As part of a digital awards ceremony on 5th November, London’s Connaught Bar was announced as No.1 in the list of The World’s 50 Best Bars 2020, sponsored by Perrier. As the news sank in, 50 Best took the first interview with Agostino Perrone, Giorgio Bargiani and Maura Milia, the trinity of Italian bartenders who have taken this hotel bar to the zenith of the cocktail world
It’s a cold morning in London and condensation has collected on The World’s 50 Best Bars trophy, which Connaught Bar’s Director of Mixology, Agostino Perrone, has refused to allow out of his sight since being presented with it some 12 hours ago.
It’s the ‘heavy piece of metal’ he has coveted since joining Connaught Bar back in 2008 and marks a milestone in the bar’s journey, but he is keen to point out that yesterday’s win does not mark its final destination. “To be named The World’s Best Bar, sponsored by Perrier, is very much the culmination of a long-held dream,” says Perrone. “It is something that I have been working towards since I arrived 12 years ago. After so many years in the top 10, I believe we deserve it. However, I really do feel that it's just the start of us entering our next chapter.”
Agostino 'Ago' Perrone with The World's Best Bar trophy
Connaught Bar has been ranked in second place on two occasions (2011 and 2019), at No.4 a further four times (2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017) and has been a regular in the top 10 in all awards since 2009. Perrone must have wondered if he was always destined to be the bridesmaid? “I know the programme and philosophy that we have in place at Connaught Bar is the right one,” he says. “This year I know we deserve it for the work we do; we always try to operate with a good attitude. We keep our chins up and smile, stick to our principles and trust in the formula we have created.”
These principles are hard-wired – and extend from Perrone throughout his dedicated team. When Connaught Bar reopened in 2008 after a £70m restoration, Perrone walked into a building site. “There was scaffolding everywhere, the bar wasn’t in place, and the only people in the bar were the artists,” he told 50 Best in 2018. These artists introduced him to what they had found: unspoiled 1816 textured walls in platinum silver leaf and a number of other characterful original features. The artistry, architecture and history set the Italian bar maestro’s creative spirit distilling.
Perrone raised the bar from the ground up. He took it upon himself to inject originality into the hotel bar experience and completely remodelled what guests would traditionally expect. Gone was the limited choice of spirit and mixer or champagne, and in came eight-hour preparation shifts to house-make syrups, bitters and tinctures that would be imbued in the drinks. He applied the creative process of a chef to bartending and is widely credited as being one of the talents who brought modern mixology to London.
“I can now confirm that the vision I had 12 years ago was the right one. We refused to be distracted by external trends and did not follow what other people were doing. I took my inspiration from the space this bar could become and the history of the hotel. Today we are proud of what we have built.”
The first victory Martini, made by all members of Connaught Bar's senior team
Making winning a habit
Fast-forward 12 years and Perrone now sits with the trophy announcing his bar as No.1 in the world on his lap. Faced with uncertainty, closures and ever-shifting regulations in the face of the global pandemic, the bar sector has had to adapt to survive. Does winning this award in 2020 feel as he thought it would?
“I would actually say that is even more meaningful, winning in a year like we have experienced,” he considers. “Because it has been so strange for our friends all over the world, it is just wonderful for us to have something to smile about. 50 Best has brought the global bar community together and reminded us that hospitality is at the core of everything that we do.”
While Perrone is the fulcrum around whom Connaught Bar’s hospitality revolves, he is backed by two of the hottest talents in the industry. Giorgio Bargiani, 31, is the bar’s Head Mixologist and Perrone’s right-hand man. Maura Milia, 28, is Deputy Bar Manager and plays the role of choreographer of the bar’s balletic service. Milia joined the Connaught seven years ago; Bargiani six. It’s one of the longest-standing teams in the bar world and this union is key to its success.
Perrone is ever-keen to thrust both of his senior team into the limelight, allowing them to express their personalities both in the drinks they design and the style of hospitality they deliver. Bargiani describes himself as the ‘joker of the group’, but when it comes to drink design and craft, his mettle is unmatched. “There is not a day that goes by where we do not have a goal,” he says. “When I first moved to London from a small city in Italy and I first opened the door to this bar on 18th September 2014, I knew it was the start of something special. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was opening the door to the world.
Giorgio Bargiani, Connaught Bar's Head Mixologist
“Everybody comes through that door, from the local gentlemen who have been drinking here for years, ladies who work in fashion, hotel guests and geeky bartenders – and we try to give them an individual experience. Whether it’s a bespoke martini we design in front of them, or a small way we can tailor their experience, we will do what we can to elevate their time with us.”
Milia is simpatico: “It’s very much the culture of the hotel,” she begins. “All three of us have different personalities, but we share the same vision when it comes to communicating with guests and the style of hospitality we want to deliver. When I joined the bar I immediately felt the energy and we’ve built this up over time.
“I know people say you shouldn’t bring your personal life to work, but for me it feels natural. It is actually one of our team’s strengths that we socialise together and know each other inside out. To have these two next to me every day is a joy. Ago is my mentor and Giorgio is like my brother; having this relationship makes this moment so special because we celebrate as a family.”
Maura Milia, Connaught Bar Deputy Bar Manager
Italians do it better?
It’s no secret that behind many of The World’s 50 Best Bars sits an Italian figurehead. For the Connaught’s green, white and red tricolore, Perrone hails from Como in the north, Bargiani heralds from historic Pisa on the west coast and Milia from Cagliari on the beautiful island of Sardinia. What is it about Italians and bartending? “Sharing emotion comes naturally to us,” says Perrone. “We are good communicators and readers of people. I think these are two of the keys when it comes to being an excellent bartender.”
“Hospitality is in our blood,” agrees Milia. “We look to establish a relationship with guests, and embrace a ‘home away from home’ spirit. Now, that’s not just for the customers. If the staff feel as though their working environment is an extension of their home, they will inevitably deliver a more relaxed style of hospitality.”
Having reached the top of the world, the team’s philosophy has proven correct, but what’s next? “We will be challenging ourselves to push harder and further,” says Perrone. “We will stay loyal to the principles we have created and this will naturally see us evolve.”
Milia takes the final word. “We will stay humble and grounded, because that is what we are about. The key to success is actually pretty simple: we keep working together and continually hone our processes to be the best we can be. When you wake up every morning with this attitude, consistency just follows.”
Winning Martinis taste sweeter...
Perrone and Bargiani nod their agreement. This team of three has a long way to travel yet.
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