Gina Baksa celebrates cocktail week with a visit to THE BAR and Galvin restaurant at The Athenaeum Hotel & Residences in London’s Mayfair
A playground for the rich and famous for more than 170 years, 116 Piccadilly is home to one of London’s most iconic hotels, The Athenaeum. An extensive refurbishment of ground floor and bar areas by Kingsley Kent Design this summer has opened up the lobby and reception, while the former Garden Room has evolved into THE BAR, a cool destination lounge bar with its own private entrance on Down Street.
I’m sitting at the bespoke black marble counter top, looking out at the Living Wall by Patrick Blanc opposite – this is a beautiful softly lit space. The sofas and chairs lend an air of relaxed sophistication and the service is immediate and friendly.
I’m here to meet the renowned Italian entrepreneur and bar consultant Giancarlo Mancino, creator of a unique range of signature cocktails. He’s bar consultant to Michelin-starred chefs The Galvin Brothers who now run the food and beverage arm of The Athenaeum. With a repertoire of original creations but also some “classics with a twist”, all 15 bespoke botanical cocktails at The BAR are served in Mancino’s own cocktail glassware – each with a wormwood engraved motif – designed specifically to enhance the outstanding flavours.
Originally from the South of Italy, Giancarlo learned the art of mixing in the States, where he studied with Master Bartender Cory Campbell (he trained Tom Cruise for his role in the movie Cocktail). Moving to London, Giancarolo won Best Bartender awards in 2000 and 2001 while working at the Lanesborough’s Library Bar. Periods in Dubai and across India expanded his cultural and mixologist horizons, before returning to London to start his own consultancy Giancarlo BAR, which has now branched out to Hong Kong. As a result, he continues to consult for some of biggest names in the hotel industry across the world.
Mancino is also known as the King of Vermouth – having created his own Mancino Vermouth range. His inspiration? “I became disappointed with commercially produced Vermouths – they were all lacking quality,” he tells me. “As a bartender, I know the importance of having a quality Vermouth for cocktails. So I decided to experiment and produce my own.”
Having tested the market on his friends and family, Giancarlo was convinced he had a winner and started production in 2011. He chose a family run mill in the Piedmont area of northern Italy where he grinds the botanicals for 30 days.
The botanicals are then steeped with sugar beet spirit and added to a Trebbiano di Romagna wine base, which is stored for six months before bottling and labelling. The product is now shipped worldwide and there are four fabulous varieties: Secco, Bianco Ambrato, Rosso Amaranto and Vecchio.
An original spin on a classic taste, the botanical flavours are distinctive. Perfect as an aperitif on their own as well as a cocktail base. I especially enjoyed it neat on ice.
“I did a lot of my own research, traveling around the world searching for the right ingredients,” says Giancarlo. “Eventually I found 40 botanicals that I use. It’s been an incredible adventure.
“I put my own money on the table at first and it was more of a hobby but then it went boom! Suddenly I had a profitable business!”
I notice the retro-looking label on the Vermouth bottles. “This is my village in southern Italy. You can see the square where I played football as a kid.” Clearly family is important to Giancarlo.
“My grandmother very much inspired me,” he reveals. “She used to serve my father a Bianco vermouth every Sunday – and my wife has been very supportive.
“She initially encouraged me to make my dream a reality, and produce my own artisanal Vermouth range.”
Every table at THE BAR has a collection of photo postcards with each of the 15 Mancino cocktails. As we are chatting, I’m enjoying a delicious Champagne Julep (Lanson Black Label Brut/goji berries liqueur/strawberries/caster sugar/fresh mint leaves) and have segued on to a wonderfully refreshing Basilico Mojito.
Giancarlo’s love of the botanicals: flowers, herbs spices and roots is legendary. Maybe he was a monk in a past life? “I love Japan so much I think I was a Samurai,” he smiles. Mancino is certainly the Samurai of Vermouth.
So what’s the essential ingredient for a good hotel bar? “Good visibility, great glassware and superb service,” he tells me. “And keeping the cocktails bespoke and craft. It’s important to keep a sense of uniqueness.”