So often, barbacks are the glue that binds a bar shift; they run ice and glasses amid the waves of the nightly rush, empty trash and clear dishes, cart cases of spirits up and down stairs, cut and stock garnishes, and squeeze hundreds of lemons and limes before anyone else’s shift has even begun. A nearly invisible force of efficiency and intuition, a good barback is the power that keeps the kegs and cocktails flowing. At Clover Club, the 11-year-old cocktail bar in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, Mauricio Santana has not only filled but transcended this role.
A decade ago, Santana was out looking for work in Manhattan. He walked into Julie Reiner’s Flatiron Lounge, the first bar in what became her empire. Reiner happened to be there to receive his résumé, which at that point consisted of barbacking at a hodgepodge of establishments, including Tailor, Sam Mason and Eben Freeman’s short-lived but lauded cocktail bar. Santana, a Mexico City native who moved to New York 20 years ago, got the job, and has since worked in all of Reiner’s bars, ultimately landing at Clover Club where he’s widely considered the MVP. Anytime Reiner leaves the bar, she tells the staff—only half-jokingly—Santana is in charge. (In her book on home entertaining, The Craft Cocktail Party, Reiner dedicated the Santana Sour to him.)
Known as “El Amante” or “The Beloved,” Santana cuts a dashing figure, dressed for his shifts in a jacket, tie and pressed pink button-down shirt. With a deep voice, forearm tattoos and warm demeanor, he exudes an old-school, chivalrous suavidad that befits the attentive service for which he’s known. A consummate jack of all trades, Santana will, on any given night, prep dozens of fresh juices, infusions and house syrups, tote three 45-pound ice buckets at a time up a flight of stairs, fix a creaky chair or a broken appliance, and—having been privy to bartending at the highest level—jump behind the bar to serve his own repertoire of cocktails laced with the tropical fruits and chiles of his homeland. Today, two of Clover Club’s signature drinks bear his mark, the ¡Mi Amante! and the Ponche de Mezcal, both odes to tequila and mezcal and a bridge between his Mexican heritage and his New York residence.
How did you come to work at Clover Club?
Eso fue una odisea. (It was an epic journey.) At the time, I hadn’t had steady work for a year, so I went out one day with my résumé in hand. I was three blocks away from the Flatiron Lounge, and I’d already been to 15 bars that day so I was tired and almost turned around. But something told me not to, so I walked into Flatiron, and Julie Reiner happened to be there. She saw on my résumé that I’d worked with Eben Freeman so she knew I had experience working with fresh juices and infusions. She interviewed me personally, and offered me a couple days as barback to start. Soon after, she called and said she had more days for me, and that’s where our story began. We’ve been working together for 13 years.
What does an average day look like for you?
I’m at the bar Wednesday to Sunday. I walk through the door at 3 in the afternoon, and start to set up: I put out all the bitters and ice, and then organize any liquor that’s arrived. Bartenders do the garnish. After that I start making juices, at least 3 gallons of lemon and lime juice, as well as orange and grapefruit. Once that’s all finished, I get behind the bar and am there for the rest of the night, until 4 in the morning when we close. When I’m not at the bar, I spend time with my French bulldog, Socrates, and my girlfriend. She and I live together, and we love to cook (though I do a bit more than she does). I go to the gym whenever I can, and try to make it to church on Sundays. And when I’m not at Clover Club or Leyenda, I like to explore other bars. I really like Blacktail on Pier A, because it has amazing views and a Cuban vibe.
What’s it like to be awake when everyone else is asleep?
I’m used to it. But sometimes I feel like a vampire. And then I get home between 5 and 6 in the morning, and my dog gets up at 7 a.m., ready to go for a stroll. It can be hard to get up.
What do you like most about your work?
Hearing people say, “Wow, that’s amazing!” after taking the first sip of their cocktail. Honestly, I like everything, all the little details. I work very hard. Around here, I’m the handyman. If anything breaks—chairs, lightbulbs, anything—I’m here to fix it. I’m usually the first one here, and it means a lot to me that everyone trusts me. I’m a very curious person, with a lot of energy, and so I really love what I do. More than anything, it’s important to me that every customer is taken care of.
