Of the many things I learned while attending the San Antonio Cocktail Conference was that there is an art and a science to making a drink. Every year, the market is flooded with new (and many wonderful!) liqueurs, bitters, spirits, gadgets, and other mixology materials that can be used to craft the most basic to the most sophisticated of libations. In relating my bacchanalian exploits of the SACC to a friend, including the more educational parts (Yes, we did attend actual educational seminars. And yes, there were at least two drinks served during each class. Learning is better this way.), she asked me a very important question: if I want to build a small bar at my house, what do I need to include?
Archive | Bourbon Education RSS feed for this section
The second annual Bourbon Classic was held last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. The event drew bourbon fans from around the country to join with distillers, bartenders, restaurants, and media representatives in celebrating all things bourbon. I was lucky enough to be among them and I left feeling very lucky to be living so close to bourbon country.
The event began Friday night with “From the Barrel to Bar,” a cocktail-centered event. Teams of master bartenders were paired with a local chef and a Bourbon Classic sponsor distillery to compete for the title of “perfect cocktail.” A select panel of media personalities and industry experts evaluated the cocktails individually and as pairings to select the winner. I was really impressed with level of food at this event. The small plates included things like short ribs in bourbon sauce, bourbon ice cream with apple tarts, and a plate of chicken and waffles that was so good I went back for seconds. The cocktails were a nice mix of classic and contemporary offerings and there were few I wasn’t willing to finish. Throughout the night we were able to both mingle with friends, break off to explore on our own, take in the cocktail competition, and relax in the VIP lounge so we never felt like we had run out of things to do.
Whether a seasoned bartender or just a cocktail enthusiast (and really, who isn’t?), the San Antonio Cocktail Conference was an experience not to be missed. Not only was it lovely to escape the sub-freezing temperature of the Northeast and head down to the warmth of Texas, but it was also an opportunity to mingle with cocktail legends and have a fantastic time. Nightly parties were hosted at the many historical theatres in downtown San Antonio, boasting signature cocktails from excellent mixologists, mouth-watering samplings of San Antonio’s best restaurants, tastings featuring every type of spirit, and killer music to dance to.
But beyond the revelry, the conference itself featured a series of classes ranging in topics from the History of Women Behind Bars to the Barrel-Aging Process/Trend to master classes focusing on individual spirits (tequila, cider, etc). With such a wealth of information absorbed from the weekend – and the other ridiculously lavish and well-organized parties – I was faced with the issue of deciding what exactly was the most unique bit of information I will take and use going forward in my own cocktail making.
The class which stood out the most for me, entitled “The Cellar Master’s Approach to Creating Elegant Cocktails,” made such an impression due its utility and straightforward presentation. Led by Olaf Harmel, a San Antonio bartender, the class focused on how to take a spirit (in this case, Rye) and transform its essence into something so different and delicate. Generally when Rye is approached, it is seen as a spicier, drier whiskey. However, Olaf guided the class through a discussion on how to elevate the flavors of a normal Rye – Old Overholt - into something positively sublime. The key is in your kitchen.
Olaf taught the class how to “shade” cocktails using a gastrique, a culinary staple and a word you’ve likely heard watching Top Chef. The concept is simple: a sugar sauce reduced and deglazed using vinegar. As you can imagine – and Olaf warns frankly – it smells terrible while making, but the payoff is divine. The result (when used to make a Vermouth reduction – recipe below) is a a sweet yet somewhat sour syrup that marries very well in a Manhattan (made with Bourbon or Rye). The addition of this gastrique (see recipe below) instead of bitters in a traditional Manhattan yields an extra flavor dimension and an almost umami profile to the drink. And I am sure it would be delicious with meat, such as pork or chicken. Who doesn’t love cooking with whiskey?
The best thing about the gastrique is that it is exceedingly easy to make, just be sure to open all of the windows first (you will want good ventilation). I highly recommend playing around with your own version of the gastrique and adding it to your favorite Bourbon cocktail, and feel free to experiment with adding different vinegars, spirits, and flavors, both sweet and savory, into the mix. You may produce a few terrible batches, but science isn’t fun without a few failures. I would love to hear if you have success in making new flavor combinations and what cocktails you added them to.
