Though Koky Lòpez holds the title of bar manager at Bar Vauté and Brasserie la Banque, she’s been making drinks since she was in her early teens.
She started working in hospitality at a young age with her parents’ catering business in Puerto Rico. Some days, when they were short staffed, Lòpez said, she would help serve the guests beer and wine at the age of 12 or 13. “I guess it’s not illegal?” she said. “I wasn’t consuming it, only serving.”
Her introduction to bartending and mixology, though, came from her grandmother. Lòpez’s grandma was known in the town of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, for her coquito, a coconut rum drink equivalent to eggnog: “It doesn’t have egg or whiskey. It’s coconut, coconut cream and rum, rum, rum,” said Lòpez.
“For Christmas, we would have this line of production for a big feast, and when it came time for her to go, ‘Okay, so this is how you made the pasteles,’ she handed my sister the recipe,” Lòpez said. “She handed me the recipe for coquito, which was always the joke in the family: ‘You made me a bartender. You were to blame!’ ”
The coquito recipe was her starting point in bartending. From there, she learned to make sangria, she said. And in college, making drinks that young stuck with her.
“I just have that hospitality built into me,” she said.” And I always wanted to bring a product that not only I was proud of, but would make my family proud. That’s how I ended up in this industry,” she said.
Lòpez joined the team at Brasserie la Banque and Bar Vauté when the doors to the French restaurant and its underground late-night bar opened in November 2021. In February, she took full reign of the bar program.
Prior to her time with Brasserie and Bar Vauté, Lòpez worked and consulted with places like the former Renaissance Hotel (which brought her to Charleston in 2016), Felix and Indaco. When the pandemic hit, Lòpez flew back to Puerto Rico after being furloughed, so she could be with her family, but came back after eight months to help open Neon Tiger and eventually Brasserie la Banque and Bar Vauté.
Lòpez studied ESL (English as a second language) education and criminology in college. Though she’s been behind the bar for 22 years, she still gets to teach. In Puerto Rico, there are social responsibility laws that require bartenders to go to trade school for at least two years before they’re allowed behind the bar. The combination of her experience behind the bar and background in education provided her with the tools to help educate bartenders in Puerto Rico and the U.S., where she’s consulted and helped open more than 30 restaurants.
Bartenders need to mix, master and create cocktails, but what really makes a good bartender? Lòpez believes personality is the key to success. The stigma of the grumpy bartender, like the angry chef, is “so passé,” she said.
“You know, so it’s not that much about knowing recipes and being this know-it-all,” Lòpez added. “If you know your flavor profile, and you have the tact of dealing with people? Successful. I will have a bunch of my students and know that they are learning these recipes, and they’re trying their best, but personality-wise, not gonna roll.”
The bond between bartender and customer is the most important aspect to bartending. For Lòpez, it’s what she enjoys the most: “I really, really love my interaction with the guests,” she said. “I really do. I learn so much from other people’s life stories and it’s always really cool to be on that side of the bar where you have this protected environment but people get so intimately real with you. They want to tell you their story.
“I feel like that’s where the soul of a bartender is.”
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