If you ask any bartender in Miami who inspires them, The Regent's Julio Cabrera will most certainly be on their list. Cabrera has been in the industry for more than 25 years, learning and perfecting his craft all throughout the world. Since 2006, he's been in Miami helping transform our cocktail culture into something worthy of accolades and when he isn't behind the bar, he is training fellow bartenders on the ways of the "cantinero," the classic bartending style from his native Cuba.
How'd you get into bartending?
I was in Cuba in University and worked three years in what I studied. Then I decided to move into the hotel business because in Cuba in the 1980s they started developing tourism and they were looking for people to become hotel managers and things like that. Because my family owned a bar during the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in the bar until 1968. I never thought to be a bartender but when it was offered to me to go into the hospitality business they wanted me to keep the family tradition going, so I went into the hotel business and specialized in food and bars. That was in 1989 in Cuba.
What brought you to Miami?
When I came here I started working with Michelle Bernstein at Michy's. We met in Cancun in one of the best hotels over there. Michelle had a restaurant there and I was managing her bar and after the hurricane she opened Michy's, and I moved here to start working with them at Michy's right away. It was just wine and beer then, bar wasn't the full liquor bar, but then they decided a few years after that to open Sra. Martinez in the Design District.
You've seen the Miami bar scene explode in the past few years. How has it changed in your opinion?
It has changed a lot. I remember when I got here in 2006 my goal was to visit the best cocktail places in Miami and I was really not impressed at all. I was in Italy for five years before going to Mexico and the bartender scene was different, more classic style and more professional. When I came here in 2006 there wasn't any bars with really decent cocktails. It was all martini, South Beach cocktails. I told myself "one day I am going to open a bar here with somebody else and do nice cocktails." That's what happened in 2008 with Michelle at Sra Martinez and at that time Florida Room opened at the Delano as well and they were the first two serious cocktail bars in Miami. It's when mixologists really started changing. Now we have a lot of cocktail bars, new openings, new bartenders, the cocktail culture here in Miami is growing up a lot.
Where do you see the Miami bar scene going in the next five to ten years?
I can see it much better. There's a lot of openings now, there are a lot of people coming from all the cities like New York, London, San Francisco, to open bars in Miami because they have seen Miami has a lot of potential here and for the amount of tourism we have and its pretty new in the mixology culture. It's not like NYC of San Francisco now but in five years we will be in the same level as those cities in terms of great cocktail bars and bartenders. In five years, it's going to be huge for us.
You've lived all over the world bartending and have earned a lot of accolades - what would you say is your greatest achievement so far in your career?
I think now at the Regent Cocktail Club. I have worked in a lot of bars in 25 years and every bar is really different and now at the Regent Cocktail Club is the kind of place I've been looking for my entire life. It's very classic and I am a classic guy as well, I like to wear vest, ties, suits, very elegant. Not so much high volume because it allows me to talk to the customers and interact with them. The Regent I have learned a lot with the new classics and the way we were doing we are improving every day. So for me the best achievement is working in that bar.
What was it like gracing the cover GQ?
Being on the cover and winning the Most Imaginative Bartender of the Year was a life changing event. Coming from Cuba I didn't really know what it meant to be on the cover of GQ, for me it was important but I didn't know how big it was until people told me "oh it's huge" and people were calling me and recognizing me everywhere I go. It was huge.
Speaking of GQ, you are known around town for your classic style. How'd you develop that?
When we opened Regent Cocktail club we were trying to be a little different in the way we dress. I remember some years ago in Italy I was using a suit and tie, so here we decided to go suit and tie. Really classic with a handkerchief and other touches and I like it because it is classic and elegant at the same time.
Recently you taught a "cantinero" class at Bacardi Headquarters - what exactly is a cantinero?
It's the way we call bartender in Cuba. It's a word that comes from 200 years ago in Spain. In Cuba to be a cantinero or bartender you have to go to school for one or two years. One year is minimum, two years is more advance. It's a profession - it's not a job for a year to make some money, no no no, when you go to school to be a cantinero it's for life. You have to study a lot of things in order to be a cantinero. All the details, the history, three languages, know by heart a lot of cocktails, technique. It's a legacy, it's a pride. There are lots of attributes they should have too. They should be elegant, clean, intelligent. There are a lot of details that I wanted to share with people in the US because it's the way I work and the way I am and it's a little different than American style. People wanted to learn more about the cantinero style, it's the "professional way of making cocktails" is the way I call it.
Every course is three classes and after the third class then after they graduate they get a certificate and pin saying they have officially graduated from the canitnero class. After we finish in Miami, the plan with Bacardi to go to other cities because we have some people that want the classes as well.
You've been in the industry for 25 years, what's your best advice for someone just starting out?
You can learn as much as you can about technique but the most important is the hospitality. It's the reason we are behind the bar, to make people happy. It's not to make a drink, the drink is secondary. My biggest advice is for people to be more friendly, work on cocktails and technique, and have the passion because when you have the passion you can do whatever you want.
What's next for you? What are your upcoming projects?
Next is keep going with the cantinero classes which I love to teach and my biggest goal is to teach not just in Miami but everywhere and to keep the Regent at the same level of hospitality and cocktails. I've been consulting but now that I'm managing partner at the Regent I don't think I will be too much.
There is a lot of debate between the term bartender and mixologist, which one do you prefer?
Since opening the Regent two years ago on my business card it says "cantinero." I think it's the way I define what I am doing. It's professional bartender, something you take seriously. Mixologist is the one that is focusing on the mix in the cocktail. I don't think the hospitality is part of the mix. Cantinero is more complete - cocktail making, technique and hospitality as well.