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Prep Talk with TJ Palmieri

Gainesville, Florida, a city well known for its football culture, as an independent music mecca and its warm juxtaposition to an array of beautiful natural springs, is just about the last place you would expect to see a modern Cuban inspired cocktail bar, but that’s exactly what you’ll find. Nestled on University Avenue in downtown Gainesville, Madrina’s is the love child of Florida native TJ Palmieri and the local heavy hitters behind Crane Ramen, Fred Brown and Bill Bryson and offers an approachable and affable vibe to those looking to grab a drink. We got to cozy up to the bar with Palmieri while we talk everything authentic.

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A step through the glass doors of Madrina’s gives you your first hint of TJ’s Latin roots, with the back bar littered with Santos candles amongst bottles of Havana Club, a giant copper flamingo - that caused quite a stir on the internet at one point in time and the bar’s largest centerpiece, a sculptural depiction of the Virgin Mary. Some of TJ’s own photographs from his frequent trips to Cuba adorn the walls, while above the front entry way of the bar, a sweeping mural painted by Nicole Salgar rests. That painting depicts “Madrina” herself, an homage to mother nature and her connection to man and was commissioned by TJ to honor his significant relationships to the women who raised him into the man who stands here today.

TJ made us two quintessential cocktails that represent what Madrina's brings to the table, a classic Floradita frozen daiquiri and a signature swizzle made with a split base of mezcal and rhum agricole. Without skipping a beat, a blender was pulled onto the top of the bar as soon as TJ hopped behind it and we were walked through the steps of how a classic Cuban daiquiri should be made. TJ uses granulated sugar instead of simple syrup to preserve authenticity and to help create the perfect texture for a frozen drink, which he described as “creamy and not just a mound of frozen ice hovering over the drink”. Another major key to the perfect blended drink? “Pouring the rum into the blender while its running,” he tells us, “and held high above the pitcher with a pour spout inside the neck.” The end result is a beautiful, soft-serve-esque drink perched in an elegant coupe, adorned with fresh lime wheels and a paper straw.

When talking about what makes a bar like Madrina’s successful in such a small, niche market like Gainesville, which the majority of inhabitants are college students either at Santa Fe or at University of Florida, TJ really leaned on the bar community that encompasses the North Florida area. With a USBG chapter that’s only about 5 years old, TJ spearheaded the guild’s chapter as their treasurer back in 2014 when the craft cocktail boom hit the Southeast coast.

TJ gained notoriety at the now defunct 2nd Street Speakeasy, a local bar that was around the corner from Madrina's current location. Speakeasy was a breath of fresh air against the stale night club culture of the early 2000’s, serving up classic cocktails and cheeky refreshments with names like “It’s Not The Heat, It’s The Humidity” really hitting the scene in the gut at the right place and time. During the months leading up to Madrina’s opening, TJ stayed ahead of the curve and leaned on not just his notoriety but the talent of his upcoming staff to lead multiple pop-up bars from Jacksonville to Miami. By the time Madrina’s finally opened its doors in 2017, they were already a household name to those in the southeast with a penchant for tropical treats.

It’s hard for me to write this about TJ and not note that he was one of my first mentors when I started bartending in Jacksonville in 2014. His calm and even demeanor mixed with a heavy dose of enthusiasm for other's success has always a provided a safe space for me to share all of the ups and downs in my career and a platform to ask any question, no matter the occasion. So when it came time to producing my first write up for the community, we called up our friend and he offered us his unwavering hospitality.

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How different is it managing a bar in a smaller market like Gainesville versus a larger market?

Managing a bar, I don’t imagine, is that much different than managing one in a big market, but we have these certain “circumstances”. I wouldn’t necessarily consider them challenges, but you could think of it as a limitation in that we don’t have a lot of brand money here, but also you could think of it as an advantage, as bars aren’t as corrupted and you don’t have the corporate influence in places. Bars here tend to run the best possible spirit or the best spirit that cost will allow versus the spirit that is putting money in their pocket.

Additionally, how does managing a bar in a college town compare to working in a big city?

You have to be timely in the sense that a portion of your customer base is going to turn over every couple of years; you’ve got your regulars only for a few years at best if they’re undergrads. We have a large grad student population in town and we get a lot of them in the bar, so sometimes we’re lucky and have people stick around for 3 to 4 years. But really in the long-term sense that’s not a long time to drink at a bar. It’s very important to stay relevant to that age group, which is getting harder for me as a 38 year old, I don’t know what the fuck the kids do these days, but I like to think that I hire really well and I hire creative young people and that I learn from them and they keep me cool. But it’s important for me to keep in touch with that younger age group, you know?

One thing that I’ve learned is that you have to create value in your guests and your consumers’ mind, and a lot of that these days is social media and identity driven. Our cocktails are definitely tasty but they are designed around a certain visual aesthetic. We use a lot of green garnishes, garnishes that maybe come other parts of other cocktails: pineapple leaves, mint sprigs, lime wheels, whatever it is. We really like that contrast of a colorful garnish against a colorful drink and then like to pair it with our bar that already has a very Instagram pleasing environment.

How do you stay true to your character in the political aspect of craft cocktails?

That’s a tough question in any field. I try not to take shit but it’s something that I had to learn. I was definitely a pushover early on in my personal and my professional life and that’s something that I certainly learned from and something that I probably should have learned sooner. I got taken advantage of early in the beginning, like a lot of us in do in the sense of doing creative work and not getting paid for it. When you do the things as we do as managers, when those tasks are in that grey area of "is this my job" or "should I just stay at home and not deal with the shit," but because we both invest ourselves in what we do, we end up going, and we never really have that mental time off that you should have.

No boundaries, right?

Right and that’s such a fine line.

RAPID-FIRE
Go to drink right now:

A rum old fashioned, specifically with something dry like a rhum agricole or Chairman’s Reserve.

Trend you’d like to see fade out:

Dried citrus garnishes, the ones that look like they’ve been kicked under the cooler. Double points if it’s attached to the cocktail with one of those mini clothespins.

If heaven were a bar, what would it be to you:

There’s some important elements to consider here, I definitely want some good food and great drinks but also the inhabitants. I want to be surrounded by some beautiful women too. I’m going to have to go with Sweet Liberty in Miami.

Cheat code ingredient:

Falernum is definitely one of them, I love falernum. Or Aperol, they really do compliment any drink well.

Closing time ritual:

We have a couple different things we like to do here. I like to get with whomever I’m working with that night and game-plan what we want to do. Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” is always a good closing time song but after that I like to switch immediately to some late 90’s punk-rock, like some NOFX. Also, it’s important to let your bar take on its own closing time rituals rather than try to force some old routine in a new place.

 

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