Even for long in the tooth members of the drinks trade a trip to Zetter Townhouses is still an education in the craft of cocktail making and a level of expertise and innovation akin to a three star Michelin restaurant. But, as bar manager Matteo Malisan explains, the disciplines and dedication needed to reach the top in the kitchen is what drives him and the rest of this award winning team.
If you have never experienced the Zetter Townhouses then treat yourself to one of the most innovative cocktail lists anywhere in the world.
Looking back on the London cocktail scene over the last decade and it is quite possible to divide it into two parts. Before and after 69 Colebrooke Row. The first creation in 2009 from cocktail legend, and ground breaking drinks expert , Tony Conigliaro.
If Heston Blumenthal has helped transform the art of fine dining in the UK, then Conigliaro has done the same to not just the London drinks scene, but the re-birth of classic cocktails around the country.
For Conigliaro, like Blumenthal, is not just interested in creating a new drink, or adapting a classic, but inventing a whole new way of combining flavours and spirits that have not been done before, where it is as much about sound, texture as it is taste and smell.
All of which are dreamed up in his own bespoke Drinks Factory that make many of the bitters, infusions and bases for the drinks that are then created on site to be sold at the growing number of bars in London that he either owns (69 Colebrooke Row and Bar Termini) or collaborates with.
This includes the Zetter Townhouses. The two hotels in Marleybone and Clerkenwell have become destinations in their own right for more then just those staying there. Thanks to their two bars.
It is here where Conigliaro’s talent and influence on the UK bar scene can be seen with a tight cocktail list, all created with exquisite precision at is Drinks Factory base.
Helping bring them to life is manager for both bars, Matteo Malisan, who knows Conigliaro well having worked with him at 69 Colebrooke Row.
He says the secret to Conigliaro’s approach to creating new drinks is quite simple. “We work hard to link flavours. If technology can help us do that then fine, but it is all about having the right combinations of flavour.”
He adds: “Yes, the equipment we use is important, but you have to know how to use it.”
Like a chef working with the right oven, he stresses
Malisan is also quick to stress that the focus is always on the customer and creating a great bar experience, rather than just become obsessed about how the drinks are made.
“We are a bar. It’s about having a good time. It’s about having the right drinks, the right music, the lighting and the atmosphere. They are all important. It’s not being pretentious, it’s about what we serve our customers,” he explains.
Working with suppliers
Conigliaro and the Zetter Townhouses’ bars approach to creating the right environment for its bars in Marleybone and Clerkenwell are a must for anyone interested in the latest drinks trends, but they must also be frustrating for drinks suppliers hoping to get their latest product on to their back bars. For they create a large number of the drinks and spirits they use in the bars.
Like Woltz’s, and English horseradish vodka. Which is apparently, says Malisan, inspired by the original Godfather film. It’s good to see a horse being put to better use.
Malisan concedes they don’t use as many suppliers as other bars of the same stature. But singles out the work it does with Pernod Ricard, Amathus, Speciality Drinks and Gordon McPhail. “Our relationships with them are very good. They provide us with a lot of support as well.”
It is a delicate balance between using its own spirits as well as leading brands. “We will see how different spirits perform with our drinks. So anything we take on we know very well. But it can take time.”
He adds: “But we also have to remember that some of these brands have been making these drinks for a 100 years. We met, for example, the master distiller of Tanqueray gin who was just an incredible person.”
But if you do happen to get your brand on its list you can be assured it will be well looked after. “We do a lot of staff training and tastings and masterclasses with each of the products we have,” says Malisan.
It, not surprisingly, gets approached constantly by drinks suppliers hoping to get a listing. Which Malisan is quite happy to receive. “I think it’s a good thing. But they have to really believe in their product and have a real story. People will come a long way to show us something at the bar. But we will try them.”
Malisan’s route to the Zetter Townhouse bars has come through being a waiter in leading Michelin restaurants, both in Italy and the UK, rather than through bars.
