Alex Kratena: “I tried my first beer in Croatia …”
A humble bartender on top of the world bar industry.
We talked with Alex Kratena in Berlin and were delighted by his modesty and spontaneity. Take a look at what he told us.
Simon Difford (www.diffordsguide.com) once wrote that Alex Kratena is without doubt one of the central figures of the bar industry of this century. His opinion is shared by many fellow bartenders and numerous culinary critics.
In a previous article, we wrote about the peek of his career so far: the Artesian Bar at the Langham Hotel in London.
Alex Kratena was born in 1981 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. From the age of 18, and with a diploma from the Catering secondary school, he headed “over the pond”. He left for the USA with the plan to find work there without too much preparation and thinking.
He spent the first year in New York working on all sorts of things, washing windows, delivering pizza and newspapers. He found his first real job after working as an assistant waiter for 13 months in the Cinema Cafe. There, he fell in love with the bar and finished a course thanks to which he got promoted to bartender in the same bar. After a few hotel bars in New York, destiny lead him to Tokyo where he lived for six years.
After serving a simple Margarita in an artificial human skull, giving her a little smoke with a few drops of Mezcal, he received a great response from the guests and therefore began to play with senses and flavors. He started to work more and more with “rare and inaccessible” drinks, produced liqueurs, bitters, experimented with herbs, smoke, used port and sherry, raicille, mastic, plum brandy (yes, you read that well: The Czechs have a long tradition and are among the largest producers of plum brandy in the world), wine and beer, although these drinks were almost inconceivable for mixing. His creations were inspired by the classics and served in unusual containers and rare glasses, and from that moment they started to look like some surreal fairy tale drinks. All the cocktails had their own story and unique way of serving. Anything but boring!
This unique approach brought him an unusually quick publicity and new guests and of course, a stellar rise to fame. Since 2009, the waiting time for a drink in the Artesian is around 15 minutes even during work days but the guests don’t complain because they are already enchanted at the entrance by the atmosphere of the impressive bar which is shaped by unusual flavors, smoke and odors served by this master. His conceptual style has been repeatedly proclaimed as revolutionary. That is why Alex quickly became an inspiration and role model for many barmen around the world. He joined Simone Caporale that same year and the two complemented each other so well that, as he himself admits, all his work gained a higher sense. Everything else is, you guessed it already, history.
In 2012 he was named as best bartender in the world (International Bartender of the Year). That same year, the Artesian gainde the award for “Best Hotel Bar” and “Best cocktail menu”, and a year later, received the award for “Bar Person of the Year”.
We had the chance to talk to Alex in Berlin and were thrilled by his modesty and spontaneity. When he heard that we came from Croatia, he was delighted and told us immediately that he traveled very often to the Makarska Riviera with his parents when he was a kid, just like many of his compatriots.
Alex, what is a good bar according to your taste?
I think everyone can learn good service, anyone can make a good drink following the instructions, but in the end, the only thing that counts are the feelings of the person that payed the service. Guests come back to a good bar and this is the main criterion. So, in short, there is no good bar without a good bartender.
Tell us, what’s your favorite bar?
Uh, there are many! I constantly go out and visit new bars. It’s always a problem when I get asked this question because I have a list of 10 bars (laughs). I like the Nomad in New York, the Operation Dagger in Singapooreu, the Peg & Patriot and Dandelyan in London, The Aviary in Chicago.
Do you have a favorite bar in the Czech Republic?
I like many bars there as well (laughs). Hemingway and Black Angels Bar in Prague.
What is your favorite drink?
It always depends on my mood, but my problem is I like everything and am constantly looking for new tastes, trying out something new all the time so you will rarely see me with the same drink.
If you insist, I will say that Negroni and beer will never disappoint me.
Can you tell us the recipe of your latest cocktail?
Yes, one of the drinks that I serve here is a mix of London dry gin, white Vermouth, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto liqueur, Lilly Pilly and lemon juice.
Can you tell us what Lilly Pilly is?
It is an aromatic plant with a beautiful flower and taste. I think it comes from Australia.
Is there a modern trend that you do not like, with which you disagree?
We are witnesses of the transition, all seems well, unlike 10 years ago. I think we’re really in a golden age, cocktails have never been more popular, people have never been better informed and we can only expand our horizons while painstakingly work hard and continue this trend. I’m not a good forecaster and do not know what’s next, but I know that I was laughed at when I made an olive and fennel liquor a few years ago, and today it has become normal and it is excellent.
Is there a book that every bartender should read?
Yes, all of my bartenders and students have to read the book “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer.
Simone told us that you went to Croatia?
Yes, as a child I used to come to the Makarska Riviera three or four times a year and I have great memories from back then. I remember that I tested my first beer in Croatia when I was eleven years old (laughs). It was Ožujsko (laughs).
Do you have any advice for young Croatian bartenders?
Be patient and learn. Things will not happen overnight.
Alex, thank you for the interview!
Thank you! It was a pleasure to meet you.
We interviewed Alex, just like Simone, on the BCB fair in Berlin, and if you have not yet read our impressions, take a look at the article Bar Convent Berlin 2016 – We were in Berlin!
Lovro Vukadin (www.jiggerandco.nl) and Zoran Lukic