“The way I approach cocktails is like sailing the most difficult route, because I know how to navigate the waters, and I take pleasure in turbulent seas,” says Cervantes Magaña, beverage consultant with Medicine Show and bar director/general manager at Double Standard Kitchenetta and Craft Bar since March.
695 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Magaña believes himself to be a pirate-like player in San Diego’s cocktail scene. Sure, his Peruvian Cross placed first in the 2013 San Diego Spirits Festival’s Cocktail Wars and his résumé includes time at Bourbon Street, Rich’s, and Kava Lounge before finding his stride directing bar at the now-defunct Roseville Cozinha in Liberty Station, followed by a brief stint reinventing the menu at The Palace Bar in the Horton Grand Hotel. Yet there’s something rogue about the 34-year-old’s grasp on spirits.
For starters, all three of the base liquors at Double Standard are actualized in-house. The tequila is made with a fresh blue agave from Jalisco aged for 1 month in seasoned barrels. The whiskey is an un-aged corn spirit placed in heavily charred barrels that alternate between 57- and 85-degree environments for two months in order to expand and contract the oak. The gin, meanwhile, is a local infusion of coastal sage, purple sage, tangerine, English juniper, cassia, and bay leaf.
The liquors sit in three-gallon glass tanks over the bar’s 12 taps, but behind the bar Magaña has his own locally sourced spin on Fernet made from a base of super bitter Elisir Novasalus (an aperitif elixir made from over 30 plants and herbs, including wormwood and gentian root), coastal sage, Cardamaro, a touch of anisette, and a hit of whiskey to bring up the bite.
“I have a bigger bar at home than most bars in San Diego,” Magaña says. “I’m doing this all the time. When it comes to spirit-forward cocktails, I’m very careful not to exacerbate the flavors. I want you to understand the spirit directly, like getting to know a person on the level of realness and personality rather than style and wardrobe.”
The realness is palpable as Magaña concocts his own surrogate mezcal on the spot by firing an iron skillet of mesquite with a blowtorch, capturing the smoke in a glass, adding a few shots of tequila, and swirling the elements together while capping the cup with one hand. His face alternates between a child-like smirk and utter concentration as the smoke lilts away.
“When you design a menu, you have to think of something palatable while introducing new things,” he says. “For example, mezcal is still esoteric for a lot of people, so you can either not mention it or blend it very well. It may seem like forcing people to try new things, but the point is to get people to say, ‘Oh my God, I love this. What is it?’ So instead of listing off things people have never heard of, I tend to talk in terms of flavor profiles.”
Like a swarthy sea captain, He also likes to speak in playful and often musical puns that capture the attention more readily than arcane namedropping. Take, for example, the Mexican Radio (named after the Wall of Voodoo song), which finds tequila mixed with Cappelletti, Cardamaro, lemon bitters, and a floating garnish of dehydrated orange speared by lemon peel. Place that alongside his Summer Thyme Sadness, Black Sabbath, and Video Kills the Radio, and you’ve got a proper discography of mixes that honor the balance between sweet and sour while emphasizing bitterness and the spirit’s innate character.