Interview with Mia Johansson, Bar Swift

Mia Johansson, photo © Addie Chinn
Mia Johansson grew up in the north of Sweden, and having spent the last couple of years working at a number of acclaimed bars in cities like London and New York, she's now about to open the highly anticipated Bar Swift (LAB R.I.P.) together with husband Bobby Hiddleston (Dead Rabbit, Callooh Callay) and the husband/wife team behind London favourites Nightjar and Oriole. Mia is the perfect host, serving great, balanced drinks with a friendly smile and a positive attitude - so I can't wait to visit their new bar!

What made you pursue a career in hospitality and how did you get your first job?

I accidentally fell into the trade like so many before me and it fitted like a hand in a glove. I had my first working experience at a beautiful decadent café at the age of 15 and after that I started a part time job in another cafe at the age of 16. My first full time job in hospitality was in Oslo when I worked at Al Dente, a family run, high volume Italian eatery and my boss Jakob Thier is a real life hero in the hospitality trade. He taught me how you should treat staff and guests.

Where are you originally from, where have you worked prior to Swift and which place/places has/have been most important regarding your knowledge and skills? 

I am born and raised in the northern parts if Sweden in a stunning city called Umeå. Umeå is the student capital of the north so you always had the lastest of trends at your feet. As I said regarding Jakob, he was the first person I met that impressed me so much by having worked in the trade all his life, plus the quality of life that he lived, that plus all the amazing stories. That is when I first thought that maybe this is a career for me.

I started finding myself at another Italian restaurant, in Stockholm this time, called Grappa. That is when service and pressure stepped up. But I would say it wasn't until I moved to London at got my job for Mark Hix and Nick Strangeway at Mark's Bar at Hix that I would truly fall in love with the heart of the industry. 2010 was a incredible year to work in London and in the heart of Soho nontheless. You had Dick Bradsell across the street at the Pink Chihuahua, LAB was packed full of bartenders, Savoy had reopened, Henry Besant was the don of tequila and I was smack bang in the middle of it, shitting myself by learning from Nick and all his protégées.

But I really cut my teeth at Milk and Honey, I got the job there when the bar was as busy as it has ever been and my first introduction was sitting in on a Rushmore test and a training by Dave Broom, they had set the bar high. I went home, had a massive cry and started to google books. I was never going to let myself get that stumped again, and since I love challenges Milk and Honey was the ideal bar for me. Everyday was super high performance and we got random tests thrown at us mid service. Crazy, I know, but that is Bobby in a nutshell. We still challenge each other at home, it is sad I know, but we love sitting and researching facts. I owe the world to Milk and Honey, which is why we believe in amazing base training, why learn black magic when you can't even make me 5 consistent Margaritas.

Mia at Dead Rabbit, photo ©
After that we moved to NYC in the end of 2012 and I learned how to build a new bar set up and create a concept from scratch which was very exciting. It might not have been the craziest of jobs but Lafayette taught me so much, how to adapt, learn quickly, lead and develop. I was 24-25 in the states which is very young, but I think that was good because it made me a bit more ballsy, what I did then I would never have the guts to do now.

How did you end up opening Swift?

Swift came at the most unexpected time, me and Bobby (plus our previous business partner Durham Atkinson) had just lost another site and me and Bobby were just 2 months away from our wedding when we had a meeting with Edmund and Rosie of Nightjar and Oriole,  they had bought the site and wanted to partner up with us. Good things do happen when you least expect them, and we couldn't be more thrilled.

Can you describe the cocktail concept at Swift and the story behind it?

The concept is mine and Bobby's, we have always focused on a quick and no fuss bar but with making sure to keep all the quality and originality. Our aim is to offer great in house training again and really let the staff shine. Upstairs will be a high volume standing bar with a nudge towards aperitifs and martinis and a smaller in house list, this is where if you only have 30 min you don't have to go to the pub down the road, you can still have a great drink and time to drink it. It is also perfect for the Friday night out with all your mates and nobody made a reservation anywhere. Downstairs is our gem, this is reservations and seated in very sexy, art deco meets Mad Med scenery. We have a 20 house made cocktail list here to sing along to the 200 whiskies we will have on offer.

