Interview with Emil Åreng - Rex Bar & Grill

Most of the time when you talk about cocktails in Sweden, it's focused on Stockholm - and occasionally even Göteborg or Malmö. Therefore, it's kind of refreshing that this talented bartender, Emil Åreng, is based at Rex Bar & Grill in Umeå, in the northern parts of Sweden. He was one of the finalists in the 2012 Swedish qualifying round of Diageo Reserve World Class competition, and just recently he crushed the competition at the Chartreuse Cocktail Challenge here in Stockholm. As if that wasn't enough, he has also managed to qualify himself for both Bacardi Legacy 2013 and Diageo Reserve World Class 2013. It probably won't be long until he's recognized as one of the best bartenders in Sweden, and here's your chance to learn a little more about him - enjoy!

Photo © Thommy Gyllenbielke
What made you pursue a career in bartending and how and when did you get your first bartender job?

I come from a hotel/restaurant family so it has always been my dream to work in this business. Two weeks after I graduated from high school I moved up in the country to start working for my brother at the infamous Hotell Lappland. I learned the hard way and started as a cleaner, then worked myself up in the hotel ladder. After making my first Gin & Tonic with no ice I was hooked (people in Lapland back then didn't like ice). One year later I went to London to some semi-good bartender school, my life was turned upside down and after my first visit at the American Bar, Savoy Hotel I knew that the things I'd done the last year wasn't right, in any way.

Where are you originally from, and how did you end up in Umeå and at Rex Bar & Grill?

I'm born and raised in Bräcke (kinda in between Sundsvall and Åre), moved up to Lycksele, then my brother bought a hotel/nightclub in Umeå and after working myself around trying to find my place I ended up at Rex.

Where have you worked prior to Rex Bar & Grill, and which place has been most important regarding your knowledge and skills?

A lot of different places, I've learned a lot from bar managers and other great colleagues along the way, but Rex has been the most important, that's the first place where I could experiment how much I wanted and everyone around me supports me in different ways.

Which is your favourite and least favourite drink to make and why?

Even if you do a Gin & Tonic NO ICE or a smoked Pisco Sour you need to do it with a smile, you are not just selling something, you are sharing an experience, in some way and extent.

How would you describe the perfect customer?

Every customer is important in some way, but I like customers who want a vodka/soda but end up taking a classic cocktail instead. People need to the get out of their comfort zone and be a bit more curious, and it's our job to help them. Other guests who are very fun to meet are the guys and girls who don't work in the business but have a huge interest in food and drinks, just great!

What's the weirdest drink order you've gotten?

Drunk guest: I would like a White Russian, no ice, no alcohol.
Me: You would like a glass of milk?
Drunk guest: Yes!
Me: You only have to say milk.
Drunk guest: I forgot the name of it.

What do you like most about your job?

I love talking to people, there is nothing that makes me equally satisfied, but it's so much more in this industry that makes me happy, bartending is what you live for, it's not just a job, it's a lifestyle that I will take with me to the grave!

Do you have any special bartending skills you're extra proud of?

I'm creative and always try to find new flavours and different presentations, but in the end, you need to be a great host and I think that is my number one skill.

How do you spend your spare time?

I think everybody in the business agree that you always think of work in some way, but when I get home I try to switch off and spend time with my family. Besides from that I watch a lot of hockey (NHL, when they play... Gary Bettman is a douche!) and like every normal human being I like to hang out with friends and have a good time.

What do you drink when off duty?

It all depends on mood and what kind of venue I'm in.

What do you have in your private liquor cabinet?

I buy the things I like and try to mix up with some rare things.

What upcoming cocktail trends do you think we can expect in the near future?

There are so many different trends coming from all over the world, but I think all good bar managers in Sweden need to look at the trends and try to make their own thing, not just look at other bars!

Which are your favourite bars and bartenders around the world and why?

There are so many bars in the world that are outstanding, but I will highlight the guys in Sweden who are outstanding. To visit Sweden's best bartender, no question about it, visit Björn Kjellberg at Little Quarter! To get the best service, food and exceptional cocktails you need to go to Ramundberget and visit Hampus Thunholm. I always try to visit Grill (Mackan & Jacke), because they always deliver great cocktails and service! Bartenders who stand out in Sweden and you need to pay a visit: Rikard Enell (Le Rouge, Stockholm), Sebastian Ulonska (Båten, Umeå) and Magnus Widmark (Puta Madre, Göteborg). Then you have so many great bartenders in especially London and New York.

In your opinon, how do bars in Umeå compare to Stockholm, the rest of Sweden and internationally?

You have three bars in Umeå (Rex, Viktoria and Båten) that stands out and can give the bars in Stockholm and Gothenburg a fight for the money, but it's so different up here so it's hard to compare.
But Swedish bars against the rest of the world? I think we are doing just great, the top 3 bars in Sweden is probably top 100 in the world, it's just that the guys doing the top 100 lists haven't seen it all yet.

How do you come up with new cocktail recipes and what inspires you?

For new recipes I get inspiration from bartenders around the world, nature, chefs, photos, people in my surrounding. You need to open your eyes, because you can use everything you see to find inspiration, and I mean everything.

You recently won the Chartreuse Cocktail Challenge finals here in Stockholm, what can you say about that experience and cocktail competitions in general?

For me it's a great way to meet other bartenders and network. You see a lot of great bartenders working with the brands now to develop and evolve the competitions, and it's just getting better and better! I love competing and it was a huge honor to win Chartreuse Cocktail Challenge!

Which of your signature drinks, if any, and what else in your career are you most proud of so far?

When I sat down this autumn to make the new cocktail menu for Rex I wanted one cocktail to stand out a bit, the Bismarck Cocktail has been a great success and it's really a great signature cocktail, not just for Rex, it really shows the great flavours of Västerbotten.

Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

Hard to tell, maybe I'm still in the northern parts of Sweden or somewhere else, the only thing I know is that I'll still be making cocktails!

Would you like to share one of your own recipes?

Of course!

Bismarck Cocktail
50 ml Buffalo Trace Bourbon
40 ml Brännland Iscider
15 ml Angelica Syrup from Kvannegården
3 dashes Bob's Abbots Bitters

Stir everything and double strain into chilled cocktail glass.

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