Shortly after Southown spot Bar Ludivine opened last fall, I wandered in after hitting some nearby vintage shops and was surprised to see a Vesper martini on the cocktail menu.
The two men occupying seats to my right shuddered. Then, over bottled beers, openly discussed how dumb it was to order a cocktail made famous by Daniel Craig's turn playing sophisticated secret agent James Bond.
Clearly, the pair weren't up to speed on the boozy, slightly sweet and bitter charms of the classic cocktail, but I didn't let that ruin my experience. I was overjoyed at the version the bartender had shaken up. It was the most delicious Vesper I'd ever tasted — and I've had them in Nashville, Seattle, Boston and New York City.
Popularized in Ian Fleming's 1953 Bond novel Casino Royale, the Vesper is just one classic cocktail the staff at Ludivine executes spectacularly. And the bar is far from the only one in San Antonio putting new spins on old favorites — from old-school drinks enjoying current revivals to those all but forgotten.
The popularity of classic cocktails ebbs and flows, but recent additions to the Alamo City's bar and nightlife scene are dedicating entire sections of their menus to those venerable tipples — and often adding a puro SA twist.
"We're trying to do different variations of classics on every menu, and I like to see it as almost a Mr. Potato Head. It's the same structure of the classic, it just has a different nose and eyes," said Derik Cortez, managing partner of new downtown cocktail spot Sojourn, 244. W. Houston St. "Every menu, we're also training the staff about the nuances of classic cocktails. So, they're all learning too."
Sojourn occupies the just-off-Houston Street space that formerly housed moody craft-tipple enclave Juniper Tar. Cortez's bar boasts an airier, more approachable atmosphere than its predecessor, and that's by design. He's trying to create an environment that encourages customer curiosity and a desire to learn.
"One of our most popular sellers is [a classic] most people have never heard of: the Charo's Kick," he said. "It's really easy and refreshing, with mezcal and tequila, but people have never heard of it. Even something as simple as a margarita, we're changing up. Right now, Triple Sec is at a higher price point [than usual], so it's really hard to offer an affordable, approachable margarita when [the orange-flavored liqueur] is more expensive than tequila."
Cortez's solution? Infuse agave syrup with orange peels to add an earthy balance to the lime juice.
Sojourn offers a variety of similarly altered classics, ranging from a Demerara rum-heavy Mai Tai to the Staycation Martini — a nod to the bar's moniker, which means an escape or temporary getaway. The expected martini components of gin, vermouth and bitters are all there, but embellished with the silky, earthy notes from oolong tea, umami bitters and lemon oil.
Sojourn isn't the only new spot offering its unique take on the humble martini.
New downtown "American tavern" concept Double Standard, 114 E. Houston St., recently launched a Friday steak lunch special that features $1 martinis. There, the new spin isn't adding ingredients to the three-ingredient cocktail, but pre-mixing large batches and serving the drinks from an ice-cold keg.
"I feel like there's plenty of people who still haven't had a fucking bracingly cold martini," said Myles Worrell, who oversees Double Standard's bar operations. "And that's one of the biggest things about a martini: getting it extremely cold before it over-dilutes. A lot of people fail at that point, but in a keg and on ice, I can get it colder than a walk-in [refrigerator]."
Not only does Double Standard's batched delivery system boost efficiency by allowing staffers to serve the usually labor-intensive cocktail more quickly, it also allows large groups to be exposed to a drink that's stood the test of time, Worrell points out.
"Because they're $1 [on Fridays], we have plenty of people that just order a round for their table. 'Whatever, that's 10 bucks,'" he said. "I really, really love the idea of super-cheap martinis, and with this ... we have an opportunity to change peoples' perspective on them."
Double Standard — launched by Chad Carey, the restaurateur behind Hot Joy, Barbaro and other local favorites — also offers nods to classics including the margarita, the Manhattan, the Hurricane and rum punch. The latter two feature proprietary rum blends that are a far cry from the haphazard, overly sweet jungle juices of many imbibers' youth.
