Spain’s cocktail revolution

Some of the country’s best mixologists explain the rising popularity of the burgeoning bar scene

Mireia Rodríguez

Everyone in Spain makes the best gin and tonic. Fernando del Diego, owner of the legendary Madrid cocktail bar Del Diego, knows this “fact” very well. From time to time, a customer will try to correct him as he is preparing one – and we are talking about a man who has spent 45 of his 66 years behind a bar, and who learned under Pedro Chicote, the guru of Spanish cocktail culture, whose bar on Gran Vía was a favorite hangout for the likes of Ernest He­mingway and Grace Kelly.

But the master takes it in stride. “So they want a sparrow feather in their drink? Up to them,” he shrugs.

The bartender at Harry’s Bar, Carlos Moreno, admits that the gin-and-tonic craze has spawned “too much nonsense,” but that it has also filled cocktail bars with new customers, who used to stay away from a scene deemed too elitist. In other words, it has opened up the market.

The world of cocktails is going through a golden era in Spain, but professionals are seeking to consolidate their position beyond temporary trends.

Customers come to relax, and if the bartender behaves like a jerk they’re going to notice

Carlos Moreno, barman

“Cocktails are here to stay. But the future requires the same kind of revolution that Spanish cuisine began a quarter-of-a-century ago,” says Diego Cabrera, an Argentinean barman and consultant. “It is possible to position ourselves among the international elite because, among other things, we have the great advantage of the Spain brand, which is very powerful on the gastronomic front.”

Growing numbers of high-profile chefs are also hailing the importance of cocktails as part of the whole culinary experience. Sergi Arola showcased them at his Gastro restaurant six years ago in partnership with Cabrera; Paco Roncero, winner of the 2006 National Gastronomy Prize, greets patrons with a Margarita Nitro; and David Muñoz, whose DiverXo restaurant has won three Michelin stars, offers an ambitious cocktail service headed by Carlos Moreno.

“If the top grade we could hope for were 10, we in Spain would get an eight, despite the crisis. Entrepreneurs who refuse to acknowledge the rise of the sector will be left behind,” says the head of Harry’s Bar. The hotel chains NH and Sheraton have asked Diego Cabrera and the Catalan entrepreneur and barman Javier de las Muelas to run the cocktail bars at their most exclusive establishments throughout the world.

Apparently, Spanish traffic authorities have also contributed to the success of the sector. Increased roadside alcohol tests have seen customers opt for quality over quantity, notes Cabrera. “People want to drink better, not more,” adds Moreno. Plus, the price of a cocktail, which is typically upwards of €10, does not exactly encourage binge drinking.

Bartender Diego Cabrera.
Bartender Diego Cabrera.Silvia Varela y José Manuel Pérez

But as Javier de las Muelas says, younger clients appreciate product quality, the work that goes into it, and in particular the “bar culture” that extends beyond the drink itself.

“The drink has to be perfect, but it’s the moment that matters. People come here to disconnect and to enjoy themselves, and our job is to facilitate emotions, not just dispense whiskey,” says the head of Dry Martini bar. His philosophy has earned him a couple of praise-filled articles in the Financial Times and the admiration of Tyler Brûlé, editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine and one of the most influential writers on global trends.

In keeping with De las Muelas’ theories, Cabrera asserts that there is a Spanish style to making cocktails that is beginning to get international recognition. This method is characterized by the attention to detail, from the quality of the glasses to the dryness of the ice, not forgetting the surrounding decoration and the ambient music.

“A cocktail is like a movie: the plot is the foundation, but the dialogue and the photography are essential elements,” notes Moreno.

The future requires the same kind of revolution that cuisine began 25 years ago”

Diego Cabrera, barman

Mixology, as this discipline is also called, is growing at an unstoppable rate. Even the less optimistic members, such as Del Diego, will admit that their clientèle has changed in recent years: the age range is wider, consumers are more curious yet also more demanding, and tourists are gaining ground over local patrons. Also, this revolution has been led by women, says De las Muelas.

