Dré Masso has been involved with the London cocktail scene for nearly 20 years, working and running bars at The Rock Garden in Covent Garden, Oliver Peyton’s Atlantic Bar & Grill, 10 Room in Piccadilly, Lab Bar (London Academy of Bartending), Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, Salvador & Amanda in Leicester Square, and Lonsdale House in Notting Hill. Over the course of his career, he has won numerous cocktail competitions and been awarded the UK bartender of the year thrice.
Since 2005, Dré has visited over 50 cities in 30 countries, training thousands of bartenders and sharing his passion for drinks and cocktail culture. Dré published his first book “Margarita Rocks” in 2005 featuring 70 bespoke recipes as well as factual information on the history of Tequila and its production methods. This led to the opening of his own tequila bar and restaurant in London’s East End, called Green & Red, which in its first year won the Evening Standard’s Bar of the Year award.
In between workshops and sampling his self-created concoctions at the newly opened lounge bar – The Beachcomber – in Mumbai, Nivedita Jayaram Pawar caught up with the mixologist to talk about the world of bartending.
You were studying to be a photographer. How did you end up in a bar?
At the time that I studied photography, we used negatives and paper for printing. This, combined with all the equipment, was an expensive proposition and the bar work was my way of paying for it. I soon became passionate about every aspect of this industry.
You have now been involved with the London cocktail scene for over 15 years. What are some of the changes you have noticed over time?
The level of professionalism is incredible now. Also, the knowledge levels of both the customer and the bar tender have improved. There are more brands than ever before in the market. Fresh produce and home-made syrups were quite rare back then, but have become commonplace in many style bars.
Who all people taught you the most about tending bars, and what lessons did you learn from them?
I have learnt from so many individuals. I am still learning every day. Douglas Ankrah, the founder of the London Academy of Bartending, has been a great inspiration. He is amazing with the crowd and creating an atmosphere. Jamie Terell, who is now the ambassador of Hendrick’s gin for Asia and Australia has the ability to make everything taste good. Much of my cocktail-making style came from him. Henry Besant, who I worked with for several years, has exquisite style and taste and I think some of that has rubbed off on me. Eric Yu, director of The Breakfast Group and my current business partner, has really helped me with the business side of running bars.
What aspects of the bar industry fascinate you the most?
In recent years, I have been included in more and more aspects including design, music, marketing, food, etc. My first passion is still the cocktail, but I understand that every aspect plays an important part and that is why it all interests me. I like the challenge of making new ideas and concepts work, but customer care and hospitality are fundamentally the key factors in running a bar.
This industry is perceived by many as not a viable career choice but a means to generate income on the side. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think there is a global shift in attitude towards this?
Generally it is getting better, but in many situations, it is still a poorly paid job. We bar tenders are getting better recognition for what we do. There are more cocktails and drink-related books and publications now than ever.
What are the mistakes restaurateurs make while building a bar within a restaurant/lounge?
The biggest mistake normally relates to the actual design of the working bar area. Often this is left for the interior designer or architect to decide, who usually have no idea how a bar should work. Designers are happy to spend thousands of pounds on a beautiful chandelier but pay no attention to the ergonomics and functionality of the bar. In my opinion, these are the first things that should be thought about.
What are the cornerstones of a good bar?
These depend on the style of the bar but, generally speaking and in no particular order, would include an interesting concept and offering, good marketing and PR, well-trained staff, quality ingredients and products, a great ambience (music, lighting, smells, design) and the right crowd.
What are your views on molecular mixology? Is it just a fad?
Molecular mixology is really another term for creative and fun cocktails. There is a side of it that has more of a scientific approach. Molecular mixology isn’t something that I specialize in, but there are experts in this field. It’s definitely more of a fad as it has already been around for several years in the UK and seems to be more and more popular. There are a lot of bartenders getting it wrong though. I don’t mind this approach as lone as the drink tastes good.
You are the man behind the cocktails at Sun n sand. What’s the cocktail scene in India? Where do you look to for inspiration when making and creating new drinks?
In India, I have visited bars only in Mumbai. My first trip was early this year for research. I was impressed with the general level of bartending within the style bars. When creating a new list, many aspects can inspire me. It could be the location or the theme of the bar. My ideas for the Beachcomber menu came from the incredible ingredients found within Indian cuisine. I spent some time with the executive chef from Sun n Sand who introduced and explained the different flavours in his kitchen to me. I took classic cocktail recipes and gave them a contemporary twist, experimenting with tastes from Maharashtra.
