He may be our 2012 Austin-San Antonio Rising Star Mixologist, but Jeret Peña isn’t a huge fan of the mixo term (he refers to himself as “Tavern Keeper” at Esquire Tavern). Fortunately for us, as well as his many adoring customers, it doesn’t matter what you call the guy. His talent behind the bar is obvious, the result of a hands-on career and a prophet’s faith in the craft.
A Bar Smarts graduate, Peña’s experience includes stints at places as varied as Pesca, Bohanan's, Le Midi, and The Green Lantern, all of them rising fixtures in the San Antonio cocktail scene. And Peña isn’t just an experienced barman (notice we’re not saying “mixologist”), he’s spirits-savvy and willing to spread the good word. With two years as a tequila ambassador, and many more years as an ardent mezcal adorer, Peña is easily part of the agave-worshipping Texas bar crowd (including Peña’s “indirect mentor” Bobby Heugel), proselytizing for his favorite cactus-born spirits one incredible cocktail at a time.
Peña’s also spreading the word in person. He’s the founder of the Spirits Enthusiasts of Texas, an organization with aims to “cultivate a cocktail culture by the means of education,” for bartenders and enthusiasts alike. And now as “keeper” of the Esquire Tavern’s bar program, Peña’s calling on his seven-plus years of experience to create “not a cocktail lounge, not a cocktail bar, but a bar that serves well-crafted cocktails,” as he puts it. Whatever you call it, or the guy who makes it, Peña’s career is proof that a well made drink is worth a good deal more than a thousand words.
Interview with Rising Star Mixologist Jeret Pena of Esquire Tavern – San Antonio, TX
Caroline Hatchett: What are you favorite flavor combinations?
Jeret Peña: Grapefruit, mezcal, and tequila. They’re my favorite things to play with at this point. Grapefruit isn’t typically used in cocktails because it’s not acidic. But it has great flavor; I just have to add lemon for acidity.
CH: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, mixology?
JP: I never thought I would work in restaurants. At 19, a friend needed help at a restaurant, and I became a back waiter. It was a lot of fun. I interacted with guests and developed more personality.
One day when I was working a banquet at the Valencia Hotel, the banquet manager threw me behind the bar. He threw me to the wolves. And I got into the world of mixology through my time as a bartender and ambassador for Pecas Batida Tequila. I knew I loved Old Fashions, but at the time didn’t know anything about cocktails. I went out to Houston to meet Bobby Heugel, and he changed my whole world. I started studying, reading, and working on technique. I started watching Bobby and remembered everything he did. I learned what it took to make cocktails.
CH: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
JP: Leaps and bounds. Two years ago there wasn’t anything going on. My old business partner was Don Marsh, and we created the original cocktail menu at Bohanan’s before Sasha [Petraske]. Bohanan’s was the center of San Antonio cocktails, and we brought it there. Shortly after, everyone dispersed. Those people who dispersed took their knowledge elsewhere, and the cocktail scene has been growing ever since. As a market, we focus on progressive-style classics and individual spirits. I’m biased because I love mezcal. People are afraid of the worm. But if people come in and love Islay Scotches, for example, I’m able to guide them into the smokiness of mezcal.
CH: What goes into creating a cocktail? How long does it take to create a new cocktail?
JP: I have quite a few drinks that took months to create. I played with one for eight months, and I just perfected it. I think about equations—the base, modifiers, toppers, sprays, or drops. I think about plugging in the equations and framing flavor profiles I like. I tried truffled tequila with a fat wash that was pretty funky. A lot of the ideas I get are from the culinary world. I love working with chefs because they have amazing palates.
CH: What is your favorite cocktail to drink? To make?
JP: The Negroni is very special to me. It’s the second cocktail I ever had. And I think it’s the benchmark of a good bar program.
CH: What ingredient do you feel is under appreciated or underutilized?
CH: Where will we find you in five years?
JP: Mezcal. Amaros. A lot of cocktail bars are on the sweet side. I like to call those flavors the dark side of mixology, when you focus on harsh flavors, bitters, and smoke.
I really want to continue working in the Texas market and help people realize that we have a true Texas identity in cocktails. David Alan, Bill Norris, and Bobby Heugel—they’re my colleagues and they believe in what we’re doing in Texas.