For almost a decade now, El Floridita has hosted de Rey de Reyes Daiquiri competition. International guests have always been welcome but, for obvious reasons, it wasn’t until 2015 that a bartender from the United States took part. This year, after Sweet Liberty’s John Lermayer and Cane & Table’s Nick Dietrich, it was TJ Palmieri’s turn. It was a very special occasion: the legendary bar was also celebrating its 200th anniversary.
Ever humble, TJ spoke of his surprise at being asked to enter the comp. “There are far more experienced bartenders from bigger markets that could have been here”, he told us later. And indeed, Gainesville, Florida, where he has been working for the last few years, is not one of the United States cocktail capitals. But Julio Cabrera, a mentor for Floridian bartenders and the ambassador of Floridita stateside was pretty certain TJ, who had already travelled to Cuba twice before, wouldn’t be out of place. “It was an overwhelming experience, especially since my bar had opened four weeks before and I was crazy busy… It gave me so much confidence in what I’m doing.”
In spite of his family name, blond hair and white complexion, TJ is of Cuban heritage: “My mother’s family had a bakery in Havana and left for New York when it was nationalized. They then moved to Miami where she met an Italian guy”. Hence the name… While stories of Cuba surely abounded, Spanish was not spoken at home and the Cuban side of the family saw him as “more American than Cuban” while Americans would see him as “too Cuban”.
It is ironically his bartending career that led him to the island his family left over half a century ago. As is often the case, it all started with no idea that it would become TJ’s life. “I was an athlete with a scholarship at University and to make a bit of money on the side, I was working in bars and clubs. I thought I’d end up cooking, maybe. But bartenders always had that air of cool about them. I loved the movie Cocktail as a kid and they seemed to have more fun, meet the ladies, etc”. Reality was quite different, but it didn’t prevent him from falling in love with the job. “I started in dive bars and then moved on to places where I could get creative and learn about spirits and cocktails”.
After having learned the ropes working in different cities throughout Florida over the last decade, TJ’s career took a new turn when he opened his own bar earlier this year. The concept unsurprisingly owes a lot to the understanding of the great cantinero tradition he acquired since his first educational trip with Julio Cabrera. “I had heard many stories about how hospitable Cubans were but our first walk in Habana Vieja really drew it home”. At the end of that first walk, TJ knew he’d end up having a Floridita Daiquiri. However, he wasn’t aware of the surprise Cabrera had in store for him: “At Floridita, I was told that I would have to work behind the bar with the guys. Manolito Carbajo, who I was so lucky to meet before his tragic passing, gave me an apron, his Hemingway pin and showed me the ropes”. This amazing experience would prove crucial in the development of his business project.
“Our bar is called Madrina’s, a Spanish name with an English apostrophe, because it represents what we think a Cuban bar might look like had there never been an embargo. We include a lot of influences from all over the Caribbean, and add some tiki touches. And we don’t limit ourselves to rum.” Topically, a drink that’s proved quite popular is a riff on the Presidente called the… Not My Presidente, coloured orange in (dis)honour of the current resident of the White House. Since Gainesville is a college town with a strong latino and Cuban population, music is also an essential part of the mix. “On Wednesday, we have live music with a great band: the singer is from Havana, the drummer from Pinar del Rio and the violin player is… from Poland” – ironic but fitting, what with Cuba being such a melting pot. When the band’s not around, the DJs spin “Pan-Caribbean music”: salsa, reggae, dancehall. Cuba’s current sounds also provide an inspiration: “On this last trip, I went to this new bar called Roma. That place was so dope. They played some Cuban trap and those are songs that our crowd can also get into”. We get the feeling TJ’s not about to stop being inspired by the people he now, more than ever, calls his own.