This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.
[Photo: Courtesy the Brooklynite]
When the iconic San Antonio bar Esquire Tavern gave itself a revamp in 2011, owner Christopher Hill tapped San Antonio native Jeret Pena to oversee its bar program. The duo are now credited with revitalizing the local bar scene. Within a four-week span in 2012, Pena was named StarChefs.com's Austin/San Antonio "Rising Star Mixologist," then followed up with a semi-finalist nod for the James Beard Awards' Outstanding Bar Program. "That moment right there and then, I was like, we have the momentum," Pena says now. "I told my team, 'Guys, we're going to be on the map. It's the time now. We have to make sure we have everything buttoned down, make sure we're pouring properly, make sure we're using the proper techniques in all these cocktails.' That was a defining moment."
About a year ago, Pena opened the doors at his own cocktail bar — San Antonio's The Brooklynite — where he serves his mix of "classic cocktails with a twist," holds tiki nights, and can now look fondly back at the sometimes-rough crowds at the Esquire. Here, Pena chats with Eater about The Brooklynite's recent one-year anniversary, the big differences between the two cocktail crowds, and hints at plans for new projects to come.
Thinking way back, how did you first get into bartending?
By chance. I got asked to do a tequila seminar probably about seven-eight years ago, so I started learning as much as I could about tequila: cross-referencing different websites, buying books. And I ended up loving tequila. And I sort of became this huge tequila advocate here in San Antonio, and Pecas Batida Tequila caught wind of it, and they came down and they offered me a position working with them as a bar ambassador. Because of that, that's how I got to travel around meeting Bobby Heugel, Erick Castro, people from all over the country.
You first really emerged on the scene at the Esquire Tavern. How did you get involved in that project and revamp?
Christopher Hill is the owner and proprietor of the Esquire Tavern, and he heard about me through some friends. He came to a seminar — a cocktail seminar that I used to run — and I met him, he invited me over to the Esquire and I took a look the spot, and he explained his whole vision. And shortly after, he asked me if I'd be willing to run the bar program, and I was like, "Yes." That's how it all began. He really took a chance with me. Because once again, I was at a really small restaurant with a maybe three-or-400-square-foot bar inside a restaurant, to actually running a program for a 100-foot cocktail bar. And it was probably one of the best experiences in my life, because I got to learn more about production on a large scale. He took a big chance on me.
The Esquire Tavern, in its current incarnation. [Photo: Facebook]
Let's talk about the Brooklynite, which is about a year old now. Was your own bar always part of the plan?
Yeah, even before I got into cocktails my goal was to open up a bar. I started managing, I started learning operations, just bar design and development — this is years before cocktails — I always told my family, "I want to own a bar. I know I can run it like a business, like a proper business." And lo and behold, it took a Rising Star award and a James Beard nomination before I could get the confidence of certain people, but it happened and we haven't looked back.
So what was your idea for a bar pre-cocktails?
Oh Jesus. [Laughs] I kind of blocked that whole area out of my life, pre-cocktails. But it was going to be live music, tapas, and food. Now that I own a bar, and after running the Esquire, I don't want to deal with food at all. Not at least until I have, like, five successful bars that I can take a loss when we open the restaurant. [?] When I realized I was going to stay in this business, I was working in a hotel at a tapas restaurant, I was a bartender there and I realized the importance of food with alcohol. And as I started getting more into the bar world and operating at the Esquire, I realized, man, I don't wanna touch food. But I still needed the food element, so that's why we have the food trucks at our bar. I don't have direct contact with the food trucks, they're just there, and provide my guests a level of service and food.
How did you land the Brooklynite space?
This was not my first choice. [Laughs] I really wanted to go downtown, cause I've been working downtown for a while. We're not proper downtown, we're directly north of downtown, in-between downtown and the Pearl. Originally I wanted downtown or the Pearl Brewery area, which is the hotspot in the San Antonio area right now. This place kind of rolled up on us, and the opportunity presented itself in that these people wanted to get out of this bar, and they wanted to get bought out. So we bought out the business, and the plumbing was there, there was electrical, HVAC. So that was the key: We're able to open up inexpensively and faster because we bought the business, versus applying for a liquor license and whatnot.
How did build-out go?
It was a drugged-out club. This is a real story: The day that I got the keys, the owner of the old bar, he gave me the keys and said, "You know what, I gotta grab something out of this bar. I gotta go grab my drugs." And I'm like, "Dude, I don't care what you grab. I don't wanna see it, I don't care, get it outta here." I said, "I believe you. Grab your drugs. Get it out of here." That really happened. And I didn't see it. I looked away, went around the building, but that really happened.
And the concept is unique in that you have a host or hostess, and table service. How did that idea come into play?
At the Esquire, there were a number of issues that we had that I wasn't able to remedy. So, when we opened up this spot, I said, "I'm going to run it exactly how we should've ran it at the Esquire": where you have proper service, we're going to design the menu so it's engineered to be a little quicker, we're going to design the bar space so it's much more efficient. And we're going to have someone controlling the door so we're able to give good service. It was based upon the imperfections at the Esquire that I saw.
The Brooklynite. [Photo: Joe Turner/courtesy the Brooklynite]
Tell me about how cocktail development works for you and your team. How does an original cocktail sort of come into being?
