Cocktail fever is taking over Barcelona, with a new wave of bars revitalising the scene. We meet the mixologists who are causing a stir...Featured July 11 Words by Duncan Rhodes
When Jordi Otero places his latest masterpiece, the cubajito, in front of me at Banker's Bar, I am about to take a swig before I realise he hasn't finished. Holding a mixing bowl of freshly whipped froth under one arm, with his free hand he applies the cocktail's coup de grâce - a fluffy layer of Coca-Cola foam, which he portions over the liquid with a spoon. Thanks to this foam - or "air", as he calls it - I am about to have my first encounter with molecular mixology.
Catalonia already has a peerless track record when it comes to molecular cuisine, thanks to the region's world-famous chef, Ferran Adrià, and his legendary El Bulli restaurant in Roses, which is two hours from Barcelona. Now the methods Adrià employs in his cooking, such as the use of edible foams, gels and gases, are making their way from the kitchen to the bar. It's all part of a cocktail revolution that's happening in Barcelona right now, thanks to a slew of high-end hotel bars such as Eclipse (1 Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents) on the 26th floor of the Dubai-esque W Hotel, and the Ohla Boutique Bar (49 Via Laitena), plus a proliferation of chic joints including Slow (186 Carrer de París), Cooler (196 Carrer de Mallorca) and Twist (11 Carrer de Rafael Batlle ). It's a reflection that Barcelonins are finally willing to expand their drinking horizons after a lifetime of beer and wine drinking, when a daring option might have been to order a mojito.
"It's the fashion now in Barcelona," says Albert Montserrat, member of Catalonia's barmen association, all-round cocktail connoisseur and my drinking partner for the evening. "Many people start with a mojito, but then they are ready to try something different. Now we have more bars, more variety and more quality. People are used to going to restaurants, but now they understand that if you can enjoy a dinner, you can also enjoy a drink with friends and colleagues."
It's Albert who has introduced me to Banker's Bar (38-40 Passeig de Gràcia), in the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, along with its star mixologist, 30-year-old Jordi Otero, winner of the "Canapés Matching" category at the 2010 Diageo World Class Competition (aka "The Liquid Oscars").
As Jordi rustles up his newest creation - a tribute to the world's three most famous rum cocktails, the cuba libre, the mojito and the daiquiri - Albert talks me through the many complicated processes: this is not just a case of shaking a few spirits together.
"The first thing you notice," explains Albert, of the cubajito, "is that the foam - sorry, 'air' - looks nice. Then, when you put it to your lips, you feel the smoothness; it's a great texture. The smell of the mint, the sour of the lemon and the sweet of the Coca-Cola are all perfectly matched."
Somehow he has done the impossible, incorporating the defining characteristics of three classic cocktails in one glass. My only criticism is the rich potential to embarrass oneself by getting "air" on your nose.
If Jordi is currently Barcelona's most celebrated mixologist, then Banker's is his tasting showroom. A well-heeled crowd of 30- to 50-somethings chatter quietly in the former branch of Banco de España bank, while a team of bar staff in crisp white shirts, waistcoats and pink bowties shake, rattle and toil behind the bar, like mad scientists experimenting in an alchemist's lab. Liquorice pastes, gin-and-tonic- flavoured ice creams and liquid caviar are just part of their ever-changing concoctions.
When Albert and I are finally ready to tear ourselves away from Banker's, Jordi accompanies us to the street and, on hearing where we're heading next, issues us a friendly warning: "You always know what time you enter Mutis, but you almost never know what time you leave."
Mutis is a project headed up by another of Barcelona's rapidly rising stars of the cocktail shaker, Joao Eusebio, a 31-year-old Portuguese bartender who learned his trade in both London and Spain. A converted flat in one of the city's many Modernista-style apartment blocks, Mutis por la Escalera (438 Avinguda Diagonal) is a members- only lounge and restaurant inspired by the Clockwise from above, Banker's Bar; 41° (and previous page); Mutis' head barman at work; one of his innovative creations speakeasies of the American Prohibition era and the Parisian cabarets of the 1920s. Intimate and discreet, it's the preserve of the well-connected, but it's the cocktail menu that has got people talking.
"The idea was to deliver something new to Barcelona," explains Joao, who arrived at Mutis 18 months ago and spent his first three months compiling the enviable tome of libations. "Our menu is related to the classic; there are not a lot of people who do the [brandy-based] crusta, or [whisky or cognac-based] sazerac, or the [gin-based] basil smash. I like to take the original recipe and play around with the flavours, and I work a lot with macerations. For instance, I macerate rosemary with tequila when I make margarita." When I ponder rather too long over the beautifully composed menu, which contains the history of each concoction, Joao offers to help me. "Give me a spirit," he says. Before I know it, I'm the proud owner of a basilico - a refreshing cocktail shaken with lemon juice, sugar, limoncello, basil and not a small amount of Polish bison vodka. Joao claps the basil leaves loudly in his hands before placing them in the glass. "It's to wake up the smell and the instensity of the leaves," he explains. "It's a minor detail," he adds, tellingly.
