Photo by Jeffrey Lane.

How One Bartender Is Bringing Craft Cocktails to Panama

Having fled Venezuela, Carlos Maestraccii came to Panama and worked his way up the burgeoning bar scene to bring craft cocktails to the thirsty tropics.

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Mar 22 2016, 8:00pm

Photo by Jeffrey Lane.

Photo by Jeffrey Lane.

Carlos Maestracci. Photo by Jeffrey Lane.

During a volatile era in Hugo Chavez's Venezuelan regime, Carlos Maestracci, mixologist and co-owner of Panamá's newest bar Hooch, found himself with no choice but to uproot his life. Moving to Panamá and undoubtedly toward uncertainty, Maestracci emerged homeless, eventually finding a room with no electricity and no bed, but with the ability to pursue life's endeavors he wished were available at home. "The situation in Venezuela was so fucked up," says Maestracci. "I graduated from college and insecurity with the government was just too much—so I decided to come to Panamá alone."

Before Maestracci left Venezuela in 2007, Chavez called for a referendum to end presidential term limits, which resulted in a series of student protests, turning the unstable Venezuela even further on its head, creating a society of upheaval and instability. After a botched first referendum, Chavez won the second by 54 percent, setting a course of action for political unrest for years to come. These events led Maestracci to Panamá, where his first opportunity for work was in the country's burgeoning bar scene. Having once worked as a bartender in Venezuela, Maestracci's skills fit the bill.

Photo by Jeffrey Lane.

Photo by Jeffrey Lane.

His first acquaintance and introduction to Panamá's bartending circle was fellow bartender Benny Cedeño, who would go on to co-own Hooch with Maestracci. Moving quickly up the ranks, Maestracci began as head bartender of Atelier in Casco Viejo while becoming a brand ambassador for Felipe Motta, one of the most lucrative companies in Panamá. Maestracci and Cedeño quickly realized they shared the same interests in opening a bar differing from the norm in Panamá's current scene, as before Hooch, there wasn't a bar in Panamá dedicated to cocktails and the art of mixology.

"It's a bartenders dream to open your own bar," says Maestracci, as he recounts the hard work and effort it took to see Hooch into fruition with Cedeño. And Hooch isn't your typical Panamá City bar, as the ethos aren't in tune with the highly clichéd yet vastly popular Panamanian tropical innuendos, as it focuses on a time in the American 1920s, when speakeasies were king and the Prohibition Era ushered a new movement of mixology, one where bartenders tinkered with ingredients to fuse the perfect concoctions, making liquor more palatable.

Photo by Michaela Trimble.

Photo by the author.
Photo by Michaela Trimble. Photo by the author.

"I chose it to show thanks to this period of time," says Maestracci. "It's when mixology was born. I see this as the golden era of cocktails."

When asked why he settled on the name Hooch, Maestracci relates it to home brewing of the 1920s. "Hooch is synonymous with moonshine," says Maestracci. "It's slang for liquor, and in the Prohibition Era, people used this as a term to cover for what they were really doing."

And now that Hooch is set to open on March 30, Maestracci is elated with how things have progressed. "I feel incredibly happy. I want to live up to the expectations I set for myself," says Maestracci. "I think this is how a mother must feel when she has a baby. I started Hooch, and now I have to take care of it."

Hooch occupies a former motorcycle shop, which couldn't be any more fitting for the outfit. As most things occur in Panamá, Maestracci's business partners knew the former owner, and after eight months of passing special permissions and receiving the appropriate licenses, Hooch moved in, keeping the black and white tiled floor original to the motorcycle shop, but adding brick walls, corrugated copper, regalia, and dim lights to evoke a classic speakeasy ambiance.

Maestracci is well underway with Hooch's soft opening, inviting local influencers, friends and fellow mixologists to taste what the Hooch experience is all about. The bar is officially an Absolut Elyx brand house, and currently the only Woodford Reserve brand house in Latin America. Much of these accolades are due to Maestracci's innovative use of local ingredients, like maracuja (passion fruit) and hibiscus, and Panamanian liquors like Seco Herrerano and Ron Abuelo. With a menu that began on the back of a bar receipt, Maestracci always looks for a way to add a Panamanian twist. "We make a Caribbean take on a Manhattan," says Maestracci. "We use the traditional ingredients of a Manhattan, but we add in our homemade blend of blood orange syrup." And if Maestracci outshines in one area more than the other, it's in his ability to be part mixologist and part scientist, as he always looks for a way to fuse his own liquors or make his own secret syrups. To make the blood orange syrup, Maestracci combines the juice of a blood orange with one part honey, then adds blood orange zest, a pinch of salt, and lemongrass chunks. He heats the concoction for 15 minutes, which creates a unique syrup, only available at Hooch.

Photo by Jeffrey Lane.

Photo by Jeffrey Lane.
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And what's Maestracci's favorite drink? To make: a dry martini, because it's intimate and personal to the consumer. And to drink: a Negroni, because it's the perfect balance of sweet, citrusy, and bitter. "My favorite local ingredients are , culantro, and aji chombo—a fruit, herb, and spice—the spirit of life. "

With Hooch's opening quickly approaching, Maestracci credits his achievements to desire, passion, and a determination to make his dreams a reality. "If you want it bad enough, you'll find a way, and the universe will collaborate," says Maestracci.