Before I get a chance to sip my second round, head bartender Ariel Figueroa points out a guy across the bar. “You have the same drinks,” he tells us, “Salud!” We raise our glasses high, acknowledge one another with a simple tilt of the head and follow orders, ¡Salud!, before taking a sip of our Sea Captain’s Special amongst a small audience that has besieged the back of this San Telmo canteen. A heavy licorice perfume, I later learn it was absinthe, hits my nose and is quickly calmed by the dry oak flavored bourbon.
Doppelgänger was once considered part of no man’s land. It occupies an unassuming corner in deep Telmo just blocks from the borders of both Constitución and La Boca, there wasn’t even a kiosco on the block. This was long before the gentrification of Avenida Caseros and the explosion of hip casual eateries that make present day San Telmo one of the city’s most colorful food neighborhoods.
In the beginning there were nights when no one came, “its on an Avenue that runs against traffic from most of the city and is blocks away from the nearest subway in the middle of San Telmo,” explains head chef Rodrigo Macchi, “it was a quilombo to get here.” The scene at the bar on this quiet Tuesday evening tells a different story. Although the tables are empty—it’s early—the dozen seats that surround the L-shaped bar are spoken for and represent a rare phenomenon: about half of the patrons came solo. They aren’t here to warm seats for a late arrival. They are alone, a local custom that is almost exclusively practiced by taxi drivers hitting up their dive of choice and a measure of greatness of this sacred space.
Doppel was opened nine years ago by Guillermo Blumenkamp, a recovered working stiff who left his job in marketing at a multi-national to open a vermouth bar. His vision is clear and unwavering: a ‘real bar’ that serves no beer, no wine, just cocktails. The necessity to do things his way, rather than appease the demands of clients, was once unique but has since come to define the rebellious streak apparent across San Telmo. This is mixology as philosophic exploration, appealing to the tastes of the discerning and the adventurous—though those who ‘don’t know how to drink’ are welcome, too.
And the bar makes no qualms about it—a sign on the wall loudly proclaims, “This is not for everyone.” When I sat down and unknowingly placed my bottled water atop the bar, general manager Bryan Noguera quickly wagged his finger, “there are no bottles here.” He replaced it with an antique tumbler filled with cucumber water and the menu as quickly as I had hid it away in my bag. The menu is, likewise, unashamed of its own exhaustiveness; nearly 100 drinks grace the encyclopedic menu with a mixture of classics, forgotten cocktails and house inventions. There is a magic nostalgia in every detail, something that sucks you in to Doppelganger’s world. “People get lost here. Time stands still,” Figueroa warns me.
“This place is very disciplined,” Figueroa continues, “You have to really want to work hard. Not everybody lasts. But there is also a lot of freedom here.” Each week the whole crew does tastings — if you can’t decide on a drink, everyone at the bar can guide you to the right cocktail with just a few simple questions. When a curious guest inquires about the different whiskey’s at his disposal, Figueroa lists off nearly a dozen noting the differences between a whiskey, bourbon and scotch and every brand’s distinct flavor profile without batting an eye.
Every time I pay a visit, I want the Apothecary Gin and Tonic again. The light floral flavor of the Principe de los Apostoles gin is given a subtle citrusy punch of lemon juice and tonic. A splash of spiced jäger and kümmel, a clear liquor flavored with cumin, caraway and fennel, is just pungent enough to make the concoction more profound. A sprig of rosemary adds a slight mint and slowly steeps so that the final sips take on an earthy pine. It is light and refreshing, and a wonderful way to open up the palate.
As does the Betty Boop, Figueroa’s first original drink. He pulls out a weathered pastel blue notebook filled with varying levels of discernible scribbles. It was the fruit of a quick conversation with a lone girl sitting at the bar, “She told me she studied literature, I didn’t understand at the time how she could help but she insisted.” She grabbed his notebook and scribbled down a set of adjectives that he discovered the next morning: spicy, sexy, a drink that looks innocent but hides a surprise. It changed the way he looked at inventing drinks, “I try to invoke the principals of umami.”
He begins with a few drops of tabasco and pear-flavored aguardiente before adding grapefruit juice, red bitter Gancia and sparkling white wine. I don’t like sparkling wine—I neglected to tell Figueroa this when prompted knowing he would try to sneak it in—but I liked this. It was chosen to pair with my Thai salad appetizer. The thin slabs of sautéed beef is simple and intensely buttery with bursts of fresh cherry tomatoes and red onion. The flavor is subtle and pulls the tang and slight spice out of the Betty Boop.
“The food is always going to be secondary to the drinks,” Macchi explains, “and we work together to make sure the food compliments the cocktail.” A chivito, Macchi hails from Uruguay, could easily be a stand alone dish. A fat cut of smoked pancetta tastes cut off of a slow roasted country ham, the fat blends into the tender bits of beef and a runny flavorful egg yolk. Everything is tempered by a creamy corn sauce. Homemade bread sops up the juices and is slightly wet but not soppy. The flavor grows and grows before being tempered by a swig of the evenly flavored Sea Captain Special, allowing an obscene loop of porky magic.
The Sea Captain reminds me of my family drink, the Rob Roy, and combined with the fatty sandwich I’m momentarily transported to my grandparents house for a weekend dinner. I tell Figueroa this and he lights up, “Each drink is meant for a certain person at a certain moment.”
Avenida Juan de Garay 500, San Telmo
Tuesday through Thursday 7:00pm to 2:00am
Friday & Saturday 7:00pm to 3:30am