Winner of the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award for The World’s 50 Best Bars 2022, Jean Trinh of Alquímico in Cartagena has become a standard bearer for great bartending, friendship and hospitality across the globe. A man who provided shelter and provisions to his staff when they needed it most and who has empowered local communities and saved endangered ingredients, Trinh speaks to 50 Best about his mission to champion Colombia, its produce and helping everyone his bar touches along the way
On the surface, Colombia’s Alquímico is high-energy bar that slings high-volume drinks for guests in their hundreds every day. However, scratch just a little beneath the façade and you’ll find an extraordinary space with a deep-running people-positive ideology. Despite its size – towering across three floors in a heritage building in Cartagena’s Old Town – each cocktail served in the uniquely designed space is crafted with the same level of care and respect found in the most boutique bars across the world. That’s mostly down to the vision of its owner, Jean Trinh.
To call Trinh the brains behind the Alquímico operation would be reductive. While his intelligence and craft behind the stick are notable, he is just as much the heart and soul of the operation. Throughout his career, Trinh has been set on creating a bartending community built on giving back.
As part of The World’s 50 Best Bars 2022 awards programme, Trinh has just been named Altos Bartenders’ Bartender, thanks to the votes of his peers. “When I heard that I was named as the Altos Bartenders’ Bartender for 2022, I was so happy. It was a huge recognition of the industry, and all of the work we put in. As a high-energy bar, we are so proud of the full hospitality package we provide that we have spent years working on. This award on behalf of my team.”
Trinh takes great pride in his staff, which now number over 70
Growing up in a family of restaurateurs in France, Trinh has hospitality in his blood. Moving to Colombia originally in 2013 after falling in love with the country while travelling, what started as a pop-up bar to capture the crowds for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil over the summer evolved into the cocktail giant that is Alquímico today.
Since speaking to 50 Best in 2020, when Alquímico earned the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award, Trinh has built upon the mission on which he first set out: to build a better bar system for everyone in and around his business.
In March 2020, when his bar was forced to close with little assistance from the Colombian government, Trinh took radical action to protect his staff, providing sanctuary for 22 of his bartenders and their families on a farm 900km south of Cartagena, in Filandia. While this small coffee farm was originally purchased in 2019 to supply ingredients for the bar, Trinh transformed it into a shelter for his staff. “That was the main idea of the farm,” says Trinh. “In South America, we didn’t have a lot of help and for my team, many of them didn’t have a plan B. So naturally I felt a sense of responsibility for them, as they are the 99% of the bar.”
Many of the cockails at Alquímico now utilise ingredients grown on the farm
At the farm, Trinh and his team also spared little time becoming ambassadors for the bartending community locally, donating daily food packages to those in need while fully immersing themselves in the local area. “At the time, I didn't know if I wouldn't be able to reopen the bar. But I could be sure that I could give my team food, a roof, and enough to survive,” he says. To Trinh, that was far more important than the survival of his business.
In the months since 2020, his team have since returned to Cartagena and restarted working at the bar, with the farm and infrastructure they created becoming deeply integrated into the Alquímico ecosystem. While Trinh’s team has grown from just six to over 70 staff, his care for their wellbeing has not faltered, ensuring that anyone involved in Alquímico – from the farmers to the bar staff – have everything they need for a great quality of life.
Before every shift, the staff take a family meal together, they socialise regularly and the team environment is prioritised. Trinh’s greatest victory, however, is doing all of this without jeopardising his bar’s commitment of ensuring that it is sustainable and adds positively to its environment. If anything, it’s only gotten better.
Back to the roots
When the Colombian government incentivised impoverished communities to burn their indigenous crops and plant corn instead during the pandemic, Trinh visited these communities and set up direct supply lines to his bar and farm to ensure that the history and culture of these unique ingredients was not buried in ashes. After visiting these farms, Trinh was taken aback by their offering. “It was amazing,” he says. “It was the only place on Earth where we could see ingredients like these. We then knew that we wanted to use these products from the farm and support the producers.”
Choosing to build strong connections with these farms, Trinh was both doubling down on sustainability, while also creating unique products for customers. “By using this produce, we have to be creative as we’re using ingredients that almost nobody knows about,” he explains.
Across the three floors of Alquímico, each bar highlights the incredible biodiversity of Colombia through a different lens. From serving classic cocktails injected with indigenous ingredients, through to celebrating the colours of Colombia and the magic of its wildlife, the bar is a temple to the offerings of the Latin American nation.
Each of Alquímico's three floors provides a wholly unique cocktail experience and menu
Trinh believes that this is just the start of a renaissance for South America, particularly within the world of hospitality. “Before we arrived in Colombia, the cocktail scene was very new,” he outlines. “Everybody wanted the cocktails that they were drinking in the US and Europe, with very high prices.” By using local produce, Trinh has been able to ensure the point is accessible to a much wider audience at his bar. “Talking about South America, and I think it’s the same in the other areas of the world, prices for products have only gone up. If you don’t start to work locally, it’s hard to understand how you can keep buying products from the other side of the world.”
Through small changes, Trinh believes the bartending community can change the world: “It starts with asking ourselves ‘how can I do that better?’ Then asking, ‘how can I improve the quality of life of my people?’ They are small changes, but hospitality is such a huge industry. When we are together, they can add up to something huge.”
The World’s 50 Best Bars 2022, sponsored by Perrier, will be announced LIVE from Barcelona on 4th October 2022 at 8.20pm local time. Tune into the livestream of the event here.