In San Juan, Puerto Rico’s trendy capital, the finest bartenders are staging a cocktail revolution. It’s the city where Ramon “Monchito” Marrero invented the piña colada in 1954 and where rum has reigned supreme since the 19th century. Ingrained in the culture, chinchorros (no-frills bars/eateries synonymous with cheap drinks) still remain a local favorite, but the evolution of Puerto Rico’s cocktail culture is something remarkable. San Juan’s bartenders are adventurous, creative and competitive; pit them against any of their colleagues in London, New York or Paris and they will instantly impress while simultaneously making life long friends. They are concocting their own bitters, sourcing local ingredients to make shrubs, experimenting with unique fat washes and using their beloved ron de Puerto Rico to make variations of classics. It’s an exciting time to drink in San Juan. Here, our picks for the best watering holes for a thirsty night in the Caribbean:
Over the last few years, La Calle Loíza has become quite the drinking and dining destination. Still up and coming, it’s become a Brooklyn outpost of sorts, making the price tag appealing to business owners. La Coctelera, brain child of Jorge Busch, focuses on seasonal, local products. For his Que Mamey, Jorge sources cacao from Ponce to make the extract and procures mamey zapote, an exotic fruit, from Isabela on the island’s west coast. What started as a cocktail bar, soon evolved to an excellent gastropub. The chicken and waffles are on point and the beef tartar with béarnaise sauce and quail egg is an excellent starter. Facebook Page.
This Old San Juan bar rightfully sits at #31 on the World’s Best Bar List. Once called Hijos de Borinquen (the stencil proudly adorns the back wall), the bar was a oasis for the city’s free-spirited artists and independent thinkers. Today, this nostalgic spot remains a favorite in Old San Juan. Whether you sit at the bar, indulge in a wine cocktail at VINO (see below) or dance the night away in Shing-A-Ling (known to host famous salsa players), La Factoría is always a good time. Popular drinks include the lavender mule with lavender infused ginger tea and the spiced old fashioned with Facto bitters and Don Q Gran Añejo. Facebook Page.
Bar La Unidad
With its low ceilings, sexy ambiance and classic 1920s music, you’ll wish this was your neighborhood bar. Located in Miramar, a residential section of San Juan, it’s easy to miss – the only marker is a red-link logo representing the three owners. This unpretentious bar, straight out of Peaky Blinder’s, is an ideal place to sip an after-work cocktail. Facebook Page.
Touro transports you to the Golden Age of Cocktails, a time when an apothecary was a bartender’s playground. Shrubs and bitters were used for medicinal proposes and Fernet Branca, a bitter herbal liqueur, was known to cure stomach aches. Perfumes, aromas, rose and elixirs all play a part at Touro, where Joey Fernandez is your botanical bartender. Try the Pink Branca with Gin (a favored pre-prohibition spirit), Fernet and Punt e Mes. tourorestaurant.com.
These guys take the whole speakeasy thing very seriously – you’ll have to check your Instagram to get the night’s password. Guarded by a well-clad gentleman, the wrought-iron door behind La Bartola opens to a vibrant atmosphere, and is quite a party scene on weekends. Try the brown butter fat wash rum neat or in an Old Fashioned with chocolate bitters. Instagram Page.
The bar at Santaella is one of the prettiest and best-stocked on the island. The swank bar and restaurant, owned by chef Jose Santaella, is modern tropical with exposed walls, an interior garden and papaya wallpaper. Sit at the bar and get to know house mixologists Jonathan Meléndez and Michael Norat, both winners of the World Class Competition. These days, the boys are looking to fresh produce and herbs to infuse their cocktails. The herbs come from the restaurant’s tower garden and the passionfruit in Michael’s ‘La Parchita’ is sourced from the farmer’s market down the street. Don’t skip the food here. Order the goat cheese quesadilla with white truffle oil and the tuna skewers. josesantaella.com.
This dive bar is an institution. Owner and ex-pat David Jones moved to the Island in the 60s, drawn by the beautiful weather and gorgeous women. The Hemingway of Puerto Rico, Mr. Jones created a free-spirited, welcome-all atmosphere that lives on today. Don’t expect a dehydrated lemon or fancy coupes. Here, it’s all about Medalla beer, Ron de Barrilito shots, Cuba Libres in plastic cups and a game of pool. If you find space, sign your name on the wall (its never been painted). Who knows, maybe you’ll run into Benicia del Toro, he’s been known to frequent the bar. Facebook Page.
Tucked behind the infamous La Factoría cocktail bar is a small piece of wine heaven. As soon as you step through the swinging wooden door, your first reaction will be that of pure surprise. Who would have thought this exists? Choose from the well-curated wine list by Sommelier Franco Busó or try one of their specialty wine cocktails. Particularly noteworthy is the Message in a Bottle with Barrilito 3 Estrellas rum, rose honey, citrus and cava. Facebook Page.
Isla Verde, known for its beautiful beaches and ritzy hotels, has lacked in quality food and drink. Newcomer Pera Maraya is a much needed addition to the area. The atmosphere is romantic, perfect for date night. Try the Mr. Martínez, a twist on the classic 1880s cocktail where bourbon is swapped for Old Tom Gin, Pamplemousse Liqueur is added for sweetness, and the kick from the hellfire bitters gives the drink a wonderful balance. Facebook Page.
Science lab meets bar in Santurce’s La Penúltima. A centrifuge is used to clarify juices, liquid nitrogen to chill glasses and CO2 is pumped to give you a perfectly carbonated beverage. Just ask owner Stephen Hoppe how he makes his banana simple syrup for the Daiquiri, you’ll be dazzled by the lengthy process. For those of you wanting a beer, there are always great drafts to choose from. Do order the burger, it’s one of the best in town. Facebook Page.
This corner bar in the heart of Santurce is a Puerto Rican hipster’s paradise. It’s in the middle of the arts district, surrounded by galleries and impressive murals by local and international artists. Order a beer or a Don Q con toronja, or fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and take in the scenery. You’ll see locals playing dominos on the sidewalk, makeshift pit masters grilling pinchos, pork or chicken skewers, and once the salsa comes on, dancing spills onto the street. Facebook Page.
Tropical meets sexy at JungleBird, the newest venture by La Factoría owners Roberto Berdecia and Leslie Cofresí, along with Bar Mini veteran Chuck Rodríguez. It’s all about Tiki versus Tropical where here the Mai Tai is infused with achiote, and soursop is added to the Voo Doo Fashioned. Chacón’s Guilty Pleasure, named after talented and bootylicious salsa dancer Iris Chacón, is ingenuously served in a clear cup, representative of her sexy curves. Facebook Page.
At this Santurce meets Brooklyn restaurant, the bar menu has evolved from whiskey-focused to one that showcases cocktails from the pre- and post-prohibition era, as the Sazerac, Sidecar, Daiquiri and Aviation are all on the menu. If you’re hungry, Chef María Mercedes always has something fun in store and anything Asian-inspired won’t disappoint. Facebook Page.
The florals, greenery, and tropical chic decor evoke the feeling of endless brunch. Calle Loíza’s newest resident draws a stylish and lively crowd that’s ready to taste Chef Juan Camacho’s Caribbean-inspired menu and sip on cocktails way into the evening. Though the decor is pretty, don’t put this newcomer into the girls night out category; cocktails like the Vesper, Negroni and anything with the house peanut butter washed rum make for tasty cocktails for everyone. Facebook Page.