He arrived in London as an aspiring photographer with a beard and piercings. Now an immaculately-dressed Ago Perrone has made the Connaught Bar one of the best bars in the world. Clinton Cawood finds out how he did it
To say that Agostino Perrone is doing something right would be a bit of an understatement. This year alone, he and the Connaught Bar have won World's Best Cocktail Bar and Best International Hotel Bar at the Spirited Awards at Tales; Best European Bar and Best European Mixologist at the Mixology Bar Awards; fourth place in the World's 50 Best; and most recently, Imbibe Classic Drinks List of the Year. Clearly, this is a man at the top of his game.
'From the beginning, you push every day, and there isn't a day that you wake up and you push less,' he says. 'Yes, I’m hungry for success, but that's not quite the way to describe it. I'm hungry to understand myself, and my potential. I'm very curious.'
Perrone is part of a long line of top-class Italian bartenders to set the pace in London, following the likes of Peter Dorelli, Giuliano Morandin, Salvatore Calabrese and Alessandro Palazzi, describing himself as 'the fifth generation. It's like samurais.'
the first competition i ever won was a photography contest
But there's also a feeling that he isn't simply following in anyone's footsteps, and he's also remained fiercely independent. 'I’ve always remained my own man, somehow. I never really took part in those bartender associations – not in Italy, and not in the UK either,' he proudly explains.
It gave him freedom to innovate and to challenge the status quo – and the Connaught Bar, bringing together, as it does, the worlds of hotel bars and cocktail bars is certainly evidence of this.
'The concept from the beginning was to have the most innovative cocktail bar in a hotel,' he says. 'A mixology approach to classics, in a friendly environment, but with elegance, class and professionalism.'
When the bar first opened, Perrone used cocktail umbrellas, which must have raised a few eyebrows. 'But after a year, lots of hotels in the area started to use cocktail umbrellas too,' he says. 'If something's a bit quirky or edgy, it can be done if it’s delivered in the right way. It doesn’t mean the elegance disappears.
'When you keep on innovating, it becomes your attitude, and then that becomes your signature. When you finally have that signature, you’re a classic.'
Out of Como
So how exactly did a young bartender from Lake Como end up at one of the most classic bars in the world? 'My dream growing up was actually to become a photographer,' he says. 'The first competition I ever won was a photography contest while I was still at school.'
But a year working at a friend's bar in Lake Como soon had him considering a different career path. An American bartending school was followed by a job working in Monza, and when his head bartender there packed his bags for London in 2003, Perrone joined him. 'He actually went back to Italy after two weeks, and never came back.'
That Agostino Perrone, fresh off the boat in 2003, is somewhat different to the Connaught Bar’s 2016 Perrone. 'I didn’t change much… apart from the yellow braces, the piercings, the beard!' he laughs. 'Back then, if I'd thought that I'd wear leather shoes every day, and a suit… it would have been like being a tiger in a cage.'
There followed time at some of London's top venues. 'I didn’t have a plan, but my dream was to work at LAB – Dre Masso was one of my absolute idols,' he explains. 'So I met Dre, and he called me to be part of the opening team at Salvador & Amanda.' It was there that he met Gabriela Moncada, who today has the enviable job title of agave ambassador at Speciality Brands. The two were married in 2005.
From Salvador & Amanda he moved to Dusk Bar in Battersea, before going on to open Montgomery Place in Notting Hill in 2006. 'We were the first bar to take inspiration from classic cocktails, but give our own interpretation to them,' he muses. 'LAB was making fancy drinks, and you had Milk & Honey for the classics, so we merged those two things together.'
Two years later, Perrone got the call from The Connaught, which was just completing a £70m restoration, which included a makeover of the Connaught Bar (formerly known as the American Bar at The Connaught) by designer David Collins.
'It was a few months of yes and no… I'd never worked in a hotel before, and didn't go to catering school or anything like that. So stepping into a hotel was scary in a way. Intimidating,' he says. 'I'd always watched from the outside and thought that it wasn’t for me. It was definitely a jump into very cold water.'
The difference, Perrone explains, is in the details. 'Here, everything has meaning – you need to look after 360 degrees. The business side, the creative side, the customer experience… Everything was new for me, and a big learning process.'
Crucially, what he brought to the job was his own style – of running a bar, and of making drinks too. 'I like simplicity,' he says unequivocally. 'I'm a purist. As much as we do twists here, don't touch my Negroni. Don’t even stir it.
'When I’m creating a drink, it has to be super delicate, yet also complex too. All my drinks have been in that style – clean and straightforward, yet complex and elegant, without ever being extravagant,' says Perrone.
For all his thoughts on what constitutes a great drink, Perrone is perhaps at his most passionate when discussing the team aspect of the job. 'I don’t create things by myself,' he explains. 'I'm like the conductor of an orchestra. I know who has certain skills, how we can use them, and how they can exchange skills too.'
And one thing he's not looking for is bartender ego. 'When they don't make you feel comfortable, and they want to show off a bit… I don't think they’re in the right business,' he says. 'Ultimately, we need dedication, and we need flexibility. I wake up at 6am, and I start to text the guys, and when they wake up, at 9am or 10am, they answer me back. It's a 24-hour thing. It's a lifestyle, and it's a family. It's that family environment that creates this magic.'
This is true, yet there's no denying the stardust of his pioneering touches either: the famous Martini trolley, the signature welcome drink (a touch Perrone claims to have been the first to offer) and the cocktail cards given to guests.
I text the guys at 6am, they answer when they wake up. It's a 24-hour thing. A lifestyle. A family
'We were the first bar to give out cocktail cards with the recipe for the drinks that you enjoy,' he says proudly. 'It's an idea people have stolen, but nobody does as we do.'
Along with the bar's stunning appearance it all goes to create a venue that's special but not showy – a delicate balance. 'It's not a place for people who want to be seen, but for people that want to be treated,' he says.
People like Pierce Brosnan, for instance. 'He was here more than one time, and he's a very nice gentleman. I made him a Connaught Martini with lavender. With the James Bond connection, for us, making him a Martini is a little bit of a dream come true.'
And what about his dream of becoming a photographer? 'My camera is always with me,' says Perrone. 'I did an exhibition last year for La Maison Rémy Martin in Soho, and have two exhibitions coming up next year, one in Cremona in a friend’s bar, and one in Lake Como. Maybe that dream, too, is coming true…'