When you get an invite to speak to drinks historian David Wondrich and Tony Conigliaro, owner of 69 Colebrooke Row and Bar Termini, you drop everything.
The pair recently held a talk called ‘The Art of Storytelling’ at Seymour’s Parlour in Marylebone's Zetter Townhouse, trading stories about their experiences and friends who work in the industry over a few drinks.
It was a wonderful afternoon, taking in half a dozen cocktails and a million meandering stories, and afterwards Imbibe pulled up a chair to chat to them about the place of storytelling in bartending today. What they said was always illuminating, and often silly. Wind these two up and off they go. So pour yourself a drink and let them tell you their stories…
Imbibe: If you could define the art of storytelling within a bar, what would you say it is?
Wondrich: Above all it involves sensitivity. How much can I tell this person? Is this person here to be entertained? Do they wanna be left alone? Some of the best bartenders know, like my friend Del Pedro. I’ve been sitting at various bars he’s worked at for 20 years. And he was a master of the thing where one person would talk to him, another person would talk to him. And he’d bend the conversation from both until it was a three‑way conversation. Then he’d go down the bar and those people were talking to each other. That is a lost skill I think.
Conigliaro: It’s also a question of how many schemes you could come up with to create a situation.
Wondrich: You see, but that’s something that you know. A lot of bars don’t really hire for that. You get these wonderful technical bartenders, but I think the best bartenders are the ones who’ve had dive bar experience who then go into the more technical bartending.
Conigliaro: And, I think there’s also a shame because some of my favourite bartenders - from the UK at least - were prolific. Danny Smith and all of those guys aren’t around anymore. They’ve left the industry or went and became reps.
Wondrich: Brand ambassadors … Now these are the good bartenders who are personable and can talk. Companies are pulling some of the most amusing people out of the bars. And they’re kind of using them up in a way. And you really want those people to stay behind the bar because…
Conigliaro: That’s where the history gets passed down.
Conigliaro: It’s almost like every generation loses a… you know, history is written down. But there’s stuff that you know, that people like Joe [Gilmour] or Peter [Dorelli] or Dale [De Groff] will tell you, that’s a living history that’ll never be written down. It’s passed down from bartender to bartender, to customer. But it’s a verbal history. And it works in a completely different way.
Imbibe: Now, one of the elements of storytelling that I’ve noticed in bars recently is, when it comes to drinks menus, or particular drinks, they can be presented with quite a long explanation or story. Do you think that’s a good thing?
Conigliaro: If it engages the customer on the level that brings them out and it creates a situation where you can extend the story or start a conversation I think it works. If it’s intrusive or just boring, then no. Again, it comes down to the sensitivity of it.
Wondrich: In my consulting in the past, when I would write menus, I would always give a two‑line story for the drink. Even if it was made up, I’d come up with something.
It’s best, I’ve always found, if you poke a little fun at yourself. Make it a little funny. You can put in a nugget of information, especially if it’s some historic drink that people haven’t heard of.
You know, in one sentence you talk about the drink, the next one, some weird nugget about the person who made it. I think you just need enough to give people a mental place to hang that drink. The ingredients don’t really do it, necessarily.
Conigliaro: Well, most people don’t buy drinks because of the ingredients…
Wondrich: They buy drinks because that drink is a statement of their identity. So, I try to give stuff that they can classify where that fits with their identity. You don’t need much. And you can tell a little story of the drink: this is a tropical drink invented by so and so, and this is a little anecdote about so and so. And it’s like, okay, I really wish I was there, you know. Or, I don’t care at all about that.
Imbibe: So you were talking about joking around with bartenders and the importance of it. Do you think that there’s a little bit too much seriousness in the trade now?
Wondrich: Some places yes.
Conigliaro: It depends on where you go. Some places are downright silly, aren’t they? Other places are downright serious.
Wondrich: At least in the US, there’s a pendulum swinging back towards that kind of bar, you know. As my friend Sean Kenyon has a great like craft cocktail bar in Denver, Williams & Graham, which is all about the drinks. The drinks are excellent. But next door, people were going to various bars in the neighbourhood and waiting to get into this place and he said, ‘Why don’t I just open up my own dive bar next door?’
