Joaquín Simó is one of the great names of the so-called cocktail renaissance. As a member of the opening team at Death & Co he was one of the bartenders that shaped public perceptions of what cocktails could (ought?) to be. Since 2012, he is leading is own bar, Pouring Ribbons, in New York’s East Village. The thematic menus he and its staff are creating are rightly making a lot of noise. For this year’s spring / summer issue, 1958 Cuba was the focus of their attention. Enough for Bar News to go and have a chat with Simó.
« The first three years we were doing four seasonal menus a year but it got so boring after a while. Creatively I felt I had nothing left to inspire my staff with. There’s only so many time you can say ‘Hey, it’s fall, who’s got a drink with pumpkin?’ », Joaquín told us. « So we decided to do it thematically — a year long theme that we do two versions of ». First, the good people at Pouring Ribbons turned their attention to Roads and Travels, with Route 66 for fall / winter and the Silk Road for spring / summer. This was followed by Creators, divided between Moody Authors and Revolutionary Artists. According to Joaquín, this approach pushes his team to do a lot of research and development and to play with very different pantries and concepts.
For the last 12 months, they went with Time & Place. After New York City 1983, the team was set to work on 20 drinks based on Cuba in 1958. Since Joaquín is half-Cuban, it seems like a logical choice. But why 1958? « In periods of significant tumult and upheaval, when you have that kind of dynamic energy in the air, generally there’s a lot of creativity that we can draw upon. There was that moment in 58. The last year of Batista’s regime… that all happened in 12 months. That was a great opportunity for the staff to start doing their own research. It was a lot of fun to dive below the surface and go beyond the glitzier stuff. I didn’t want to glorify the mid-century years which were dominated by US sugar and railroad interest, and of course the mob… ». Drinks such as the Bye Bye Batista — a Presidente riff with Madeira and plum brandy — or the Fox Movietone News — a Rob Roy for the 21st century with Cuban flavours — were as good as you could drink in New York this year.
Part of the menu’s success was probably down to a willingness to stay away from clichés — a complicated task when it comes to Cuba. Having grown up in Miami around Cubans that had left the country in the early 60’s, Joaquín had heard many stories. And although he wanted to find out more about the country part of his family called home, he didn’t make the trip until his grandfather passed away (« he wouldn’t have understood », he told us). When he finally got to spend a few days in Havana (on one of Julio Cabrera’s now famous educational trips), he found it an « incredibly bittersweet, emotionally very difficult » experience. Rewarding also: he still fondly remembers a conversation with a Cuban gentleman at La Casa de las infusiones, sipping on a « spectacular » Piña Colada. « Walking away from it, more than the Art Deco architecture, the quality of the rum and the tobacco, more than any of that what struck me was that indomitable spirit of the people. They have been bent but never broken. The joy that has always been described to me as inherently Cuban was certainly still there ».
Although Pouring Ribbons has now entered a new cycle (the theme is the intriguing and certainly timely ‘As Seen on Trashy TV’), if you’re ever in the neighbourhood and want something less adventurous than the menu drinks, it’s a place where you should always get a taste of Cuba with a perfectly executed Daiquiri. Its owner wouldn’t have it any other way: it’s the drink he judges other places by. « To this day, it remains my litmus test for any craft cocktail bar that I walk into. I ask for club soda, a Daiquiri and the menu. While I flip through the menu, the Daiquiri tells me what my next drink is going to be. It’s a bartenders handshake sort of a thing. For a very, very simple drink it’s very hard to make exceedingly well. There’s no place to hide. It’s much trickier than people think. It’s the equivalent of walking into a Michelin star restaurant and asking for a job. Chef’s going to say ‘great, make me an omelette’. If you know how to take a couple of eggs, butter, salt and pepper and produce something that’s perfectly evenly cooked, no browning, gently weeping at the center, you’re a cook. If you can take rum, lime and sugar and make it transcendent, transportive…If you can make that simple sour sing, then you can bartend. » How could we not love someone who speaks so eloquently of our favourite drink?