Words by: Difford's Guide. Video by Alicja Rymarowicz
World Class Bartender of the Year 2010 and the 10th head bartender at the legendary American Bar at The Savoy Hotel, Erik Lorincz is about to start a new chapter in his bartending career with his own central London bar.
Growing up in western Slovakia, in the resolutely beer-drinking culture of his native city Nitra, Erik Lorincz can hardly have predicted that he would one day be one of the world’s best-known bartenders.
His precise Japanese-inspired service techniques and theatricality are renowned, while his creativity and flair for producing drinks – both simple serves and molecular drinks – are becoming famous internationally.
Even when he started work at a local pub back in in 1998 he didn’t simply serve beer, “We served the best beer in Nitra and I learned how to treat the beer properly, and not just in the serve: when we changed every single barrel we would clean the pipes with little sponge balls. We treated it like a golden liquid.
“Each regular had his own glass, and some of them would arrive like clockwork every day. I would have their glass waiting for them when they sat down.”
It was while he was working at that pub that Erik bought a cocktail book for the bar. “There were only beer bars in Nitra but we started practicing and making drinks. It was by a German writer, and had 900 cocktails – I remember one called Mexican Roulette. I’m not sure it even had tequila in it.”
The local spirits rep, who can’t have believed his luck, helped Erik build up a half decent spirits selection, and further encouraged Erik with the gift of another cocktail book. On the back page was an advert for the R.U. Shop cocktail school in Prague. Slightly sceptical, as he had previously talked to a cocktail school which promised him an ‘International Bartending Certificate’ after a few days, Erik called up the school and was gratified to hear it was a three-month course.
“My parents thought I was crazy,” he says. “‘There are no cocktail bars in Nitra,’ they said. ‘What are you going to do when you finish?’”
It took another year for Erik to save up enough money, then armed only with a rucksack, a map of Prague, and looking like any other student with shoulder-length hair, he embarked on a 250-mile bus journey and started bar school.
“My first day, the tutor gave me his book. He told me after three months I would have its 240 recipes in my head. We made some classics, a Rob Roy, I think, maybe a Manhattan and a few others. I remember I couldn’t open my shaker. The next day he asked us to repeat the drinks. I was completely lost and I realised I had to take his book seriously. I would go to sleep reading it and wake up with my face in it.”
From his entire class, only Erik passed the final exams “The only mistake I made was I didn’t upsell vodka. I was so close to a perfect score.”
His first bar job followed in Prague. Erik was a bar-back but would whisper cocktail recipes to the bartender as he washed glasses. “He would say “Erik, Mai Tai?” and I would tell him how to make it.” Over three years he honed his skills, catering lavish parties for extra cash and fulfilling his obligatory military service too. But it was during his work as a bartender that he came into contact with increasing numbers of English speakers. A visiting American mentioned a hotel in London called the Sanderson, and Erik was intrigued by the sound of its Long Bar.
Once again, armed with only a map and a bus ticket, now aged 24, he made his way to England and enrolled in language school for six months, and began visiting bars he had marked on his map. One eluded him, but one night, wandering down Kingly Street in Soho, he discovered it when he saw a queue of glamorous people outside Attica, then London’s hottest nightspot.
Erik was shocked at the £20 entry fee, but he and his friend were eventually let in for £15 each. “We walked in, there was this massive bar, and I thought, well, this is something. I didn’t realise it was such a hotspot. I immediately started looking for the bar manager and in my broken English, told him I was looking for work. He told me to come back tomorrow, and I thought, well, that was easy, no interview! I couldn’t even speak English.”
The next day, Erik, already an experienced bartender, began as a bus boy, sweeping the floor and setting up the tables – but secretly he would test his bartender colleagues’ abilities. “I would hold up a bottle of Southern Comfort and ask what it was. The bartenders would pick it up, look at the label and read it back to me. I knew at that moment, I would be able to make it as a bartender. I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to put you guys in my pocket’.”
From bus-boy he was made bar-back, then head bar-back, but after a year and a half, Erik’s name disappeared off the rota. Concerned he had lost his job, he found his boss, who led him to a station behind the bar. He was finally a bartender again, albeit with the worst station behind a pillar.
The next day, the bar manager gathered the bartenders and went through the previous night’s takings. Erik’s station, despite being behind the pillar, had rung up £5,000, more than £2,000 greater than his more experienced colleagues with better stations. The next night he was put on the best station, in the middle of the bar, and was fast-tracked to being head bartender.
Unfortunately, Erik tired of serving endless vodka Red Bulls, and when Attica’s star faded and it looked like it was going to close, he gave his notice and started at Nozomi, a Japanese restaurant on Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge. It was here that he began to fully hone his bartending skills and he was given full responsibility for the cocktail list and learned to carve ice.
“I started working with infusions, and sake, really getting into mixology, and I went with a friend to Tokyo. It was exactly what I was looking for. Like a silver service waiter but at the bar, I saw bartending as a fine art. It was unbelievable – it was not just about cocktails, in fact the drink were relatively simple, but the service gave you the feeling you were in a five-star hotel. Even if you asked for water, it was a real ceremony, a ritual. I remember spending four hours at Tender bar, just watching Kauzo Ueda make drinks and watching his ‘Hard Shake’ technique and stirring by barely moving your fingers. Unbelievable theatre.”
Back in London, and having worked in a pub, a cocktail bar, a club and now a restaurant, Erik figured he needed some hotel experience, so he headed to the Sanderson, which he had heard so much about in Slovakia, and landed a job at its Purple Bar.
“I wasn’t actually that impressed by the Long Bar but when I went into the Purple Bar it reminded me of Japan. I started polishing my techniques, doing it like an artist. I was not just making the drinks but thinking about how to attract people to drink them. With people really watching how you make a drink, I realised I was on a stage.”
The next two years saw Erik attracting wider industry attention. He began entering industry competitions, becoming a finalist in Theme Magazine’s and CLASS magazine’s Bartender of the Year national competitions in 2008, and the showman in him really began to come out. Sporting striking outfits and often transporting elaborate equipment – and ice – around the globe – he stood apart from the competition.
Eric then worked with Agostino Perrone at The Connaught Hotel saying, “As soon as I walked in, I thought ‘I love this place’, but I waited until Ago had signed his contract before I signed up too. The Connaught didn’t want to create a classic bar, but something modern, using Heston Blumenthal-style techniques – though I remember we created the cocktail menu in a windowless room without air-conditioning, not particularly glamorous!”
Erik then went on to be the Head Bartender at American Bar at the Savoy Hotel when the hotel reopened in October 2010 after major refurbishment. After seven-and-a-half years there we all wait to see what he’ll do next…