Cuban "cantinero" Julio Cabrera, in Miami.
Cuban "cantinero" Julio Cabrera, in Miami. Courtesy of Julio Cabrera

Acclaimed "cantinero" Julio Cabrera, 60, revered as one of the world's best bartenders and among the most well-known in Miami, was born and raised in Cuba. He studied to be an engineer but made the decision to leave everything behind and pursue a career as a bartender. His family thought he was crazy, but time proved his passion was worth it.

He traveled the world spreading the word about Cuban "ron" (rum) and studying, eventually moving to Mexico. Like many Latino entrepreneurs, he was still in his forties when he decided to pursue the American dream and migrate with his family. His children were still very young, aged five and nine, when they made the journey to the US.

It was tough at first. The family crossed the border from Matamoros to Texas, but a criminal gang in Mexico assaulted Julio, leaving him with nothing and stranded in a new country he knew very little about, he recalls in an interview with The Latin Times.

For a long time, the family had to sleep on the floor, all four of them crammed onto a single mattress. They endured two whole months in that situation, Julio staring at the wall without any job prospects. However, he was determined to try everything to succeed and fulfill his dream of making a mark as a bartender in Miami.

Julio Cabrera
Julio Cabrera Courtesy of Julio Cabrera

Eighteen years later, Bar La Trova, his flagship spot, has earned its place in the city's heart, and propelled him to the summit. The cocktail bar ranked 24th in the World's 50 Best Bars in 2023, being the only one from Miami on the list and the third in the entire United States overall.

That same spirit has driven him to open his new bar, La Cumbancha, featuring the same artistry that characterizes every drink but with a completely renewed concept, which seeks to evoke Little Havana in the 70s and the way the Cuban community was transforming Miami back then.

"I knew I had to go at my own pace and prioritize learning over immediate financial gains. I dedicated myself to studying, finding the most important bartender courses in the United States, and devouring every book on the subject," he said.

Where did your love for the classical Cuban "cantinero" profession come from?

I was born in Calimete, in the province of Matanzas, a small town in Cuba, where my family owned a very successful café-bar. I remember I would sneak out to buy sweets. They sold tobacco, coffee, beer, rum, and cocktails. In 1968, when I was four years old, the Cuban Revolution intervened in my father's bar, so as I grew up, I had to seek other opportunities. I became an agronomist, and later a citrus nutrition researcher in Cuba. But my personality didn't suit being alone in a lab all day. I've always preferred being surrounded by people, and I love entertainment and music.

What did you do?

Several people told me about opportunities in tourism in Cuba, and I ended up studying hotel management in Europe. I returned to the island and worked as a food and beverage manager in hotels. I was selected to represent Cuban rums abroad and spent several years traveling through Italy and other countries promoting Cuban rum. Meanwhile, I had been taking bartender courses, and I was also teaching. Then, I received a job offer in Mexico, where I could bring my family. After a few years in Mexico, we moved to Miami in search of a better future, doing what I knew was the right path for me.

For many people, transitioning from a traditional professional career to becoming a bartender may seem like a step back in terms of salary. What do you think led you to make that decision?

There was something that made me very happy when I was behind the bar making cocktails and interacting with customers. It was an energy that took over me. I felt like a fish in water. It was something that I noticed from the very beginning, and I fell in love with the bar. Even after I had have management positions. That didn't make me happy. So that led me to step back and continue as a bartender in Cuba.

Cafe La Trova has been in World's 50 Best Bars since 2020, how does it feel to achieve this milestone?

It feels immensely fulfilling. Satisfaction in knowing that the steps you took and the decisions you made were the right ones. Even though my parents opposed that change because, of course, they fought hard for me to become an agronomist, to attend university, and to have a profession. But destiny and my inner self told me that I had to do something more, so I had to take that step. To call oneself successful, one only has to do what one likes, do things that make them happy, and do things with love. Whatever the job may be, as long as you do it with passion. If it makes you happy, that's being successful.

As a mixologist who brings Cuban cantinero traditions, what would you say are the most distinctive aspects of your approach when creating your own drinks?

I believe that beyond the cocktail ingredients, the difference is the way cocktails are prepared. I have always maintained 100% of all the elements that identify me and Cuban culture. And that has been very important here in the United States, and it has made the difference in my case, maintaining the style of Cuban bartenders, which is a bit different from other bartenders. Dancing behind the bar, singing behind the bar, and preparing classic Cuban cocktails.

I have created different cocktails with other drinks and flavors not related to Cuba, and have won competitions, but I prefer to rescue classic Cuban cocktails, the famous ones or even the forgotten ones, and make them in a modern way that helps customers know a bit more about classic Cuban mixology and use ingredients typical of Cuban culture and Miami as well, which in the end is similar.

What are these typical cocktails?

There's the "canchánchara," which is very little known. It's a Cuban classic from about 200 years ago. And it's very simple. It's made with sugarcane aguardiente, honey, and lemon juice. And it's served in a clay or regular gourd. Making several variations of the daiquiri also using authentic flavors such as coffee, chocolate, cocoa, using things that identify with Cuban culture.

Also, the old fashioned, although it's not a Cuban classic, you can make it Cuban style, using rum or using bitters of different flavors. I have coffee and tobacco bitters that give it a Cuban touch, and I accompany it with a cigar. That is, all those cocktails can be made in various ways, using Cuban ingredients.

Julio Cabrera, one of the world's best bartenders.
Julio Cabrera, one of the world's best bartenders. Courtesy of Julio Cabrera

There's another Daiquiri that tastes like a Cuban pastry, a guava pastry that is like a sweet. Very famous. Guava pastry. Well, I make a daiquiri with guava pastry, and that's something very typical. Because making a cocktail with a dessert is very original and people like it. They are typical Cuban flavors that are not part of cocktails, but that I have been able to add, not like tobacco and other things. So people like it, and it's part of the Cuban identity. That's something that identifies me.

Tell us about your most recent project, La Cumbancha. What is it about?

La Cumbancha is a concept similar to La Trova, but set in a different era. While La Trova mainly evokes Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, known as the golden age of Cuban mixology and bars, La Cumbancha captures the essence of 1970s Miami, specifically the Cuban community. This era saw the influx of Cubans who arrived in the 1960s and were young adults by the 1970s.

The mixology at La Cumbancha is notably modern, incorporating elements of Miami and its flavors. Similarly, the cuisine features Cuban influences but has a more international flair, offering a diverse range of dishes including pizza and pasta from our high-quality wood-fired oven. Live music is a cornerstone of the experience, showcasing authentic Cuban rhythms. When you step inside, you'll encounter the same vibrant atmosphere found at La Trova: live Cuban music, people dancing, exceptional cocktails, top-notch service, and delicious food. It all comes together to create a memorable experience, and I couldn't be happier with the result.

-What advice would you give to other Latinos starting in the United States?

First, work hard toward your dream. Never give up, never surrender, and strive to fulfill your dream. To achieve this, of course, you need to outline a plan. To succeed as an entrepreneur, you must outline a plan and understand what resources you have and what you lack. You also need to be willing to learn or seek help by finding partners. It's akin to crafting a cocktail. If you're making a mojito, you know you need sugar, lemon, mint, rum, ice, and soda water. If you're missing one ingredient, well, the mojito won't be as good. You need all the ingredients to make a great cocktail.

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