Bartender Emmanuel Hernandez
(Courtesy Emmanuel Hernandez)
Recovery & Reopening

Pour me another: Mezcalito Manny talks bartending in COVID and beyond

As for many who mix drinks for a living, the pandemic was a sad, scary time for Santa Cruz County bartender Emmanuel Hernandez. His “Mezcalito Mixers” side hustle helped, but there’s nothing like creating cocktails and interacting with patrons from behind a bar — and he’s thrilled to be back at.

It might feel like listening to a broken record, but we can all still talk at length about how hard the COVID-19 pandemic hit the service industry. Restaurants felt the blow like a sledgehammer, but I’ll venture to proclaim that bars felt it even worse. While you could still pull up for some take-out or even sit at a parklet and enjoy an outside meal, perching atop a barstool at your favorite local haunt was out of the question. And that crafty concoction you order directly from the person behind the bar, who shakes and stirs and tinkers like you never could at home ... that became the stuff of pre-pandemic legend.

For Emmanuel Hernandez, aka “Mezcalito Manny,” whom you might recognize from stints at some of our highest-caliber restaurants, COVID abruptly dismantled a bartending career he had been building steadily for the past decade. His dedication to mixing amazing drinks is a genuine passion, but when the pandemic stole his platform, he had to switch gears to make ends meet. He went to work for his brother’s pool and spa service company, but just couldn’t let the cocktail creativity lie dormant. So he began a side hustle called “Mezcalito Mixers.”

A couple months ago, I checked in with Manny to see how things had been going, and if he had predictions about getting back behind a bar as we entered the yellow tier and an imminent reopening. He was waiting to get his second vaccination shot, and said, “I really miss bartending and I miss hospitality. I miss everyone, even the picky guests that we have once in awhile. Oh, I miss them! ... I just miss the whole concept, the progression of the bar, coming in and saying, ‘Good to see you.’ The ritual. Those questions to the guest, ‘What can I get for you?’, to make the perfect cocktail, always that interaction. That connection to the guest.”

And I asked him what the first cocktail he would look forward to serving someone most when he finally could. Without missing a beat, “A Negroni,” he said. “It can represent the bittersweet we have all had from 2020 and 2021.”

Well, the day finally came, and it’s high time for some of those Negronis. Manny is back at work, not at your pool, and is ready to mix up whatever you desire. I had the chance to talk to him again recently, asking a bit more about his reflections on this past year. Here are the highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and conciseness.

How did you get involved in bartending, and what is your background in the industry?

Bartender Manny Hernandez
To me, crafting cocktails feels like another way of expressing emotions and impressions through the process of creating simple or complicated flavors and aromas,” Manny Hernandez says.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Back in 2011, I was hired to work as kitchen staff in a restaurant called Alteno in Watsonville. On my first day of work, the bartender didn’t show up for his shift, so my boss pulled me out of the kitchen and said, “You’re working behind the bar!” I had never worked behind a bar before. I was a little nervous but didn’t have time to think about it and knew it was an amazing opportunity, so I jumped in. From that moment on, I was hooked. I wasn’t aware before that point that there were any opportunities for Latino bartenders, and was only familiar with being in the back of the house, so it was inspiring and exciting to think of the potential that bartending could offer.

After a few months, I attended a bartending school in Mountain View, then worked to gain as much experience as I could in a variety of bars and restaurants, and to be mentored by industry experts. I learned more about craft cocktails and hospitality under the guidance of David Kinch, Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt at The Bywater in Los Gatos. Over the years, I learned a lot from other amazing mentors including Jorge Vargas, Marcella Macias, Kate Wergin and Blaze Montana.

In Santa Cruz, I’ve bartended at Soif, Front & Cooper, and Barceloneta. The more I worked, the more confidence I had to attend bar management programs like Portland Cocktail Week, and to enter local and national bartending competitions. Over the years, my mentors, coworkers and customers have been the biggest inspiration for my journey in the industry.

What do you love about it?

I love poetry and to me, crafting cocktails feels like another way of expressing emotions and impressions through the process of creating simple or complicated flavors and aromas. I really enjoy connecting with guests and helping create fun and relaxing moments and memories for them at the bar. I love the experience of learning and growing in the industry and meeting people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives.

How has it been for you during the pandemic as someone in an industry that basically got completely shut down?

It was tough and challenging. When the pandemic began, I was working at Barceloneta, which had just opened in the fall of 2019, so it was hard to walk away from that and to hear about all the restaurants and bars that had to close down temporarily or permanently. I felt devastated for all my colleagues who lost work and were struggling to find ways to support their families. In spite of that difficult time, it was also encouraging to see people coming together to support each other and the industry, like funding unemployed bartenders and servers through the Service Industry Tips platform. We’re lucky to live in a community where people made big efforts to support each other and local businesses in positive ways in spite of the pandemic.

Bartender Emmanuel Hernandez
(Courtesy Emmanuel Hernandez)

Talk a bit about your “Mezcalito Mixers” business ... and are you still making those?

During the pandemic when I wasn’t doing the work that I loved or seeing the people I cared about, I felt unmotivated and discouraged. I wanted to find a way to stay “in shape” with my bartending skills as well as provide a service and product in a safe way that would potentially bring people a little joy and happiness during the dark days of the pandemic. I created a margarita, paloma, raspadito and mojito and delivered them locally. Now that I’m thankfully working again, I haven’t had as much time to make the mixers, but I am definitely looking forward to continuing with them as soon as possible.

What did you miss the most about working behind the bar?

I missed the people most of all. There is something really special about being able to work alongside other people who share the same passion and love for hospitality as well as interacting with guests from all around the world.

As COVID restrictions ease here in California, are you back behind the bar?

Yes, fortunately, I have the honor and pleasure to be back behind the bar.

Where? How does it feel?

At the moment I am managing the bar program at a restaurant called Dry Creek Grill in Campbell. It is such a wonderful feeling to be doing work that brings me and other people a lot of joy. It’s great to see old and new colleagues and be part of a working team again, and to see how excited people are to be out enjoying meals and drinks again in a safe way. I’m happy to be able to use and share the knowledge that I obtained during the period I wasn’t working and to keep providing unforgettable experiences for guests.

Do you think there are any silver linings that have come out of the pandemic?

The pandemic has been a very humbling experience. I think a lot that was taken for granted before is appreciated now in a different way. The experience has made me even more grateful for everyone and everything I have in my life. I think we are all hopefully going to be more kind to each other and continue to be more aware of things that need to change and improve in society.