Ask someone about San Diego, California and you’ll likely conjure up images of bright sunshine and awesome Mexican food. Great cocktails won’t be the first thing to come to mind, but mixologist Antonio Gonzales – whose expertly mixed drinks will be featured at this weekend’s 4th Annual San Diego Spirits Festival – is hoping to change all that and make California’s southernmost city an official destination for killer cocktails.
Gonzales will be showcased along with other area bartenders at the San Diego Spirits Festival, which is expected to draw thousands of locals and out-of-town visitors during the two-day event. Held on the legendary San Diego Bay, the festival –organized by cocktail enthusiast and San Diego transplant Liz Edwards – was founded as way to bring attention to the fledging cocktail scene; an effort, says Gonzales, “to shake up the scene and put California’s second largest city on the map.”
And that’s exactly what Gonzales is doing at this weekend’s event by giving demonstrations, hosting tastings and participating in the festival’s mixologist competition, all while delivering his signature, high-energy flair.
“I’m proud of being an urban mixologist and definitely consider myself somewhat of a pioneer here in San Diego,” says Gonzales, the lead mixologist at Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort in Coronado, California. And rightly so. Although the 37-year-old Cali native first started bartending at a local casino during college to make ends meet while studying education, mixing up craft drinks quickly became a sincere passion along with his desire to make San Diego a full-fledged cocktail destination.
“I had wanted to be a teacher and always thought I’d give up my bartending job to pursue that career when the time came,” says Gonzales. He quickly gained experience in the field, moving from slinging drinks at local watering holes to earning the title of lead mixologist at the Se Hotel. With customers demanding his drinks – which showcased ingredients local to San Diego like fresh fruits and craft tequilas – he was tapped by management to teach cocktail classes to overnight guests.
“At the time, San Diego wasn’t known for its cocktail scene and somehow I just felt the need to be an ambassador for my city and be a master of my craft,” says Gonzales, who places a priority on high-quality ingredients and classic flavor combinations. “It was never about being known as an individual; it was about showcasing all that we have to offer – a fun, vibrant city that’s never pretentious.”
For Gonzales, the opportunity to showcase San Diego’s fledgling cocktail scene in this weekend’s festival is an absolute delight. And for those at home who can’t travel to the festival, Gonazales offers a little bit of his home in a glass with a savory tequila cocktail flavored with the citrus bite of grapefruit and herbaceous aromas of thyme.
“It’s just like San Diego: sweet and with a bit of the unexpected,” says Gonzales. “It’s a drink to cheer to life.”
Thyme to Enjoy
1.25 Milagros silver tequila
.5oz Milagros agave nectar
.5 oz fresh lime juice
3 cucumber coins
1 thyme sprig
1 grapefruit zest
Splash of Cointreau
Lemon-lime soda to float
Muddle the cucumber and zest. Add remaining ingredients, shake and strain into a highball glass of crushed ice and top with lemon-lime soda. Garnish with a cucumber coin. Makes one drink.