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At least for the weekend, San Antonio is center of the cocktail universe

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A guy walks into a bar... If that bar is in San Antonio, and the date is after January 29, then the rest of the story is hard to predict — though it's unlikely to feature the time-tested trio of a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. But if the bartender serving attended the first-annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference, the story should include new drinks, new twists on old ones, and a new cocktail sensibility in general.

Modeling their inaugural event on the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and New Orleans' Tales of the Cocktail, the organizers have put together a four-day program running from January 26-29, the heart of which is two days packed with classes, seminars, and tastings designed to open the eyes and challenge the palates of professional and amateur cocktailians alike.

Mark Bohanan and his crew from Bohanan's Bar, along with their vaunted cocktail consultant Sasha Petraske, are the main movers and shakers (literally) of the program, and between them they have managed to recruit bar professionals from both coasts and as far away as Australia to serve as presenters.

In shot (though also short) form, the program runs as follows: The opening night soirée kicks off at 7 p.m. Thursday at Bohanan's (eight bars and 16 specialty cocktails); classes (most at the Sheraton Gunter and most at $30) begin at 11 a.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Saturday; Ocho Lounge and Soho are hosting parties Friday night with free connections by river barge; Saturday night there's a closing celebration at The Esquire Tavern; and Sunday everybody staggers home after a Bloody Mary brunch at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel. Throughout the event, brand ambassadors of various spirits will offer tasting rooms at the Gunter, available to participants gratis and walk-off-the-streeters for a $10 donation to the prime charity, HeartGift San Antonio. It will be hard to choose.

One two-part session that intrigues me, however, is being presented by the co-founders of Cuffs & Buttons, a firm that does beverage catering and drinks consulting. Having worked together for a time at Petraske's Milk & Honey, a truly amazing (and amazingly hard to find) bar on New York's Lower East Side, Chad Solomon and Christy Pope now share both a life and a business. I strongly suggest you check out their resumes at cuffsandbuttons.com, for the couple, after much globe trotting and impressive portfolio building, is now coming home. Solomon apparently won this toss of the coin; when contacted by phone, the couple was outside of Shreveport on their way to Austin where they expect to start looking for a site to open a bar after the SA conference.

"The Devil's in the Details" might disarm you as a session title at first, but read on: topics include essential oils and aromas, pH and alternative acidulates, ice thermodynamics. Yes, perhaps a little daunting. "This is definitely an advanced class," admits Solomon, an experienced presenter with seven years at Tales of the Cocktail under his bartending black belt. "We use tools and ingredients such as centrifuges and refractometers." Items not generally in home bars, but he also seems to think that the important take-away might have to do with the whole learning process. "We're constantly learning ourselves and questioning current and classical cocktail dogma... [We like to] get people to disagree with us." Solomon also thinks that the industry has reached a kind of plateau and that "we've been running an extended victory lap the last few years." Nevertheless, even as a consumer, he concludes, "you will come away with a new appreciation for the way a drink is [or could be] made."

But if you were frightened by a centrifuge in high school chemistry, fear not; there's more than one class for everybody, including one by Petraske and his bartender from Milk & Honey, Matty Gee (now at Bohanan's). Also a two-parter, "Making Cocktails in the Home," will cover how to make "world-class" drinks at home as well as making party-scale quantities of cocktails and punch.

Forgotten Cocktails, Yoga for Bartenders, The Rise of Spicy Cocktails… for more information on these and other classes and events, go to sacocktailconference.com. This is happening here, not Austin, Houston, or Dallas, so a good turnout is mandatory, y'all. No joke. •

San Antonio Cocktail Conference
Free-$60
Thurs-Sun, Jan 26-29
sanantoniococktailconference.com

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