"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…”
Thus spoke Henry V, in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt; the “band of brothers” term has been appropriated multiple times since — so we’ll just borrow it one more time.
But this time for a less militaristic fraternity, the brotherhood of bartenders. It’s a tight-knit one. And instead of talking about shedding blood, let’s turn instead to the notion of sharing it: in San Antonio, there are more actual blood brothers in the profession (commonly referred to as “the industry”) than you might ever have imagined.
The first booze-slinging siblings to come to my attention were Jeret and Jorel Peña; you know them best from the family enterprise, The Boulevardier Group, that runs The Brooklynite, The Last Word, Stay Golden Social House, The Old Main Assoc. and most recently Rumble, but the back story is way more complex.
Born 14 months apart, Jeret, the oldest at 35, began his career at the then-new Hotel Contessa from which he moved on to Pesca (now Ostra), all the while also filling in at the Hotel Valencia’s V Bar during the time when there was a pre-craft-cocktail circuit on Houston Street comprised of places such as Suede, The Davenport and Zen Bar — “you didn’t have to know shit,” he admits. Somewhere in there he learned more than shit about tequila, studies that landed him a job as a brand ambassador for Partida.
He left that gig after two years to help open the downstairs bar at Bohanan’s before its revamp by consultant, Sasha Petraske. “I learned indirectly from Tim [Bryand] and Chris [Ware] who did work there with Sasha,” says Jeret — who by this time was working occasionally at Steve Mahoney’s Green Lantern, then heading up the bar at now-defunct Le Midi down Houston from Bohanan’s.
“I still miss the antique glassware I collected for that bar,” he says.
Moving from Le Midi to The Esquire Tavern, Jeret did some mentoring of his own with current bar stars Karah Carmack, Rob Gourlay, Javi Gutierrez, Steve Martín and Jonny Yumol. His next leap was to his own place, The Brooklynite; he took people such as Gourlay with him.
In the early stages of all this, Jorel was working in insurance and “[Jeret] begged me to come work with him at the Valencia. I got a job in banquet room service, and when Jeret did V Bar, I got on as banquet bartender.”
He moved from there to Jeret’s old haunt, the Contessa, then, not yet feeling the industry passion of his elder brother, left for an entrepreneurial job at The Scooter Store in New Braunfels — which turned out badly for all concerned.
“I applied to lots of 9-5 jobs and then Ron [Herrera] and Lutfy [Flores] gave me a job as a bouncer at SoHo — it was better than unemployment,” Jorel says. (It should be noted that Jorel might be the younger, but he’s also sturdier.)
With Brooklynite then underway, Jeret plucked Jorel away from SoHo to become a bar back (“bar bitch” might have been the term). Learning at the Rob Gourlay “boot camp,” (“you’re off — do it over”), Jorel says he finally gained enough experience to become an actual bartender “and not suck.” He can now be found, fully confident, at places such as the upscale Last Word.
Bohanan’s street-level bar has been an incubator for many of SA’s finest, craft-oriented bartenders, and the Corney brothers (there are three of them) are a prime example. Jordan, 31, was the first to arrive for our interview (Josh, 35, couldn’t make it), so he got to spin the origin story. “Josh started [in the industry] in McAllen where we’re from, bounced around and ended up at the Tower of the Americas when Scott Becker [now at Bohanan’s] was manager. My first job was at Starbucks in the Valley; I then came up here to live with Josh and go to UTSA and got a job as Scott’s busboy.”
Jordan then moved back down to the Valley where he says he “was trying to sell craft cocktails to a Bud Light and Margarita crowd.” He and Jake, 29, effectively switched places with Jake going straight to the newly-opened Bohanan’s where Becker was now manager and Petraske took him under his wing. Before long, Jake, who had quickly become head bartender, told him “you need to get back up here.”
“Sasha wanted people without experience so he didn’t have to undo bad habits; he had it all down to a science: temperature, alcohol content … I don’t think that way every time [I make a drink], but it was good to learn it,” says Jake.” “But it ruins you for having a proper Manhattan anywhere else,” interjects Jordan. (They don’t actually finish one another’s sentences, but you have the feeling that they could.)
