The Jerry Thomas man who actually worked in Cuba
Bartender for over twenty years, part-owner of the world’s 33rd best bar (according to Drinks International), vermouth and gin producer: Leonardo Leuci is a well-known, opinionated figure of the global bar scene. At Bar News, we’ve drunk at his bars (see the first season of our Perfect Daiquiri series), brushed shoulders with him at bar shows throughout the world and even shared a drink or two at Floridita when he was one of the judges at the 2012 Havana Club Grand Prix. And yet, we never had him tell us about his own story and how it started. It’s now done.
“In Italy, it’s quite common to start working in bars when you’re 16 years old. You clean glasses, serve coffees to earn some pocket money. That’s how I started, working on weekends and then, over the summer, in Rimini, at a Beach bar”, Leonardo told us. Once high school was over, he headed for university – not before spending six months working at a pub in London to learn the lingo – where he stuck to his “work & study” routine. “I’d be bartending at hotel bars in Rome during the winter. Over the summer, I’d do seasons in the Caribbean for Club Med”.
While sun-drenched all-in resorts have no reputation for good cocktails, it’s during those first years that Leonardo understood bartending was really what he loved doing. So it appears natural that, once done with university, he’d be handpicked as head bartender for a new project in Rome called Friends Caffè, designed around tropical drinks. “The concept was simple: we had 4 or 5 blenders, a lot of rum and fresh fruits. It was in 1999 and back then you didn’t really see fresh fruits in Rome. It was the city’s first serious cocktail bar”. The success was so big that the following year they opened a second bar, and a third in 2001. After a sting opening the Rome branch of SupperClub, a Dutch concept mixing Club / Art Gallery / Restaurant, Leonardo felt once again wanderlust and decided to head back to the Caribbean – “six months on one island, for four years”.
During the time he spent island-hopping, Leonardo worked for one season in Cuba, at Varadero’s Club Med. “When I was 18 years old, my dad helped me pay a trip to Cuba, and I was amazed by this mixed culture. This is what gave me the desire to find out more about the Caribbean”, he remembers. His second, longer stay cemented his first impression. “Bartending was not seen as a career in Italy, but in Cuba, you could go to Floridita and be welcomed by Rolando, who had been working there for forty years – an institution within an institution – and he’d wear this jacket full of pins that made me think “oh my god, this a bar general””, Leonardo now laughs. “That was Cuba for me, the place that made me understand you could be serious about bartending, that it could be something you could do your whole life. I had never seen bartenders with a social status before”.
Of course, Leonardo also studied the cantineros great drinks, considers Cuba as a real source of inspiration and says the Daiquiri is his favourite cocktail. However, when he finally opened his own bar with three other globetrotting Italian bartenders in 2010, the focus was resolutely on classic (pre-Cuba) mixology. “It’s the place we found and what we felt the market needed that led us to create The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy”. Back then, Leonardo and his partners could regularly be found behind the bar. It’s much less the case today: with their various brands; a second, agave-oriented bar in Rome; a training centre and a shop – not to mention all the consulting –, it’s a 30 people team working for them now. At this time, Leonardo focuses on defending their products and training the younger generation between London and Rome.
Still, when asked about future projects, something comes up that well and truly connects with the summers of long gone years: “We’re working with a big company to come up with a new concept for a Beach Club somewhere in the Mediterranean”. And since we also hear that The Jerry Thomas Project might actually get out of its cave-like bar next summer (just for the season), we can only conclude Caribbean drinks remain on his mind. “I think a lot of bartenders have that dream, you know: one day we all want to open a beach bar. Tropical and Cuban drinks are probably the style I prefer, so maybe when I’m 50 years old…” Don’t bet against Leonardo Leuci retiring on some island. Cuba? Let’s wait and see.