The dreamy, boho vibe of the restaurants, cafes, and bars in Mexico City’s Roma and Condesa neighborhoods’ is why foreigners flock to the second-largest city in the Western Hemisphere (an embarrassing practice that continues during the pandemic). It is also the inspiration behind Denisse Soto’s work on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Tamarind, a brown pod that produces a sweet and sour fruit; tepache, a fermented pineapple drink sweetened with piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar); and agua de Jamaica, a tangy drink made from dried hibiscus flowers are among Soto’s arsenal of ingredients behind the bar at Osito’s Tap in Little Village. They may be common in Mexico, but Soto’s on a mission to make them a staple in the U.S. Since spring 2019, Soto has focused on bringing the sights, sounds, and tastes of her Mexican culture to Chicago’s drink scene as the beverage manager of the Southwest Side speakeasy — the first in the neighborhood.
The 33-year-old grew up in Mexico City and was born in Cuernavaca, a city of about 370,000 and a place that adopts everything the megalopolis 90 miles south does, Sotos says. At the age of 19, she visited Chicago for the first time; she returned just a year later and continued to make frequent trips to visit friends and explore a city she was falling in love with. As the daughter of a dentist and an engineer, at 22, Soto came to the U.S. to study medicine and worked as a dental assistant through college. During this time away from home, she missed the flavors of Mexico and began recreating them in cocktails. Soto became the informal bartender for friends, and at 28, she decided to focus on what she describes as “what really made me feel full and live the most.” To the disappointment of her parents, she left a career in medicine to pursue her dream of becoming a bartender.
“Every time I’m behind the bar, I feel like myself,” Soto explains. “As a single lesbian woman coming from a really conservative family, I need to be unapologetic in my pursuit for happiness. I want to make a name for myself in this industry and Chicago is where I see this happening. This city has given me the opportunity to not only be myself, but to grow and become an independent woman. No matter the obstacle, I’m not giving up easily.”
Mike Moreno Jr., owner of Osito’s Tap, says the reason he hired Soto to run his beverage program is because of her passion and pursuit of perfection. He narrowed the list to four candidates, and Soto was the third person to interview for the position. Moreno hired her on the spot because he found her excitement for creation so appealing.
“She’s not content with [her cocktails] being good,” says Moreno. “[They have] to be perfect. She brings a lot of interesting ingredients into her cocktails. It’s stuff that is typically only being used in cuisine, not in beverages.”
Soto says she took the job when Moreno told her she could use every spirit available at Moreno’s Liquors. The store is where Osito’s is housed, and it’s known for having the largest collection of tequilas (more than 700) in the Midwest. Moreno also sold her on his vision: Osito’s would become a place reminiscent of Mexico City’s trendiest bars. The pandemic menu includes eight to 12 drinks that rotate out seasonally and feature a number of ingredients that are common south of the border, but difficult to find in the Midwest.
Epazote, a green herb that appears in Soto’s Mi Tierra cocktail, is typically reserved for use in quesadillas, frijoles negros, and esquites — not drinks. It resembles a basil leaf with sharp edges. Most people who come in contact with it remember its pungent, gasoline-like odor and earthy flavor. It is also used in Soto’s Mexican mojito that mixes mezcal with charanda, a sweet white rum made in Michoacan that only became available stateside in 2018.
Soto also uses charanda in El Canelito, a dessert cocktail inspired by a friend who loves mazapan, a traditional Mexican candy made of sweetened pulverized peanuts compacted into an inch-thick coin. Soto combines mazapan; charanda; cajeta, a goat’s milk version of caramel sauce — another traditional Mexican ingredient — coconut milk; and a pinch of salt to create her version of a tiki drink. The sweet cocktail sold out on the third day of Osito’s reopening during the pandemic.
Tamarind pods are cooked with water, chile chipotle, and sugar to make the syrup used in El Enchufe, an Irish whiskey cocktail topped with lime. Soto says the chile chipotle offers a spicy, smoky taste that appeals to fans of bourbon and mezcal. The drink is also offered as a to-go can and served on draft at the bar.
“I was already really into the variation of gastronomy in all the different states of Mexico,” says Soto. “From there I understood mixology has a lot to do with gastronomy. You have to make your own syrups, infuse your spirits and liqueurs with herbs, make your own bitters, and learn to control the use of spice and salt. A lot of what is done in the kitchen can be implemented behind the bar.”
Soto cites memories of her grandmother’s cooking as a source of inspiration, as well as Mexican street vendors hawking raspados, elotes, and camotes. She revisits her favorite childhood meals and snacks to dream up beverages that can’t be found anywhere but at Osito’s. They’re equal parts craft cocktail, her craving for items back home, and education about the variety in Mexican cuisine. Take the Humito. It’s a tequila-based cocktail infused with roasted corn and served with grated lime and chile — an adult take on the chile corn paleta common among Mexican families. Her drinks may be rooted in ingredients found in Mexican cuisine, but she uses a mix of Irish, Japanese, and American spirits alongside those elements.
The work Soto is doing is rare. She is not only modernizing and making Mexican ingredients more accessible, she’s also doing it as one of the few women in the city running a beverage program. Lucia Angel, event producer for Chicago Style, an annual conference centered on social justice issues within the beverage industry, estimates the current number of female beverage directors to be less than 10. The road ahead for Soto isn’t easy. She’s an immigrant in an industry battered by the pandemic where few people like her possess influence.
And yet, she’s undeterred by these obstacles and knows her path forward. Last summer, Soto expanded her services to private events, founding Diestro Catering with Tim McCafferty.
“I started making cocktails as a hobby,” says Soto. “Being a mixologist is a form of artistic expression that allows me to connect with others. I study the culture, traditions, and gastronomy of a place when I begin to build a drink. The work, effort and creativity extends past the bar and kitchen. It’s not easy to work in this industry and put yourself out there, but this is what I feel called to do — and I hope to own my own bar one day.”