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It is not unusual to spot him in an airport lounge holding one of his favorite accessories: a leather doctor’s bag. He lives between Rome, London and some of the most interesting bar counters around the world. Who else but Leonardo Leuci, also known as “the globetrotting bartender”, highly reputed worldwide and founder of the Jerry Thomas in Rome, the first Speakeasy opened in Italy and ranked as one of the top 100 World’s Best Bars.
Leuci himself will be guiding us through the little big world of high-profile mixology and venues that plunge you into an authentic parallel world, in which the atmospheric experience goes hand in hand with a unique offering of cocktails: in other words, Speakeasies.
What’s happening today in the ambit of mixology?
It is no easy matter to speak of global trends. In Europe, London still shows us the way in terms of mixology. It is the most dynamic city with medium-high standards. There is a lot of experimentation and the use of techniques which, until just a few years ago, belonged exclusively to the world of haute cuisine. Generally speaking, after a Baroque period characterized by eccentric and excessive presentations, we are now back to brass tacks: fewer frills and decorations and more minimalist presentations. On the contrary, recipes are based on complex techniques. A complexity which is not visibly apparent but perceptible on the palate.
If London is the hub of mixology, is the rest of the world following suit?
In the US, they are proceeding in the direction of extreme simplification; the keyword is substance, together with the personalization of great classics. The “touch of Italy” is enjoying a moment of glory: vermouth, Amaro, and bitters. The United States are a vast nation and so there is no shortage of innovation spikes, which reflect the work of great starred chefs. Asia is experiencing a golden age. Famous barmen have relocated from the European capitals to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Macao, and even to Australia, taking inspiration and a dynamic approach to an expanding market. There have been some high-profile openings: overseas branches of London or New York venues. The top brands have grasped this opportunity and are investing in these markets. We can expect a boom, let’s hope it leads to the generation of a well-defined style.
Let’s talk about Speakeasies: which characteristics typify this kind of bar or venue?
They used to be illegal venues in the US where people used to go, not to drink cocktails, but just a few liquors that were either imported or produced illicitly: Moonshine, distilled spirits, some rums imported from Cuba or Jamaica and a bit of whiskey, mainly Irish. You needed a secret password to enter. Today’s Speakeasies set out to recreate the atmosphere characterizing those of the ’20s and ’30s, even though they bear a scarce resemblance to the original ones. The atmosphere need not necessarily be vintage, in my opinion. A modern-day Speakeasy has to be a Hidden Bar, therefore not visible from outside and devoid of street windows or signs. Once the customer crosses the threshold, he should be plunged into an imaginary world and be presented with theatrical experience, midway between pretense and reality. Everything has to be in keeping with the theme, from the music to the garments worn by the staff.
Does this kind of bar have a future?
I believe that the Speakeasy trend is on its way out. The ones which have successfully consolidated their market presence are destined to become classics. I would rather invite people to explore new trends from the Tiki to theme bars, which are encountering great success, such as Rum Bars, Whisky bars and so on. The up and coming keyword is "quality”, which is more important than the actual location. More and more importance will be attached to what a drink expresses rather than the actual drinking context. I also see a great return of Hotel Bars, which are becoming more and more accessible and open to customers who are not hotel guests.
And who is Leonardo Leuci?
Someone who started to work as a barista at the age of 16 to pay for his first holiday alone and a Vespa. For about two years, I did nothing but wash stacks of glasses and prepare shaken coffees. With the money I earned at the bar, I departed for Cuba and was fascinated by it. The contact with a tropical environment was of fundamental significance to me. For the first time, I realized the importance of drinks and the almost psychological role of the bartender. It was in Cuba that I started to become keen on mixology. While I attended university, I continued to work as a bartender in Rome. And to travel. I would spend 4/5 months in some of the most beautiful locations in Europe: Greece, Turkey, Spain, and France. For years I commuted between Europe and America. For a while, I ended up in a small Caribbean Island known as Providenciales, part of the Turks and Caicos islands, working as the bar manager of a Luxury Resort. I am a professional sommelier and a member of the AIS, Associazione Italian Sommelier.
When were the Jerry Thomas and the Vermouth del Professore first launched?
The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy in Rome first opened in April 2010 and after just two years it was listed as one of the 25 Best Bars at the Cocktail &Spirits in Paris. I am flanked by my friends Roberto Artusio, Antonio Parlapiano and Alessandro Procoli. In 2012, my partners and I launched the all-craft production of the Vermouth del Professore, the quintessential traditional Italian product, now distributed in 22 countries.
What are your future plans?
To consolidate these results. The Jerry Thomas enthusiastically continues an experience lasting almost ten years, thanks to the arrival of new team members from important venues in London and Italy. Our training school is an international benchmark with students from all over Europe and global partnerships, with a particular focus on the concept of applying innovation to traditional mixology.
Can you tell us what your own favourite cocktail is?
Without a doubt, Daiquiri.
Here are the five Speakeasies around the world you can’t miss, according to Leonardo Leuci.
"In my opinion, this one is a must, a venue that catapults you out of the London chaos; the musical events are of the highest level and the drinks are always a discovery. More than any other bar, this one has artfully combined the aspect of a hidden bar inspired by prohibition with high profile vintage jazz references and great research into mixology innovation. This is probably the venue which has had the most influence on global trends in the last 10 years".
129 City Rd, London EC1V 1JB
Backdoor 43, Milan
"One of my favorite bars worldwide. The idea of having a bar to myself is fantastic. I choose the company, I arrive at the venue and I have a great barman to myself in a beautiful and intimate atmosphere where I can even choose the music I want to listen to. Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most incredible secret bars in the world, as well as being the smallest craft cocktail bar on the planet. This is a revolutionary idea, with no more than 4 seats inside and a little window through which you can ask for taking away drinks, without ever seeing the barman’s face. Brilliant".
Ripa di Porta Ticinese 43, Milan
Operation Dagger, Singapore
"A fantastic workshop of innovation and experimentation. I find the contrast between inside and outside so beautiful. This is the place where I have tasted some of the most interesting drinks in the last 10 years. To find it in Singapore, you have to look for the entrance without the aid of any signs or other indication. You will find an anonymous-looking door with some words written in chalk that look like children’s scribbles. But when you go down into the basement, you will be stunned by the fantastic minimalist interior".
NO. 7 Ann Siang Hill #B1-01, Singapore
"A far cry from the typical Speakeasy inspired by 20’s-style interiors, this is a modern club of exceptional state-of-the-art design. My favourite bar when in Berlin: a few frills and good drinks. It is located behind an anonymous metal door under the Friedrichstrasse station bridge, concealed in the railway subway. Glass walls and 3D art installations, gourmet cuisine, live jazz music, and excellent drinks".
Schiffbauerdamm 11, Berlin-Mitte
Maria Sabina, Rome
"This is a place with a soul that emulates no other. I like the artistic side emerging from the installations and artworks by groups of independent Mexican artists and, above all, the mixology which explores unusual ingredients. Hidden away under the stairs of a Mexican restaurant, the bar offers more than 600 types of Agave spirits, a modernist style of mixology with unusual ingredients inspired by the story of the Curandera Mazateca who lends her name to the venue. A psychedelic secret bar".
El Bar Social – Maria Sabina c/o La Punta Expendio de Agave
via di Santa Cecilia 8, Rome