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

My favourite drink to make must be whatever my guest is passionate about, it is so rewarding to see the appreciation when they see that you are giving their drink a lot of attention. I also like to make stirred cocktails that are topped with some bubbles, there is just something about the cleanliness and elegance. What do I not like to make, hm.. I have a hard time making some drinks that are taken straight out of an old book, often I would have to adjust with another spirit because the ingredients don't exist any longer and there is often some tweaking in balance that need to happen. But if the guest asks for according to original spec that would probably hurt my inside OCD monster.

How would you describe the perfect customer? 

Well the difference between a customer and guest is the attention we give them, it is all down to us. A perfect guest is a happy guest, but it is our job to make it so.

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

Well we have all gotten the 'Mojito no mint and served up please', -'Certainly, a Daiquiri then.' -'No I said Mojito.' Those or the ones that say that they are allergic to all sugars, they are always a bit amusing.

What do you like most about your job?

My favourite part has always been the family feeling, but the one you create between yourself and your regulars, between the team but also in the whole trade, there is such a lovely acceptance across the globe. I don't know any other trade where people hand out help so much, especially when people are new in town.

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

My hugs! Oh, bartending? Well I am great at balancing when coming up with new specs, I count the sugar content in my head which is pretty cool I think.

How do you spend your spare time?

Spare time? Since I spend all of my time with Bobby, it has always been hard to separate work and private life. But we like walks, watching documentaries and going out for meals at places we have never been before.

What do you drink when off duty?

Red wine and whisky/ey.

What do you have in your private liquor cabinet?

A lot of collectibles which I am not allowed to touch, even if we have two bottles of it. Besides that, always a bottle of Beefeater (like my mum) couple of whiskies, some port and a couple of nice reds.

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

The world of cocktails have seen a lot of fun and fancy stuff in the last few years, and we have seen some stuff that we thought never would fit in a cocktail. But I am hoping that the focus will return on great base training again and making of new classics become popular again.

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

I have lots of friends behind bars so besides them I have to mention Doug Quinn at Hudson Malone in New York. He shakes everybody's hand when you walk in and if you have been there before, even if it was a few years ago, guaranteed he will remember you and your drink. And when his shift is over he greets everybody at the bar individually before leaving, it is the friendliest of watering holes.

In your opinion, how do bars in Sweden compare internationally, for instance to New York and London?

Sweden is so trendy! The culture is so much younger than NY and London so it must be great fun working there now because all guests must be so keen to try all the new things. Cocktail culture is NY and London has been established for years so here it is all about being ahead of trends but to stand the test of time as well, here everybody has seen it all before so it is difficult to stand out.

What do you think about the global cocktail community, traveling and exchanging ideas and experiences?

As I said before, what a beautiful community we live in. We are so blessed to do this for a living and it is a true luxury that the brands have helped open up the borders across the world, but it is important we do not take this for granted.

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

Seasons and cooking inspire me but mostly colours, I work in colours. The ingredients have to match on a colour swatch otherwise I can never like the drink. It make no sense but it works great for me.

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

Oh, there are a few on our new menu which I absolutely love! But I also have a few that I keep in my pocket if I ever need a trick up my sleeve. I have included my current favourite which is the Julep Américain.

Rye whiskey,
Homemade coconut falernum,
Creme de cacao blanc,
Fresh mint,
Lemon peel,
Absinthe.

Delicate shake and strain over cracked ice, garnish with mint and nutmeg.

Julep Américain, photo © Addie Chinn

Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

Hopefully with a great bar concept running fluently, a great team representing and hopefully another bar or two in the family.

Would you like to share one of your own recipes?

A cracking drink is the Fourth Gentleman:
50 ml Chivas Regal 12 year
25 ml Umeshu
10 ml Creme de poire

Stir, strain over big cube of ice and garnish with a lemon twist.

Fourth Gentleman, photo © Addie Chinn

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