Interview with Mikael and Andreas Nilsson, Strøm Bar

As I've mentioned several times before, there are lots of Swedish bartenders working around the world. Many of them can be found in Copenhagen, and that's also the case with these two gentlemen - brothers Mikael and Andreas Nilsson - who definitely have made their mark on the international scene at places like Milk & Honey in London. Since just a few weeks, they can both be found at the hyped art deco-inspired Strøm Bar, which they have opened together with Simon Haugaard Pedersen (Zefside). I haven't been there yet, but it's on top of my list when I visit Copenhagen next time - can't wait!

What made you pursue a career in bartending and how and when did you get your first bartender job?
Andreas Nilsson, photo ©
Andreas Nilsson: As a tourist in London. I was 18yrs old and as a young foreigner it is fairly easy to get a job within the service industry in U.K. I started off by working in a traditional english pub called The Fire Station in Waterloo. The Fire Station had 18 beers on draught and payed 35 kr per hour. It was rough labor job i tell you. You have to start at the very basics i guess.

Mikael Nilsson: I was 20 and decided to move to London to study art. Upon my arrival I needed a job so I quickly handed out 50+ CVs to various record shops and restaurants. The next day I had a trial shift at a seafood restaurant in Notting Hill. I instantly fell in love with feeling of being a part of the party and celebration. Shortly after I started working in a bar in central London together with Carl (Barking Dog). The year after I got hired as a bartender at Match Bar and from then on I knew that I always wanted to work with bars and restaurants.

What do you say to people who ask when you're going to get a 'real' job?

AN: There is no way to be short with these people, you just need to remain calm, and ignore. Most people go to bars the sip on a beverage they cannot get elsewhere or at home, but also to escape from office work, perhaps their life, a gateway to be social or to try finding a partner. These opportunities are right in front of me, every single day..

MN: I ask them when they are gonna stop being pussies and get a job they actually enjoy.

Where are you originally from, and how did you end up in Copenhagen and at Strøm?

AN: I am from a small town in Sweden called Landskrona. Copenhagen has naturally been my capital city when growing up, due to its short distance. Copenhagen has always been a haven for me, when coming to its food and wine. Everything has been available her since as far i can remember, and its only been a stone throw away. It carries great reputation abroad when its comes to their restaurants and food trends, and these last 10 years the cocktail scene has finally boomed and been recognized, something that was inevitable. A perfect place to set a base up, after living in London. And the people are so relaxed here, much less stuck-up than elsewhere.

Mikael Nilsson, photo © Strøm Bar
MN: I'm from Skåne (south of Sweden). When I moved back from London after five years I had a hard time adjusting. It was a lot easier to get a decent job in Copenhagen than Malmö so I handed some CVs out and got a job at Bar Rouge Skt Petri. Going on our fifth year in Copenhagen me and my brother felt that the time was right to follow our dream and open up our own venue. A year past before we found the right location and here we are today.

Where have you worked prior to Strøm, and which place has been most important regarding your knowledge and skills?

AN: I have worked with several mentors back in London, and been lucky to participate as a young pupil, observing these bartenders, that today are recalled upon as gods. I do not think there is any place that has made me who I am, any more than the other. You just have to know from start how far you would like to take your career, and then find the people who can help you reach your goal. By treating everyone in my surrounding with utmost respect, I have been given the chance of picking vital information from each individual i found superior. I therefor say that i work, move and act in a way that people have shaped me.

MN: Working at Milk & Honey London as a senior bartender, being in charge of the members room, laid the foundation for my skills and balance. My knowledge comes from 4 years with the Match Group London where we hade "Spirits School" once a month. In later years I developed my creativity and my skills as a manager at Salon 39, which was by far the best job I've had. It helped me pursuit the style of creative bartending I love.

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

AN: My favorite drink to make is a Old Fashioned, only because it takes time and allows me to make SEVERAL other drinks in the meantime. Least favorite is probably one of the old classics that people find interesting to drink even though they massively lack balance or a valid flavor profile.

