More than 100 people crowded into Bohanan’s Bar on Thursday evening to honor the legendary bartender and entrepreneur Sasha Petraske, who died suddenly last August in his New York home.
It was less than six years ago that Petraske walked into the bar and began to train the bar staff to learn the true craft of bartending. More than a teacher, and though he was busy with several projects that pulled him all over the world, he further ingrained himself into San Antonio’s cocktail culture history by working with local organizers to co-found the San Antonio Cocktail Conference.
His wife Georgette Moger joined a panel of Petraske’s friends and colleagues for a roundtable discussion led by moderator Robert Simonson, resident spirits and cocktail expert for The New York Times.
For those unfamiliar with the industry, Petraske’s influence stretches farther than San Antonio and New York. He’s described as a key figure in the 21st century’s cocktail revival. Those closest to him described Petraske as a soft-spoken and kind man who loved the conference, particularly because it gives all proceeds back to charity.
“When Milk and Honey opened (in New York) Sasha wanted it to be about drinks, but also a place for civilized conversation at a time where bottle service, status and wealth dictated who got in,” said Chad Solomon, who worked at the original Milk and Honey in New York.
Petraske enforced decorum rules, banned fighting and unwelcome advances. Other bars tried to copy his style and rules, Solomon said, but came across as pretentious and rigid.
“It’s all about intent,” he said.
He went on to open and advise bars and bartenders around the world– from Los Angeles to Austin to London and, of course, San Antonio – Petraske’s unique approach to craft cocktail education and customer experiences helped him quietly lead the cocktail revolution.
“Texas does a lot of things well but we get a lot of things late,” said Tim Bryand, general manager at George’s Keep, who worked with Petraske at Bohanan’s. “We embraced what we learned (from Petraske) here at Bohanan’s and in San Antonio.”
Petraske trained what local craft cocktail bar owner Jeret Peña describes as the “first wave” of bartenders meticulously trained to do the classic cocktails justice. Then they went on to train their own employees at their own bars, the “second wave.” And the waves continue to ripple through the local scene.
“It’s almost impossible to say how many bartenders, at this point, have been influenced by Sasha Petraske,” said Simonson.
And that includes, in some cases, his style as well as talent. From the cocktail glasses to classic drinks and elegant decor, Bohanan’s simple elegance is “signature Sasha,” matching Petraske’s “dapper” and “precise” mannerisms.
The George’s Keep staff uses the same basic rules that Petraske brought to Bohanan’s: use simple and fresh ingredients, making great experiences accessible and making sure each customer feels welcomed and comfortable.
“Bartending isn’t an art, it’s a craft– and you have to have character to do it,” said Bryand. “No matter how busy you are, you will reach in and get the proper glass.”
“You do it because the customer deserves the best,” Simonson said in agreement. “Because are you a good person, or not?”
Moger shared several personal details about her late husband with the audience: he was always making lists, particular about ice quality and he wrote countless letters to her.
“He wrote me so many letters over the years, many from here in San Antonio,” she said. “He loved it here.”
Following the roundtable, attendees were invited to toast to Petraske with a cold daiquiri– his favorite cocktail.
No speechifying, no traditional raising of glasses. Guests mingled, laughed and most walked out across Houston Street for the Cocktail Conference’s opening night celebration at Majestic Theatre. It was simple and quiet. Perhaps Petraske would have preferred it that way.
*Top Image: Robert Simonson moderates a panel honoring Sasha Petraske. Photo by Scott Ball.