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After years spent dreaming up imaginative cocktails for the capital’s leading watering holes, mixology maestro Tony Conigliaro has taken the plunge with his own bar. Clinton Cawood samples his latest creation
It’s a grey afternoon outside, but the indifferent weather is soon forgotten when you step inside 69 Colebrooke Row. It’s nothing if not atmospheric – a feel that evokes, in part, 1960s Italian chic. The shutters are closed, and Tony Conigliaro is standing behind the bar at his new venue, tucked down a quiet side-street in Islington.
But like so many other aspects of this intimate bar, not least the drinks offering, there’s more than one influence at work here; the future-retro interior owes
as much to film noir as to Dolce Vita style. There’s even a wee bit of Bladerunner-era sci-fi about the moody feel of the space.
Yet it all coheres very nicely.
Conigliaro has spent years working in some of London’s top bars – Hakkasan, Zuma, and most recently Shochu Lounge, beneath Roka – all the while developing new bartending techniques and cocktail recipes. This is his first bar, opened just a few months ago.
It’s been a good year for Conigliaro. On top of opening his bar, he was recently recognised as the international bartender of the year at Tales of the Cocktail, the drinks industry’s international shindig in New Orleans (see pp.88-91). But he shies away from the notion of celebrity.
‘The award is an honour, and it’s great to get a pat on the back from your peers. But it doesn’t just recognise me, it pays tribute to the UK bar scene in general. It says a lot about what’s going on here. The majority of people don’t know who I am. I don’t think it’s important to be a celebrity bartender. That’s not my thing. I’d loathe it.’
So it’s not the pursuit of fame that has driven him to push the boundaries of cocktail creation. For years now, Conigliaro has been drawing on various disciplines to improve the craft of bartending and, more specifically, create more interesting and enjoyable libations. ‘There are certain techniques that chefs use – we’re looking for techniques for bartenders to use,’ he says.
On the floor above the bar is a laboratory containing all manner of equipment; centrifuges and distilling machines sit alongside ageing bottles filled with Manhattan cocktails. This is where Conigliaro now creates various ingredients such as ‘dry essence’, a distillation used in his dry martini to make it even more faithful to its name.
Notwithstanding this array of techniques and equipment, Conigliaro is concerned not to foreground this side of his work too much. ‘It’s unimportant whether people know about the lab upstairs or not. What’s important is that they like the drink,’ he says. And the positive reception that Colebrooke Row has received so far suggests the drinking public like it a lot, with the bar drawing customers who are clued-up about cocktails. ‘Compared to 10 years ago, people now have far greater knowledge. They have points of reference, and know whether a drink is well made or not,’ he says. ‘There’s a group of girls that come in quite regularly, who work in fashion, and like going through the classics. It’s an incredible mix of people. We’re selling a lot less of the mojitos and caipirinhas, which is great. I think it’s a trust thing. If people order something off the list and it’s executed well, then they’re going to be more open to suggestion.’
By way of example, Conigliaro starts mixing a drink called strawberry alchemy. ‘This is a bit of a foodie joke,’ he says. ‘I was talking to Hervé This [the prominent French food scientist], and he was explaining how smells and flavours are cocktails of chemicals. He went on to explain how you can make a wild strawberry from a strawberry, by adding components that are found in lemon juice and orange flower water, for example. So for this drink, we first make a strawberry purée, to which we add orange flower water and neroli,’ he says. Neroli is the essential oil made from orange blossoms, with orange flower water the by-product. Lemon, sugar and prosecco complete the fresh, summery cocktail.
The subject of chemistry inevitably prompts the use of a term to which Conigliaro, like many others both in mixology and in gastronomy, is opposed. ‘Nicholas Kurti [the Hungarian physicist] first used the term “molecular gastronomy”, and he used it as a joke. He was trying to sound officious.’ Harold McGee, part of the original movement and an occasional collaborator with Conigliaro, confirmed this last year, explaining that Kurti changed the name of a workshop in 1992 from ‘Science and Gastronomy’ to ‘Molecular and Physical Gastronomy’ because the former was thought too frivolous by organisers. ‘Besides,’ he adds, with characteristic modesty, ‘you can’t call what I do molecular, because I’m not a scientist. I just use ideas – and not necessarily from science.’
Other disciplines he draws upon include perfumery and design. ‘The idea is not to categorise, but to open things up and break them down,’ he says. ‘It’s
important that we look outside, otherwise we’d just make Manhattans for the rest of our lives. Instead we now make vintage Manhattans, ageing the ingredients together in a bottle.’ Conigliaro
draws, for example, on his past experience in the fashion industry.
‘I went to art school, so got into designing stuff, because I could draw,’ he says. He emphasises the importance of appearance in mixology, on various levels. ‘Peter Dorelli [the former Savoy bartender] talks about how it’s all about the eyes – he takes so much care about how he presents drinks.’ When Conigliaro worked at Shochu Lounge, he consulted Roka’s sashimi chefs about the way they sliced lemons, so that this could be replicated at the bar. ‘So it’s not just a slice of lemon in your drink, but it’s a particular slice of lemon,’ he says.
And now Conigliaro has a place of his own: a small, rather secret bar with a piano in the corner, and where you must ring a buzzer to gain entry. This is the place where he can put all of his discoveries into practice and experiment further.
Conigliaro’s ideas are not limited to the laboratory. His track record in the industry has left him with firm opinions about how a bar ought to be run. For example, all drinks on the short cocktail list cost the same: £7. ‘I don’t like it when you go somewhere and a Champagne cocktail costs £10, and another drink is £7. It’s like saying, this drink’s better than another. If you take the monetary equation out of it then people end up drinking what they want to drink.’
Another distinctive aspect of his drinks is their relatively small size. ‘This way you can taste more flavours without having to consume vast amounts of alcohol – without having to have a bucketful of martini. And historically, some drinks are just meant to go in small glasses,’ he says.
Lastly, he has one small beef that has to do with the bar industry’s image. ‘The cocktail scene in the UK gets mauled in the press,’ he says. ‘If Heston Blumenthal wins a best restaurateur award, it gets front-page news, but the cocktail scene doesn’t get the same level of recognition, possibly because of the negative way that booze is portrayed in the media in general. Which is ridiculous, because what we’re doing is refining alcoholic drinks.’
If, as Conigliaro argues, the UK’s cocktail scene really is in need of better recognition, then few people are better qualified than he is to champion the cause – with or without the cult of the celebrity.
69 Colebrooke Row, N1 8AA; 07540 528593; www.69colebrookerow.com