European Masters of Bartending: Dirk Hany

Bars 21.10.2016

MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin meets Dirk Hany for his continuing series on the European Masters of Bartending. He’s a man who’s built up a name for himself as both a brand ambassador and as the Bar Manager at Zürich’s acclaimed Widder Bar. What makes him tick? 

“All the bartenders I speak to want to leave the industry and become brand ambassadors. I’m one of the only ones who’s actually gone back to having night hours.” Moving from the bar to the industry is a well-worn track. But the other way around? Not so much. Dirk Hany was once was well-known as the Pernod Ricard Swiss Brand Ambassador, working with brands such as Absolut Vodka and Havana Club. He then packed up shop and returned to Zürich to work at the esteemed Widder Bar. With his industry background affording him worldwide recognition, and the Widder Bar’s acclaimed status on the European scene, Dirk Hany’s stock is sky-high right now.

The first switcheroo

Born and raised in South Africa, Hany made another major about-turn early in his career. He’d always wanted to become a chef, so much so that he moved to Luzern to attend the Schweizerische Hotelfachschule Luzern (SHL). During his various work placements there – notably a stint in a Michelin star kitchen in Baden – he realized that food wasn’t his calling. It was the bar where he felt more at home. “The liquid kitchen was just more interesting for me,” he explains. “In the kitchen nobody sees what you’re doing but in the bar you are making people happy – right in front of you.”

His various placements included two summers in Cannes, working at the iconic Martinez Hotel. Ironically enough, this bar job evoked many things he didn’t like about the food kitchen. “It was weird, the bartenders just work in the back and out at the front you have the waiters working like penguins, serving scotch on the rocks and champagne,” he says. One other placement was in Montpellier at the – now closed – Ayers Rock Australian Cafe, a bar described as France’s best flair bar at the time. There, all employees started working on the floor, not behind the bar, all the while having to wear t-shirts saying FNG’s – “Fucking New Guys”.

Crude jokes aside, this is something he took forward to his future work at the Widder Bar. “In the Widder Bar, bartenders start on the floor,” he explains. “Once they have done their job well they then barback, before becoming a bartender.” We then zoom forward past his training to one of his biggest moments. In 2008, whilst working at the famous Hirschli Bar in Baden and having just scooped up the prize for Bartender of the Year, Pernod Ricard came calling.

The Cuba Libre trick

The brand ambassador role has become a coveted one, offering bartenders the opportunity to travel and expand their skills via trainings and consultancy, without the grind of the night-by-night bartender life. Just as with working in a bar though – how much is too much?

Hany makes a telling admission. He drinks much, much less now he is not a brand ambassador. “If you are a brand ambassador and you order a cup of tea, they (the bartenders) will laugh at you,” he explains. “As a brand ambassador you have to live your brand and that includes drinking it.” He employed some nifty tricks to keep himself under control. “You don’t have to exaggerate – you can drink a Cuba Libre very slowly or if a bartender really loves you, he will pour you coke and say it’s Cuba Libre.” It’s something he did both for his own health and for his performance on the job – after all, drinking more Absolut on an Absolut hangover is something nobody would tag as optimum working conditions.

After 4 and a half years of the vaunted Brand Ambassador role, the Widder Bar gave him a call. One of his favourite bars – “I was already there twice a week” – he couldn’t say no. As glamorous as the Brand Ambassador role was, you can’t take the bartender out of the bar forever.

A visual, seasonal and open approach

During his tenure at Pernod Ricard, when he strolled into a bar, he was known as “Mr Absolut” or “Mr Havana”. How did he shake off these associations? He explains how he is now a neutral bartender, but stays somewhat close to the company’s brands – he even carried out a small workshop for them last year. His mind is kept firmly open however. He took part in World Class earlier year for Diageo, finishing 2nd in the Swiss finals, and will return to host a workshop for the next entrants.

He beams when he discusses the Widder Bar, a classic-looking hotel bar that he claims serves 70% non-hotel guests. A separate entrance to the hotel, and a cooler-than-your-usual-hotel-bar vibe, helps it to achieve this local flavour. It’s clear it’s not your standard white-table clothed, suited and staid hotel bar. Hany explains how they try create an experience for the guest, through working with the senses – whether it’s sight, touch, or smell. “We try to stay experimental, without making it difficult. The normal client doesn’t want too much to do,” he says. “We try to keep our experimentation as small but as voluminous as possible. After all, the small things work out much more than the big things.”

Expect classics, but also cheeky left-field turns. Some drinks are served in clay pots. Some drinks are even served as sorbets. There’s even a drink they’ve titled the Panama Papers, a whiskey drink mixed with vermouth and homemade pineapple bitters, served with a homemade raspberry shrub in a martini coupe. A one dollar bill is left tantalizingly perched on the glass. “You can take the one dollar bill or give it back. From this, the guest can think whatever they want about the drink,” he says. Taking on the charged topic of offshore tax and wealth inequality – it’s a sign bars really have come a long way.

Here’s one extra thing to note about the Widder Bar: the menu tries to stay both seasonal and local. “I try to stay local with herbs, spices and fruits, although Switzerland is hard for fruits,” he says. The Widder Bar thus works with a famous fruit delivery guy, who sends them a “magic box” every month, consisting of in-season fruits, herbs and the like. One of his favourite boxes came last summer, packed with 53 samples of mint, including varieties as unusual as chocolate and pineapple.

Spirited highs, spirited lows

We move on to his personal taste in spirits. Tequila once caused him woes – largely mixto hangover induced – but since 3 years he’s been a fan of the 100% agave blends. So much so he’s included a tequila flavoring map on the July menu. With 8 tequilas included, the Widder Bar is trying to get people more into tequila.

Then, vodka. “Mr Absolut” still loves the clear classic but feels like it’s in a slump – at least in Europe that is. “Vodka is big in the US but here in Europe and Switzerland, people don’t realize what a great category it can be – they think it all tastes the same,” he explains. “Consumers need to compare it neat without ice to realize what the differences are.” His prediction for the next revival? Give it 10 years. “Young people don’t drink what their parents drank before, in the 90’s vodka took over and now they are all drinking gin. Maybe it will come back in 10 years – there’s always a white spirits trend and then a dark spirit trend and right now it’s dark spirits.”

Just smile

Watch out if Hany enters your bar. There’s a trick he uses to work out whether it’s worth his time. “I stand still at the entrance and see what happens,” he smiles. “I test the friendliness of bartenders and whether they look at you and smile. If I see smiles on their faces, I realize I’m in the right place. And if you don’t like the place, you won’t like the drink.”

In his spare time, he – quell surprise – likes to visit bars. Bars which fulfil his smiling criteria include Paris’s Bristol Bar and Sherry Butt, and he loves Zürich’s Old Crow. The Big Apple’s indefinable Dead Rabbit also warrants a mention. Sport also takes up some time, although elbow issues caused by bartending have kissed his favoured pursuit of tennis auf wiedersehen. He enjoys golf and kitesurfing in summer. And despite his preference for the liquid kitchen, he still loves to cook. “And my friends and family have come to know this,” he knowingly winks.

His aims for the future? Hany would like to make the Spirited Awards longlist. In 2016 they made the longlist (for “Best International Hotel Bar”) but missed out on top 5 recognition. Both this urge, and the recognition they have received from other awards bodies – notably receiving MIXOLOGY’s Bar of the Year Switzerland 2016 as well as 2017 two weeks ago – has given him the fuel to keep carrying on with high standards of service, mixology and experimentation the Widder Bar is famous for.

We close our chat. Any other grand switcheroos in the pipeline? Hany keeps deliciously schtum.

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