Their names are many: ‘Bar chef’, ‘Liquid Chef’, ‘Mixologist’, ‘Cocktail Geek’, ‘Star-tender’ and so on, and while scores of young professionals across the globe have garnered these distinctions as of late, some find these titles to be a bit pretentious. Either way, what all of these movers, shakers and stirrers have in common is that they live behind the bar, and they love it there. It’s not just a place to strive to create the perfect classic Martini or mojito but also to devise drinks that sum up each season of the year, and winter is proving inspirational to these alchemists of alcohol.
The creative potential of Barcelona’s own bartender corps is just beginning to blossom. With several hours of detailed, daily prep and an arsenal of tools and gadgets rivaling that of their chef-coated brethren, bartenders here are fast approaching the prestige awarded to their counterparts in craft cocktail meccas such as San Francisco, London, New York, Paris and Tokyo.
These are professionals who have dedicated their lives to making unique, balanced, creative drinks behind immaculate bars with house-made infusions, syrups, tinctures and bitters. They use seasonal fruits and juices, along with eclectic amaros and spirits that only the studied truly know how to utilise. Quality is paramount, and even the type of ice used is of the utmost importance. Apprentices and mentors are many, and knowledge flows freely in support of a common goal: evolution.
With thousands of bars in Barcelona, setting out to find the true, modern cocktail culture of the city is easier said than done. It is championed by a tightly-knit group of young, passionate bartenders who, despite countless hours behind their respective bars, seem to—by all accounts—spend most of their free time on the other side of the counter, watching their compatriots at other locales refine their shared passion. The results are innovative, expressive creations and top-notch, world-class service.
How did this revolution begin? I was surprised, when asking Sergio Padilla—bar manager of the grandiose cocktail bar Boca Chica (right above ‘big brother’ Boca Grande restaurant)—about drinking trends in Barcelona, as he confided to me that if it had not been for the ‘Gin Tonic’ craze that swept the city a couple of years ago, opening people’s minds to premium drinks, the burgeoning success of the artisanal cocktail in Barcelona would never have come to pass. And yet, it has, and now the bar is learning from the kitchen, and vice versa.
“There have been big changes, huge changes in the cocktail culture of Barcelona since I arrived seven years ago,” says Daniel Schober, head bartender at Ocaña, an expansive institution on the corner of Plaça Reial that houses a cafe, restaurant, terrace, nightclub and a high-end cocktail bar called Apotheke (‘Chemist’s’ in German). “With Barcelona’s reputation for night life, bars began to realise several years ago that they had to live up to the European standards [for cocktails],” he adds.
Schober agrees that Barcelona’s current cocktail culture owes nearly everything to the rise of the ‘Gin Tonic’; but ask him about all the bells and whistles that some Barcelona bartenders go through in making them and he tells you it’s all for show. “The fact is, pouring tonic down a bar spoon causes a 14 percent faster loss of carbonation. The spoon is pointless. All I want is a tall glass, very cold ice, 50ml of dry Bombay or Plymouth gin, no garnish, and a bottle of Schweppes tonic on the side. I’ll pour the three-quarters of the bottle myself. That’s it.”
Having taken inspiration from Australian Fraser Campbell’s Alchemist Bar in Melbourne, Schober is launching a “periodic table of flavours” format for Apotheke’s winter cocktail list. The ‘chart’ will feature some 30 cocktails including one that nostalgically evokes a spiced apple strudel pastry (from Schober’s native Austria), with house-infused apple vodka, cinnamon syrup, apple juice, lime and Borgman—a warming German herbal liqueur with flavours of mint, cinnamon, bergamot, anise and clove. And if you meet Schober, ask him about ‘butter-washed’ vanilla vodka. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and it’s remarkable.
Of all of the unique products that these ‘bar chefs’ have put their signatures on, house-made bitters are by far the most prolific. Modern cocktail bitters provide the subtle nuances that bring these vivid creations into full colour. Traditionally defined as extractions of various botanical ingredients in high-proof alcohol (and used by the drop as a cocktail flavouring component), bitters now come in innumerable varieties and flavours, joining classic brands such as Angostura and Peychaud. These potent variations range from peach, grapefruit and rhubarb to jalapeño, chamomile, vanilla and bitter chocolate.
Tinctures, on the other hand, are similar, but unlike many bitters, tinctures derive from a single ingredient, opposed to a blend (at least in the realm of ‘bar speak’). At Boca Chica, one winter drink—the Cordoba—consists of smokey, spicy, oak-aged cachaça (an absinthe reduction) and orange bitters. The bartender finishes the drink with flare by taking a blowtorch to cubes of apple and sugar that sit atop a classic absinthe spoon.