Rum's day in the sun
Thankfully, the booze wizards behind Double Standard — and many other local craft cocktail joints — left the trash can punch approach behind years ago, creating artfully concocted blends of rums for classic offerings, including tropical and tiki-inspired sips. Well-prepared Mai Tais, Painkillers and Zombies all use a variety of rums as their boozy base.
But that new appreciation of rum doesn't just apply to tropical tipples.
New Eastside drinkery La Ruina, 410 Austin St., uses a blend of rums from Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados and Hispaniola for its take on an Old Fashioned. Traditionally made with robust bourbon or rye, the Old Fashioned is a straightforward blend of the spirit plus sugar and a dash of bitters. That simplicity makes it ripe for experimentation.
What's more, the stripped-down template allows the subtleties of the rums to shine, La Ruina Bar Manager David Naylor said.
"Rum is an agricultural product, so a rum is going to denote some special flavors depending on how it's made," he explained. "For instance, rum from Guyana is specifically made from turbinado sugar, so that tends to offer more of a caramel kind of note. Rums from Barbados have, for me, a big apple flavor, so there's a little bit of a sweet taste from them. I'm not trying to mimic the flavors of whiskey, but I definitely want to offer a unique option to those that do like whiskey."
La Ruina's spin on the Old Fashioned further shakes things up by adding a blend of bitters rather than just the Angostura used in a standard take. Complex Aztec chocolate bitters and Peychaud's — for a touch of anise — meld with the Angostura to create a drink likely to appeal to folks who normally turn up their noses at rum.
"[It's a] well-rounded, bigger, brighter, more robust Old Fashioned that I think big whiskey drinkers would appreciate at least once," he said.
Classic cocktail forebears
While it may be tempting to attribute San Antonio's trend of rethinking classic cocktails to a new breed of bartenders, the roots have been in place for some time.
Naylor, Worrell and Cortez have all spent considerable time behind Alamo City bars: more than 50 years, collectively. The three learned their chops at spots known not just for their creativity but for their impeccable execution of classics. Their pedigrees include the Esquire Tavern, George's Keep, The Modernist, Park Social and Mixtli Progressive Mexican Culinaria, to name a few.
Even so, the leather-aproned, wax-mustached bartender stereotypical of the early aughts appears to have gone by the wayside. If these pros are indicators of what lies ahead, the future of San Antonio's craft cocktail scene is a less-fussy approach where rethinking the classics is part of the fun — for both the bartender and the imbiber.
"I think it's definitely getting away from the pretentiousness that a lot of bars have been known for, especially cocktail bars," Naylor said. "We're seeing places just dialing back to what it is at the forefront of it: hospitality and fun, having a good time. We have a crew that's friendly and outgoing, despite all of them, for the most part, being introverts. They kind of bust out of their shell when they're behind the bar, and our model is just about showcasing who these people are and going from there."
That change extends beyond attitude and into atmosphere, according to Naylor.
For example, the tropical vibe of his recently opened La Ruina lends itself to an easygoing attitude. Far from the darkly hued and dimly lit craft-cocktail establishments of a few years ago, La Ruina is big on emerald, plum and lavender along with wallpaper featuring animal and plant life native to Central America.
"It could be Barbados, it could be the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico," Naylor said. "This is just party time. It's fun."
Similarly, Sojourn's interior features a larger-than-life tropical mural, rattan and deep wooden accents, glittering chandeliers and rich blue and teal tones. Owner-operator Cortez said the decor is meant to emphasize comfort and approachability. He hopes visitors to nearby Milam Park will stop in after using its jogging trail or taking one of its yoga classes.
And if a revamped take on a classic cocktail adds to that accessibility, all the better.
"Our motto is, 'What we do, we take seriously. But we don't take ourselves seriously,'" he said. "We're looking to create a place where people get away and escape. I want this to be a place where people expect to have fun."
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