“Would you like to have a Clarito?” the head bartender, José Ceballos, asks me.
I’m at El Limón, a dark bar on a darker corner of Buenos Aires, and the question catches me off guard. I hadn’t been to El Limón in months, but Ceballos remembers my order. Admittedly, my go-to Clarito stands out; the distinctively dry local take on the Martini is a vestige of the city’s first golden age of cocktails, one that’s rarely on menus and even more rarely ordered.
For the last two decades, Buenos Aires has been in the midst of its second golden age of cocktails. Much like the first time around, which began to boom in the 1920s, this new wave got its start in exclusive neighborhoods and password-only bars, inspired by the molecular mixology approach to cocktails that was sweeping Europe and the United States. Today, the influence of European and American cocktail culture is still felt throughout the city, though the spherification and smoking cloches of the molecular moment have largely been replaced with rotovaps and showy in-house cordials that breed a certain high-concept sameness across continents and relegate homegrown drinks like the Clarito to the realm of obscurity.
But slowly, bolstered by a broader culinary left turn toward casual dining and the explosion of local craft spirits, low-key neighborhood joints like El Limón are beginning to take up more space in the bar scene. Its menu offers drinks like the De Madera (Scotch, local aperitif, red vermouth and cedar) or the Collins Morgade (whose name credits the local soda water company and its emblematic reusable red siphons), looking inward to the bitter flavors of long-standing aperitivo culture for inspiration and, maybe without realizing it, mirroring the flavors, spirit and simplicity of the city’s first golden age.
Between 1870 and 1960, Argentina’s population multiplied tenfold, concentrating heavily in Buenos Aires. The Avenida Corrientes cuts the city in half, dividing the elite north side from the bohemian and working-class south. All along the avenue’s theaters, cinemas, art galleries, nightclubs and concert halls, distinct social classes, a new art scene and foreign cultures collided and Argentine pop culture as we know it today began to take shape. The bartenders witnessed it all unfold, night after night, while serving Seventh Regiments (gin and sweet vermouth, stirred with a lemon twist) and Cubanos (maraschino, gin, red vermouth and Chartreuse). "Hundreds of tangos were written at those tables," barman Rodolfo San recounted in an interview with local drinks writer Martín Auzmendi about his three decade career at the popular Confitería Real.
A Bar Crawl Through the Aperitivo Capital of South America
The mashup of Argentine ingredients and Italo-Spanish drinking traditions has made Buenos Aires home to the most vibrant aperitivo culture outside of Europe.
Bartenders weren’t just friends and confidantes of the jet set and the bohemia. They became household names themselves. Coruña-born Manuel Otero paired drinks with cook Doña Petrona’s dishes on her massively popular cooking show, Buenas Tardes, Mucho Gusto; Raúl Suárez produced a vinyl record for enthusiasts to replicate drinks in home bars; and Eugenio Gallo created signature cocktails for Iberia Air. Santiago Policastro, creator of the Clarito and perhaps the most everlasting name of them all, traveled by boat for 22 days from Buenos Aires to Miami, stopping in coastal cities along the way to show off Argentine wines and spirits. Their craft cocktails were everywhere—printed in magazines and newspapers, immortalized in tango ballads and prepared for listeners on the radio.
The larger-than-life bar scene hit a pinnacle in 1964 when Enzo Antonetti, an Italian immigrant, put in his bid to the national qualifiers for the annual International Cocktail Competition held in Edinburgh, Scotland. He presented a cocktail he’d been fine-tuning for several years: the Brasilia, made with two and a half parts gin, 1 part pineapple “pulp” (a pineapple preserve blended with sugar and water), and a half-part maraschino liqueur, shaken and served in a flute.
He won the qualifiers and became the underdog for the national selection, which also included Suárez and Otero. Antonetti packed black-and-white tuxedo jackets, aviator sunglasses and a bag of spirits, then flew across the Atlantic, presenting a new drink with a name that honored his adoptive country.
The Mar del Plata, named after the beach city that Argentines flock to each summer, is made with 4 parts gin, 3 parts dry vermouth, 1 part Bénédictine, a few drops of Grand Marnier and a twist of lemon, stirred and served in a chilled cocktail glass. It beat out 57 other participants and was the first Argentine concoction to win the international title.
“Our most emblematic drinks are defined by those flavors,” explains Matias Merlo, cantinero at Tiki Bar in Mar del Plata, a beachside bar that fuses tropical flavors with the city’s characteristic kitsch. “Fernet con coca, yerba mate drank with wild herbs, the way we drink amaros; old-school café is burnt to pour in loads of milk and sugar and still taste like coffee. That’s the Argentine palate.”
Although the Mar del Plata was the definition of the nation’s characteristic flavor profile—bitter and sweet—you’d be hard-pressed to find many bartenders that recognize the names Antonetti or Gallo. Drinks like the Brasilia and Mar del Plata are absent from menus, too, but the blueprint is there. Long gone are the preserved fruit juices and maraschino cherries but ever-present are drinks that rely heavily on spirits that bite between pops of fruit and herbs.
Instead of my regular Clarito, Ceballos convinces me to order a Muy Normal. He loudly shakes bourbon, añejo rum, sweet vermouth and black currant. Bitter. Sweet. A national culinary lexicon that mirrored its people, the bitterness of leaving one world and the sweetness of building a home in another.