I pay homage to classics. When I first started making cocktails, it was definitely the classic cocktails. I always explain it like in the culinary world, you learn from the French, you learn your mother sauces, you learn technique from them. It's the same thing with cocktails: You learn the classics, your classics are going to be your foundation to how you build all your contemporary and modern cocktails. So, we'll take a classic cocktail or we'll take an equation, and we'll interchange it with different flavor profiles. [...] It's all mathematics. It's all understanding balance and understanding the equation of how to equate the balance. So I was huge into mezcal and tequila at the Esquire, I'd say over half the cocktails we had had tequila or mezcal in them. And here, we work with a lot of chefs here, so we have a cereal milk cocktail... I [like] using chef ideas, just trying to utilize them in the cocktail world. And our [cereal] cocktail is awesome. We did a Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal milk, with applejack and Benedictine.
How do you name your cocktails?
I don't know, we have some really interesting names. The Missionary can be taken any which way, there's one called the Pork Chop Express because all my bar staff, we all love Big Trouble in Little China, it's our favorite movie in the whole world. We're obsessed. We had a Jack Burton cocktail which was a spin on the Jack Rose. The Pork Chop Express, which is the actual 18-wheeler that Jack Burton drove, is a cocktail that calls for bourbon, maple, OJ, cracked pepper, and chile arbol on top. We've had some real interesting names, some that are kind of a little risqué. They're all inside jokes. [?] I have a drink called "Only the Besh" that I made for John Besh when he came to visit us at the Esquire. He's hilarious, he's an animal, in the sense that he drinks. I met him before I worked at the Esquire because Luke opened up two blocks from my old restaurant. So he would come and see me. When I wasn't there one time, he brought a huge group, like 11 people, and they all ordered "Only the Besh." He was like, "I'll have my drink, please."
So bartender advice: How do you cut someone off?
Politely. [Laughs] I typically, you have to read the person to see where their frame of mind is. It could be something as simple as, "I'm sorry, I can't serve you anymore," kind of shrug your shoulders. Sometimes you have to be assertive and be like, "Hey look. No more." It depends. You don't want to be too aggressive or condescending. Usually, I'll give them a simple look, I'll make sure they understand I'm looking them in their eye, and tell them I can't serve you anymore. And I won't say anything else and continue looking at them, so they know that I'm serious.
Does it happen frequently at your bar?
No. At the Esquire, yes. I don't know what it was about that place, but we would get crazy people. Well, I know why. The Esquire was a place, before I took over, that was a hellhole in San Antonio, but a beloved hellhole. You would get frisked there, people would actually search you. They sell t-shirts saying, "I got frisked at the Esquire." The Esquire was a real thing, people got cut off quite a bit. The bad element would come in every once in a while, in the beginning, we'd get a mix of really good clientele and really shitty people. [Laughs] This is the old clientele that drank $1.50 Bud Lights and deal drugs in the back of the bar. Those were the type of people we'd get when we first opened up the Esquire.
Have you ever had to kick anyone out?
Oh god, yes. I could write a book about the amount of people we've kicked out. It was rowdy, I mean, we had three different cases of someone kicking in our glass door. And they were all women. Women that broke the doors. It was crazy. [?] One time, this guy was really bugging one of my bartenders, I had nothing but women working that particular afternoon, and this guy just kept on bothering them. Wouldn't leave them alone, heckling them. So I asked the guy, "Can you please leave my bartender alone?" He was like, "No." And he gave me a gesture I didn't like and I asked him to leave, and I thought he was going to punch me. Reaction-wise, I shoved him, and he flew about eight feet. I can actually say that I kicked someone out of my bar, because I pushed him out and used my foot to kick him out the door. It was the worst clientele, the old Esquire crowd. They were really horrible. They were like, vagrants, drug addicts. And it wasn't like that all the time, but they would creep in every once in a while.
All the crazy stories [are about the Esquire]. It was like the Wild West. You would have politicians, millionaires, you'd have a gang member, or a drug addict. That's how the Esquire used to be, even back in the day before we took over.
The Brooklynite. [Photo: Joe Turner/courtesy the Brooklynite]
How would you describe the crowd at the Brooklynite, then?
The best crowd in San Antonio. They're all young professionals, hipsters, foodies, cocktail people, service industry. Just a lot of people who get what I do. We don't have fights here, I don't have people doing drugs, I don't have to kick anyone out of here with my foot on their ass. I don't have to do that. I built my business around people who want good drinks. At the Esquire, we were fighting an old identity versus the new identity we were trying to perpetuate.
Do you have plans to open another bar?
We're looking to do a beer garden and another cocktail spot. [Long pause] They're going to be by the Pearl Brewery, I can tell you that.
Any other details you can share?
[Long pause] Early 2014. Probably March at the latest. [Laughs]
So finally, what's your must-have Barkeeper tool?
To be really good at the job, being humble is important. In the cocktail world, people get a bad rap — most people think we're arrogant and we're full of ourselves, which I think most of us are, to be honest with you. In San Antonio, it's a fledging cocktail town, there's more and more cocktail spots, more and more people who are being subjected to cocktails. But the problem is, sometimes people get turned off because the bartenders can be rude or condescending because they're not humble. What it boils down to is, and this is what we do at the Brooklynite, is it's all about service. If I can't give good service, I'm not going to do well? once you lose that cool factor, the dust gets settled, all that you're left with is service. I can take a bartender and teach them how to make cocktails — it's all about technique, it's a systematic way of doing things — anyone can learn. But you can't teach people how to be nice, how to be hospitable, and how to be humble.