Celebrity bartender Nico De Soto talks about how travel inspires him to create avant-garde cocktails
The globetrotting bartender was recently in Bengaluru for an engaging beverage showcase at a city bar
When we met celebrity bartender Nico De Soto on a weekday afternoon, he was busy blending fruits and spices, purchased from Russel Market, to make a drink that would capture the beauty of Bengaluru. The Parisian, who has made a lasting impression on the cocktail community globally, is particularly known for making experimental cocktails inspired by his extensive travels around the world. He owns two bars, Danico in Paris and Mace in New York. Mace was recently in the news for winning the trophy for the inaugural Siete Misterios Best Cocktail Menu as part of North America’s 50 Best Bars. Last week, Nico was in the city for a beverage showcase at the Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru’s award-winning bar Copitas, where he created cocktails out of locally-sourced ingredients, as part of his ongoing Asia tour called ‘Market to Glass’. We caught up with Nico to talk about his journey so far, the wackiest cocktail he has whipped on this trip, and more.
You started your bartending journey on a backpacking trip in Australia. Now, you are one of the most influential people in the industry. Tell us about your journey.
I started bartending in 2006. I was in Australia, I needed a job, and I thought bartending was cool, because you can work anywhere. Gradually, I could see it was very interesting. So, I just started reading books and working in better and better bars. I started working for the Experimental Cocktail Club in Paris. They were the first ones to really bring cocktails into focus in Paris. After that, I worked as a bar manager for a few years in London and New York, which made me arrive, a little bit, on the front page. Then, I started opening my own bars. I opened Mace in 2015 and Danico in 2016. I even opened a bar in Miami that shut down because of the pandemic. I also have a consulting company in Dubai and am doing consulting jobs around the world and pop-ups like this one.
You have one bar each in NYC and Paris – cities that are starkly different from each other. How different are the menus in each of these bars?
Actually, the menus are very similar. The only difference with Mace is that it’s a spice-driven
bar. Even the name of the drinks come from the name of the spice. The design is very straightforward. I think it is a bit more novice than Danico. But at the end of the day, when I make a drink I really like at Mace, I’m gonna put it on Danico's menu as well. The menus have milk punches, clarifications, carbonations, etc. We do a lot of experimental drinks.
When you make a drink, does the spice come to you first or do you think of the concept first?
It’s the concept. I try to eat and drink as much as possible when I travel. If I see something on the menu that is weird then I’ll take it just to taste it. That gives me a lot of ideas. I have a file where I put a lot of ideas, like flavour combinations of weird ingredients to use. When I create a menu, I open that file. From that, I will start building a drink. But if it needs to be a drink for Mace and needs a spice, I will incorporate it at some point. But I’m not gonna start a drink thinking, “Okay, today I’m gonna make a cinnamon.” No, it’s the other way around.
When you decided to launch your own alcohol brand, why did you choose a sotol?
The alcohol brand is a joke! (Breaks into a laugh) My business partner — in New York — owns the biggest mezcal collection. He is always travelling to Mexico and he knows a lot about sotol. I like sotol too. So, one day I joked that we should launch a brand named ‘Nico De Sotol’ and he said, “You know what? We can do it because I know this guy who makes good juice and we can buy a few litres from him.” We just made a label, and we do it as a joke. So, we have around 75 bottles but it’s not commercialised. I really do not want to get into the business of selling spirits because then you go around the world just trying to sell your bottle. I really don’t want to do that. I’m really happy with what I’m doing right now. But the sotol is good; I gave some bottles to friends. If you come to Mace, you can ask the bartender to give you a few shots! It’s more for fun.
Tell us about the ‘Market to Glass’ series. What inspired you to start this tour?
The last few years, I’ve been able to travel everywhere. However, for two years, I haven’t been in Asia. I’ve missed it a lot. So, when countries in Asia reopened for travel, I said to Julie (his girlfriend) ‘let’s go to different cities. We’ll contact hotels and do shifts, we’ll do one masterclass and then go to markets to try ingredients. We’ll go to farms and design the meal from there. And we’ll not only tour but also teach some people because the process is really interesting.’ Then , I contacted Philip Bischoff from Four Seasons and proposed the idea. They agreed and said a good venue for that is Copitas in Bengaluru. That’s how we did it! So, I’m very happy because it’s really working well.
What has been your favourite creation on this tour so far and why?
I don’t have a favourite because they are all very unique. We really worked hard on all of them. But the most unusual one was probably a cocktail we made in Kuala Lumpur. We distilled durian! It was a non-alcoholic drink that we named Dare Or Not. It had pandan water, a very specific (type of) ginger, very sour honey that we bought from a local farm, and calamansi juice. It was a long drink and we added some durian distillate to it. It was really crazy!
What are the ingredients you have sourced from the markets of Bengaluru and what drink did you make with it?
For Bengaluru, we did a clarified milk punch with a lot of spice that we bought in the markets. I used some mango juice, rose milk (we boiled the milk with some rose petals to give it a nice flavour), basil seeds, and bhut jolokia chillies, which is the spiciest chilli on earth.
We also have one non-alcoholic drink: it has coconut water, jasmine syrup, and gooseberry juice for acidity. And then we made one called Honk Honk Honk inspired by all the honking
we heard at the market. It was noisy but it’s also part of the beauty of the market. It has ghee-washed Plantation dark rum, Coorg coffee-infused Campari, and champa (gold magnolia)-infused sweet vermouth, and chironji bitters.
We also had some problems because we wanted some jasmine and marigold flowers. But everywhere we went, they said there’s pesticide in them. So, sadly, we could not use it for infusion. But later we found ice apples! So we added ice apples to some drinks.
What kind of food do you think would pair well with these drinks?
I’m not a big fan of cocktails and food pairing. I’m French – with food, we drink wine. Cocktails are sweet. When I eat something, I don’t want to have something sweet to drink. I’ve been to some cocktail pairing restaurants, and I was not a big fan of the drinks.
The only way to do it is you could do some style of tomato. But I don’t want sweets when I am eating, unless it’s dessert.
As a globetrotting bartender, how do you think the pandemic has impacted the bar scene across the world? Has it created any new trend?
Since the pandemic, it’s very hard to find staff. A lot of people just move from big cities and start doing something else. They realise they don’t need to work for 20 hours a day in a restaurant. The trend I see is when you open the bars, the bar is full but you do not have enough staff. Many bars in London used to be open seven days a week. And now some are closed on Sunday, Monday, and even Tuesdays because they do not have enough staff ! That’s a huge international problem for sure.
In terms of development, the ready-to-drink cocktails really took off because it was the only thing people could drink during the pandemic. From there, it became a market. There’s also a trend of using local ingredients because people started using the things they have around them during the pandemic.