Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
“I consider 1958 the year of the birth of today’s pop culture: cinema, music, art, the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we act,” says Thanos Prunarus, owner of Athens’ pioneering Baba Au Rum bar.
“The 50s was the first decade you had pop music, and the mother of all pop culture in the western world – and maybe now the whole world. We’re all Americans now.” Unsurprisingly for a man who organizes Athens’ annual Rum & Whiskey Festival, named his rum bar for a rum dessert and has judged international competitions for Havana Club, Bacardi, Diplomático and Clément, Prunarus’ 50s drink is based on rum. “The American 50s concept is very connected for me with Tiki and rum culture,” Prunarus says. “This is a post-Tiki drink: it’s Tiki-inspired but served in a more contemporary way.”
Despite the use of methylcellulose to create a film atop the cocktail, the Ray Barrientos centres on a classically Tiki flavour profile of rum, spice and intense fruit. The name pays tribute to Ray Barrientos, a Filipino-American bartender who worked with Don the Beachcomber then tended bar at 1950s Beverly Hills Tiki icon The Luau.
So intrinsic to Tiki culture was Barrientos that he even trained the bartenders at Steve Crane’s Kon-Tiki chain. Yet, as Polynesian style fell out of fashion, Barrientos’ star dimmed too. “At the end of his life, he was working as a doorman, or in a garage somewhere – completely unknown,” says Prunarus.
That’s not a fate that’s likely to befall Prunarus, who first encountered cocktails while studying tourism at university. “We had a cooking class and a bartending class: when I did the bartending class, you had to go there and make cocktails,” he recalls. “It was the only way we could drink expensive drinks – we didn’t have money when we were students.”
After a stint in the hotel industry, Prunarus headed to London in 1998, with what proved to be perfect timing. Four years after Oliver Peyton opened the Atlantic Bar, and a year after Jonathan Downey opened Match Bar and Simon Difford started publishing CLASS magazine, cocktail culture was taking off.
Prunarus returned to Athens a year later, dead-set on a career as a bartender. “I was like, ‘Hi! I’m looking for a job, I just came from London,’ and they were like, ‘OK, you’re hired,’” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘You want my CV?’ and they’d say, ‘No, you said you worked in London,’ so it was really very easy to start.”
From as far back as the late 80s or early 90s, Prunarus recalls, Athens had an aspirational bar scene, so it was easy to find a place to slot in. “It’s the culture of the people, the weather, the climate: the social life is outside in the streets,” he says. “Street bars are very common but you can find street bars that make excellent cocktails.”
After working at venues including Guru, a landmark Thai restaurant with a fusion cocktail bar, Prunarus opened Baba Au Rum in 2009, with a budget of just €40,000 and no backers. “What we did to make ourselves different is support very strongly our main concept, real classic cocktails, like drinks from the mid-19th century,” he says.
Within three weeks, Baba Au Rum was full every night and its menus were going walkabout. “It was a beautiful small booklet, with beautiful design, people really loved it – and they stole it,” Prunarus says. “Of course, we loved to see people steal it: it was the best advertisement we could have. One day, I went to the bank and saw my menu there – a cashier had the Baba Au Rum menu next to his papers.”
Today, Baba Au Rum remains a staple on Athens’ drinking scene, and Prunarus’ career has gone from strength to strength. In addition to the rum and whiskey show, he produces a striking print quarterly, Fine Drinking Magazine, and runs Mary Pickford, a waterfront bar in Piraeus, with the Michelin-star Varoulko restaurant.
It would be fair to say that Prunarus is occasionally nostalgic for the days before social media and, indeed, the internet – he doesn’t even follow TV. And if he could change one thing about the industry, it would be to eliminate lists and listicles. While he finds his place on the World’s 50 Best Bars list good for business, he is tired of tourists coming in more focused on pictures than on drinks, conversation or basic manners.
Prunarus may have traded in his 1958 Lambretta scooter for a not-50s-but-still-vintage Vespa, yet his fondness for 50s culture is evident in his bar. In among the literary, cinema and art references on Baba Au Rum’s menu, a Tiki section stands loud and proud – with Ray Barrientos back alongside the Zombie, where he belongs.
Glass: Cocktail glass
Garnish: Cinnamon stick and a cherry.
Method: Shake well with ice: reverse dry shake (shake again with no ice) and double strain into a cocktail glass. The methylcellulose creates a layer on the top so you can add the garnish.
50ml extra anejo rum (doesn’t have to be pot still, but should be from a Spanish-language country: he wants a light but well-aged rum)
25ml Fresh lime juice
15ml Cherry Heering
15ml Cinnamon syrup*
15ml Fresh orange juice
2 drops Angostura aromatic bitters
1 drop Methylcellulose
Sugar water 1:1, with about 4 sticks of cinnamon to one litre. Boil on a low heat for 10 minutes then leave the ingredients to rest.