More shuffling went on, with Jordan helping Petraske-trained Matty Gee open Juniper Tar “after all the money had been spent; I even painted urinals. But [Matty] was like a gargoyle over my shoulder getting me to do things right.” Jake, meanwhile, had opened a custom ice business and planned to do bar consulting … fast forward to Jordan, now back at Bohanan’s, winning Patron’s Margarita of the Year award and Jake having taken a post as general manager of the soon-to-open Jazz, TX at the Pearl where his cocktails will play on classics but with Texas ingredients. (Josh, who never really got behind a bar professionally, but has “an enthusiasm for spirits”, has recently been promoted to catering manager at Bohanan’s.) Jordan will also be helping formulate the menu – “not centered on pre-Prohibition cocktails” — at Mark Bohanan’s newest venture, Peggy’s on the Green at Ye Kendall Inn in Boerne.
“I’m happy with the way things are going,” says Jake, in regards both to the cocktail movement and their personal lives. In response to the question “Are we in danger of losing either of you?” I get a wry smile from Jordan and this from Jake (or was it Jordan?): “We’re gypsies by nature.” And from Jordan (or was it Jake?): “Everybody wants to have their own place.”
“Does he always talk faster than you do?” I ask Tim Bryand, 34, of his younger brother Josh, 33. “He talks faster than anybody,” replies Timmy (as many call him) — fondly, it seems.
And these so-called “Irish twins” (a slang term for siblings born within 12 months of one another) do seem to have a closer bond than many, despite pretty divergent paths to the same goal. Tim began in the industry as a host at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen at age 16. Josh soon followed, about which he says, “[They figured] Tim’s good, might as well get Josh,” adding that “Tim has stayed in the industry more than me.” “I have no aspirations for anything else,” confesses Tim. “When you’re a natural what else do you do?” adds Josh, whose natural talents might have led him to a career in music following his graduation from Trinity with a focus on piano, organ and composition.
Fortunately for us, neither sibling stayed at Pappadeaux. Tim, who had been made a manager, was gone by age 22 (“I was young, I fraternized, I got fired. I might otherwise still be there.”), Josh left two years later to finish his degree, did home sales for a time, went back to Pappadeaux in management for several years, opened Arcade with Chris Ware, jumped ship to a financial services group, left for Chili’s, then ended up in his current post as assistant manager and bar honcho at NAO, a position partly bequeathed to him by Tim, and where he has taken up the baton of working with exotic Latin liqueurs such as the traditional spirit of Bolivia, the pisco-like singani. Tim’s continuing resumé, filled in by Josh when he left something out, is much more complicated, so we’ll skim the top: Piatti, La Mansion del Rio, Mi Tierra (“I totally didn’t fit in”), Coco, SoHo, then as a first hire at Bohanan’s. But wait, there’s more: from Bohanan’s to a cameo at Esquire, back to SoHo in management, then to Vino Volo at the airport, after which the CIA/NAO opportunity came along.
“I even taught hospitality classes, gave lectures, graded papers,” he says somewhat wistfully. These days, Tim is in the Steve Mahoney camp, mostly at George’s Keep, occasionally at Brigid, and will help open up Japanese-themed Hanzo in Alamo Heights.
“So when do you open your own bar,” I ask? “We have talked about it; we work well together,” says Tim.
Confirming the compatibility, while brushing beard trimmings off of Tim’s shirt, Josh says, “Tim and I are against snooty bartenders, too much education required … it’s all about hospitality. And Aaron [the youngest brother, who went into the military] can wash dishes.” To start, of course.
The nomadic nature of bar guys is equally apparent in the Sarabia brothers, Adrian and Vicente. “He got me involved,” says Vincent, 37, of Adrian, 35. But not before a lot of other career moves: paralegal in a law firm, real estate and commercial debt placement in Dallas (which he still does), “but at age 33 I wanted to be more active. Sitting at a desk, you want to be outside that window,” he says.
