Duff Said: Home is away

Phil Duff ponders the importance of ‘foreign-ness’ in the global cocktail scene.

RECENTLY I WAS HAVING LUNCH WITH ERIK Lorincz, 11th head bartender of the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar, and it occurred to me that almost all those 11 have been ‘foreigners’. Off the top of my head, I count only two or three native English Savoy head bartenders in its whole history.

Foreign-ness was on my mind, you see. I had just read a review of experiential cocktail haven The Aviary, which has opened a second outpost in New York after the success of the first in Chicago. The article damns The Aviary NY with faint praise, essentially saying that its incredible cocktail theatre isn’t really for jaded New Yorkers, who are just in search of a beer and some chicken wings. Madness, of course – New Yorkers love cocktails served in portholes and balloons just as much as Londoners do. Those drinks take you to the magical land of Away, and everyone, no matter which city they call home, loves going on that trip.

Travel is exotic and aspirational, and just by visiting the next town or state we are returned to a state of child-like enthusiasm and wonder. If we can’t go abroad, we let ‘abroad’ come to us, in the form of foreign bartenders. Some of the most famed bartenders in history have been expats, such as Erik’s predecessor Harry

Craddock and this era’s Salvatore Calabrese, Jack McGarry and Nico de Soto, to name but a few.

But if you can’t travel and don’t have a Calabrese or De Soto to hand, you drink. Have you ever noticed that, with a few exceptions, such as soju, most of the world’s best-selling liquor brands available internationally sell more outside their native land than domestically? It takes a paradigm shift to change that mindset.

The Atlantic Bar & Grill opened in London in 1995 and was the bar that really got England’s cocktail renaissance going. The hottest, most cutting-edge cocktails there were being made with vodka, or possibly Maker’s Mark, or maaaaybe some tequila. It took US magazine Vanity Fair decamping to London in 1997 to produce a special edition proclaiming England to be Cool Britannia before things changed. Suddenly assured of their coolness by no less an authority than an American glossy mag, London bartenders began experimenting with more traditionally English ingredients, such as elderflower syrup – and gin. Well, you know how that worked out; sales of gin in the UK hit a billion pounds last year.

Is a surfeit of foreign spirits and servers problematic? Not at all. Symptomatic? Yes. The simple reason so many French, and Spanish, and Mexican and Australians staff bars in London and New York and Amsterdam is because the natives of England and America and the Netherlands can’t be arsed to work in hospitality and, on average, simply aren’t as hardworking or charming as their Mediterranean, Latino or Australasian counterparts. In parallel, many countries excel at particular types of spirits – you could make an amaro in Arizona, but Italy might be the more reliable country of origin for a nice one. With all that in mind, tonight this Irishman in New York is drinking whisky made in France, served to me by a charming Moldovan bartender in an Italian bar, and all is well with the world.