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Turin, slightly outside the city centre. You go into what looks like a quirky tea room, straight on until you reach a staircase, go down the stairs and finally you’ve found it: a collection of bottles neatly arranged behind an imposing bar counter. There, a big strong man, covered in tattoos, waits for you to come closer before asking you what you’d like to drink.
At the bar, only a muddled cocktail springs to mind: how naive, don’t you know that a real bartender never makes muddled cocktails. However, treating me politely, which is rather at odds with his appearance and relieves me from the pressure of all that choice, the chap offers me something different. And more refined. I instantly accept, even if I'm not’ really sure what I'm letting myself in for.
Then the show begins. And while, like a magician, the big tattooed chap juggles bottles, ingredients and glasses around, he entertains you with tales about every type of spirit he pours out.
Bartenders won’t pull your leg if you order a non alcoholic cocktail. Because, mixologists are known for certain qualities: gravitas, professionalism and passion. These people know their job. And they pride themselves on a job well done. Perhaps this is what Ernest Hemingway loved about the Ritz Hotel bar in the Place Vendome in Paris: the bartender’s self-respect, ambition and determination. And it’s rumoured that he also loved the result.
Paris, at no. 17 Place Vendôme. Nowadays, Colin Peter Field is the famous head bartender who stands behind the counter, which has been graced in its time by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper and – most recently – Kate Moss. He blends in with the hotel and the furniture, an icon of great value who is never asked to move even during photo shoots. People say that Colin Field’s mood is his distinctive trait.
When you come closer, if you haven’t already made up your mind and you look at the row of bottles behind him with fake interest and real bashfulness, Colin will ask you what your mood is – so he can dig in his repertoire for the perfect cocktail to suit that moment. Better not gainsay him, because a bartender always takes a challenge seriously.
It’s not easy to recite cocktail recipes for the simple reason that you usually drink them and if there’s a good bartender, you may have a few too many. Perhaps, it’s also because of this that books feature in at least two of these stories.
Colin Field told Forbes that in the Ritz Hotel in Place Vendôme there’s a volume that has been passed down from head bartender to his successor and so on for the last couple of decades: it holds all the recipes, a few notes and who knows what secrets. Colin published it a few years later. And another book preceded this story.
New York, 1862. Jerry Thomas, the old bartender of the Metropolitan Hotel, published the first volume on the cocktails that made history: How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. The book is still in print and has laid the foundations of the so called American school. This is because rules and tradition are a must for any self-respecting bartender.
Just like Marian Beke, head bartender of the Nightjar in London, who abides by the same rules laid down by Colin and Jerry: to have a precise and comprehensive knowledge of both recipes and spirits, and to use fresh ingredients prepared on the spot whenever possible.