Claudia Cabrera: uniting women

23 February, 2023

Oli Dodd hears how Claudia Cabrera came to run one of Mexico City’s two female-only staffed bars.

In the two decades that Claudia Cabrera has spent in Mexico City’s drinks industry she has been on the frontline of a hospitality revolution. Now, as the founder and manager of Kaito, one of the city’s two prominent all-female operated bars, she’s overseeing another one.

“It’s really important for women who are the heads of bars to hire more women, that’s something we need to do because, otherwise, it’s not going to happen. There aren’t a lot of girls in the bar industry in Mexico, together with Brujas, we are the only all-female run bars in the city.”

Mexico has the unwelcome distinction of being rated by the United Nations as one of the most violent countries in the world for women. The Mexican National Institute of Statistics & Geography reports that two-thirds of women over 15 have experienced some kind of violence in their lives.

“The industry in Mexico can be dangerous for girls, they’re not always protected. There’s a bar that I was running where I hired two girls, they were great, but it was difficult because I didn’t trust the managers to be alone in the bar with them.

“And there’s no equality, it’s really common for a man and a woman in the same job to have different wages.”

When Kaito opened in 2016, it was the first fully female-operated bar in Latin America and served as a milestone for how far the city’s cocktail scene has come.

“Mexico City has changed so much – it’s crazy,” says Cabrera. “You have cocktail bars everywhere now but there were none when I started.”

Cabrera entered the industry straight out of high school – the options were to keep studying or start work. After her first plan, to study 3D animation, turned up no results, she found work in a French restaurant where she learnt the classics before moving to Mexico City institution Los Danzantes, where she learnt about mezcal.

“They were pioneers of mezcal. They had a brand, that still exists today, and offered mezcal cocktails. Simple stuff, just mezcal with fruit, lime and syrup, but this was really early days of the kind of thing we see now.”

After moving to Vancouver for a year, where she studied at the Metropolitan Bartending School, Cabrera returned home and became bar manager at some of the city’s first large-scale mezcalerias and bars, including opening Mezcaleria Vulgar of frequent collaborator Erick Rodriguez. Soon after, she found a new passion within bartending – competition.

“I won the national Beefeater competition and went to London – that was crazy for me. So, I kept entering more competitions, Made With Love, Bols Around the World, Flor de Caña, Crystal Head, and I did well. I won six nationals in a year and a half, and I loved it. I got to travel and that was my main aim.”

It was around this time, after much bar hopping, that Cabrera found what seems to be something of a forever home. Kaito is a Japanese izakaya-style cocktail bar in the residential neighbourhood of Del Valle. Stepping into Kaito has the feel of ducking into your new favourite dive bar in Tokyo, but with more mezcal and fernet. It even has a private karaoke room hidden behind a vending machine.

“I’d been working with Mexican spirits for a long time and I thought a mix between Japanese and Mexican flavours could be really fun and could work. We grow shiso on our roof, it’s a Japanese ingredient but grown here in Mexico, that’s the kind of relationship we want to play with.

“We’re the only cocktail bar around so we’re definitely a destination bar. The food in Deigo, the restaurant downstairs, is amazing, and it’s one of the traditional Japanese restaurants that has been here for years.”

During the pandemic, Deigo and Kaito joined together under the same banner, now restrictions are over Kaito is ready to become independent once again. This year, Cabrera plans to move Kaito to a new site in the heart of Mexico’s bar scene, Roma.

“We want to be more accessible to tourists and the rest of the industry. But I want to keep my bar all-female. It can be hard to work with just girls, it can be crazy sometimes, but we need more bars like this.”

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