Benjamin Padrón

30 Jan. 2020
The Unlikely Pioneer

The world of food and drinks is globalized and more and more people have tasted products, plates or drinks from other cultures. But clichés are still a dominant force. Only ten years ago, mention « Mexico » and « drinks », and most Europeans would have answered « tequila » and « margarita ». « Mezcal », if you were talking to one of the happy fews and, maybe, « Paloma ». The situation has changed tremendously, with food trends a driving force. Cocktails have also played a part. And when you talk about cocktails in Mexico, you talk about Benjamin Padrón and Limantour, the 10th best bar in the world according to World’s 50 Best 2019 — and present on the list since 2014.

« When we opened, our objective was to become a great local bar, a classic place for the area. We didn’t know anything about the global lists or the global scene », Benjamin now recalls. The scene was very different. « We were the first to use lemons. They were difficult to get — here, it’s always lime — but we needed them for many classics. And there were no bitters in Mexico, so we ‘imported’ them — in our suitcases, whenever we were travelling ». Limantour celebrated its first anniversary with a masterclass from Luca Cinalli: « It was attended by twelve persons: our team, four bartenders from other places. And just one woman », he says. When Cinalli came back for the fifth anniversary, the venue they rented ended up being too small. There were 80 attendees, « 35% of them women »

That Benjamin Padrón would become an agent of change was not obvious. Limantour was his first attempt at a bar — and at professional bartending. Until then, most of his career had taken place in the marketing departments of multinationals (from Nestlé to Calvin Klein). But his last job had been at a big liquor company. « I didn’t know anything about cocktails or spirits when I started ». In 2009, at the end of his contract, he had fallen in love and decided to head to London and do a cocktail course. « Initially, I just wanted to be able to make better drinks for my friends when they visited me at home », Benjamin says. Quickly, though, opening a bar was seen as a natural evolution. « My industry experience had taught me that, in Mexico, people were drinking either straight spirits or long drinks such a rum & coke or Palomas. There was no premium trend towards cocktails »

As such, there was an opportunity. In April 2011, Benjamin and his partners opened Licoreria Limantour. At first, the ambition was mostly to survive but things soon looked up. « We had very different backgrounds and brought our friends, who in turn told their friends about this new concept around cocktails — and people decided they wanted to taste them for themselves », he explains. Part of their success resides in the fact that although Limantour was importing foreign, global trends, they adapted them to local consumers. « In Mexico, there’s this idea that if you start with tequila and then switch to vodka, you’ll get drunk. So we launched with a large menu, featuring six drinks per spirit category so they could stick to one category but have more than one drink », Benjamin explains. Today, the menu has a theme and drinks are inspired by global trends the team think will work in Mexico. Last year, they’ve also added a ‘agave by the glass’ section. At first sight, it may seem odd but if you remember that the idea behind Limantour was to change consumption patterns — focused on straight spirits —, the fact that they feel they can now take the risk speaks volume about the growth of cocktail culture.

On the back of Limantour’s success, Benjamin and team opened a second Limantour in the Polanco area and a second concept, called Baltra. Both came with their challenges. Limantour Polanco has a different service culture, for example, as the socioeconomic profile of the neighborhood differs widely from that of the first bar. As for Baltra, opened in 2015, « We had been travelling, researching trends and thought we could make bold, spirit-forward drinks. But we soon realized that our clientele was not yet ready for this — they still needed refreshing drinks, although not as refreshing as what we were making at Limantour at the time », Benjamin says. As he argues, while the gap between mature and emerging markets within the industry is getting smaller and smaller, it still remains quite big at consumer level.

At the end of the day, the Limantour success story is all about education — educating consumers, of course, but also, educating oneself and the team. « From day one, both José Luis Léon <head bartender and one of Benjamin’s partners> and I, we have travelled a lot, initially on our own dime. It’s a learning experience, it opens your mind to new things. A bartender who only thinks about his own market is not doing it right. This world is always more global and you receive clients from everywhere », Benjamin persuasively argues. « As a bar owner, you tend to think that investment is buying tools, furnitures, paying rent and staff — but travels are also an investment. Or paying for guest bartenders with the bar’s income ». Undoubtedly, this philosophy largely explains why Benjamin and the Limantour team have managed to create a demand where there was none while making a name for themselves globally. From Nestlé to World’s 50 Best Bars top ten? Benjamin’s story is an inspiring tale of reinvention, passion and work. Lots of work.

François Monti