Though craft beer takeovers — where one brewery packs in its wares throughout another establishment's taps — are now commonplace, cocktails have been a bit slow on the uptake. That is, until last winter as bartenders started popping up around town, sharing space with their counterparts and generally having an awesome time doing it.
Trends come and go, but within SA's tight-knit cocktail scene, the takeovers function as research and development for some, brand and bar exposure for others and weekday revelry for bar-goers.
"If someone has an idea, whether it's us or Park Social or TBA, you could do it yourself, but you want to cast the widest net and bring in your buddies," Jorel Peña of the Boulevardier group, told the San Antonio Current last week at Last Word. "Maybe I bring in someone that's never been there, or they bring someone to my bar. It benefits both bars."
Though Peña shies away from taking credit for the well-attended takeovers ("I just like to bartend with my friends," he says), we have to give him props where it's due. In late March, Peña, along with Josh Brock of TBA and Jacob Burris of Stay Golden, turned a silly inside joke into the first power-takeover. Cocktails turned into odes to boat ballads and all were asked to wear their sharpest blazer and other seafaring garb.
"[That] ended up with a whole Facebook thread of ideas. The whole theme, we took pictures of our outfits and sent them to each other ... because that's important," Peña laughed.
Not all takeovers turn into bacchanals. While developing cocktails for Smoke: The Restaurant, bartender Matt Dulaney crashed the tiki hut known as Concrete Jungle in late March. The laidback venue served as decent testing ground for drinks such as the Annexation of Puerto Rico with dark rum, bitters, Demarara, served in a smoked glass; or the Devil Went To Oaxaca, where Dulaney tried his hand at Cassis caviar.
Other instances of cocktail research include takeovers by Jesse Torres of Mezcalería Mixtli, who popped up at neighboring Park Social and The Last Word (along with David Naylor). Or just last Tuesday, when Steve Martin of the soon-to-open Rumble on North St. Mary's Street tested out a few cocktail concepts, including the frozen Bahia Lust with Cachaca, guava, blackberries, habanero, lime, sugar and mint.
For Torres, the pop-ups helped structure drinks for his first menu.
"You get a better idea of what works and what doesn't, what you can do faster to make the drink more efficient," Torres said. "It's just fun being in a different venue with new scenery and seeing new people."
The newness does present certain challenges. Home field advantage is gone when you step behind someone else's bar. "It really tests your mettle as a bartender," Peña said. "There's no time for hesitation."
Naylor sees Park Social as a playground of sorts. During a Caribbean-themed pig roast in May, Peña joined Naylor and Cody Cruz in concocting tasty beverages, ranging from seven-ingredient homages to Lord of the Flies to chill mojito pitchers.
"At a certain point I was just looking at Naylor and laughing. There wasn't much else we could do. It was fun as hell to work with those boys, they can bang them out with the best of them," Peña said. The tiny bar has hosted Torres, Sara Bass of The Last Word and fledgling cocktail team, Milan & Turin.
"I honestly tell every person who's ever interested in coming behind the bar 'Do whatever the hell you want!' Been working on some cocktail ideas & want to get fresh palates and opinions from an entirely different clientele? Cool. Feel like using cotton candy machines, Portholes, anti-griddles, foams, peculators, specification kits, which-its, whachamacallits and doo-dads? Feel free!" Naylor said in an email interview.
For Javier Gutierrez, one of the founders of Milan & Turin, takeovers give him and his group a chance to shine.
"As a team, we discuss what is appropriate for the season. For example, what are our favorite cocktails in rotation right now? What's in season? What everyone else is doing, and maybe some forgotten classics or neo classics that we feel everyone will enjoy this summer. We try to stay out of the norm and have fun with it," Gutierrez said.
Doing takeovers also affords bartenders a chance to just give people what they want. Torres and his partners at Mixtli happily hosted Jeret and Jorel Peña for a "Double Peñatration" a month ago that pitted the Irish twin brothers against one another for a chance at bragging rights and a makeshift gilded donkey piñata trophy. The results were mezcal and tequila cocktails for more than 80 willing participants on an otherwise slow Tuesday night.
"I figured it would be busy, but wow. You can never really tell," Peña said.