What'll It Be, Mr. Hemingway?
Wine Enthusiast sits down with the dapper 80-year-old Arrigo Cipriani, one of the most well-known barmen on the planet.
Wine Enthusiast: Paint us a picture of what Harry’s was like in the 1950s?
Arrigo Cipriani: There was an explosion of joy in the years right after the war that hit everyone. We would sell a box or more of caviar a day. I met all the writers who became regulars at the bar, Truman Capote, Hemingway, the authors of the American Beat Generation, like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac.
WE: Did they all have a favorite drink?
AC: The Bellini was born in 1948, but these guys drank stronger stuff. Hemingway had his very own martini. He called it the Montgomery because it has the same ratio with which that English general fought his enemies: one soldier against 15 enemies.
WE: What makes the Cipriani Martini unique?
AC: We’ve always used 10 parts gin and one part vermouth. It's the driest drink in the world. The vermouth washes away the juniper taste of the gin. I’m rather strict about drinks because I think there are only a few good barmen left. Today, most barmen play with drinks a bit like celebrity chefs play with food.
WE: What do you think about today’s mixology and celebrity chef culture?
AC: It’s not culture. A chef who cooks because he wants to be famous doesn’t cook to do things the right way. It’s bourgeois who want to show off in front of other bourgeois. If you want to be bourgeois there has to be a king. No one is king.
WE: What makes a good barman?
AC: Being a barman is not only about making drinks. I see people mixing rum with gin with whiskey, which is complete nonsense. There are 10 drinks, at most. The barman only needs to know how to make these well. Perhaps it is because I’m old, but I’ve always felt this way.
Everything has become robotic since financial companies started controlling hotel interests. The barman should know the culture of his or her country and should understand what the client wants, for example: if he or she wants to chat.
WE: Should there be a specific bar aesthetic?
AC: No, the bar must be comfortable. That’s it. Everything should be simple, but simplicity is a very complex thing. Excess is an imposition on the client. Interior design is one of those impositions. The client wants to feel free. The height of the bar must be just right, the footrest in the right place and the chairs of the right height. Don’t put mirrors behind the bar because people don’t like to look at themselves while they are drinking.