“Pull up, sucias!”
It’s Sunday afternoon and Margarito “Rito” Munive has posted his weekly rallying cry on Instagram from his usual front bar seat at a.bar in AKA Rittenhouse Square. Kevin Castro will walk over from Parc within the hour, making the most of finishing his shift with a Sazerac or dirty martini. A surprise visit might come from Tony Jimenez, who’s had a long week splitting hours between 1 Tippling Place and Ranstead Room. Later, when Munive and Jimenez’s Ranstead Room compadre Nico Diaz shows up, the conversation for the self-proclaimed Spanish and Latino Bar Gang drifts from future project schemes to splashy social events for big-name liquor brands to hot takes on the best-bar lists. And since Diego Langarica is working at the Franklin tonight, it’s up to his older brother and a.bar’s bartender, Damián Langarica, to run the show and send his friends off with a boomerang.
This is Sunday at a.bar, where Philadelphia’s Spanish and Latino bar pros are talking shit and dreaming up the city’s next hit cocktail.
The Spanish and Latino Bar Gang is a group of Philly’s best bartenders commanding Rittenhouse’s best craft cocktail bars. You can find Munive, Diaz, and Jimenez at Ranstead Room playing with fresh ingredients for light “aperitiki” cocktails like the Ranstead Daiquiri #1. While the late Sasha Petraske of New York’s famed Milk & Honey created the original cocktail list for this speakeasy, Diaz is ushering in a new generation of drinks, bringing Cuban flare to a tiki favorite by honing in on freshness. Diaz — who is Cuban — has even sourced a sugar cane press machine and batched concentrated lime “super juice.” Next to Diaz is Mexican-born Munive, who takes service seriously, sending callbacks with “Chef” and “Heard.” He’s known to quietly sift through his mental catalog of easy-to-replicate dealer’s choice recipes inspired by a strong Manhattan, Negroni, or Old Fashioned stir drink. For Munive, mixing cocktails fuels his curiosity and pushes him to be the best version of himself.
In between industry mentor sessions with BIPOC and LGBTQ people, Jimenez, a recent Philadelphia transplant, brings the expertise from his decade-plus career in Puerto Rico to new guests. This summer Jimenez experimented with flavor combinations in a “Mezcal Sunrise meets Jungle Bird” cocktail that balances smoke and sweetness. A year after moving here, he feels grateful to have been “taken in by big fish in a little pond.”
Back at a.bar, Damián Langarica is inundated with requests for mojito riffs. Born in Miami and partially raised in Spain, he’s up to the challenge with the Fauxjito: Calvados, Nepeta amaro, honey, lemon, and mint topped with seltzer and lots of pebble ice. Younger brother and fellow Spaniard Diego arrived in the summer of 2021 to help reopen a.bar, and later, the Franklin. Diego Langarica credits his successful first year in Philly to being pushed by his older brother to test new skills, enter competitions, and learn about American spirits culture. He’s recently become obsessed with milk punches, inspired by R&D’s Paloma Milk Punch and Middle Child Clubhouse’s Cannoli Milk Punch to create a clarified sazerac of tiramisu persuasion. Trust from a.kitchen + bar managers Frank Kinyon and Harry Jamison has helped boost his confidence.
At only 26, Castro has been part of high-volume restaurants first in the kitchen, and later creating and overseeing drink programs at Butcher and Singer and Parc. A painter on the side, Castro creates drinks using a palette of colors. “Now that we have our food scene growing in Philadelphia, we can focus on elevating the beverage scene,” says Castro.
In this group, everyone is working to prove their craft all the time. But one question fuels their next steps: How can they ascend Philadelphia’s cocktail scene onto the national radar?
“Philly has been a great cocktail market for a long time but wasn’t getting the attention it had earned,” says Aaron Gregory Smith, executive director of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild. Philadelphia is a major city with a lot of talent, but it’s often omitted from national best-of bar and cocktail lists. Even though Philly is home to Top Chef and James Beard Award-winners, cocktail accolades and robust media coverage are lacking. Solomon Thomas, a bartender at Philadelphia Distilling and R&D, says Philadelphia is moving into an adolescent phase from a blue-collar craft beer city to inventive cocktails as a prominent drinking culture. The pandemic, inflation, and the absence of a dedicated drinks-only reporter in Philly, plus product inventory limits and prohibitive costs from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, all contribute to Philly’s lack of recognition. So hustling for overdue attention takes daring.
Thirty-year-old Damián Langarica’s competitive nature and educational focus helped him win 2017’s Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience in Philadelphia with his Manhattan variation, kickstarting his run in national competitions. In 2020, he tied for first place at the Tio Pepe sherry cocktail challenge with an inspired recipe sharing how various cultures contributed to the spirit throughout history. A year later, he won the Top 50 US World Class Bartenders speed round by whipping up five classic cocktails plus a custom sixth drink using mystery ingredients — all in under eight minutes. Smith recalls Langarica’s original libation at the Top 50 northeast regional finals as a standout among judges and proof that Philadelphia is filled with “generations of great leaders.” Here, he used spirits to connect Scotland and Spain: Oloroso sherry and homemade roasted chestnut orgeat syrup as a nod to his motherland; Scotch and smoked saline solution represented Scotland’s sea breeze.
After nine years of making his rounds at Philadelphia bars and restaurants, Langarica has learned that bartending isn’t just a job and competitions aren’t just about awards — there’s real growth in this business. In 2020, he co-founded Twist of Limey, furthering his entrepreneurial drive and bringing cocktail services to private parties and opening events in Philly and New York City.
“Competitions are a way to branch out and make connections,” he says. Staying stagnant isn’t an option. “I want to travel, meet people, and learn.”
Amanda Swanson, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild and a close friend of the group, is thrilled about the city’s cultural reawakening around cocktails. The move from novice bartender to professional “startender” at places like Ranstead Room, R&D, Philadelphia Distilling, and a.bar involves teamwork led by Diaz and Damián Langarica, whom she says honor the classics through consistency and technique but are creative with balancing flavors.
Diaz, el Tio of the group, has become a natural ring leader with a vision for his adopted city and community. He says their work — whether via individual spotlight at competitions or industry-recognized bar programs — shows the caliber of talent in Philadelphia to other bartenders in more prominent cities.
“We want people to make enough noise so that when people come [to Ranstead], they’ll be tipped off to go see Diego at Franklin,” adds Munive.
Philadelphia continues to be a vibrant hospitality destination thanks to these six bar pros sharing their talent and patria. For them, using mixology as a tool, inheriting regulars from previous gigs, exchanging bar takeovers with world-renowned peer leaders, and cultivating allies across the country pushes Philly’s visibility into the mainstream. But now it’s up to the rest of youse to pull up, too.