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How Spanish Cocktail Culture Crept Into American Bars

May 02, 2024

Story: Adam Reiner

photo: Cory Fontenot


How Spanish Cocktail Culture Crept Into American Bars

May 02, 2024

Story: Adam Reiner

photo: Cory Fontenot

Italy has been the dominant European influence on stateside cocktails for more than a decade. Now, it appears, it’s Spain’s turn.

At El Quijote, the landmark Spanish restaurant inside Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, the stained-glass pendant lamps, hanging antique ceramic plates and wooden statuettes of Cervantes’ infamous dreamer provide the perfect backdrop for a thrown Martini—a specialty of the house, made famous at Boadas in Barcelona. It’s easy to find oneself hypnotized as the cantinero, in a bright red coat, lobs rainbows of sherry-laced gin back and forth between his mixing tins with a bullfighter’s bravado. 

Originally opened in 1933, El Quijote had become arthritic in recent years, a place that could only be counted on for nostalgia, watered-down sangria and uninspiring paella. But under the new leadership of Sunday Hospitality Group, which reimagined the space in 2022, the bar program began mining new inspiration from Spanish ingredients, recipes and cocktail traditions. Now, the bar has become a top-tier destination not only for thrown Martinis, but also a roster of sherry-forward cocktails, flamboyant gintonics and countless other Spanish-inspired dishes and drinks. Its rebirth and subsequent popularity reflect a growing trend across the cocktail space—the slow but steady influence of Spanish drinking culture on American bars.

While often overshadowed by the drinking traditions of Italy, whose rosy-hued aperitivo drinks have been the prevailing European influence on stateside cocktails for over a decade, few countries have played a greater role in the advancement of cocktail culture than Spain. While historically cocktails haven’t been deeply ingrained in the daily drinking habits of Spaniards, Spain’s cocktail culture traces back almost a century. In 1931, the same year that Harry’s Bar opened in Venice, Pedro Chicote Serrano (known as “Perico”) opened Bar Chicote, Madrid’s first cocktail bar, and, along with other influential Spanish figures of the time like Miguel Boadas, was among the first European bartenders to adopt classics like the Martini and Hemingway Daiquiri into their repertoires. 

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Despite Spain’s role in the spread of cocktail culture, the country’s influence on contemporary American bars has lagged behind its European neighbors. Some attribute this to the fact that many Spanish bartenders didn’t fully appreciate the breadth of native ingredients like sherries, vermouths, ciders and quinquinas until their contemporaries from overseas called attention to them with drinks like the Bamboo and Adonis, for instance, two pre-Prohibition cocktails starring sherry.

“Even though sherries are Spanish, it was bartenders from the United States who came to Spain in the early 2000s that were talking about them in seminars and big bar shows,” says Miguel Lancha, who oversees bar operations for José Andrés Group. “They made us realize that we didn’t have to look further away; we have all these amazing things here.” 

In the ensuing decades, Spain’s permissive immigration policies made it a destination for mixologists from all over the world. “Spain has become a hub for international bartenders,” says Natasha Bermudez, bar director of the popular Llama Inn and Llama San in New York City, who opened Bar Llama in Madrid last year. “The amount of non-Spanish bartenders [there] is insane.” In many cases, bartenders from overseas return to their home countries with a deeper appreciation for Spanish bar culture and its rich cocktail traditions.

For his part, Lancha makes a point of highlighting Spanish ingredients across the 33 bars he manages for José Andrés, like barmini in Washington, D.C., and Pigtail in Chicago. At the latter, the Andrés & Cooper is made with with Del Maguey Ibérico (a pechuga-like mezcal flavored with Ibérico ham and fruits like plantains and wild mountain apples), Spanish vermouth, amontillado sherry and a skewered garnish of hand-sliced Ibérico ham and Kalamata olives. Lancha also champions forgotten Spanish classics like the Media Combinación, made with gin and vermouth dashed with Angostura bitters, which he serves at the group’s various Jaleo restaurants using Yzaguirre Rojo Reserva vermouth and a splash of Cynar.

