Mexico City’s Darling, José Luis Leon

We first met José in 2016 when Josh did a guest bartending spot at Licorería Limantour in Mexico City, his bar that has been on that Best Bars list for six years. He was warm and friendly and hung back, letting Josh work his bar without stepping in. Since that meeting we have run into him many times, both in Mexico City (he is also part of Baltra, which happens to be one of my most favourite bars!) and elsewhere in the world. At Cabo Cocktail Festival we saw José speak alongside business partner Benjamin. In the summer we had a very random run in with him on a street in Belleville in Paris. As we were ducking into a wine bar, Josh looked over his shoulder to the street and there was José walking up to meet a friend at Combat. A couple of months later, we had another random meeting in Rome at a mezcal bar there. It seems that we are destined for these meetings.

In the years since meeting José, we have watched him grow from being solely behind the bar to being a sought after as a speaker and guest bartender around the world. He represents Mexico City, a city with one of the fastest growing cocktail scenes in the world. At least, in my opinion. He is a great leader for the City and for Mexico as a whole and it is such a pleasure to know him, to continue to get to know him and to witness all of his milestones.

 

Bartender Atlas: How did you get started in bartending and what kind of bartending were you doing then?
José Luis: I started around 14 years ago, I started because I need money to pay my expenses, and a friend of mine was working at that time mainly in banquets, I saw the hospitality industry as an easy way to find money and work. So I started serving long drinks at big events like weddings.

BA: What was the bar scene like in Mexico City then?
JL: It was kind of small. Even the gastronomy scene that now is huge, was not huge at that time. Experience in bars was very old school, and bartender character was not relevant, we were hidden, having no contact with the clients.

BA: After Limantour got on the Best Bars list for the first time in 2014, how did that change things at the bar? And has it continued to make a difference at Limantour?
JL: Appearing on the list definitely helps the business. More people, mainly tourists, came to the bar trying to find what makes our bar one of the best in the world. So of course we have to work harder to try to meet people’s expectations. The good thing is that previous pressure, now changes our mindset, thinking of how to be better every day, not because of the list or the prices, to simply be better every day behind, in and outside the bar.

BA: How has your life changed in the few years since then?
JL: I travel more often, spend more time at the office and less time behind the bar.

BA: You travel A LOT, how do you keep up with all of the travel and still maintain a healthy life?
JL: Can’t say that my life is healthy. The last couple of years I’ve been traveling too much. I have gained weight, I feel often tired, and my personal relationships are not the best. But at least after some time, I’ve been trying to learn how my body and mind can deal with this. I think today, I have everything more clear and I can start to try to have this healthy life with more focus on balancing my activities with the joy of work.

BA: With all this travel, do you still work behind the bar or are you mostly only doing special events and speaking engagements? How has your work changed?
JL: My general role is now is different, of course, because of the travels, but mainly because our company is evolving. So I’m very lucky to have the chance to evolve with them and design my position. I’m now managing our three brands together with Pablo, Dany and Odett, and traveling to show it to the world. My last shifts at the bar were during the Christmas season, but it is in my plans to come back to bartending part time during this year.

BA: We have noticed a big evolution in cocktails in Mexico City in the past few years. What is the cocktail scene like in Mexico City? What are the current styles and trends that you are seeing there?
JL: I think that this year (2020) the cocktail scene in Mexico will explode. New openings and bar shows are around the corner and there are more professional and experienced people behind these projects. I think that right now, a lot of speakeasies are the trend, but the professionals are looking beyond and are not just thinking of that kind of offering. They are diversifying the market with new concept proposals, new locations in terms of neighborhoods and of course the cocktails they are offering will be much better.

BA: What bars do you recommend to anyone visiting Mexico City and why?
JL: Bosforo, best mezcal selection.
Baltra, best cocktail bar in the country.
Nazas (just Thursdays): best wine experience.
Paraiso: best place for fun.

BA: Do you have any upcoming projects or events that you are excited about and want to share?
JL: All the time! We are soon launching new menus at Limantour, Baltra y Xaman. That for us represents the planning of 6 months of activities, collaborations, and travel to share what we are doing. So we are working a lot on that.

BA: Do you have any recommendations for people who are hoping to get their bar listed on the Best Bars list?
JL: Don’t think too much on that, and once you’re in, run to read all of the complaints about your places on social media. That helps to keep the feet on the earth and continue still working everyday to be better for your regular customers.

BA: Do you have any tips for bartenders just starting out in their career?
JL: Don’t expect to be relevant soon. Your only expectation should be to be professional. You have to work a lot, read a lot, fail a lot.

Flash Questions:
Favourite classic cocktail? Dry Martini
Favourite spirit? Tequila
Favourite bar in the world? Dukes
Favourite city in Mexico? Oaxaca
Favourite city outside of Mexico? London
Favourite bartender? Simone Caporale

Thank you, José for taking the time to talk to us!


Jessica Blaine Smith
Co-creator at Bartender Atlas
Jessica co-created Bartender Atlas with her bartender husband Josh Lindley. She is a full-time photographer based in Toronto, Canada. In her professional life, she documents the lives of others. Her camera has taken her all over this beautiful world from Cuba to Trinidad to France to New Zealand and Australia. While not a bartender herself, she definitely loves a strong cocktail, preferably one that is brown and/or smokey. She also loves poutine, pilates, other peoples' children and, of course, sitting at all of your bars.
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