CAUSING A STIR
San Antonio bartender shakes up national cocktail competition as finalist
Update: Atlanta bartender Ty Nicole won the grand prize in the final round.
San Antonio may not have the whoop-it-up whirl of Nashville nor encourage excess quite like Las Vegas, but there’s no denying that it likes to let loose once in a while. Post pandemic, the city is enjoying a nightlife renaissance with new bars opening monthly and a nascent cocktail conference heading into its second year.
Now, a local bartending pro is getting a moment in the spotlight. On November 1, The Palm’s Joan Villanueva was named a finalist in the national Best In Class Cocktail Competition. The spirited challenge, organized by tequila brand Lobos 1707 and Chilled magazine, comes with a $30,000 contract with the tequila and mezcal producer.
Villanueva’s “A Rose by Any Other Name” propelled him through two rounds of judging. Inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, the Manhattan riff melds tequila with raspberry, aloe, and orange liqueurs, chastening the sweet with a few dashes of bitters. Cocktail enthusiasts can build their own by watching a short video.
The finalist nod is a new pinnacle for the local bartender. Starting his hospitality career as a dishwasher at San Diego’s Loews Hotel, Villanueva has worked his way up through the industry. While studying anthropology and economics, he fell in love with bartending. Though now the owner of Happyness Tea Company with wife Catherine, he keeps one foot in the mixology world.
“[I] can’t say how much I appreciate having worked my way up and get a sense of what every position brings to the table,” Villanueva tells CultureMap.
Though winning the contract is no shabby perk, the affable bartender also sees it as a personal accomplishment.
“My family hails from Nayarit and Jalisco on my mother’s side,” he shares. “Being the second generation that’s been able to go to college winning would really bring my experience in the restaurant industry full circle.”
Win or not, he is still an evangelist for San Antonio’s burgeoning cocktail scene. Villanueva is particularly energized by the revitalized interest in tropical and tiki drinks, especially the East Side’s La Ruina. And he is heartened that returning conferences are giving downtown more verve — a shift he sees firsthand at The Palm.
Still, those who want to say hello to him at the steakhouse will have to wait a few days. Villanueva will be in Louisville, Kentucky, giving it his all in the live final round on November 7.