Welcome to the second part of Imbibe's afternoon with David Wondrich and Tony Conigliaro...
As you know from part one, 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.
Taking in half a dozen cocktails and a million meandering stories, Imbibe pulled up a chair to chat to them about the place of storytelling in bartending today. So here's the rest of what went down, pour yourself a drink and let them tell you their stories…
Imbibe: In terms of future projects, you’ve just got a site in Cognac?
Conigliaro: Yeah, we’re thinking about what to do there. G is working with friends of mine.
Wondrich: Cognac is one of my favourite parts of the world. I fell into the Charente river once, so I’ve been baptised there. They had some steps going down. It was three in the morning. It was dark. We were walking along the river and the steps looked like they led down to the river but the water was very clear, so it was actually a couple of steps higher than I thought. So I step, and suddenly my feet are in water and they slide out and I sat down, splash! in the Charente.
Imbibe: What do you think the future of bartending is?
Wondrich: Well, people are trying to do that you know. I think that aberrational period of post say, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s when the drinks were all shit is pretty much gone.
But now I think we’ve got new shit drinks to worry about. The kind where they use every trendy ingredient in the book. So, my cocktail has overproof rye whiskey, sherry, Chartreuse and two kinds of bitters. It’s like, can you just turn down some of those dials there? Those are never gonna be mainstream.
Conigliaro: But I think those are more about ego though as well. It’s like what can I do? What can I prove? There’s always a balance between, oh, am I telling a story, am I subtle with the drink? It’s a balance of everything, and I think the greatest bartenders I’ve ever met have everything to a certain extent.
Wondrich: Yeah, they don’t have to prove anything, they can make simple drinks.
Conigliaro: Yeah, they make simple drinks and they make beautiful drinks.
I: And a certain level of being quite humble about it, do you think?
Conigliaro: Yeah, I think so.
Wondrich: Yeah, but it’s also they have other things to rely on. They don’t have to wow people with their drinks because they can talk your ears off. You know, that’s the thing, the younger bartenders who don’t have this deep font of anecdotes and jokes, their only way of getting noticed is to make drinks that go, wow look at me! Once you get into the Peter Dorellis and Dale de Groffs of this world, they can make a nice simple drink and they’ll make it up in spades with stories and personality.
I fell into the Charente river once, so I’ve been baptised there
Conigliaro: There was a guy I met years ago called Joe who was a Ferrari dealer. I went there with Marco Arrigo, my business partner at Termini. It was just one of the most humbling experiences I ever had. We were there, and Marco was fixing the coffee machine for him. And this guy walks in wearing a tracksuit like he’d just walked in off one of the estates. And he goes, ‘Excuse me mate.’ Joe’s there and he’s super slick, a fricking amazing suit.
And he goes, ‘How much is that car over there?’ And Joe just turned to him and goes, ‘That car is £94,000.’ Simple. ‘So, mate how much is that car over there?’ And Joe said £107,000. And me and Marco are laughing, this guy’s fucking time wasting. And he literally went around the whole showroom and pointed at practically every car.
And afterwards, Joe came back and he told us off. He said, ‘So why are you guys being such snobs?’
I said, ‘Because that guy was just wasting your time, come on he was never gonna buy a Ferrari.’ He said, ‘You never know who that person could be.’ And Joe phoned us up and said the guy came in a few weeks later and bought the £107,000 car. And all that, really, illustrated to me, it’s not about you. You don’t need to sell anything ‘cos it will sell itself if it’s good. But your ego can’t be a part of it. You have to do it with humility ‘cos you don’t know who the person on the other side is.
Wondrich: I learned the other side of this lesson. Karen and I we were in Los Angeles years ago, and we’d been out and about. I was wearing a baseball hat and I was dressed very down.
Our favourite restaurant is Canti Gragina, which does really good Italian food. I’m not really dressed for this place, it’s a movers and shakers fancy place. But we said, well let’s give it a try anyway, we’ll see what happens. And we show up and expect to wait in line and they took one look at us and moved us right in. I was wearing sneakers. It’s like clearly anybody dressed this poorly coming to this restaurant has to be somebody. And they just couldn’t figure out who! You never know with people.
Conigliaro: But telling a story is a really good way to find out who people are. Dick [Bradsell] was a master of that. Because he could tell you a story, and it was an elaborate little thing that he would tell you. But he’d work out who you were from your reaction to certain parts of the story. And it was absolute genius because then he knew who to put you with and the way you would be. I watched that and I was just like, he’s a genius. We always said Dick had the world record for putting people together. He was a matchmaker extraordinaire.