As lead bartender at Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Birmingham, Jose Medina Camacho studies people—their moods, their likes and dislikes, and what they’re eating.
That helps him recommend the perfect wine, cocktail, or beer to accompany raw and grilled oysters, fish crudo, duck-fat poached swordfish, or simply cooked fresh catch.
Medina Camacho has been behind the bar at Adam and Suzanne Evans’ restaurant since it opened in April 2019, developing its wine list, creating specialty cocktails, and building a well-stocked bottle collection with wide appeal.
“I try to expose people to something others in the market are not doing,” he says. “You’re coming to Automatic to have a unique experience.”
He also is a veteran of bartending competitions, where drink-makers showcase their skills while regaling the judges with good stories about those drinks. A side benefit: He’s won paid trips to New York City and to Mexico for the Day of the Dead.
Medina Camacho tells a few stories about becoming a bartender, creating a bar program, and what he gets out of competitive bartending.
How did you get into bartending?
Ever since I was in high school, I wanted to be a bartender. When I worked at a restaurant in Fultondale as a server, I made drinks for my guests because there wasn’t a bartender. And people loved my drinks. I was like, “Oh this is cool. I can do this.” Also, I paint. I’m an artist. So that was another way of being creative.
What are the elements of the perfect cocktail?
Balance. If you’re trying to showcase a specific spirit you want your guest to taste that spirit. Like an Old Fashioned—the type of bitters you use will dictate how good that Old Fashioned is. The type of sugar you use will dictate the outcome. Here we use light brown sugar simple syrup. When you take your first sip it’s got a little velvet texture. But you also taste the vanilla, caramel and baking spices in the bourbon.
How do you create a cocktail list for a seafood restaurant?
With our house ASO Martini I wanted to create a drink to order with a dozen oysters. What works perfectly with raw oysters? Gin. Dry vermouth. Fino Sherry. Why not put that all in a martini? I like to keep it to three or four original cocktails and three to four classics. We also have a frozen drink. Automatic has a beach town vibe. And what do you want at the beach? A frozen drink.
How do you pair wines with seafood?
A lot of times we look at coastal [wine] areas. They serve seafood with that wine. People assume red wine doesn’t go with seafood but a lot of red wines work. Raw seafood can go with our Nebbiolo. It’s nice, acidic, fresh. With whites I like medium acid, some minerality. Effervescence is really good, even if it has a slight effervescence. If you’re having clams or Automatic’s fried rice that has a little spice, effervescence and a little residual sugar works really well. It complements it.
What is your favorite drink?
I like a glass of dry rosé and a shot of tequila, or a 50/50 martini—equal parts London dry gin and Dolin dry vermouth, a couple dashes of orange bitters, and a dash of saline solution, served up with an olive.
Rosé with tequila?
Both have a lot of terroir. A rosé from Provence and a California rosé taste different because of their soil and growing conditions. Tequila also is very terroir-driven. I like blanco tequila and I like to sip it. The vegetal notes, the peppery flavors—black or white pepper—it’s a fun combination.
How do you approach wine with the average customer?
You have to ask questions to get to know them to see where they’re at in their wine knowledge. What is your favorite kind of wine? What do you normally drink at home? Maybe recommend a glass first. Then if they trust you with that glass, it’s easier to recommend a bottle.
How did you get into bartending competitions?
I’m very competitive. I wanted to prove (something) to myself. You get to network with people and learn from them. Competitive bartending challenges you to be even quicker on your toes. Also, storytelling is a big part of it. You’re selling these cocktails to the judges. That’s what bartenders do, tell a story through the cocktail.