They don't call Junior Merino "The Liquid Chef" for nothing.
With more than 3,000 original cocktail creations, Merino's innovative drinks often combine an array of unusual ingredients that are as pretty to look at as they are delicious to drink, making him New York's most in-demand mixologist.
Merino will headline the AquaCurean festival in Savannah, a three-day event that celebrates the pairing of upscale cocktails and seafood. He will be at the Master Chef and Mixologist stage at 3:30 p.m. April 26 and do several drink demos, including the cocktail that put him on the mixologist map.
Called "Coming Up Roses," the raspberry-flavored rum and champagne concoction with rose petals won Merino first place in the International Bar Show in 2005 and has become his signature drink.
Since then, he has implemented cocktail programs and partnerships in multiple venues, including theme parks, cruise ships and airlines. He's served his cocktails to celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to President Bill Clinton to Justin Timberlake. He was asked by the Mexican government to create the country's first national cocktail. (Merino came up with "El Angel," with tequila and mezcal liquors, hibiscus flowers and lime juice.)
Accolades aside, Merino said he's happy to serve every single person that comes to his bars, famous or not. "I'm always very excited to serve the everyday consumer," he said. "It's all about giving everyone a unique experience."
Most recently, Merino has perfected a drink called "El Bombero" (The Firefighter) with mango, passionfruit and tequila and a splash of Tabasco on top.
"For a little bit of heat, but not too much," Merino said. The rim has hibiscus and rose, and Merino uses nitrogen to create a smoky effect and to chill the drink.
"When you taste it, it creates the umami sensation -- because of the levels of sodium -- it creates that sixth sense," he said, describing a savory taste that is separate from saltiness.
Merino's drink philosophy is that a cocktail should excite the senses. At his Liquid Lab in New York, Merino researches and experiments with spirits, spices, oils, extracts, aromas and herbs from around the world in search of harmonious pairings.
His unusual ingredients include Jamaican tree bark, Mexican guarana, and a special type of wormwood from Montenegro. Not all of them make it into his commercial cocktails, as some are very expensive or difficult to acquire.
All of Merino's ingredients are fresh and organic, something he came to appreciate while growing up on a ranch in Puebla, Mexico. "We would grow everything ourselves and make everything from scratch," he said.
At age 16, Merino moved to New York City and started working for his family's bakery in the Bronx. He then began bartending at a restaurant, became a sommelier and started creating custom drink lists for other restaurants. Merino's background as a chef and sommelier helps him perfectly pair his drinks with food, he said, but his main love is creating cocktails.
"I'm a bartender. That's my passion. My passion is making drinks and cooking and everything that has to do with the service industry."
Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.