From humble beginnings in rural Slovakia to opening his first bar in London in 2015, Marian Beke is continuously working towards his next great venture. It is this sheer hard work and determination to push the limits of cocktail making that has seen him become one of the most influential and intriguing bartenders of today. His most recent project saw Marian touch down in Australia for the opening of Sydney’s new Solera Bar to reveal the bespoke cocktail list he has crafted for the venue. Drinks World caught up with Marian whilst he was here to chat about his start in the industry, the idea behind his famous photogenic cocktails and good old fashioned hospitality.
DW: You grew up in Slovakia before moving to London, what inspired you to enter bartending?
MARIAN BEKE: The first contact I actually had with the industry was with my father’s wine business. At nine or ten I was helping him in his wine cellar. You know how kids want to go to their father’s businesses and help out? But it wasn’t just a cellar; he was also serving people wine. You could buy takeaway, but you could also have a glass in store. I guess that was my first connection with hospitality and I started enjoying that kind of personable hospitality. At that stage, I thought I’d be a sommelier when I grew up. I went to hotel school in Slovakia. Obviously, back in the day, there were no real cocktail bars, so I was thinking maybe hotels or in the kitchen.
Then when I was 17 or 18, I went to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and they had American cocktail bars. These cocktail bars fascinated me because I’d never actually seen a cocktail bartender behind a bar before. He could serve coffee, he could serve wine, he could serve beer, he could serve food, but also cocktails and that’s what amazed me. I thought, “Wow, I can see the restaurant waiters serving food, I can see chefs cooking food, I can see baristas making coffee, but cocktail bartenders at the bar, they can do all these things plus make cocktails, which is something incredible because a cocktail is basically customised.” Basically they created the drink on the spot, and I found that fascinating.
DW: Your bar, The Gibson, was ranked in the World’s 50 Best Bars of 2016, only a year after it was opened, and whilst working at the Nightjar in London, that venue ranked third on the list. What would you say are the key ingredients of a world-class bar?
MB: I think that’s unique to every bar and its owner, but it, initially, has to come from the bartender because they’re the people who make the experience. I still work in a bar. Even though I own the bar, I work as a bartender full time back in London. So I see it from two different perspectives, from a business point of view and as a bartender.
Bartenders focus a lot more on the drinks or cocktail side these days, which, actually, I think should not be the only thing. There are many factors that contribute to a good bar. It’s really important to understand the atmosphere, the lighting, the hospitality, the service etc. I try to look at the bar not just as a business. The hospitality, in general, should be like you’re greeting a guest in your house. When you have a house party, you greet your guests, make them comfortable, ensure they enjoy their time and look after them. I think that’s the basic cornerstone of hospitality. For those people coming into through the doors, it’s not just about amazing drinks or making the best cocktail in town. It’s still just a drink. A good bartender must try to understand the needs of the people, for example, “Those people look tired, those people look stressed, those people are coming in for their first date, those people are coming in to sip cognac,” etc. Go above people’s expectations.
DW: How did the relationship come about between you and Solera Bar?
MB: Well I’ve known Roman Kristek for many years, but it’s actually my first time in Australia. So far it’s been kind of a long distance friendship. They approached me cause I’ve never been here. I’ve done a lot of jobs in Asia, Europe and the United States, but never in Australia. He approached me with the project, I think, because they wanted to add an element of what I’ve been doing in London at The Gibson or the Nightjar before.
However, it’s definitely not just about my menu. Obviously the bartenders are adding their own personalities and that’s super important. It’s not just, “Oh guys, I came for four days. Here, this is what you need to be doing.” It can’t be like that because you need to take on board the feedback of the people. Maybe the flavour profile of the drinks is a little bit too London focused and isn’t perfectly received straight away. Once they start making these drinks, they’ll need to get feedback after two or three weeks and then, maybe, rebalance them a little bit. So the bartenders’ job will be very important, especially for the next two, three or four weeks.