And what do you like least?
When new people join the team, sometimes they assume I don’t have experience because I’m a barback. So I have to prove myself to them, and I often know more than they do.
I understand there’s a cocktail named for you on the current menu?
Sí, ¡Mi Amante! (My Beloved!) That’s my nickname here. Over the past 13 years I’ve established a strong relationship and have a really good vibe with the owners and staff. I’m one of their oldest employees, so we have a lot of affection for each other. Also, I just turned 40, and mentioned to one of the owners that I wanted to celebrate my birthday here. “Just give me a dollar amount,” I said. So my friends came and we had a big party, and at the end of the night I asked for the check. But they said it was on the house. The owners even put a drawing of me with my dog in their new menu, which was very thoughtful.
Where did you grow up?
Mexico City. My father worked at a textile company. My mom was a housewife, but she cooked very delicious, traditional Mexican food. I grew up with four siblings. But my oldest brother decided to move to New York, and I got curious about the city. That’s what brought me here.
Did you think you’d stay this long?
Never. I came to New York just to check it out. I said, “I’m going for two, maybe three years.” And now it’s been 20.
You mentioned your mom was a great cook. What influence did she have on you?
I’m very inspired by the tastes and smells from my mother’s kitchen. There’s a cocktail called Ponche de Mezcal, which is common in Mexico during the holidays. When I was a little boy, I remember my mom making it and filling the house with the smells of guava, cinnamon, raisins and sugar cane simmering on the stove. Here, I wanted to recreate her secret recipe, and tried a few different liquors and variations until I got it right. The owners loved it, and put it on the latest cocktail menu for Clover Club.
You’ve been here for 13 years. What’s the most difficult moment you’ve had?
The day I lost my mom. It was 2014, and my father had died seven months earlier. But with him, we expected it because he’d been sick. With my mom, it was sudden, and I wasn’t there. They had been married for 50 years, and I believe she died from the loneliness she felt. I had often wanted to bring them to New York to visit me, but my mother said, “You won’t take me out of my Mexico for anything in the world.” But I have the smell of her kitchen here daily with the Ponche de Mezcal. My mom is the woman of my life, and always will be.
What else inspires you from back home?
In Mexico, we use a lot of seasonal ingredients. Right now that’s pumpkin, cinnamon and a fruit called tejocote, which is similar to apple. In general, I use a lot of fresh chiles, spicy jalapeños or chile de arbol, and lately I’ve been incorporating guava, passion fruit and coconut. I’m trying to focus more on Latin American cocktails, blending those ingredients with classic American flavors.
What changes have you seen during your time in the industry?
I’ve seen more Latinos working behind the bar than ever before. And it’s very, very cool when customers try to speak to me in Spanish, even when they know I speak English. In the past, people could maybe speak three or four words of Spanish, but I meet so many people now who are fluent. People ask me where I’m from, and when I tell them I’m Mexican, they want to have a conversation. I also see more Latino customers than ever in bars like this one. A couple weeks ago we had two customers from Mexico, and they were so excited to talk with me and get my recommendations for cocktails.
What did you recommend?
The Ponche de Mezcal, of course. They loved it, and told me “Oof, this reminds me of my grandmother.” And that’s the idea. Just like with food, you can be reminded of your roots, of your childhood, by a cocktail.
Do you have regulars?
There are about 10 people who come and ask for me. And there’s an older couple here that comes very often, sometimes three or four times a week. Her name is Patty and his name is Justin, and they love classic Daiquiris. But I make them a little differently. The first time I served it to them, they were surprised and said, “It tastes really good. What’s so special?” And I said, “Un poquito de canela, y extra amor” (a little cinnamon, and extra love). So whenever they come, they tell me, “Mauricio, we need a special Daiquiri,” and I know exactly what they want.
You seem like you know all the ins and outs of running a bar. Would you ever open your own?
Yes, I’d love to open my own business some day. A bar like this, that has delicious food and drinks and great ambience. And really good service. I’d like for it to be in New York, or possibly back in Mexico City. But this is my home now, and I’d like to start something here.