Boca Chica is just one of several up-and-coming hot-spots in the popular cocktail epicentre of Diagonal and Passeig de Gràcia, which includes Dry Martini, Bobby Gin, Le Noire and Slow Barcelona.
At Slow Barcelona, the pace of your evening is designed to fall into a pleasingly relaxed gait; hence the plodding moniker. With a relatively small, low-lit bar, Slow is a comfortable place for an excellent cocktail. When asking bartender and Barcelona-native Christina Bruno if there were any secrets to how the cocktail she had just presented me was made, she replied, “Love, lots of love.” A wonderfully balanced cocktail, the Capitán Barbarroja goes something like this: Johnnie Walker Platinum whisky, Laphroaig whisky, Carpano Antica vermouth, maple syrup, Pedro Ximénez sherry, spiced apple purée and pasteurised egg whites. The drink is served frothy and chilled under a glass cloche filled with smoke from charred, Laphroaig-scented wood chips. Tart, smokey, creamy, spicy and delicate; I felt the love.
If you’re not keen on the trip uptown, look no further than the hideaway in the Born that is Collage. On a nondescript street at the fringes of the neighbourhood, Collage announces itself only by the deer-head emblem that emblazons the sign on their corner. It is here where Italian owner Lorenzo Meini creates the fresh, inspired cocktails that he thought the barri was lacking when he left a popular bar nearby to open his own business over a year ago. Adorned with regularly changing work by local artists, the space at Collage is eccentric and inviting with a touch of nostalgia. The drinks menu features original recipes, well-worn classics, tropical concoctions and more.
“I use premium, fresh ingredients in every drink, but I’m not charging people more than the drinks are worth,” says Meini. “You pay for the products and the labour, not the privilege of being in the bar.” The interior of Collage is softly lit and scored by Fifties jazz music that complements the old books and vintage piano perched in the lofted lounge above the bar. “I wanted to create a classic cocktail bar but with a lighter atmosphere. I want anyone, of any age, to feel at home.” Check out the complementary aperitivo snacks every evening between 7pm and 10pm.
In addition to winter classics such as Hot Buttered Rum (hot water, butter, cinnamon, lemon peel and rum), Meini serves up his own version of a classic Blazer with a lovely flourish. The Spicy Tea Blazer is a warming blend of house-spiced rum, smoked lapsang tea liqueur, ceylon tea, honey, ginger, and Angostura bitters. The drink is mixed in a metal mug and then lit on fire and poured between identical mugs several times—while still flaming—until the rum is hot and fully infused. Not for the amateur bartender.
At the five-star Hotel Ohla in the centre of Barcelona one can find—in addition to the one-Michelin-starred restaurant Saüc—exceptional cocktails at the Ohla Boutique Bar; a swanky cocktail lounge run by Italian cocktail icon and 2012 World Class Competition’s Best Bartender in Spain, Guiseppe Santamaria.
Young Italian bartender Giacomo Giannotti explains that the philosophy behind the cocktail service at Ohla is that all the senses are stimulated by the masterfully-crafted cocktails that he and several other seasoned cocteleros serve from behind their sleek, polished bar. Giannotti tells me: “Sight, smell, sound and taste all play a part in the overall experience of the drinks that Guiseppe Santamaria has designed. There are 35 signature cocktails, and four that change every month with the season.”
One seasonal cocktail I’m looking forward to sampling this winter at Ohla Boutique Bar is an ‘old-fashioned’ of rum, fig syrup and lavender bitters, garnished with chocolate-smoked figs—figs in a glass dome, infused with a smoke gun that burns crackling chocolate shavings, dubbed ‘chocolate tobacco’.
Ohla’s subtle play on a traditional Manhattan will also make it into the winter rotation, consisting of spicy bourbon blended with truffle-infused Pedro Ximenez sherry and aged behind the bar in small, oak casks for three months and then served with a tasting of savoury blue cheese.
In short, the cocktail culture in Barcelona is on the rise, and just as the public in the past has discovered the pleasure of fine wines and craft beers, ‘bar chefs’ are becoming more and more respected and appreciated in this city full of international influence and trend-spotting gastronomes. Truly great cocktails are about the experience, not the effect. Amongst a sea of duplicate bars offering ‘the best deals’ on powerful drinks full of cheap liquor that are made without love or soul, these five—as well as many others—are slowly but surely changing the way Barcelona considers enjoying a drink.
Boca Chica: Pg. Concepció 12. Tel. 93 467 5149. All drinks: €15
Apotheke (Ocaña): Pl. Reial 13-15. Tel. 93 676 4814. Drinks: €9-€13
Slow Barcelona: París 186. Tel. 93 368 1455. Drinks: €9-€14
Collage: Consellers 4. Tel. 93 179 3785. Drinks: €6-€11
Ohla Boutique Bar: Via Laietana 49. Tel. 93 341 5050. Drinks €13-€17