Jeret Pe?a, owner of Brooklynite. Photo by Steven Starnes.
Jeret Peña, owner of Brooklynite. Photo by Steven Starnes.

From The Brooklynite to the Esquire Tavern, Bohanan’s to the Blue Box Bar, San Antonio has some incredible places to drink a cocktail. Downtown is teeming with high-end watering holes with bartenders who not only know how to mix a stiff drink, but also can explain the history of the cocktail and the complexities of the spirits that compose it.

However, it was not long ago when it was somewhat difficult to find an old fashioned in a town that largely preferred margaritas and any beer with a lime in it. But over the course of the past five years, San Antonio has begun the transition from vodka-cranberry to Moscow mule, becoming a city of cocktail enthusiasts.

Frank Bernal. Photo by _____.
Frank Bernal.

The rise of the San Antonio cocktail culture was a story that bartender and local entrepreneur Jeret Peña (The Brooklynite, Stay Golden) and San Antonio native, filmmaker and current New York City resident Frank Bernal wanted to tell.

“I knew Jeret as a person who has made his name through food and culture in San Antonio. He’s a really original guy, someone we felt that would be really fun to put on camera to talk about the community, to talk about food and downtown region,” Bernal said.

The pair had worked together on a couple of videos for Kindform, an online magazine, shop, and production company that focuses on the arts and culture of South Texas. In a two-part series, Peña explores the food truck scene in downtown San Antonio in “A Night on the Town with Jeret Peña.

But it was only after reading Peña’s Rivard Report piece last year about the history and growth of San Antonio’s cocktail scene that Bernal reached out to the barkeep to take the written history to the screen.

“He had a really interesting approach to the article, and I gave him a call to congratulate him. Right there it popped in my head that we should take this article to the next level,” Bernal said. “We both agreed and thought that we should go around and interview some of his buddies to figure out what caused this boom of these cocktail bars around town.”

The duo began filming in the fall of 2013, putting together a small budget to hire a professional crew. The goal was not just to show the point of origin of the San Antonio cocktail scene, but to also connect the viewers with the bartenders’ stories, giving them an appreciation of what it is like on the inside.

“A lot of times we’ve been over looked by the major publications as a sleepy, little town and I wanted to shed light on San Antonio,” Peña said.

When Peña initially got into the trade, there were very few preconceived notions on what a cocktail bar should be like. He felt that he had free reign to do whatever he wanted at his bar, Le Midi.

Richard Wilder pours a martini at Toscana Ristorante (formerly Le Midi), 301 E. Houston St. Photo by Steven Starnes.
Richard Wilder pours a martini at Toscana Ristorante (formerly Le Midi), 301 E. Houston St. Photo by Steven Starnes.

“That place got me on stage and to hone the craft without anyone around to interrupt me,” Peña said. “San Antonio was so untouched that when I (prepared) a really well made cocktail for someone who had never experienced this before, I’d love to see their face. It was fantastic … really satisfying to see how people reacted.”

As much as Peña enjoyed making the drinks, locals and visitors alike were ready to try something new. With the emphasis on downtown and the development of the Pearl Brewery complex, the conditions were right to incubate San Antonio’s craft cocktail movement. Often, bartenders began to collaborate and learn from each other.

“Every establishment was connected. These young bucks were coming up at a really good time and they were learning from some really high established bartenders who were from New York or who had been at Bohanan’s for a really long time,” Bernal says.

Jordan Corney prepares a cocktail at Bonanan's, 222 E. Houston. Photo by Steven Starnes.
Bartender Jordan Corney prepares a cocktail at Bohanan’s, 222 E. Houston. Photo by Steven Starnes.

This theme shines through in the short film. The pair wanted to showcase these special connections between a craft that is over 200 years old, the bartenders who have a mastery of it and the patrons who enjoy the end product. After watching the movie, the audience will not only have an appreciation of the movement in San Antonio, but also for those folks making their cocktails.

The Brooklynite will host a public screening of the documentary’s trailer during a fundraiser Monday, June 23. Peña and co. are hoping to raise $2,700 in funding for the film, which is nearly complete, save for some post-production editing. Proceeds from a special cocktail list for the evening will go directly to the film and Peña will also be accepting direct donations. Doors open at at 5 p.m., and the clip will play at 7 p.m.

Several private individuals have already contributed to the production. The Rivard Report is a sponsor of the film as well.

After working on the film, Bernal believes that we no longer have to compare ourselves to Austin or other cities for that matter.

“(San Antonio) is becoming its own thing, its own aesthetic ability and what makes it so cool is that it is coming up on its own,” he said. “There’s a lot of great cultures happening in SA besides cocktail—these entrepreneurs are the people that are the pioneers that are a part of SA in the big way. With this film you get insight into what these guys everyday life is like.”

*Featured/top image: Jeret Peña, owner of Brooklynite. Photo by Steven Starnes. 

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Crafting the Texas Spirit: Local Distilleries on the Rise

Garrett Heath blogs for Rackspace and is the Average Joe that started SA Flavor. He loves San Antonio, especially eating at mom and pop Mexican food restaurants.