It’s no coincidence that San Antonio has one of the most respected cocktail conferences in the nation. Alamo City barcraft is serious business. That’s why this year we have added a new category to our seventh annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards honoring the watering holes that set the bar.
From swanky rooftop lounges to down-and-dirty dives, these drinkeries form the heart of the city. Meet them below, then join us in Austin for a lavish party celebrating these spots on April 12 at Fair Market.
The Bang Bang Bar
If you want to get an idea of what kind of place Bang Bang is, start with the michelada. For 2017’s Cinco de Mayo, Bang Bang upped the ante on its already outlandish drink, topping it with a gravity-defying garnish of a turkey leg, chicken on a stick, elote, and olive stack that was practically as tall as the Tower of the Americas. It was a lot extra, a little silly, more than a little punk rock — and 100 percent San Antonio.
Sure, this swanky Alamo Street lounge has a lot of house rules. Cosmos are a no-go, only one vodka is deemed necessary, and chilled beer glasses are strictly verboten. Good bars must have standards after all — something seen in Bar 1919’s exacting versions of standards like Sazeracs or Manhattans. Still, that’s not to say the bar doesn’t have a playful side (check out the Runaway Willard with lavender-infused bourbon). The best bars know which rules are made to be broken.
With crystal chandeliers and fussy damask wallpaper, this Boulevardier Group bar doesn’t exactly scream tiki, which is what makes its Tiki Tuesday menu such a nice surprise. On a hot day, cool down with tried-and-true drinks like Scorpion Bowls and Painkillers, or try house interpretations like the white rum and Ancho Reyes-based Chilé Girl. That black ceiling will look like a thatched roof by the time you hit the bottom of your glass.
Downstairs at the Esquire
The walls of this subterranean lair are a little spooky, decorated with taxidermy piranhas and a few framed bugs, but you wouldn’t be out past bedtime if you didn’t want a little bump in the night. What a surprise then that from this darkness comes such light. Once you settle down to order, you’ll find the offerings effervescent, from the carefully selected menu of bubbles to clever takes on cocktail heavyweights (the martini gets its lift from orange bitters) to the extravagant charcuterie board.
The Esquire Tavern
Everything in this long space looks so worn-in that you forget the current iteration is less than a decade old. Maybe that’s because the Esquire Tavern writes its own history. At a time when the River Walk was mostly known for themed restaurants and margaritas, Esquire went back to its 1933 roots with pre-Prohibition cocktails (and a few new ones to boot) and a food menu that celebrates San Antonio’s rich culinary heritage.
The Friendly Spot
Not everyone is lucky enough to have their own backyard, but even San Antonio’s cooped-up apartment dwellers can get a taste of the leisure life at this Southtown favorite. The vibe feels like a family get-together, with kids stumbling around and occasional pups popping up to see if they can snag a bite of your barbecue pork sandwich. But instead of a cooler of Keystone Light, this spot has an eye-popping 76 taps. Best of all, you don’t have to lift a finger when the party is over.
High Street Wine Co.
Some bars are built for intrigue. Such is the case at the Pearl’s High Street, where you can enjoy curated bottles and flights from wunder-sommelier Scott Ota while spying on the patrons behind you from the bar’s glistening angled mirrors. The rest of the space seduces with geometric lanterns and the jewel-like wine coolers. Plus, the close quarters make gathering intel on that new crush all the more thrilling.
Anchored by a wide five-shelf bar that acts as a library of spirits, this Houston Street bar is a mecca for booze nerds. Instead of leaning on syrups and juices, bar manager Benjamin Krick relies on his well to create cocktails, and the result is a bespoke menu with some of the most interesting flavor profiles in town. Not that Krick gives into snobbery. After all, he is known to slip a little Jägermeister into his drinks.
Leave it to San Antonio to give the old rooftop bar a breath of fresh air. Paramour flips the form, swapping out colorful couches for sleek plastic loungers and local artwork for stark white walls. And instead of alcoholic Kool-Aid, you get a choose-your-own-adventure menu of complex cocktails — all without sacrificing the beautiful views.
Thousands of words have been devoted to the beauty of Sternewirth. And it is beautiful, with luscious tobacco leather couches, gorgeous worn wood floors, and perfectly clashing rugs. Still, try not to be distracted from what really makes the Hotel Emma bar grand: gracious hospitality and a cocktail menu that delivers hit after hit. Try the wonderfully complex trio of barrel select cocktails, each as stunning as the surrounds.