The window is a metaphor, of course, since he segued to The Esquire Tavern where brother Adrian and Jeret Peña were holding fort.
“I worked 8-10 hours a day as bar back and in the kitchen and lost 20 pounds, but I certainly wouldn’t change it,” Vicente says.
Even after Adrian left to work with Peña at The Brooklynite, Vicente remained — until about a year ago, when he moved on to Peña’s Boulevardier group. When asked who his most important bar influences have been, he immediately says, “Adrian, No. 1.” “Bullshit,” counters Adrian. Other important mentors have been Roy Guerrero (he worked with him briefly at Concrete Jungle), Houston Eaves and Myles Worrell (both at Esquire) and Rob Gourlay.
“He initially thought that anyone could do a bartender’s job (there was actually more colorful language), but he later came back to me and said ‘you’re right; there’s a culture here,’ and now he’s one of us — for better or for worse,” says Adrian, who plunged right into the culture without hesitation — first at a high-volume vodka bar in Dallas.
“It was all function and no passion,” Adrian says.
He undid Dallas by moving to Manhattan for nearly six years, where, among other things, he worked as a manager for one of Tom Colicchio’s restaurants. Passion for craft cocktails was developed in part by visits to one of Sasha Petraske’s properties, Dutch Kills.
Returning to Texas, Adrian put that all to use at Esquire, then Brooklynite, Blue Box (where he was manager of events and marketing) and Brigid. Wanting to get back behind a bar, his newest venture is as part of the opening bar team at Botika, the Peruvian-Asian restaurant taking over the old Arcade space at Pearl. Vicente, meanwhile, remains with The Boulevardier Group but has also opened a tax preparation franchise where he does some pro-bono work for local bartenders. “It helps pay the bills,” he admits.
Though many of the above bros in the business may have lived together in the past, most now do not. An exception is the Rickhoff brothers, Gerard, 25, and Steven, 23. Gerard was working in Sylvia Romo’s tax office when he decided to walk across Main Plaza to The Esquire Tavern and take the plunge.
“Houston Eaves was literally the first person I met, and I was hired as a busboy the same day.” He later moved on to barback, a rite of passage, for seven months. “I never actually thought I’d end up bartending,” he admits, but it seems to have worked out. “I was answering phones and writing letters [to unhappy taxpayers], and now I get smiles—even though I see people at highs and lows,” he says.
Steven didn’t start out in the industry, having first gone to real estate school “where everybody was a bartender—it didn’t make sense at the time.” He also briefly managed a juice bar, but once he decided to jettison all that and got hired as a busboy at Esquire, “I knew from the start I wanted to be a bartender,” he says. Both credit Esquire’s Eaves and Worrell as influences, but, not having been brought up in the Bohanan’s/Petraske school, have a slightly different take on craft cocktails. “The same booze can yield many different results,” says Gerard; “It’s like the way a guitar can play lots of different styles.” “Craft is not the only thing,” adds Steven.
The brothers are currently working at Swig where they were hired to change up the menu a little. When asked about the difference in patrons from Esquire to Swig, they freely admit that this is a different kind of setting. “I was never a slow bartender, but I also didn’t know [drinks such as] the Star Fucker and the Three Legged Monkey,” says Steven. This hasn’t stopped him from coming up with a section of the new menu called “Timeless Cocktails”, based on a timeline from 1790 to 1910. “You can’t completely change the world, and you have to have fun. We have fun here,” says Gerard.
They would probably have fun no matter where they were (and based on experiences from a recent vacation to New Zealand, they might even take a work sabbatical there in the future). “We’re not always working together, but we see one another as a bartending team,” says Steven, to which Gerard adds, “living and working together, we have similar palates, and we have our own phrases even from childhood…you also benefit from having people you can trust.” The sentiment apparently resonates with youngest brother Nicholas, freshly back from a semester abroad in France and now at Swig for the summer.
“I can definitely see myself working in the industry for a while,” he admits.