A scotch whisky distiller, when asked recently if he made any blends, was gloriously sniffy and dismissive of blended whisky. It would have been interesting to see and hear what he would have made of the Johnnie Walker Directors Blends, which I got to taste last Thursday (November 28) in London.
Then there’s smell (I forgot to mention that the jar-laden shelves also display a good number of perfumes and aftershaves). “Making perfume is a distillation process,” he says. “Drinks such as Chartreuse and vermouths have a link back to alchemy.”
Again, he is drawing a series of lines and shapes on his notepad. Take the Rose cocktail – a drink which took two years to conceive. “We basically made a food grade essence from roses. We tried loads of different types of roses.”
A sugar cube in the bottom of the glass contains the rose essence and the bubbles, or ‘flavour-carriers’ as Conigliaro calls them, take the smell to the drinker’s nose. The further down the drink you go, the closer you get to the source and the more powerful the aroma becomes.
It’s worth noting here that Conigliaro has no formal scientific training and, although some 80%-90% of the ingredients on the bars’ lists are homemade, he doesn’t necessarily believe it’s always best to make it yourself.
“I’ve made a few mistakes,” he says, although they were in the lab, so at least, he says “I was doing that, though, not serving it to the customers. “If there’s something better out there, we’ll use it. I’d love to be able to make a vermouth for example.”
The next logical step seems like distilling, given that craft distilleries are popping up all over the UK at the moment. “I’d love to but I don’t know what I’d make. Something different. Craft distilling is really healthy for the industry.”
Perhaps another bar then? “No plans yet. We’re happy at Drinks Factory – it’s nearly finished!”
When I ask about money, Conigliaro seems less impassioned. “The Drinks Factory [which includes four full-time staff] funds itself,” he says. Then there are eight bartenders and a bank of freelance/part timers. “My brother Simon runs the company,” he says. And that line of questioning closes.
Fiction meets fact
Both 69 Colebrooke Row and Zetter Townhouse show different sides to Conigliaro’s personality. Colebrooke is understated, neat. “It’s not based on Japanese bartending per se, but small intimate Japanese bars. Zetter is a nice contrast.”
Walking into Zetter is like stepping into an old lady’s living room, circa 18th/19th century, complete with chintz and a taxidermy cat with a parasol. In fact, to all intents and purposes, it is an old lady’s living room. And who is this old lady?
“Wilhelmina owns the house but the idea is that you’ve always just missed her,” explains Conigliaro before going on to start telling stories about the fictional character and the drinks she has influenced. “Well she likes to travel so the drinks have stories as well – like the Master at Arms, when she’s travelling with the merchant navy.” An interesting alter ego to say the least.
So what happens when you want a drink in one of these places? Do you stand there thirsty while some twit with a bunsen burner explains the ins and outs of hydrosols (water or steam distillations of flowers or herbs)? No. “At 69, we have a good proportion of people who come on a cocktail pilgrimage but then we have a good base of regulars. People do come because they just want a drink. That’s very important.
“It gets talked about if needs be but otherwise, why would we talk about how many times we’ve centrifuged something? A bar should be a bar, not a science lab. That all gets a bit egotistical to say the least.”
And it doesn’t do to let an ego get in the way of a good bar.
** Conigliaro has just released a book entitled Drinks. It is priced at £20 and published by Ebury Publishing.