The Interview: Tony Conigliario
Posted on September 16, 2010 by mark
Mark Gill talks with Tony Conigliaro, cocktail maestro and owner of 69 Colebrooke Row:
Despite visiting his bar several times I had yet to meet Tony in person, so I was excited about the prospect of talking to a man I’d read so much about. As it turned out, Tony doesn’t play up to his ‘celebrity bartender’ status, in spite of usually being referred to as the Heston Blumenthal of the bartending world. When he arrived, business carried on as normal as he quietly took a seat to one side of the bar. I was intrigued by this understated presence so took the opportunity to introduce myself and get chatting.
Process not product
I quickly realised that the concept of celebrity is not something that appeals to Tony. For him the focus should be on the cocktails. Surprisingly his attitude seems to be less about the finished, and sometimes extraordinary, end product and more about the process of creation.
However, don’t underestimate the almost superhuman effort Tony and his team go to to achieve perfect flavour. For that’s the thing with cocktails. Unlike food, they tend not to attract pretentious talk of provenance and although things like mouth-feel are important, it mostly comes down to one thing: flavour and its balance.
If it were possible to be addicted to flavour perfection, I reckon Tony would be among the more serious cases. Often spending 10-12 hours a day in his lab upstairs, his quest seems never-ending. He tells me that he recently spent two years creating a drink because he couldn’t get it quite right. Then, when he had finally perfected it, he was given a blocking order by a major spirit producer to prevent him from serving, or even talking about it!
Science as art
Originally from an arts background, it’s easy to understand why the creative process is so important to him – something I find interesting considering his current preference for using scientific techniques. Tony believes this combination, and the fact that he has never trained as a scientist, gives him a unique ability to think outside the box and create drinks that have never been tried before.
If you’re aware of 69 Colebrooke Row’s reputation for molecular mixology, you would be forgiven for anticipating the drinks to be on the ‘weird’ side. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For Tony, these techniques are not about creating drinks as theatre but about using them to make drinks that taste the best they possibly can. Which is why the ‘science part’ takes place behind closed doors and not front of house.
A good example of this philosophy is the house Bloody Mary. The only ‘twist’ here is that each ingredient is fine tuned to enhance the drink, with the key to it’s unique flavour being the horseradish vodka. Tony takes raw horseradish and vodka, then redistills it in a rotavapour, which uses low pressure and temperature, to produce a vodka that tastes like nothing I have ever experienced.
On smelling and tasting this creation for the first time, I noticed not the heat of the horseradish or vodka but the deep vegetal notes, which impart a depth of flavour quite unlike a ‘normal’ marination. On top of this, homemade celery salt and tabasco is used. I quiz Tony on the tomatoes he uses, asking if he presses his own he simply says “no”. I’m surprised. “Surely you don’t buy them off the shelf?” I ask. Another simple “No” in response, but this time there is a glint in his eye, telling me something special is probably done to these tomatoes but he isn’t about to tell me.
The drinks not the man
Unlike other eating and drinking establishments with world-famous owners, 69 Colebrooke Row is not all about Tony Conigliario. The real star of the show here are the drinks. I leave with just as many questions as I enter, but the interim has been a passage of discovery that leaves me hungry for more. Tony is a complex and interesting man but there is one question the answer to which tells me all I really need to know. “Do you ever get an urge to get back behind the bar?” I ask, after Tony tells me how long he spends in the lab. “Oh yes” is his reply, with a smile and a glance at the bar.
Scientist, artist, inventor, host; above all Tony Conigliaro is a bartender.