While often overshadowed by the drinking traditions of Italy, whose rosy-hued aperitivo drinks have been the prevailing European influence on stateside cocktails for over a decade, few countries have played a greater role in the advancement of cocktail culture than Spain.

While Spain once looked to the US for inspiration, Lancha sees the direction of that influence reversing. “Nowadays, the reference points for bars in Spain are Paradiso, Sips and Salmon Guru,” says Lancha, citing three of the country's most notable cocktail bars, all of which appeared on the World’s 50 Best list in 2023.

But it isn’t only the experimental wing in Spain that’s wielding influence. “Paradiso is a great bar, but it’s not a bar for the Spaniards; it’s not a bar for every day,” says Bermudez, whose first-hand experiences with the country’s pared-back daily drinking rituals have inspired the cocktail programs she leads in New York. At Llama Inn in Brooklyn, she introduced a cocktail called the Yayo Hipster, a take on a classic Madrileño cocktail, the Yayo

Even at bars without overtly Spanish-inspired programs, elements drawn from everyday Spanish drinking culture are making their way onto menus. Queen Mary Tavern in Chicago, for instance, boasts a comprehensive sherry menu, featuring a bone-dry manzanilla from Bodegas Yuste on tap. And the Rebujito, an Andalusian sherry highball, is popping up at a number of bars, among them Fives in New Orleans, where the drink is made with Key lime cordial; Seaworthy, also in New Orleans, where it’s served with an unorthodox measure of orgeat for a fluffy texture; and ABV in San Francisco, where the Loló reads like a Rebujito riff made with pineapple-infused sherry and tonic.

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But no drink has had more impact on the ascent of Spanish bar culture than the gintonic. Although Spain can’t claim to have created the G&T, its unique interpretation, elaborately festooned in its signature balloon glass with fruit and aromatics, became the cocktail of choice for many Basque chefs like Ferran Adrià in the wake of the culinary explosion of the ’90s that put Spanish gastronomy on the map, according to Lancha. Over time, the gintonic emerged as Spain’s national drink, while also setting off a global wave of gintonerías like Ping Pong 129 in Hong Kong and La Gintonería in Lima, Peru.

Stateside, it is often the gateway drink to understanding Spain’s effusive drinking culture. At Brooklyn’s Bar Vinazo, Spanish ingredients commingle in the Majo, a gintonic made with Ginraw (a “gastronomic gin” from Barcelona made with a blend of seven botanicals), fino sherry, gentian and Indian tonic. El Quijote’s house G&T, meanwhile, arrives in an oversize copa de balón made with BCN gin from Barcelona distilled with figs and anise and garnished with paper-thin slices of pear and spirals of shaved celery. “We take a maximalist approach to creating our G&T,” says Brian Evans, director of bars for Sunday Hospitality Group. 

As more cocktail bars showcase Spanish ingredients on their drink menus, wine and spirits importers across the country are seeing an uptick in demand. “Everyone has txakoli on their wine list now,” says André Tamers, who founded the importer De Maison Selections in 1996 after living in Spain for three years. “Ten years ago, nobody had txakoli.” In recent years, Tamers has noticed his portfolio—which specializes in boutique Spanish wines and spirits, including a cider quinquina from Trabanco in Asturias and Atxa vermouths from Basque country—gaining traction in the high-end bar scene. 

With the abundance of so many new Spanish products on the market, Evans is able to push the boundaries of El Quijote’s Spanish identity even further by experimenting with many lesser-known Spanish spirits like pacharán (sloe berry liqueur) and cider-based quinquinas. “All of my bar teams joke that everything I do now leans Spanish,” says Evans. Sharing a sentiment that could just as easily have come from a growing number of U.S. bartenders, he adds, “I just want to put vermouth and sherry in everything.”

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