Why Bartenders Can Finally Do What They Want And Other Nuggets of Cocktail Wisdom from Alex Kratena
If you worry about going to a bar because you’re not sure what to order, well that is now the point. These days, people are flocking to hip bars because they want to experience something new and different. “In the way that people are becoming more aware about different foods and flavors, they’re also beginning to explore new things in the world of drinks,” says Alex Kratena, former head bartender of Artesian, the award-winning luxury bar at The Langham in London. “With beer or wine, you just go with what’s in the bottle, which is great. But with cocktails, there’s just endless possibilities, and that’s what makes them so exciting.”
Kratena, who was recognized as the Best International Bartender in 2012, and Bar Personality of the Year in 2013, is the kind of man who sets his own trends in the world of beverage. Under his leadership, Artesian was number one in the World’s 50 Best Bar Awards for four consecutive years, an impressive feat. So when he arrived in Manila to bar shift at The Curator for its fourth anniversary, Manila’s barflies came in droves, filling the tiny space and spilling out onto the street. As he mixed his signature cocktails (he had two different menus for two nights of bar shifts), he kept up a steady stream of conversation about bartending, cocktail culture and where it’s all going.
Let me share some fascinating snippets:
What makes a good cocktail?
“Okay, there’s no such thing as the perfect drink, but the most important quality is balance. The harmonious relationship between all the elements in a drink. You want to be able to identify what’s in it—is there rum, lime, bitters? For me, creating a cocktail is essentially creating a story. You’re creating a new flavor. A great cocktail is affected by many things—light, music, scent, the ice, how you combine the flavors, even its texture. As you become more knowledgeable, you learn to pay attention to every single element. But always remember that the sum should always be more interesting than the individual parts.”
How do you create new cocktails?
“For me, it’s very simple. Making drinks is like cooking, but without the heat. It’s also like speaking a language. Think of your ingredients as the vocabulary, and grammar is the different ways you combine the ingredients. Ultimately, the more ingredients you experience, the better you understand how to combine them, and the more interesting the language you can speak. Or the drinks you make. I always say that the moment I first begin to make a drink is, just like in cooking, the moment when I’m choosing my ingredients.”
What ingredients are you interested in right now?
“I like the idea of perfumery in cocktails. For example, this Naughty Girl (a signature cocktail with Martin Miller’s gin, bergamot and white oudh). It’s innocent, it’s clear. Only when you taste it will you see why it’s so interesting. When I built this drink, I thought about it exactly the way you’d think about perfume. It’s about the base, top notes and the heart. In this case, gin is the base, bergamot the top note, and then, in the middle, the heart which comes in the form of white oudh. It’s exactly like perfume, and you’ll love it.” (For the record, I did.)
Where do you think the global bar scene is going?
“Well, it’s constantly changing, but I think we’ve reached a stage when bartenders can finally make the drinks that they really want to make. There’s a focus on individuality. There’s also a big focus on being local and seasonal, and you see that in everything from music to furniture design to using the ingredients that’s in the region. So I think the top cocktail bars will be following in the footsteps of the best restaurants—and that’s offering a unique experience in a unique location.”
We’ve had quite a few cocktails, but what drink would you suggest would be best to end the night?
“Well, why don’t you have a stronger drink? Like this one I call Midnight Oil. What I’ve done is take a little bit of Michter’s rye (a whisky) and redistilled it with sandalwood and some frankincense, added a little bit of vermouth, and an aperitif wine from Corsica. So this is a ballsy drink that you want to take late at night, after dinner. It’s big, pungent, full bodied and has all the spiciness of the rye whisky intensified by the sandalwood and the aromatic frankincense. And as much as it’s a quiet, dry and potent drink, it’s going to play with your palate with a lovely acidity that makes it quite palatable. It’s a beautiful drink and, perhaps for some of you, dangerous.”
The Curator Team
Alex Kratena was the guest bartender for two exclusive nights in honor of the fourth year anniversary of The Curator, a special event in partnership with Apotheke Craft Spirits Co. and Wine Warehouse PH Make sure you don’t miss the any of the bartenders who will be guesting at The Curator this year.
Photos by Troy Barrios
Photo of Alex Kratena by Niguel Arevalo