Words by: Ian Cameron
Torsten Spuhn runs Modern Masters Bar & Lounge in Erfurt, central Germany. He's owned the bar for 11 years and has become a well-known face on the international competitive bartending circuit, having represented Germany twice during the Diageo World Class finals in 2010 and 2011.
Erfurt is more of a beer-drinking town - in culinary terms it's dumplings and cooked pork - but there are four or five venues you can call cocktail bars and Modern Masters is at the top of the market. Now that we've been here for more than a decade our customers are well-educated and we've made our name in the quality of our drinks, and there's everything you could expect from a bar in a bigger city - disco drinks, classics, modern specialities - but we charge only around €8 a drink.
We serve up to 400 mixed drinks per day from one station and I make most of those drinks myself. On a normal day 250-300 mixed drinks is the average. I am hoping for a new 'right-hand man', a bartender that can really support me. I had a good bartender but he left me in January - that's the trouble with running a bar in a small town: they come here, learn a lot and then go to the airport. My wife Clara also works with me and we have two guys as bar-backs, who are learning about processes and the DNA behind drinks but they need more time.
I won the food matching challenge in World Class 2011 and I love food pairings, but actually I don't have a kitchen in the bar . I love the garnishes of Marian Beke but even that's too much for my bar - so I focus on 'intelligent' amuse bouche-style garnishes. I use solid ingredients like chocolate, pickled vegetable, dried or macerated fruits, crackers or home-made cherries to complement a drink.
I'm still focused on drinks which include freshly made teas and my own secret bitters recipes. I'm always searching for new flavours, particularly Asian-style, mixing sweet and savoury, and I like Japanese culture in general - its approach to bartending and how they live in general. I grow my own shiso, basil, thyme and am always looking for more varieties of spices and herbs.
I always need to strike a balance between cocktail artistry and getting the drinks out fast. Serving high quality drinks but also being a 'speed' bar might sound impossible, but it isn't: organization, team-work and good 'mise-en-place' is the key. We make bottled cocktails for efficiency rather than aging (aging is a nice side-effect) and for selling to regular customers to take away.
I think a bartender's education is never 'complete' - there are always things to learn and discover and the best piece of advice I've ever had is to stay curious. During the World Class final in 2011 Salvatore Calabrese told a group of bartenders they should try and be a good person before they try to be a good bartender, because if you are not a nice person you will not ultimately satisfy your customers and won't have the success that you hope for. I have more than 300 cocktail books and am always buying new ones, and you can learn so much by reading blogs. I'd like to write a cocktail book myself one day.
Working so closely with your wife is not always the easiest thing. Of course, it's great to have someone around that you trust and that can question you, but you have to stop talking about work when you are at home. We also live close by the bar - we don't tell our customers where exactly in case they start knocking on the door, let's just say we live very, very near to the bar.
I'm happy now. I started my gastronomic career from the lowest position and had a distant dream of opening my own bar, and now I have been the manager for more than 10 years. All the bills are paid, thank God, and I am the real owner, not the bank or brewery. But sometimes when I a bit angry about the bureaucracy of it all, I think I want to go to somewhere like Tenerife and start a bar there. On most days I am still excited to get out of bed - there are always new customers and employees to educate.