Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
"Techniques are a tool to your final destination. They don't need to be the main focus of your mixing work," says Marc Alvarez, one of Spain's most regarded bartenders and co-owner of SIPS Barcelona with Simone Caporale. While he's known for his disruptive mixology, for Alvarez it's still taste that's at the heart of a good drink.
Despite a ropy start to the pandemic-he and Caporale signed the lease for the SIPS space in December 2019, just as the first murmurs of Covid were troubling Wuhan-Alvarez has been busy. He's working on creating a second space within SIPS, Esencia, a more laboratory-focused counterpart to the existing Drinkery House, continuing producing liquids and consulting through his company Drinks Atelier, and has partnered with Italicus for the Art of Italicus competition.
Alvarez's combination of technical wizardry and old-fashioned creativity has put him at the forefront of molecular bartending, effortlessly manipulating techniques from foams and clarification through to fermentation and distillation. While look, feel and Instagrammability are important to him, at heart his ethos is one even the most old-school barkeep would recognise.
"There are two main ideas that make an excellent drink. First, the flavour: the drink needs to be tasty and balanced because the liquid is the most important thing," Alvarez says. "Then, we have the concept behind why you combine these ingredients, because if you have a 'Why' that gives consistency to the drink."
That isn't to say that Alvarez goes short on theatre. One of the signature drinks at SIPS is a Primordial, served in a pair of cupped metal hands, a reflection on humankind's earliest glassware: our hands. The Olfactory Chamber, meanwhile, comes in an egg-shaped flagon with herbs and plants suspended inside and openings so that a guest can inhale the different scents before sipping the drinks.
A formative collaboration
For eight years, Alvarez worked with Catalan culinary legends Ferran and Albert Adrià, ultimately as bar manager for the elBarri group (which became one of the pandemic's most high-profile hospitality casualties in 2021). The experience of working with one of the world's most celebrated chefs, the driving force of molecular gastronomy, was transformational.
"Marc Alvarez is Marc Alvarez because I was working there eight years," Alvarez says. "It's not only about learning techniques or learning skills. It's having the sense of sensibility, having the sense of hospitality. They changed my perspective on the hospitality world."
Having all the resources of a world-class molecular kitchen at his fingertips was undoubtedly helpful, but Alvarez emphasises the timeless nature of what he learned.
"Of course you can make amazing foams, clarifications, jellies, whatever. But all these techniques, all these recipes, are in a book," he says. "What they give you is the sensibility for balancing flavours, for the seasonality of products: there's a lot of things that really change your career because they think differently from other people."
For Alvarez, as for the Adriàs, technique is always at the service of flavour and concept. "My first obsession is to make a drink tasty: that's the main obsession," he says. "New techniques allow you to make something really special. For example, clarifying a plum, you get the acidity and the flavour of a plum but you don't get the sugars. So that's a different way to understand a cocktail with acidity."
At SIPS, he and Caporale, who met in London when Caporale was at Artesian and Alvarez was running a pop-up for elBarri, are aligned that taste comes first and foremost. Yet good old-fashioned hospitality is front and centre too.
"The bartender is not the star in this movie, the star is the guest. You never know how much effort a customer needs to make when they put their £10 note on top of the counter to trade it for a drink," Alvarez says. "So you have to try to give them the best experience, the best liquid and the best consistency that you can."
The art of mentoring
Industry folk flooded to SIPS when it finally opened in summer 2020, and Alvarez runs masterclasses there as well as accepting a limited number of bartenders for stages. So partnering with Italicus for the Art of Italicus competition made complete sense.
"Giuseppe Gallo has been a friend for a long time," Alvarez says. "And Italicus was one of the brands supporting SIPS, so we're always very connected with the different projects from the brand. The collaboration was something that came naturally."
The global winner of the competition, for the best aperitivo cocktail recipe inspired by a piece of art, will enjoy a trip to Barcelona for a week-long mentorship with Alvarez at SIPS. As well as working a stage, covering both the prep and service shifts at the bar, they'll attend one of Alvarez's two-day creativity masterclasses.
"There's a little bit of theory, including the theory of compatibility, how to prepare a proper brainstorm, mind mapping, as well as different activity techniques I think are useful to know, and we do different cocktails and different liquid techniques to support this theory," Alvarez explains. "On the second day, we visit a few of our suppliers that we work with: the glassblower, the company that prepares our silicon moulds, all the kind of things that we work with now."
While the winner will, of course, learn advanced techniques and get to enjoy SIPS' impressive array of molecular kit, the goal of the mentorship, as far as Alvarez is concerned, will be to help the winner find their own path. "What we want to give them is our way of understanding liquid creativity," he says. "It's not about giving them recipes and having them copy the recipes, it's giving them a way to create their own way of thinking."
The deadline for entries to the Art of Italicus competition is 28 February 2022.