What We Learned at This Year's San Antonio Cocktail Conference

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STACEY LOVETT
  • Stacey Lovett

San Antonio does know how to throw a party, and the organizers of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference are no exception. The all-out evening events are especially badass. Film director Steven Soderbergh, in town to promote a Bolivian brandy (more on that later), characterized the SACC as a “fiesta” when compared to another well-known conference he felt was a more of a “market.” Go team!

But for many, the heart of the event lies in the seminars, and this year’s selection and presenters seemed to be even better and more varied than in previous years. I made it to seven in two days (don’t try this unless you’re truly obsessed) — and that doesn’t include a long scotch-tasting interview (more on this, too, later) and quicky one-on-one talks with brand ambassadors at the tasting suites where multiple products were presented. Here’s a quick overview.

Designing and Branding was a presentation that, as an architect, I wish all my bar (and restaurant) clients could have attended; it would help all of us to hone in on how best to present a product (through menu and other design), how to implement change, and how to “brand” one’s business in all ways from logo to “merch” and “swag.” We all need a little swag.

Regionality Within Oaxaca targeted mezcal, its amazingly varied sources and production methods, the physical and cultural environment that shapes its character, and, especially, the “hand of the maker” that informs the final product from harvest to bottling. (That hand is sometimes female, BTW.) We sampled four Vago mezcales, each almost totally different, along with three “uncertified” (i.e. unlabeled) renditions brought to the conference by Emma Janzen, Digital Content Editor at Imbibe magazine and author of Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit. You’ll get even more info out of the book. The accompanying spirits you’ll have to supply yourself.



Mexican Denominations of Origin: An Educational Journey Through Spirits and Flavors may sound like a pedantic college lecture series one had to take for credit, but it was far from that. That we tasted several agave-based spirits, from tequila, mezcal, bacanora and sotol to the relatively new cane-based charanda from a mere 16 municipalities in Michoacan, didn’t hurt. But the knowledgeable (and opinionated) panel interacting with an equally engaged audience assured that what might have been a dry discussion of production methods and geographic limits turned into an impassioned polemic on cultural identity. Who knew?

Japanese Shochu Meets Western Mixology — say what? I was totally ignorant of Japan’s most popular spirit, one that can be made from ingredients as diverse as rice, barley, dates, and sweet potato. Turns out there are three main styles that are mostly low-alcohol and ranging in taste from light and vodka-like to bold, many with a floral or citrus component. Two cocktails were presented (one pairing shochu with gin, the other with Calvados), and both were delightful. Unless a local bar is doing this under the radar, for the moment we’ll all have to run up to Austin. The presenter suggested Kemuri Tatsu-ya, Komé and Soto (his bar program).

Sherry 101: This should be obligatory for anyone interested in the entire category of spirit-fortified wines. Yes, the presenter took us through the history and production of sherry, but it was the side-by side comparison of all styles, from the bracingly dry fino and manzanilla to the unctuous Pedro Ximenez, that was both key and revealing. This kind of experience is hard to have at any local bar or restaurant, (though Chad Carey of Barbaro and Hot Joy has long championed sherries on his bar menus); if it’s presented again next year, sign up — and encourage your favorite bartender to investigate the further use of sherry in cocktails.

The Wide World of Brandy proved to be wider than most of us think, with fruit as the unifying factor. America’s first, for example, was apple-based, and that company, Laird’s, is still with us. Who’d a thought that pisco, a grape-based brandy, was popular in California during Gold Rush days, as it was cheaper to bring it up the coast from Peru and Chile than to ship French brandies (or maybe even applejack) across the country from the East Coast. The rakias of Balkan Europe, commonly made from plums, quince, and apricot, in addition to grapes, have been popular for centuries in their countries of origin, but are just now making headway in the States. (Locally distilled Kinsman, for example, is apricot-based.) Yes, there were samples, including one from Kentucky’s Copper & Kings, a label that assembles grape-based brandies from other producers then ages them primarily in used bourbon barrels. My notes are getting just a little illegible at this point.

But wait, there’s more. Singani63: Elevate your Cocktail was presented by film director/producer Steven Soderbergh and his team. Yes, singani is another grape (specifically Muscat of Alexandria) brandy produced at high altitude in, wait for it, Bolivia. Soderbergh fell for the spirit when there filming Che, and has since built up a company to produce and promote it worldwide. Though singani producers don’t like to be compared to pisco from Peru and Chile, comparisons are inevitable. On the basis of two cocktails served at Haunt after the presentation (which included, naturally, a short film), I’d say singani excels as a drinks base where its floral qualities can be exploited.

As a kind of reward for all this drinking — more drinking. I had the opportunity to sit down with David Allardice, brand ambassador (the job we all really want) for Glenfiddich single malt Scotch which calls its self “the world's most awarded single malt Scotch whisky.” It’s also a company that is doing serious experimentation with ageing in barrels other than ex-bourbon, port and sherry (which, in turn, may have once held bourbon). Ice wine barrels, for example. I admit to being especially skeptical of one that was finished in a barrel that once held heavily hopped IPA — yes, beer. But the hops merely gave the spirit a dry, floral quality. Even more appealing to me was another bottle labeled Project XX, a blend selected by all the company’s brand ambassadors, fermented longer than usual to yield a fruitier quality, then aged in bourbon, sherry and port barrels. It was full-bodied and simply gorgeous. Look for it at around $70-$80.

Now comes the part where you really want my job. Allardice then produced a taste of 30-year single malt that retails, if you could find it, for around $700. Yes, it was sublime.