Llama San, an acclaimed, always-packed restaurant from chef Erik Ramirez that opened last September, specializes in Nikkei cuisine. That is, Japanese food as it’s practiced in Peru—where Japanese people have immigrated for centuries—by way of New York City. With no attendant cocktail culture from which to draw, head bartender Natasha Bermudez has forged a menu of just nine drinks that is wholly original, nevertheless feeling right at home alongside the hybrid cuisine.
With a roster of ingredients drawn almost exclusively from South America and Japan, Bermudez’s drinks feel organic, without falling into expected tropes. There is no Pisco Sour nor whisky highball in sight—the iconic drinks made from Peru’s national spirit and in Japan, respectively. She cites Lynnette Marrero, under whom she worked at sister restaurant Llama Inn before taking the head bartender role at Llama San, as one of her key mentors, responsible for much of the way she conceives of new cocktails. “Something Lynnette taught me is to really commit to the concept,” explains Bermudez.
Borrowing techniques (sous vide infusions) and ingredients (sesame, sudachi citrus fruit) from the kitchen, Bermudez describes her approach to drink-making as “culinary,” though her primary focus is less on approaching cocktails the way a chef might approach food, and more on creating cocktails that are specifically designed to be enjoyed in concert with the dishes that chef Ramirez makes. “I don’t create a drink before I talk to Chef,” says Bermudez. “I want to make sure that there’s a symbiotic relationship with the kitchen.”
Having worked at Banzarbar on the Lower East Side, where she developed the low-proof cocktail tasting menu to be paired with seafood alongside bar director Eryn Reece, and before that at Zuma, the acclaimed Japanese restaurant in Midtown, Bermudez knows the challenges of creating cocktails as an accompaniment to food. But at Llama San, where dishes include hamachi tiradito topped with matcha foam and a contemporary interpretation of ají de gallina, she tackles the added challenge of introducing guests to flavors they may be unfamiliar with, like pickled kombu.
“You’ve just got to win their trust,” says Bermudez, who has a knack for drawing out, and underscoring, familiar flavors in unfamiliar ingredients and vice versa—notes of banana in malted Japanese whisky, for example, or the whiskey-like qualities of aged shochu. Her Caribbean Queen, a slightly lower-octane Old-Fashioned variation (“I don’t want to overload anyone’s palate,” she says), demonstrates this ability to upend expectations by teasing out subtle flavors. A stirred whiskey drink on the surface, the tropical fruit notes of the Nikka Coffey Malt whisky are brought to the forefront by the addition of banana and pineapple liqueur, while amontillado sherry brings a slight salinity and nuttiness to the mixture for a drink that reads as tropical in disguise; a Hawaiian shirt under a tuxedo.
Here, get to know Natasha Bermudez in four of her greatest hits.
In this tropical Old-Fashioned variation that’s currently on the menu at Llama San, Bermudez calls on a split base of amontillado sherry and Japanese whisky. “The Nikka Coffey Malt whisky has a lot of banana on the nose and vanilla, with a very light smoke at the back of your palate. Amontillado sherry is salty, nutty—they work really nicely together.” A small measure of Paranubes Oaxacan agricole rum adds a “green grassy note,” says Bermudez, underscoring the tropical through-line of this drink.
Seven Years Cycle
Conceived for the menu at Banzarbar in 2018, Seven Years Cycle was built outward from one central ingredient: Clear Creek cranberry liqueur. Bermudez set out to make a savory cocktail, pairing the cranberry with rosemary, before taking a different tack by calling on the citrus-forward Edinburgh Christmas Gin, which is also infused with frankincense and myrrh. Ancho Reyes chile liqueur adds a smoky note to the shaken cocktail, while the finishing touch comes by way of half a teaspoon of Vicario’s Monk’s Secret liqueur, an herbal, vegetal elixir that, in Bermudez’s words, “is the one thing that made the drink finally work.”
When people come into Llama San looking for a mezcal cocktail, this is what Bermudez steers them toward (the restaurant does not currently keep mezcal on their backbar). Though the ingredients bear little resemblance to the agave spirit, Bermudez entices drinkers with the sour bite of sudachi, which, when paired with shochu, sherry and toasted white sesame syrup is akin to the tangy, slightly saline profile of a Margarita. “It’s obscure, even for this menu, but people love it,” says Bermudez.
Created at Donna (where she picked up shifts prior to the opening of Llama San), Thrivemind showcases Bermudez’s penchant for low-proof, stirred cocktails in a decidedly tropical mindset. “I wanted to make something tropical, but not in-your-face tropical,” says Bermudez of her relatively restrained mixture of cachaça, manzanilla sherry, blanc vermouth and rhubarb liqueur. “It’s sort of a 50/50 Martini meets a Bamboo,” she says.