MN: Least favourite is always what's selling the most on the menu. I just get bored making it over and over. My favourite is Gin & Tonic and Old Fashioned! Why? Everyone's drinking them at the moment. Since they are such simple drinks and there's not much margins for flair it's a real challenge making them great without having them turned into another popular drink made half-assed on routine!

How would you describe the perfect customer?

AN: A perfect customer is someone who is not afraid of interacting with people in their surrounding, someone who willingly participate in creating a good atmosphere. And someone who stays just as they are even after several drinks, someone who follows our house rule - "Treat your fellow lady & gentleman with love and respect and he or she shall grant you the same courtesy".

MN: Someone that acts accordantly to provide in a positive way to the atmosphere.

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

AN: A glass of water, no ice, but could you please make it look like a cocktail.

MN: Once in London a Smirnoff rep got furious at me and yelled- "How can you call yourself a cocktail bar when you don't stock Smirnoff, I mean how can you make a Mojito without it!?"

What do you like most about your job?

AN: It prevents me from being shy. It also educates me, in a vary of fields.

MN: To be a part of and providing to an ever going party!

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

AN: I have an extreme patience with people, and I let no-one affect me negative.

MN: Balance & creativity. I love creating a cocktail, naming it and then doing the graphic in the shape of a menu.

How do you spend your spare time?

AN: On my houseboat with my four year old son Elliot, mainly cooking or building lego. We often go out eating cake and coffee, and impress the hell out of single women. Otherwise I struggle to try catching up with mates I have not seen in a while.

MN: With my wife and son or cooking with friends.

What do you drink when off duty?

AN: Home-made lemonade at home. Gin & tonic or beers in bars. Trader Vic's Mai Tais at cocktail bars.

MN: Beer, wine & straight spirits

What do you have in your private liquor cabinet?

AN: Old vintage rum, only. I do not drink a home, only on special occasions.

MN: Crown Jewel, Van Winkle 13y Rye & Pappy van Winkle 15y, Rittenhouse Bonded Rye, Purity Vodka, Millers Gin, Del Maguey Mezcal San Rio, 7 Leguas Blanco Tequila, Barbancourt 15y Rhum and a lot of other good stuff.

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

AN: Cocktails from draught. We have noticed a boom in interest ourselves since we started. I don't think the industry needs anything else right now, more than improving and let time perfect. We often rush too much.

MN: Simplicity! I see the return of the Rusty Nail, Highballs, Boilermaker etc. A lot of homemade stuff but less molecular. I think we will see more bartenders involved in the process of making spirits, bitters, syrups, tonic etc.

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

AN: Favourite bars; Callooh Callay, Trailer Happiness London and Soda Bar in Lyon. Because they are run by great managers, these are up-tempo bars serving great drinks. There are many bartenders out there, but one guy that I respect for not putting his guard down and slacking off is Richard Hunt, who is now back at Trailer Happiness to get it back on its feet.

MN: I haven't had the chance to travel much lately but Carlos at L'Hotel Paris, Joerg at Le Lion Hamburg & Terkel at Salon 39. One of the nicest bar nights I had was at Quo Vadis when they opened up the members bar in London a few years ago. Their attention to detail was impeccable. Getting served by Salvatore at 50 St James was an experience as well. However, I feel that some of the bars that has gathered international attention tends to be quite unstable when it comes to service. One visit can be great while another terrible. This has a lot to do with pressure from guests and disloyalty from staff who is just there to absorb knowledge before they move on to the next bar. One bar that has maintained a consistent service and manage to keep the staff is Ruby in Copenhagen.

Mikael and Andreas Nilsson, photo © Strøm Bar

In your opinon, how do bars in Copenhagen compare to Sweden and internationally?

AN: I think that Sweden has always been around 4-5 years behind, upon recently. In Sweden it is harder to get a alcohol license, and it most often requires a higher budget. Since you need to serve warm food in order to receive a license, the development has moved in a slower phase. Today, things have clearly changed and that certain restriction has become your advantage. The concepts that Stockholm are spitting out, are very interesting, and especially the fact of combining restaurants and high-end cocktail bar - that is something we see rarely in Copenhagen, sadly.

