A Cantinero’s Story
Julio Cabrera is a cantinero for the people. His bartending is one-of-a-kind. his perseverance, love for his family and love for the bar are what have shaped him into one of the best.
Cabrera opens the front door of his Miami Lakes home with a big grin as we walk up to his cherry-red 1955 Chevy truck that he mostly restored himself. “I call him El Daiquiri.” he says. He points out a vintage bag of sugar and a small area to make cocktails, including a functional bar area that Cabrera created and designed. This is the spirit of Julio Cabrera.
“I had to figure it out,” he recalls when talking about the bed of the truck where he serves drinks. “I needed to present my cocktails to the guest in a unique way.”
Born in Calimete, Matanzas de Cuba, in 1964, Cabrera grew up in a family that was no stranger to the hospitality world. His father opened a bar called El Sacrificio, a bakery that served rum, wine and beer until Castro’s revolution, when it was confiscated and eventually closed. Cabrera’s father told his son to educate himself and become an engineer or doctor, and he became an agricultural engineer in 1986. His first job was working on a coffee plantation; for his second, he specialized in sugarcane and citrus. In 1989, friends from the university mentioned hotels and tourism and Cabrera jumped at the opportunity to return to school and study hospitality. After graduating, he worked at one of the Cuba’s best hotels, Hotel Internacional. This is where he first embraced the art of the Cantinero – the serious profession of making fine cocktails: “While at Hotel Internacional, being behind the bar, with the music and showmanship, I knew I was at home.”
In 1996, Cabrera married his wife, Beatriz, and had their first child in 1997 while he was honing his craft as an active member of “El Club de Cantineros de Cuba,” the oldest bartenders’ guild in the world. In 1992 he won his first national competition, the Havana Club Grand Prix, and asked to represent Havana Club in Italy for four years. Here he learned style and technique from his Italian counterparts: the tools they use, type of cocktails and the way they dressed. In 2002, Cabrera became the first Cuban to compete in the IBA (International Bartender Association) World Championship. By 2004, Cabrera’s talent and thirst for knowledge were outgrowing the resources in Cuba. He began working in Cancun as a manager, but he soon missed being behind the stick, as they say.“I am and always will be a Cantinero. I wanted to bartend again.”
Cabrera applied to be bar manager at a new hotel called the Fiesta Americana Grand Aqua where he met James Beard award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein and restaurateur David Martinez, who were opening a restaurant on the property. The success was short-lived – Hurricane Wilma barreled through Mexico, destroying the hotel – but the connection was not. “Michelle and David told me if I ever make it to the United States, they would have a job for me,” he says.
Coming to America
When Cabrera learned that Bernstein and Martinez were planning to open Michy’s, he planned his move, telling no one, not even his family, about his planned journey to the United States, until the day in 2006 he told his wife to pack up for a trek to the U.S. During the long ride from Monterrey to the border town of Matamoros, immigration police stopped the bus to check passports. Cabrera and his family were immediately ordered off the bus and detained by immigration police. In the interrogation room, he was harassed for money and agreed to give up their life savings except for $50 to feed their children. They crossed the border, where he asked for asylum with his family, with the things in his life in one bag. “In one luggage was all of my family’s clothing; in the other, my Italian bar tools.”
In the U.S., they found a temporary home from a family friend, and Cabrera started work as a bartender at Michy’s. With a liquor license serving only beer and wine, he created cocktails like a Bubbly Mojito. Seeing Cabrera’s talent, David Martinez pushed him to further his education in one of the world’s most comprehensive distilled spirits and mixology course, the Bar 5 Day Certification Program. “Bar 5 Day put me on another level,” says Cabrera. “I knew I was ready.”
Bernstein and Martinez tapped Cabrera to run the bar program at their new Sra. Martinez, a Spanish tapas joint in the Design District. His Cantinero style, education and newfound hunger proved useful: Esquire named it “Best Bar in America” and Cabrera’s legendary Buenavista cocktail was conceived. Cabrera went on to win the 2011 Don Q National Competition, the 2012 Disaronno Mixing Star and Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender in the United States. In 2013 he graced a special edition of GQ Magazine.
Today, Cabrera still visits family and friends in Cuba and shows bartenders the country through the eyes of a Cantinero, bringing its spirit to American bartenders. He hosts Cuban-themed “Havana Night” events and trains bartenders in the Cantinero techniques. Cabrera is achieving the American dream one daiquiri at a time. And if you see his truck around town, step into the backseat of El Daiquiri and join him for a drink.