Last year, after the inaugural San Antonio Cocktail Conference, I questioned why the Alamo City would be the host for such an event, when Austin, Houston and Dallas have stronger, more well-established cocktail infrastructures.
In the year since, San Antonio’s surrounding craft cocktail scene grew and improved with spots like the Brooklynite and Bar 1919, and Austin’s own Houston Eaves relocated to man the bar at the Esquire Tavern last fall.
The conference grew in kind. Some of last year’s kinks were smoothed, and a sense that the event is beginning to relax in its own skin was felt throughout the weekend. The pacing was smoother, the events more thoughtful, the participating talent more notable, and the sense of camaraderie stronger.
Bartenders from across Texas committed to shifts behind the bars during parties, spoke during seminars and donated their time to help with events. Seminars were mostly equal to last year’s offerings, with national talent flying in to share their expert tips and knowledge.
One of the topics that dominated seminars this year was speed. No customer wants to wait 20 minutes for the bartender to craft the perfect drink, no matter how delicious it might turn out; the speed in which bartenders are able to mix craft cocktails is crucial to a bar’s success or failure. Until recently, practical advice on how to speed up service was mostly absent from the conversation. Now, industry experts are sharing tips and tricks to achieve this seemingly simple goal.
Bill Norris, beverage director with the Alamo Drafthouse, says batching drinks before service eliminates several steps of the process, thus getting drinks out to patrons faster when they are ordered. He also recommends keeping menus as simple as possible; sometimes the most popular drinks are the quickest to make anyway. Tipsy Texan David Alan and San Antonio’s Matt Moody led a demonstration on chilling glasses and drinks with dry ice, which can cut the time it would otherwise take to shake and stir (and helps the final cocktails stay colder longer as well). They also talked about how kegging and bottling cocktails can shift most of the mixing work to pre-shift prep.
Finally, several Austin bartenders competed in the all-female Speed Rack Texas competition, where the name of the game was fixing cocktails as quickly and precisely as possible for judges. Madelyn Kay of Haddingtons said she definitely learned things while practicing for and participating in the event that she will translate to her own daily work behind the bar, with multitasking being the primary lesson.
"If I have to make a daiquiri, a Bee’s Knees, and a Last Word all at the same time, I’ll pour my lime juice into the daiquiri tin then into the Last Word tin all in one swoop," Kay said. "Another good trick is to make the most out of having two hands. If you shake with your nondominant hand, you can use your dominant hand to shake a second cocktail, stir another cocktail, add bitters to another cocktail, ice glassware, grab a garnish, etc."
Talent and seminars aside, the conference could benefit from tweaking a few lingering issues. A lack of security at each seminar made paying customers feel undervalued (tickets weren’t always checked), and the tight scheduling of the seminars caused many to cut out early and show up late to classes in order to try to make the most of each afternoon. Also, the size of the cocktail samples seemed too large this year. I couldn’t finish all the samples handed to me and keep my wits intact, and after each seminar I noticed many full glasses left on tables. With three to four cocktails served at each class, the waste must have added up across the board.
After this year’s improvements, I can see the event growing exponentially, attracting more national attention and promoting a stronger message of Texas talent and pride in our cocktail scene.
For more on the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, and a video recap of what it’s like to attend a cocktail conference, visit austin360.com/liquid.