“Television series such as Sex in the City first and Mad Men later have pushed women into cocktail bars, and glamor has followed in their wake. Before this, cocktail bars were dark places frequented mostly by men. Now greater value is placed on design, atmosphere, the look and feel, and this has opened up these establishments to a broader public,” he says.

While it may be that Spanish women are calling the shots on the customer side, they are still a minority behind the bar. And that is despite the fact that one of the pioneers in this sector was María Dolores Boadas, who took over her father’s business in 1950s Barcelona. These days, her cocktail bar is the oldest in the Catalan capital and one of the most prestigious names in the entire Iberian peninsula.

“There aren’t many of us, but we are fighters,” says Natalia García, the bartender at Barcelona’s BocaChica. This 30-year-old from Santander recently won first prize in the Challenge Bar Chef 2014 category of World Class Spain, one of the most prestigious competitions in the sector, beating out 20 male competitors.

Only a good bartender can turn a customer who came in for a gin tonic “into a parishioner

García believes that the perception of the role of the barman is beginning to change, the way chefs began to be viewed differently some years ago. The Madrid Chamber of Commerce has been offering sommelier courses for 17 years, but it is only in the last three years that it has been training professionals. Being a barman has become fashionable, because the cocktail scene is fashionable. Preparing daiquiris or an Old Fashioned has taken on a romantic, sophisticated aura that is pushing growing numbers of young Spaniards to take an interest in the trade.

For now, at least, this is a small world whose members get along relatively well, as in the haute cuisine sector. Natalia García admits that she embraced mixology because of Carlos Moreno and his passionate description of the process that goes into creating a drink; meanwhile, Moreno and Diego Cabrera consider themselves “brothers,” and they all sooner or later end up at the headquarters of their master, Fernando del Diego, to ask for advice, sip on a Negroni or watch enviously as he and his sons prepare 15 perfect mojitos in the blink of an eye. The patriarch knows each and every one of the mixologists, and he admires “the business mind” of Javier de las Muelas, who has projected Spanish cocktail-mixing to such faraway places as Singapore and Bali.

They all agree that the dark side of their trade is the lack of professionalism in a sector that lacks the tradition and social recognition that it has in places such as Britain. A lot of untrained people are entering the field and doing “lots of stupid things,” says De Las Muelas. Still, the level is slowly going up.

“There are increasingly good barmen, but not as many as there are bars,” sums up Moreno.

Preparing daiquiris and an Old Fashioned has taken on a romantic, sophisticated aura

Cabrera adds that low wages are pushing many professionals abroad, as is the case with just about every other profession in Spain.

But quality competition can only be a good thing. Only a good bartender can turn a customer who came in for a gin and tonic “into a parishioner,” introducing them to the world of cocktails, expanding their tastes and ensuring solid sector growth.

Natalia García says that 99 percent of the time she does not offer customers a drinks list. “I am the list,” she says. García likes talking to people and asking them about their tastes, whether they prefer citrus flavors or fruity flavors, then suggest a drink that matches these tastes.

While good technique is essential, it is not enough. Experts say that the real test for a bartender is the preparation of a classic cocktail.

“A dry martini is like fried eggs,” says De las Muelas. “They are both seemingly simple things to make, yet getting it exactly right is an art form, and if you manage it, there is nothing more delicious.”

As in the kitchen, each master follows his own rules. While most measure ingredients out as carefully as they would handle explosives, Fernando del Diego continues to eyeball it.

“Recipes specify the amounts and the steps, but it is your hands that add that special touch, just like in cooking,” he explains.

Besides keeping abreast of new developments in the sector, Moreno adds another requirement for the perfect bartender: being a nice person.

“Customers come to relax, and if you’re a jerk they’re going to notice. There are guys who get asked for a mojito and they wrinkle their noses because they consider themselves artists and that is a very commercial drink. But our mission is to help people have a good time, no matter whether we’re serving them a Cosmopolitan or a cup of coffee.”

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