What do you want to eat or drink when you explore new destinations? The yearning for most, if not all, is to absorb regional cuisine, to eat locally, and to taste flavours that are the specialties of that region. In bars around the world travellers often do the same; mostly in regards to the specific local alcohol in the glass, but travellers visiting local bars often want to imbibe a certain drink particular to that cocktail’s provenance. When in Scotland drink scotch, when in Cuba drink Mojitos, when in Rome, well you know the drill.
Garnicia madruno, known in Peru as charichuelo is a fruit resembling a droopy lemon. The leaves of the trees they grow on are dark green and leathery. Its flesh is white, pulpy, and the taste is not too dissimilar to citrusy cotton candy. It is indigenous to a part of the world most people have heard of but never been, and you can’t buy it outside of South America. This delicacy, alongside tonka beans, and the now über-trendy açaí, are regionally specific to the jungle of the Amazon. Some of these goods are exported, but the majority of the most delicious ones are not.
In Lima, Peru, Luis Flores Benites is the head bartender of the highly celebrated restaurants Amaz and Malabar. Here he flexes his connections in the kitchen – in the way of chef and co-owner Pedro Miguel Schiaffino – by echoing the menu’s dedication to Amazonian ingredients into the glasses of his guests. There is no other place in the world this kind of fusion can take place; pairing what is plentiful in the jungles of Peru whilst creating a cocktail list that is both delicious and solely specific to its region.
Benites and his team are creating their own style of cocktails; ones that aren’t inspired by London or New York bars. His cocktails are solely created with Latin America in mind, by showcasing its produce like no other country can do.
On the other side of the city, fellow countryman Aaron Diaz is also trying to stamp Peru’s unique mark on the global food and drink scene with the opening of his upcoming bar, Carnaval.
Carnaval will open in the business district of San Isidro, where guests will canter into the bar through a rolling glass door. The kind of rolling glass door you only see in fancy hotels in the movies, which Diaz has specifically imported from abroad at a princely sum. A sum that he describes as completely necessary; “there’s something magical about walking through one of those doors”, Diaz says. The entrance sets the tone of a venue, and the perfect entrance for his guests was a non-negotiable.
When you ask Diaz a seemingly simple question about his work, his inspirations, or the details on the opening of Carnaval, it’s hard to get a straight answer. He speaks with a certain philosophical cadence, pausing to reflect on the question, usually starting his response with incidental anecdotes, before finally getting to the answer. The response is more of a tale of reason, and Diaz rarely replies with one sentence. A question on the price of a certain special drinking cup that has been crafted by a famous local artist especially for one of his cocktails requires elaboration. Aaron gives context, history, and inspiration before finally confessing the piece cost over $100. There’s twenty-four of them. That’s over $2500 for one type of glass, which is for one of twenty-two cocktails on his initial list. Without his holistic back story and his reasoning why this cup is imperative, I would have told him he was crazy.
To say Diaz has worked all around the world would be an understatement. Over the past sixteen years he has done stints at Moskovsky Bar (Moscow), Limantour (Mexico City) and most famously at Aviary (Chicago) alongside former World Class Global Champion 2014, Charles Joly. From flair bartending, hotel bartending, fine dining restaurants, to molecular cocktail bars, Diaz has honed his craft in every type of venue.
Carnaval’s cocktail offering will initially be made up of twenty-two masterpieces. Ten ‘house’ cocktails all take cues from Diaz’s mixology background in molecular and the highly conceptual. ‘Confetti’ is the name of one of his signatures, which is one of the cocktails that has had its vessel especially made for the project. Guests will drink a light floral concoction with fresh citrus and Tanqueray No. TEN, out of a cup especially designed by a well-known local artist for Carnaval.
The other twelve drinks are not from the mind of Diaz or the team at Carnaval however. In fact, some of the more well-travelled guests may already recognise them; these twelve drinks have been kindly ‘donated’ by some of the world’s best bars. Signature cocktails from all around the world including La Factoria (Puerto Rico), Savoy (London), and Aviary (Chicago), will all be served in the very vessels they are served in, in their home bars. Guests will be able to taste the drinks from 12 of the world’s best bars, in one venue.
Diaz has for long been dreaming of this venue’s opening and he’s been planning its very last detail for the past seven years. Nothing has been left to guess, which is evident when he takes me upstairs in his home into his spare room. The room is filled with exotic glassware, hard to find booze, and a mountain of cocktail menus, books and literature. Aaron confirms my thought that he doesn’t do things by halves when he rolls out a to-scale drawing of a bar station set up. 1.9 metres long with every last detail drawn in to the planning; an architects’ dream must be to be given a document with so much detail. I repeat; nothing has been left to guesswork.
Carnaval is due to open mid 2017. It will be unlike any cocktail bar Latin America, or even the world. When quizzed about whether Peru is ready for something so forward thinking, typically Diaz responds holistically, giving his reason with a calm I’ve never seen in a person about to open their first dream bar. A minute after his passionate explanation, I’m convinced with such a focussed leader at the helm, the venue cannot fail.
In regards to cuisine, food spotting experts have cherry-picked Peruvian chefs and restaurants as the most recent bright star to emerge. Accordingly, it makes wholehearted sense that Peru could well be one of the most blinding in the drinks world, also.
What Luis Flores Benites and Aaron Diaz have in common is vital to the evolution of the Latin American cocktail scene. They come from different styles of the mixology spectrum: one is keeping his drinks clean, provenance-driven whilst shouting his region’s jungle treasures, and the other is a more methodical drink technician, hell-bent on challenging his clientele, co-oping his list with the globe’s bar elite, and bringing cutting edge drink making to a place rarely seen. These bartenders, the others who they have been inspired by, and the ones who will follow are changing the game for what fine drinking in Latin American means.