What does it take to be a great bartender?
Again so many things, but here are a few (in no particular order): passion, respect, knowledge, speed, character and personality. A great bartender will understand every element of the bar and be the upmost host.
How do you go about stocking the bar? Do you have any suggestions? Is it essential to have fifteen vodkas and ten rums?
This again depends on the style of the bar. Obviously, a tequila bar should have a decent tequila selection. If you are talking about a general premium style bar, then a good selection of about 5 to 20 of each spirit category works well. There has to be a good balance between commercial availability and more interesting and rare products. Not every bar has the space for a large selection. I ran a pop-up bar for three months which had only one brand for each spirit category – one for vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, tequila and brandy. The concept was called “Limited” and we had over 45 cocktails on the list. It was a huge success. In this case, our customers liked being told what to drink.
What trends and techniques are you currently seeing within the industry?
Blocks of ice, carved ice, bottle and barrel aged cocktails, pre-mixed cocktails as well as seasonal and localized cocktails. There is a lot happening right now.
One of the inherent problems with cocktails is that many people feel the landscape is so complex and confusing that it is outside of their comfort range. Is there something a bartender can do to help people overcome this?
Making crafted cocktails can be very simple and I have been working over the past few years to reach out to the consumer and get more of my guests mixing at home. I am releasing a cocktail book later this year with this in mind, called “Classic Cocktails at Home.”
Looking back over what has since become a rather exciting journey, what are the things that make you proud?
I have travelled to over 40 countries with work. I love encountering new cultures and can learn so much from these experiences. Opening my first bar made me very happy and it felt incredibly rewarding. It was a Mexican tequila bar. We had the largest collection of premium tequila in Europe. We had to close it in 2010 due to a massive rent increase.
What are your goals and aspirations?
I am about to open my second bar in London soon. We have been working on this for the last 8 months and we are very close now. I am looking forward to calling another venue my home and to have a creative space to work from. ••
On the Rocks: Questions on the Move
Everyone has to start somewhere… where did you start with your first drink?
The first bar I worked at had poor-quality drinks so I didn’t pay much attention to their style of cocktails. When I joined the Atlantic bar & Grill in Piccadilly, London, I was introduced to “the Classics” which were interesting and classy drinks that were steeped in history. My passion for the cocktail began from there
What drink do you recommend after a tiring day in a country like India?
The Double Vanilla Espresso Martini. It is one of the signature cocktails at Beachcomber. It has become one of our best-sellers.
What’s a must have in your bar?
Customers! Name a cocktail which has suffered more from the ravages of time.
The Piña Colada gets a hard time. It’s one of my guilty pleasures.
What is the most bizarre request you’ve ever had for a drink? Any celebrities you have served behind the bar or showcased your ability?
Bill Murray has been my favourite so far. He likes to make the cocktails himself at the bar for his friends.
What are some of your favourite tools?
Boston shaker, sharp knife, Mexican elbow juicer, potato peeler, tea strainer.;
What’s your personal favourite?
The Tommy’s Margarita, which is a version of the classic Margarita. It is made with 100 percent agave tequila and lime and sweetened with agave nectar.
On a night off, where could we most likely find you sipping on this cocktail of choice?
You could probably find me at Café Pacific in London sipping on one of these.
What’s it like on a busy night?
Depends. If the bar is organised and you are ready for the madness, it can be a lot of fun. If you are disorganised, it will be a nightmare. The key is preparation.
When you have overly drunk people at your bar, how do you tell them enough is enough?
Depends on the person. I try to be honest with the guest. Not always that easy though!
Which are the best bars in the world?
My all time favourites are La Capilla in Tequila Town, Mexico. Café Pacifico in London, and Tommy’s Mexican restaurant in San Francisco.
What is the easiest way to ruin a cocktail?
Knock it over.
What’s a bartender’s worst nightmare?
What’s the bar of your dreams?
I would like a South American inspired bar showcasing food and drink from that part of the world. It would be located by the beach in a hot climate.
Bartender jokes are very popular. What’s your favourite?
A guy goes into a bar, orders 12 shots and starts drinking them as fast as he can!