Meet Candelaria’s Ivan Avellaneda, Psychologist-Turned-Bar Manager

You can’t talk about agave spirits in Paris without referencing Candelaria.  It’s not only a bar that places consistently in the World’s 50 Best Bars and turns out a wide range of craft cocktails, but it was also a forerunner in the Latin American food and drink trends that we are now seeing more of in Paris.  In addition to making nice drinks, they also have a knack for building creative teams of very nice people.  Like current manager, Ivan Avellaneda.

Ivan came to Paris from Bogota, Colombia to pursue a Masters in psychology. Initially, bar work was a personal pastime and part time job. But, like many other lifers before him, he fell in love with it and it became his primary passion and profession.  He completed a hospitality management degree and has never looked back.

FC: You’ve worked at Candelaria for several years, which is a bar that has been influential and inspirational on the Paris cocktail scene when it comes to tequila and mezcal. What do you enjoy most about working there?

IA: Well a lot of things. We are like a family here, we like to have fun, and to make people happy. Every one of my colleagues is very talented, creative, and motivated, which is very important for us to have a good place to work. We’re always looking to improve ourselves, that keeps us busy all the time. Having a multicultural team, makes our job very interesting and funny every day.

Also, as a Colombian, it is really important for me the fact that we try to keep in touch with Latin American flavors, products, roots, and traditions.

When customers come in who want to learn more about agave spirits, is it better to ease them in with a cocktail or start with tasting them straight?

I think that there are plenty of ways to taste agave spirits. The most important part is to be open to being amazed!

But technically, when we talk about degustation, I think it is good to start tasting agave spirits straight. When a guest wants to discover agave spirits, I prefer to start choosing them by styles, proof, and flavors, and try a few side by side. Tasting these spirits is more than just drinking, you create a relationship with them. And for me, a good way to enjoy/appreciate this relationship is through the tasting of the spirit on his natural form.

Cocktails are a good way to taste them too because they allow you to feel the versatility of the spirit.

Nevertheless, as someone who works in hospitality, I think that It is important to respect and understand people’s feelings and preferences. Sometimes people are more willing to discover new flavors trough the experience of a cocktail, and sometimes people just want to try products on their pure state. We need to adapt ourselves and to be open on people’s desires.

What kind of changes have you seen in Parisian attitudes towards tequila and or mezcal in the time you’ve been working at Candelaria?

It has been changing a lot in the past 6 years. Palates evolve, and now, people are more willing to try different spirits and flavors.

Six years ago, people were not very use to drinking agave spirits, and the most popular one, was tequila. It has evolved, and I like to think that cocktail bars contributed a little bit to that. I feel that mezcal for instance, is not anymore an unknown name for our guests, even if there are people that have never tried it, at least they’ve heard about it, and they are open to tasting it. I’ve seen this evolution trough these years in Candelaria, which is the bar that sells the most mezcal in all Europe

Also, over the years, people started to travel and learn more from Mexico (and other Latin American countries) and of course they get interested in its spirits and food. This is really important because people open their minds and palates to new products.

Tequila, mezcal and Raicilla are all agave based, but what are the biggest differences between the three?

I think we have to start by saying that they are all mezcal, and mezcal can be as complex as wine for instance. We have to keep in mind that terroir is key for agave spirits. They are all really different between them, in terms of regions of production, the kind of plant, the way they produce them, and so on.

In general, the differences are:

Tequila is a kind of mezcal that has to be made from the agave blue species only, and can be produced just in 5 designated regions in Mexico. The agaves are normally cooked in ovens or autoclaves.

Artisanal Mezcal is actually any kind of spirit made from agave plant that can be produced in 8 different regions across Mexico. There are more than 30 different species. The way of production normally implies baking the agave hearts underground for at least a couple of days

Raicilla on the other hand, is a kind of mezcal made mostly from agave lechuguilla and agave Maximiliana (but there`re more species that can be used too) It is normally produced in seven municipalities of Jalisco. And production is similar to artisanal mezcal, but cooking process can vary between above-ground ovens and underground pits.

What’s your favorite way to serve each of the three?

It depends on the kind of agave, the proof and the flavors.  I like to serve small quantities. For instance, when I serve mezcal, I to start from the espadin species, with a low proof (agave Spirits can vary from 35 to 55 proof normally). This agave allows the guest to start discovering mezcal from the most available agave species, and I chose the ones with more fruity, floral and sweet notes. I like to evolve to agaves like tobalá, which for me is a good introduction to the more rare ones. Then, introducing the family of karwinskii is interesting because we can go through more mineral flavors (not always, but in general); so cuixe, madrecuixe, or barril species are good for that matter. Then, I propose to the guests to try some more rare species too, like tepeztate, Jabalí or coyote. And finally, it is always fun to show them, other traditions involved in mezcal production like “pechugas” and the “ensambles”.

Raicilla is making its first big steps into the French industry. I try to serve it straight in small quantities, and always trying to generate a discussion with the guest about the flavors they feel. It is really complex, and for now we’re also discovering too. I try to make our guest try it, after a mezcal dégustation. Agaves like lechuguilla and Maximiliana give very wide/interesting flavors to discover. It’s so complex, that sometimes it’s hard to realize raicilla is an agave spirit too.

When I serve tequila, it is interesting to make people try different kind of blancos, reposados, and añejos. Then, it is also fun to try tequilas made in the “valleys” and those made in the “altos”. The first ones can have peppery, earthy and herbal notes, and those form the altos can have fruity, floral and rounder profiles. That allow our guests to realize something about the importance of terroir and traditions. Tequila must be made from the same agave species, under a lot of other conditions. And it is always surprising to discover how different they can be between them.

I got the opportunity to visit a few tequila and mezcal distilleries in Mexico, and I’m amazed by the traditions, flavors, and culture around agave spirits. We try our best to share those aspects of agave spirits (and other Latin American spirits) with our guests.

When in cocktails, agave spirits are super interesting but not always easy to work/incorporate. Some of them go well with dry or with sour drinks for instance, and others are wonderful as modifiers on a cocktail.  But in the end, we have to keep in mind that the guest must feel comfortable and enjoy all the time. So, I also think that the best way to serve agave spirits, is the way the guest enjoy the most.

Will we see raicilla start getting more shelf space in Paris as people have been becoming more familiar with agave spirits?

Yes, I honestly hope so. It’s an ancient artisanal spirit that must to be discovered by people. It’s another wide universe in agave spirits. Producers are working hard to respect traditions and the environment when making it, and I hope their hard work is going to be recognized soon.

I think that people in France are more likely to taste new different things now. So far we have few, but good raicillas, and it’s just a matter of time for them to become common in the industry in France.

What to hope to see as a result of the country’s first agave festival (happening now)?

I would like to see people just celebrating agave culture.  I think people are going to taste and discover new things. It’s not about brands, bars, techniques, or selling, it’s about celebrating a tradition, a culture that has been part of the world for centuries. Agave is a big universe itself, and I hope that this festival is going to make people discover it. We love that universe, and so we would like to spread that love trough this festival.

Catch up with Ivan in person over some agave-based cocktails at Candelaria!