Area cocktilians can puff up their chests a little more this week as we go into the third annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference. The brainchild of Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood chef and owner Mark Bohanan, this year’s SACC is a four-day affair that features three kickoff dinners, more than 30 seminars, three major parties, a smattering of after-parties, a cocktail-making competition, a documentary screening, a beer break, a brunch and an official closing party. The mission of Houston Street Charities, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit the conference operates under, is tri-fold: They promote the burgeoning cocktail culture and downtown San Antonio while donating proceeds to children’s charities.
One could speculate about the success of the massive event. Maybe it’s because it’s the first of its kind in Texas, or because 100 percent of the proceeds go toward saving children’s lives … or simply because the conference brings together some of bartending’s best minds all hawking expertly made cocktails.
Whatever the reason, none of it would be possible without the team behind the conference. With Bohanan at the helm, his bar and restaurant employees—including general manager Scott Becker, director of catering Jenny Rabb and manager Carlos Faz—usually staff the events; but the action also includes social media manager Ana Flores and spokesperson Cathy Siegel, both of whom have day jobs outside of the restaurant. Head bartenders who’ve graduated from Bohanan’s to run their own bar programs across town, like Timothy Bryand (of NAO) and Chris Ware, are back on board running production and other drink needs.
Conference planning starts almost immediately after the previous event ends. As all the boozers, local and otherwise, make their way home, the planning committee holds a recap meeting with most of its partners including HeartGift (the conference’s initial charity partner), area bartenders, bar owners, restaurateurs and distributors such as Republic National Distributing Company and Glazer’s. Conference planners base the following year’s event dates around the City’s Visitor’s Bureau convention calendar, Spurs games (obvs) and the availability of the Majestic, but the meeting’s focal point is to rehash and find areas of improvement.
The inaugural opening night was held at Bohanan’s, but the large number of first-year attendees warranted a new venue. That’s where the Majestic came in last year, with help of general manager Michael Rilley. With party ticket sales nearly tripling from year one, the group decided to keep using the colorful and historic backdrop of the theater to host opening night festivities in 2014. Other improvements lined up for this year include the streamlining of bar stations inside the Majestic to one cocktail per station, and the addition of more food to the lineup, as organized by Lüke Riverwalk’s John Russ.
As cocktail-centered bars keep popping up around SA, the group had to find a way to incorporate establishments that aren’t necessarily downtown such as TBA, The Fruteria, NAO, Arcade and Barbaro. This led to changes for the Friday Night Soiree, which previously relied on river barges to get attendees from bar to bar along the River Walk. This year barges will be used to transport conference-goers from the Weston Centre to the Pearl Stables for a night that celebrates Texas-based spirits.
“The [Soiree] has always been such a popular night and it shows off the city,” Rabb said. “Because the amount of Texas spirits you can find has grown so much, and we’re the only conference in the state, we felt it was important to have a night that would showcase that.”
The double decker buses used during last year’s Saturday night event will now transport attendees back to the Weston on Friday. Saturday night’s event, now called the Stroll on Houston, will bring the conference back to its roots, if briefly, with a joint party between Bohanan’s and Lüke, which will block off parts of the sidewalk along Houston.
The minutia that goes into planning these elaborate affairs doesn’t come together overnight. The committee continues meeting biweekly after the post-conference recap, hammering out details such as what brands and distributors will join the sponsorship lineup.
In May, Rabb and co. begin their search for presenters on a national and now, new to this year, local level. Seventy-five percent of presenters will hail from across the nation and the conference is tasked with booking flights and accommodations for out-of-towners.
Spotlight on SA
The SACC might have been under the microscope the first year—as Rabb puts it, year one was about “getting people to believe we could do it”—but the spotlight is now that much brighter as local presenters step up to teach classes.
For instance, Blue Box’s Olaf Harmel will host The Cellar Master’s Approach to Creating Elegant Cocktails, a class that merges cocktail making with the spirit of wine. “Olaf is such a natural choice, and he doesn’t get as much credit as he should,” Rabb said. “He was doing this before anyone, really, and he’s got a great following.”
Harmel will expand on making spirit-based gastriques, which combine equal parts sugar and vinegar, to create a spirit-specific liqueur. “The challenge is for bartenders to get and understand a spirit profile and then build from it instead of using formulas,” Harmel said. “There’s complexity in the simplicity.”
While Harmel’s class is technique driven, Ware and Jake Corney, current head bartender at Bohanan’s Bar, will lead a course on the Five W’s of Drinking.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but when people go out to drink, they usually don’t know what they want and they’ll rely on the menu,” Ware said. The class will show attendees how to get a full experience building a flight in specific drinking order that will work with the drinker’s palate.
Ware’s other duty during the conference includes producing batches of fruit juices for classes and all of the parties. A task he has to take quite seriously.
“I’m responsible for the ordering,” he said. “That means going through each and every single class, every booth at the Majestic, at Two Bros., and figuring out the entire produce list.”
Ware and a team will go through roughly 10,000 lemons, 80 pounds of limes, 75 pounds of pineapple, 3,558 oranges, 150 pounds of ginger root, 75 pounds of cucumber, 75 pounds of pineapple, 47 pounds of mint and 20 pounds of jalapeño. The produce is sourced through Ben E. Keith, a food service distributor, and juiced within a 12-hour window of its use.
In previous years, Ware recruited a team of five people to hand-juice product a la minute. We’re talking late nights and even later mornings of constant juicing. The addition of a commercial Zummo juicer and several volunteers this year should help speed this up.
If this sounds like an incredible attention to detail, it is, but Ware and co. are determined for SACC to go off without a hitch. “A lot of people that help were part of that initial Bohanan’s crew … We don’t want it to falter,” Ware said. “Even if the conference is a national event, it’s a San Antonio event.
We’re all tied to it. If it looks bad, we all kind of look bad.”
In the days leading up to the event, the most important conference ingredient will start being delivered and stored within a participating hotel: the booze.
“It’s just like walking into a Twin Liquors store,” Rabb laughed.
The sponsoring distributors allot specific amounts of liquor to each event. As the conference gets a hold of attendance numbers, distributors are better able to reduce waste (is there such a thing!?).
For spirit makers like Jason Kosmas, co-founder of NYC’s famed Employees Only bar and his own line of alcohols, The 86 Company, being a part of the conference in Texas means zeroing in on a thriving market.
“We launched our company in Texas. It’s exactly what our company is about … democratizing the ability to make great drinks. [The SACC] is the perfect medium and there are a number of progressive thinkers there,” Kosmas said.
The rest will fall into place, as each committee member checks off to-do lists tacked on the conference’s makeshift office, or “war room,” wall, at Bohanan’s. As the conference approaches, nights in the war room usually don’t end until the next morning.
“Going into a huge event, there’s always so much going on, so many T’s to cross,” said Flores, who usually handles audio/visual needs during the seminars between the hotels. Other tasks include making sure more than 9,000 pieces of proper glassware are ready and guaranteeing presenters will be able to make it.
Hiccups during the conference have included reassigning class-goers to new seminars when presenters failed to make their flights or setting up parties when brand ambassadors are M.I.A.
“You know it’s going to be long nights and you’re going to be tired and not get a whole lot of sleep, but you keep going back knowing that you’re putting on a great event for people,” Flores said.
San Antonio Cocktail Conference
$10-$45 screening, classes