In Lisbon, the country is discovered at the table. Whether a panful or overflowing plate, Portugal offers itself up without having to look far for it. From local tascas to chef-run restaurants, it’s as easy to reach the Minho as it is the Alentejo.
It's easy to lose track of time when chatting with Fernão Gonçalves. And we can’t pin it down on the Negronis we had at Rocco, in Chiado, a mouth-watering bitter aperitif and, therefore, ideal for pre-dinner sipping. It's totally the fault of the head bartender of the Plateform restaurant group. Basking in his knowledge, as we listen to him waxing lyrical about cocktails, is in itself an aesthetic experience. There is so much to learn about mixology from this man that we decided to stay for one more drink. Or two. OK, three. “In the old days you had caipirinhas, mojitos and, if you were really going all out, a morangoska. There was no such thing as a bar station, instead it was a counter like those where you bent down to get a Coca Cola, a box with limes and sugar and that was about it. Meanwhile, the world of cocktails has evolved,” says Fernão.
Rocco's head honcho isn't the only one who recognises the rise in popularity for cocktails in recent years. “We don't have to get out the drinks menu anymore. People now show up wanting a cocktail to go with their meal or as an apéritif or digestif,” confirms André Maior, head bartender at JNcQUOI Asia, on Avenida da Liberdade, where he prepares Asian-inspired cocktails. João Nunes, who runs the Descarado bar in the Docas, believes that nowadays, “those who get to work in a bar, if they want to, they can do pretty interesting stuff. The idea of being stuck behind a bar pulling pints is a hard one to shake, but there’s more to it than that.”
These progenies of art and science, a familiar sight in metropolises like London or New York, have now been spotted in a number of Lisbon restaurants. There are cocktails to whet the appetite, to go with your meal, and to end it too. Besides the aforementioned Rocco, JNcQUOI Asia and Descarado, with impressive cocktail menus, we should mention Plano, Vítor Adão’s restaurant in Graça, which in 2021 embarked on a partnership with Red Frog, one of the best bars in the city - and amongst the best in the world. “I don't know if I was born to be a chef, but I know I was born to eat and drink well. I like to think that in everything that I have, I need it to be better than the rest. And so off I went in search of the best. With all the head bartenders I’ve had over the years, they didn't understand what I was getting at, like when I said I wanted to make a “pork” cocktail, for example. You need people who share the same craziness as you,” the chef explains.
And on the subject of restaurant mixology, we couldn’t go without mentioning Bistro 100 Maneiras, one of chef Ljubomir Stanisic's city eateries. “When it comes to having a good bar within a restaurant, the Bistro was ahead of its time,” declares João Sancheira, head barman not only of the Bistro, but also Carnal and 100 Maneiras. “It’s clear the public is increasingly open-minded and the staff are also eager to learn new tricks,” adds the World Class Competition 2021’s bartender of the year.
Whether it’s the classic and elegant cocktails of Rocco, the minimalist concoctions of Bistro 100 Maneiras, the irreverent ones of Plano, the exotic ones of JNcQUOI Asia, or the Instagrammables of Descarado, how they pair with our food is an experience never to be forgotten. “Restaurants brought with them a brave new world of ingredients into mixology that perhaps a bar wouldn’t normally have access to. I can use truffles or a thousand and one other ingredients, and we have different techniques at hand as well. Using a vacuum sealer machine, freeze distillation, infusions of oils with alcohol...” everything is possible, Fernão Gonçalves explains.
But let's get to the reasons why. “Most who eat at this type of restaurant are from post-April 25th generations, who have had access to more things than their predecessors. What they see in the movies and in other cities, they want to try out for themselves. Lisbon is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, keeping up with other European and world cities,” insists Paulo Gomes, one of the masterminds behind Red Frog and Monkey Mash, giving as an example the Cosmopolitan, Carrie Bradshaw’s poison in the series Sex and the City. But he has more to say: “the spaces themselves are also increasingly offering more because, after all, they began to realise there was a gap in their market. They had to be turned around.”
Movies, TV shows and tourism have all played a part in the growing interest in cocktails, but many also believe it was the gin craze, something both pricier and more sophisticated, that set the standard for the appreciation of this type of drink. “The gin boom opened all kinds of doors. It took a while for people to get used to, especially in a culture where you expect a glass of wine or a beer to be two or three Euros and then you have to spend 12 or 13 Euros on a cocktail, but after they give it a try they’re hooked,” insists João Sancheira.
André Melhor agrees it was the gin boom that led to “a greater acceptance in the market for other products” and as a result “people began to get a nose for what was different and worthwhile and, nowadays, they are starting to seek out a better class of cocktail.” Brand marketing and events such as the Lisbon Bar Show, which brings together specialists in the field, led to even more interest. “Not only from restaurant businesses, but also the beverage brands themselves and producers,” explains the head bartender of JNcQUOI Asia.
Restaurants changed the way they looked at the drinks menu, but once cocktails became standard in restaurants, these too changed. “During the 2000s, the mistake was made of always adding sugar to everything; it was a big draw, but it soon outstayed its welcome,” says Fernão Gonçalves. That is why, according to those who are in the know, cocktails now not only have less sugar but also less alcohol. That way you can drink more cocktails during a meal without getting drunk.
The need for speed is also imperative. If, on the one hand, “in a restaurant people are not on the clock, they are on a different wavelength and want to enjoy themselves, making it easier to indulge the customer,” says Rocco's head bartender, on the other there’s a need to simplify things and speed up the cocktail mixing. “Sometimes it takes longer to prepare a cocktail than it does to serve a meal,” adds Paulo Gomes. For this reason, most restaurant bars resort to the so-called pre-batching method, which is another word for pre-preparing part of the drink.
There is a desire to understand and love cocktails in the same way we understand and love wines. They’ve come to make the liquid diet an irresistible proposition.