“To me, to be a bartender is to follow your instinct... you never know how the night is going to evolve - it means you need to go with the flow.”
World Bartender Day is celebrated annually on February 24th, and gives us all a chance to raise a glass to the talent, passion, and flair of the masters behind the bar. What better way to celebrate than to catch up over a cocktail with our very own Head Bartender and the master mixologist behind NIO Cocktails, Patrick Pistolesi?
Sitting down with Patrick Pistolesi feels akin to sitting down with a rockstar - but then again Patrick is, of course, a rockstar of the bartending world. Already considered one of the very best bartenders in Rome by the age of 25, he travelled the world from New York to Tokyo and brought the best of what he learned back to Italy, starting a cocktail revolution right on his doorstep. His pièce de résistance, Drink Kong, is a dream of 23 years in the making and has been praised as a breath of fresh air in Italy for its creativity; even World’s 50 Best Bars gave their seal of approval last year and named Drink Kong the 45th best bar worldwide.
We had the chance to ask Patrick some of our burning questions, from his craftsmanship and inspiration behind NIO to his choice of cocktail if stuck on a desert island - all with an Old Fashioned in hand, naturally.
1. First of all Patrick, a very important question: why bartending?
Well as with anything it started as an accident, or almost a joke. I actually lied on my CV because I loved the bars and I wanted to be a bartender. I used to spend my summers in Ireland with my maternal family, and my classic cheeky older cousin took me to the pub for the first time - I still remember it to this day. We went in on one Saturday night and I was completely mesmerised. I looked up at the bartender and saw a conductor of an orchestra. He knew everyone’s drinks order without having to ask, he made sure that no one was waiting too long and took the cash and served the pints in one motion. From this moment, I knew what I wanted to be.
2. You’ve been lucky enough to travel the world ...where have you worked as a bartender?
When you’re young you obviously want to have these amazing experiences abroad, so I spent the first 10 years of my career researching and finding myself - and the main focus was learning. When I left to go backpacking, it was in an analog age and bartenders weren’t connected in the same way that we are now: we didn’t have YouTube or social media, so it was really hard to learn from each other. In Italy we didn’t even have “a bar culture” apart from wine bars. So, once I soaked up as much as I could from the other bars in Rome I left, travelled around Europe, and ended up in New York. Now that was an incredible experience. The cocktail culture out there was something amazing; being behind the gear stick in a bar and serving these Wall Street bankers really was like something out of the movies! After that, in my 30’s, I started travelling in a different way - for business, representing different brands, visiting the absolute best bars in the world, but the cherry on top for me was Japan. Japan really inspired me, visiting has had a massive impact on my career, and my bartending “personality”. It’s one of my main loves.
Drink Kong was born around 3 years ago, and everything here is custom-made; that’s because it’s all a culmination of my ongoing experiences, and my dreams! We call it an ‘instinct’ bar. We want people to come here and act on their instincts, their mood, and we do this through our menu. We give people very little information about the drinks but a lot of visuals, and a lot of colour, to get them inspired and let it evoke something hidden within them, their subconscious. That sounds serious, but it is fun - as a bar should be! I don’t like to say this but Drink Kong was kind of a game-changer in Italy. After the cocktail scene exploded maybe 10 years ago, a lot of speakeasies sprung up as a result. So, Drink Kong wasn’t really something we’d ever seen before here - a proper cocktail bar, no password required!
3. Tell us a little about Drink Kong!
4. What inspired Drink Kong?
The whole inspiration of Drink Kong is based on my experiences around the world. I’m 43, as I said, so I’m a kid of the 80’s - and I think I grew up with the most beautiful movies in the world. We have Bladerunner, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future: all amazing movies that made us dream! Actually Drink Kong when you hop inside has a real 80’s style - neon lights, video games cabins from the 80’s, even the bathrooms are inspired by Tron. What I love about Blade Runner in particular and what really inspired me is the multicultural element - the way they opened the film in Los Angeles while speaking Japanese - it was so diverse. I loved that and wanted to pour it into Drink Kong. That’s why we always say “Be Kong”: be part of the future, be part of something.
5. What’s been the biggest challenge with NIO?
NIO Cocktails is the most challenging project I have ever taken on in my life. People said it couldn’t be done, that you couldn’t get the same quality of cocktail in a bar as at home, and I really think we’re changing that. A lot of people were sceptical, because a lot of what we love about drinks is not just about taste, but the ritual too. I’ve been in on the project from Day 1. One of the things I’m most proud of, and it’s been a really inspirational challenge, is replicating those same flavours. Creating amazing balanced flavours with lemon and lime, making sure it’s still fresh and is still organic - all while delivered to people’s homes. It is my message as Patrick, as owner of Drink Kong, and as a spirit ambassador to brands around the world, that while bringing these big flavours to fruition is extremely hard work, it’s so inspiring and I feel so passionate about it. So, I am extremely proud of it.
6. We have 16 full-strength cocktails at NIO - what is your ideal 6-Box?The amazing thing about NIO is the range; 16 seems like a little but it’s a lot! I would start with a Milano Torino, a low ABV cocktail and an entry level aperitivo, then something fresh like a Tommy’s Margarita (which is my wife’s favourite!) or something super glamorous like a Cosmopolitan. That’s definitely my first 3. Then, we’ve got to add a little whiskey - it’s always good to have a little whiskey in your life, I’m half Irish after all! There’s 3 drinks that you simply can’t go without: the first 2 are super classic, and the third is my creation for NIO and what I hope will be a new classic. So I’m talking about the Manhattan, super rounded and balanced; the Old Fashioned, an amazing creation - for me meditational, the bourbon gives it a great backbone; and the last is my creation and a twist on a Whiskey Sour: the Brown Gold. It’s fresh, but the coffee note in it makes it really unusual.
7. What do cocktails mean to you?
To be a bartender is to be curious! I believe you should drink for any kind of reason, there’s always a chance to drink to something. Drinks are evocative, a bit like perfume. You could be walking down the street and smell a perfume that reminds you of your first kiss 30 years ago and it takes you back in time. Basically, that’s what we try to do with drinks. The story-telling is everything. Nothing like your nose to bring you back in time. We’re talking about spirits, you know, it’s another way to talk about the soul.
Quick fire round!
8. What’s your favourite cocktail?
The Old Fashioned; it’s so good it’s almost meditational.
9. What’s the book you’re reading at the moment, and what are you listening to while reading it?
The Metamorphosis of Kafka. And the song? Did My Best, by The Voidz
10. And finally, what would be your desert island cocktail?
A NIO Old Fashioned! I told you it was my absolute favourite!