In Mexico City, a craft-cocktail scene takes root

Tales on Tour - Mexico City
At the Bacardi plant outside Mexico City, chocolatey treats nicely complemented the Mi Familia.

It’s a scene still in the nest, but you wouldn’t know it from the mob scene at Maison Artemisia, an old-timey-chic urban hideaway in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood. As befits the global metropolis of 8.8 million, the bar’s three-deep lines are plush with people from all over – but on this night, many are in Mexico City for the most recent episode in a series of cocktail and spirits conferences set in places around the world.

Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) – the spirits-minded juggernaut behind the eponymous annual festival every summer in New Orleans – came to Mexico last week, its latest push to highlight up-and-coming mixology markets worldwide as the U.S.-led craft-cocktail renaissance continues to chart new terrain. It’s called Tales of the Cocktail on Tour, and like a pared-down version of its mammoth mothership in NOLA, the bartender-oriented event is a mix of workshops, distillery tours, networking, distributor-sponsored brunches and parties and the chance to visit the bars leading the local charge.

“We pick markets that we see bubbling up and shine a spotlight on them,” said TOTC founder Anne Tuennerman. “When we say we’re going to a city, people think, there must be something going on there.”

Cocktail apprentice program
Some of the Tales contingent touring the city’s Plaza de la Constitucion.

The intent is to showcase each city’s potential for distributors and brand ambassadors and to enrich the local soil of knowledge with the wisdom and talents of industry veterans and experts like tiki writer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Esquire columnist David Wondrich. In turn, visiting bartenders gain insight into local ingredients and methods to take back home. Sponsor companies build brand loyalty. Ultimately, the rest of us get to drink better drinks in more places. Everybody wins.

The Tales on Tour gatherings are held in successive years before moving on to a new city, leaving the young bird to fly on its own. Mexico City is the third city to fall into the TOTC spotlight; Vancouver and Buenos Aires were before that. “What’s really cool is to see these cities after Tales has been there once,” said bar consultant Don Lee of Cocktail Kingdom, an online bar-implements and spirits literature seller. “They’re excited to grow.”

Having Tales come to Vancouver “was huge,” said bartender Dani Tatarin of the city’s Keefer Bar. “It gave us an extra push of publicity that people could see, and it highlighted the talents of people in the industry. Since then, we’ve kind of nurtured it along.”

The Mexico City attendees came from all over, from locals like Carlos Mendoza and Mauricio Hernandez of Podcast Borracho (“Drunken Podcast”) to a sizable posse from Guadalajara. There were bartenders from Austin, Key West, Miami, New York and Bellevue, Wash., cocktail writers from Seattle and Paris; groupies from Boston. Others came from countries like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia and Australia.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The Bacardi plant crew knocks out an assembly line of mojitos.

One afternoon, we piled into coaches for a tour of Bacardi’s Mexico plant in Cuautitlan Izcalli, an hour away from central Mexico City toward the state of Queretaro. Along the way, we rolled past graffiti’d embankments, homes with rooftop clotheslines and sprawling hillside communities before reaching the plant, where we found music, a carnivore’s lunch and, of course, mojitos and Cuba Libres. My favorite of the batch was La Familia, a well-rounded rumba of Bacardi, orange juice, Fino Sherry and sweet vermouth served in a coupe with a side of gooey, delicious chocolate-glazed popcorn or a slab of chocolate. It was a pleasingly perfect match.

In the facility’s musty, sweetly aromatic barrel storage warehouse, overhead misters moistened the air – and our hair.  “It smells so good in here,” said bartender Juan Carlos Machuca of Guadalajara, where he’s creating cocktails for a new restaurant.

The next day brought a lineup of workshops and discussions, from the merits of sugar and modern bar technique to the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality and the “dark ages” of mixology (1958-1977), when convenience and quantity bested style and substance. “The Margarita suffered tremendously in the 1970s,” said writer Berry. “The blender was basically The Devil back then. It made life easier for bartenders.”

