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Shaking It Up In Tulum

by Nandini Natasha Austin

Series: Journey through Cocktails

A few days in the life of The Cocktail Architect. Yusef, my son Revel and I headed to Tulum, Mexico to create a new bar program for Hotel Esencia.

One sip of the Jamaica cooler and I was back at Hotel Esencia. There I was, sitting under the canopy of their thatched bar, with the nearby ocean waves offering up a steady, gentle rhythm. All that I can remember now is that it felt like heaven.

How could a cocktail create so much nostalgia? Well, it’s a luscious drink to start with – a combination of a tart hibiscus tea and vodka, topped off with prosecco and a few grapes to add a jaunty note.

The drink is light and refreshing, two words that I would also confer on the engaging time we recently spent in Tulum, one of the best-preserved coastal Mayan sites. We would be working directly with the management and staff professionals at Hotel Esencia, situated along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea.

The Cocktail Architect team – Yusef and myself that is – were to be assisted this time by my young son Revel. With a serious look on his face, he convinced me that he must also attend so that he might protect me by holding off the iguanas I had just told him about. (Not to worry dear reader, as the peaceful iguanas we met were more interested in joining the guests in laying about under the sun and perfect blue skies.)

So what was so special about the Hotel Esencia? The magic started with its unique beginnings. Rather than it starting out as a project of some large, international hotel chain, the Hotel Esenciawas instead the personal villa of an Italian duchess; she was intent on creating a private hideaway home that took advantage of its very private setting – 50 acres of comfortable architecture and lush vegetation that comes with a serene, private beach on the Mayan Riviera. For those looking at a map, it’s on the Caribbean, midpoint between Tulum and Playa del Carmen, Mexico .

With its 29 suites (no door numbers either) with a central villa, we enjoyed a level of hospitality that most of us have never experienced. The quiet attentiveness of the staff made us feel as comfortable as if we were in our home.

We awoke next morning relaxed, and off to work. Sorry if you’ve got to face a crowded commute, but now we simply headed barefoot to the beach bar. It had the most spectacular view, overlooking the ocean. Our new workplace for the next few days easily beat the wintry cold of our Brooklyn digs.

First up was the bar assessment and overview of operations with Asa and Juan, the bar staff. During our tour of the well-stocked kitchen, we meet with Chef Juan Carlos to discuss drink and food pairing, as well as learn from him some striking seasonal ingredients we might want to explore.

By this time, our thoughts had turned towards lunch. So, to soak in some of the local culture, we headed to a close by spot recommended by the team. We weren’t disappointed, one immediate favorite is called Pirates Cocktails – a mixed seafood salad served in a bubble glass. This paired nicely with the tasty, local Mexican beer.

Continuing our walk, we decided our drinks would take inspiration at what was on hand locally, from herbs to exotic fruits. Jars and containers burst with the color of dried chilies, pickled cactus and tropical fruit that we had never seen before. One of our finds included a tagine, a powder made from dried limes that turn almost black. Normally a staple of mid-Eastern cooking, we instead felt it would make the ideal salty and spicy rim on a cocktail glass.

Our final stop was to a well-stocked tea shop in Playa Del Carmen. As we tasted some of the various pots of exotic teas available, our senses fell in love with a local blend of hibiscus tea. We learnt it was used widely in use in agua de jamaica, which translates into hibiscus water. It’s a typical beverage used to accompany the mid day meal in Mexico. After steeping hibiscus flowers, most of the water is then boiled off. The resulting concentrate is diluted with water and sweetened with sugarcane juice. Mmm! We both knew that this would be some part of the signature cocktails we were tasked to create for the hotel.

The key to any good cocktail menu is striking a balance. We could mix our local finds along with the right type of spirits and flavors. I also decided to include a few frozen cocktails; while it might not rank as exotic enough for some, I am quite partial to a frozen Daiquiri on the beach!

It was time to begin our real work, starting with creating simple syrups, infusions and garnishes. We were able to set up in the back of the kitchen, where we gathered all the produce, spices and teas from the market. I watched as Yusef worked with great speed and finesse to chop, grind and start up the infusions. The air was filled with a sweet waft of aromas as the various simple syrups and teas simmered away on the stove.

The next day we worked with the chef and bartenders to narrow down the tastes and blends, as well as the best choice of glassware. During the intensive training sessions for the staff, Yusef covered cocktail creation techniques in detail. Seemingly small differences in mixing drinks, for example, could add up to cocktails that lose their special tastes. Instead, he emphasized the exact amounts using drink jiggers to maintain standard portion control. Everyone enjoyed a laugh over Yusef’s tales of how not to do things, part of his reminiscences from over 15 years managing his way through the thickets of New York’s hotel and club nightlife.

Next was bar hospitality training. I know when I am on vacation I love to sit and chat with the staff. Just as a waiter tells you the specials, we explained it’s important for the staff to be knowledgeable of the ingredients and sharing their newfound knowledge of each ingredient and its origin.

That night, amidst a tropical downpour, we complete the final tasting with our host and owner Kevin Wendle. Together we sipped our way through Yusef’s cocktail creations to select the final drinks listening to KCRW.

The next morning meant we were that much closer to having to leave our hidden paradise. Whilst I sipped my tea, I daydreamed. Calling up an image of the sophisticated Italian duchess, I felt she would marvel at how respectful the Hotel Esencia was preserved, as much of her beloved Mayan seaside idle.

What would she make of the Jamaica Cooler? After all if she was anything like me, the addition of adding bubbly makes everything taste better? Doesn’t it ?

I also knew that I would be back someday to experience that magic once again. Thank you, duchess!

Have we convinced you yet that you must visit the Hotel Esencia? If so, we have an exclusive offer for you to try this paradise.

Mention The Cocktail Architect along with the booking code CA007 during your reservation and the Hotel Esencia will offer you a complimentary upgrade on your room and yes, a welcoming drink designed by us. Contact info: email for the hotel


To make the Hibiscus simple syrup

Take 2 oz of dried hibiscus flowers add to one quart of simple syrup, simmer for 15 minutes, cool, strain and pour into a glass mason jar, it’s good for 2 weeks in the fridge.

To make the Cocktail

Muddle red grapes, add 2oz vodka, 1 oz hibiscus syrup in a shaker. Shake hard. Strain into a flute glass. Top off with prosecco and garnish with a twist of lemon.

Enjoy …

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