Raising the barman: meet London’s leading bartenders

Words by
Victoria Stewart

20th March 2017

As the movers and cocktail shakers of the drinks world, the capital’s top bartenders mean business with brand endorsements and their own product lines

In 2017, the work of a top London bartender no longer simply means standing behind a bar creating great drinks night after night. Anyone worth their salt nowadays will just as likely be known for their work beyond the bar as well. From being the face of an international spirit brand to collaborating on a menu with a top chef, London’s best barmen are in demand.
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Look at the “big dogs” of the cocktail world, says Tatiana Mercer, founder of bar recommendations website, BarChick. “Tony Conigliario (of 69 Colebrooke Row bar, among others), Ryan Chetiyawardana (White Lyan and Dandelyan), Simone Caporale (formerly at The Langham’s Artesian bar) and Erik Lorincz (American Bar at The Savoy), who is the slickest man you’ll ever meet, are businessmen in their own way. They are not just some guys who make cocktails… [these bartenders] are like the tastemakers.”

Co-founder-Edmund-Weil
Edmund Weil is co-founder of such acclaimed London bars as Nightjar and Oriole and the new “no-nonsense” cocktail bar Swift

Edmund Weil is co-founder of such acclaimed London bars as Nightjar and Oriole and the new “no-nonsense” cocktail bar Swift

Lucy Francis, owner of PR consultancy Domino Communications, thinks the recent cultishness surrounding London bartenders is largely down to the city’s cocktail culture, which “has changed quite drastically in the past 10 years.

Now five out of the top 10 cocktail bars on the 2016 World’s 50 Best Bars list are in London.” You would be forgiven for thinking that this wave was down to an increase in bar openings. According to a trends report from December 2016 by researchers CGA Peach and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMA ), the number of drink-led outlets opening between September 2011 and 2016 in London saw a 10.8% decrease (compared with food-led outlets, down 15.6%). It also reports that our consumption of spirits — the basis for cocktails — only went up 1% between December 2015 and 2016.

Nightjar-and-riole-bar
Nightjar and Oriole bar

Nightjar and Oriole bar

In reality what has changed is the general perception of cocktails, their makers and the world they inhabit, and with that comes a thirst for knowledge, higher expectations and more profile-raising opportunities. So how has this come about?

Notably, appreciation for the craft has deepened on both sides. As Francis points out, the bartender’s knowledge is key to their creativity: “They are now super-geeks, scouring the internet for first edition copies of the likes of The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock. Being able to recite a historical fact about a random ingredient, origin of a drink or distillation process is the new chat-up line.”

Being able to recite a historical fact about a random ingredient, origin of a drink or distillation process is the new chat-up line

Acceptance of the bartender as a know-it-all meant that, for a while, customers were happy to wait while watching their cocktail being made, inviting a new breed of what Mercer calls “cocktail aficionados” who “want to sit at the bar and talk about the product”. Sitting at the bar, she thinks, is now almost like being at the chef’s table: “Riding the cocktail wave, there are now also masterclasses and gin and negroni tours.”

White-Lyan
Lain Griffiths, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Robin Honhold at White Lyan in East London. Through his consultancy, Ryan has developed bespoke carbonated cocktails for Sodastream

Lain Griffiths, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Robin Honhold at White Lyan in East London. Through his consultancy, Ryan has developed bespoke carbonated cocktails for Sodastream

As a result, Edmund Weil, co-founder of the bars Oriole and Nightjar (No 19 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list) has a new “no-nonsense” bar called Swift “with perhaps a bar team that doesn’t take themselves as seriously as [the other bars.] We love running them, but it takes time and attention to balance out the needs of brilliantly creative bartenders and being able to make the drinks they like profitable.”

It takes time and attention to balance out the needs of brilliantly creative bartenders and being able to make the drinks they like profitable

Collaborations and partnerships are also key to the growing profiles — and salaries — of today’s drinks shakers. According to Mercer, bartenders who choose to work with a particular brand can wield enormous power: “The bars are like the catwalk for your product and the bartenders are like the models,” she says. “I always think of that scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Anne Hathaway laughs about her plain blue jumper, but Meryl Streep tells her that it would have been called cerulean on some designer’s catwalk before hitting the high street. And it’s the same with cocktails. The Espresso Martini didn’t exist until Dick Bradsell created it using Kahlua and Absolut vodka. Since then every brand has tried to lock on to it and it’s now probably one of the UK’s three top-selling cocktails. Everything trickles down — and bartenders are powerful because they are put on a pedestal by the brand.”

bespoke-carbonated-cocktails-for-Sodastream
Bespoke carbonated cocktails for Sodastream

