Last month, while most people were taking a breather from booze for a much-needed post-holiday cleanse, hundreds of bartenders broke fast, trekking off to south Texas to delve into the future of cocktails and taste hundreds of spirits.
And judging by what got people most excited at the 2017 San Antonio Cocktail Conference, drinks are about to get pretty funky. Liqueurs made with walnuts, rhubarb and pine were a hit, rivalling only caraway, juniper and dill-flavoured aquavit. European and Latin American spirits are expected to have a bright future and, for those who can afford it, independents will be all the rage.
Although the conference was partially funded by big brands, such as Absolut and Hendrick's (both of which played prominent roles at the lavish parties and cocktail crawls along Houston Street), most of the bartenders spent their time hidden away in educational seminars, where they tasted lesser-known brands and discussed issues such as flavour profile, sustainability and quality control as seriously as they did free-trade agreements.
At one seminar, free-trade agreements were literally a hot topic of discussion, since quite a few bartenders are worried that trade wars will make Mexico's agave distillates too expensive to stock, which could put a serious damper on bartenders' plans, since single-varietal mezcals and independent tequilas are set to dominate bar menus this year. Two of the conference's most popular seminars dealt with agave distillates – one, led by mezcal guru Misty Kalkofen, focused on sustainability; another was conducted by John Garrett, an importer who specializes in esoteric independents.
"Most big brands emphasize consistency," explains Garrett of Victory Wine Group. "Because if a soccer mom or a businessman buys a bottle and it doesn't taste exactly like what it tasted like last time, that's a big problem."
Cutting-edge spirits lovers and cocktail bartenders, on the other hand, are increasingly behaving like craft beer lovers in that they cherish the fact that no two batches mezcals will taste the same and each bottle represents a new adventure. It's similar with two brands that Garrett imports: Tequila Ocho and Fortaleza, made by Tomas Estes and Guillermo Erickson Sauza, respectively. Both men use small tanks, which make homogeneity next to impossible to achieve. That was just fine with the audience assembled to hear Estes lament the lack of integrity in some corners of the industry.
"Does anyone here have that feeling that the words 'craft' and 'artisanal' are so overused they've become banal?" Estes asked the crowd of nodding fans. "They've become hackneyed." Estes suggested that, to get back to where "craft" is a meaningful term, people in the industry need to define their work in terms of commitment, taste and a certain quality that he likes to call "meraki," a Greek term that roughly translates as "doing it with pride." One seminar attendee familiar with the concept suggested: "Doing it with a big heart." Estes responded enthusiastically, adding: "The way we do anything is the way we do everything."
People seemed inspired by the spirit of meraki everywhere at the festival. That may have something to do with the origins of this small and cozy conference, which was launched six years ago by Sasha Petraske, the Manhattan barman who stopped stocking cranberry juice at Milk and Honey, his bar on the Lower East Side, to signal not only the demise of the Cosmopolitan but also the dawn of a new era of craft cocktails. Petraske, who passed away 18 months ago, is credited as a leading innovator in the better drinking movement that begin about 15 years ago and included snappy bartender attire, tighter bar-room etiquette and better cocktails.
This year's conference kicked off with a toast to its founder, as well as the release of Regarding Cocktails, a posthumous book largely put together by his widow, Georgette Moger-Petraske. Since Petraske had never collected all his recipes – he considered his work to be public domain, something handed down person to person, like an old-fashioned apprenticeship – it required a bit of "detective work" to reconstruct his life spent behind the bar. Moger-Petraske chose 25 bartenders that her husband had personally trained and collected the cocktails they thought best represented what they learned from him. Along the way, she also collected stories. Petraske's legacy is about more than just recipes and, as such, the book includes essays about everything from charity to good posture, etiquette to garnishes – not to mention a daily pursuit of excellence and doing every task with a big heart. Or that thing Estes calls meraki.
The writer was a guest of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. The organization did not review nor approve this story before publication.