We sat down with Gabriela Cascado, head bartender at The Dakota Bar Manchester, to discuss her colourful career in mixology.
Born in Venezuela, Gabriela’s bartending vocation has seen her work in a plethora of bars across three countries. Now based in the UK, she took time out from her home bartender mixology masterclass to share her personal story and thoughts on the bartending profession.
How did you get into mixology? Tell us about your experience and how you got to where you are today
A friend of mine asked me if I could help him to run a pop-up Christmas market bar back in Venezuela. In Latin America, everybody likes to celebrate with a drink after shopping,
At this small pop-up bar, we served cocktails like Coco Locos and Mojitos. It was during this time that I realised I really liked bartending. I used to study accountancy as I really like numbers but, as I got more into mixology, I realised that my desired profession was more social than just being sat behind a desk. I went on an international bartending course.
After that, I started working in small café style bars and restaurants before moving onto hotel bars, like where we are now in Dakota Manchester. Since then, I’ve lived in three different countries, meeting lots of people and experiencing different cultures just from finding a passion for making cocktails.
I love putting a bit of myself into a cocktail and sharing it with someone. It’s amazing that I found this career after eight years by mistake, but here I am on another continent still doing it!
Tell us more about The Lakes inspired cocktails you’ve created…
Classics are called classics for a reason. With The Lakes Blended Whisky and Classic Gin flavour profiles, they make classic cocktails even better with a more refreshing taste.
For the whisky serve, I decided to go with a recognisable cocktail – The Boulevardier. This includes equal measures of The Lakes whisky, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Sipello English aperitif liqueur. I opted for Sipello instead of Campari, as the gooseberry flavour complements the whisky nicely. The dashes of orange bitters help bring all the ingredients together for a refreshing flavour.
And for the gin cocktail, I chose Corpse Reviver No.2. There are actually three different versions of the Corpse Reviver, but only the second one survived the prohibition era. It includes white Vermouth, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup, and an absinthe rim, The Lakes Gin provides a crisp and balanced citrus taste.
What inspires you when creating a new cocktail? Do you follow a certain process?
It all depends on how I feel when I wake up that day. I feel like I go through different creative procedures based on my mood. Some days I wake up and decide I want something fruity and go to the back bar and mix lots of fruity flavours together.
Sometimes I go a little deeper and ask what do I want to do with a cocktail? Is it to go with a particular dish as a food pairing or do I want to make a cocktail to please a particular crowd? With so many options available, I find it easy to create a crowd-pleasing cocktail that I won’t be particularly proud of. On the other hand, I can create a really niche cocktail that only myself and a select few bartenders will like but I’ll feel very proud and protective of.
As I’ve developed and improved as a bartender, my methods and tastes have changed. To begin with, I chose ingredients like blue curacao and grenadine to make my cocktails pink, blue or anything bright. Bright cocktails used to be the best thing in the world to me! Now, I’ve shifted from tropical flavours to creations that include Chambord or St Germain, which creates a more floral, delicate, and sophisticated taste.
You naturally move on from liking sweet cocktails to more bitter flavours, this is where I started. It’s all a discovery process and you open your palate to discover new tastes which is a big part of the creative process.
Taste or presentation… which one is more important?
That’s tricky. It’s going back to the point of reading your guest and knowing what they want.
If they want a drink that’s Instagram friendly, then it’s about making the cocktail as Instagrammable as possible. Put sprinkles, glitter, bubble gum, candy cuttings – anything you can to make that happen!
On the other hand, a bartender can choose to go very minimalist. They say we eat food with the eyes first and it’s the same concept with drinks. But
In the recent era of mixology, I feel like we have been guilty of sacrificing flavour for the presentation. Something that looks amazing doesn’t necessarily taste the best. So, bringing back the classic-inspired cocktails with straightforward recipes will help shift the focus back to flavour.
What is the most unusual or eye-catching ingredient you’ve used?
In a cocktail competition recently, I created a carrot spiced syrup to replicate a carrot cake flavour. But when people read carrot, they are initially confused as it’s a root vegetable. But it’s really tasty!
I’ve recently been doing Bloody Marys infused with truffles which creates a really powerful flavour. Another recent experiment of mine has been with beetroot. I like using vegetables as they’re unexpected. People ask me why? But think about it like this, one of the most iconic cocktails, the martini, has olive brine as one of the key ingredients. So don’t tell me that I can’t put certain stuff in my shaker!
What are some of the current cocktail trends around now? And do you stay on top of them?
It can be difficult to stay on top of all the trends. We can attempt to know all the trends but we don’t want to copy. Ultimately, we want to set a trend! This all depends on how flexible your menu can be. It’s about finding a balance between classic and eye-catching.
It’s not all about showstopping cocktails, however, we are going to be adding smoked and smoke bubble style cocktails. But we’re not doing it for the sake of it, we’ll be making sure it suits the flavours of the cocktail.
When you’re not making cocktails, which one would you choose to drink?
It can all depend on my mood and whether I trust the bartender making the cocktail for me! When you know the processes, you start to judge and critique everything naturally. Like if a chef goes to a restaurant, they’ll start to question why a dish is made a certain way. It’s the same with cocktails.
If I trust the bartender, I will ask for a Brandy Crusta or my guilty pleasure – an Amaretto sour.
Another question I get asked is, “if you could only have one cocktail for the rest of your life, what would it be?” – I found a smart way to answer that. It would be a zombie. It’s a classic cocktail but every bar does it differently, so it’ll be different wherever you go.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in mixology?
Most importantly, you need to love what you do. As well as the long hours, you will be working weekends and won’t get to see your family a lot. There’s also the customer service side of things and it’s not uncommon to deal with rude customers.
It’s safe to say bartending comes with a lot of difficulties and sacrifices. But like any job, working behind a bar has lots of positives. There’s no better feeling than working in a bar when the atmosphere is great with lots of laughter and dancing.
Being in this industry can be hard and it’s only those with passion for it that will progress to a high level. Others will just find their way to other career paths. When you’re spending 50, 60 or even 70 hours a week, you realise you’re spending more time awake in this place than you are in your own house! So, I treat the bar like my house and everybody who comes through these doors are my house guest. That’s hospitality for me. It’s about providing an experience rather than just serving up a drink.
One thing I’ve learned in my career so far is that there is no such thing as being the best bartender in the world. Being a bartender is all about being passionate, advancing, and mastering techniques. If you find you are passionate about it and really practice, it can take you anywhere.
If you want to pursue this career then give it a go for six months and if you don’t grow to like it in that time, it’s probably not the vocation for you.
Can you imagine doing anything else?
Yes, but only because I can’t imagine making cocktails at 80 years old! I might explore other aspects of the drinks business but for now, this is my passion and I feel I convey this to my customers, that’s why they keep coming back. You never know, I might just open a bar on a small Caribbean Island and finish my career there!