Words by Ian Cameron
Ago Perrone's extended London vacation turned into a career and somehow he found himself at the centre of contemporary cocktail culture. Less than ten years later not only had he been crowned the best bartender in the world but was uniquely associated with having rewritten the rule book on hotel bars.
"I thought to myself: 'It's not exactly my pair of shoes,'" says Agostino Perrone, recalling when he was being courted by The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair to head the team at its relaunched eponymous bar, back in 2008. "I was more LAB and Trailer Happiness than five-star hotels. I didn't think I was ready.
"I remember the hotel's F&B manager and Santino Cicciari, who would be the bar manager, came in to see me at Montgomery Place. They laid their plans out on the bar, and I was like 'Guys, please, I'm on duty'. So I went to see them at the hotel itself. The Connaught Bar was obviously not open, but the Coburg Bar was. Even standing in the lobby I felt a bit out of my depth. I shaved that day, but I forgot I still had a piercing in."
Looking at the sharp-suited, perfectly groomed Ago today, supremely confident master of The Connaught Bar, you'd be forgiven for thinking that he was born for the role - maybe that he'd never worked anywhere else.
He had flown to London five years before, stepping off a plane aged 25, sporting long hair, a beard and generally looking scruffy, with just enough English to get by. "It was tough at first," he remembers - the friend he'd travelled with went back to Italy just two weeks later. "I thought I would give the city six months, to learn and see what happened."
From Dusk to dawn, every night
Bartending was itself a lucky accident - it offered the chance to fund a college course in photography back in his native Italy, near Lake Como, but like so many others he got sucked in. "I started to mix drinks at this caffe, and I was fascinated by the whole vibe. I would bunk off school to work there, and then I started there full-time to pay for university, but I never started the course."
Amid an early foray into flair bartending, it was a course at the 3F American Bartending School which inspired the move to London, and his first job was at Salvador & Amanda, an underground Spanish bar and restaurant near Leicester Square. It was his first contact with one of a series of the capital's most important bartenders that Ago would enjoy, and here he worked under the inimitable Dre Masso.
It was a short stop though, and it was at Dusk in Battersea, then arguably the hottest bar south of the river, that he really cut his teeth. His former boss Nidal Ramini, now at Bacardi Brown-Forman, remembers those first steps very well: "He was recommended to me by Beppe Santamaria who was head bartender at the time. His English wasn't amazing, but good enough. We worked together on his trial shift, a busy Friday night, and we did the dispense bar together. Dusk was crazy in those times, very busy with a high percentage of cocktails, so we had our work cut out. Ago performed really well and I gave him the job that night. We worked together really well and during Ago's time we won five awards at Dusk and he of course helped us open Montgomery Place."
Ago's motivation for moving to Dusk was part driven by the popularity of the area with Italians. "Nidal gave me a lot," he says. "Or rather, I took a lot - you always need to steal. When I got there I had so-so English. I wasn't sure if everybody understood me." No matter, he became head bartender and it was where he began really making a name for himself, entering competitions.
But it was moving to Montgomery Place in Notting Hill where he really began to develop. Here's Nidal again: "I think it was there that Ago really came into his own: mixing classic drinks every night makes your 'drinks brain' work differently and therefore your creations take a classical slant. Ago was, and is, an excellent bartender and friend and I'm proud that he cut his teeth at Dusk, refined his skills, perfected them at Montgomery and left as one of the world's best bartenders. It's like watching your son graduate from Uni."
It was while he was at Montgomery Place that Ago, with a team that included Marian Beke, now at Nightjar, won his first major accolade - being named CLASS Bartender of the Year in 2006. This brought him to the attention of Galliano, who liked the idea of a young Italian bartender taking London by storm, correctly viewed him as the means to expanding there, and brought him on as a brand ambassador.
"I was extremely proud that an Italian brand was coming to me, that they liked what I did," he says. "It gave me the chance not just to explain the product, but the culture of my country." As a bonus, it also gave him international exposure, taking him across Europe and Scandinavia and to the US. Now playing an increasingly strategic role for Galliano, he's still one of the most recognisable faces of the brand.
After two years at Montgomery Place came the approach from The Connaught. Despite reservations of his own suitability for the role, it was the very fact that it wasn't going to be just another hotel bar, but one that would break the mould, that persuaded Ago he could deliver. Sure, five star hotel service, but innovative mixology that you'd otherwise expect from a standalone cocktail bar, combining ritual with modern flourishes.
Putting the 'hot' in hotel bars
"It was the combination of a classic environment with some real creativity. It had not been done before and I thought it was a real opportunity to create something unique. I closed my eyes and said let's go on this new adventure. No other hotel bar had ever taken such a gamble."