There’s always people trying too hard. You see a lot of that and some cities are big on theme bars. Los Angeles loves a theme bar. And so you get Wondrichy Wayne’s, where you enter through a garage sale. And it’s like you know, there’s the garage, and it’s a standard Los Angeles bungalow.
You go in through the garage and they’re selling stuff. They’ve got vinyl and old clothes and this and that, some LPs. And there’s a very outsized, large refrigerator at the back and you pull the refrigerator handle and walk in through there and enter the house. And the house is done like a 1970s house. Okay, that’s amusing, briefly. That’s the problem. After a while, it’s like, I’m not a child. I don’t need that kind of space. I don’t need that kind of amuse me stuff, I need bartenders who I can talk to and clientele who are witty.
Conigliaro: It’s an intelligence. Absolutely.
Wondrich: Yeah, you need them to… that seems like it’s just forcing it. When you get so much into the themes it becomes Disneylandian and it detracts from the experience.
Conigliaro: There was a late‑night drinking place in Central London. And they were renowned for their piano and people used to go there. They used to have all the theatre people and music people down there. But then other people would drink there as well. And so, you go on the piano and play but you had to be good. And if you played bad, like bam, fuck off! And you’d get the place just saying, oh fuck off!
Wondrich: That’s funny.
Conigliaro: You’d go on just to see how long you could go. If you were really, really, good you would be on there for about an hour and get a standing ovation at the end. Anyone who even attempted to go on there that was crap was just murdered.
Wondrich: I was in this bar in Providence Rhode Island once, in the early 80s in a rough working-class Italian neighbourhood. It was a good bar. And if you were there for the first time you had to sing Frank Sinatra along with the jukebox. And if you couldn’t do that or refused, out you fucking went.
Conigliaro: Have you heard Peter’s story about Frank Sinatra at the Savoy? So, Peter’s in his whites and Frank Sinatra walks in. And Frank Sinatra apparently didn’t drink by himself. He always needed company. So he turned around to Peter and he said ‘Look, I just want something to drink. Can you find me some company?’
There was no one drinking in the bar. So Peter went out to The Strand, and was just walking up to ladies, in his whites and saying, ‘This is gonna be a really strange request, but would you like to have a drink with Frank Sinatra?’ And one of these ladies said, ‘Oh fuck off, you big pervert’. Until finally there’s this woman who was game, and was just like, this guy’s kind of funny man, let’s see what happens. She basically sat there all night with Frank Sinatra getting drunk!
Imbibe: Do you think that bartenders take themselves too seriously nowadays?…
Wondrich: Some. Others are totally cool. I think it partly comes because it’s a rapidly expanding profession. They’re very young. And young people tend to take themselves terribly seriously. There are only a few older bartenders who take themselves terribly seriously. And for some it’s charming and others it’s absolutely unbearable.
Imbibe: Conigliaro, when you hire people, do you make sure they don’t have that kind of seriousness about them?
Conigliaro: Actually, no. What happens is, you get a trial shift and then if everyone likes you on that shift, you work another shift and if the rest of the team like you, you get employed. It doesn’t matter if you’ve 100 years’ experience or no experience, do you get on with everyone else? I think that’s really important.
Wondrich: Yeah, you’ve always empowered your team. You always have a really excellent group of people.
Conigliaro: No, I think they just wouldn’t survive. The previous bar manager at 69 [Colebrooke Row], G, was just phenomenal. Even a whiff of pretention about you a mile away, he’d sniff it out and stop it there and then.
He had this level of humour that you’d get afterwards. One of my favourites of all time was when a Hollywood actress came down. There were spaces all over the place and he goes, ‘I’m afraid we’re fully booked, but if I can get your number, I’ll give you a call when something comes up.’ He gets her number and he looks around and said, ‘Oh a seat has just come up.’
Tune in next week for more from Conigliaro and Wondrich. Expect robots, Cognac baptisms, Ferraris and more.