At Tales of the Cocktail, the change of ownership early last year has helped refocus the energy of the organization. A good example of this is the choice of destination for their annual roadshow, Tales on Tour. Foregoing commercial consideration, Tales picked Puerto Rico, an island devastated in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria. Heavily dependent on tourism, the local economy welcomes the boost. The event will also help spread the word on old San Juan’s foremost cocktail bar, La Factoría, opened in 2013 by bartenders Leslie Cofresi and Roberto Berdecía. Last year, it was named as the 36th best bar in the world.
Politically, Puerto Rico’s situation is sometimes hard to understand for non-Americans. Its president is Donald Trump, it has a governor and puertoriqueños are US citizens. But the island is not a State: it’s an unincorporated territory. Puerto Rico is both in and outside the United States. In a way, this is a very good image of the local cocktail scene back in the early 2010’s — in contact with the rest of the world, but out of the global conversation. Roberto, who has now been working in the industry for 15 years, told us he realised this when that very year he qualified for the final of an international competition. « I was good at what I was doing so I went to New Delhi for the finals thinking I could win. Once I got there, I understood that there was such a huge difference between what we were doing and what people were doing in other countries ». He didn’t win, but he took home the most important prize: the will to learn and help put Puerto Rico on the cocktail renaissance map.
Back home, he joined up with Leslie Cofresi, another local bartender with global ambitions. Their search for an ideal place took longer than expected. « After a year, we were at a point where Leslie was getting ready to go and work in the United States », Roberto said. Out of the blue came the call of Pablo Rodriguez, the owner of a place in San Juan’s old town. « He wanted us to have a look but I was very disillusioned, so I told Leslie to go alone. I’d go and see it for myself if what he saw was good enough for him not to leave Puerto Rico ». It was. Pablo became the third partner in the venture and within a few weeks, La Factoría was up and running.
Obviously, Puerto Rico has a long history with mixed drinks. It’s the birthplace of the classic Piña Colada and tourists have long flocked to its bars for rum cocktails of more or less dubious credentials. For both Roberto and Leslie, the question was « Would customers come? ». If you build it, they do, apparently. In a classic case of « you don’t know there’s a demand until there’s an offer », La Factoría was an instant triumph. Initially, they opened three nights a week, with the two founders only joined by a couple of friends. The small bar was overwhelmed. For the first few weeks, Roberto and Leslie opened, closed and cleaned the bar. After very short nights, they’d buy produce, do the prep, talk about things to change and things that worked. « We knew people who could have helped us out but they had jobs and it didn’t seem fair to ask them to leave their position when we didn’t know if our bar had a future », Roberto explains.
Five years later, La Factoría, initially a small space, has expanded. With six bars, it’s now a multi-space spot, with different music, food and drinks from room to room. Electronic or latin music? Wine-based cocktails, Caribbean drinks or reinterpreted classics? Name it, you’ll find it. « People in Puerto Rico travel a lot, they go to Miami and New York and are exposed to great craft cocktails. When they came home, they went back to drink what normal bars offered. So they welcomed us because we gave them something they were used to but couldn’t get here. I think this helps explain our success ». But part of La Factoría’s rise to fame also played out internationally, with the bar being named as one to watch by Drinks International in 2014 and making their World’s 50 Best Bars list the following year. « Before opening we had travelled a lot and made many contacts. This created some goodwill ». Goodwill is not enough, though. « International guests get great drinks here, but what sets us apart is that we’re Caribbean and there’s a warmth to our service that’s unique to our part of the world ».
Undoubtedly, that’s one of the factors why the place is packed to the rafters every week. Opened three days a week with four workers in 2013, La Factoría is now opened until 4 am every day of the week, and has an 18-people bar team. Amazing growth, but bear in mind that the place can host more than 700 people at a time. How is it even possible for less than 20 bartenders to efficiently serve them? Streamlining their cocktails: « We focus on three to five-ingredient cocktails, but one ‘ingredient’ hides more than one ingredient. With a good prep we can serve complex drinks fast ». Good examples of this are provided by some of their bestsellers, such as the Lavender Mule — with a spiced lavender syrup and a ginger tea made of 15 ingredients — or the Spiced Old Fashioned. It’s however their Piña Colada, with added citruses and bitters that makes us salivate. « The most important thing is balance », says Roberto. The Piña Colada was the cocktail of Puerto Rico’s 20th century. No doubt that it’s in the balance of La Factoría’s current version that you’ll find the flavours of Puerto Rico’s 21st century.