Interview: mixologist Francesco Lafranconi (Southern Wine & Spirits)
Native Italian Francesco Lafranconi first jumped behind a bar when he was 18 years old and gradually gained valuable experience in Europe before catching on with Southern Wine & Spirits in 2000. He relocated to Las Vegas and now works as their National Director of Mixology & Spirits Educator. Along the way, he also developed the company’s Academy of Spirits and Fine Service, a 12-week educational program that’s since instructed hundreds of bartenders about spirits, cocktails, aesthetics, tools, tasting, techniques and more. He even makes time to consult on bar programs at establishments like the Windows Lounge and Bar Toscana in Los Angeles. We spoke after he taught alongside fellow bartender Julie Reiner at the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival‘s farm to glass mixology class.
What was your very first night like behind a professional bar, and where was it?
Well I was able to go to the hotel school when I grow up, during my teenage years, so we had a full-time bar teacher. At that time back in the late ’80s, we always used fresh ingredients. I grew up in a family environment with bars, since I was born. My father was making ice cream with fresh ingredients. I’ve always been surrounded by fresh ingredients, even when it was a necessity to go with processed. I think the first time that I really, really was behind the bar, I was making a Negroni in a ski resort. I was like 18, 19 years old.
Yes, in Italy. Northern Italy.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
Well, one of my first cocktails, I couldn’t really put it together. I won third place at the drink festival on Tour in Lignano Italy, May 1992, a local cocktail competition, with vodka and blue curacao and a dash of bitters that sank to the bottom of the glass. There was something else in it, but it was a dry vodka drink using the sponsored brand. I remember that and now when I look at it, I think, “Wow, I could have done so much more.”
But I do have a drink that made me with the Bacardi Martini Grand Prix. It was called the Gambler. It was fresh puree of white peaches with fresh pineapple puree and sparkling champagne style wine and lemon flavored rum. And I think that was it. It was back in 1998, so it’s been awhile, but it was beautiful pink flamingo color and the balance, the judges tell me they really like it. That was the Gambler.
How long have you been with Southern Wine & Spirits for?
I’ve been with Southern Wine & Spirits since 2000. I was hired overseas and in 2007 I left my position for Nevada state only and developed a program nationwide.
Is there anything you miss about being behind a bar on a regular basis?
Of course I do. The most important thing that I miss the most is actually the interaction with the guest, because I always suffer when I’m sitting on the other side of the bar, on a bar stool, and I see the bartender doesn’t really care to be there, and the guests are full of enthusiasm, but unfortunately the bartender doesn’t deliver the expectations or the experience the guest is looking for. Sometimes I just want to go over, jump over the counter, and take care of business. That’s what I miss the most, besides the creativity that I would put into the drink, is the guest interaction. Make them feel comfortable and literally travel the world on a bar stool with different flavors and spirits.
Can you imagine opening a bar at some point?
Oh, absolutely. Trust me. It’s going to happen soon.
What city would it be in?
I would like to have one in Europe, for sure, and one in the United States, most likely New York, simply because New York is exposed to so many different flavors, and so many different ethnic groups, and the clientele is very skilled and very enthusiastic, but it’s also very challenging. On the other hand, I really would like to do something in Hawaii, and for business purposes, I think Waikiki makes sense. I’m so intrigued and fascinated by the quality of raw ingredients here, and nobody, as far as I know, are maximizing that opportunity.
How much time do you spend out here?
When I come, I come once or twice a year, and I spend a week at a time, simply because it’s good business to meet customers and clients by island hopping, like Four Seasons. That’s when I work the most, from Big Island to Maui, Lani Kai.
What are go to spots when you’re out here?
You know, when I’m thinking about enjoying a great cocktail, I’ll be honest, on charisma, I always go to my friend Tim Rita at Lewers Lounge at the Halekulani. I think the Halekulani is a wonderful resort. If you really want to experience a sense of hospitality, you should come here whether it’s for lunch, for dinner, or just for a drink at the Lewers Lounge, and listen to some great jazz.
Is there a bartender who you’ve never worked with who you would like to work with?
There are a lot of up and coming bartenders, a few years younger, very motivated and hungry…There is a person I’d like to work with, because I really esteem…I’ve been working with Salvatore Calabrese, Peter Dorelli, Dale DeGroff, at events of course. There’s a gentleman from Spain who owns Dry Martini in Barcelona, and Madrid, Javier de las Muelas. The way that he’s disciplined behind the bar, and his commitment to quality is far to none. I really would like to work with him, or at least share some ideas.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?
Americano. Equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and soda, lemon peel and a slice of orange.
It’s simple, bittersweet, aromatic, thirst quenching, a great aperitif, it’s a great drink that cools you off on a hot summer afternoon. I can drink it with my brunch, through the afternoon and with my food, because with a wine-based vermouth, it’s a food companion. That’s my cocktail, but I probably think my last dram would be a Scotch, a single malt.
Who would make your Americano?
Somebody who has passion, and somebody that needs to have a love for the craft, because that will come across in the glass.