For all the glamorous surroundings, the glitzy David Collins design of the bar and its monied clientele, the bar's cocktail list actually had far humbler beginnings.
"We put the drinks list together in a butler's room, up on the fourth floor. Luckily there was a fridge, a sink and a couple of shelves, but there was no window and no air conditioning and it was the height of summer so it was like a sauna. Santino, myself and Erik Lorincz were in there practically every day making drinks, sometimes from 9am to 8pm. We had a lot of fun but it was a crazy situation. We had a small collection of books, a laptop to research, but it was basically just four walls and our palates."
In this windowless room were born two of the hotel's signature drinks: the Connaught Martini and the Bloody Mary. "We thought to ourselves, what are two most requested hotel bar drinks and how can we make them unique? The first was the Bloody Mary, we figured out to do the celery air, and with the Martini, we started with some clear berry essences I had but we couldn't make it happen in terms of delivery and cost, so we came up with using a selection of bitters - the drink was made at the bar, but then we would pour it from high at the drinker's table."
Ago's immersion into the world of hotels was sudden. He'd never been to hospitality school, and had no preconceptions about what a hotel bar represented. "The only hotel bars I had been to were Dukes and the Dorchester, because they were run by Italians. It was only when I started here that I began to understand hotel bar culture.
"There was a lot of pressure. Everybody was talking about the opening, people would queue into the lobby, everyone was inspecting the details and the drinks. At the beginning it was tough. I needed to be on the pass, like a head chef, as well as behind the bar. We became like a meeting point for travellers. In New York they would go to PDT, in London they would come here. We'd send them to our friends bars in Paris or wherever."
His passage was eased by what he calls the 'dream team'. He and Erik were renowned for being practically like twins behind the bar, each one wordlessly perceiving what the other was up to, which spirit they needed, so that it was an almost poetic, symbiotic relationship.
"It was so natural, we didn't even need to sit down before work to say what we could improve that night, and the rest of the team could all feel it too. We were using our instincts. Our eyes were everywhere. We were delivering fine drinking experiences as if it was fine dining, but without being stiff, and ensuring the guests were involved in the process."
In addition to Santino, who has since moved abroad (last seen at the Shangri-La in Dubai), one of the constants has been Antonio Cassino, "a man that always been vital to make the magic happen," says Ago. "He is still creating with his hands, making personal trays and cocktail boxes: we call him Maestro Geppetto."
The combination of dream team talent and innovative cocktails helped catapult the bar and its bartenders into the national and international media, with 2010 being arguably its most successful year. There was a heady period of ten days when not only was Erik crowned Diageo World Class Global Champion but Ago was named International Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail, and in the same awards The Connaught bar was simultaneously named World's Best Hotel Bar.
"In those ten days I wondered what the hell was going on. I remember being in my hotel room at New Orleans before the ceremony at Tales, very nervous. When I heard my name, I can't tell you how happy I was, I jumped on the stage like it was a dream, not just for me but the whole team. Most of my joy was about thinking about picking up the phone and calling my family, friends and colleagues that had supported me since my first Negroni in the small caffe in Como. My family had still been questioning my profession, but when I next flew home, they had all these articles about me printed and ready to show to their friends."
Ago credits the support of his wife Gaby as crucial in helping him attain the goals he has achieved. "You know behind every big man there is a great lady!" he says.
The dream team has now changed. Santino is abroad and Erik is at the Savoy, but there's a new Ago apprenticeship in the shape of Rusty Cerven. "He doesn't miss a single target - efficency, professionalism and passion are his characteristics," says Ago. "We have the same mentality." Indeed, catch a night when Rusty and Ago are doing a double act and it's just as visually captivating and symbiotic as him and Erik ever were.
You'll have to pick your moment though. A back injury - a slipped disc - means Ago is on a temporary break from the physical world of bartending, and is instead concentrating on honing his managerial skills and his hosting abilities. Other projects include developing his own spirits - though he's at the purely experimental stage - and he's hoping to be able to be able to harness some home-grown Italian bartending talent by developing a website, www.bartender.it, and creating a community. He emphasises the break is just that, and he expects to bounce back stronger than before.
In the world of innovative hotel bars, Ago knows the competition is becoming stiffer and his break from making drinks marks an opportunity to take a broader look at the market. "The market is already very saturated. To find something truly novel is very difficult. I think 19-year-old kid bartenders have more knowledge than me, they have more time to study and to look at international trends. For me, the next step is go back to the classics, to learn more secrets of hospitality, not just of sophistication in drinks, but of service, which still gets forgotten.
"I see many other bars copying other bars, other drinks, other techniques, but to be truly successful you cannot be a photocopy of something else. When we were within those four walls of the butler's room, we didn't think about what other people were doing. We thought for ourselves."