A view from the city: St Petersburg

Hamish Smith speaks to Artem Peruk, owner of El Copitas bar

Tell us about St Petersburg’s alcohol traditions.

From the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century St Petersburg was in the era of Imperial Hospitality. The influence of European culture was stronger than ever. We had A-class restaurants which had American Bars and the most professional and skilful bartenders and managers were attracted to the city.

From the revolution of 1917 onwards, communal canteens were established everywhere, except for the most powerful and respected people. Even during the Soviet years, bars for international tourists (Intourist bars) served cocktails and mixed drinks.

Right now St Petersburg is the cultural capital of the biggest country in the world and the first city of Russia for tourism. A new cultural phenomenon is bar-hopping and there’s a rise in production of our national ingredients, such as liqueurs, ratafias, tinctures and bitters.

What changes have you witnessed over recent years?

After sanctions from the US and EU, an absolute ban of some crucial products for the bar business and the collapse of the rouble in the autumn of 2014 we managed to maintain interest in the industry by using national ingredients. We realised the St Petersburg bar scene is very young and welcoming and desirable for brands, events and bar shows.

We feel a strong optimism.

Who and what are the pioneer cocktail bartenders and bars in the city?

The godfather of Russian cocktail history is Alexander Georgievich Kudryavtsev. In 1978 he published a book called A Technology of Making The Mixed Drinks in which he revealed his revolutionary theory of ‘universal cocktail formulas’ that helped to inspire generations of bartenders. He is still living in St Petersburg and giving lectures in bartending.

What are your favourite bars in the city and why?

To be ‘beloved’ you need to have a soul and tremendous atmosphere. Orthodox is a new bar with an authentic Russian concept and nice cocktail programme based on the ingredients, techniques and mood of our national heritage. One & Half Room is small and cosy with a unique serving of every drink, nice staff and amazing setup. The Hat is a really exotic venue with vibes of the ’50s.

El Copitas is the best known bar in St Petersburg. Tell us about the challenges you faced establishing a world class bar.

El Copitas is a small place launched by three bartenders Igor Zernov, Nikolay Kiselev and myself. Three months before we launched half of the stores were closed because of the popping prices and currency rate. We even had to borrow the bar stools because we could not buy them.

The Mexican concept was like something from outer space and any mezcal or agave spirit was entirely banned and unreachable. We were the first 100% illegal bar with an illegal spirit collection (brought to us in parcels and boxes by our guests) – illegal stuff in an illegal place. Sometimes we were so scared that we couldn’t even open our door for guests.