Whiskey Gastrique (Courtesy of Olaf Harmel)
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup malt vinegar
2 cups Rye Whiskey (or Bourbon) (class used Old Overholt)
1/4 cup Scotch (class used Famous Grouse)
1 cup water
Using a wooden spoon and a very clean pan, caramelize sugar on medium-high heat and add 2 T water until caramel is liquefied. Slowly add in the vinegar and avoid splattering the liquid. Once the vinegar has melded with the caramel, slowly add 1 cup of Rye and Scotch, carefully spooning the spirit into the pan. If the result is too viscous, add spoonfuls of water as needed. Once the gastrique is cooled, whisk in other cup of Rye.
Pour 1 bottle of Sweet Vermouth into a pan and heat to medium-high. As the Vermouth begins to bubble, turn heat down and allow to reduce to between 1/2-2/3. Cool then add 1/4 cup of Rye Gastrique for each cup of Vermouth reduction. Use in any cocktail that uses Vermouth.
Disclaimer: The San Antonio Cocktail Conference provided Bourbon & Banter writers with lodging and access to the conference and events. All other travel costs were the responsibility of the attending writers.
Well I think I can safely say that I not only survived my first cocktail conference, I was able to successfully surf the wave of alcohol that came at me without crashing and burning too hard. Partially this is due to the fact that this event was about more than drinking, it was also very educational and supported some very good causes. On the education side, I was completely bowled over by finding myself mingling with some of the biggest names in the industry all weekend. I was able to take a class on home mixology by Sasha Petraske of Milk and Honey and one on Evolution of Barrel Aging with Wes Henderson of Angel’s Envy. I got to interview Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric of Employee’s Only and Tito Beveridge from Tito’s Vodka. These are not experiences I thought I would get to have in life. And it was all for a good cause. As I spoke to several of the volunteers and guests that weekend, I was impressed by how many of them mentioned the charitable aspect of the conference as being an important reason for their involvement. SACC donates all of its profits to Child Safe and Heart Gift, and this made a fun weekend feel like an important one as well.
Of course it wasn’t all learning, networking, and charity. I said it wasn’t all about drinking but it was a lot about drinking. The parties in the evening were all legendary. I freely admit I loved feeling like a celebrity as I spent four nights making my way through the city and being handed cocktails and food at each location, all while mingling with San Antonio society and industry insiders. Each night showed off a different aspect of the city and took place in different locations so that by the end of the weekend I truly felt as if I had got a chance to visit city, all while never really leaving the conference. All in all, it was a fantastic experience.
But since this is a bourbon blog I will address the question that some of you might be asking yourselves; should someone who is primarily a bourbon enthusiast take the time and money to attend a cocktail conference? The answer to that question depends on how much you enjoy both cocktails and other spirits. The seminar with Wes Henderson was the only bourbon related event of the weekend, although that alone was worth flying to San Antonio in my opinion. The rest of the weekend bourbon was represented by brand ambassadors from a few big names, mostly Knob Creek and Old Forester, and the cocktails they were mixing up were not my favorites of the weekend. For instance, I saw Knob Creek being mixed with Skinny Girl Prosecco. Forget the commotion over the Suntory purchase, this is what Beam fans should be angry about. So if you are only interested in bourbon this may not be the event for you, but if you are at all interested in cocktails and spirits in general the San Antonio Cocktail Conference is well worth the trip. Everyone I spoke to said it was getting bigger and better every year so this might be one you want to visit before it explodes like Tales of the Cocktail.
I did get a chance to interview Wes Henderson while I was there so I will have a more in-depth piece on the barrel aging class and my interview with him coming soon but in the mean time here are a few more pictures of the weekend.
- Irish Whiskey Schwag Giveaway Winners March 6, 2014
- Irish Whiskey Reviews for St. Patrick’s Day March 5, 2014
- “Making the Cut”: The Search for the New Face of Hudson Whiskey March 3, 2014
- Kentucky Tavern Bourbon Ad Circa 1945 February 27, 2014
- Bourbon & Banter 2nd Anniversary February 22, 2014
- Average American Bourbon Drinker July 9, 2012
- Bourbon Tooth Paste July 24, 2012
- Old Forester Bourbon Advertisement Circa 1957 August 10, 2012
- The Mason Jar Cocktail Shaker August 15, 2012
- Is Alcohol A Recession Proof Industry? August 27, 2012