Behind the Cocktail | Dennis Zoppi x Oblix
It was weekday eve following a weekend of terror related incidents in London, and security was notably high and tensions were… palpable. As it happened I was en route to an apt venue to relieve the tension, Oblix Bar at the top of the Shard, as the finalists of the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year 2017 gathered for an evening of food and drinks; some relaxation before their final showdown. My task was a far less pressured one, as I headed to catch up with Oblix Bar Manager Aaron Masonde and Italian World Class winner Dennis Zoppi to examine the menu they had created especially for the event. As the lift ascended 32 levels in the iconic building, the very nature of a cocktail was circling my mind in a centrifugal manner as I found myself questioning the raison d’être behind their popularity. I mean, what makes having a cocktail so special? I wouldn’t have to wait long for my answer as I was going to the best place to find out, speaking to experts with over 20 years past experience, and furthermore the future of the cocktail sector as World Class sought to crown the next generation of bartenders.
One thing is certain, food and drink have always held a strong and complex emotional charge, giving bars and restaurants a head start when it comes to connecting with customers on an emotional level. People are looking for instant connections to savour the ‘here and now’ and bartenders often fit the bill. A new trend, ‘the micro-friend’, sees bartenders focusing on building relationships with customers in the short time that they have with them. According to Australian Tim Philips, former World Class Bartender of the Year, some ‘micro-friendships’ are built in as little as 30-45 minutes, equivalent to the time it takes to drink one cocktail.
“Making a micro-friend is all about getting that emotional connection with someone quickly and definitely has an effect on how much people like your bar,” he explains 1.
This concept was one echoed by both Aaron and Dennis as they both alluded to the experience circumventing the consumption of the cocktail as being as important – if not more so – than the drink itself.
As I sat in Oblix, re-reading my questions, I was approached by two smiling men both wearing Biggles flying helmets – rest assured, this was no fetish-led attire but rather in line with the ‘Top Guns’ theme of the evening, adding a nostalgic charm to the otherwise ultra-modern environment.
So I started my questions; the first to Dennis was a simple one really, “In your opinion, what is the main purpose of a cocktail?”
Dennis: I believe that people take it as an opportunity to relax, have some fun maybe to help lose your “second face”. The people might be stressed about work, or life or whatever. A good drink in a nice place with great hospitality can be a good reason to get out have some fun. Maybe find some new friends, a bit like how I met my wife. You never know what is going to happen. It is a good place to have a good experience and get a high level of hospitality and be entertained. In a supermarket, it would be very difficult to just walk around, meet someone and get that relaxed conversational environment. Bars are places that bring people together.
I’m not sure everyone will agree with his opinion on supermarket romance, but without doubt many can attest to the bar environment as being a place of great potential to meet that significant other, or a place to get to know them better once you’ve already met them. He continues,
Dennis: The cocktail is at the heart of the experience. It’s not only the liquid, but it’s the presentation of the drink; it makes it a much more sophisticated process making the person want to know more and more. I think the first part would be the hospitality, the second part would be the drink.
Dennis: If you go in a new bar, or you have an opportunity to explore a new place. What do you want to get first? A good smile and a few nice words to make you feel comfortable. But in an opposite way, what is your expectation for the drink going to be like if you have not had good hospitality before? Hospitality is something that comes before the drink, something that sets you off in a good way saying the drink and the venue are going to be cool, or not that much. You can be the most incredible bartender in the world but if you’re are not able to entertain people and make people feel welcome, people’s opinions are going to change, even if the drink is “super-nice”.
Across the table, Aaron the Bar manager of Oblix, nods in approval, as I’m sure most would. But with this in mind, it didn’t help me to answer the question about what makes a cocktail per se special? After all you can have any drink in a bar environment and receive the same hospitality. Then my thoughts went back to the “micro-friendship” concept. “Our first job is to make people happy.” Dennis tells me, and it’s very hard to do that when all you’re doing is pouring a measure of Red wine and passing the glass, or pulling a pint of beer. The time required to create the cocktail gives the bartender ‘honest’ time to build a rapport with the consumer that other drinks don’t afford them, and hence leave more time for talking, conversation banter. It also gives the bartender a chance to showcase their individual personality in their method of creation, their style and presentation.