MN: The Copenhagen scene is very unique. The alcohol policy is liberal and it's easy to do fun things like making and selling your own butters or pre-mixed bottled Manhattans. I would say that the quality and balance of our drinks are some of the best in the world but what generally lacks here is attention to interior and details. Other good cocktail bars in Stockholm, NYC, London & Tokyo spend a lot of time and money on interior, here we have a lot to learn. I would rank Copenhagen among the top three cocktail cities in the world. Reason be the density of good cocktail bars in the city, the high quality on the drinks and the broad selection of products available.

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

AN: Only my team inspire me to create something new, its all about pressuring each other, and motivate one and other. Otherwise cooking food and making desserts, I often research what flavors works well together with help from cook books.

MN: Food inspires me a lot. Clean simple flavour combinations and cooking methods. I like my creations to have strong names with a story that can be tied to the drink or some of its ingredients. I normally make new cocktails with a menu in mind. For instance I was lacking a fresh gin cocktail served straight up. So I came up with the "Tesla". A drink named after the Serbian/American invented who played an important role during the first half of the 20th century. See how it's made below

What’s your opinion on cocktail competitions, and do you have any experience of your own you'd like to share?

AN: I honestly only like a few competitions. I think a lot of them today are corrupt or to angled in only using certain brands in certain ways. Bartenders should set the rules and the brands should trust them in using their products. Period.

MN: My first competition, 8 years ago, was a Grand Marnier comp and my judges and hosts were Peter Dorelli & Salvatore Calabrese. I was nervous as hell but it when well considering. I like competitions but I don't think they are a good way to judge the skills of bartenders. They are a good tool to improve your "speaker skills". With that I mean that it's one thing talking to your guests at the bar and it's another talking and performing to a large crowed that's analysing your every word. I do workshops and lectures abroad from time to time and competitions had definitely helped me with my nerves before going up there to talk to an audience.

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

AN: I am proud of my reputation for being level-headed and humble, something that seems to be hard to keep in our industry.

MN: Although I've had many drinks on international menus and magazines I feel more proud of my creative skills that surrounds the bar and its drinks. Me and my brother build Strøm from scratch, choosing everything from wallpaper and lamps to doing the logos and artwork. I feel proud of that!

© Strøm Bar

Where do you see yourself in five years from now? 

AN: Celebrating STRØMs fifth birthday and hopefully opened or started renovation a second venue.

MN: By then I hope Strøm is still booming and that we might have another bar as well. Who knows, times are hard!

Would you like to share one of your own recipes?

AN: In that case I'd like to share a drink I recently made for Diplomatico and their upcoming cocktail book/portfolio.

The Clipper
50 ml Diplomatico Res Exclusiva
15 ml Home-made grapefruit cordial
0,75 ml Cocchi Americano
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Drop of fresh lime juice

Stirred and served up with grapefruit zest.

MN: Got praised by Simon in his Diffords Guide 2010

The Bird is the Word
30 ml Grappa di Barolo
15 ml Green Chartreuse
15 ml Maraschino Luxardo
15 ml Lime Juice
Dash Xcolate Mole Bitters

Tesla
50 ml Olive Oil fat washed Gin
15 ml Manzanilla Sherry
10 ml Agave Syrup
15 ml Lime Juice
Served with black olives

Which question would you ask yourself, and what would you answer?

AN: If you could choose, what brand would you pick to represent as World Brand Ambassador?

Coco Lopez. Think about it..

MN: What's the worst kind of bartender out there?

The star-tenders who forget that bartending is a service for the purpose of pleasing you guests and making money. Your not a missionary working for the lord so stop stuffing pretentious bull shit down your guests throats. Give them an awesome Mojito or Cosmo if that's what they want and stop making them feel like an idiot for ordering it!

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