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
At Licoreria Limantour, the tart and savory Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, ginger and yellow lime.

Each night brought chances to sample Mexico City’s fairly new but mostly impressive craft-cocktail culture, sprouting primarily in the trendy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods. (That’s also true for mezcalerias, such as La Nacional and Sobrinos, that specialize in tequila’s smokier cousin.) Spirits like Diplomatico Rum and Chivas Regal sponsored special menus during Tales’ run and bartenders from around the world came to help staff the busy bar nights. In general, drinks ran about $6-12 U.S.

“Designer cocktails are still a very small niche,” said a local food and drink blogger who goes by the handle Gastronauta. “It’s growing, but slowly.”

In addition to Maison Artemisia and pair of rogue visits to mezcalerias, I was only to get to barely a half-dozen spots on Tales’ itinerary, including Baltra and Bar Lilit. These were my three favorites:

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
Licoreria Limantour, in the city’s Roma neighborhood.

LICORERIA LIMANTOUR, the city’s first real craft-cocktail bar when it opened three years ago. Next door to mezcal-minded Sobrinos in the Roma area, its two floors of well-crafted cocktails and dark elegance overlook busy Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Visiting mixologist Sebastian Gans’ of Paris’ Candelaria made one of my favorite cocktails of the week, the apricot-shaded Orange Is The New Black, with tequila, mezcal, carrot, kaffir lime, yellow lime and ginger. Even the shot-sized sangrita Gans made to complement a bit of straight tequila was outstanding, with mango, tomato, coriander, lime and chipotle.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
Jules’ Basement, in the fancy Polanco neighborhood, was the city’s first speakeasy.

JULES’ BASEMENT, in the ritzy Polanco neighborhood, is a nicely conceived speakeasy below a Mexican restaurant accessed by what at first looks to be the door of the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. (There is a large, suited doorman outside. And a small hostess.) If you’re lucky enough to be on the list, the door will open, and the sound of thumping bass will signal the dark otherworld below. Down the stairs and you’re in a low-ceilinged, dance club atmosphere where able bartenders crank out house drinks and classics like the Cucaracha, Old Cuban and Mary Pickford. Overall, not typically my scene, but the drinks were well executed and the service was top-notch.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The dazzling Almond Old Fashioned at Bar Felina.

BAR FELINA: If I lived here, this low-key but classy refuge sited in the quirky, subdued Hipodromo neighborhood near Condesa would be my hang. There, Minneapolis transplant Jane Soli-Holt could be credited for one of the best Old Fashioneds I’ve had in some time – a beautifully presented Almond Old Fashioned made with Angostura 1919 rum, almond-cinnamon syrup, orange-allspice bitters, Angostura bitters and a thin curl or two of mulato pepper. Its sweetness spoke of depth rather than cloyingness. The bar’s casual vibe was accented by a DJ spinning classic vinyl dorm-room-style. It was more of a den in which to enjoy fine drinks and talk about big ideas than a place to see and be seen.

Beyond that, Mexico City itself was a sensory delight, from its plentiful in-city parks to the magnificence of the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the grandiosity of Plaza de la Constitucion. I enjoyed one of the best street-taco experiences ever at hole-in-the-wall Los Cocuyos, no doubt just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy and inexpensive to get around; Uber operates in Mexico City now along with worthwhile competitors, such as Yaxi. I loved how street-crossing was a constant game of Frogger, as equally well played by the elderly as the young; cars and people move in closer proximity on busy city streets than we are used to here. And one of the finest views in the city can be had from an eighth-floor café in the Sears Department store.

Tales on Tour -- Mexico City
The Williams Grant & Sons party, conducted with typical understatedness.

But for cocktail fans, it’s good to know that you can visit the city and find a decent drink, a situation that in Tales’ wake seems only destined to improve.

“You have no idea how important this is to us,” said Philippe Zaigue, Mexico brand ambassador for Havana Club rum. “It’s allowed us to communicate to the world what we’re doing. And, it will give us the feedback we need to make things better.”

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