Portugal has always been a country looking outward. At the western end of the European continent, it’s naturally looking towards the ocean. People have been boarding ships and discovering the world for centuries. The jet era has only confirmed this and, for years, good Portuguese bartenders were automatically drawn towards foreign lands if they wanted to fulfill themselves professionally. Thanks to the work of a few visionaries, this is beginning to change. Emanuel Minez, a finalist for the first Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards, is one of them.
« Cocktails went through different phases in Portugal », Emanuel tells us. « You had a flair phase. And then you got a phase where a new school of bartenders were working sour and egg white recipes. You didn’t get any bitter flavours, it was all about fresh and sweet drinks, no one really worked on classics or classics-inspired formula », he recalls. Only 6 years ago, the country could only boast one great bar, called Cinco Lounge and owned by an English expat, Dave Palethorpe. Still a mainstay of the Portuguese bar scene, Cinco offered a lot of those sour drinks and proved a valuable school: « Dave taught their job to many, many bartenders », says Emanuel.
One bar, though, doesn’t create a trend. And according to Emanuel, the launch of the Lisbon Bar Show — he is one of the co-founders — in 2014 was a key moment. « It changed everything. We brought people from all over the world in order to show Portuguese bartenders what was happening out there and create opportunities for styles that were not popular here ». This was an eye-opener, but not only for young kids. Even Emanuel, who has been involved in some shape or form in the hospitality industry for 24 years, thought he could do more. He had been running Cais da Praia, a widely successful beach bar and restaurant outside of Lisbon for almost ten years and sensed there was an opportunity for something more sophisticated in town. In 2015, he launched Red Frog with Paulo Gomes.
« I saw that in every big European city you had a speakeasy-style bar. Not in Lisbon », he now recalls. Because they had nothing to model themselves on back home and wanted to learn from the best, they invited Marian Beke — then at London’s Nightjar — to Lisbon. « He was the reference at the time. He taught us about the style of cocktails but most of all about how to garnish drinks or style them for Instagram ». Communication was a war that needed to be won: if your townsfolk don’t know the kind of bar or drinks you’re about to offer, you face an uphill battle. « The first year was very tough. People didn’t understand the way we were working, they didn’t understand we only offered a seated service. It just didn’t match the type of bars they knew. But we made it, we managed to change the market ».
Emanuel now says he was never worried. The fact that the format triumphed everywhere reassured him. And he also felt there was always going to be a public for places such as Red Frog. It was just a matter of finding it. « You can only fail with places such as Red Frog if you’re really bad at it. It’s a cosy atmosphere tailored for people who are not looking for a party. It’s about having a chat with your friends and enjoying your drinks. I always say the money a bar makes is not related to the price of the drinks — it’s about how much time clients spend in your bar ».
The success of Red Frog — perhaps the most internationally successful Portuguese bar ever — has had a tremendous impact on the national scene. Portuguese bartenders, usually only respected for their work abroad, are now making a name for themselves in Algarve or Oporto. It even changed the way Emanuel approached drink programs at his first restaurant bar. « It’s a beach bar, so we have a happy hour with Piña Coladas, Mojitos, Caipirinhas… But now we also sell stronger cocktails such as the Negroni », he says.
This year also saw him open a third bar, called Monkey Mash, which may be halfway between his other two establishments. « We initially made a mistake because it was described as ‘Red Frog’s newest little brother’ but it’s a completely different concept. It’s a modern, tropical bar where we work with alternative products — we don’t have big brands, our gin is actually a Brazilian gin, for example ». Despite the initial communication hiccup, business is good, Emanuel says. And he wants to incorporate food, because « to make money only with cocktails remains tough ».
This latest observation seems to indicate that, although things are way better than they used to be for the Portuguese bar scene, much progress can be made. Emanuel agrees: « This is not Portugal’s best moment. It’s still to come, at the moment we’re in the growth phase ». As factors that will guarantee that future growth, he points out education (« Many bartenders still don’t know their classics, they do signature drinks directly but you need the classics to educate clients ») and self-belief: « We’re very tough on ourselves. We need to help each other in order to expand the client-base and create a strong cocktail market ». In spite of all his success, Emanuel keeps an eye on the wider picture. This should stand him in good stead for future challenges.