“But when I met Tony at 69 Colebrooke Row he just opened my eyes to this other world.”
Whilst it seems Conigliaro and his team have enough ideas and influences of their own, they are also very keen to take on experiences and learn from other leading bar operators around the world.
It often, for example, says Malisan, invites bar teams from other trend setting bars in Europe to come and work at the Zetter Townhouses, whilst taking up invitations to do the same overseas. Like the Little Red Door in Paris or Ruby in Copenhagen.
“We have a great respect for them and what they are doing. They have beautiful bars in Scandinavia.
He adds: “We want to be the best, but that also means sharing what you know with other bars,” he says.
The Zetter Townhouses have also become a melting pot of leading bar tender talent from around the world, explains Malisan. “We see this as one of our most important driving force. Travelling and keeping up with what is happening in New York, San Francisco, Paris or wherever. We are not just enclosed in our own world.”
It is also a very close knit team that has worked together for a number of years. “It helps create a very different vibe in the lounge. It is a very creative environment to be in.”
Drinks for all
Considering the level of time, investment and expertise that goes in to creating the Zetter Townhouses’ experience it is particularly admirable to see a drinks list with cocktails set around £10.50 to £11.50. Not far off what you might expect to pay in a run of the mill cocktail bar never mind one that is world famous.
Malisan says it is part of the values of the Zetter Group to work within margins that allow for excellent service, but at a price more people can afford.
Equally the staff culture, he says, is about being part of a wider team, where you “are not just a number” but are respected and have “very clear responsibilities”.
“We are working in hospitality and how you behave as an individual makes a big difference. We are like a family here, but we also know we are running a business.”
Power of 12
The cocktail list is also very tight compared to many of its peers. With just a choice of 12. Each one, though, crafted to an inch of its life and needs meticulous care and attention to make.
“Tony says 12 is enough. We are a small team and that it works. We will also make classics and other drinks not on the list,” says Malisan.
The Zetter Townhouses change their list twice a year, but only six cocktails at a time, with a selection of specials on top.
It also uses former restaurateur and wine consultant, Martin Lam, to help with its wine list. Which is an even tighter affair, with only four reds, four whites, a rosé and five Champagnes mostly sourced through Liberty Wines. Hattingley English sparkling wine is also being added to its range.
“It is great working with Martin. He has a lot of passion, and a real focus on what he is doing which is what we like.”
Interestingly considering all the hype around using premium tonics, like Fever Tree, the Zetter Townhouses’ prefer to use the classic Schweppes tonic for its drinks. It has better carbonation for its style of drinks, says Malisan.
But considering all the cocktails on the list have a detailed back story in keeping with the Georgian townhouse concept of the Zetter Townhouses, then it is understandable it is a relatively small selection.
As for future trends Malisan singles out vermouth. The Zetter Townhouses’ and Drinks Factory teams are working hard to create more of their own bespoke vermouths which can work in a combination of drinks and with mixed alcohol levels. “So if you order a Negroni, you can choose from a selection of vermouths.”
The Zetter Group is also expanding with a new 90 bedroom hotel and bar planned to open in Manchester in 2018.
Malisan spreads his time working between the two Zetter Townhouses and also spends a day a week looking at new ideas, techniques and flavours at the Drinks Factory. “We really take advantage of it when we can. Be it to prep new drinks, do training, run seminars or experiment with new things.”
But the hours spent crafting a single drink for the main Zetter Townhouses’ list at the Drinks Factory is vital, says Malisan. It must also not be so complicated that it can’t be re-created time and again in the bar.
“It is one thing to get great service and a great Turf Club cocktail on a Monday. But you have to give the exact level of service and the ask standard Turf Club on a Wednesday too,” stresses Malisan. “We have to run our bar like a kitchen in a restaurant. You have to have that complete discipline.”
Which is what you will see every night of the week.