Maverick mixologist Tony Conigliaro applies science and drama in equal measures to the art of the perfect drink 

First featured in Issue 03
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If bartending guru Dick Bradsell kick-started the London cocktail renaissance, putting the capital’s bars back on the map during the 1980s and 1990s, then maverick mixologist Tony Conigliaro is his formidable successor; propelling it to stratospheric new heights with his truly pioneering molecular approach to flavour and cocktail-making.

Often dubbed the Heston Blumenthal of drink, Tony C – as he is fondly known in the trade – was even referred to as ‘a revolutionary’ by Blumenthal himself in the foreword he penned for the Italian-born Londoner’s 2012 book Drink: Unravelling the Mysteries of Flavour and Aroma in Drink.) For his part, Conigliaro cites a dinner at Blumenthal’s Fat Duck as a seminal moment for him; ‘I was trying to work out how we translate what they were doing in cuisine into our world’.

Molecular gastronomy may have been the catalyst for Conigliaro’s adventures into a brave new world of nitrous oxide, vacuum sealers and rotavaps, but he also credits his upbringing for nurturing a fascination with food and flavour. ‘I’m half-Italian, we cooked as kids and visited Italy a lot. We’d have these family discussions, like why this pasta is better than that pasta. You absorb these things by osmosis. Everyone in the family had an opinion on how things should be done.’

As Conigliaro’s reputation grows, the chef comparison seems a reductive one – and he’s keen to stress the distinction. ‘We’re about creating a language for liquids rather than emulating what chefs are doing. What’s happening in the food world is amazing, but bartenders are explaining and expressing it in a different way, through the history of drinks. We work with pure flavour. Chefs use texture more. We have a different set of parameters and we have a shorter time too, in terms of how long flavour is created and experienced in a drink.’

Recent flavour forays have looked further afield, to the world of perfumery and wine. ‘We create little dioramas of concepts, or ideas of what we want to achieve, a “stage set” of flavours if you like. The concept for The Rose, for instance, was walking through an English garden with a glass of champagne in your hand – and the deeper you go, the more pungent it becomes.’ As with a perfumer, he concocted a flavour that starts light and gets deeper, the notes evaporating on the palate like those in a perfume. It took two years to perfect.

Conigliaro will literally leave no stone unturned in the quest for exciting new ways to express flavours. His bottled cocktail, the Terroir, was 10 months in the making and aims to capture the physical, earthly qualities of a vineyard. It involved distilling stones, lichen and clay, which, combined with vodka, produces a drink with a flinty, mineral note. ‘It sounds bizarre, but you really have the taste of a vineyard – without the wine and the weather. People travel to 69 Colebrooke Row [his London cocktail bar in Islington] just to taste it,’ he says.

This experimental, seemingly madcap approach is in fact incredibly rigorous – he diligently records everything, partly because he once discovered an amazing flavour and failed to take notes, losing it forever. Fuelling all this is an inquisitive that was trained not in science, but fine art and art history. Indeed, it was funding his painting that led him to the bar. ‘I was fascinated by the history of drink. I bought lots of books – I could see the creativity in it.’ 

What began in 1999 with making fruit purées from scratch (the pear and cinnamon Bellini was one notable flavour combo) for the cocktails at Isola – where Bruno Loubet was at the helm – has evolved into a high profile, jet-set career. Not to mention a long-term working partnership with Loubet, who describes him as a ‘drinks wizard’, and with whom he recently collaborated on The Grain Store restaurant and bar in London’s King’s Cross.

The next few months alone see him flying to Japan, Cuba, Thailand, America, Italy and Greece, where he gives seminars and demonstrations and judges awards. Back on home turf, he’s a recipient of countless awards for the bars he runs (69 Colebrooke Row and The Zetter Townhouse) and he’s become the go-to guru for bartenders worldwide who email and make pilgrimages to his Islington HQ, The Drink Factory, seeking guidance and inspiration. This liquid laboratory (which for such a progressive spirit, was fittingly once Pink Floyd’s recording studio) is like a Quentin Blake sketch for Roald Dahl brought to life. Fizzing and bubbling with creativity, it’s equipped with, amongst other things, blowtorches, a bain marie, centrifuge, vacuum sealers and – his favourite device – the Buchi Rotavapor: a tabletop vacuum distillation unit which allows ingredients (particularly delicate ones) to be distilled at low temperatures, thus garnering a cleaner final result. 

‘We started The Drink Factory eight years ago to communicate ideas and to draw in people from outside the industry,’ Conigliaro says. ‘It’s not so much about bartenders replicating what we’ve done though – although some drinks do travel. It’s about the process and passing that on. That’s why we published the book, to build a toolbox for people to use to open up their own creative avenues. For example, the recipe for Liquorice Whisky Sours also teaches how to make the perfect liquorice syrup, rather than simply that particular cocktail.’ Just like Bradsell, he has become a mentor for the next generation of bartenders, which –  Prairie Oyster cocktail and other inventive libations aside – is likely to be his proudest legacy.

Cocktails pictured: 'The Rose', 'Avignon', 'The Silver Bullet' and 'Soy Cubano' 

Photographs Dan Tobin Smith Set Design Hana Al-Sayed

Words Bethan Ryder