Tony Conigliaro (of 69 Colebrooke Row and the new ZTH cocktail bar) talks bespoke bitters and cocktail dioramas, storytelling, the thirst for knowledge and freezing time itself.
At the Zetter Townhouse we’ve essentially frozen the 1800s. Kind of like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we’ve literally suspended time. Early on we created a fictional character to live in the house, called Wilhelmina. She’s an amalgamation of all the dotty aunts we could find: she’s crazy, she’s an avid collector, she’s well-travelled…
It’s as though the whole Georgian period got framed – but there was still an evolution within that. So with the drinks, we’ve taken concepts that came later and dragged them all the way into today.
We’ve asked: “If Gimlets existed in the Georgian period, how would they have made them?” So we took a nettle cordial recipe from the 1800s, which Wilhelmina could have easily made – she could have picked the nettles while walking down the canal; she would have had the recipe or known it; there was the gin from one of the distilleries across the road… There’s a real internal history to everything – one that doesn’t exist, yes – but it completes the illusion.
Maybe studying Art and History had an effect on the way I work. Take how it evolves here at 69 Colebrooke Row with drinks – take the Lipstick Rose. It’s a concept; it’s the story behind it; it’s a snapshot of a woman at the bar drinking – hence the lipstick on the glass – and then you’ve got all the ingredients in there to describe what’s actually happening at that moment.
And I always draw my drink ideas out first. Not so much a chart, maybe, as a flow of how they work, of the taste story and also the external story that it reflects.
One of my favourite ZTH drinks is the Master At Arms. When Wilhelmina goes on a trip – because, you know, she’s travelling around all the time – who does she travel with? Well, she hitches a ride with the Royal Navy – so there’s your British Rum ration. But then we found this recipe for a port reduction and we thought: “Well, why don’t we just use the port?” So it’s just rum, port reduction and a tiny, tiny dash of grenadine – and it’s great. But normal sailors didn’t drink port … so was she having an affair with the Captain? Who knows.
There’s a reference point like this with every single drink. It’s about creating a mythology. It’s that slight suspension of reality – which is exactly what drinking and bars are about. You come to a bar to get away from the craziness of everyday life.
At 69 Colebrooke Row, meanwhile, rather than being a story, it’s about a setting. So, for example, with The Silver Mountain drink it’s the backdrop behind the Kigo shochu distillery. There, a stream flows past and leaves are drifting down into it… We’ve tried to capture that precise moment. So there’s the Kigo in there which tastes like really beautiful water and the edible leaves floating in the glass symbolising the passage of time. But then there’s the cassis bud too – a little bit sulphury, a little bit fruity – so it’s almost like you can smell the stones and the vegetation around them.
Here it’s about little moments of time. It’s like we’ve created a stage and all the flavours and characters have to dance around and play their parts within it.
At both bars, there are 12 drinks on the menu. It’s a lovely number and you can fit all your different rum, whisky, gin drinks within that, all on one page.
Then at ZTH there’s an extra page of food by Bruno Loubet – which is a mad coincidence because it was almost him that started me off on this crazy journey of flavours, and now we’re back together again. I’ve been in the industry for almost 15 years and you always get crossovers. But this is a big one.
Adam Elmegirab is also doing all our bespoke bitters. We’d been trawling through old 1800s recipes, going back to that idea of bitters and restoratives, so there’s Hangover Bitters, Depression Bitters, Indigestion Bitters, Aphrodisiac Bitters… But instead of just having a load of bar bitters, we’ve got one for the bar and all the rest are for the rooms in the hotel.
Rather than nicking the soaps and the shampoos like we all do, you’ll nick the bitters. Or when you wake up and you have a hangover and say, “Ooph, God I feel terrible,” then you reach for the bitters. We just thought it was a nice little twist on the kind of stuff that you can steal from your hotel room; that you can take home but has more longevity than, say, the soap.
I was talking the other night with someone who was really anti-Heston [Blumenthal] and anti-technology. But I thought: it’s not about technology – it’s about making stuff better. Rather than buying a liquorice syrup, you’re making it yourself. And you’re doing it because you’ve figured out how to make it better. So why should we not do that? It’s not niche or elitist. Do you ask an architect to dumb down; to make a mud hut because ‘that’s what the people want’? No. Of course not. You try to excel, to push yourself as a craftsman and a human being. So without the craft of the lab upstairs, the bar downstairs doesn’t function.
And it’s definitely a craft. The minute you’ve made that drink and it goes across the bar, something else happens. And you’re not in control of that at all. That belongs to the customer. It always belongs to the customer. We are only trying to tell a story – but that story can come across in a multitude of ways.
If we were to look at a beautiful Japanese vase, you would feel one way about it and I might feel a very different way about it, but either way it’s had an effect. The guy who made it has honed his skill by making this vase over and over again. It’s not art. It’s a craft.
I was teaching a group of bartenders the other day and I opened with a really simple question. “Why,” I asked, “does the structure of a Tom Collins work? We know the recipe. We know ten million different recipes that show it works. But why does it physically work?” And no one could answer it. These were well-trained bartenders. But why not? We do it everyday, so why don’t we know the answers to these kinds of questions?
You’ve got basic structures – let’s say a Manhattan. But if you start messing around with each component – taking one out, putting one in and exchanging it – then that structure starts to waver slightly. So it’s not as clearly defined as: bourbon, vermouth, bitters, dilution. You can shift things slightly. So if you’re using a spirit that works in a different way, then you can put the emphasis on things in different places. We did a drink here called the Dry Martini with a dry essence. We didn’t change the structure of the drink – it’s made to very classical proportions (we use a five-to-one spirit-to-vermouth ratio) – but adding that non-tasting essence gives it a profundity that gives such depth and length that it just changes what’s going on within the drink.
I don’t know if this is a trend. I just know that from my perspective, people are interested in why things work and discovering new techniques.
I do think there is a movement though, a shift, towards understanding that cocktails were associated, especially during the mid-part of the last century, with parties, fun, ‘do-it’. So drinks become more and more sugary because they were party drinks. To party, you need more sugar, you need more energy. So people were quite happy drinking alcopops because they have enormous amounts of sugar in them. If you’re going out and letting rip, you need the energy to let rip.
Now people are at an understanding about flavour – both at the consumer level and trade level. You don’t need to have disco drinks to have fun. The fun is a little more intellectual maybe. Not even intellectual – it’s just that the enjoyment is from something that has been crafted and works and triggers something else inside your head. Rather than just “Look at me! I’m on the podium!”
People are learning how to drink. I sell more Gin Martinis here than anywhere else in my life – even working in places like Knightsbridge and wherever else – and I don’t have fights here; I don’t get any ridiculous situations. And that is down to a change in our audience.