Bespoke carbonated cocktails for Sodastream

Having worked with major drinks brands Diagio and Bacardi Brown-Forman, Weil sees benefits on both sides from these associations. He also actively encourages his best bartenders to pursue outside opportunities with brands — Oriole’s head bartender, for instance, is a brand ambassador for a small Greek liqueur producer. “It’s a really important part of being a bartender nowadays,” says Weil, who points out that they may not necessarily be adopting full-on ambassador roles, but it offers them opportunities. “What they get is the opportunity to travel, to do guest bartending shifts, judging and consulting. Again you have to be careful about intellectual property, but I would say that our top guys are probably making nearly as much outside of our bars as they do in them. We’re very happy [about it]… it means that aspirational bartenders know that it’s something they can make a really viable career out of, if they work hard.”

White-Americano
A White Americano from the Italicus range by Giuseppe Gallo

A White Americano from the Italicus range by Giuseppe Gallo

According to one commentator, who prefers not to be named, partnerships and consultancy — common among London’s most successful mixologists — can be so lucrative that “the very top guys can probably bank up to £1 million a year”.

Savoy-barman-Erik-Lorincz
Savoy barman Erik Lorincz has many interests, including designing the Birdy cocktail shaker (next image)

Savoy barman Erik Lorincz has many interests, including designing the Birdy cocktail shaker (next image)

Birds-cocktail-shaker
Birdy cocktail shaker

Birdy cocktail shaker

Regular consultants include Simone Caporale, who has created a range of cocktails for the Sartoria restaurant’s Librare Bar. Matt Whiley, best known for being at the Peg & Patriot bar, also runs the Talented Mr Fox consultancy, which offers menu design, research and development and brand negotiation. Through his business consultancy Mr Lyan Ltd, Ryan Chetiyawardana has forged commercial partnerships, which have included masterclasses for Nike and a range of bespoke carbonated cocktails for Sodastream.

Vivek-Singh
Vivek Singh, who has developed the menu for his new restaurant Cinnamon Bazaar with Ryan Chetiyawardana

Vivek Singh, who has developed the menu for his new restaurant Cinnamon Bazaar with Ryan Chetiyawardana

In the past six months, such partnerships have also begun to include restaurants. Take stellar chef Richard Corrigan, who is about to open Dickie’s Bar in Mayfair in partnership with Gregory Buda, head of The Dead Rabbit in New York, which tops the World’s 50 Best Bars list. For Corrigan, Buda “has a true talent, he is experimental with flavour, but has a lot of respect and understanding for the ingredients he uses”. There won’t be a cocktail tasting menu, but much of the produce for the drinks and the restaurant will be sourced from the chef’s farm in Ireland.

Bazaar-interior
Bazaar interior

Bazaar interior

Chetiyawardana, meanwhile, has worked on menus at chef Vivek Singh’s new restaurant, Cinnamon Bazaar, and Anna Hansen’s City restaurant, The Modern Pantry. Tony Conigliaro will shortly be opening a new bar with a casual food concept at the back and Michelin-starred Ollie Dabbous has been asked by Parisian hospitality collective the Experimental Group to cook at its Henrietta hotel in Covent Garden, opening later this year.

In a similar vein, Weil has hosted spirit pairing dinners at Oriole, where his in-house chef created a dish of tamarind pork belly and kimchi to go with an organic Montelobos Mezcal-based cocktail.

Contemporary bartenders are also increasingly creating their own product lines; they may not all be profit-mak ing, but they are often seen as a useful profile booster. Giuseppe Gallo, former global brand ambassador for Martini, has recently begun selling Italicus, his version of the Italian spirit rosalio, in top outfits such as Chiltern Firehouse. Erik Lorincz has designed Birdy, a personal range of cocktails shakers and mixers. The idea came about after Lorincz had begun to see “Jamie

Oliver-branded tools and Heston Blumenthal’s face appearing on things”. After a chance meeting in Japan with car parts manufacturer Tetsuya Yokoyama, they designed a barware range together. Lorincz admits that he was initially “a bit scared” to attach his name to a brand (“Would other people like it? It could have been a disaster!”), but, after plenty of positive feedback, the pair has since designed a full set.

The barman who justs sits at home and comes in to do his shift is losing so much, because the bartending today is on a completely different level

Unsurprisingly, Lorincz has other projects on the go: “I work five days a week at The Savoy and then I do other bits and bobs… I am working closely with the world-class competition, judging heats around the world and am involved in private events for various things… These [jobs] are definitely a good thing. I can see so much opportunity and so much demand here. The barman who just sits at home and comes in to do his shift is losing so much, because the bartending today is on a completely different level.”

London bartenders are nothing if not multifunctional.