Words: Ben Davidson
Drinks World recently had the opportunity to indulge in a global collaboration between the legends from Bar Swift in London, teaming up with Charlie Parker’s in Sydney and powered by Mr. Black coffee liqueur, over two days of sharing their passion for hospitality and the love of coffee and good booze!
Swift, London has cemented itself as one of the best cocktail bars in the UK after being named in the World’s Top 50 Bars in 2018 to add to its growing list of awards. Under the stewardship of Directors Bobby Hiddleston and partner Mia Johansson, Swift has made its mark on the world stage in under 3 years. Bobby, along with bartender Hamish Dowie, winner of the Mr. Black x Swift Bartender Competition, worked with the Charlie Parker’s team, lead by the incredibly hospitable and charming Mario la Pietra, to curate a bespoke menu of Mr. Black cocktails and a couple of Swift Classics.
Mr. Black has quietly been making a big impression in the cool cocktail bars of London, and Australia’s reputation of having the world’s best coffee culture and baristas, is also being extended to the much loved and respected Mr. Black as the preferred premium coffee liqueur. What started as a conversation with Mr. Black and Bobby, about doing a bar collaboration and visiting the Brand Home, the seeds were planted for a cool event between two of the world’s most innovative cocktail bars, Charlie Parker’s and Swift and before you know it, something cool was happening!
On London coffee culture, Bobby said, “Coffee has seen a huge growth in London of late. People are much more discerning about what they eat and drink, and coffee is no exception. You can find coffee in London as good as Australian coffee, but unfortunately, the “standard” coffee you’ll find in London is not as good as the Antipodeans, so you do have to search a bit longer to find it. That being said, the people that do care also care about cocktails, and so there has been an explosion of coffee-based cocktails, and re-tweaks of coffee classics.” Sounds like the cradle of the Espresso Martini is waking up to the smell of good coffee, and not a moment too late!
At Drinks World we’ve been noticing the impressive international inroads that Mr. Black has been making, both in the UK as well as the USA, and is really embodying the Australian craft coffee culture premium spirt. For those who are devoted to their daily coffee ritual, who might become a knowledgeable aficionado on coffee, and prefer certain blends over others, Mr. Black appeals to the discerning coffee connoisseur who wants to extend the daily ritual into the night. On Mr. Black and some other Aussie tipples, Bobby had some choice words, “It is a great product, in that the coffee is very pronounced and it is not overly sweet, so it has a lot of versatility. While Australian products tend not to find their way over to the UK in volume, we do try and find bits and pieces we like. We carry Manly Spirits gin, Belgrove apple brandy, and a couple of Tasmanian whiskies have come through in the time we’ve been open as well.”
Mr. Black is made from a cold brew extraction process that’s “low and slow”, using a special seasonal blend of roasted 100% Arabica beans from single origin sources, from places like Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Columbia. The uniqueness of the taste come down to the Cold Brew process, explained perfectly in the Bartenders Guide to Caffeinated Enlightenment Vol.2, where it says, “Thanks to a high coffee to water ratio and long brew time, Mr. Black’s coffee component is a complex, rich, concentrated cold brew that can stand up to the intensity of distilled spirits. Mr. Black is deliberately unfiltered to ensure the taste of our spirit is true to the character and provenance of our coffee beans. The big flavour of Mr. Black is entirely derived from coffee: no fake flavourings, extracts, vanilla, caramel or preservatives are added. Real coffee, real caffeine. Carpe f*cking diem.” Seizing the day indeed!
For the bar trade session, held for a packed house at Charlie Parker’s, Mr. Black global ambassador, Martin Hudák hosted the discussion with Bobby (and Hamish chiming in), to elaborate on the journey of creating Swift and show what it takes to be a top operator in the bar world these days.
When talking about memorable milestones and mentors in his career, Bobby mentioned that his first bar manager at Milk & Honey, Durham Atkinson, was able to get the most out of him by breaking down his arrogance and rebuilding him into a humble and ‘mindful’ bartender and not one driven by ego. He went on to say that a person who massively impressed him as a young bartender was Jack McGarry, during a stint in London after the Merchant Hotel and before opening Dead Rabbit with Sean Muldoon. “He was working at Milk & Honey and he was younger than me, only 21 and he was this prodigy, and I’ve never seen someone take to a bar the way he did and just ‘get it’ so quickly.”
Bobby saved his most glowing compliments for his wife Mia Johansson, who met whilst bartending at Milk & Honey together before becoming business and life partners. “The biggest influence on my career was my wife Mia and she is the one that has pushed me the most by a considerable margin. I knew I’ve always been very book smart and know loads of cocktails and stuff, but that doesn’t make you a great bartender, and she helped me see how to be focussed and really look after a guest. She’s very naturally skilled person and a very good bartender, but her innate skill, once you meet her is making you feel at home.” Something Bobby has been the beneficiary of in more ways than one. Smart man.
