This post forms part of the Kitchen Talk series - interviews with chefs, mixologists, sommeliers and restaurant owners in Colombia.
I climbed the stairs up to the second floor of the Little Indian Superstar restaurant. Even though it was a little after midday, the restaurant was dark, protected from the bright sunlight outside. The strings of multi colored lights hanging from the ceiling glowed brightly in the dim light.
I was there researching an article, looking into cocktails and the mixologist behind them. At Little Indian Superstar, with its emphasis on all things…well, Indian, I expected to find a few gin and tonics and a handful of other classic cocktails.
What I got was a surprise.
I sat at one of the long marble bars to talk with Luis Fernando Osorio, the mixologist behind the cocktail creations at Little Indian. He’s dressed simply, in jeans and a black t-shirt, and sports a five o’clock shadow on his sensitive face.
He starts off the conversation with an earnest comment on mixology and his customers: “When people come to my bar and order a Mojito, I want to tell them, ‘Please don’t ask for a Mojito!’”
He started preparing the cocktail list at Little Indian six months before the bar opened and puts an emphasis on the creativity in mixology, the opportunity to combine new flavors. “Many of the cocktails here at Little Indian were created by us, and validated by our clients.” Proof of that validation is their lychee gin drink. Up till now 8,000 have been consumed …and counting.
His approach to cocktails is fresh: Luis uses only fresh herbs and fruits in his drinks. In fact, his bar resembles a fruit store, with a whole watermelon next to the cutting board, lime halves sitting in odd corners, and a dozen jars of herbs on the shelves.
The list of herbs and spices he uses seems endless: Rosemary and mint, peppercorns in a variety of colors, cidron (a kind of Colombian lemon verbena), parsley, cilantro, ginger, allspice, cinnamon, poppy, nutmeg, and limonaria, which is the South American kissing cousin of lemon grass.
For fruits he uses berries, pineapple, passion fruit, mango biche (green mango), grapes, peaches, fresh orange and lemon peels and more. And he’s not above stealing to add the perfect touch to his drinks – I saw him steal some rose petals from a bouquet on the bar and add it to a cocktail.
Luis is not afraid to create, taking the classics and changing them, adding Colombian ingredients for a new twist. He’s not afraid of a little heat, too – the mango biche picante (green mango hot sauce) is house-made and Luis likes to add just enough heat to his cocktails to highlight the flavors of the fruits and herbs.
Luis’ favorite moment is when a client asks for a Carta abierta. That’s the exciting invitation: “Make me a cocktail, something that’s not on the menu”. He sizes up the customer, taking into account how he’s dressed and where he’s from. Then the show begins as Luis selects from the row of bottles and jars surrounding him at the bar. He carefully peels fruits, sniffs spices, making up his new creation as he goes. He paces back and forth, thinking, looking at bottles, considering the person he’s trying to please.
“I make a mental map of the drink. I begin without knowing what alcohol I’ll add at the end.” With a swift movement of his wrist he takes a bottle of gin and pours a shot. He runs the tonic down the spiral handle of a long handled spoon. The creation is ready for approval. Or not.
For me he made what I call the Gringa, a potent mixed of lime, pineapple, fresh ginger, cardamom, mango hot sauce and basil. He added gin and some Cointreau, took it for a shake in a well-used red white and blue Beefeater shaker, strained it and finished it off with a bit of limonaria.
For my companion he made a concoction based on cinnamon, anise, cardamom, agraz (a type of Colombian blueberry), green peppercorns, tonic, orange juice and Absolut Yellow. Decorated with a cinnamon stick and star anise at the end, the mauve-colored drink was strong on spices and a spot-on match for the customer.
“To do this, you can’t be scared about what the client is going to think about the drink. Of course, they can return it if they don’t like it.” But as Luis points out, “that almost never happens.”
How it All Began
His love of mixing drinks started when he was young. Of course, he wasn’t mixing cocktails at a young age, but juice. Colombians are pros at making juice, and Luis was the one who would make it at home.
He left his hometown of Barranquilla ten years ago to study graphic design in Bogota. A friend landed a job as manager of a bar and asked Luis to drop by his work. When a bartender taught him a few cocktails, Luis discovered his first love. He’s been working as a mixologist since.
He’s taken some bartending courses and has placed high in mixology competitions on a nationwide level, but perhaps his greatest learning experience is working in Bogota. With the opportunity to mix cocktails for people from around the world, he’s grown as a professional and learns from hearing the experiences of others.
He sums up his goal with the words: “The idea is not to be a good bartender, but to be a good artist.” And Luis sure accomplishes that.
To read more about cocktail culture in Bogota, read Drinking in…Bogota published in Société Perrier.