FOOD & DRINK: OUT WITH THE VLADS
In a spirit of gratitude, a successful Glaswegian vodka-importer decided to take the decadent art of cocktail-making. out to Warsaw. Richard Ehrlich went along for the ride
Sunday 27 September 1998
The speaker is Dick Bradsell, of London's funky Achy Ramp (the restaurant formally known as Pharmacy), declaiming from the bar of Tam Tam in central Warsaw. He and his fellow cocktail-meister Ben Pundole, of the Met Bar, are there to serve vodka to the Poles. Vodka to Warsaw? Coals to Newcastle? What's going on?
What's going on is a scheme dubbed "Trading Places", organised by Marblehead, the Glasgow company that imports Wyborowa vodka. Given that Wyborowa is the bartender's natural choice in all discerning bars, Marblehead sells 15,000 or so cases a year. Having gained so much from Poland, they thought they would give something back.
So off went Dick, Ben, and a backup crew. Dick and Ben were to mix drinks and train young Polish bartenders in the decadent Western art of cocktail- making. That, at any rate, was the theory.
To understand what vodka means to Poland, you have to know that the country has 1,000 different brands of the stuff (of which Wyborowa is the best- seller). Annual consumption in a country of just under 39 million people is around 9.1 million cases. When people are planning a wedding party, they reckon on one bottle per guest. Traditionally it is drunk neat, freezer- cold, in tiny glasses. Nowadays, younger Poles are more likely to order it with mixers in a growing number of new, hip bars.
With all that vodka, and all those groovy bars springing up all over the place, the Trading Places wheeze seemed guaranteed an easy passage from drawing board to bar-stool. Ha! To start with, it ran into three iceberg-sized problems. One: Warsaw is, in bar culture as in other areas, a bit behind the Western times. Two: the host-bars had not been given enough time to prepare for this international onslaught. Three: perhaps understandably, the bars didn't much want to suspend normal operations so that we could give away free drinks.
In fact, the whole project might have foundered without the help of a friend called Richard Winkler. Richard grew up in Oxford, but his parents are Polish. After several years in the restaurant biz in Britain and the US, he moved to Warsaw to open his own bar. And his presence saved our bacon.
We arrived on a Wednesday, with events scheduled for Thursday and Saturday. At Tam Tam, the first venue, Dick and Ben decided to focus their efforts on fruit Martinis: lots of mashed fresh fruit, which is then shaken with vodka, sugar syrup and ice, and strained into Martini glasses.
Great plan - all except for the fact that the bar at Tam Tam was entirely lacking in fruit, ice and Martini glasses. Whoops! Shopping time. Fruit came from one of the outdoor markets with which capitalist Warsaw is well supplied: pineapples, strawberries, raspberries, melons. The glasses took several trawls through several department stores before Richard finally tracked some down. For ice, we raided the machines in our American-owned hotel and hauled them away in bin bags.
This breezy summary disguises a frenzy of irritations. At times during the trolley run, Dick and Ben were more than ready to go home. If you want to see true frustration, watch two bartenders who are expected to make drinks without ice.
But by 6pm, with supplies in place, Dick could make his proclamation about the stress-free zone. They chopped fruit, peeled labels off glasses, and, between 7 and 9pm, turned a case of Wyborowa into drinks for Tam Tam's affable clientele. Age range: 18 to 68. Dress: leather jackets, suits, smart designeroid ensembles. Personnel: couples, solitary men, groups of young women out for a good time in the nicest possible way. They seemed wary and quizzical as they were handed their drinks. Then they sipped. Then they smiled.
"Excellent" was a frequent remark. "I like the strawberry best." "No, pineapple." "Incredible!" "Fantastic!" No one had seen anything like it before, and all said they'd like to drink it again. For which they may have to wait a while: Dick and Ben had just 30 minutes to train a single bartender.
We had a day off before the next event, which gave us an opportunity to continue our sociological investigation of Warsaw's night life. Details are unnecessary. I will simply report that some Poles believe you do not get a hangover if you drink only vodka, and that I proved them wrong.
We certainly needed a rest before hitting Planeta, our second venue. This American-owned club lies outside the city centre in a warehouse where 1,000 young Warsowians go to dance. Techno music pumps from speakers everywhere, even under the floor. Your sternum throbs in time. The walls vibrate. The only lighting is the strobes and lasers.
Dick and Ben had decided to feed shooters to the Planetarians: vodka, juices and liqueurs, shaken and strained into shot glasses. So we went shopping again, first of all to the Warsaw branch of IKEA. What did they make of these Anglophones who wanted 228 shot glasses, six cocktail shakers, and a lemon squeezer?
Ice would not be a problem - they use loads at Planeta - but we did need liqueurs, which are hard to come by in Warsaw. We found them at a "speciality liquor store" with rows of bottles behind glass partitions. Dick and Ben made a shopping list of 19 bottles which cost pounds 300 (more than the monthly pay of many Poles).
At 9pm on the big night, Dick and Ben loaded glasses, bottles and paraphernalia onto a hotel luggage trolley and left for Planeta (cue weird looks from the other guests). The rest of us went along at 10.30 for the 11 o'clock kick-off.
Arriving at Planeta is like going through airport security, only scarier. The muscle-bound doormen, carved from granite and trained never to smile, frisked jacket-wearing customers for guns. Just as well I'd remembered to leave my Uzi at the hotel. I wasn't so lucky with my trainers, which led to a polite request that I refrain from wearing "sports shoes" on my next visit.
When we finally got in, the boys were set. Gleaming shot glasses stood on the bar in triangular formations, racked like billiard balls. A promised announcement of free drinks failed to materialise, so Dick and Ben decided to attract dancers with a round of Screaming Blue Fucks. The triangle of glasses is filled with the Polish "Spiritus", 96 per cent alcohol, and more spirit is poured onto the surrounding bar-top. Glasses and bar are set alight. When the flames have died down a little, grab a straw, suck up the burning drink, and kiss your superego goodbye.
The Planetarians loved it. Their average age was around 20, and the clothes on those lean torsos would not have looked out of place in a comparable club in London or Leeds. These people were attractive, energetic and eager.
And thirsty! Once they'd started coming up for Screaming Blue Fucks, they didn't stop. Dick and Ben made Head Shots, Bubble Gums, and an assortment of other deadly diminutives. The customers had never seen anything like this - one stared at a bottle of Angostura as if it had fallen from outer space. But they sure knew what to do with the drinks.
Our guys also got into the swing of things. There is a universal language of drink; its vocabulary is the smile, the toast, the laugh. Dick and Ben are fluent masters of this language. What's more, they are born showmen. They boogied; Dick carried trays of drinks round the dance floor; he took his jacket off and his shirt-tails left the safety of his trousers; he stood on his head.
If you think that sounds rowdy, you should have heard the planning sessions with Planeta manager Suzan Tonuzi. Suzan, a pistol-smart American, wanted to serve shots from the navels of naked women lying on the bar. That idea was shelved, even though it wouldn't have been discordant with the Planeta spirit. They recently had a Moroccan porn star performing, to "loosen up" the repressed Warsowian youth.
By the end of the evening, the bleak moods of earlier days had given way to elation and pride. Against all the odds, Dick and Ben had served a thousand drinks with grace and consummate professionalism. Poland had been given a world-class introduction to the drinking habits they are hoping to acquire. Trading Places had succeeded.
And who knows, maybe the exercise will work reciprocally in due course, with the new elite of Warsaw bartenders coming over here to show how well they can mix smart drinks. I hope so. But I hope they don't have to raid the hotel for ice. !
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