Tony Conigliaro - Mind Games

July 15, 2014
Tony Conigliaro is a titan of the British cocktail scene. He collects distinctions and awards like others collect stamps.

His London bar, 69 Colebrooke Row, is frequently bestowed with titles such as “Best Place to Drink” and “World’s Best Cocktail Bar”. Above the bar he has a laboratory where he conducts his experiments. Last year he also opened the bar at the Grain Store with Chef Bruno Loubet. And he recently launched Drink Factory, a gem of a magazine that aspires to engage the intellect in the experience and enjoyment of drink creation.

At a seminar he gave in Athens at the beginning of the month, in the framework of Havana Club’s “Cantineros” project, he gave us an insight into the experiments he conducts at his laboratory with the aim of activating all the senses through a perfect combination of scent, colour, sound and taste for the ultimate cocktail experience. I spoke to him after the seminar. I had a Soy Cubano they made at the bar to my own recipe. A cocktail with an umami flavour. With Havana Club 7 Year Old, soya, Tabasco, salt and certain other ingredients, it evokes the humid atmosphere of a night in Havana.   

Who taught you about spirits?

When it comes to alcohol, I consider myself to be self-taught. I have always been fascinated by the science of taste and over the years I have spent a long time experimenting and discovering new techniques. I draw my inspiration from art, science, and design, and I can be inspired by anyone. For example my new cocktail, “Lipstick Rose”, was inspired by perfumer Ralf Schwieger’s creation for Frederic Malle. In this business the best way to learn is hands-on experience and keeping your eyes wide open.

Can the creation of taste, as in the case of a cocktail, be considered art? Now I come to think of it, this is the first time I have asked a mixologist this question. Up to now, I have put it only to chefs.

Primarily it is technique. What we do in reality is combine and juxtapose different ideas and different techniques. To be more specific, let’s take the example of Japan. By repeating a technique or process, again and again, they eventually elevate it to a level that is art. So we too, by taking into consideration not only our own perspective, the result of experimentation and repetition, but also the observations and proposals of customers, give meaning to what we do, which initially is viewed simply as a drink but in the end is indeed treated as art. Then and only then can we say we have accomplished what we set out to do. Only then have earth and clay be transformed into a work of art.

What made you decide to embark on such an endeavour in the laboratory and what does this entire process mean to you?

It was very important for me to avoid routine. Doing something over and over in exactly the same way. In the end, this becomes incredibly boring. In contrast, what we are doing now enables us to express ourselves. That is, not simply make drinks for people but offer them new experiences. We strive to communicate our own “world”, our way of thinking. This is quite different from what you can offer in a typical hotel bar, where you most likely have to follow a mainstream policy that keeps everyone satisfied. Whereas we offer a totally new experience. One that aims to transcend the actual ingredients and acquire substance and meaning.

Most of your cocktails are in some respects also mind games. What is your source of inspiration?

I can’t say there is one specific motivation. If you look carefully at the drinks presented here (showing me a number of cocktails in the magazine), you will see that they are not based on a single, common concept. That is to say I hope, especially if you try them, you will realise that they do not share a common basis. In any case, it may be that the concept of a drink or the inspiration for it are not so important, from the moment it satisfies you when you drink it. Basically, this suffices. However, if you want to delve deeper, then yes, thematic context plays a role. But then you find yourself in something of a jumble. It is like eating chicken, one from a Michelin-starred chef and the other in your local diner. Certainly, they are both chicken. But they are definitely not the same thing. Nevertheless, from the moment both satisfy you, then theoretically you should be fine with both. The truth is however that the chicken prepared by the Michelin chef will most probably give you something beyond the basic level of taste, an experience, and this is something you should also be taking into account.  

Do you try to engage all the senses with your cocktails so that they become etched in the memory of those tasting them?

Yes. I believe that the more senses stimulated and “captivated”, the more intense and consequently unforgettable the result will be. I remember a particular case from last year, involving a photographer from Italy, who came to take photos of the bar and also took some shots of his girlfriend, who was Italian too. At the time we had a Christmas drink, rather like a liquid panettone – Prosecco, something we have been serving for years at Christmas time. Anyhow, once the photo session was over, the girl asked if she could try it. With the first sip she began to cry. Taken aback, we asked her if she was alright and she replied: “I’m very happy right now; it’s just that I miss Italy and this drink reminded me of it.” So we are talking about a level of experience that strikes a nerve, triggers an emotion, creates something more complete than – for example – two people simply talking about the same subject.

Have you had any similar experiences at the bar? Positive experiences that stick in your mind?

Of course, negative ones too! And these provide even more material for us to work with! For instance, there are people who don’t like their drink because, for example, they don’t like its taste. Others may think that the image they would like a particular drink to have – from the viewpoint of symbolism and concept – does not match what they are given. Then again, we often have people returning after some time, people we have never met previously, who tell us “that was the best Bloody Mary I have ever had”, and you hear exclamations of amazement such as “Oh my god!” It is then we feel that the experience was a total one.

Would you say that the majority of those who visit the bar come for the drink itself or for the experience?

Hmm... I’m not sure that the precise reason makes any real difference… I think that what they are all seeking and come to us to find is something of quality. Whether they perceive this as part of a bigger picture, for example the overall experience, or solely in terms of the drink itself depends on each particular person. But I don’t believe they come for only one or the other. They come for a pleasant encounter, an enjoyable conversation, to fall in love, whatever it is they themselves really want to do.   

What would you say is happening at the present time on a global level. What trends do you see?

I would say that the most important trend presently is the creation of drinks that are associated with food. Let’s not forget that food was for years associated exclusively with wine. Only recently have people begun to look for something new. And I am not referring to cocktails alone. I am also talking about savoury drinks, non-alcoholic drinks. One does not have to feel obliged to continue with wine throughout a meal. What we did at Grain Stores was use flavoured waters. For instance we use hay flavoured water, to which you add a slice of melon and can match it with specific dishes. This in itself can give rise to a number of new experiences.

And what about food pairing? Does it interest you?

We are closely involved with this. A few years ago we collaborated with Chateaubriand in Paris, but we have worked with many chefs from different regions and countries. At present I am working very closely with Bruno Loubet at Grain Store, where I taste the food and he tastes the drinks; both of us are doing our best to come up with something that really “gels”! This is very important, as too is the combination that must satisfy both our palates!

Have you discovered some ingredient of particular interest?

I would say ambrette seeds [editor’s note: Abelmoschus moschatus, a type of hibiscus] are exceptional; they have quite amazing “depth”.

Are you doing any molecular mixology at the bar?

I wouldn’t call it molecular. What we are actually doing is investigating the way that taste functions. But because there is the matter of subjectivity, I would go a step further and say that we are more involved with the romantic aspect... communicating ideas and stories.

There are thousands of bartenders in the world, but only a handful who actually make a difference. What makes a really good bartender?

One who smiles! Of course the taste and aroma of the drinks he or she prepares also play a role! But these are all just parameters. Because ultimately what makes the difference is how good the overall experience is. And a prerequisite for this is a smile. Imagine a sullen bartender behind the bar. It’s all about how a person moves, how pleasant they are, how they prepare the drink, how balanced they are, how in tune with the music they are... It’s the overall impression that counts. 

And what would you recommend to someone coming to your bar for the first time?

Whatever they fancy! It’s not our job to tell you what to drink, but to help you find what it is you want to drink. And this is a very different and difficult philosophy. I really shouldn’t propose anything because you are different from me. What I should be doing is helping you to open up, to understand who you really are, and when you understand who you are, you will also realise what it is that you, yourself, want to drink. 

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