An Interview with Jeret Peña

March 19, 2012
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We had the pleasure of recently sitting down with The Esquire’s  cocktail guru, Jeret Peña, to talk about bartending, ingredients, The Esquire, and his exciting rise to success. Going into the Esquire Tavern is a bit like traveling back in time. The “longest wood bar in Texas” (over 100 feet long!) and “the oldest bar on the San Antonio Riverwalk” runs almost the entire length of the building and is filled with thirsty patrons who sit opposite wood cubbies filled with spirits, glimmering glassware, and mirrored panels. The Esquire was first opened in 1933 to celebrate the end of prohibition, and it has been serving up swanky cocktails and good eats for many years since. If you’re not sitting at the bar, customers can duck into back to back, dark wooden booths that line the side of the restaurant, in a smaller, back dining area, or on a patio that leads right down to the river. The environment is, in a word, comfortable.

Upon walking in, the tavern-ambiance is undeniable; antlers hang stoically on the wall and the dim lighting lures customers in for a comforting meal and a warming drink. Despite all the decor though, there’s no denying that the main focus of the Esquire is the bar. Enter: Jeret Peña- the tavern keeper, the head bartender, the revered mixologist who is garnering rave reviews left and right. From a Rising Star Award to his recent James Beard nomination, we were delighted to sit down with Jeret and take a look back on his rise to stardom.

Peña got his start at the Valencia Hotel in a Banquet Event setting, dabbling for the first time in the bartending scene. He later moved on to the Watermark, and while there, was asked by the General Manger to host a tequila seminar for the San Antonio Current. It was then that he had to learn as much as he possibly could about the spirit, calling it “So complex, sophisticated and beautiful.” Peña then went on to be the Ambassador for Partida Tequila for 2 years, and it was there that the door to mixology was opened. What happened next was the defining moment- a stint at Anvil, a respected bar in Houston, would change the course of Peña’s career. Like many of us, finding a mentor you can really learn from and look up to can have a huge impact on your direction. Peña met his mentor, Bobby Heugel, one of the owners of Anvil, and the rest is history. Recalling his time with Bobby at Anvil, he said, “I saw a craft I knew nothing about- the fluid movement, the alchemy- it was mesmerizing.”

 Since this turning point, Jeret has proved himself to be one of the leaders in the field. His innovative thinking and ability to push the envelope and explore new territory has brought about some well-deserved accolades as of late. StarChefs.com, a magazine for culinary insiders, recently honored “the best of the best” from the Austin and San Antonio dining scenes. A total of 19 awards were given out, with Peña taking home the Mixologist Honor.When receiving the “Rising Star” Accolade in a crowd of 400 people in Austin, Peña recalled thinking “I have momentum. It was wild-I felt honored to be on stage with so many amazing chefs.” After sharing the news to his family and friends, he admitted that the James Beard Award was next up on the list. Little did he know, just a few weeks later, that he would be getting a nomination from the coveted organization’s Bar and Cocktail Program. Clearly, it’s a huge honor, and Jeret smiled as he said, “It’s a little creepy.”

 

We asked Jeret to share with us (and you!) a cocktail recipe, a cocktail that embodied his heart and soul, his career, and ultimately, his flavor. The result was the Mas Chingoni, a self-proclaimed “Jeret Peña Cocktail. The Cocktalians Cocktail.” Derived from the negroni, a classic cocktail featuring equal parts gin, campari, and sweet vermouth with a lemon peel, the Mas Chingoni hosts one of Peña’s favorite ingredients, Mezcal (a big, bold, smokey, medicinal ingredient). The drink is what Pena describes as “a very bold, strong, and powerful cocktail. It has so much complexity so it’s not for everybody.” His “love affair with Mezcal” – and with his trade- is clearly a passionate one, and it shines through in every aspect.  

Mas Chingoni

3/4 oz anejo tequila 3/4 oz aperol 3/4 oz carpano antica 1/4 oz mezcal serve on a large format ice with a grapefruit peel

If you’re planning on visiting downtown San Antonio, make sure to swing by The Esquire for lunch, dinner, or a late night beverage! Congratulations to Jeret for his continued success and thank you again for allowing us to visit!

Check out the whole Cocktail Menu from the Esquire Tavern right here!

Visit the Esquire at 155 East Commerce Street San Antonio, Texas 78205

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