Stefano Filistad, Manager of The Arch Bar at London’s Intercontinental, On Bars, Cocktails… And Gin
July guru: Stefano Filistad, manager of the Arch bar and Wellington lounge at the Intercontinental Hotel, Park Lane, tells us what makes a successful bar, a successful cocktail, and a truly excellent gin
Tell us how your career has developed, Stefano
It all started 20 years ago, when a young accountancy student needed a summer job.I began by taking a job as a runner boy in a restaurant and finally moved up to a Chef de Rag position, working every year and gaining experience in different restaurants in Taormina, a beautiful and historic town in Sicily that I am proud to call my home.
It was at that time that I started to become aware of my passion for food, and drink, and I began to want to build that into my future career. In November 2000 I moved to London to learn English, and that’s when my particular interest in the bar world, and in cocktails and spirits began to evolve.
What would you say makes a good barman?
There have been books written about being a barman for the last 130 years, it’s become almost a philosophy. There is no such thing as a typical barman. We are all different , while sharing the same passions and beliefs.
A good barman is an actor with no script, he (or she) is constantly on stage, always ready to entertain, happy to serve, eager to share his creations and to offer his guests the chance to try new spirits or his own creations.
A good barman is also a great listener, and an outstanding communicator, able to share thoughts and read his guests’ body language. He needs an excellent memory; recipes, stories, guests’ favourite mixes and drinks, are all things that cannot be forgotten.
A good barman develops his own style, he finds his own way. He’s not a trend follower – he’ll be setting the trends.
What makes a successful bar?
A successful bar is like a successful cocktail: it’s a combination of ingredients that mixed very well together creates a fantastic outcome. Of course it needs excellent service, but it also needs great bartenders, entertainment and a fantastic cocktail list are all an absolute must in order to create a successful venue. And atmosphere is very important. It’s hard to describe how a really good atmosphere is achieved but every member of the staff contributes to it and guests also play their part.Our job is to serve and entertain our guests by understanding what level of energy is needed to make it a successful night.
Do you think people changing their opinions of what they want from a bar?
In previous times bars were perceived in a different way, over time you can see some of the different trends taking inspiration from the past (for example the Great Gatsby film influenced the return of the ‘roaring 20s’). Nowadays many successful bars are connected to celebrity bartenders and innovative concepts. Others owe their success to their past popularity and the consistency of the quality they have provided over time.
Nowadays guests and clients are a lot more savvy about what is going on in London – the internet, social media and smartphones allow everyone to be always “in the know”. As a result opinions change quickly, trends come and go, we need to be aware, prepared and to constantly evolve.
What makes a cocktail successful – it’s not just the taste is it, but the look, the glass, the name….?
Classic cocktails have always been successful due to their taste, the look was classic, as simple, for instance, as an olive dropped into a Gin Martini.
Today we love to experiment. We recreate these famous classics and changing the initial concept, playing with flavours, and presenting them also in a different way, surprising our guests with unusual vessels and sometimes some very odd garnishes.
Popular cocktails are the ones that recall the classic charm, with a very interesting twist and indeed a very creative name.
Tell us about the gin experience at the Arch bar – how was it conceived? Why is it popular?
It was in 2011 that our project to create a comprehensive gin experience began.
We wanted to be straightforward and more historically oriented rather than technically focused.Our gin experiences are tell the story of a beautiful and troubled drink that has played its part in the history of London, it encourages guests to view gin as the king of the clear spirits rather than just the key ingredient for a refreshing gin and tonic.
Popularity comes with time, and it wasn’t very easy at the beginning: the terms ‘gin tasting’ and ‘gin experiences’ don’t have quite the same ring to them as ‘wine tasting’ or ‘beer experiences’ yet. However after experimenting with the concept and promoting it and with the help of word of mouth we are now doing very well with it.I really hope more guests continue to try it and learn to experience gin as it’s meant to be experienced.
Tell us a little about the gin and jazz evenings – when and why do people come? How are the bands chosen?
When we introduced the new gin concept we also had to review our entertainment programme. The idea was to celebrate the spirit of fashionable Mayfair and an age gone by – the challenge was to create a relaxed atmosphere in a tea lounge. The concept is now in its fourth consecutive year and we’ve built up a solid base of return customers and an encouraging stream of new customers.
We carefully select our bands and we’re currently working with ten different groups of artists all of whom play regularly at top London jazz venues – Ronnie Scott’s for example. Gin and Jazz evenings are currently scheduled once a month and all the dates can be found here.
Tell us a bit about what’s going on in the gin industry at the moment?
The gin industry has benefited from a very positive popular vibe over the last fifteen years, Vodka took the centre stage in the 90s which left gin being only enjoyed by older drinkers either with the classic tonic or with the even more classic Martini.
Today botanicals play a leading role in gin making, which has given small ‘micro-distilleries’ the opportunity to become very skilled and passionate master distillers and to create ‘gems’ in the spirits world. I personally enjoy the introduction of different botanical s and creative distillation techniques and always invite my guests to experiment with new tastes rather than sticking to ‘the usual’.
What do you think constitutes a good gin?
Gin is a spirit that can only be created with great expertise, and it’s complex because it incorporates many different ingredients.
I would say that to produce a good gin you need:
– carefully selected raw materials (the botanicals used, the water and the base spirits)
– skills (as I’ve already mentioned, balancing ten to fifteen different botanicals requires great skill, a very good nose and some sensitive taste buds).
– an attractive concept and image. These are also important today as it’s hard to introduce a new concept into the market, which is highly competitive with new products appearing every six months.
How are different gins best used in different drinks?
Different gins have different characteristics and we use them accordingly. The flavouring notes of the botanicals used need to be considered as does the strength of the spirit. Gin is one of the most widely used spirits in cocktails.
A citrus London Dry is great for martinis due to their juniper scent and dry finishes.
Old Tom gins are great in a Collins, and other sweeter, refreshing drinks
Unusual botanical-driven gins can be used to complement other spirits or to enhance flavours that are already within the distilled gin, rose, cucumber, and chamomile are examples.
What is the most unusual cocktail you have ever concocted?
The most unusual? Well, I think one combining cherry tomatoes, basil, gin, cranberry juice, and a touch of salt and pepper fits that description.
What cocktail are you most proud of inventing?
I think the prize for that goes to our latest creation, developed only couple of weeks ago. We are currently working in a very successful partnership with Floris perfumers to put together our new afternoon tea based on the concept of the ‘Scent of Summer’, a fantastic combination of flavours and scents that recalls the beauty of English summer. As part of this partnership I was asked to create a cocktail that was going to be served at the Floris Jermyn Street shop for the launch of their new summer fragrance ‘Bergamotto Positano’. Here is the recipe – I hope you enjoy it.
The Duke of Amalfi
- 45 ml of Orange vodka
- 35 ml of homemade bergamot and ginger cordial
- a drop of peach bitters
- 10 ml of Mandarin Napoleon
- 10 ml of lemon juice
- grapefruit zest
- Put all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker, shake them vigorously and strain into a coupette glass.
- Garnish with a grapefruit zest