Taking the reins as Spirits Ambassador at Imbibe Live, Bar Swift co-founder Mia Johansson had a crystal clear vision of what this year’s show needed to be about. Here she talks aperitifs, the vodka comeback kid and how she roped in the hottest names in the bar world for this year’s show
What made you want to get involved with Imbibe Live?
I could see that the UK bar scene needs to turn the page and a lot of people are wanting that, but no one’s taking the time to do it because they’re all so busy. I felt I had a few fun ideas and thought Imbibe Live would be a good platform for that to happen.
How does this reflect in the programme?
We brainstormed the areas we wanted to focus on, so low-abv, healthier drinking and daytime drinking, and that’s how we came to Healthy Hospo and Giuseppe González, [founder of the Suffolk Arms in New York, who’re talking about Bartender Wellbeing and building a no-abv drinks list at the show].
I moved back from the States four years ago and there it’s more about lighter-style, daytime drinks, and less about going out in the evenings and getting drunk. We’ve got an Italian corner and Aperitivo Time! on Centre Stage, and loads of low-abv areas and that’s really exciting for me – seeing people doing it, not to see how much alcohol they can fit in their drink, but to get lots of flavour in.
Since Swift opened 20 months ago, that’s kind of what we’ve been doing. The upstairs bar is somewhere you come in for a quick drink that’ll be light and fresh, always in season and current. It’s less about sipping, and more about the refreshment – that’s kind of what we do.
You’ve pulled together an incredible line-up of speakers…
There’s so much information out there on the internet and social media [on bartending and cocktail making]now, so [shows like Imbibe Live]need to be more about intriguing and letting people fall in love with bartending again.
Bartenders want to hear from the experts in their fields, so we’ve got much more focus on the individual bartenders themselves, from Giuseppe on no-abv drinking, to Joe Schofield [of Singapore’s Tippling Club]on rotovaping and new ways of thinking about spirits, and Kevin Hurley on Irish whiskey.
We’ve got Carina Soto, founder of Cadelaria, Glass, Le Mary Celeste and Hero, coming over from Paris to talk about how to build a bar empire [in The Art of Creating a Scene]. For anybody wanting to open a bar or build a career in the trade, they’ll have the opportunity to ask these people how to do it. I think that’s really intriguing.
You’re also doing a talk on vodka – a category that’s perhaps been overlooked in the recent years. What made you want to focus on it?
Vodkas have been categorised together in one ball of tasteless, colourless, odourless spirit, but really there are so many different vodkas in so many different styles. I’ve always been partial to it – I am Swedish after all – and you can use it as a canvas to create light, fresh drinks.
I think vodka is coming back with a boom. There’s been a move to make it more of a back-bar scenario for a few years now, rather than it being a rail spirit. They’re becoming much more flavoursome and there’s some ageing going on, there’s some terroir, some old-school versions in honey barrels, and versions using different greens and potatoes.
You’ve run bars on both sides of the pond, how do the two bar scenes compare?
I always used to say the UK was like a surgeon, very precise and everything is always on point, whereas the US was like a nurse. There was a bit more warmth there, more looking up and high-fiving, and knowing the names of the people that come into the bar. But with the internet and social media opening the world up, they’re getting far more similar.
I think the smaller countries are really challenging us, as they have that drive to try and take over. Singapore for example is becoming huge, and I’m really interested in what’s happening in Scandinavia and Sydney, with their fresh juices, fresh atmospheres and new ways of thinking about drinking. I think that’s really exciting.
You’ve spoken about the need for greater diversity in the industry and your desire to help facilitate that. How has this played into your ambassador role?
We were talking about doing something on South America and [Leyenda’s] Ivy Mix’s name came up as she’d been travelling there, and we talked about what it is to run a bar empire and Carina’s name came up.
It wasn’t intentional, it just happened that way because there’s all these amazing women who’re fantastic at what they do.
Why should bartenders attend Imbibe Live?
Imbibe Live is the best platform that we have. London is the hotspot for bartending and the trade in the world by far, and at Imbibe Live you have everything under one roof and the opportunity to take one day off to learn from the very best in the trade.
Where else can you learn about Healthy Hospo, listen to what Kevin Hurley has to say about Irish Whiskey, then later you get to go and have a Margarita made by José Luis León Martinez from Mexico City’s Licoreria Limantour?
You really need to take that opportunity where you can get it, because it’s not going to be handed to you ever again!
See the full programme for Imbibe Live.
While you’re here…