A view from the city: Mexico City

Hamish Smith speaks to the founding partner of Barra Mexico, Ara Carvallo

Tell us a little about the history of your city’s drinking culture.

Each neighbourhood in Mexico City has different drinks to offer. However, a Michelada, which is basically a lager on ice mixed with lime juice and garnished with a salt, can be found almost anywhere. In upscale clubs you’ll see a lot of vodka and whisky, served in the bottle. Trendy zones, such as Condesa, Roma, Juarez, are famous for their fine cocktail bars and mezcalerías. Mezcal is very popular with the young crowd that frequents these bars. Tequila is popular among all – you can find it at local parties, clubs and cocktail bars. Craft beer is also catching on. Mexico is the largest exporter of beer in the world, and it has a strong craft beer industry. Mexican wine is popular at fine restaurants in the upscale neighbourhoods of Polanco and Santa Fé. Mexicans are very proud of their wine.

When did the city get into cocktails?

The city has always been into cocktails. In the ’80s, many shopping malls were built as a result of the US’ influence on the retail sector. In the suburbs, shopping malls still play an important part in the social life of the community. With these malls came franchise bars such as Hard Rock Café, Chili’s and Planet Hollywood, which were very popular in the ’90s. Several Mexican franchises, such as La Martinera and Señor Frogs, also boasted large cocktail menus.

In other words, Mexico City has been into cocktails for a long time. However, they were mainly served at high-volume franchise bars. Now high-end cocktail bars are growing and the number of franchise bars is decreasing.

Who and which bars are the pioneers?

Fifty Mils: The first hotel bar in Mexico City with world-class service and perfectly served drinks.

Kaito Izakaya: The first Japanese cocktail bar in Mexico, mainly run by female bartenders.

Limantour: The first Mexico City bar to secure a place on the World’s Best 50 Best Bars list.

In terms of pioneer bartenders, something that I have not experienced in other cities in the same way as in Mexico City is the large, vibrant, unified group of female bartenders. Unfortunately, machismo affects all facets of society, and these women are fighting it, making the local bartending community a supportive one not only for female bartenders but LGBT bartenders. This is why we decided to dedicate our key visual at Barra Mexico to them. For us, these female bartenders are true pioneers, driving much-needed change in the industry and taking hospitality to the next level.

Where do you think the city ranks in terms of bar scenes in Latin America?

I would say that it’s very influential. Together with Buenos Aires and São Paulo, Mexico City is leading the Latin American cocktail scene.

Do economic shifts affect cocktail consumption?

During economic crises or recessions, the US dollar becomes stronger than the Mexican peso, making imported goods more expensive. The large spirits multinationals usually absorb the financial hit caused by currency rates in order to avoid increasing the customer’s price and losing market share. However, foreign craft brands can’t usually afford to do this, so their shelf prices increase overnight and bars shift from using imported spirits to local ones.

Is cocktail consumption at an all-time high?

Overall cocktail consumption has been growing steadily, but we have been seeing that high-end cocktail consumption is increasing rapidly and the consumption of volume cocktails from franchised outlets is declining.

What are the challenges facing the city’s bartenders and bar owners?

Corruption on behalf of the city government is a problem. Inspectors use outdated sanitation rules as a way of getting bribes in exchange for not closing down bars.

Bartender salaries are as low as €200 per month, meaning that bartenders, barbacks and servers depend on tips. Therefore a large part of their salaries are dependent on the customer instead of the bar owner, and this creates an informal economy of untaxed income. This means bartenders can’t formally apply for credits, such as mortgages and car leases, and have difficulty saving for retirement. Thus, there is an extremely high turnover rate in the industry.