Last February I had a chance to talk with Tony Conigliaro, one of the most creative and highly regarded people in the bartending industry, and far beyond. This year has turned out to be an extremely succesful year for him and his team: winning the award for World’s Best New Hotelbar at Tales of the Cocktail, where he also was in the final 4 in the category World’s Best Cocktailbar with 69 Colebrook Row. He runs the world’s most cutting edge laboratory, Drink Factory fully dedicated to spirits. And he is about to open a new place in Paris with Thierry Daniel, founder of the Paris-based Cocktails & Spirits. And he got married and today even is his birthday.
Seemed like the perfect opportunity to publish the interview today.
“The Drink Factory started as a blog, as a website, to communicate with people about what we were doing and how we were doing that and to get feedback. It was bigger than just bartending, I was writing about it, but I was also asking questions about perfumery and all kinds of things. And slowly, slowly over the course of 5 years running, people started talking back, we started meeting new people and starting to set up new collaborations.
While Tony was setting up 69 Colebrook Row, he filled his house with all sorts of equipment. “The kitchen was kind of chock-a-block with stuff and after a while the lab got bigger than 69 Colebrook Row, so we moved to the current location in June 2011. That building is the old Pink Floyd recording studios, where they recorded The Wall. There’s still images of great bands covering the walls of the whole building. We fell in love with the history, with the location and realized it’s the perfect place to take all our creative ideas and push them to the max.”
When I had this interview in February of this year, they were still work in progress, but they had started working on the tasting area and to create an office space. It looked quite finished to me at that time already but fresh ingredients that were brought in made the place look like a forest-meets-lab: pine-branches were lined up at the walls, to be processed in their syrup for one of their signature drinks for The Zetter Town House. In the middle there is a long chest that holds numerous herbs, spices, roots, fruits and basically everything else that could possibly be used in a syrup, potion or concoction. Another eye-catcher is the large collection of vintage spirits.
By the entrance there was the lab itself: 2 rotavaps were in use to re-distill a red peppercorn-vodka at low pressure. It can distill at less than 1/10th of the normal pressure and it condenses when it runs through a spiral, chilled by antifreeze at – 20 degrees. It allows for a very accurate controlled procedure with the least damage to all the individual elements. Other intriguing equipment that fills up the kitchen include induction heaters, a vacuum-machine, and a Gastrovac.
“I remember that people came into my home kitchen and just stared at me like “what are you doing”. That was hilarious.”
My bartenders also work in the lab, not only from 69 CR, but also from Zetter Town House. We work with perfumers and people from the gin-industry, and we learn how to pull flavours apart,” while he samples me an extraction of Bulgarian Rose. Heavy scent comes out of a little jar, filling the space with the sweet smell of the rose.
“People are really interested in what we do: we see things out of the box. We see them from a creative point of view, not necessarily from an industrial point of view. We do a lot of research here for bars, for drinks companies, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.”
I noticed that there were a lot of ‘approved’ experiments, but I asked him if there were any experiments less succesfull. We were in a lab after all.
“I don’t see any experiment ever ‘gone wrong’ I just learn something more with every distillation or extraction. If something doesn’t taste right, we can identify why it doesn’t. Sometimes we cannot get something to work within 2 years, but we just build up a library of knowledge.
“It’s not just about cocktails and flavours, but also about aroma’s and finding unexpected results.” He samples me then Mastic, a sort of chewing gum made from resin of the Mastic tree from Greece, which was used in drinks by the Romans. “We use it in a drink with honey, so we’ve got this in the menu that’s based on an old Roman Drink.”
Working with ingredients like this gives us the opportunity to create drinks that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. We are strong believers in putting flavours together that you don’t come across anywhere else in the world.”
Mr Conigliaro then shows me his vintage spirits collection, Campari from the 50’s 60’s, even from the1900s, and 1910, Moët & Chandon from 1940, to compare how spirits have evolved and changed. There are original Bokers bitters from 1890. We record everything we do, take photographs, writing down what comes in. There’s a very fine collection of vintage glassware. He also shows the new vessel for the Prairy Oyster (which was put on the menu last March), it was specially designed for him by a ceramicist, a fine example of how thouight out and well designed his drinks are.
He then mentions his book, which obviously has hit the shelves last summer. “I can describe the book as a genealogy of my work for the last 12 years, from Isola to now. It is a creative history on where things are coming from and where they are going to: a fun catalogue of drinks and processes that we found that work very well.”
What an inspiration!
Liquorice Whisky Sour
Glassware: Large Coupette
50ml Baillie Nicol Jarvie
25ml Lemon Juice
15ml Liquorice Syrup
25ml Egg White
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Combine Scotch with the lemon juice. Add the angostura and egg white to the shaker, dry shake.
Add ice to the shaker, shake and strain into Sour glass.