Esquire Tavern's Zulcoralis Rodríguez prepares a drink. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Esquire Tavern's Zulcoralis Rodríguez prepares a drink at Rivertini in 2016. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Want to judge bartenders on their cocktail abilities? All you need is $75 and a willingness to sip new drinks and critique them.

On Thursday, bartenders will craft drinks for public and expert judging at the 10th annual Rivertini. From 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., San Antonians can try 14 original cocktails from local bartenders at the Wyndham Garden Riverwalk on Ninth Street.

The San Antonio River Foundation has been putting on Rivertini for 10 years as a fundraising event for the organization, which seeks to enhance the San Antonio River basin, its culture, and its ecology. Kelley Phillips, director of programs and outreach at the River Foundation, said most events don’t have such longevity because programs usually repeat themselves, but Rivertini has managed to keep people interested.

“That’s what’s cool about Rivertini – there are different contestants each year, and each cocktail has to be totally original and never before served to the public,” she said. “It’s pretty spectacular.”

Bartenders must adhere to the assigned theme: the San Antonio River. The drink’s name, color, or garnish must have some element of the river. Judges will score according to six categories: originality, taste, balance, technical execution, presentation and appearance, and theme.

Samantha Fletcher judged the contest last year and will be returning to the judge’s panel on Thursday. She teaches hospitality classes at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, and her curriculum includes the history, present, and future of the bar world. There’s a lot more room to innovate in the drinks industry, she said.

“Making drinks is just like cooking,” Fletcher said. “There’s a finite amount of ingredients but there’s always going to be an infinite combinations thereof. Just like food, beverages ebb and flow with the trend.”

Fletcher said people lean toward “clean and simple” drinks right now, following the notion that less is more.

“I think both the consumer and bartending staff realize … it’s more difficult to come up with a balanced cocktail and come up with quality drinks when you’re only using a couple of flavors,” she said. “You can showcase your product more successfully, in my opinion, if you use less amount of products.”

The simple drinks are harder to execute in drink competitions due to the scoring section that rates the drink’s appearance, Fletcher said.

“Sometimes in competitions you will see crazy, over-the-top drinks being served in a pineapple or [it] has a chicken wing coming out of it,” she said.

But inventive garnishes catch the public’s attention, she added.

“The people’s choice usually ends up being something with a little more visual flair,” she said. “Typically, the audience will pick what looks good and the judges will pick what tastes good.”

This year, event sponsor Bacardi chose which liquors competitors must work into their drink inventions. Bartenders can choose between 12 of the brand’s rums, gins, vodkas, whiskeys, bourbons, and liqueurs.

Culinary experts will award the winning bartender a grand prize of $1,000. Second place will receive $500, while third gets $250. The People’s Choice drink, decided by attendees, wins a $500 H-E-B gift card.

Phillips said officials at the river foundation are proud of how long they’ve kept Rivertini alive.

“It’s a celebration of our San Antonio River, and it’s a celebration of what makes San Antonio special,” she said. “It’s more than just drinking. It’s our culinary scene, how everything ties together with culture and the river and the people who live on it.”

General admission tickets are $75, while premier tickets – which grant early entrance, extra food, and more – cost $125. As of Monday, only about 20 premier tickets were left, according to Phillips. Some general-admission tickets will be available at the door beginning at 5:30 p.m., but Phillips advised purchasing ahead of time as they sell quickly; you can find tickets online here.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.