For his continuing series on the European Masters of Bartending, Mixology author Andrew Wilkin met with Vasilis Kyritsis. Famous as the 2012 World Class Greek champion and for his work as Head Bartender at The Clumsies, Kyritsis discusses the Greek bar scene, a scene standing tall in the midst of political turmoil.
“What do you want to know? I can tell you a lot of information,” smiles Vasilis Kyritsis. It’s the start to an interview any journalist would dream of – with a positive but also open vibe, Kyritsis is the perfect antidote to the sterility that so many with a PR strategy possess. And it’s no surprise he’s so up for discussion. Vasilis Kyritsis is on a certifiable roll. He owns one of the best bars on the continent, The Clumsies, and his international star is on the rise.
Ports and clubs
Kyritsis was born in Piraeus, Athens’ hectic and industrial port area. An area once described as rough and ready, it’s undergoing a transformation. He proudly explains it’s now a “new hotspot”, with lots of acclaimed fish restaurants and bars opening up. After finishing school, he moved to the centre of Athens, where he studied nursing and begun working in clubs, for the dual purpose of meeting people and making extra cash. His interest in drinks then outgrew nursing and he moved behind the stick for good.
Bartenders aren’t always the club types, but Kyritsis claims working in a club came in mighty handy later on. “You had to work quickly, serving a lot of people whilst smiling,” he says. “Without the extra positive of serving cocktails, all we had was our good mood to convince people to drink more and more. In short, working in clubs makes you more humble and polite.” After working at Athens Island Club in 2006, he moved over to the famous Gin Joint, before opening up The Clumsies in late 2014.
Just before he opened his own bar, there’s two major formative experiences worth noting. First, there’s a little contest known as World Class. In 2012 Kyritsis was crowned national World Class champion, before going on to compete in the global finals in Rio de Janeiro. Diageo’s annual mass-bartender bout was an experience he savoured – both for making industry connections and learning about himself as a bartender. Another event he pinpoints was going to Tony Conigliaro’s Drink Factory in London, where he learnt how “bartenders can combine classic bartending with modern bartending.”
All day long clumsiness
“The Clumsies is a traditional type of Greek place,” he explains, moving onto his current bar he opened up in 2014 with Nikos Bakoulis – a fellow bartender and the Greek World Class Winner in 2011 – and Lefteris Georgopoulos, Thanos Tsounakas and Giorgos Kaissaris. Open early with specialty coffee and breakfast food curated by Michelin Star chef Nikos Karathanos, Athenian’s can from 3pm enjoy their justly acclaimed cocktails. Two floors encompass both a high volume bar and the 10 tabled “Room” upstairs where attendees can receive personalized drinks. There’s a lab too for innovation.
Kyritsis is a refreshing antidote to the methodical seriousness of other bartenders, something that even stretches to the process of naming his bar. “One of the reasons we named the bar The Clumsies is that I have always had a touch of clumsiness. I drop things sometimes,” he laughs. “Clumsies means something more comfortable for our guests. It makes you feel more comfortable again. Nobody likes perfect people.” He’s both precise enough to be a World Class finalist, but clumsy enough to call his bar The Clumsies. I conclude Vasilis has the best of both worlds.
Moving past mojitos and margaritas
He brings up the Greek bar scene. The news coming from Greece has not been positive in recent years – we avoid the serious nitty-gritty of EU politics – but somewhat surprisingly, there’s a bar boom underway in the country. “Once Greece didn’t have any cocktail culture – it was just mojitos, daiquiris, and frozen margaritas,” he says. “Oh and caiprinhas.” Now it’s all change, particularly in the capital.
Bars in Athens he’s a particular fan of include his old stomping ground The Gin Joint, Baba Au Rhum, 42 Bar, and A for Athens, which he acclaims for its views. Further afield, he notes the bars La Doze and Vogatsikou 9 in Thessaloniki, as well as the bar scenes in the small city of Lamia and the island of Mykonos, where “many talented bartenders are creating interesting things”. Why does he think the city is experiencing such a wave, in times of financial strife? “It’s simple. We love to go out,” he declares. “Maybe we don’t go for five drinks per night as before but definitely still for one or two.”
What Greek spirits and ingredients does he use in his cocktails? He notes Mastiha, a spirit used in his Traditional Twist World Class drink in 2011, Metaxa, a type of brandy, and Greek wines. He also applauds the fresh ingredients his homeland is blessed with. “Greece really is a fertile land. You can find the best quality tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, almost everything,” he says. There’s one of Greece’s endless islands that particularly grabs him. “Crete, for their terroir, their vegetables, and their spirits, is undeniably the best part of Greece,” he exults.
The world around Vasilis
Kyritsis casts his net wide for inspiration, something that often includes jumping on a jet plane, whether it’s for guest shifts – of which he does many – or for personal trips. “Bartending is an artistic job, you need different inspirations from what’s around you, whether it’s the architecture, the culture, the restaurants, the drinks”, he explains. “I’ve travelled a lot in recent years and it’s helped a lot.” He notes New York and Tokyo as two of his favourite non-European cities for roving barflies. In Europe he plumps for the continent’s three major capitals – he’s impressed by Paris’ rapidly growing bar scene, as well as the scenes in Berlin and London.
His open-minded outlook spreads to his role models, something you see replicated in the multifunctional makeup and vibe of The Clumsies. Not just inspired by bar industry figures, he reels off a list of idols. First, there’s Alber Elbaz, a Moroccan-Isreali fashion designer. Superstar chef Ferran Adrià too. He then concludes. “And in the bar, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Tony Conigliaro. Not just for their drinks, but for the way in which they see and react to things.”
The importance of mood
“It depends on my mood,” he replies, when asked for his favourite tipples. “If I am in a hot place and its summer, a good Gin and Tonic. In a bar with jazz music, a Manhattan or a Negroni.” He doesn’t have a favourite spirit, but admits, like so many others in recent years, over the last couple of years he’s “grown closer” to gin.
He uses Brazilian Jujitsu to help him focus in the bar, although I shy away from the question of whether his increased focus renders Clumsies a falsehood. What are his aims for the future? “Umm, opening new bars with new concepts,” he says. He keeps thinking. “Travelling too.” And one more? “Oh, and sharing the Clumsie culture worldwide!” The gag will never end – so let’s thank the heavens he’s one of the world’s top bartenders too…
Bildquelle: Photo via Tom McGeehan