After only seven years on the calendar, the San Antonio Cocktail Conference has become both one of the country’s best such shindigs and a kind of Fiesta for the city’s spirits-savvy set. In the manner of all such events, it has also grown bigger over those years. Running from January 15 to 20, and taking place primarily at the venerable Gunter and St. Anthony hotels, the conference’s myriad seminars, panels and pairing dinners offer up a dizzying array of choices. Consider this a cheat sheet emphasizing the most promising opportunities, and know that all proceeds benefit Houston Street Charities.
Yes, planning and judicious selection are imperative. As someone who has attended every year since SACC’s inception (and has frequently referred to the experience as “a duty-bound death march” due to the need to cover as many bases as possible), I am here to assure you that you don’t want to find yourself cutting short “Japanese Whisky: Rich in History and Expressions” at the Gunter in order to sneak in late to “Alternative Whiskeys and Techniques for the Adventurous Distiller” at the St. Anthony. Give yourself breathing room. And, as most presentations include cocktails, even consider booking an actual room at one of the hotels. Yes, there are dedicated conference-goers who do this. Just like at Fiesta.
Fortunately for all of us, the good folks at conference-planning central have added tags to this year’s events indicating suitability for spirits industry personnel or the general public. “Vacuum Chambers and Immersion Circulators” pretty much announces itself as industry-friendly, whereas “Burn, Baby, Burn,” a presentation on whiskey barrel charring and more, is recommended for Cocktail Novice, Cocktail Aficionado and Cocktail Nerd alike. Keep this in mind when further investigating the suggestions below at sanantoniococktailconference.com
Tuesday, January 15, 7pm, $65-$125
Dinners pairing spirits such as Garrison Brothers and Tequila Patrón with restaurants including Biga and Toro Kitchen take place on this night only, with prices ranging from $65 to $125. Since this is a personal-choice situation, I leave it to you, but don’t dilly-dally: some are already sold out.
Wednesday, January 16, 7:30-10:30pm, $65
Kicking things off in fine fashion is “Women Shaking It Up: The Art Of Being Awesome.” Women are featured in many SACC events, but this one is expressly about them and their cocktail prowess. Art aficionados will also appreciate SAY Sí as a venue.
Thursday, January 17
This is a light day. Start the morning right with “Women In Mezcal: Past, Present and Future” (St. Anthony, 10:30-11:45am, $40). The seminar is presented by Emma Jantzen of Imbibe magazine and author of Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, along with Graciela Angeles Carreño of Mezcal Real Minero. Learn about female mezcal smugglers and more!
Genever is a kind of Dutch precursor to gin as we drink it today, but most of us don’t know the original. Discover it at “Genever: America’s Lost European Spirit” (St. Anthony, 3:15-4:30pm, $40). Expect tastes.
A new event on Thursday evening, replacing one that previously occupied the DoSeum, is “Come & Taste It” (7:30-11pm, $85) taking place at Battle for Texas, the Experience inside River Center Mall. Cocktails and canapés amidst relics, memorabilia and reenactment performances. Scored at 92 percent Very Good and above on Trip Advisor — and that’s without drinks, but maybe more for visitors than locals. Up to you. Whatever the decision, turn in early, as tomorrow gets rough.
Friday, January 18
So let’s try to make it easier. There is that Japanese Whisky presentation at 10:30 a.m. I mentioned earlier; it wouldn’t be wrong. Also sounding good is an exploration titled “Puerto Rican Bar History” as it promises to introduce spirits — “pitorro, mavi and more” — I’ve never even heard of. But you are most likely to find me at “Let’s Talk Essential Oils” (St. Anthony, 11:00-12:15pm, $50), in which you will “learn how to use essential oils to enhance cocktails and cuisine … and leave armed and ready to add these great tools to your ingredient arsenal.”
Also leave on time, as you now have 15 minutes to get over to the Gunter and what I think is a new kind of presentation for the conference: “Meet the Maker: Live, Virtual Tour Of Casa Wahaka in San Dionisio, Oaxaca” (Gunter, 12:30-1:45pm, $45). Here’s the pitch: “Visit a palenque in Oaxaca as we connect via live conference link with master distiller Alberto “Beto” Morales. Beto will walk us through the Casa Wahaka distillery and explain each step of the process as it is happening live. You’ll have ample opportunities to ask him your questions directly and gain unparalleled insights into the spirit.”
Yes, you’ll miss “Quinine: Bark to the Future” (love the title), “Forgotten Liqueurs” and “Sugar Cane Spirits,” but you will exit in time to catch a panel entitled “The Rediscovered World of Canadian Whisky.” (Gunter, 3-4:15pm, $60). The hooch from our northern neighbor has been getting a lot of ink lately for its resurgence, but the real hook here is a signed copy of panelist and bar guru Jim Meehan’s new Bartender Manual. This is not a book for spirits sissies, so man (or woman) up.
Then suit up (I’m serious — consider this an opportunity to parade your finest threads) for “Waldorf on the Prairie,” (St. Anthony, 7:30-11pm, $100). Yes, it’s pricey, but you’ll sample liquors and cocktails from many of the event’s presenters, there will be beguiling bites from some of the city’s best chefs, music will rebound — and you’ll look swell in the historic setting of Peacock Alley and surrounding spaces.
Saturday, January 19
Things slow down only slightly on this, the fourth day of non-stop cocktailing. I’m ready to ease up with one morning event: “Selections from the Vault: A Master Class” (Gunter, 10:30-11:45am, $50), in which you’ll “journey through history via rare, limited-production and hallmark whiskies.” Then, especially if you didn’t make to last night’s swank affair at the St. Anthony, consider ponying up for a ticket to the Tasting Suites (St. Anthony, noon-4pm, $45). I preferred this event when it was all in one place rather than split between several small ballrooms and suites, giving me a way to gauge the enormity (and danger) of all the sampling options at one go-around. But maybe the exploration aspect has its merits.
In the afternoon, I’d head straight to “Foraged Ingredients: GNT + Sushi” (Gunter, 1-2:15pm, $55) for a pairing of gins with foraged botanicals and “a curated sushi menu.” Sounds like a sure winner. Next, if there are still some brain cells remaining, what about “Mid-Century Survivors, or Whatever Happened to the Steakhouse Cocktail?” (Gunter, 3-4:15pm, $40) for a trip down memory lane in which presenters will “discuss the history of some endangered classics (Gimlet, Ward 8, Sidecar, Bronx), meet a few of the bartenders keeping them alive and showcase several contemporary recipes that allow them to live to their full potential.” If you need one more large-scale event, there’s the evening’s “Cocktails in the Enchanted Forest” (La Villita Assembly Hall, 7:30-11pm, $85). I missed this last year, its first appearance, but those who attended came away pleased.
Sunday, January 20
The conference concludes not with a whimper but a “hallelujah!” at the “It’s Not Over Yet Gospel Brunch” (Bohanan’s Bar, 11am-1:30pm, $75). Consider this stylish bar the cauldron in which the conference was conceived, with Mark Bohanan, the late cocktail messiah Sasha Petraske and others all in conspiratorial attendance. I’ll drink (and shout) to that.
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