Because we’re tried to add a few elements from what I do at The Gibson and, formerly, at the Nightjar, some people might say it’s all about presentation. I would disagree. I’ve never made cocktails based on the glassware or the presentation. The look is a part of it, for sure, but it’s not more important than anything inside that glass. So the garnish, the presentation or the glassware, I would say are equal to any other ingredient. I would argue the glass or garnish is actually a part of the ingredients, but it’s not all about being an Instagram worthy cocktail. Sight and touch are just two senses that contribute to the overall experience. How the cocktail smells, what it looks like, the feel of the wood, or stone, or metal of the glassware, all are just as important as taste, but not more so. It’s important to achieve balance in these things.
DW: What is the inspiration behind the cocktail list you developed for Solera Bar?
MB: They’ve got this amazing heritage building dating to the 1840s. It’s one of the oldest heritage buildings in Sydney, and was one of the country’s first gas factories. As they were producing one of the first light bulbs for the gaslights in Sydney, I tried to connect that heritage with the drinks. For example, the signature cocktail is served in a light bulb. The names of the drinks also allude to electricity and the categories of the cocktail menu are divided by ‘voltages’, from ‘Low Voltage’ to ‘Danger of Death’. You can imagine the ‘Danger of Death’ menu contains the strong alcoholic cocktails. There’s also a connection with local, seasonal ingredients and Australian flavours.
DW: Did you introduce any new products or cocktails to the list at Solera Bar that are a little bit out there or in-line with new trends?
MB: In terms of harnessing Australian flavours, we tried to use things like beef jerky made locally and eucalyptus. We’re also using local grains, such as green buckwheat, to make something like a popcorn. There is a focus on what we could find at the market but, to be very fair, Australia, or Sydney, is actually very metropolitan. You can say an ingredient is ‘Australian’, but you will find influences from Asia, India, and all around the region. So we’re using Asian flavours as well.
DW: What trends are you seeing from other markets that you think Australian bars and bartenders should watch out for?
MB: Last year, a trend was definitely pre-bottled cocktails. A lot of bars started doing these simplified cocktails to make it easier at the time of execution. As a lot of bars become more elaborate in their method of producing the cocktails, it affects the waiting time. People come to a top cocktail bar on a Friday or Saturday night and are waiting for their cocktails for 25-30 minutes. It gets a little bit annoying for the guests. So you could see why quite a few new bars were opening serving pre-made cocktails, which helps to ensure a balance of flavour and makes for a quicker execution time.
Recently, a lot of bars have started to focus on one specific topic or theme. For instance, you find bars that focusing on ciders, geneva etc. They specify in a spirit or category of drink, and that becomes their signature bar offering. They’re making it very straightforward, as we see a lot of guests getting a bit bored with reading the massive menus. Most open the menu, look for 10 seconds and then leave it on the bar.
If you ask me what we’re trying, I tried to look this year to find a replacement for ice. Ice is obviously extremely important for cocktails. Around 80 to 90 per cent of all cocktails need ice, either for the production or for service. So we’ve played a lot to find replacements for such ice. A substance like a sorbet, ice cream, gelato or flavoured ice, something that after it melts in the drink, you get another texture, flavour and aroma that’s not just water.
A lot of bars also started creating customised vessels or glassware that are specific only for their bars. More and more bars and doing this to offer something different to other venues.
DW: What other projects are you working on in the industry currently?
MB: Well, recently, I partnered with one of my ex-colleagues from Nightjar and we’ve commercialised our Electric Bitters, which we’re making in London. It’s an aromatic bitters for bars, but it gives you an electrifying sensation. This is due to the main ingredient being derived from sichuan peppercorn. There are also another 35 spices, which give you complexity. When using this, you get a very unique sensation from you cocktail, this kind of electrifying buzzing/tingling sensation in mouthfeel.
We also just launched our Gibson Gin, which we’ve made with the Copperhead guys. It will be the first kind of savoury pickled gin, as we’re using pickling spices in the maturation, which gives it a savoury flavour. This is the perfect serve for Gibson martinis, or maybe even a Gin & Tonic, but rather than a fresh slice of cucumber, you put your favourite pickle inside!