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Drinks+ Editor-in-chief interviewed one of the world’s famous cocktail masters – Signor Javier de las Muelas. He shared his bartending career path from his first bar Gimlet to Dry Martini The Academy, discussing perspectives, inspiration sources, and personal preferences.
Why did you choose this path? Where did you study? Could you tell us, if possible, about your childhood? What are the most vivid memories of the little Javier? Your parents were not involved in the bar industry, were they?
My passion for the bar and restaurant trade began when I was about three years old, on the early Saturday morning visits to the Boqueria Market in Barcelona where my parents would do our weekly food shopping. As a treat, we would have breakfast in Bar Pinotxo, presided over by the great Juanito. Joan Bayeu, known to one and all as Juanito, a wonderful person, a magnificent professional, with a charmingly flirtatious compliment for any woman who sat on one of the stools or walked past his bar. Though neither of us knew it at the time, he was my first mentor.
My passion continued to grow when at the age of six, I would spend hours and hours after school in the wine shop opposite our house, Can Tarafa, helping the owner to sell wine. If I close my eyes, I am back there again: the smell of the wooden barrels, the call-and-response conversations. All these experiences left an indelible impression on me, one that has stayed with me right up to today.
My parents were not engaged in the bar industry. My father was a master shoemaker; he made shoes to measure, shaping the finest leather on wooden lasts with supreme care and attention. He taught me to appreciate and value the importance of small details, the true significance of a trade and its unpretentiousness. In my opinion, shoes say a lot about the person wearing them, about their way of being. Shoes are a sign of one’s identity. Wearing well-polished, impeccable shoes is both a pleasure and a mark of distinction.
In one of the interviews, I have read that you were going to become a doctor. The professions of a doctor and a bartender are not similar at all. Unless there is something in common with psychiatrists 🙂.
Yes, I have started my career as a medic. My chosen course was medicine, and there I took my first steps in psychiatry (or rather the anti-psychiatry that was all the rage in those years). At my 18, I used to go to Boadas, a very famous bar on the most well-known street in Barcelona. It was a very small place owned by a barmaid who created a magical ambience. She was always there preparing the drinks with a lovely attitude and presentation. What concerns me, from that time I understood the importance of working with clients, to serve them, to provide with a good service in some creative way.
The things that I find the most interesting about bars are the atmosphere created in them and their potential as catalysts of human relations. Bars are the sets for life’s films, in black and white, or in colour. Bars are the perfect scenography: so many love stories begin there, after the classic: ‘Why don’t we meet for a drink?’
The service in bartending is very important, how you work at the bar, how you serve the cocktail – so the main things are the client and the service, the openness and benevolence. I always work behind the bar with 100% positive emotions, because client is 100% important.
One afternoon, I had the idea of looking for a place in the Born which in those days was the most bohemian district of Barcelona. As luck (that essential ingredient in life) would have it, that same afternoon I met the owner of a bar who was about to retire and wanted to sell the license and lease of his premises. That place became my first bar Gimlet.
We opened with no money, with a single cocktail shaker, with no stools, with none of the brass-buttoned white Mao jackets that I loved so much, but with an immeasurable stock of optimism, enthusiasm, and passion, with the energy of twenty-somethings and the support of our friends who turned customers. And we struck just the right note with our version of the classic viewed through modern eyes. True, back then we had no idea how to make cocktails, but we studied, practiced, and practiced again, and from the day we opened the cocktails were impeccable. And here I must thank another of my mentors, Epi Vallejo, who wrote a marvelous book from which I learned the art of mixing: Manual del Barman.
I would like to mention that nowadays not many bartenders understand what creativity is, there are too many professionals in single labels. But what is important, it is the base, the classic cocktails. The service in bartending is very important, how you work at the bar, how you serve the cocktail – so the main things are the client and the service, the openness and benevolence. I always work behind the bar with 100% positive emotions, because client is 100% important.
Ah! And what about the career in medicine? The idea just dissolved away like a lump of brown sugar.
In 2019, you became a member of the Catalan Academy of Gastronomy and Nutrition and in the same year received two major awards: from FEBE Federación Española de Bebidas Espirituosas and HELEN DAVID LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD (the highest award in the cocktail world, presented at the 13th annual gala SPIRITED AWARDS THE TALES OF THE COCKTAIL in New Orleans, the world’s most prestigious cocktail competition). It seems to me that a good deal of mixologists must have goosebumps when they hear these words. All this is very honorable and prestigious! How did you achieve these awards, were they given for specific projects or contribution in general?
Actually, I am very happy to take part in such events and be commended for these achievements. But for me personally it is not very important, it is dedicated to my team with which I work with. To our clients, to everything that I do working behind the bar.
