Junior Merino, the young mixologist who drew national attention at the Modern, enjoyed the praise but had his eyes trained on something bigger all along: New York’s first major Latin cocktail lounge. And he plans on launching it at Rayuela, the big new Pan-Latino restaurant opening on the Lower East Side on Friday. Most discussion about the restaurant has centered on Maximo Tejada, its Nuevo Latino chef who has run some of the city’s top Latin kitchens, including Patria and Lucy. But given that the entire ground floor of the place is devoted to bar and lounge space, it will likely be Merino’s drink menu that the place fails or succeeds on, especially since it’s in the lounge-happy Lower East Side. “Since I’m Latino, I grew up with a lot of different fruits and flowers that people wouldn’t think of eating, and that’s where my knowledge of ingredients is larger than most people’s,” Merino says.
That translates on the drink menu to items like the Pisco cocktail, using the national spirit of Peru, a grappalike liqueur which Merino mixes with aga vero, a tequila made from damiana flowers, quince syrup, lime juice, and a half-ounce of aloe vera. Another signature drink, Merino says, will be his Mescal cocktail, consisting of Scorpion Mescal, Cointreau, fresh smashed ginger, and lime, jícama, and pineapple juices. “These cocktails are estilo libre, freestyle,” Merino says. “We’re just letting these unique flavors come together.” For a young guy, Merino has a lot of fans in cocktail circles, and from what we hear, a lot of them are looking forward to finding out what he has mixed up at Rayuela.