It’s not often that a drink actually moves me to tears. But late last summer I found myself welling up in the bar at The Zetter Townhouse in Marylebone on account of a simple sour called Fleurs du Mal. It contained lemon and absinthe, but it was the nostalgic notes of rose and powdery orris – two classic ingredients in perfumery – that did it. Suddenly I was flooded with longing for a place or a person I didn’t even know.
This piece of liquid witchcraft was the work of bartender Tony Conigliaro, a man who’s spent the past 15 years using flavour science, art and history to push the boundaries of the mixed drink. Dubbed “a revolutionary” by Heston Blumenthal, Conigliaro and his east London research lab Drink Factory have been instrumental in pioneering the Michelin-level standards of mixology that now see London widely regarded as the cocktail capital of the world.
Even if you don’t know Conigliaro’s name, you’ve probably heard of his Islington bar 69 Colebrooke Row, the award-winning hideaway where you can sip champagne cocktails that taste like a walk in a rose garden one minute, and be confronted by a martini garnished with a shard of “glass” the next. He’s behind Soho’s best coffee and negroni joint, Bar Termini, and the playful cocktail lists at The Zetter Townhouse Marylebone and Clerkenwell too. And then there’s his work with top chefs, which culminated recently in the creation of an 11-drink menu for Blumenthal’s Dinner in Melbourne, an ambitious project that takes guests on a voyage from the white cliffs of Dover to the middle of the outback.
Conceptual stuff aside, Conigliaro also just knows how to do a good drinking den – the kind of place where fashion designers, professors and tattoo artists squeeze in around the same tiny tables (he likes a small table, does Tony) and royalty are happy to sit on the stairs. So all eyes will be on him later this month when he opens his next project, Untitled, on Dalston’s hipsterish Kingsland Road. Coffee shop and gallery by day, cocktail bar by night, this new venture will harness the skills of a creative community he first got to know in his days as an art student.
“Back in the old days when everyone hung out in Soho, going ‘out east’ was almost like heading to the Wild West – it was where the cool things were happening, avant garde, bohemia,” says Conigliaro, who spent the 1990s drinking in the same East End pubs as Sarah Lucas and Gavin Turk. “Today, though, I don’t see Hoxton as east London in that way any more; it’s too central, too developed. East London proper for me has moved; it’s now Dalston, Hackney – we want to be part of that community.”
As far as Untitled is concerned, “East London proper” means an unprepossessing spot on the site of a former Turkish restaurant just down the road from Dalston Junction. It may look scrappy on the outside but, within, this place promises to defy all notions of a traditional cocktail bar, with an interior as austere and sleek as a brutalist gallery.
“It will be quite stark, but that means the human being is the centre of the space, which for me is really essential,” says Conigliaro. “I like that contrast between the solidity and starkness of the concrete and the fluidity of the people and the conversation within it.”
The centrepiece will be a single 5m-long polished concrete table with seating for 20, a monolith designed to foster a sense of communion. At one end of this, bartenders will operate from a small, table-height bar that keeps bottles stashed out of sight, while a further mezzanine space at the back will house tables for more intimate tête-à-têtes. A garden space at the rear will open in the spring, but in the meantime it’s round the main table that Conigliaro hopes his guests will plot. “What we want to create is this idea that you get involved in everyone’s conversations, and through that become friends. You’re there to share an experience.”
Another design feature that’s bound to be a talking point is the walls clad in a silver foil, a flourish that pays homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory, an artistic fulcrum that’s inspired Conigliaro since art college (this is the man who named his company Drink Factory, after all). “Drink Factory projects have always been about collaboration and the exchange of ideas,” he says over a cup of matcha tea in a Broadway Market café, just near his HQ. “Warhol surrounded himself with interesting people to make the art interesting, the space interesting. Most artists work as lone geniuses, but he worked with everyone around him.”
Conigliaro’s own team of five is a hive of activity when I visit. In one half of the warehouse space, white-coated assistants busy themselves at whirring rotavaps, dehydrators and sous-vides, preparing extracts from the mountain of spices, fruit, plants, minerals and spirits piled high on the shelves around them. Through the glass in the office, more staff consult among desks littered with magazines, art, glassware, perfume bottles, flowers and, incongruously, a giant head of Pan appropriated from an Ivy League university (in line with student tradition, I’m assured).
Keeping a watchful eye on it all is Conigliaro’s right-hand woman, Zoe Burgess, who was recently charged with creating a bespoke Drink Factory cocktail for the Roald Dahl estate to give to family and friends on the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birth. What that recipe is she won’t say, but acknowledges it’s a dream commission.
