European Masters of Bartending: Ago Perrone
Agostino Perrone helped reinvent the hotel bar experience at London’s Connaught Bar. MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin met with him to find out what made the man from Lake Como come to London as a photographer and establish himself as the famed ‘Martini Magician’.
Hotel bars once had a stuffy reputation as corporate boltholes, the sort of place where the drinks menu lacked any sense of innovation, excitement or soul. All money, no fun. In London, a city many consider the world capital of mixology, bars such as the Artesian, Dandelyan (from the esteemed Mr Lyan no less), and the Connaught Bar have helped to send this reputation to the scrapheap. The latter has been led by Italian bartender Agostino Perrone since 2008 and was arguably the pioneer for this reinvention.
Turns out he wasn’t quite the hotel bar type initially either. “I had a beard and a piercing in my ear. A completely different style,” he laughs. “They wanted me to create a hotel bar with the class, the style and the luxury environment but with the creativity of a street bar.” The bet paid off – for both him and the bar. As the reputation of the Connaught Bar has skyrocketed, so has his too.
Ago – that’s what everyone knows him as – was always creative. After nixing his initial studies in accountancy, Ago, a native of Italy’s Lake Como, was keen on becoming a photographer. “During my time as teenager, I had a strong passion for photography, particularly travel photography. The feeling of adventure and recording those moments. The colours, shapes, differences. Everything,” he lightly reminisces.
In order to raise some funds for photography school, he worked in a bar. He describes it with typical gusto. “It was a classic Italian bar with breakfast, an aperitif before lunch, then aperitif in evening, then ciao ciao, everybody home,” he grins. Lo and behold, bartending slowly took over. Bunking classes to bartend became a common occurrence.
Then, in 2003, after a few summers spent in Sardinia, Ago moved to the Big Smoke with his first ever head bartender Simone Maci, who worked with him at Monza – the famed Italian Formula 1 course. “He left after two weeks. I said to myself – I’ll give this a go,” he remembers. Maci may have left but is still his biggest inspiration. “He was a mind opener who taught me the ethics of bartending and how to have passion for research and precision,” he exults.
After his departure, he begun working in Salvador & Amanda, a Spanish restaurant and bar in Covent Garden, with a team including Stefano Francavilla, who now works for Fortaleza tequila. The next years saw Ago hop, skip and bartend across the capital, from working at Dusk in Battersea – “the coolest bar in South London at the time,” claims Ago – to opening Notting Hill’s Montgomery Place, a bar squarely focused on reinventing classic drinks. Through his work at Montgomery, Ago’s star was firmly on the rise.
A Mayfair smash
“And in 2008 I received a phone call from a hotel…” In 2008, Ago went to London’s gilded Mayfair district to work as the Head Mixologist at the David Collins’ designed Connaught Bar. It was a success straight from the starting gun. “The reaction from Mayfair was great,” he says. He exults on the bars’ USP. “It’s a good blend of luxury, great music, decor and fantastic cocktails,” he says.
Since those heady days of initial acclaim, his role has changed. He doesn’t bartend anymore and is Director of Mixology at both the Connaught Bar and its sister the Coburg – the more traditional of the two. This comes down to a back injury he sustained a few years ago. But what exactly constitutes a ‘Director of Mixology’, if it doesn’t include bartending?
“Everything creative,” he begins. He manages and mentors the team at both the Connaught and the Coburg. He designs the menu. He reels off more examples of his directorship. “I propose cocktail menus for bespoke events, such as London Fashion Week or the Chelsea also Flower Show. The aim is to enhance the beverage experience and spread it to a wider clientele,” he says. “In general, the main aim is to understand your customers, make business and get them to come back.”
Does he miss being behind the bar? “Yes, I do, but I really can’t do it for too long, I really feel it in my back” he says, a hint of nostalgia showing in his voice. “But I’m developing new skills now and that’s also great.” If you’re in London – and serendipity is on your side – chance a visit. He pops behind the bar to help out from time to time, but only for a couple of hours.
Shaken, not stirred
Ago has a surprising tip for all fledging bartenders. Just like many other bartenders – David Wiedemann of Berlin’s Reingold for instance – Ago trained as a flair bartender. Notwithstanding the disdain many hold for the practice, all the bells and whistles of flair came in handy. “It really was vital for my growth and taught me how to be efficient behind the bar.” What else? “How to create work standards. How to tend a bar. How to be in a busy environment. Looking up. Looking a guest in the eyes. How to communicate. How to put the right things in the right place.” he says. “Oh and how to be elegant, you must be pleasant to watch,” he demurs.
All of that is especially important in a bar where the ‘crème de la crème’ are constantly popping by. Ago brings up one particular A-list regular. None other than James Bond himself loves the Connaught Bar. The Pierce Brosnan iteration to be precise. “We proposed the Connaught Martini, which he very much enjoyed,” he says. “He was such a gentleman. Lots of people don’t even pay attention to you. But he did.” It’s his favourite Bond, noting the acclaimed – and much grittier – Daniel Craig iteration isn’t quite his bag.
It makes sense that the Connaught is the haunt of the most traditional of recent Bonds. According to a number of publications, Ago is the Martini Magician. The Connaught Bar is particularly renowned for its Connaught Martini served on the famed Martini Trolley. He explains the concept. “The idea of the bar is tradition and innovation, so we wanted to have our Martini as a tailor-made experience for our guest,” he begins. “We designed a selection of 7 homemade bitters, to give an aroma aftertaste to the cocktail without changing the personality of the drink. It’s all about can we deliver our personal experience into a liquid form.”
Despite his success in London, Ago has kept his ties to his country intact – largely through his side work and projects. Ago first notes how he has worked for Galliano as a Global Brand Ambassador since 2007. Then there’s his role in charge of bartender.it, Italy’s first website for bartenders launched in 2004, who also arrange a variety of events. “We do the Agave Experience in May, Gin Day – 6000 people across two days came to that one! – the Whiskey Day in September and the Rum Day in October,” he says.
Nowadays, he’s easing down on his commitments and he now works merely as a consultant for Galliano, something that seems fitting with his general pace. He’s even looking to move somewhere quieter than his current home of Battersea, a popular place for Italians moving to the British capital.
As befits a London bartender, he’s a fan of the city’s thriving bar scene. Any favourites? He reserves some praise for the brand new Oriole Bar. I bring up a certain bugbear. Oriole Bar’s sister bar, Nightjar, is tough to get a short-term booking for – you can expect to wait around 3 months for a booking. He proclaims that whilst this wait is annoying, it’s part of the game. “Fine drinking, just like fine dining, can take time,” he says.
Ago loves classic gins, noting Tanqueray as a particular favourite brand. “Nothing with too exotic a character. I want the proper gin feeling. Juniper, citrus, energising,” he exults. “Oh, and tequila! I like Fortaleza. I like tequila when you feel it on the first sip,” he adds. I spy something perhaps aiding his tequila aficionado status. His wife Gaby, who he met at Salvador & Amanda, works as an Agave Ambassador for Specialty Brands LTD across the UK, which distributes many tequila and mezcal brands. She also used to work as a brand ambassador for Jose Cuervo tequila.
The Martini denouement
Ago bookends our chat by bringing over the Martini Trolley. I’m a traditionalist, but I accessorize my Martini with some cardamon bitters. Slightly spicy Martini in hand, there’s time for one last question. Does he regret giving up accountancy?
“Yes! I regret that,” he laughs. “Well, just a little bit. Those skills would have come in handy now.”
Foto: Photo via Ago Perrone / The Connaught