What started in London as a cocktail renaissance mirroring (and adding new layers to) what was happening in the U.S. took years to finally hit other major European cities. Over the years, Berlin exploded as one of Europe’s most vibrant cocktail scenes, and Paris took years to get in the game but now claims many cocktail destinations, while cities from Rome to Edinburgh boast increasing greats on the global bar map.
The romantic, underrated city of Lisbon was slower to the game but is a cocktail scene on the verge. There was the pioneering Cinco Lounge years back, which set early standards in the city and now has a second bar offering its lovely cocktails in the Mercado da Ribeira, a massive food hall and tourist destination for modern Portuguese cuisine.
Over the past three years, Lisbon has been hosting the Lisbon Bar Show, and in its third year, 2016, the week drew such industry luminaries as Julio Bermejo, of the one-and-only Tommy’s in San Francisco, and Jared Brown, the writer/publisher of Mixellany Limited and distiller of Sipsmith gin in England.
Lisbon’s stronger rush of cocktail bars has all happened in the last couple of years, from the inspired drinks at Tabik to the agave spirits authenticity and playfulness of Pistola y Corazon. Alternately, bars like Double9 look the part when it comes to cocktails but suffer from awful service and partying crowds.
Red Frog Speakeasy is, yes, another 1920s-esque speakeasy behind dramatic doors marked by a red, ceramic frog. But though the speakeasy trend grew tired in cities like New York and San Francisco a decade ago, Red Frog is a Portugal pioneer. Complete with hidden back bar through bookshelves, dim lighting, retro tunes and a romantic basement setting, the bar staff serves exquisite drinks from a creative menu crafted by co-owner and bar manager Paulo Gomes.
At Red Frog, you’ll find traditional local spirits including great Portuguese brandies and a less-sweet-than-typical ginjinha (or ginja), the country’s ubiquitous cherry liqueur. There’s also Singeverga (which you can buy at the city’s great wine/spirits shop Garrafeira Nacional), an herbal liqueur typically only available in Portugal that has been made by Benedictine monks for more than 500 years and is softly sweet, smooth and herbaceous.
Lisbon is set to launch more notable cocktail bars and further participate in the global renaissance, thanks to the dedicated like Gomes. Lisbon bartenders are leading the way for their country, coming back from other European countries to share the latest technique or ingredient with each other. So you’ll find common trends, like smoking cocktails this year, at almost every bar you go to.
Front and center in Lisbon’s growing cocktail movement, Gomes talks about Lisbon’s past, present and future in craft cocktails.
(Finally) Opening A Speakeasy in Lisbon
“Red Frog opened in May 2015, arising from the will of two bartenders (me and my partner, Emanuel Minez) to open a speakeasy bar in Lisbon, as it was the only [major] city in Europe without a bar of this style. The concept and inspiration was undoubtedly all the speakeasies that exist throughout the world, in particular in New York and London, as well [cocktail eras] like the Golden Age, Prohibition, Tiki and the current age. Apart from these, there’s also our Portuguese roots, past and history, giving us a great field of inspiration.”
Hosting International Guests
“We noticed that there was a lack of spaces where you could drink a good cocktail and receive bartenders, cocktail lovers, tourists and clientele from all walks. [We also saw a need for the kind of bar space to host the] Lisbon Bar Show organized by one of the most important Portuguese bartenders, Alberto Pires, and co-organizer/my business partner, Minez. In late 2014, we decided to start with [Red Frog] concept development, so that in the following year, during the second Lisbon Bar Show, we had a place to receive the most distinguished local and international guests.”
Getting into “Craft” Cocktails
“My contact with craft cocktails began to emerge in 2004, after having started as a novice bartender in a hotel for four years. I desired information and training, which was very scarce, almost nil in this field. This fact made me look beyond for information to the international bar scene and to become self-taught.”
Portugal’s Cocktail History and Current Day Pioneers
“Portugal has some cocktail history, but this history has geared more toward tourists than to inside the country, [especially] in the Algarve, Madeira or the Azores island areas where there has long been significant consumption of cocktails.
“This meant that instead of starting to educate consumers, tourists were targeted [and things stayed at the status quo]. After the great whiskey and vodka [booms] in the ’90s, with alcohol consumption mostly in nightclubs, there were a number of local players who began to change things at the time at Cinco Lounge, such as Pires, Paulo Ramos, Dave Palethorpe and Luis Domingos, among others. They began to introduce cocktails in different spaces and from different points of view.”
The Gin & Tonic Changed It All
“The panorama also began to change with the arrival of a new boom that was gin, especially the Gin & Tonic [the ubiquitous drink of neighboring Spain]. Gin ushered in consumer education and awareness. The beverage industry and brands saw a niche market and an opportunity to invest following what was happening in Spain.”
Where is Lisbon’s Cocktail Scene Going?
“Lisbon has changed a lot in such a short time following a period of recession, which always changes consumer and lifestyle patterns. This had a huge impact on our bar culture, where it was necessary to find ways to make the consumer have fun, forcing owners to create alternatives and ways of differentiation to save themselves in difficult [economic] periods. It’s a paradox that when [Portugal goes through a] recession, the biggest and most promising moments of the bar culture emerge.”
gin, Blandy’s Rainwater Madeira, Earl Grey tea, bergamot, rhubarb, Granny Smith apple and tonka bean tincture, at Red Frog Speakeasy (image: Virginia Miller)
The Biggest Challenges Ahead
“[Our biggest challenges include] educating consumers and making the bar culture more accessible to all in a sustainable and logical way [as well as growing the culture among] Portuguese bartenders. [We are in] one of the most creative stages for bars in Portugal, but at the same time, as in the past, there’s still a lack of knowledge of the classic base of cocktails [to then reinterpret into modern drinks].
“This, I think, is one of the greatest challenges of the moment in Portugal [keeping us from] a level of other cities. In Portugal, there are still a minimum number of bars where you can drink a good classic cocktail. Another challenge is that taste [the general palate] in Portugal still remains very sweet, fruity and sour. [We seek more] balance, but levels of sugar can still be exaggerated.”
Prices vs. Quality
“The economic climate still greatly affects the bars, because all the tourists who visit us always say that the price versus quality [of cocktails/bars in Portugal] is the best they have ever encountered. This is undoubtedly one of our assets but also a challenge.”
Revering the Classic and the Modern
“Our industry is increasingly open to working with other industries that are not directly connected with bar culture. People in the world of arts, sciences, physics, designers, even philosophers and writers have participated in how we see bars and influencing the future of [bar culture].
“The way of serving drinks, knowledge of taste, how one can change or influence the palate, creating [unique and innovative] concepts all are things I crave more of. In the same way, I still adore the Golden Age [of cocktails] and Prohibition-era drinks, with great respect for making recipes created more than 100 years ago. The mixture of these two points—the classic and change and vision [for the future]—are what makes me adore this industry.”