On the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, you’ll find the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa. When they say resort, they aren’t kidding. This is a sprawling campus that includes a full on water park, massive public areas, a golf course, four restaurants, and four bars to match. The High Velocity sports bar, which projects games on an undulating, Gehry-like wall is a sight to behold, even if you aren’t into football and such. (See photo below.)
In the center of all of this you’ll find Crooked Branch, part common area, part lobby bar, and part whiskey mecca for those in need of a fix. Here the spirits list is small but well curated, with selections running from locally produced bourbons to Pappy van Winkle (with the rare 25 year old said to be available at some times for $500 a shot). At the same time, you’re likely to find kids running around the space, sitting at the bar with a cold glass of milk in hand. Chances are your bar menu will be scrawled upon with crayon.
As the central bar at the hotel, Crooked Branch focuses on crowd-pleasers like draft beer and margaritas, but it also has an interesting story to tell in the form of its Cocktails with a Purpose, cocktails made to be healthy-ish, using more fresh ingredients and, critically, no refined sugar products. Whenever possible, Crooked Branch likes to use locally produced spirits, too, in order to keep the focus on Texas.
During a visit to the bar we sampled four cocktails, starting with a classic Old Fashioned made with Texas-distilled Ranger Creek .36 whiskey and orange bitters. Appropriately spirit-forward, it had a rustic edge that seemed perfect to sip on in the Texas Hill Country, and the orange kick was a nice touch, too. A Black Manhattan followed, made with local Herman Marshall Rye and Amaro Nonino. Served in a (full) oversize cocktail glass, this monster drink offered a great balance, with the spicy rye countered by the nutty amaro, yet despite being basically all liquor, it never felt particularly boozy.
The Floradora cocktail was the only drink on the regular bar menu at the time, and the combination of muddled raspberry and local Treaty Oak gin was a refreshing winner — very fruit-forward and sweet, the gin almost an afterthought here. Had I been visiting in the summer instead of late December, I might have ordered a second.
My least favorite drink was the one we sampled last, the Green Orchard, from the Cocktails with a Purpose menu. Served (very) tall in a pint glass, this mix of apple brandy, apple juice, ginger beer, lemon, and raw honey, offered a decent collection of flavors, but was too overwhelming (and too much) to really enjoy fully. Our bartender explained that the tarragon specified on the menu was not available (as was the rosemary intended for another drink), which I could see might have been a small improvement, but on the whole it simply didn’t feel like the right season for the beverage.
On the whole, the hotel — which is undergoing a quiet renovation after 10 years in operation — was a fantastic place to stay, and I’d highly recommend it to any Drinkhacker faithful in the area who want a place where everyone in the family can find a way to relax (sometimes even right in the middle of the bar).