San Antonio steakhouse Range.

In a rock battle for the ages, both Bob Dylan and Metallica’s new whiskey brands each had a large SACC presence. Dylan’s Heaven’s Door hosted a rooftop event at the St. Anthony complete with taco bar and a DJ spinning Dylan covers from U2, Emmylou Harris, and The Neville Brothers. Meanwhile, Metallica’s Blackened American whiskey (made in collaboration with recently deceased distilling legend Dave Pickerell) attracted a lot of curiosity at the tasting suites. Neither Dylan nor Metallica attended, but the audience consensus seemed to be that each were a bit pricey compared to similar offerings from whiskeys not affiliated with a rock artist.

Corby wine and spirits ambassador Gina Fossitt pours a Pike Creek whiskey
Corby wine and spirits ambassador Gina Fossitt pours a Pike Creek whiskey

In the midst of a global resurgence, a collection of Genever brands were a big presence at this year’s SACC. The well-known Bols Genever (a sweeter gin that appeals to whiskey drinkers) was joined at the bar by brands less familiar in the U.S. such as de Borgen, Bobby’s Schiedam, and Rutte Old Simon. The spirit category hopes to recapture some of its American pre-Prohibition popularity in the coming years.

At Saturday’s author brunch at San Antonio seafood restaurant Rebelle, current and former Austinites Jason Kosmas, Tipsy Texan David Alan, and Emma Janzen took advantage of being in the same room to catch up. Kosmas officially left liquor company The 86 Co., but remains based in Austin. Former Austin American-Statesman drinks columnist Janzen is now based in Chicago as digital editor at Imbibe, and is working on a new beverage book to follow her James Beard-nominated Mezcal.

Devil’s River Rye showed well among the many Texas whiskey offerings at the festival. The distillery is currently building a tasting room and distillery in the downtown San Antonio area, though their production is currently based in Dallas.

The conference’s success was tempered a bit by business realities, as top San Antonio cocktail bars The Last Word and Juniper Tar both shuttered since last year’s event. The Last Word was used as a special event space by Oregon’s Westward Whiskey for a day party.

Jim Meehan signing his book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual, at the Sheraton Gunter hotel.
Jim Meehan signing his book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual, at the Sheraton Gunter hotel.

A delegation from Canadian whisky giants Corby poured generous drams of their whisky line from inside a huge yurt at two events. (Everyone wanted to sit inside the yurt.) These included an surprisingly light-bodied 18-year JP Wiser’s and a new four-grain whisky, Gooderham & Worts, which will debut in the U.S. this summer. New York bar legend Jim Meehan appeared at the Canadian whisky seminar, saying “he was drinking the Kool-Aid” after a recent Canadian distillery tour and recommending the budget-priced JP Wiser’s Rye as a solid well pour for craft cocktail applications.

Texas spirit brands continued to show maturity and creativity in their SACC cocktail presentations: San Antonio’s Seersucker Gin Southside, which featured a citrus and spice profile making it handy as a mixer, and Hye’s Garrison Brothers’ Manhattan cocktail were particular highlights of the marquee Come And Taste It event.

A workshop on citrus use in bars drew a packed house from The 86 Co’s Máté Hartai. Tips on the differing acidity between lime top and bottom halves, reducing lemon and lime waste through proper walk-in storage, and batch juicing to balance acidity may have seemed granular to the layman, but the trade audience was engrossed and enjoyed sampling gimlets made with five different ages of lime.

The team from San Antonio’s Paramour bar went over the top with a space theme at Friday’s Waldorf On The Prairie, complete with astronaut costumes, ’70s shag rugs, and metallic silver dresses and makeup. The rugs were in fact so shaggy that hotel security identified them as a potential tripping hazard (fair, given the event’s focus on drinking) and promptly took them away.