It’s the kind of place where you would want to meet a lover at midnight. Or to drop off a briefcase to your Quito agent. Most, though, just come to relax after a hard day of exploring Quito’s Old Town.
Casa Gangotena’s bar is a den for sophisticated travellers, its tartan walls, darkened tones and relaxed hush recalling a cosy British drinking establishment.
While the room itself is new – it was refurbished in 2014 – it retains some of the buildings original features like slinky polished wooden floors.
Armchairs of the softest tan leather are secluded into darkened nooks and crannies, or awash with light at the coveted window seats. A solid row of stools props up the marble bar, inviting lone drinkers to spill their souls to Alfonso, the barman with a twinkle in his eye.
But though the atmosphere might be British pub-like, the alchemic cocktails and premium liquors represent Ecuador at its finest.
Of course there are international classics – Bombay Sapphire, Belvedere and Glenlivet among others – but pride of place goes to national brands. There’s Espiritu de Ecuador digestif in its eye-catching bottle shaped like the Middle of the World obelisk, Caña Manabita from the coast, and several home-bred gins, like the quadruple-distilled Amaranto gin and lightly aromatic GCV, both produced in Quito.
Gin, Alfonso says, is globally having its moment, and is the bar’s greatest hit.
Almost everything used by Casa Gangotena’s potion-master-in-chief is Ecuadorian.
“We put a high value on national products, so that visitors can see where we are in the world,” he explains.
What Alfonso does with these ingredients seems to defy reason. Part mad scientist, part magician, the barman – who perfected his craft over four years working on Galapagos cruises – likes to put on a show.
A simple gin and tonic becomes so much more under his steady gaze. Punters strain to catch a glimpse as he takes a sprig of Rosemary and claps it between his hands, “to release the aroma”. He whips the sprig around the inside of glass, leaving it gently perfumed.
Next, he takes a severe metal instrument to peel the finest layer of orange peel, before adding the gin and then the tonic, letting the carbonated liquid trickle down a steel spiral to preserve the bubbles.
This is not just any old G&T. I applaud heartily after tasting the final result: tongue-tingling, subtle and warming.
For a pisco (from Peru this time) with blackberry tea (very much Ecuadorian), more clinical tools are required. Alfonso infuses the liquor with the tea in a test tube, dunked into a bain-marie. With a surgeon’s precision he places berries among two types of ice using two types of tweezers, topped with the most delicate pink flowers and a green leaf.
His showmanship and eye for detail have won Alfonso an army of fans. One “particularly difficult” client left him a $300 tip.
“Lots of people want to have their photo taken with me,” he says. “I like what I do, it makes me feel good.”
And it shows. As well as the all-too-tempting cocktails, the bar serves virgin cocktails and the houses speciality, a lemonade infused overnight with Flor de Jamaica herb. Guests rave about the Agua de Frescos, a vivid pink infusion of a dozen plants and herbs traditionally served in Quito to arriving guests to refresh them after their journey.
Then, there’s Alfonso’s version, with a dash of caña for good measure, an egg-white for added fluff, a pippette-drop of lavender, and a sprinkling of dried rose petals.
Over the top? Absolutely. But by now, you wouldn’t expect anything less.