Tequila tasting glasses. Photo by Garrett Heath.
Tequila tasting glasses. Photo by Garrett Heath.
Garrett Heath

This was the third year of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, and I decided to attend some of the sessions and events on Saturday. If you are like me, you might be wondering, “Why should I attend the conference? Isn’t it designed for bartenders and industry professionals?”

Regardless of your chosen profession, there is plenty of sessions and events of interest at this conference. After all, this isn’t some stodgy financial accounting get together – each session is accompanied with a cocktail (or two) to enjoy. Here were some of the highlights that from the conference and the types of sessions that you may want to check out next year.

Attend a Master Class

One of the perks of the cocktail conference is that there are a lot of knowledgeable people around. I am talking about experts who know a spirit from the inside out, along with the history, culture and current trends taking place with that particular alcohol. If there is a particular liquor that you have a great deal of interest in, you need to attend one of the master classes. This will be the best $40 you have ever spent.

Wyatt Peabody holds an old bottle of Chinaco tequila as Tomas Estes (right) looks on. Photo by Garrett Heath.
Wyatt Peabody holds an old bottle of Chinaco tequila as Tomas Estes (right) looks on at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference’s Master Class: Tequila. Photo by Garrett Heath.

I have always enjoyed tequila, so I decided to attend one of these master classes at the bar in the Menger Hotel where 15 different samples of tequila were set up for the tasting. The class was led by John Garrett,Wyatt Peabody and Tomas Estes, three experts on both the history of tequila as well as the process of making it. The tasting was designed to showcase some of the changes in the tequila industry as industrialization has changed the tequila making process.

With the explosion of the spirit in the frozen margarita boom of the 1980s, larger conglomerates have moved into Mexico, modernizing the process to maximize profits. The tasting was designed to provide a point of reference for the changes.

The selection of tequilas that they offered was amazing, comparing bottles that were some 20 and 30 years old to the modern equivalents. It was amazing to see how the tastes of Herradura, Chinaco and El Tesoro have changed over the course of two decades. The panel then showcased modern tequilas that they felt were being produced in a conscious, artisan way including Fortaleza, Siembra Azul, Ocho and Tapatio. I left this class not only having experienced a variety of tequilas that I will probably never get to taste again (including a bottle of Chinaco from the 80s), but also with an appreciation for supporting artisan manufacturers.

Find a How-To Class

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a guy who likes to mix drinks at home, there is a class for you at the Cocktail Conference. Rivard Report editor Iris Dimmick covered the Mixology 101 class where participants were taught the building blocks of a good cocktail. The notion of 2-1-1, that is two parts strong alcohol base, one part sweet and one part sour, was explored in the class and students received hands on demonstrations for mixing drinks.

Orange peel garnish at the Sexydranks seminar. Photo by Garrett Heath.
Orange peel garnish at the Sexydranks seminar. Photo by Garrett Heath.

I attended the Sexydranks class, admittedly because I found the title to be intriguing, and was curious about the role of garnish in cocktails and how to create one that captures the eye. Máté Hartai of Dallas examined elements of artistic design—line, contrast and movement—to that of a cocktail. In the class, Hartai discussed several of the tools used to make garnish as well as walking through the importance of understanding the context in which the drink was to be consumed.

Hartai said that the “cocktail is the garnish of the experience” something that can add to conversation or the environment without being a distraction, and advised attendees to have that same mentality with the garnish on the cocktail.

Drop in on the Tasting Room

The tasting room was an exercise in pace and moderation; you could get in trouble if you do not do either. A ballroom at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel was transformed into a smorgasbord of alcohol, available to anyone who had $10 to get in the door or had attended a previous session. I gravitated towards some of the San Antonio and Texas brands and enjoyed the True Blue blue corn whiskey from Balconies, the refreshing vodka cocktail from Cinco, the Rakia (or apricot brandy) from Dor?ol Distillery and of course the Texas bourbon from Ranger Creek.

Tequila tasting glasses. Photo by Garrett Heath.
Tequila tasting glasses at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference tasting room in Sheraton Gunter Hotel. Photo by Garrett Heath.

But there were an assortment of both international and regional brands all vying for bartenders affections. Not being a bartender myself, I enjoyed helping myself to their samples and suddenly discovered I was in a lighthearted mood. If the master class is a way to really get to know a particular spirit in a refined way, the tasting room is more of an all-you-can-drink debauchery. And at $10, you have enough money in your pocket to afford a cab ride home.

Explore Cocktail History

If you are more interested in the academic side of the cocktail, there are plenty of opportunities to explore some of the cocktail history. My friend, and video collaborator, Matthew Niemann attended Libations in the Stream was a class about the role of alcohol in American writing, most notably that of Ernest Hemmingway. The class was taught by Philip Greene who penned a book on the topic called “To Have and Have Another.

Miriam Sitz, of the Rivard Report, wrote about the panel, Women Behind Bars, where several bartenderesses discussed the role of females in the bartending scene. The panel was led by several members of the Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC), who traced the history of the female bartender from the medieval times, the flapper era, post-prohibition and to the present day. So if you are interested in the history of cocktails, there are sessions like these that would be in your wheelhouse.

As the weekend draws to a close, it’s not too late to attend this evening’s Original Cocktail Competition at The Aztec Theatre starting at 5 p.m., A Tribute to Tequila at La Margarita Restaurant & Oyster Bar at 8 p.m. and the conference closing party at the Brooklynite starting at 9 p.m.

Follow the Rivard Report’s coverage of the 2014 Cocktail Conference here.

Garrett Heath blogs for Rackspace and is the Average Joe that started SAFlavor. He loves San Antonio, especially eating at mom and pop Mexican food restaurants. Find him on TwitterFacebookPinterest and Google+.

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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.