“A cocktail says something about the person who’s creating it. It’s a point of communication”

Categories: Features

Tony Conigliaro, a true giant of the London drinks scene, on science, art and his constant search for incredible ingredients

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Benny Robinson

Tony Conigliaro is one of the most influential names on London’s drinks scene. Known for his highly creative approach to cocktails, Tony is the owner of three bars—69 Colebrooke Row in Islington, Termini in Soho and, as of February this year, Untitled in Dalston—as well as being creative director of the Drink Factory, author of three books, and a prolific collector of awards. He’s worked with some of the best in the business, collaborating with Heston Blumenthal on the launch of Dinner and with Bruno Loubet at Grain Store, as well as contriving the cocktail menu at The Zetter Townhouse.

Where did it all start for you?
I am London born and bred. I went to art school for two years and ended up buying my own studio. I needed money to fund it, so started working in a bar for a friend of mine. I would read all the cocktail books behind the bar and got really into it. It just progressed from there, really. I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing people over the years, who taught me a lot, then I started doing my own thing: first with 69 Colebrooke Row, then Termini and now Untitled.

That was back in 2009—how has the London drinks scene changed since then?
When I opened Colebrooke Row, there were no decent cocktail bars in Angel. Termini we opened off the back of conversations we’d had with people asking us where else they could go for a decent drink that wasn’t a coffee shop or a private members’ club. It’s a different world now. There are cocktail bars everywhere. There’s a real scene and it’s here to stay. I think that’s positive for London.

What defines London’s cocktail scene? How does it compare with New York?
The drinks here tend to be a little bit more—dare I say it—European. Things like bellinis and lighter drinks, whereas in the States it’s all very hard and boozy and strong. It’s neither better nor worse, it’s just different styles of drinking. We’re affected by our proximity to Europe and the influx of different people that we have in London.

What was it that catalysed the cocktail revolution we’ve undergone in the past decade?
It’s a number of things. There was an incredible bunch of people really early on that had a love for the cocktail and really pushed it—people like Dick Bradshaw, Dylan McGrath. It was a real labour of love. There’s a long history of cocktail drinking in this country, which is incredibly rich and interesting. It was about putting the cocktail back in the limelight, where it belongs.

Tony Conigliaro

How much does heritage impact on your creations? Is it possible to make something entirely novel?
I think it is. And it’s important that we do, because then we keep the ball rolling, keep things interesting. But we are greatly indebted to the past and we can learn from it. It affects us all the time. We have classic cocktails on all of our menus—we’re constantly making them and keeping that spirit alive.

Has there been a resurgence in classic drinks like the old fashioned and the martini?
I would argue they have never gone away. Every few years people say there’s been a resurgence of classics. Well, where did they resurge from? They’ve been there all along! We’ve always been making them and people have always been drinking them.

I guess any bartender worth their salt knows how to make a decent martini...
Definitely. It’s the foundation of learning how to make drinks, in the same way you start with basic skills in the kitchen. It gives you something to then build on.

Where else do you draw inspiration from?
Everywhere, really. It can be film, music, a flavour, a dish. I think you can find interesting things in all walks of life, which you can draw on and use to say something. It can be a taste, or it can be a concept. One of our new drinks at Untitled is called ‘snow’, the concept being catching a snowflake on your tongue. That was the starting point and we built the flavours around it, but other drinks are built around a particular flavour we’ve come across and want to use, which we think will mix well with other ingredients.

You’re seen as one of the pioneers of ‘molecular mixology’. What does that mean in practise?
I disagree with the term molecular mixology, because it doesn’t really describe much. There are certainly bits of science and technology that we use, and information we get through working with food scientists, but what we do is far more than look at things through a scientific lens—it’s far more romantic than that. It’s more a craft, or artistic endeavour, in so far as it says something about the person who’s creating it. It’s a point of communication. If you were to look at a great painting, yes, you’d look at how it was painted and the technical aspect of it, but that’s not what the painting is. It’s just a means of making it.

Waif cocktail

Do food and drinks trends overlap?
There’s assimilation between what happens in the food and drink worlds, without a doubt. They’re very much in tune with each other—they might have slightly different ways of describing and doing things, but there is a lot of overlap. They feed off each other.

Increasingly, people care about the provenance of what they’re consuming. Has that prompted the recent surge in small-scale spirit production?
I think partially, yes, but it’s also because people are interested in doing things for themselves. Again, it’s a point of communication—people want to create something that describes their environment, their locality.

Has it had a positive effect on the wider drinks scene? It must give you a lot to play with...
It has—there are some great products. But then again there are also some awful products. ‘Craft’ doesn’t necessarily mean good. I’m not trying to be disparaging, but a master gin distiller is a master gin distiller. They’ve been doing it for a very long time and have inherited a whole rich history of making gin; someone starting up in their garage… well, they’re starting in their garage.

It could well end up as a great product, as has been proved, but there are reasons why certain things survive and others don’t. Saying that, we regularly have people pop in and drop products off and some of it is fantastic. People send us stuff from all over the world. We’re in a very lucky position. We’re constantly refreshing our library of flavours and products.

How important is sourcing?
Very. We always aim for the best products, so if we’re using something like bee pollen we’ll taste 10 different types. If we’re using a liqueur, we’ll compare it to all the other liqueurs that we know of in that same category.

It’s a constant search for incredible ingredients, because it does affect the final result. We get things from all over the place. We’ve built some very strong relationships with a lot of suppliers—some very odd suppliers!—as well as local people who bring us their stuff. Sometimes we go and forage for things ourselves. It depends what it is we’re looking for and what we’re trying to do at that particular moment.

You’re credited with reviving the bottle-aged cocktail. How did that come about?
I wanted to create particular vintages, like you would a wine or port, so it was about that and also a play on the history of cocktails. I tried barrel-aging first, but I didn’t really like it. It made things too heavy; I wanted something silky smooth, and it just added more woodiness to something that already has a woodiness. It meant we could only age things for a limited period, which defeated the object of the project. It’s all about bottle-aging. It takes a long time—we have a bottle from our first batch which is nearly 14 years old—but the results are far smoother, better and stronger.

Snow cocktail

Tell us about the Drink Factory: we imagine it’s like Willy Wonka’s factory, but for grownups...
It is a little bit! But yes, more adult. The Drink Factory is our HQ—our centre point, where everything gets made and figured out. It’s the puzzle-solving centre. We’ve got everything from centrifuges, vacuum distillation units and freeze dryers, to run of the mill pots and pans. We use the vacuum distillation unit a lot. It’s a great way to get a very particular flavour into a drink: if you distil a rose, say, you get a really beautiful imprint of it in the alcohol the other side.

Do you have a favourite drink from your new menu?
I couldn’t say, that would be like choosing between children. We’re very proud of all of them, we worked very hard to create them. It’s up to the customer to choose what they like and so far we’ve had a really nice response. So we’re doing something right.

What’s next for the London drinks scene?
Who knows? It’s so diverse and there’s so much going on, it’s difficult to tell what’s coming next. It will be interesting, that’s for sure.

Tony will be appearing on the panel at the Borough Talks session on 11th July, entitled How to Join the Drinks Revolution. His team will also be in attendance, conjuring up glasses of his snow cocktail, with its suggestion of snowflakes, for ticketholders at the debate to enjoy.