Shaken or stirred?
You’re from Slovakia, a country that’s not exactly known for its cocktail scene, so what initially sparked your interest in bartending?
Well, I was studying hospitality and we touched on bartending there, just the basics. But it was really when I was flipping through Rolling Stone magazine once and I saw a bartender posing – it was an advert for a bartending/cocktail competition – that it grabbed me. I went straight to the travel agency and asked them to book me a hotel and flight to go see it. I took my camcorder, recorded the whole thing, then came home and started watching the bartenders. Then I decided this is what I want to do, and I worked in the first cocktail bar Slovakia had ever seen, as a starting point.
So it wasn’t watching the Tom Cruise film, Cocktail?
No! ‘Cocktail’ came out when i had already been bartending for four years. People would always ask me about it so I thought, “OK, I should watch this movie”.
If you had a gun to your head and given one minute to make a cocktail, what would it be?
The dry martini. I love it, the ritual around it. It’s only three ingredients but it’s very hard to get right, and very easy to get wrong! The three are very particular, and mix to make the drink very nice and delicate. You can enjoy it at anytime, aperitif, at night, whatever.
So what sets a barman apart? Speed, detail, accuracy?
In general, bartenders impress me with that full package, of course. How they present themselves, how much they think about what they do, their level of research – ultimately, something has to be delivered that is outstanding. The customer has to say: “wow, he or she really knows what they’re doing.” For me, the customer should have enjoyed the experience, not just the drink, but the whole bar experience, a valuable one that makes you come back to the bar.
How do you research your ingredients when making a cocktail for the first time?
Using all your senses, seeing every opportunity, I work with chefs and apply their use of ingredients with adaptations to my drinks. Having nice presentation also is really important, executing the drink well and have a story behind it. Lots of consumers won’t understand the ingredients but will understand the story.
You’ve made numerous cocktails from scratch, so where does your inspiration come from for something like that?
Anything really. As an example, I’ve just created a cocktail after hearing about Claude Monet and a famous painting he did from the view from his French apartment. I went to see the painting and was obsessed with creating a cocktail about this moment. So, I went back downstairs to the bar and started working out what the drink could be. My thought process was ‘Monet’s French, let’s start with cognac.’ He’s an impressionist, so I added absinthe, as that was very popular during this time. Then finish with a French aperitif and aromatic bitters. I called it the Monet moment, the moment he decided to paint that picture and the moment I decided to make the drink.
Are there any bars in the UAE you think offer a particularly strong cocktail scene?
Yesterday we did a little bar tour in Dubai, we went to Cavalli club and Blase; I was very impressed by the concept. The guys behind the bar have good knowledge and experience. Oh and Coya I know from the UK, and was genuinely even more impressed with the bartenders and drinks there, than the one in London.
What drink is making a comeback?
We are influenced by TV, fashion, everything that’s happening around us. Before the next James Bond comes out, it will be martinis of course. Again it depends on you, if you like to follow trends or if you want to find out about your palette. If you like a bitter drink go for a Martinez, a classic cocktail that I think will make a comeback.
Talking of James Bond, you worked as a drinks consultant on 2012′s 007 blockbuster, Skyfall, how did that come about?
I happened to have Barbara Broccoli (daughter of James Bond producer, Albert R Broccoli) during my shift at a bar and was introduced to her. A mutual friend told her that she should put me in the movie, I remember her response; “Don’t worry; he’s slowly sinking into the movie.” Nothing happened for a year, but eventually I got an email and a call asking if I’d like to be involved in Skyfall. And actually now I’m working with them on the latest Bond movie, SPECTRE – out this year.
What does being James Bond’s drink consultant entail?
They wanted to make sure the service was perfect, as Bond likes his drinks. I taught the other actors in the bar and supervised the Skyfall scene in Taiwan where he orders the classic martini, shaken, not stirred. I was next to the director Sam Mendes, giving him tips about service and other fine details. Then I was asked to create an official Skyfall cocktail for the premiere. For which I basically used different ingredients from numerous locations we went to while shooting the film. From Turkey, Turkish herbs, China; plum wine and so on.
Does Daniel Craig actually drink martinis?
I haven’t actually seen Daniel Craig drink a martini, but Pierce Brosnan (who played Bond between 1994 and 2005) has come by the Savoy Hotel where I work, and drinks Hendricks martinis.
So, should the martini be shaken or stirred?
Well, the James Bond creator, Ian Fleming always had his stirred; he believed shaking was for fancy cocktails. But one of his friends told him that stirred, not shaken doesn’t actually sound right for a secret agent, so it became shaken, not stirred.
Finally, what are your tips for someone making cocktails at home?
Use the best ingredients you can afford. I believe in quality over quantity. My other big tip that people often overlook would be to use a a good quality of ice. Solid ice is very important, don’t use the tray – it will dilute the drink. Use as much as you can to keep it cold, and it won’t dilute the drink if it’s solid. Finally, practice makes perfect.
Esquire chatted to Erik at the Diageo World Class UAE competition hosted at Frioul