Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s new Contributing Cocktail Editor and author of the occasional column, Easy Drinking. Jeffrey is an industry veteran, having worked at many styles of bars for the past two decades. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique . Here, he breaks from his usual teaching role, to speak with a legendary London barman.
Tony Conigliaro’s resume reads more like a history of drinking in London over the past 20 years than a list of jobs: The Lonsdale. Hakkasan. Roka and Shochu Lounge. Zuma. Designer of the cocktail menu at the Fat Duck. He has inspired a new generation of bartenders, gotten people to think about drinks in new ways by breaking down aromas on a molecular level and using technology to open up new avenues of texture in cocktails.
When I first met Tony at the nameless bar located at 69 Colebrooke Row, London, in 2009, he took me upstairs to a room that contained all manner of scientific equipment. I gazed in amazement as he described some of the processes used to create the drinks I had been enjoying downstairs. The small space was the prototype for an idea that would grow into a research center, laboratory, and meeting space for like-minded practitioners: The Drink Factory (see the Food Republic tour).
His first book, The Cocktail Lab: Unraveling the Mysteries of Flavor and Aroma in Drink, earned him a James Beard Award this year. Now, in conjunction with The Bar with No Name’s five year anniversary, he is on the eve of releasing 69 Colebrooke Row. More narrative of a bar’s life than collection of cocktail recipes, I recently had a chance to sit down and talk to Tony about the past, present and future of bars, and his role as both student and mentor.
I want to go back just a little bit and talk about your time at The Lonsdale, because so much talent came out of that bar.
Well, I was the first bar manager there. But I’d been working for Dick [Bradsell] for about four or five years before that. So we were going to a lot of different bars, and places working as consultants, starting things up for people, and moving on again.
I can always point to the mentors that I had at those jobs, and say, well this guy taught me this thing, and I really took this away from this job. What did you take away from your time with Dick?
Where do I start? Ha ha. Lots of things. You always pick up things from working with someone who’s been in the industry for a long time. It’s almost like they have this sixth sense for what’s going to happen, what should be done and kind of pre-empting that. I mean Dick was always a master at pre-empting situations that you could see were going to happen. And getting there before they actually did. Whether they be good or bad.
You’re talking about drink trends?
Yeah, drink trends. There weren’t drink trends there, there was Dick. He was the drink trend. I mean, there wasn’t really much else. The bars were very isolated. They were like little bastions by themselves and didn’t really communicate with each other. Dick kind of changed the inner workings of the industry I suppose, and created a movement just like Dale [DeGroff] did over on your side of the pond. But you know, accuracy, speed, customer service were all important. Dick was very, very fast on the bar, and still is. But I also learned how to not fluff around with drinks. At my bars, there might be a lot of stuff going on back of house in terms of prep, but there’s always been a simplicity to my drinks.
Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and I’m sure you go through this too, is how do you keep a bar program fresh and relevant? I mean, there’s such a sort of short lifespan in bars and restaurants. You’re the hot thing for two years, and then somebody else pops up. It’s not like the program’s in danger of going downhill, but how do we keep it fresh and relevant and on the bleeding edge?
It’s what you invest in staff, it’s as simple as that. They’re the ones that bring the energy to keep pushing and pushing. They push you, and you push them. And it’s that kind of circular situation that you get in. Our company as a whole, we invest a lot of time and effort into our staff. And then they invest back.
Their energy is just as important as ours, because they’re the ones that are out there spreading the word. And even when they leave you, they still take things that you’ve taught them and they’ve learned. I think it’s important to invest in staff, because they bring ideas to you too. Our staff at The Drink Factory, all of them work here at 69 Colebrooke Row at a some point during their week. They’re always experimenting with ideas, working at cocktail competitions, and continuously learning.
Do you feel a lot of pressure from your staff to always be innovating? I mean, I know my staff is so hungry and eager to always learn more, that sometimes it gets almost exhausting.
No, there’s so much going on, and so many ideas floating around, that I think everyone’s more shocked when we actually don’t have anything to do. There are occasions where there’s been an especially productive or creative period, and then it’s like, whoa, what just happened? There’s nothing on the table! We also have some projects that have been on hold for years. One project was on hold for ten years, we didn’t know how we were ever going to make it work. We wanted to make these vermouth diamonds. Which we finally did.
Did you say vermouth diamonds?
Yeah. It’s for a drink called the Rough Diamond martini. Where you put a diamond in, and it just dissipates. It’s not just a question of freezing, we wanted to actually get something to dissolve but we didn’t know how to do it. So we’d make a vague attempt every couple years. And then there’s a sudden piece of knowledge, or a piece of equipment, or someone looking at the problem in a completely different way. And suddenly something becomes possible.
When I think about you, I think about that you’re best known for two things. One, being the science of the aroma and flavor of food and beverage. And the second, being this sort manipulation of the texture and form of food and beverage. And I think that’s a pretty unique way to think about drinks. I don’t think a lot of bartenders think about those two things as being separate elements. But it seems like you’ve broken it down quite successfully.
