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How Mexico City Became One of the Best Cocktail Cities in the Americas

“One of the things the pandemic showed us is to be human,” says Walter Meyenberg, the founder of Mexico City’s Hanky Panky. “That is the most important f*cking lesson of the pandemic.”

We’re talking over the thumping din at his buzzing bar, a space originally meant to be a members club that quickly outgrew its concept, and now ranks as one of the hottest cocktail bars not only in Mexico City (CDMX), but around the world.

It’s a testament to CDMX’s vibrant scene that the city is no longer home to just one or two renowned bars that dictate its cocktail culture; it’s spread from block to block, bar to bar, and bartender to bartender. Looking at the World’s 50 Best Bars as one global metric, Mexico City counts four bars in the 2022 Top 50, including Hanky Panky at No. 13, as well as Licorería Limantour at No. 4, Handshake Speakeasy at No. 11, and Baltra Bar at No. 32. That’s deeper representation than cities such as Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Hong Kong, or Athens, coming up behind only London and New York in terms of the depth of its current class. In North America’s top 50, CDMX has six inclusions, also lying behind only New York.

A list of a dozen bars to visit during a trip to Mexico City won’t even cover your bases. And the root of the city’s surging cocktail success goes back to Meyenberg’s pandemic takeaway. The people. The community. That’s the key, all mixed with a distinctive Mexican approach to hospitality.

Limantour Spurs on a Revolution

Limantour opened its doors in 2011 and has shepherded the city’s cocktail scene from the ground up. As the bar found its footing, and established that there were consumers thirsty for such establishments in the city, it expanded its own footprint with a second location, and now, multiple bars in its portfolio, including the aforementioned Baltra Bar, as well as Xaman. The group’s staff went off to open up their own spaces, with recent examples including Bijou Drinkery Room (2023) and Kosho (2022). Other bars began planting their own flags, too. Fifty Mils, located inside the Four Seasons Hotel Mexico City, opened in 2015, and Meyenberg launched Hanky Panky in 2016. Meyenberg also counts Brujas in his portfolio, along with a growing collection of restaurants.

Credit: Limantour

Limantour head bartender José Luis León has been there every step of the way during the city’s evolution over the past 12 years. “Today, we have more complete bars with better-defined concepts, better-designed infrastructure, more solid top to bottom, and above all, with better-trained staff,” he says.

A thriving, modern bar scene doesn’t take shape overnight. But over the years, that blueprint can be developed, lived in, understood, and passed onto the next crew. “Now in Mexico if you want to be better, you have references to be better,” says Alberto González, Limantour’s co-founder. González also helped launch The Liquid Show cocktail festival in 2020 as a celebration of the city’s top cocktail bars with everyone under one big tent, a case in point of the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats mentality in town.

“Mentoring is a huge part of everything, and coming from that, learning from that, we love passing it on, with more mentoring and teaching,” says Gina Barbachano, a bartender from Hanky Panky who rose up to become general manager and partner.

“We are not jealous of what we know or what we have, we want to share it with everyone,” Barbachano says. “Walter mentored me here, and coming from a bartender to being a bar manager, I never had a book teaching me any of that. It’s always been mentoring from people. And if I can help someone or teach them or show them something, I’m more than happy to help.”

That ethos has helped CDMX skyrocket further within the past two years. The new concepts kept popping up — pandemic be damned — with new notables including Casa Prunes (2021) and Rayo (2022), both from Fifty Mils alums, and sultry mezcal hotspot Tlecan (2021). While Limantour was long the sole entrant for Mexico City in the World’s 50 Best, Hanky Panky joined the fold in 2021, along with Handshake Speakeasy, which opened that year. The speakeasy bar has just added a basement-level speakeasy within a speakeasy, Compromiso, to its offerings.

“It’s crazy right now,” Leon says. “There’s something new opening every week.”

The end result is that cocktail bars are now the impetus for a whole tribe of travelers flocking to CDMX. It’s a certified drinking destination. “It seems like Mexico City has gone crazy in the past year with its cocktails and hospitality,” says Mica Rousseau, co-founder of restaurant and bar Casa Prunes. “It’s a big opportunity, and we’re getting a lot more of the ‘gastronomic tourists.’”

There’s an undeniable momentum across the city, and you can feel the energy in the air. It’s Mexico City’s time right now. Not next year, not tomorrow — today. “In general, CDMX is in fashion due to its incredible gastronomy, affordable prices, and a unique vibe,” Leon says. “Being more specific to bars, though, I think the boom around tequila and mezcal in the world encompasses part of what makes it unique here: great flavor, history and tradition, and versatility.”

Collaboration over Competition

Among the flurry of activity is a new concept bringing the city’s two biggest groups, the Hanky Panky and Limantour squads, together under one roof: Palapa Cantina Caribeña, which opened at the start of 2023 and wouldn’t be possible without that focus on citywide teamwork and collaboration. Why should bar owners be fierce rivals, when they could flourish and become stronger together?

“You don’t see that very often, but in our case we’re very close,” Meyenberg says.

A conversation over drinks between Meyenberg and González shows plenty of friendly ribbing between the two, built on a foundation of mutual respect. “You know which bars are mine because they’re the good ones — I’m older and wiser,” González says, the type of dig you only tend to say (and hear) in good company.

González sees the prominence of the bar world today as only the latest chapter in the city’s saga over the centuries. “This city has been going on for 800 years,” he says. “Now, the bars are getting competitive. And yes, I want to win, I want to be better.” But he views the path toward growth as one best walked while standing side by side and pushing one another ahead, rather than making it an us-versus-them, zero-sum game.

“I think this kind of community, these friendships that we’ve developed over the years, has helped to change and develop the scene,” Barbachano says. “In this way, we’re welcoming everyone to learn, to teach, and we have a close industry. We’ve become this big little family.”

Walk into any of the bars mentioned here and chat with someone behind the stick, and you’re likely to come away with a list of 10 or 20 other bars to visit, the names of those you should ask for once you’re there, the drinks you should try, directions for getting there and how much a taxi should cost you to do so, the taco stand you should order from when you leave, and, well, just about anything else. Along the way, you’ll probably run into a handful of the world’s most renowned bartenders hosting pop-ups across town, an almost nightly ritual in CDMX.

“I think that’s what makes us different, our sense of hospitality, I think it’s more genuine and natural,” Leon says. “Bars here are more fun, but also warmer.”

When Meyenberg, González and co. joined forces for Palapa, that sense of unabashed fun and warm hospitality was the motivating force. Palapa is an all-day, beach-themed restaurant serving Colombian-Caribbean fare, before it evolves into a full-blown dance party every night of the week. There are excellent cocktails, yes, but if a cold beer is what’s on order, all the better. Meyenberg refers to the concept as something akin to a modern Mexican cantina. “Everybody was telling me when I partnered with Alberto, ‘Oh, you guys are going to make a super-fancy cocktail bar.’ F*ck no! We’re so far from that.”

Meyenberg and his cohorts take an almost antagonistic stance to what’s referred to around town as “the list.” That might be an outcome of their work — and a welcome one, don’t get it twisted. They appreciate the global standing, as well as the attention and consumers it attracts. But it’s far from the goal or the raison d’être.

It’s about people, remember?

“Every time somebody asks me what the new trend is in bars right now, it’s to be human,” Meyenberg says. Authentic connection, hospitality, community — the very things that make us human and make us stronger together.

“It’s not about us,” González says. “Mexico City has been ready for this.”

The article How Mexico City Became One of the Best Cocktail Cities in the Americas appeared first on VinePair.

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