The bar culture is developing more and more intensively every year; there are a lot of competitions – local, international, thematic. Firstly, how often have you participated in such events? What kind of contests were they? Secondly, have you ever thought of the idea to create a competition from Javier de las Muelas?
I am not found of these types of events, and I am not too much in it. It is more important for me the future of the Bar as a project that could work for many years and has its own history. For me bar is a very social thing where people are talking and living a part of their lives. The main thing is the long life of the bar. Bars are a part of people’s lives. I understood this one day when I was having a coffee at a bar and another customer came over to me and asked if I was Javier de las Muelas. ‘I’d like to thank you because the bars and restaurants created by people like you are a part of Barcelona. I’ve laughed in them, I’ve fallen in love, I’ve cried and now I take my children there. You’re part of my life.’ We hugged each other and I smiled and thanked him.
Who are the students of Dry Martini The Academy? Are there any student selection criteria?
The Academy for us is the space connecting with Dry Martini where we do trainings for our own team and for our clients – food & beverage companies. This is our creativity space where we meet and train many companies, managements, and teams. I pay a lot of attention to the trainings and developing the professional auditory in food & beverage all over the world. The education is a future of a bartending and food & beverage sector.
Why Dry Martini? How did you get the idea of managing this bar?
That is all about the latest time – the revolution in bartending of 70-80th. In 1978, I discovered the Dry Martini bar and connected with the creator, Pedro Carbonell. A few months later my friends and I opened our own place, Gimlet, with very little experience. After a bit of success with Gimlet, I approached Mr. Carbonell about taking over Dry Martini if he ever decided to stop working with this bar.
The instant I opened the imposing wooden door and pushed through the heavy green velvet curtains I was utterly captivated. I fell in love with the bar and its mise en place in which the sole and exclusive rite was the mixing of Dry Martinis. Liturgy, service, style, and ambience. I became a habitual worshipper. Pedro Carbonell, sagacious and discreet, had a little room with a bathroom in the back of the Dry Martini bar where the Speakeasy private rooms are today, and he often stayed there to think and rest. He would pace to and from the stockroom, listening to Classical music on his Walkman and noting down cryptic formulas on the walls with ideas that he alone understood. He was the first mentor with a theory and an ideology of his own whom I had the privilege of knowing. His passions were the Dry Martini, music and Barcelona 🙂.
I think the hotel management is the best way to go forward with the brand. It is the best location to expand the brand and work with it.
One night when I had had a couple of Martinis, I summoned up enough courage to ask if it would be possible to go through to the back room and talk to him. It had been quite a while since Don Pedro had stopped serving. Since he felt he was no longer agile enough, and as I knew he had no children, I asked in all sincerity and humility whether one day he decided to retire, he would think of me to continue his work. He said nothing and I left without knowing what to think.
The answer came two years later, one afternoon when I was in the Dry Martini, and this time it was he who asked to speak to me. I entered the sanctuary of his office and he said, ‘Javier, the time has come to do what you proposed some time ago. I have brought the Dry Martini this far, but you are the person who has to take it to new heights.’ He added that if I did not accept, he wanted no-one else to continue his work. He would close the bar and lease the premises to a bank. We concluded the operation in 48 hours. His generosity was extraordinary: with the bar I inherited, among other things, the artworks dedicated to the Dry Martini and the collection of antique bottles he had been accumulating over the course of a lifetime. We sealed the bill of sale with a few Dry Martinis in the office of my friend Bartolo Masoliver, the notary. That day the streets were awash with rain, but the Martinis were perfectly dry. I gave him a set of keys so that he could open his home whenever he wanted. He never used them, but he still kept coming every day to his bar (the Dry Martini) to stretch his legs, have dinner and chat.
In Dry Martini I would like to transparent the modern way but always thinking about the classic – beginning with cocktails and finishing with a dress code of the barmen and music. But the base is a famous classic cocktail Dry Martini.
Personally, I have several allusions on Dry Martini: of course, James Bond 🙂 who, as you know, is a big fan of this drink, and George Clooney, who once said “No Martini – No party!”, by the way, Hippocrates noticed that white wine mixed with artemisia flowers and star anise (almost Martini) has medicinal properties and used it to treat digestion and relieve stress…
Yes! It is a very good statement and I agree with you and Hippocrates 🙂! There is a connection with medicine, as also any spirits, wines and beer were used in a medicine and as, for example – gin as clean and with a tonic water. However, I would like to share my opinion with you – do not drink too much and if you drink, only a quality drink! When you drink too much, it is dangerous not only for your health but for the culture of drinking.
