Spend five minutes with Clio Padilla-Flores, and one truth becomes immediately, abundantly clear: this woman is a badass. As the bar manager for two of downtown Sarasota’s most celebrated dining hotspots — Sage and Bijou Garden Cafe — the 34-year-old Padilla-Flores is tasked with creating bar programs that precisely, perfectly complement two ever-evolving menus. 

SRQ Magazine was invited to observe part of the creative process as she collaborated with her bar staff, using renowned chef Christopher Covelli’s fall menu for inspiration, to create a fall cocktail menu. Sage and Bijou close for three weeks every year in September, giving the restaurant staff an opportunity to refine their recipes and processes. Covelli travels, gaining culinary inspiration, and as soon as the seasonal menu is set Padilla-Flores gets to work in her lab, which just happens to double as the stylish Sage bar. It’s a lovely, welcoming bar with heavy stools, and adorned with a signature convex mirror in the middle. It all works together to create a speakeasy feel in this historic building that dates back to 1926 and once housed the Sarasota Times. Seeking to demonstrate how an original cocktail comes to life, Padilla-Flores walked through each step of the process. The result was a beet-infused mezcal cocktail with tarragon syrup, walnut liqueur, and saline solution. Its deep red hues are as bold and daring as its flavor. 

“We named it ‘Unbeetable,’” she says. “It turned out earthy and the tarragon brightens it up with its herbaceousness while the walnut gives it a little more depth.”But to understand how this cocktail came to life, it helps to know Padilla-Flores’ origin story. 

Born in Mexico, Padilla-Flores lived there until she was seven. She arrived with her family speaking almost no English and luckily had a teacher at Tuttle Elementary, Ms. Gray, who Padilla-Flores describes as “awesome,” and partly credits with teaching her English. She grew up partly in Newtown, and then Poinsettia Park near Lockwood Ridge and 17th Street, eventually graduating from Booker High School.   “There were barely any Latinos (in Sarasota) at that point,” she says. “That was the mid-90s. Publix had, like, two shelves of ethnic food. I think we were part of the first big waves of Latinos coming into Sarasota and bringing that culture.”

Before Padilla-Flores became one of Sarasota’s most exciting mixologists, she spent her days putting out fires. Literally. After spending about two years as a firefighter, she realized that the profession was not quite right for her and decided to take a risk and pursue a budding passion for creating craft cocktails.  Her interest in cocktails started with the basics — a daiquiri here, a margarita there — and that blossomed into a love for mixed drinks that went beyond the simple vodka soda, rum and coke, or gin and tonic.  “My friends would always call me the bougie one,” Padilla-Flores says. “I like drinking good tequilas and good whiskeys — things that have real flavor.”

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But her love for true craft cocktails? That can be traced back to her Mexican roots and her favorite spirit, mezcal. “It just had so much flavor,” she says, recalling the first time she tried it. “It was so complex and it had so much depth. It was vegetal but earthy and then you could taste a little bit of leather. I remember it bringing me back to when I was a kid in Mexico.” 

During her firefighting days in January 2017, Padilla-Flores started working at the downtown Sarasota cocktail lounge Pangea Alchemy Lab “kind of as a hobby,” she says. There, she learned from Pangea owner and principal bartender Brad Coburn. “Working with Brad is where that love of the craft and creating cocktails from scratch came to be,” she says. “You have to work your way up to be a bartender there, and you have to learn all these things before you can actually do it. Learning all of that just made me more passionate about it.” Coburn recalls that Padilla-Flores’ creativity and professionalism stood out immediately.  

“She fit in with the team quite nicely, even with the lack of experience,” Coburn says. “She was hungry for knowledge and wanted to learn, which is kind of the hardest thing, right? You can’t really teach people to be kind of hungry for knowledge or to be experimental and have fun.” At Pangea, Padilla-Flores learned the foundations of how to make the cocktail. From there, it was time to put her own spin on it. What started as a hobby soon blossomed into a passion. “Obsession, more like it,” Padilla-Flores admits. 

Fast-forward to June 2019, Padilla-Flores joined Sage six months into its existence and went to work with Covelli, now a fixture in the Sarasota dining scene and national credibility with a recent Food Network to boot. Last year, Covelli added Bijou Garden Cafe to his roster, taking on a downtown fine dining establishment that has been delighting customers since 1986 in its restored 1920s era gas station digs. 

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, bar patronage slowed down considerably, but Padilla-Flores didn’t. She spent time educating herself with online courses about molecular gastronomy. “I was learning about spherification, emulsification, infusions, candies, popsicles,” she says. But most of that was food-related, so Padilla-Flores had to adapt and extrapolate to bring these ideas to the bar program. “I just kept reading and looking at recipes and everything and being like, ‘Ooh, if I changed the flavors on these from carrot to a whiskey, then it would be good on this cocktail.”

As a female minority living in the South, and working in a traditionally male-dominated profession, Padilla-Flores has faced her share of bigotry. The occasional patron will quiz her on the ingredients of certain cocktails or offer unsolicited advice on how to do her job — something her male colleagues haven’t faced. She feels responsibility, however, to pay forward the opportunities that she’s been afforded and be a role model.  “It shows other women of color that you can do it,” she says. “I just say, ‘Put your head down and do the work,’ and if you get acknowledgement of your hard work, good things will happen. And I’m gonna make sure that women of color and people of color know that they can do it, too, and there are people here that will support them.”

So, that brings us to the unbeetable, which is featured on sage’s fall cocktail menu and suggested as a pairing to the bison short rib with sunchoke puree, szechuan carrots and roasted mushrooms. 

The story of Unbeetable’s birth is the story of Clio herself. It starts with a simple love of cocktails, which grew into a passion, which evolved into an obsession. Add in relentless self-determination and a drive to learn everything she can about flavors — sweet and savory — and how they complement each other. Combine it with her love of mezcal and the pride she takes in being an immigrant, a Sarasotan through and through who isn’t afraid to take risks and make bold moves. 

“Clio, like myself and other team members, never settles for basic ingredients,” Covelli says.“She looks for the finest possible way to complement our menus, and she always brings her best to the table. She inspires our team and has taught us all to be authentically ourselves. She listens to our guests and their preferences, but she stays true to herself.” 

Covelli prides his team on its communication and collaboration, and its ability to listen to each other without criticism. In other words, he’s building an environment where artists like Padilla-Flores are free to grow and cultivate their voice — whether it’s on a plate or in a glass served with a tarragon sprig garnish.  “We must be sound, consistent and confident in our approach, and never forget that in our industry there is always more than meets the eye,” Covelli says. 

That’s certainly true of his bar manager, who sees a larger opportunity to be part of a movement here. “I want to be known for creating great cocktails,” she says. “And I want Sarasota to be known for having amazing craft cocktails, just like San Francisco, L.A., New York.”  It could get there. All it would take are a few more badasses like Clio.