European Masters of Bartending: Thanos Prunarus
The self-confessed “romantic amateur” Thanos Prunarus is the man behind the much lauded Baba Au Rhum in Athens. MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin finds out more about a man whose repertoire now includes a trade show, a glossy magazine and a surprising foray into prog-rock.
Thanos Prunarus tells me he considers himself a “romantic amateur”. When he was a student in Crete, he used to deliberately fail an exam on bartending – just so he could enjoy all the free drinks again next semester. “Once they [the teachers] realized what we were doing, they put the class on at 8am,” he laughs. “Only then did we pass the exams.”
A few years later, opening his first bar in Heraklion, Crete’s ancient capital, Thanos Prunarus had the age-old problem of friends popping by and expecting to drink on the house. Six months later they were closed.
The current iteration of Thanos Prunarus takes the drinks industry much more seriously. In addition to running Baba au Rhum, a bar in Athens that has won a clutch of international accolades since opening in 2009, he has hosted the inaugural Athens Rum Festival, became a judge in the brand new jury panel of the MIXOLOGY BAR AWARDS’ European Edition, and also launched his very own Fine Magazine. He’s everywhere. All can easily be defined as romantic pursuits – but hardly amateur.
Thanos Prunarus: The prog-rock days
Back in those heady student days, Prunarus was studying tourist management – something he calls “the heavy industry of Greece. There aren’t that many things you can earn a lot of money from in Greece, but the tourism industry is definitely one of them,” he laughs.
Concurrently, he was in a band named Sound Devise. A band of the prog-rock ilk – ’94 hit Manifesto was their biggest hit – this passion for music would follow him throughout the entire decade (later on he also became part of a band called Area). Post-studies, stints in Santorini running a guesthouse and London – working for none other than London celebrity chef Mark Hix – followed. He worked in many bars too. Why did he like bartending? Thanos Prunarus reels off the reasons. “I’m a bar person, I love to visit bars. I’m good at hospitality and love to serve customers in a proper way. And when I started working professionally in bars, I always stayed in the same bar for many years,” he smiles.
A global bar
After first working at Athens’ Guru Bar – an Italian restaurant-cum-bar – for 4 years, he opened up Baba Au Rhum in 2009, for which the concept and interior design were entirely designed by himself. “Back in 2009 there weren’t many bars around the world that served cocktails from the 19th century – the daisies, the juleps and so on – so we decided to make a bar serving classic cocktails,” he says. As you would guess from the name, it’s also a rum bar. He loves rum and its diversity. Starting with 60-70 labels of rum, which is already large in itself!, now Baba stocks more than 300 sorts of rum, stretching across the entire globe.
A wave of bars focusing on using only local and national spirits have swept the continent – see Le Syndicat and La Commune in Paris and Oliver Ebert’s daring, and now sadly shut, Lost in Grub Street in Berlin. Should visitors expect something similar at Baba Au Rhum? The national Greek spirit of Mastika – originating from the island of Chios – is sometimes used, but don’t call it a “Greek bar”. “Of course we use local fruits and local spices, but we don’t use something just because it’s Greek.” he says. “We don’t want to be in peoples conscience because we are a Greek bar – we want to be a global bar.”
Against the grain
It was a big success from Day One, something that might strike some as surprising given the Greek financial crisis. What was the crucial factor in this? “I’m not sure how it happened, I just know the result,” he says. But how do you think Athens has become a bar destination of late, with bars such as Baba and The Clumsies? “You could say that. I don’t know how.”
So Athens – out of nowhere – became a bar destination? He retreats. “Well, Athens always had a vivid nightlife, maybe because of the weather, with late night cafes and a good bar scene,” he says. “Greeks are strange people. They can do something very good or very bad. The bar industry did it well.” He continues by explaining that tourists now decide to stay in Athens longer, rather than just visiting the iconic Parthenon and hightailing off to the islands. He also notes the Athenian customer – particularly with regards to his bar – have been very open-minded.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a tough ride: “As a bar owner it hurts me that I serve a Zacapa cocktail for just ten euros,” he says. “To keep a bar of the quality of Baba au Rhum, the costs are very high with VAT of 24% and extra taxes of 30%. But we decided it’s important to keep Baba au Rhum in Athens, so we can’t sell drinks at a high price, we keep them relatively low so our guests can drink them.”
If you’re in the Greek capital, he recommends The Gin Joint and Bar 9. He visits bars with great music and loves a last-call bar. Seven Jokers, reportedly the bar all Athenian bartenders go to after work, is another favorite of his, for its late-night, freewheeling, 100% rock n’ roll vibe.
Trade shows, trade mags
Despite the day-to-day of Baba, Prunarus has been introducing new projects into his horizons – particularly in the last year with the launch of the Athens Rum Festival and Fine Magazine.
The 2016 Rum Festival – which he calls a “pilot” – had around 1.500 visitors in two days. It marked a big change for him. “It was something very strange for me, being now on the other side. As a bar, you talk with a company and the companies want to sell to you but now I’m the one doing the selling,” he says. “The relations have changed.” Given his good relations he’d fostered with the industry in the preceding years, the switcheroo was a successful one. He was also delighted to see people taking notes, enjoying the festival in an academic context.
What about the magazine? “Fine Magazine is about bar culture, cocktail culture, spirit culture, about people, and travelling. For us, it’s the privilege of being offline and taking something beautiful in our hands,” he says. He feels that the younger generations don’t read so much – something Fine aims to change. That’s not it either. You can also look forward to to what I cheekily name Baba by the Sea, as Prunarus is all set to open an open-air bar on the Athenian coast sometime this summer.
I take a look at the magazine. The current issue delicately approaches the topic of genever and I find a product both playful and sophisticated. Romantic? Yes. Amateur? Still not convinced.