Words by Jane Ryan
Originally from: Como
Some tales are best told through the senses. This rather poetic phrase is an apt choice of motto for Simone Caporale, a bartender known for his work on drinks which belong more in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, with their incense, specially designed vessels and contrasting textures and flavours, than in a hotel bar.
While he and his team's drinks might be outlandish, they certainly appear to have captured our imaginations. Simone himself has just won International Bartender of the Year, 2014. An honour he claims he was completely shocked by, expecting to lose out to one of the three other nominees. He didn't even attend the ceremony in New Orleans. Had he, Simone would have seen the bar he's worked at the past four years receive the awards for Best International Hotel Bar, Best International Bar Team and to cap it off, the only true international honour at Spirited Awards; World's Best Bar. And there's no denying that Simone, along with his hardworking colleagues, has had a major part to play in the success of Artesian.
I meet him on a dull London Friday in a typical Shoreditch cafe and, as usual, I am thrown at his appearance outside the bar. Rather than the suited and polished hotel mixologist we're all used to, Simone waltzes in, looking well-rested with tattoos on display, stubble gracing his cheeks and a trucker's hat perched on his head. He would look at home behind any east end bar, although it's doubtful if Simone could ever take himself as seriously as some of his Shoreditch peers.
With a green tea in hand, congratulations offered over the multiple awards Artesian picked up at Tales of the Cocktail, we get down to the nitty gritty: tell me your life story.
The Road to Artesian
It's almost impossible to imagine this charismatic Italian behind any other bar than Artesian's, throwing confetti in your face to cheer you up, or insisting on a welcoming glass of champagne for no other reason than that it's a Tuesday. But rewind to a decade ago and you'll find a young Simone starting out in a small coffee bar in his home town of Como, Italy.
From there Simone travelled around, plying his trade and picking up skills before arriving in London's in 2009. Equipped with only hand luggage and just 2000 euros (about 1600 pounds or 2600 US dollars) he had come to live in what he perceived as the world's cocktail capital.
"For me, London is still the best drinking city, thanks to the culture Londoners have of being open to new things. I've never felt that we weren't moving forward in our approach to flavours and drinking" says Simone.
He quickly landed a job as a bartender at Roast in Borough Market near London Bridge, and here, surrounded by the freshest of London's seasonal produce, Simone learnt the London-style of mixing drinks.
Yet while many of us may move to great cities with hopes of what we will become there, too often, our dreams are left unrealised. Fortunately London had just the place to launch a spectacular career for Simone Caporale.
The World’s Best Bar
"The Artesian isn't in the drinks business. The drinks are immaterial. They're superb but that's not what they're selling. What they're selling for 20 pounds is the chance to live like a millionaire" said Bacardi's Jacob Briars recently.
He's right. The style of bartending that Simone and his colleagues employ has neither the intricate detail of Marian Beck nor the life and soul of the party approach of Jake Burger. Instead they simply do both. As Jim Meehan described the bar, "it's a no holds barred competition to have the most fun as soon as you walk in the door, I think it's a blast." But achieving that mix is hard work.
"We often get bartenders wanting to come and work with us but not many of them understand that for the service we provide and the elaborate nature of the drinks, there's a lot of work involved. You can spend hours cooking and blending ingredients, an eight hour shift can go by where you're surrounded by parsnips" says Simone.
Ask about his average day and you begin to get a glimpse of just how tiring being the very best can be. The bar operates on three shifts, a morning one that finishes early evening, an evening shift finishing between 3 or 4am and a double shift which stretches right through. Then there's the copious amounts of travel and tucked in somewhere, a few small hours here and there trying to live a semblance of a normal life. After all Simone is married.
It seems incredible that a five star establishment like The Langham would trust its team so implicitly that they're able to rip up an award-wining menu and invest thousands of pounds in the next one. "Yes, it's amazing how much freedom The Langham team gives us but we earnt that trust by working extremely hard to prove that being experimental and always pushing the boundaries is better than offering classic hotel bar service. And for the investors this has to be proven in money not awards."
In the four years Simone has been at Artesian he's entertained not only the who's who of the drinks world, but everyone from travelling guests to local Londoners and even the occasional celebrity. But four years is a long time to remain in one position.
"If I didn't feel I was progressing I wouldn't stay. Simple as that. But we don't rest on our laurels or stagnate. We always have to be asking what is the next thing we can do? Where can we go now? We're always having creative meetings with the whole team where you can bring a new drink concept or idea about service and we discuss it. Being a team is so crucial to us" says Simone.
His fellow bartenders will happily back this up. As one recently said to me "you think Alex and Simone just make drinks and leave? No, they're there with us till 3 or 4 in the morning breaking down their station, scrubbing and polishing."
As for the latest menu, the drinks are all about that tale through the senses. "I believe that a multisensory experience is part of making an outstanding drink. We must not forget that while we work, we don't have just bartenders and people from the trade in front of us. Most of the time we serve guests that don't have a clue about cocktail structure, ingredients or techniques, which is absolutely fine and great because the most important thing for our cocktails is to deliver a sense or message such as 'wow, this drink is delicious, I don't know what's inside but I will ask for it again and I will suggest it to my friends.' So no matter if the consumer knows the difference between a glass of red wine and a liqueur, we must be the ones who drive people in the bars to experience a nice time through cocktails. So a drink that changes from the first to the last sip is a good example of how to engage a person in the cocktail world. And push your creativity" says Simone.
