The wooden stairs creak underneath my boots as I climb up to the second-floor bar of Los Galgos, an all-day joint that has watched Buenos Aires grow and change from the busy corner in the San Nicolás neighborhood where it first opened its doors in 1930. Bartender Ariel Lombán, in a black vest and tie, stands on the other side of the bar. The bottles behind him comprise a notable collection of nationally produced spirits, aperitifs and bitters. There is Patagonian gin, red and white vermouths and a long procession of amaros as dark as espresso—the ensemble cast of a rotating menu of classic Argentine cocktails.
When he isn’t behind the bar, Lombán pores over newspaper clippings, archives and recipe books to piece together the history of Argentine drinks. He hands me a tall, leather-bound booklet with the names of local classics and their inventors, the protagonists of a glamorous midcentury Golden Age of the city’s bar scene.
But I’m here to grab an off-menu cocktail that, for locals, requires neither a description nor an introduction to its creator: the Clarito, a charitable pour of extra-dry gin and a splash of white vermouth, perfumed with lemon peel. Stirred, never shaken, just like Santiago “Pichín” Policastro made it back in 1935. It is served in a coupe, transparent except for the glass’ cloudy, chilled exterior, with a crisp first sip that hits you like a slap across the face. The original recipe calls for a sugar rim, which has since been ditched in a shift that mirrors the way palates have leaned drier in recent decades.
More than a cocktail, the Clarito and its creator were emblematic of a rapidly transforming society: Policastro was part of a growing workers’ movement that suddenly had expendable income, vacation time and televisions and radios that spread popular culture across the nation’s living rooms. The workers were mostly second-generation children of immigrants who arrived in massive waves from Europe, with smaller populations coming from communities in the Caucasus, the Levant and East Asia. A new middle class in the Argentine capital was asking itself where it fit in, in a country transformed.
In drinking culture, the divide had been evident: During Policastro’s childhood, his family likely drank wine at home—and a lot of it. In the 1920s, annual per capita wine consumption hit more than 60 liters while the Buenos Aires elite enjoyed elaborate cocktails in expensive bars and restaurants. Policastro fell in with high society, but never lost sight of his mission to popularize cocktails beyond the upper class. “In the 1950s and ’60s, bartenders were stopped on the streets of Buenos Aires and asked for their autographs,” explains Martín Auzmendi, bartender turned restaurateur and food and drinks writer. “Pichín was on television making cocktails with la Doña Petrona, our Julia Child. He was a part of the jet set, but he was also committed to bringing bar culture from the elite to the masses.”
As Policastro wrote in his recipe book, “It hurt to hear people talk about cocktails like the Dry and Sweet Martini, Daiquiri and Alexander. I felt that even with such good liquors and drinks, we didn’t have a cocktail that belonged to us.”
He was just 23 years old when he created the Clarito. At face value, the drink doesn’t sound entirely unique—it’s essentially an extra-dry Martini with olives swapped out for lemon—but it hid a burgeoning national culinary identity and the changing palate of the Argentine drinker. It was an immediate hit.
“Olives had a different role in our culinary identity; it just didn’t make sense to throw them into a cocktail,” explains Auzmendi. “Pichín joked, ‘Why would I put a picada in a cocktail?’” (The picada, a traditional midday or evening snack of cheeses, cured ham and olives, is most often consumed with alcohol.)
In a career that stretched nearly seven decades, Policastro created hundreds of drinks, many of which, including the Clarito, were compiled into his seminal 1955 cocktail book Tragos Mágicos, or Magical Drinks. In the foreword, editor Tulio Jacovella champions Policastro as an artist on par with the likes of cellist Pablo Casals and composer Wilhelm Furtwängler, but above all things, “a patriot.” At a time when high culture was defined by whatever was in vogue in Europe, Policastro aggressively promoted local. He was a radical, and that earned him legions of fans. Pichín, his nickname, is one of affection: It translates to “little guy” in Spanish.
By the 1980s and ’90s, a new generation of bartenders had ditched the national cocktail identity that Policastro played such a pivotal role in crafting to seek more outward inspiration. Today, the Clarito remains mostly an off-menu order, a sort of secret language that garners curiosity and respect from your bartender.
“In Buenos Aires, bartenders pay more attention to what’s happening in Singapore or Manhattan rather than what we can make ourselves. That’s just beginning to shift,” says Pipi Yalour, who has been working in bars up and down Argentina for the last dozen years. “But tastes have changed. Drinks are less dry, they are taller, and there is a general trend toward drinks that are more fruity or refreshing and less alcoholic.”
Although it’s rare to find one of the hundreds of Pichín concoctions on a bar menu, the Clarito has made a strong return at both old-school and craft cocktail bars. When it does appear on a menu, the drink rarely features the original sugar rim, though the rest of the recipe remains virtually untouched.
Later, I stop by La Favorita, a cantina that offers Argentine classics like vermouth and soda, fernet and Coca-Cola and the Clarito. Bartender Ani Varela debates the minute details that represent the extent of personal interpretations on the classic—like adding a peel to the final drink or just perfuming the glass, or chilling the glass with cold water and vermouth or ice. In her version, she adds a few drops of orange bitters.
“Bartenders will be bartenders. We want to make every drink our own,” says Varela of her subtle tweak to the recipe. “We haven’t had another bartender like Pichín that was recognized internationally. His Clarito is a piece of history, and it’s perfect as it is.”