For Untitled, Conigliaro plans to cast his net even wider by collaborating with designers, artists and jewellers from the local area. One talent who’s already played a key role in the design of the project is photographer and former art director of the Edwin denim brand, Benny Robinson. It’s Robinson’s tattoo-like illustrations that will grace the staff uniforms (designed by cult label Burds London) and it will be he who curates the regularly changing selection of artworks on the bar walls. Robinson’s photos (which include the ones in this article) will also have a starring role in the third issue of the annual Drink Factory magazine, a high-spec drinks-meets-art publication whose past incarnations have taken the form of an arresting “Gothic” issue and the ethereal, post-apocalyptic “Silent Neon Flowers”. Fashion collaborations, art events and even a perfume project are all in the frame, with the plan to have at least some of these artefacts available to buy in the bar – a commercial move that Warhol would no doubt have approved of.
And then, of course, there are Conigliaro’s drinks, which aren’t so much cocktails as little liquid ideas. One of the best at Untitled is Snow, which marks the next step in Drink Factory’s ongoing exploration of terroir, a project that has already seen guests at 69 Colebrooke Row enjoy cocktails inspired by the chalky soils of Champagne, the taste of rain and the scents of a Mediterranean vineyard.
Served in a tiny, pearlised coupe that glints with hallucinatory flashes of coloured light, this cocktail is technically a blend of distilled chalk, clay, flint and enoki mushroom, but the taste is otherworldly – as thrilling, strange and ephemeral as that first taste of snow as a child. It’s a drink that doesn’t just capture the flavour of the thing, but the emotional memory of it too.
The equally understated Rice sees sake stirred down with a syrup made from flavoursome sake lees, giving this chalk-white drink a velvety mouthfeel and a flavour that’s at once savoury and sweet. I’m interested to learn that Conigliaro is a fan of Giorgio Morandi, the Italian painter whose explorations in tonal subtlety paved the way for the minimalist movement – in my mind, this contemplative drink could almost be the cocktail equivalent.
Things get more feisty with Violin, a chestnut-coloured drink with notes of beeswax, cedar, ambrette and oak so spicy and aromatic you can almost see the rosin fly. And then there are ingenious recipes too, such as Earth, a savoury drink that layers up the flavours of earth, potato and grass like a concrete perfume.
One thing that’s missing from the menu is any reference to a recognisable classic – you won’t find martinis or Manhattans here. But that, says Conigliaro, is just how he wants it. “We see flavour as a language that can describe things or emotions in the world, and for the past six years or so at Drink Factory we’ve been looking at how these different flavours and combinations speak and asked ourselves: what does it describe? What does it say? How can we make it more accurate? We want it to be interesting beyond ‘This is a martini’.”
Having said that, the bartenders at Untitled will happily whip you up a G&T or serve you a beer if you want one. And that’s the thing about the Drink Factory team – however much time and energy they put into their drinks, they never want what they’ve created to get in the way of a good time. “If the cocktail can stimulate conversation through what it is, through what it implies, or through its effect, then it’s doing its job,” says Conigliaro, twisting the skull-shaped knuckle duster on his middle finger. “But if it’s interrupting or disrupting the flow of communication between customers, and the priority becomes the bartender, then you’ve lost the game. That’s like artists taking pictures of themselves in front of their paintings. It’s just naff.”
As soon as Untitled is bedded in, the eternally restless Conigliaro will begin work on his next venture: a bar, restaurant and hotel in the unlikely commune of Cognac. “I love that part of France – it has a different way of life,” says the entrepreneur, who fell in love with Cognac more than 10 years ago when he struck up a friendship with cognac and liqueur producer Luc Merlet – who became his business partner on the project. “There are so many wonderful products made there and so many amazing old cognac cocktails – the Sidecar, the French 75, the Sazerac – and yet this town, which now has some fantastic restaurants such as Poulpette, still doesn’t have a really good cocktail bar.”
Set on the banks of the river Charente, just opposite the cellars of Hennessy, the property will comprise a bar and restaurant, opening in the spring, with a handful of boutique rooms launching in the summer. The proprietor will be the former head bartender at 69 Colebrooke Row, but everything else, from the saucisson and cheese to the drinks and interiors, will be a reflection of the local area.
But that’s next year – for the time being, Conigliaro’s attention remains squarely focused on London, a city that he describes as a “super-exciting” place to work right now. “The clientele is more interesting, and interested, and more willing to experiment than ever before, and the industry is getting so much more professional,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see how many styles there are now. In fact, I’d say the trend in the London bar scene at the moment is there are fewer trends – and that is definitely a good thing.”