Like many of Barcelona's new wave of bartenders, Joao first served an apprenticeship in one of the city's old school cocktaileries. Milano (35 Ronda de la Universitat) is still going strong, serving up Campari cocktails, along with smooth jazz. Albert, meanwhile, spent six years perfecting his technique at none other than Boadas bar (1 Carrer dels Tallers), the city's first cocktailery, dating back to 1933.
"The difference between these older cocktail bars is predominantly in the product," says Joao. "There's a much wider variety of rums, gins and tequilas in the new bars. And the new ones also tend to be more creative and to invent more new cocktails. The classic bars will always be there, they will always have the gin fizz, the dry martini, the negroni, but the new ones are more willing to experiment."
Albert highlights another diff erence: "Today, Boadas is like a tourist attraction. You are shoulder-to-shoulder with other patrons. It is too too popular." He still has a lot of aff ection for the "special place" that first introduced Barcelona to the cocktail 80 years ago, but it is not forging the future of mixology. "It's an old- fashioned bar - when you close the door, you feel you are still in 1930s because time stops."
That's certainly not something you can say about 41˚ (164 Avinguda Paral·lel, 41grados.es), the recently opened tapas- joint-cum-cocktail emporium of none other than the Adrià brothers themselves, in partnership with fellow gastro-giants, the Iglesias family. While it shares the same space as the similarly new Tickets bar, Albert Adrià is keen to emphasise that each venue has its own philosophy. "In Tickets we only ask that people enjoy themselves, but in 41 we are playing with people's emotions. In Tickets there is a ceiling. Here, there's no limit."
As the pastry chef at El Bulli and Ferran's younger brother, you might expect this to mean that all manner of smokes, airs and emulsifiers are forever exploding from within 41's four kitchens, but in fact Adrià is keen to sidestep the whole molecular tag.
"I don't like this name too much. For me there is just good food or bad food… in the end, the customer is the judge. Normally people don't ask you: 'is this molecular, or not?'.""We don't want to create a molecular cocktail," agrees Juan Carlos Iglesias. "We want to find a way to create cocktails using all the ingredients of food. We are using infusions to extract the flavour of every fruit, vegetable, herb you can think of, and afterwards put it in a cocktail. If we can prepare some cocktail with meat - with beefsteak - we will do it!"
The result of this experimentation is that at 41˚ you can enjoy snacks and cocktails made using the same ingredients, creating an almost boundless gastrosphere of taste harmonies - a trip into Alice-in-Wonderland territory, as Juan Carlos puts it.
Despite my appreciation of the theory, it's only when my Kill Bill cocktail and two tapas arrive that I actually begin to understand. As I relish the exquisite textures of nigiri sushi, made with a marshmallow base, sesame seed crispy wafer and eel, followed by a crunchy seaweed ice-cream cone filled with tuna, cereal and wasabi sauce, and then wash these down with my Uma-Thurman- tracksuit-coloured libation of gin, tonic, lavender syrup, kaffir lime and natural kumquat juice, the pieces of Barcelona's cocktail revolution puzzle fall together. It's not a radical change in the methodology of drink-making that is shaking up the city, but rather the discovery of a perfect marriage between two of the world's most creative gastronomic phenomena - American cocktail culture and Spanish tapas culture. For a city where eating and drinking are entirely inseparable, it is a union every bit as perfect as gin and tonic, vodka and martini, whisky and soda - and as well-balanced as one of Jordi Oteri's exquisite cubajitos.
MECCAS of MIXOLOGY
LONDON: LOUNGE BOHEMIA
The "Bohemia" here refers to the bar's retro décor, a tribute to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. In this "Communist chic" environs, patrons can sip such unlikely concoctions as the Bubble Bath Martini, made from lychee liqueur, lavender and poppy- seed vodka and rose-smelling bubbles. 1E Great Eastern Street
COPENHAGEN: HONEY RYDER COCKTAIL LOUNGE
In the swanky lounge bar of Copenhagen's Hotel Twentyseven, swap the Carlsberg for (probably) the best cocktail in the world. The Exploding Raspberry Daiquiri is made with golden rum, sugar syrup, liquid-nitrogen-frozen raspberries and crackling crystals. 27 Løngangstræde
EDINBURGH: BRAMBLE BAR
Refreshingly unpretentious, as cocktail bars go, this whitewashed cellar joint dabbles in infusions and foams. The 20th Century Cocktail Deconstructed quickly turns into a tongue twister after you've overindulged in this lethal white- chocolate-foam-topped gin-mixer. 16A Queen Street