Tell us, please, about your DROPLETS. This is a unique 100% natural product. “With a few drops of DROPLETS, you can reinterpret cocktails and dishes…”, – they write about it. Just a miraculous elixir! How was the DROPLETS line developed? On what principle were the tastes selected – for specific cocktails or focusing on a hypothetical sum of tastes? How does DROPLETS work? How did you get the idea?
This collection is nonalcoholic and natural of 12 flavors and it was very important to create it like this. It could be used not only for cocktails but sauces and food. When I spoke to the audience, I would like to say that there are not only cocktails in your life, but also the natural ingredients and healthy life. So, this is my own collection of flavors. It’s been a while that in Dry Martini we were looking for a product able to create a new category offering endless new possibilities and sensations.
With a few drops of Droplets we can reinterpret cocktails and dishes always aiming innovation and creativity, mixing different shades of vegetables, spices and fruits, obtaining uniqueness and consistency in all our creations.
Its usage is limitless: cocktails, teas, gin & tonics, hot and cold sauces, vinaigrettes, dressings, juices, flavored oils, etc. They blend easily, don’t contain alcohol and are 100% natural.
You often collaborate with the world’s leading hotel chains. What advantages do you see in this from the point of view of the bar business?
I think the hotel management is the best way to go forward with the brand. It is the best location to expand the brand and work with it. I work with the famous chains all around the world and of course every time look for new locations.
You have created a series of cocktails with Freixenet. Sparkling is perhaps not the easiest drink for cocktails, what do you think? How long did it take to work on cocktails, which was the most difficult and why, and which became your favorite?
It was not so difficult to work with sparkling, there are a lot of classic cocktails based on sparkling. For me it was a new opportunity to work with a new brand and have a new cocktail in my collection. In my opinion, it is more difficult to work with beer. Now we are working with Lavazza, and it is a new opportunity to сombine espresso and cocktails.
What are some of the main trends in the bartender world today?
I think it is more important the cocktail base. I always think about the future of the ingredients. We have a lot of classic cocktails, and we thirst of all think how to impress the clients, how to work with them…
What can you say about the most popular cocktails?
For me it is a classic. Around these forty years the classic is on the top. Negroni, Martini or some Sours. Some other cosmopolitan cocktails are also on the top because of marketing ways…
Your cocktails, without exaggeration, are works of art. When I read the list of ingredients that are included in one or another of your cocktails, I want to try it immediately and also to ask the question: how does Javier de las Muelas work on them? Where does he get ideas for such masterpieces? And for such spectacular visual feeds – do you develop the design yourself or is there a designer working on their appearance?
I try to check out and be informed about new ingredients and references around the world, I work with my team on new ideas. We have The Academy next to Dry Martini where we work together to look for new collections and flavours.
I like creating, investigating, and re-inventing constantly. For this reason, the idea of arranging marriages of food and cocktails first came to me years ago. For me, eating is an exceptional experience, something I have learned and internalized in the course of my life.
In the last few years, my team and I have taken on the challenge of gaining a place for cocktails in the world of gastronomy and introducing them into luxury hotels all over the world. Because, if bars are perfect meeting places, then hotels are the absolute paradigm of this condition. That is what I am here for: to carry on creative settings in which people can make unforgettable films of their lives.
It always seemed to me that the world of cocktails is like a universe with countless galaxies with their countless planets and stars… The cocktail world is endless. What was the recipe for the most unusual cocktail you have ever made? Or maybe have tried with someone?
I believe in the classic cocktails but always try to taste new ingredients, we go forward with new ingredients in our Excentric cocktails collection.
A successful bar – why does one place become a favorite and you no longer want to visit another? What’s the secret? Who else except you know the answer to this question? Your bar has been nominated in the list of 50 best bars in the world for seven years in a row. Could you arrange in descending order of importance: location, range of cocktails and drinks, charisma and talent of the bartender, design and atmosphere, something else?
In my opinion, the secret is making the bar the clients’ home, to feel as at home. I always say bars are places where films are record. To my mind, the order would be the following: service, location, design and atmosphere, range of cocktails and drinks.
How much do you like and drink cocktails yourself? Or do you prefer wine? Strong alcohol? What’s your favorite alcoholic beverage?
I drink with responsibility, and I am not a fluent drinker, I love to taste what is appearing in the business.
And what solution do you see in the future – after all, the pandemic is predicted to last until 2022? This is a big blow to HoReCa – to business, to people. Perhaps, do you have some ideas or advice for our audience – many of them are bartenders, bar and restaurant owners.
This are difficult moments for the food and beverage industry, we required estate support which has not been arriving. We should stay positive and look for new ways to adapt and arrive to our customers.