“I always tell people, I’m not the most talented person, I’m not the smartest person, but I’m always going to be the most prepared person,” Joel tells us, with a laugh. “I’m very strategic, I’m an opportunist, I find an opening, I take it. It makes up for all the other things.”
The longer we chat with Joel Mesa, the beverage director at Bulla, a Spanish restaurant in the Miami neighborhood of Coral Gables, the more we realise he is telling the truth. Joel is easy-going, cheery, playful, but when he talks about how he got here, he does not stutter: he has worked hard for his career, starting from the bottom.
Joel’s trajectory started like many do: first in dives, then in nightclubs, all the while picking up tools of the trade along the way. While some in the beverage industry enter it not expecting this to be their endgame, only to have an a-ha moment down the road, Joel always knew he’d be making a career in hospitality. It was just a matter of finding the right opportunity.
“The nightclub closed, and it was time for something new. I saw an ad for this new place called Bulla, I thought I’d give it a shot. I always wanted to learn about wine, but was never in a good environment to learn about it. If you surround yourself with bad people, you’re probably not going to learn a lot about wine.”
Or you only drink bad wine, we offer. He laughs.
“No, you have to start drinking bad wine before you can start drinking good wine. It’s a rite of passage.”
“Anyway, the last question I asked in the Bulla interview was, what’s the wine list like? The guy said the wine was going to be 95% Spanish. I said, ok.”
So Joel spent the following Christmas break at his father’s house with a case of Spanish wine, drinking, tasting, taking notes, researching.
“By the time I went back for my second interview, I had that pretty much wrapped up.”
Needless to say, Joel is rather impressive. Even after landing the job, he was not satisfied.
“The more I built a following, I started realising that this is the first job where my regulars knew more about the stuff I’m serving I did. Do you know more about teeth than your dentist? It didn’t sit right with me. So I started studying again. I’m reading books, I’m tasting, I’m meeting with vendors, little by little I start climbing up the ranks, I start creating cocktails for the menu. Then I started taking wine courses to round myself out. I wanted to position myself to be the authority on alcohol in this company.”
His hard work has paid off. After a major expansion of the company, Joel is, in fact, the authority. He rarely jumps behind the bar anymore, except to help create a new cocktail. But since we’re there, he humours us and makes Bulla’s Brockmans and tonic, which they call “Stay Classy.” Being a Spanish restaurant, they know how to do a gin and tonic properly—in a copa glass, with premium tonic poured down a swizzle spoon, and with aromatic garnishes. This one features Fever Tree aromatic tonic, a blackberry, and a sprig of rosemary. As the warm Miami breeze blows through the open storefront and straight past the bar where we’re sitting, this is absolute perfection.
by Joel Mesa
- 2 oz/60 ml Brockmans Gin
- Fever Tree Aromatic Tonic
- sprig of rosemary
- a blackberry (or two)
- Add the Brockmans Gin to a copa glass filled with ice.
- Place a swizzle spoon in the glass, and pour the tonic down the spoon, starting at the top. Give a brief stir.
- Garnish with rosemary sprig, and one or two blackberries.
In Miami? Be sure to head to kitschy dive Better Days and tell Nikki Diaz we say hello…