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More notes on the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

Arianna Auber

In my Liquid Austin column that ran in today’s paper (and is available online here for Statesman subscribers), I reflected on the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, a long weekend of seminars and parties that celebrates and explores all things cocktail-related.

It was my first time to attend the three-year-old conference, which I noticed was, despite all the drinking that went on (pacing yourself was a must), truly a conference. At the various seminars, bartenders and others in the spirits industry knowledgeably shared insider tips, trends and facts on just about everything a cocktail lover could want to know, while also, of course, preparing plenty of drinks for their audience to try. The parties also showcased the camaraderie that unites Texas’ different cocktail scenes, from San Antonio to Austin to Houston, with many bartenders from out of town volunteering to serve drinks at some of San Antonio’s craft cocktail spots.

But that’s all in the column. A couple of things I didn’t touch on at all:

The buzz on honey in cocktails

Honey is an under-used ingredient in cocktails. Heard of the Bee’s Knees? That’s just about the only cocktail you’ll commonly find that adds honey. A shame, too, and something Tipsy Texan David Alan and Treaty Oak’s beverage director Matt Moody think should change. They led a workshop called “Honey and the Buzzing Bees” on Saturday that gave an interesting background on honey and a couple of cocktail ideas that incorporate the thick golden liquid. (There’s also mead, of course, which you can try locally thanks to Meridian Hive Meadery.)

There are tons of varietals of honey, and not just the mild, almost yellow-colored stuff you can buy from the store. Alan and Moody provided samples of several of them to let us marvel at how differently they can look and taste. Buckwheat, for example, looks more like molasses than honey and tastes just like chocolate malt balls. They’re all so diverse because of the flowering plants where bees get the nectar they turn into honey, such as clover and tupelo gum trees. Texas is a good place to find many of the varietals; the climate allows for almost year-round production, Alan said, and the bees here can produce extreme flavors from all the mesquite, oak and other nectar sources. Round Rock Honey, which produces wildflower honey, sells well in the state, but is not mild enough elsewhere.

And what can bartenders do with honey in cocktails? Just about anything that calls for simple syrup, which can be swapped out for honey syrup (actual honey doesn’t work well, so make honey syrup with water) — just keep in mind that when substituting one for the other that honey is about 25 percent sweeter than sugar, so you don’t want to use quite as much of it.

Moody mixed a version of a daiquiri for us to try. The honey syrup wasn’t overwhelmingly apparent in the cocktail, but it worked as a subtle sweetener that offset the other flavors provided by the rum, sprinkled basil and fresh lime juice.

Alan and Moody’s last bit of advice was to get adventurous with the type of honey you add to cocktails.

“Single varietals (like buckwheat or mesquite) are more challenging to use because of their funky flavors,” Alan said. “But that’s all the more reason to use them.”

Don’t run from rum

Ed Hamilton was quick to make one thing clear: He isn’t a bartender, and he’s not much interested in mixing drinks. But he does know rum. He’s an expert on it, in fact.

“I stand around and talk (expletive) about rum,” he said at his workshop about arguably the most confusing spirit around (those are the words the SACC program used to describe rum, anyway, and I agree with that assessment). He was there to clear up some facts about his favorite spirit, and had set up for each audience member sitting at tables around an outdoor terrace of the historic Hotel Havana a set of four glasses, two bottles with dark liquid and stoppers in them, and a bottle of water.

Thirty-six years ago, he made a decision that drastically altered his life. Originally a chemical engineer, he quit his job working for a company that made parts for cruise missiles and, after sailing the South Pacific, eventually began smuggling rum from one Caribbean island to another. That’s how he became so knowledgeable about the rum industry in that region, touring different distilleries on the islands and asking all he could about the process of making rum.

It’s “arguably the most confusing spirit” because it’s also incredibly diverse. There’s white rum, dark rum, flavored rum, rum that comes from fermented sugarcane juice or molasses – the list goes on. Hamilton wrote about the various ones he came across on his travels in two self-published books (now out of print). He also keeps up a website called the Ministry of Rum that features rum recipes, reviews, forums and other handy pages for rum aficionados like him.

And now, through the Ministry of Rum brand, he also has his own rum that he sells. It’s distilled from molasses at a sugar mill in Jamaica, where typically only white rum is produced – but his, Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Black Rum and Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Gold Rum, are dark.

That’s where all the glasses and stoppered bottles came in. The only way to achieve the darker color that people were asking for from Jamaica, Hamilton said, was to add in caramel coloring, a process done once the Jamaican rum is shipped to the United States.

He had us play around with the two types of caramel coloring going into the Hamilton rum – that’s what was in the small bottles – so that we could taste how much caramel can alter the taste of the rum. Although we added far too much for what goes into his (only about 3 to 4 drops a bottle), it was fascinating to learn how much color can transform taste.