The Interview: Tony Conigliario

Mark Gill talks with Tony Conigliaro, cocktail maestro and owner of 69 Colebrooke Row: Despite visiting his bar several times I had yet to meet Tony in person, so I was excited about the prospect of talking to a man I’d read so much about. As it turned out, Tony doesn’t play up to his ‘celebrity bartender’ status, in spite of usually being referred to as the Heston Blumenthal of the bartending world. When he arrived, business carried on as normal as he quietly took a seat to one side of the bar. I was intrigued by this understated presence so took the opportunity to introduce myself and get chatting. Process not product I quickly realised that the concept of celebrity is not something that appeals to Tony. For him the focus should be on the cocktails. Surprisingly his attitude seems to be less about the finished, and sometimes extraordinary, end product and more about the process of creation. However, don’t underestimate the almost superhuman effort Tony and his team go to to achieve perfect flavour. For that’s the thing with cocktails. Unlike food, they tend not to attract pretentious talk of provenance and although things like mouth-feel are important, it mostly comes down to one thing: flavour and its balance. If it were possible to be addicted to flavour perfection, I reckon Tony would be among the more serious cases. Often spending 10-12 hours a day in his lab upstairs, his quest seems never-ending. He tells me that he recently spent two years creating a drink because he couldn’t get it quite right. Then, when he had finally perfected it, he was given a blocking order by a major spirit producer to prevent him from serving, or even talking about it! Science as art Originally from an arts background, it’s easy to understand why the creative process is so important to him – something I find interesting considering his current preference for using scientific techniques. Tony believes this combination, and the fact that he has never trained as a scientist, gives him a unique ability to think outside the box and create drinks that have never been tried before. If you’re aware of 69 Colebrooke Row’s reputation for molecular mixology, you would be forgiven for anticipating the drinks to be on the ‘weird’ side. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For Tony, these techniques are...
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September: 69 Colebrooke Row

And so the London Cocktail Society was born… After a month or so of planning and signing up members, Tuesday 7 September 2010 saw our first ever meeting at the rather wonderful 69 Colebrooke Row.  So popular was this event, we had to hold a second meeting the very next day to ensure everyone had a chance to come along – about which we were naturally delighted. We couldn’t have chosen a more suitable venue to kick off proceedings. Tony Conigliario, joint owner of 69 Colebrooke Row and one of the world’s top bartenders, had agreed to join us, so the pressure was on for the evening to be a success. On top of that it was our inaugural meeting, so we were nervous about everyone meeting for the first time – would it seem completely random? Apparently not, as despite a wide range of backgrounds, everyone just got down to getting to know each other and before long (or about as long as it takes for a cocktail to hit the spot) it was as if they had been friends for years. At this point, Tony offered to take the first group up to see his secret laboratory, which was a real privilege. After all, it’s not every day you get a top-class bartender showing you how he creates some of the finest drinks you’ll ever taste. Crammed into a surprisingly small space were bain-maries, rotavapours, jar after jar of experimentations and shelves of ingredients, some harder to identify than others. It was like a crazy but wonderful cross between an academic’s study and a mad scientist’s lab. One piece of kit that caught the attention of many members was the rotavapour. This allows spirits to be re-distilled with added ingredients for flavour at low pressure and temperature, allowing a very natural flavour to be extracted. The end taste of the spirit is much improved compared with traditional methods of marination. As an example of this, we were provided with a tasting of the horseradish vodka. Now I’m no adjective-laden wine buff but its depth of flavour, and in particular the prominent raw vegetal notes had us all fantasising about having our own rotavapours at home. Even more so when we tasted it later in a preternaturally tasty Bloody Mary… By contrast, we then tried some rose hydrosol (a water-based rose solution) which is used in the Gonzales...
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