On heels of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference—a national four-day conference modeled after the likes of the New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail event that brings together bartenders from around the country to learn, taste, and talk everything cocktail—I had a chance to catch up with local craft bartender extraordinaire Jeret Peña to talk about the conference, cocktails and Texas spirits. He even shared a couple of his latest recipes.
The ambitious Peña has been an integral part of the food and drink renaissance San Antonio has experienced in recent years. He even brought national attention here when he nabbed a James Beard nomination for Best Bar Program in 2012 at the historic Esquire Tavern where he held the role of Bar Manager. He has since opened his very own bar, The Brooklynite, midway between downtown and The Pearl. And if you ask this Alamo City native, we can expect great things from this town in the near future.
TM: How did you get into bar tending?
Peña: I think any bartender you ask has the same answer: by chance. I was working at Pesca at the Watermark Hotel and my general manager asked me to host a tequila seminar for guests. He gave me a month to study and prepare. I ended up learning so much that I fell in love with it.
That’s where it started. It wasn’t long before I went to Houston to meet Bobby Heugel. It was three weeks after Anvil Bar & Refuge opened and I didn’t know much about cocktails then. But meeting Bobby Heugel changed my life. Getting to know him and later, other Texas people like Bill Norris and David Alan in Austin kept pushing me in this direction.
TM: So how did you get involved with Esquire Tavern when it was renovated and brought back in 2011?
Peña: The owner of the Esquire, Chris Hill found me while I was working at a small San Antonio bar called Le Midi. That’s a place where I really came into my own. And when he saw what I was doing, shortly after, he asked me to run his program and I ran with it. We went around to different parts of the country to look at different bars like the Rickhouse, Agricole, and Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco. And began working on putting an amazing crew together.
TM: But in October 2012, you opened your own bar? That was pretty fast.
Peña: I told Chris when I met him that I’ve always wanted to own and operate my own bar. I had some contacts who had talked to me about investing in something together. We had been looking for months when this dirty, nasty nightclub came available. It was the perfect turnkey opportunity because the owners wanted out of it, but they had all the nuts and bolts in place and even had a liquor license they could turn over. All we had to do was change the aesthetics to make it look the way we wanted. So we jumped on it and turned it around in 35 days. It happened a lot faster than I thought it would, but it was fast. It’s on Brooklyn Avenue, so we named it after a classic cocktail, The Brooklynite.
TM: How do you go about choosing the spirits you want to use for your cocktails when there are so many out there?
Peña: You have to understand spirits. How they’re made. Where they come from. And you have to know the different flavor profiles between things like highland tequila or a lowland tequila. There is a lot out there, but it’s still possible to understand the flavor profiles. When you start to build a cocktail, it’s always going to be the base spirit—like gin, Scotch or rum—that will be the back backbone of the drink. I choose the actual spirit based on what works best for my style.
TM: Are you familiar with many of the Texas Spirits on the market right now?
Peña: I think Chip Tate at Balcones Distilling does a really good job. His True Blue blue corn whisky is something I’ve used in Cocktails. There’s also a new gin that’s coming on the market from Austin called Genius Gin and it’s pretty great. I think it will be the first top notch craft gin. Because I focus more on mixing drinks, I need to be able to get quality spirit at a price point that’s not going to force me to gauge my customers when they order a drink. Many of the Texas spirits on the market are just priced too high, which means I have to turn around and charge $20 for a cocktail, and no one is going to pay for that.
TM: Can you share a couple of Texas cocktails with us? Can you
Peña: One of cocktails I’m most proud of right now is called the Tobin Hill. It’s a spin on a neo-classic cocktail that called the Red Hook that was created about ten years ago. I named it after the Tobin Hill historic district here in San Antonio. It may not include a Texas spirit, but its name was inspired by Texas heritage. You have to be careful about the gin you use in this. Ransom Old Tom Gin is what you need. I’ve made it with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin and it’s completely different. I also use spicy pecan vinegar in this. I love using vinegar because it has both sweetness and acidity. It really brings balance to a drink.
The other cocktail does use the Balcones Distilling True Blue whisky. It’s called the Boots and Heels. It’s named after I found two people getting it on in the bathroom stall of my bar. All I saw were boots and heels.
The Tobin Hill
1 1/2 ounces Ransom Old Tom Gin
1/2 ounce Carpano Antica
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur
Bar spoon of spicy pecan vinegar (Can be found at Gaucho Gourmet in San Antonio.)
2 dashes of orange bitters
Stir together on ice and serve up in a coupe glass.
Boots and Heels
1 1/2 ounces Balcones True Blue whisky
3/4 ounce of Punt e Mes (An Italian fortified wine similar to vermouth.)
1/2 ounce Averna
3 dashes of lavender bitters
Stir together and pour over rocks and serve in a tumbler with orange peel on top.