Back in 2012, one of the first article we wrote for Bar News was a piece on how Diego Cabrera was revolutionising the Madrid cocktail scene. At the time, Le Cabrera, his bar, was gaining plaudits all across Europe. Unfortunately, he left the project in late 2013. He didn’t leave the city, though, and five years on, his Salmon Guru is the first Madrid bar to enter the World’s 50 Best Bars list. In between, the bartender has turned into a bar entrepreneur.
Truth be told, this evolution shouldn’t come as a surprise. Diego’s always had a lot of projects in mind. Back at Le Cabrera, he wanted to launch a vermouth, his own line of spirits, an education centre for bartenders… « We couldn’t do any of this at the time », Diego told us, « but I always note the ideas. At one point I know the timing will be right ». If he speaks so confidently, it’s because he now has a structure in place for this, which wasn’t the case back then. « Before Le Cabrera, I was running the downstairs bar at Sergi Arola’s Gastro and I was alone. In a matter of two years at Le Cabrera, we had 60 employees. It’s a miracle I didn’t go through an existential crisis… », he explained. No wonder much of his projects didn’t come to pass.
Things started to change when Le Cabrera winded down. At first, Diego regrouped, working as a consultant for the NH hotel group and doing stuff with brands and companies — for example, he bartended on the inaugural Iberia flight to Havana. « I could have gone on like this. That would have been easy. It’s not that I want to make things difficult for myself, but I want to do what I like. When you’re working for a company, the company decides. I didn’t want that. I want to decide where I want to go and how I want to do it ».
That desire to control his future was strengthened by the circumstances surrounding his leaving Le Cabrera. And the idea that without creative control, he can’t get involved is something he went back to time and time again during our conversation. « To reach my goals, I always knew I needed a structure. I started this on my own and now we are three partners. It was necessary for us to grow. » Diego is the face and the creative mind of the venture. One of his partner takes care of day to day operations while the other one gets his hands dirty with finance. « If you want to give everything you do the care it deserves, you need this. Working this way allows me to travel, to think about new projects… On your own, the daily grind takes over ».
Twist de Naranja (orange twist), as the company is called, launched Salmon Guru, Diego’s mothership and showcase bar two years ago. With eye-catching serves, a modicum of experimentation and faultless hospitality, it became the place to be. Some people had doubts: the neighbourhood it opened in was more known for clubs and cheap bars. « Five years ago, I wouldn’t have done it here. Madrid was a big city, but it had the mind of a village. This has changed. I don’t think a big city as a geographical or population thing. It’s about how open you are. I have a personal barometer to measure that: if a city has a lot of cocktail bars and a lot of ethnic restaurants, then it’s a big city. Because it means it has immigrations and a certain level of sophistication. And Madrid has reached that stage ».
This success has allowed Diego and team to take another step forward earlier this year, when they took over a failing historical tavern called Viva Madrid. This sort of business, opening at the hour of vermouth (lunch time in Spain), is not the natural ecosystem of a cocktail guy. « It was a challenge, but it was more about perceptions. First, people were worried about what we would do to such an iconic place. Second, people don’t see us as food people. But we want to grow, and for this we have to open different style of places ». Obviously, Viva Madrid represented a unique opportunity: « I’m not sure our second bar would have been an aperitivo place if we hadn’t been offered this space ».
The launch of a second bar has almost meant expanding the team. As anyone who’s ever run a business knows, this is a problem. « It’s vertiginous », Diego confirmed. « You never call a doctor when you’re feeling good and with so many people working for us, any time my phone rings it’s because someone has a problem. But problems are man-made. They’re never as big as people think. We’re looking for good fits, not for people who are perfect at what they do. You can learn how to work, you cannot learn how to be ». Diego is also quick to point out that size is not only a problem: « The more people we can train, the better picks we have when we take our next step. Without our team, we can’t grow ».
Apparently — unsurprisingly, I would add — Diego has got « two or three big projects » for 2019. So he will need his team, that’s a fact. He feels Madrid is going through an exceptional phase with amazing bars, restaurants and hotels opening, but this brings some issues. « Some feel it’s a bubble. And I think it will burst if we can’t find people to come and work here. That’s my main fear: there are so many places opening that we can’t always find the people we need. Madrid needs to attract people from other parts of Spain. And from abroad. This, in turn, will bring more diversity, it will open everyone’s mind. We believe in biodiversity. This is what makes a city magical ». In short: come to Madrid, people, Diego Cabrera — and the city — might need you in the very near future.