Me and My Shadow
When asked who his biggest mentor has been the answer is obvious. Many people have given Simone great advice and played an active role in his career but the person who has shaped his skill, style and given him the phenomenal opportunity he has in front of him today, is clearly Alex Kratena.
"Alex and I work really well together, he has taught me an incredible amount and I'll be forever grateful. But if you talk about great bartending duos such as Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy or Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, well I would have to say that at Artesian it is about more than just Alex and I. One of the things I love about the bar is that when Alex and I are away we get messages from friends and colleagues who visit the Artesian and say Rudi or Roman looked after us so well. It's a pleasure to hear that because we're a team and it shouldn't be only about Alex and myself," says Simone.
In September 2013 a beer cocktail competition hosted by Difford's Guide threw Simone into the path of one of the most famous chefs in modern Britain; Jamie Oliver. In 2014, following on from the incredible success of Food Tube, Jamie decided to turn his attention to drinks. Having signed a contract with Bacardi, a bartender was needed.
Forget the plaudits and awards, never mind the fact Simone has just collected the accolade of International Bartender of the Year, or even that he tends a bar that has thrice been given the title World's Best Bar.
No, what makes Simone unique is that every day thousands of people watch him creating simple, easy-to-make cocktails on Jamie Oliver's YouTube channel Drinks Tube. The industry might know him for his incredible and complex creations at the Artesian bar but if mixed drinks are ever to be considered mainstream they need an ambassador. What Jamie Oliver did for food, Simone may just be able to do for cocktails.
Simone went through a selection process and eventually landed the dream position of Drinks Tube cocktail maestro. When I point out that he may well be, for thousands of people, the first bartender they see on mainstream media, he's incredibly humble.
"I love it because it's a simple and clear way to show the passion of cocktail making. And it's fun! It's amazing that thanks to Jamie and the team people can try the recipes and hopefully enjoy cocktails at home now."
Does this detract from bartenders? He doesn't think so. "You don't go to a bar to drink. That's just the excuse. We can all drink at home. One of the reasons I started bartending back in 2003 was because I was fascinated by this magic environment that a bar creates. It can be a party every night. You go to see your friends, have an experience, meet people. I met my wife in a bar."
However humble he may be and however much he downplays his success on Drinks Tube, the importance of a celebrity chef paying attention to mixed drinks can't be lost on Simone. Some may believe that the bartender will never reach the same status and respect as the chef simply because food is a necessity while drinks are a luxury, but every day the industry is moving away from being a stop-gap job to becoming a respected profession.
Now Simone and his peers are appearing on social media in an unprecedented way, understanding that it's a way to promote themselves globally. "I have a website so I have a digital platform from where any interested person could see my activities, past and future events... I wanted to have a sort of electronic business card from where I could showcase some details of my activities or the activities of Artesian bar" he says.
Through his years of bartending Simone has fallen in love with one bar and one spirit.
When visiting Cuba in 2011 he managed to talk himself into a shift at El Floridita, the famous Hemingway hang-out and birthplace of the Daiquiri.
"I've always been fascinated by Cuban cocktail history and how European and American drinks were affected by it, especially during the Golden Age of drinks. The Daiquiri is one of my favourite drinks, and I wanted to feel what it was like mixing one in the same place that it blossomed more than 100 years ago.
When I first went behind the bar, with my silver Artesian waistcoat, ready to spend a few hours with the rest of the cantineros, I was shaking like a baby for the first seconds. I couldn't believe I was finally behind the stick of El Floridita. The last time it was refurbished was 60 years ago, so you can imagine how it might be to work in - obviously everything is wooden and there are some leaks under the bar, and some of the fridges are partially off. But apart from this, the live Cuban music, the percussion and the perfume of cigar smoke gave me goose pimples."
But it isn't rum that Simone is known for.
"Mezcal for me is synonymous with tradition and culture. I'm not just talking about the distillation process either but the whole environment of Oaxaca. Mezcal means everything over there; for a new born child, a marriage, a party, religious functions and death. It's a part of every moment of their lives. Being there in the fields or in the mountains where mezcal is crafted I realised that it's much more than what you see in a bottle or through a label, even before it became a specific brand, I could see that the same liquid 'mezcal' is a symbol of survival for communities. It really opened my eyes up to the fact that by using different kinds of agaves (tequila uses only the 'blue weber' agave) you can achieve such different tasting notes, as you can by using different varieties of grapes in wine
"On my first trip to Mexico a famous bartender there told me "once you have gone to Oaxaca and tried mezcal with the same people who sleep in a house made of mud bricks, keeping the donkey inside the same four walls where their child plays and grows up, once you hear them speaking in 'zapotec' language, once you try to buy a plastic tank of mezcal as a way to give them some money and they refuse, offering it for free simply because those people are being nice to you, and as welcoming as a five star luxury hotel, yes their hands might be still dirty and their face is marked by the long hours of work under the sun, but through their eyes you can read that you are considered part of their family. Then your life and perceptions of this spirit will change forever, and when you will try a tequila it will taste incomplete to you." He said this and I thought it was quite dramatic and very geeky, but then I went to Oaxaca and I had to change my mind."
As for Simone's future plans (which certainly include world domination if the air miles he is racking up speak for anything) he seems content to keep pushing the boundaries of how we drink at Artesian but did say if he was ever to open his own place he knows exactly the type of bar it would be. Somehow we don't quite see Simone and his wife taking off to Oaxaca to make mezcal as a retirement plan, but we could be wrong. For now the industry is watching, and so are thousands of consumers if the YouTube hits are anything to go by.