There has always been this romantic idea of mine that there’s more to food and drink than just a series of flavors or aromas that are put together. It’s so much more than just A plus B equals C. We work in a very different method from the usual way of looking at food and drink. What we’re trying to do is tell a story. A narrative. And that narrative is described through a series of flavors. And by using that kind of methodology that can take you to some very odd places but also some very interesting places.
It’s not just a vermouth diamond, it’s the story of a rough diamond — what that involves, and what that’s implying. It’s not just a lovely visual idea, it’s also a mental idea. And if you look at a drink like The Rose, or the concept behind that, it’s so much more romantic. The idea is that you’re this character in this English garden with a glass of champagne and the further you walk into the garden, the deeper the aroma of the rose gets. Which is what happens in the drink. And that’s a visual and a seductive method for a number of other things. And I think that’s the point at which we’re telling a story through flavor, rather than just saying, “This is a rose-flavored champagne cocktail.”
Yeah, I think that’s certainly the case with less experienced bartenders I meet, I’ll say, “So what’s your concept for this drink?” and they’ll say, “Well, I want to make a drink that tastes like a rose.” And that’s it.
Which is fine. A drink doesn’t have to be one thing or the other, it can just be the flavors. Our choice is just to describe things outside of drinks, and ways of being, rather that just a series of flavors. With the aroma and the flavor thing, there is what you smell, and what you taste. One of our experiments, one of the funniest ones anyway, was making a drink for people that smelled of one thing and tasted of something completely different. And because you can do that, you can sort of mess around with the senses. And that’s just one gameplay you can use.
Tell me about the new book?
Yeah, sure. We put that together with the team here, and one of the things we wanted to do is turn things inside out a little bit. Because, again, looking at the descriptor of molecular mixology, I thought that was misleading and even with the last book, people were like oh it’s just science based, there’s no basis in reality, and if you don’t have the opportunity to come to the bar, there could be a misnomer of what we actually do, that we don’t know how to serve drinks to real people.
So what we did is we made the book about the customers. Because it’s always been about the customers. It’s never been about any other thing, really. Apart from the fact that we serve drinks that are made slightly differently in the back of house, but they don’t even notice. It’s a celebration of who’s made 69, from the staff, the customers, the stories and the drinks. The atmosphere of what we’ve tried to create there, and why we’ve tried to create it. And we’ve literally got our house pianist in there, who’s been with us for five years, there’s pictures of him in there, and little kinds of sayings, you know: why he plays there and what his little story about 69 is. Then we’ve got a whole load of our regulars, from the UK, the States, Japan and wherever else, doing the same thing. It’s nice to look back a little at what’s really made the place.
That was the thing that I really liked about the bar, because I went in and we were drinking Old Fashioneds and Daiquiris and just having a great time, there was a guy playing a piano and it was just – it was a bar. And then I remember you took us upstairs to this sort of laboratory, and I was like – I had no idea that this was even here. And it struck me that you were not advertising the fact that the drinks were made in some small part due to all of this equipment, but at the same time you were totally transparent and open about showing it to us. A lot of people don’t let you look behind the curtain, nor are they willing to share the instruction manual for what’s going on back there.
I think people have lots of different opinions about this but I think that there’s two ways of looking at it. One is, if you’re working on something and you put a lot of effort into it, then there should be a certain degree of reward from that — by you selling the book or publishing it and it being circulated in your name. The other side of it is once you’ve done it, the point is to get it out there and exchange it for the rest of the community, and I think that’s important. Especially for us, I mean we gain more from sharing the information than not. It starts more conversations with so many different people by sharing and not keeping it hidden.
I would argue that I probably wouldn’t have much of a career if I hadn’t been sharing what I’ve learned over the past 20 years on my website and in my book. I mean, I think that’s half the reason why people know who I am, is because I’ve been pushing all this information out. If I just sat on it, I think I’d probably still be working in a small college town in Oregon.
Some people have got that nature, that they’re sharing entities. There is a lot of information on those websites for younger bartenders and people interested in the industry. And I think that’s very important, over the years it’s been a real joy to see how that goes. Sharing brings back more interested, and interesting, people.
I think about what happens to people like you and me when all this fancy, cocktail stuff becomes passé, you know and the next generation of bartenders comes up, and they’re like “This is all bullshit, aged cocktails, molecular cocktails and flavors and textures and stuff. From now on, we’re just gonna drop shots into beers.” And that’s the new thing. What happens to us then? We’ve all worked so hard, it would be such a shame to see us sent away by the next knee jerk movement.
I think time will tell. But you know, at the end of the day, if it does go away it’s been a hell of a ride. And if it doesn’t, then it’s still a hell of a ride for us. Either way, you can’t control the future.
It’d be a pity if so much knowledge and stuff goes away, but I doubt it will. I think it’s very different now than it was before. Things change more quickly and trends go global more quickly. But the basis of what our generation, the generation before and the generation after, are putting into it, I don’t think it easily erasable or ignored. And I hope that there’s some passing of the torch along the way. Because it would be fun to see what people do with it, even if they change it and make it their own.
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