Amada Claire Miller works at Little Death, where she became inspired by the natural wine movement.
In March of 2019, San Antonio artist couple Amada Claire Miller and Nicholas Frank opened a pair of kindred exhibitions
at FL!GHT Gallery that explored themes surrounding currency, exchange… and booze.
In the main gallery, Frank’s “Demos Schmemos” investigated “the corrosion of democracy and mutual trust” via sculptural vignettes referencing Ancient Greek obolus, drachma, spittoons and beer foam. Meanwhile, in FL!GHT’s tiny, salon-style space, Miller’s “Hands Down” conjured a speakeasy environment where guests could purchase ceramic coins — to be exchanged for cocktails — along with handcrafted glassware created by gallery proprietor Justin Parr.
Beyond the shared thematic threads, a universal symbol — the handprint — appeared on both Miller’s clay coins and metal versions Frank made from smelted beer cans.
Since those exhibitions closed, Miller has kept her “Hands Down” concept alive through a series of pop-up events that continue today.
“I’ve kept that theme going throughout every pop-up that we’ve done,” Miller explained. “So if you went to the first bar pop-up at FL!GHT and purchased a coin — which can range from $5 to $10 — you can come to another pop-up somewhere else and it would be valid for a cocktail. … Months later, sometimes even a few years later, [people] would bring them back — which I thought was really cool.”
Outside of her artistic practice, Miller also works at Little Death — a mural-covered establishment on the St. Mary’s Strip that amusingly bills itself as “the worst wine bar in San Antonio.” Opened by local restaurateur Chad Carey in the spring of 2019, it champions “cool and interesting wines you won’t find at the grocery store.”
“When I started working at Little Death, I was really inspired by the natural wine movement,” Miller recalled.
Concurrently, she was also enjoying exploring the creativity of crafting cocktails for her pop-up series. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these two sides of the same coin got her thinking about the possibility of opening a bar of her own — one that would offer a curated selection of wine, cocktails and artist-made products in an intimate, hyperlocal atmosphere.
Early this year, Miller looked at several properties around Southtown and ultimately secured a compact space on South Presa Street formerly inhabited by Bite restaurant. While still completing renovations and ironing out final details, Miller offered us a glimpse of what to expect from the permanent iteration of Hands Down, which she anticipates opening early in the new year.
‘Weird wine, weirder goblets’
Artist-made objects are on display at a Hands Down pop-up.
Announced by a teaser on the Hands Down Instagram page, the bar’s specialty will be unusual wines that can be sipped from handcrafted ceramic cups or glassware.
“I like wine that is made by people who are really passionate about the land that they’re working with and farming, and creating a sustainable, ideally organic wine that is tasty — and doesn’t necessarily taste like kombucha (laughs). There’s a lot of natural wine that people turn their nose up to because it tastes a little bit sour or really tart [But] there is really good natural wine out there that you can taste without knowing it’s natural. … That’s going to be my main focus.”
While the bar will have traditional glassware on hand for everyday use, the artist-made goblets will come complete with a special libation. And, as for the wine list, it will be ever-evolving.
“We’ll have tons of options all the time that are exciting and new and fun,” Miller added.
Not your ordinary cocktails
Although it’s still being finalized, the Hands Down bar program will reflect the drinks Miller has been mixing at her pop-ups.
“There are a lot of specialty cocktails that we’ve created for the bar, but we’ll also do twists on classics,” she said. “We’ll be making a pecan Old Fashioned made with pecan bitters that Nicholas makes from our pecan tree. … There will be a margarita on the menu that I make with palo santo and an umeboshi [pickled plum] martini.”
Amari and aperitifs will also be in heavy rotation.
“That’s what I’m really excited about: amaro,” Miller said. “It’s really a fascinating area of drinks. Some of them can be bitter, but they can also be really complex and well-balanced. I’m going to focus on making cocktails with those. There are thousands of different [varieties] so there are endless possibilities.”
In addition to the option of purchasing a cup or glass handcrafted by the likes of Justin Parr, Adam Smolensky, Ali Wiesse, Miller or Frank, Hands Down patrons will be able to support local creatives through a rotating merchandise program. Whether it be a T-shirt, hat, tote or something else entirely, the merch will be complemented by a specialty cocktail concocted by that same artist.
“If you have no concept of what [goes into creating a cocktail], people get to really interesting places, which I find really cool,” Miller said. “And of course, I’ll be helping them.”
Hands Down Bar (opening in early 2022), 1012 S. Presa St., instagram.com/handsdownbar.
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