Last June in Cuba, the Norwegian finalist for the Havana Club Grand Prix looked very much at home in the streets of Havana – and for good reason: Antonio Naranjo was born in Guanabacoa less than 30 years ago. A year on and he has left the cold streets of Oslo to open Dr. Stravinsky, a bar in Barcelona that is bound to make some noise. We’ve looked back with him on his bartending journey — which started in Seville almost ten years ago.
After a few years studying in a Cuban hospitality school, Antonio landed at 20 in Andalusia’s capital, where he worked at various spots and ended up making cocktails. Initially, bartending was not part of the plan, although he had been taught the basics of the Cuban classics back home — « we were pretending to make cocktails because my school was no budget for rum or liqueur bottles », he remembers now. However, the satisfaction he felt when he first saw a client’s delighted reaction to one of his drinks clinched the deal. What he didn’t expect was the reaction of his family in Cuba: « I told my grandfather I was working as a cantinero and he exclaimed: ‘Just like my own father!’ I had no idea and, suddenly, I realized why I was enjoying this work so much! ». It turns out that his bisabuelo, a migrant from Asturias (Spain), had run in the 40’s and 50’s a bar called Tres Cepas, on the corner between Aguacate and Obispo, a couple minutes walk from Floridita. « It was Spanish-style, so not really about cocktails but he was a member of the Club de Cantineros ».
This is not Antonio’s only connection with Cuba’s mythical past. « My family lived in Cojimar, where Hemingway had his boat. When he was not in the country, the kids were allowed to play aboard and my great-aunt told us stories about it ». This all contributed to the flood of emotions he felt when he was at the Grand Prix, even though he didn’t perform as well as he would have wanted. « My family came to support me, and most of them had never seen me as a bartender », he confessed. Professionally, it was also very important: « For me, it’s a starting point. You read about Cuban cocktails but to meet all the cantineros and talk about the story of the Cuban cantina is something else. Floridita’s Alejandro Bolivar is such a wonderful person and he gave me the desire to come back more often and get more involved ».
Once the Grand Prix was over, Antonio headed back to Oslo, where he had been working since the previous winter at Himkok. Mentored by Monica Berg, his stay at this trendsetting bar with an in-house distillery and a focus on local ingredients allowed him to refine his skills and develop his understanding of his art. « It was a great opportunity for me to discover a new culture and be part of such a big project », Antonio told us. And breaking into the World’s 50 Best Bar list or being nominated for Best New International Bar at Tales of the Cocktail were highpoint of his careers.
But it’s difficult to keep a Cuban up north — he readily admits the Norwegian winter is not exactly his cup of tea — and he came back to Barcelona last January to head a new place, Dr. Stravinsky. More experienced and focused than when he last worked in Spain, he felt ready to tackle a decidedly ambitious project. « In Norway, you can sell any kind of drink. They’re open to try everything, and it’s clearly not the case here », he told us. And since he is trying to introduce, on a smaller scale, Himkok’s style (including working with homemade preserved or fermented products or redistilling spirits to make flavour concentrates), he knows he has his work cut-out. « I can’t just put ‘kombucha’ on the menu, for example, but if I put ‘passion fruit and mango kombucha’, they will be tempted and then I can explain that kombucha is like a fermented tea ». Dr. Stravinsky, thus called because the great composer « said he was not making music for the past or the future, but for the present. And that’s what we want to do: we want to be creative but not futuristic. We take care of today’s customer », has been open for barely a month but things are already looking up. A Russian name, Norwegian influences… What about Cuba, Antonio? « Try a Young Cuban, our twist of the Old Cuban: we redistill rum with eucalyptus and liquorice. Have a taste and I’m sure you’ll understand where it’s coming from ». We will, Antonio, we will.