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Saying Goodbye to Cervantes Magaña

San Diego’s craft cocktail scene mourns the loss of an all-star


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Cervantes Magaña

On April 13, I got a Facebook message from Cervantes Magaña. 

“Don't suppose you'd entertain an interesting topic to write about?” he asked. “A new concept downtown opening up?”

I’ve known Cervantes since 2013, when he was bartending at Liberty Station’s Roseville Cozinha and starting to make a name for himself in the craft cocktail scene. Since then, through his Medicine Show cocktail consultancy, he’s helped open spots like Double Standard, Bar by Red Door, Caché, and Cloak & Petal.

“I will always entertain interesting concepts!” I replied. 

He then sent me a link to a Spotify track, “The Heavenly Blue Flu” by the band Nothing. “!!!!Love!!!! The whole album,” he wrote.

I was super busy. I couldn’t remember my Spotify password. I thought he was going to give me the scoop on a new cocktail menu. I didn’t bother to click on the link.

Dude, I thought, I don’t have time for this.

Shame on me for not making the time.

Just after 3 a.m. on Friday, June 15, Cervantes was riding his motorcycle home from work, traveling south on 10th Avenue downtown, when he was hit by a car going east on A Street. Police told his family the 17-year-old driver ran a red light (an investigation is ongoing). Though Cervantes was wearing a helmet, he sustained irreparable brain damage. His family made the decision to take him off life support and he died early Friday morning, June 22, almost exactly a week—down to the minute—of the accident, his sister, Lainya Magaña, told me.

With his passing, the San Diego craft cocktail scene lost one of its most eclectic, electric, innovative bartenders. Take, for instance, the Smudge & Conjure, a cocktail he created for Bar by Red Door, that was as beautiful as it tasted. Made with smoked sage infused gin, St. George’s pear liqueur, a house made blue curacao, lime, and pinch of salt, Cervantes described it as the “Tim Burton side of tiki.”

Lainya said her brother was “always artistic, always creative.”

“He would pick up instruments he didn’t know how to play and just jam out a tune,” she said.

Music played a big role in the cocktail programs he created. “He’d often choose the [bar’s] playlist,” she said. “He really just understood what made people happy. He was really driven to create environments and spaces.”

A couple months ago, Cervantes wrote on Facebook about how Medicine Show had finally hit its stride and he was looking to expand to other cities. In his typical style, he threw some shade and did a bit of preening, but also showed the passion, focus, and vision that propelled his work.

“He exited this life at his best,” Lainya said.

Cervantes did eventually tell me about the new concept — a restaurant and bar called Juan Tequila, helmed by the owners of El Zarape and featuring Baja Med cuisine. “Chef and I will both inspire each other to use very uncommon, exotic ingredients,” he told me in a June 6 Facebook message. “Think tiki influence on tequila.”

He invited me to stop by in a couple weeks to check out the cocktail menu.

“I hope San Diego is as excited as all of us to see what is in store,” he said.

“Keep me posted?” I told him. He responded with a heart emoji.

As for that Spotify track he’d sent me, I finally listened to it this week. I’m pretty sure I’d never told him about my taste in music but the song he shared with me is perfect. Far better than any scoop on a new cocktail bar. Just wish I could’ve told him how much I enjoyed it.

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