At this year’s BCB in Berlin, we had the opportunity to speak with Mario Kappes, an award-winning bartender and brand ambassador for Dalmore and Nikka whisky. For his achievements he won awards in Europe, as well as in New Orleans, so if you you want to know more about him, how he started his career or get some advice, just keep reading this interesting interview.
Mario, let’s talk a bit about your history. How did you become what you are today?
That’s a long story but to sum it up, I started working in the bar industry 23 years ago. My first job was working in a Brazilian bar as a bartender and after our bar manager got pregnant, there was an opening for her position which I then filled. It sounds really good but it was a bar run by one guy and that was me. Therefore, I didn’t have much to manage, just my dirty glassware and the bottles. I worked there for two and a half years and then some people recognized my work and liked it, so they asked me to work for them. This was all in Bremen and after a while I got involved with my now-wife for whom I really had to fight hard for, to get her. It was hard work for half a year but then she said yes.
After that, she got a job offer in Hamburg and to be honest, with me working the night shifts and weekends and her working during the day, it was not going to be possible to preserve the relationship so I decided to go to Hamburg with her. Then I worked in a couple of bars around Hamburg and the last stop was Le Lion. I was bartending there for eight and a half years so I used to work with Jörg Meyer quite a lot and quite intense. We liked each other but after eight and a half years, there was a question of what I am going to do next, and there was no chance for me to get part ownership of that bar. That is when I decided to change businesses, to work in another bar because, for me, high-end means there is nothing else coming. Therefore, I thought it was the right time to enter the industry.
And Borco, it’s a company I’ve been involved with for over ten years; and for the last eight I’ve been working for Borco on the BCB as well as on many different fairs. They came to an idea to work with me about five years ago which I had to decline because I wanted to work in the bar industry. But after receiving my awards in 2015 in Austria and Germany, I had a feeling I was finished. Since I didn’t want to open my own bar, I wondered what else I could do. It was then they asked me to be the brand ambassador for Dalmore and Nikka. Those brands I really used quite a lot even before; Dalmore is luxury while Nikka is creative and passionate.
Have you had a passion for whiskies before becoming the brand ambassador for Dalmore and Nikka?
Drinking whisky, yes (laughs)! No, honestly, as a bartender, I have to say that if you offer me a nice brand, whether it’s gin, tequila or mezcal, if it’s liquor, it doesn’t matter. If it’s good quality and has a good story to tell, I will like it. Because in my heart, I am still a bartender. So they don’t have to bring me mezcal because it’s trendy right now, because in every category I have a brand that I enjoy, support and recommend to a customer. It’s the wish of a customer that is important, my focus is not on the trends.
I was addicted to whisky, I still am, but I’m not the the typical, classic whisky nerd – I just like drinking it. Of course, I drink it neat from a tumbler, not from a nosing glass. I like to drink whisky like in the movie Kingsman. In the beginning of the movie they order Dalmore from the year 1962 because they thought: it’s cool, I like it, it’s a good spirit. And they drink it straight from a tumbler and that is the way to do it; drink the whisky, enjoy the atmosphere and don’t do it too nerdy. I quite like drunk people, if you are drunk you have more ideas, philosophy starts breathing out of you, you start talking about things you never would if you were sober, you know, this is what I like about alcohol.
What do you think defines a great bar?
For me, a great bar, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Hamburg in the Reeperbahn or at a five-star hotel, but if a bar is great, it means there’s a great host. There is a guy or a girl behind the bar who, when you open the door, opens their arms and makes you feel welcome. They don’t give me their concept. If you come in as a customer and the bartender looks at you and goes: I know what you need. Not which drink but in which mood you are in. Are you a player who jumped in the bar and wants to play James Bond for the night? Are you the angry, grumpy guy, standing with a book in his hand who just wants to read and get a drink? A good host recognizes this and what is happening, and if he gets this feeling of which mood I am in and supports me, that’s a good bar. Even if it is just a random, hidden pub, it doesn’t matter.
Nice! You travel a lot now, so what would be your favorite bars?
