Meeting Mario Seijo: The Face of San Juan's Growing Cocktail Scene
“Did you meet Mario?” This was everyone’s first question after I spent a Monday night at La Factoría in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Indeed, I had met Mario. He had greeted me once I’d sat down at the far end of the bar, answered some of my questions about the place, and asked if I would like a drink made with mezcal. What he served me, the off-menu Beauty and the Beet, made me a fan of a spirit I’d generally shied away from. It was subtly sweet, richly smoky, balanced and delicately garnished with a dehydrated blood orange. I was there to interview the bartenders about the contemporary relevance of the piña colada on the island, but what really interested me were those flavors and Mario Seijo’s charisma behind the bar—a charisma evident to seemingly everyone in San Juan.
That was in June. Two months later, La Factoría has been named one of the World’s 50 Best Bars, and Seijo is preparing to open a new space attached to it where he’ll be in charge of the beverage program. He was made a partner at the space, where every bartender I met had its logo of shakers crossed like swords tattooed on them—a family crest.
Seijo didn’t mean to become a bartender, and certainly not a mixologist. What Seijo had wanted was to DJ. He opened a bar with his two older brothers in 2005: “I was helping out with the music and sometimes jumping behind the bar. Rum and coke, nothing fancy.” From the family bar, he moved to Old San Juan’s El Batey, where “the fanciest thing you can get there is a margarita. It’s a dive bar. You go there to have a rum and Coke or maybe a screwdriver, but it’s a beer and a shot bar.” It’s where he learned about hospitality and giving people an experience. But after five years there, he decided that if he was going to be in this industry, he wanted to hone his craft.
He was able to move into the bar at Santaella, the restaurant in La Placita credited with reviving cocktail culture in Puerto Rico. In 2013, he unexpectedly made it to the finals of the Diageo World Class Competition, representing the Caribbean and Latin American region; he’s gone the farthest of any Latin American representative in the competition since its inception in 2009.
Getting so far unexpectedly solidified bartending as a career for him. “Those are the things that keep me pushing to my limit," he says. "I know that I don’t know everything, but I must be doing something right.” After a stint in New York City following World Class, he went home to the island and was brought on at La Factoría by co-owner and friend Leslie Cofresi, who says Seijo is “one of the most respected and loved bartenders in the Puerto Rican community.”
La Factoría is in a touristy but beautiful colonial section of the city, where there are cobblestone streets, stores selling Puerto Rico T-shirts made in China, and graffiti celebrating the independence fighter Pedro Albizu Campos. When you walk in, it feels like you’ve gone through a portal to a different world, one both unique to its location but also somehow universal. Tourists—whom Seijo calls “guests”—drink side-by-side with locals, and those behind the bar treat everyone with the same warmth. If Santaella is where the cocktail revival began in Puerto Rico, La Factoría is where they are perfecting it.
There are challenges, though, to achieving the level of excellence that Seijo can envision for the island. “The cocktail scene in Puerto Rico moves in baby steps. There’s still a lot to do,” he says. “The ice quality is not the best. We still don’t get pebbled ice. Those are small details. They don’t hold us back. I think that the cocktail culture here is coming up very strong. Nowadays I feel very happy when I hear people talking about not just trips to big cities, saying ‘This Old-Fashioned tastes better than the one I had in London.’"
While the scene is strong in San Juan, it hasn’t yet spread across the island. “If you go to the west side of PR, there might be one restaurant that’s aware of what’s happening in cocktail. If you go to the east side, there might be one or two places. The south side, three or four. It’s mostly in the metro area that this is happening,” Seijo notes.
But it is in San Juan where there is access to more resources, and it’s where people from abroad will come to form their ideas about what the island is capable of. “I don’t only think of locals. For us, that’s a very important task, to make them feel comfortable and to open their minds to new opportunities and to new things. But for me, it’s very important [to] our guests, the people who visit Puerto Rico, the impression that we give them. I have always had this host kind of thing. For me, it’s really important how the world sees us, how they look at us. In general, it’s a work in progress.”
A major part of the progress will be evident in the new space that Seijo is heading up, to open on August 24th. It is attached to the bar, but will have no name or sign, and guests will have to ring a buzzer to get in.
It will be a completely new kind of experience for the island. “The cocktail program that we are working on for the new spot, it’s going to be way more elevated than at La Factoría. It’s going to be first no standing room bar in Puerto Rico, a speakeasy concept,” he says excitedly. “The space is gonna be awesome. The roof is a stage, so we’re going to have live music there as well. Lights super dim, candles everywhere, flowers—very rustic but elegant. I won’t say ‘sophisticated,’ but it might give you that impression.”
Seijo is pushing himself even further now that he is a partner, planning to go deeper into “geeky stuff.” “My style is very classic, it’s very simplistic, but as time goes on, we need to evolve, so I need to step out of my comfort zone. I am working to get to know better all these things about molecular mixology, to learn about acids.”
Geeky or not, what Seijo has proven on his journey from rum and cokes to the Beauty and the Beet is that he’s found himself in the right industry. If you end up in San Juan, make sure to meet Mario.