In 2004, Jeret Peña was working as a bellman at San Antonio’s Hotel Valencia. “I was at work, and someone came up to me and said, ‘You’re the chosen one—you’re going to come bartend,’” says Peña. “The hotel bar, VBar, was one of the hottest bars in San Antonio. It was a tiny bar that did a ton of business. At one point, they told me to get on top of the bar and dance to Madonna—and I did.”
That fateful night marked the beginning of an illustrious career for Peña, who’d worked consistently in the hospitality industry up to that point, starting as a busboy at a fine-dining restaurant. Those experiences, he says, gave him a foundation in cuisine and a passion for service: “I grew up in a house where we didn’t know the difference between salmon and lobster. We didn’t have that kind of money. But later, I fell in love with fine food and wine.”
Strides in San Antonio
Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas’ second-largest but perhaps most underrated city, Peña would eventually emerge as a leader in a nascent cocktail scene. While at VBar, he’d developed a taste for tequila and agave spirits. Eager to learn more about spirits and cocktails, he sought out a mentor in Don Marsh, the founder of the local whiskey-centric 1919 who helped him expand his range and knowledge.
Peña says things began to really pick up when he became Tequila Partida’s first-ever bartender ambassador in Texas. “When I started working at Partida, I got to travel down to Houston and meet Bobby Heugel at Anvil back when it had just opened,” says Peña. “That’s when I got to see for the first time what a real cocktail was. I remember thinking, This guy is really fucking good; I want to be better than him. He was fast, he had charisma, and I was bitter about it.’”
By 2010, when cocktail mania was overflowing into secondary markets like San Antonio, Peña had joined the opening team for the revamp of the historic The Esquire Tavern in downtown San Antonio. Peña says it was here that his creativity flourished, thanks in part to the carte blanche given to him by owner Christopher Hill. “That was my baby,” Peña says. “I was putting sotol on my menu back in 2011. I had three Martinique rums on the menu, just because they fascinated me. I also added a room-temperature cocktail, which was inspired by Bobby Heugel’s The Brave.”
In 2012, Peña rose to national prominence after being named the Austin-San Antonio Rising Star Mixologist by StarChefs. Within weeks, The Esquire Tavern would also be nominated for the hotly coveted Outstanding Bar Program title at the James Beard Awards. And later that year, he opened his own cocktail bar, The Brooklynite, which shuttered in early in 2019 but is set to reopen in new digs this year.
Today, Peña helms Still Golden Social House, a reprisal of his Stay Golden concept, which first launched in 2014. It’s clear from the way Peña slings drinks (with an enthusiastic fervor) and speaks about them (with the same fervor) that he’s a cocktail obsessive, a trait he attributes to his nerdy nature and tendency to geek out.
Fans of Still Golden will recognize his charming special menus like a Slytherin menu, slinging Bacardi-based “snakebite shots” and a Sailor Jerry Boilermaker called the Mud Blood. “I played ‘Magic the Gathering’ and ‘World of Warcraft,’” says Peña laughing. “All cocktail nerds have a strong nerd component in general, I think.”
But it’s not just Peña’s brainy take on cocktails and cocktail ingredients that has made him a beloved and integral figure in San Antonio’s cocktail scene. It’s his unabashedly Texan roots and understanding of Texas culture that has made his bar stand out against the tide of generic copycats of NYC speakeasy-style and fancified cocktail bars. For all of Peña’s national acclaim, he still identifies as a San Antonio bartender through and through.
“At some point, I stopped creating cool-guy drinks and started making stuff that people here like,” says Peña. “I want people to come in, look at our menu and see things they recognize. You can make quality cocktails that are still very colloquial in terms of ingredients.”
At Still Golden Social House, that means drinks made with ubiquitous Mexican pantry condiments like Tajin and chamoy salsa, as well as lesser-known but still traditional ingredients like the mesquite pods used for centuries by Texas’ indigenous peoples. “When you go to a frutería and they cut you some mango and pour Tajin and chamoy all over it, that’s just ingrained in our culture. It’s a beautiful thing in South Texas.”
Still Golden’s current success—Peña’s now hammering out a deal for a larger space with a full kitchen—belies the struggles he has gone through in his journey as a bartender and bar owner. Peña reveals that on more than one occasion, he has doubted his own success and even the financial viability of his bars. The key to his longevity, he says, has been a mix of persistence and the ability to learn from mistakes.
“Once you start losing money, you ask yourself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” says Peña. “But you can’t get stuck on that very long. You’ve just got to keep on grinding. I started doing more consulting work on the side to help keep things afloat. We never went under, but there were close calls. We became better operators because of it. We learned about real estate, and we learned what makes a good or bad deal.
With 15 years of bar experience under his belt, Peña is far from done innovating. Now, he’s helping shape San Antonio’s culinary landscape. The latest attraction at Still Golden isn’t a cocktail—it’s a bowl of spicy Thai noodle soup. As an Asian food craze has taken over San Antonio, Peña and his wife, who’s from Thailand, wanted to spotlight the flavors of traditional Thai tom yum noodles. Her parents now operate a food truck called Yai’s Mobile Kitchen permanently parked outside of Still Golden.
“Knowing San Antonio and the Latinos, we love the sweet mixed with the chile,” says Peña. “It’s becoming very popular. I’m hoping our next spot will have a full kitchen to use.”