Honestly, it’s Le Lion because I had the chance to create a little part of it, drink – wise and hospitality – wise, so I still love this place. I think Le Lion is the only bar where I haven’t had any business issues so I just hop in there for a drink and that, to me, means it is one of the best bars, because I am able to drink there. However, there are many other bars, I had plenty of good experiences in Berlin, in a lot of bars. To pick one or two is quite difficult but I had a fantastic evening at the Limonadier bar and more than one great night at the Waldorf Astoria in the Lang Bar; Mr. Wagner is a great host. I don’t like to evaluate people, it’s hard, so let’s stick with Le Lion because I am free there, they haven’t bought anything from me, we don’t have a contract yet even though I am working on it. But there are truly many good bars.
I was with one of the bartenders behind the bar in Austria, in a hotel, and he was such a great host but the standard room there costs 4000 euros at least, so it’s a really luxury place. I got invited to stay there for two days because they were interested in Dalmore so, naturally, I agreed and it was amazing.
Are your favorite drinks the spirits of the brands you currently work for or do you have a wide variety of drinks you enjoy?
The spirits from the brands I work for I have to drink a lot and I like drinking them. In a bar, my choice is always a Greenpoint, a Manhattan variation with yellow chartreuse, Punt e Mes Vermouth and a nice, fantastic rye whisky with a dash of Angostura. It’s a great drink. Wherever I go, I like to have a Greenpoint. And privately, I love to drink good red wine from Italy and fruit brandies made by small, family owned businesses. This is what I am passionate about but these businesses don’t usually have the budget to pay for a brand ambassador so that’s why I do whisky (laughs).
You mentioned the mezcal trend that’s been catching on. Do you think that it will become the top drink for the next few years?
Yes, because people ask for trends. Many people like to be guided with trendy tastes because they don’t follow their own thinking and what they feel, that is why you can’t really find many bars that serve fruit brandies. At the moment, customers like to follow the trends. Obviously, after the tequila and bourbon trend, people still go for it but mezcal can be difficult to drink. Lucky for us, Borco has a new mezcal brand, Marca Negra and we are now working with them. Honestly, I am not a mezcal lover but I tried Marca Negra and I can drink it which makes it good. There is a market place for this and it is a trend that I don’t have to follow but with Marca Negra it works.
Is there any trend that you don’t want to follow?
I don’t want to follow the trend of superstars and heroe bartenders. It is difficult because in the industry, especially with my line of work, we need stars to utilize them as a marketing tool. But I hope that many recognize that you don’t go into this business to be world – class – superstar, to travel around the world etc. You start this business because you like hospitality. The main reason for being a bartender should be enjoying to host guests, even in your own home and then turning it into a career. If this is the reason, fair enough. If the reason is to earn a lot of money, travel the world, get girls, drive fancy cars and make drinks just for the people you like, then something went wrong. So I hope that the industry as a whole can shift the focus and concentrate on what’s really important.
Have you ever visited Croatia? We are also a whisky – loving country so you’d be more than welcome there.
No, unfortunately not. Thank you for the invitation, send me the flight details and I’m there! (laughs)
Since we are a bartending academy, do you have any advice for the young bartenders?
If you want to work as a bartender, you probably have an idea of what a bartender does and where you feel comfortable. Go to these bars, figure out what their hosting skills are and if you are comfortable with what they are doing. Ask if you can clean the glassware in the back office and start working there. Work 14 hours per night, work six days a week, work you ass off. And then see if this is something you really want to do.
Go to the academies if they are good. I used to work for an academy for two and a half years as a trainer in Germany and to be honest it is a good step for the beginning. To learn some recipes, to get an overview about the base spirits, to know what is a Manhattan, a martini but the feeling of how to be a bartender you can only get in a bar.
You have to learn the basics, get the fundamental knowledge that you have to have when you enter a bar, to understand what people are asking. And then, only practice makes perfect.
Absolutely. You can compare it to a pilot. Before you get into a real airplane, you have to pass the simulator. Quite often actually, to get really secure about what you’re doing before you get into a real airplane. So, before you can serve a real customer, you have to get skills. If you do it in an academy or in the kitchen while you’re cleaning glassware, that’s your choice.
Thank you very much for the interview.
You’re more than welcome.