When Martin asked about the sense of responsibility they faced in taking over a legendary London bar LAB, and turning it into Swift, Bobby mentioned, “That was kind of bittersweet, because LAB has very, very fond memories for me at it was the first bar I ever visited when I came to London. It was also the first place I applied for a job when I moved to London”, which he didn’t get, admitting that at only 22 he wasn’t ready for a bar like LAB. But went on to acknowledged that it had “Bred dozens and dozens of some of the most legendary bartenders and cocktails and good times that helped establish the cocktail scene in London and it was one of the pioneers certainly, so to take over the space it was good and bad, but it was wonderful to have that memory preserved by us. We held a massive closing party where we found as many of the old LAB bartenders as we could, we found the old DJ, we got as much Jägermeister as they would give us and we sold all the drinks for a charity that supports current and previous industry professionals when they need help. It was amazing.”
That pretty much sums up the perfect transition into the new incarnation of the site as Swift and also says a lot about the spirit of hospitality and showing care for industry friends and colleagues. It also echoes the renewed focus today on drinking less, personal care, mental health and community well-being, as seen with Tim Etherington-Judge’s Healthy Hospo movement.
On talking about the way the venue concept unfolded, it was somewhat dictated by the building. Bobby mentioned that it was something that grew fairly organically, with the idea for it being a ground floor bar simply called upstairs and a basement bar called downstairs. “The ground floor, brightly lit, opens fairly early and open all day, Champagne, aperitifs, oysters, that kind of vibe and for down in the basement we wanted it be a warm and wonderful, not too opulent but like a dark den for whisky and cocktails. It’s a cosier space, there’s books, there’s leather and there’s different drink styles for different drinking opportunities with a much more extensive menu. We always wanted to create a space as unpretentious as your local pub, but with world class drinks. It might look shiny and fancy, but we pride ourselves on creating a comfortable space. We love being as welcoming to guests as if they are in our own home.”
Having just launched their third menu and with two different drinks menus there’s a lot to be on top of, but Hamish mentioned that when he gets back to work he’s got a kitchen shift “making sandwiches and shucking oysters”, then a bar-backing shift, followed by a shift on the floor downstairs and then a bar shift upstairs. He said, “We have two people that don’t work behind the bar but everybody else does absolutely everything. The reason I can be here is because everyone at work can do my job. Which is great.” This way when more experienced bartenders are out on the floor with guests, they can tailor a recommendation based on a more extensive knowledge of the drinks. Bobby also said he likes it because it helps to prevent a feeling of hierarchies in the staff, something common in traditional bars, and brings “a greater sense of being one team working together”, to create amazing drinks and experiences. He went on to say, “We believe that looking after staff is the single most important element of running a bar. If they are happy, it shows to the guests. Incentives like staff trips are great, and we do them whenever we can, but what we strive to do is create an atmosphere of positivity and honesty in the bar. It reduces stress if everybody is aiming for the same goal, and knows how to talk to each other properly, so a key part of our training is ensuring that inter-staff rapport is learned.” That pretty-much nails it.
Hamish was the winner of Mr. Black x Swift competition last year with the prize being accompanying Bobby for the collaboration in Sydney. It’s a cool example of things going full circle for Hamish, who had a 5 year stint in Sydney, working at Merivale venue Palmer & Co, before returning back to the UK in 2017 to build on his learnings from the Australian ‘apprenticeship’. He was now back in a Merivale venue presenting drinks, but this time as an expert bartender with people like me standing in front of him asking him questions!
About his winning drink, he mentioned, “We have an awesome Irish Coffee on the menu downstairs at Swift and I borrowed a little inspiration from that for my Mr. Black cocktail. My favourite café in Melbourne is called Higher Ground and they serve a simple filter coffee with a thin layer of cream on top and I decided to name the cocktail after them. The coconut infused Chivas gives a lovely mouthfeel and the Mr. Black Amaro adds a gorgeous and subtle bittersweet coffee note and just a touch of some Jamaican rum to finish it off and layered with cream. Yeah I’m really happy with it,” he said with just the right amount of swagger.
In summing up the collaboration, Hamish said it perfectly, “It was an absolute dream to come back to Sydney, where it all began for me. Representing Swift is a huge honour, and working again with Mario and the Charlie Parker’s team to collaborate on and to pull off a ripper of a night showcasing different ways to use coffee in cocktails, all fuelled by Mr. Black!”
And with that thought the deed was done.