Los Angeles has some of America’s best bartenders, but when Pernod Ricard USA brought the Pioneers in Mixology to town in March, it still motivated a number of pros to make a pilgrimage to the W Hotel Hollywood to learn from talents like Tony Conigliaro. The London-based co-owner of 69 Colebrooke Row is a protegee of Dick Bradsell, who Gary Regan described as “London’s answer to Dale DeGroff,” and has become best known for his cutting edge techniques and presentations, and for aging Manhattans, which are available as part of an annual vertical tasting. As Regan said when presenting Conigliaro, “He’s a mad scientist, he’s a crazy motherfucker, and he’s a man who shows us what can be done as opposed to what has been done.”
Conigliaro is also a co-founder of Drink Factory, an interdisciplinary collective of bartenders, chefs, perfumers and designers that now meets at Britannia Row. They use scientific instruments like the gas chromatograph and roto vapour to manipulate and accentuate the flavor and aroma in cocktails. He’s also turned to chemical analysis to discover compatible flavors and “bridges.” On the night before Pioneers in Mixology convened in Hollywood, The Roger Room hosted a mixer with bartenders who flew into town for the event, local bartenders and writers. It was in one of the bar’s small booths that Conigliaro better explained his background.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
I just worked with really great people, who were very, very inspirational, and passed their passion on to me.
What was your first bar job?
It was a place called N.E.D. It wasn’t a particularly good bar, but it gave me a great opportunity to do a lot of reading and learning on a really grass roots level.
How did you end up getting that job?
A friend of mine ran the bar. Who’s now my business partner. The guy who gave me my first ever bar job is now my business partner, and we own a bar together. That’s 15 years later.
What do you look for in a bar?
What was the most recent cocktail you created?
It’s not necessarily created. What we’ve been doing is working on a dirty martini, and using various equipment to extract the water out of olives. Rather than having, in essence, salty water with the vague taste of olives. We’ve actually extracted the water out of olives and used that in a dirty martini. It’s not creating a cocktail, it’s working within the framework and making it what – we believe – better.
One of the things you’re known for is barrel aged cocktails?
Not barrel aged. Part of the experiment, to begin with, I did put some barrels down, but the idea was to do it in glass. The idea was like having vintage ports and vintage wines, was to have a year. Barrel aging doesn’t allow you to do that. It just adds too much wood to it, but when that project started in 2004, the intention was always to have 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line, a series of vintages from each year, that we could then open and have the whole joke of brushing the dust off the bottle. This is your vintage Manhattan. The last vintage we opened was a seven-year, which was fantastic. Incredible.
What does a seven-year Manhattan taste like?
It’s deeper, richer, longer, more complex, silkier. It’s indescribable. We were really, really, really overjoyed by it.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
I used to enjoy spirits, before I got into cocktails. So probably spirits first. I didn’t even know much about them until…cocktails.
Do you have a first spirit memory, good or bad?
Cognac. Good. It was good Cognac as well.
Do you know which one?
I have no idea, but I know it was good. It was one of those rites of passage. You’re old enough to have Cognac at the end of a meal in a restaurant.
Would you say you have any mentors?
Oh yeah. Dick Bradsell for one. Also people like chefs and perfumers. I don’t think there’s been one mentor. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a huge amount of super talented people. Brushing shoulders with people like that influences what you do. It’s not one point, it’s a continual process.
Is there a bar you wish you had come up with?
This is great. The Roger Room in Los Angeles is a lovely bar.
When you’re not working in London, what and where do you like to drink?
A good pint of Guinness, wherever.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
What’s the key to a great martini?
Who would make it?
God. See if he’s any good.