The San Antonio River Foundation has hosted the Rivertini event for the past eight years, and the ninth one is on March 23rd, just under a week away. In preparation for the event, I decided to interview the competitors, shedding light on the mixologists and their creative processes. I challenged myself to interview 20 bartenders in the span of two weeks, to learn more about the people behind the cocktails, how they got their start in the business, their favorite drinks and their inspiration behind the drinks they created for the event. Though I’ve only met with seven of the twenty, I wanted to share the stories of the contestants I’ve had the opportunity to meet with thus far.
The first bar to visit was directly off the River Walk, and houses Karen Canedo, the assistant manager at Viva Tacoland in the heart of downtown. Canedo got her first taste of the bartending industry at the early age of 18, working as a bartender at Ocean Star, a seafood restaurant off of 410 that has since closed. From there she grew to be the manager of different music venues and bars alike and is now creating delicious cocktails at Tacoland. As a whiskey lover, Canedo loves sipping on an Old Fashioned and a good Manhattan when visiting other bars. When coming up with a drink for the Rivertini event, Canedo wanted to use something that was whiskey based yet representative of San Antonio. The cocktail she came up with, the El Picosito, uses Tullamore Dew and Ancho Reyes and is a blend of the culture of San Antonio and Mexico City. The drink is summery, spicy, and according to Canedo, has a unique garnish, that is rarely used in the cocktail world.
After hitting a spot on the River Walk, I stopped by Grayze, the winner of the 2016 Rivertini event. This year the bar manager, Bruce Martin, is competing in Rivertini again. Martin, who opened Grayze in January 2016, started his career at Buffalo Wild Wings, then moved on to opening his own cocktail bar, TBA, with fellow bartender and contestant- Jonny Yumol. While Martin typically enjoys boozy and bitter cocktails, like a Negroni, when creating a drink for this year’s Rivertini competition, he wanted to make a drink that was representative of the culture of San Antonio. He decided on making a cocktail reminiscent of Horchata, with an alcoholic twist. Martin mentions that it’s one of the more involved cocktails he’s made, and he hopes it is well received.
A venture up the river to visit David Arciniega, of Botika was next on the list. The cocktail Arciniega is creating for Rivertini was inspired by a popular San Antonio treat, fruit in a cup. In his drink he includes Ancho Reyes liquor and Milagro as the base, then builds the cocktail with ingredients reminiscent of the flavors traditionally found in the Alamo City delicacy. Botika chef, Geronimo Lopez, helped Arciniega bring Latin influences to classic cocktails which is represented in the cocktail menu at Botika. Before running the bar program at Botika, Arciniega originally started bartending at Tucker’s Kozy Korner, followed by the neighboring CIA’s Nao restaurant. A simple man when not working Arciniega’s drink of choice is a Hopadillo beer and a shot of tequila. However, while off the clock he enjoys hanging out at other bars, watching how bartenders craft their drinks and the precision they use in the crafting process. According to Aricniega, you can learn from observing bartenders.
Omar Comier, bartender at the Brooklynite, and fellow competitor in Rivertini shares a similar view. He enjoys going into bars and watching how his colleagues make drinks, learning more about the bartender and their cocktail knowledge. Comier has been bartending since 2009, and according to him, properly bartending since 2012. Omar is one of the masterminds behind the Tiki Tuesday menu at the Brooklynite, and while crafting the Rivertini cocktail he wanted to create a drink that would include that flair. He describes his drink as a tiki-influenced margarita, taking a classic drink that is popular in San Antonio and giving it his own Comier style. While he does excel at making tiki cocktails, Omar himself enjoys a nice Japanese whiskey in a glass. When making drinks for others, he reads the mood of the customer and the bar and enjoys making any drink that will make a customer smile.
This idea is similar to a quote Jonny Yumol, competitor from Bar Du Mon Ami, mentioned in his interview. “Don’t serve drinks, serve people,” is something that Yumol keeps in mind when working at the Alamo Heights bar. Yumol got his first taste of bartending at Sushi Zushi, and since starting in the industry twelve years ago has contributed to some of the best cocktail programs in the city, including TBA, Esquire, and most recently Paramour. Jonny found inspiration for his cocktail, To Fight Five Four, from his own place in life. This cocktail is the embodiment of trying to fight with thoughts of being stuck, not measuring up to others, and the nature that we all seem to struggle with. Yumol’s creation of his cocktail sheds light on how bartending and mixology can be an art form. The creator puts so much of them self into the drinks they are creating and it can influence what the final product becomes.
Ryan Artus, the new bar manager at TBA, takes a similar approach with his cocktail creation. The drink Artus entered into the Rivertini competition involves different components of cocktails that he has entered into other competitions through out his career. Artus states that this drink garnish is one of the more tedious ones he’s worked with before, adding a new component to the Rivertini cocktail that he hasn’t used in previous competitions. Similar to the garnish he is working on, Artus is new to the San Antonio scene, moving here after spending the last eight years immersed in the bar culture in Austin. While in Austin, he worked at Bar Lada, a favorite of Artus because the group of bartenders he worked with felt like family. They were all treated as equals and would help one another out.
Andrew Clyde, who oversees the bar program at Alchemy Kombucha and Culture, mentions the same type of supportive environment in the bar scene in which he started. The New Deal, the cocktail he created for the event, is a fusion of San Antonio culture and history, while still representing Alchemy. He uses Milagro tequila as the base and then builds a fruity cocktail that features Kombucha. The name is inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which funded the Paseo Del Rio, a preservation society for the San Antonio River Walk. Clyde, who has been with Alchemy since it’s opening, originally started at Bar 1919 in the Blue Star Arts Complex. At Bar 1919, he learned from observing his fellow bartenders, and went through rigorous knowledge tests to ensure that he could excel in customer service and cocktail knowledge. Clyde adopted his very professional and fluid demeanor and developed his ability to build a craft cocktail while working at the basement bar.
Through-out these interviews, it became more and more evident how the cocktail community is heavily intertwined. While not all of the bars and bartenders in San Antonio are competing, it’s evident that those that are, aren’t only going up against other bartenders, they are going up against their colleagues and friends. Many of the bars and bartenders that I have yet to visit are housed in the same establishment. The mixologists at El Mirador, The Esquire, and Zocca de Italia are all participating in the competition against their coworkers. It’s heartwarming to discover those participating in the Rivertini event, and other competitions, are often long time friends who have built each other up and helped one another out over the years. They participate to meet up with fellow colleagues, expand their knowledge on the craft, and hone their skills , not to tear down the competition and win the prizes.
I still have thirteen other bartenders to visit with before March 23rd, and while the likelihood of visiting all of them in the next week is slim, I’m still excited to watch them all compete at Rivertini event and see the drinks they serve. Whether the cocktail is inspired personally by the stories and life of the bartender, or if it is a representation of our city and our river, it will be exciting to see and taste the drinks that will be revealed, and to watch the city’s craft cocktail program further evolve. Stay posted for more bartender interviews, and make sure to purchase your tickets for the the ninth Rivertini event!