Regarding the cocktail itself, I still needed more insight; for example, what if I wanted to make a cocktail at home? Surely then it becomes more about the drink?
Dennis: It’s difficult to explain because when you have a drink at a bar, you want to feel comfortable like you are at home, but at a bar someone else is going to take care of you. At home, maybe it’s going to be yourself, or your friends, but you already have more confidence in that space. A bar is pretty different, you meet new people new cocktails, new personnel that will approach you in a different way, so the feeling you’re going to get at home is going to be totally different.
And what about the style of cocktails you have at home when compared to at a bar?
Dennis: I believe at home you should look to make easy drinks, otherwise you’re going to have to buy many, many tools and products, so it’s a big investment; not only for the drink but for your knowledge. After all once you get all the ingredients, you have to learn how to use them.
You mean keep it simple?
Dennis: Yes it’s also what we try to do behind the bar. Of course we start thinking difficult, but then we make the difficult things more easy. For example I want to later try a [new] cocktail, that is actually very easy but at the same time it’s complex in the taste, but anyone can do it at home – like a Negroni for example. A Negroni is three ingredients, but you must know how to structure it, otherwise it’s going to be maybe too diluted, or too strong. It’s just three ingredients but you can still make a lot of mistakes.
Aaron: I think Bartenders are the laziest people when it comes to making their drinks. As all they want is the easiest two or three ingredients, and that’s it. Maybe from the consumer side, people would want to make more of an effort to try and replicate some of the things they’ve seen take place behind the bar. It all comes down to experience and practice which dictates how good it can be in terms of quality. You’ll probably not get quite as good as we do in the bars as we do this day-in and day-out. I think to perfect these kinds of drinks you have to work unsociable hours to develop that specialty. We don’t do this because we have to do this, we do it because we love to do it.
How about future trends?
Aaron: Low ABV (Alcohol by volume) cocktails, a lot of people want to try drinks that are less alcoholic, and for ourselves at Oblix, we are very culinary led, we take lots of inspiration from the kitchen. Whether it’s flavors, ingredients, techniques technology, whatever it may be, it stems from the kitchen and that filters down to us and we turn that into a menu. Another trend I’ve seen is recycled ingredients.
Aaron: One of the drinks you are going to try today has homemade bitter lemon – that’s made from recycled ingredients from start to finish. From the peels to the pips we use as much of the ingredient as possible.
Dennis had similar views but also shed some more light on the how the process of actually making cocktails has changed.
Dennis: Our job has become very fast. I remember when I started almost 20yrs ago being a barman was really Tom Cruise style. We were really focused on entertainment and making American drinks. Right now, entertaining isn’t the priority, there are still some movements to entertain you and to engage you, but presentation, low ABV, preparation, aroma and sustainability. We need to keep an eye out for the next generation; a lot of people predict that some of our ingredients are going to disappear year-on-year so we also need to pay attention.
Granted the social responsibility is a trend I did not expect to hear as being quite so prominent, but then I guess it just goes to show the volume of cocktails consumed and use how popular they are. The culinary trend is attested by the fact former World Class Bartender of the Year Charles Joly is renowned for sourcing ingredients and spirits in the mould of a chef, and presenting drinks just like a cleverly crafted dish at his Crafthouse bar.
There was just one thing left I had to clear up. It’s one thing to develop a special cocktail menu, but with so many variables, how to you measure if it’s a success?
Aaron: It’s not to do with money or anything like that, it’s to do with their experience. Nine times out of ten if you ask a bartender they won’t tell you that they got into the industry for the riches, it’s because they love hospitality.
Dennis: Feedback is very important as otherwise we’d only end up making drinks that we like, and our palate is really sophisticated. Sometimes we make drinks overly complicated and maybe guests will not be able to understand all the profile of the drink. For example, I was creating a Bloody Mary, and I call this Bloody Mary “Don Chicho” – a fancy Italian name. I start with Ketel One vodka infused with pasta, very different. I then use a yellow tomato – different colour – and black garlic to give it this umami flavor, umami taste. Very complex. Some of the people aren’t ready for that. I’m especially talking about my way, the Italian way, and we are very traditional.
That’s why you have to be aware of the tasting profile of your guests and balance your offer accordingly.
- Quoted from World Class: Future of Cocktails Report, 2017 ↩