Finnish by origin yet international to the bone, former head bartender of Dick’s Bar at London’s Atlantic, winner of countless awards and now a trainer and judge on the global cocktail circuit, TIMO SIITONEN chats with The Cultured Traveller about his roots, career and what sets apart his much-celebrated Helsinki bar from the capital’s others.
How does being born and raised in Finland influence your work behind the bar?My Finnish heritage is core to my respect of the pure and unique flavours our natural surroundings have to offer, and how to incorporate inimitable Nordic ingredients in my cocktail creations. Some of my favourite Nordic ingredients are lingonberries, wild blueberries, arctic bramble, cloudberries and sea buckthorn. These all have very particular taste and aroma characteristics and require special attention, for example, lingonberries work beautifully with vanilla, whilst sea buckthorn pairs well with cinnamon.
What was your first-ever bartending gig?A shift in 1999 at legendary members’ bar, Mondo, deep in the basement of Greek Street in the heart of London’s Soho. The atmosphere was warm and exclusive without being bling-bling, and customers ranged from trendy young professionals and fashionistas to celebrities and other famous faces. Cocktails were not actually a big thing back then, but we did serve a lot of Woo Woos, Zombies and Sea Breezes.
What’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?A bartender looks after the bar, treats guests professionally and hosts guests personally by making their visit memorable in every conceivable way, whilst all the while serving well-balanced cocktails according to customers’ needs. A mixologist spends less time attending to customers’ needs, excels at creating interesting cocktails and has a commanding knowledge of spirits and flavour pairings.
Did you have some sort of formal training, or had you just been a bartender for a while?After high school, I moved from Helsinki to London to study dance theatre. While studying, I ended up working in some of central London’s West End bars, and became fascinated with the growing cocktail scene and social culture around it. I happened to be working in the middle of it all when the modern cocktail scene boomed, and managed to land the head bartender role at Dick’s Bar at Atlantic Bar & Grill, which was possibly one of the most legendary and influential London cocktail bars of the time.
You really made a name for yourself as Head Bartender of Dick’s Bar at the famous Atlantic Bar & Grill in London. What’s the most important thing you learned while working there?I am very honoured to be part of the Atlantic’s Dick’s Bar heritage and to have been able to extend my craft from my predecessors. We were extremely strict with customer service standards, the uncompromising quality of cocktails and paying attention to the smallest details. Probably the most important thing I learned while working at the Atlantic, was how to utilise a variety of fresh ingredients to create modern cocktails.
You’ve worked all over the world. Is there any country that left a lasting impression and still influences your style behind the bar?Without doubt the U.K. has contributed most to the experience I call upon and skills I practice today.
What spirit or wine, in your opinion, is the most versatile?Most definitely gin, because it works with pretty much anything you throw at it. Its botanicals enhance both fruity, berry and spicy flavours in a drink, and it can be used in classic style martinis, long refreshing citrusy and herbal cocktails and even in exotic concoctions. The extensive gin selection available today allows me to choose a specific brand depending on the need to suit the desired taste profile.
Who or what inspires you to create a new cocktail?Stories, scenes, pictures, and, last but by no means least, accessibility to fresh and unique ingredients which I can incorporate in a cocktail.
You opened multi award-winning A21 Cocktail Lounge in Helsinki in 2007. Tell us about the concept and why the venue has been so successful.A21 is designed to act as a stylish extension to one’s living room, where customers can enjoy the very best cocktails in a warm yet design-led environment. I think our slogan ‘Sip With Style’ sums-up A21 pretty well! The venue’s success is due to a number of factors: The personal and warm service style; a modern approach to flavours; the design of the interior; the music and atmosphere; carefully chosen staff, and a blind faith in modern cocktail culture.
What’s the standout feature that makes A21 different from the rest?A21’s obvious love for Nordic ingredients and flavours, and the manner in which we honour and use them in cocktails to create unforgettable taste experiences. Some of A21’s cocktails are akin to taking your taste-buds on a delectable journey.
How would you describe the cocktail menu at A21?A21’s menu is a visually stimulating experience with seven clearly defined sections, including ‘Decades’ that showcases the past six decades through one classic cocktail from each; ‘Nordic Flavours’ which features iconic A21 cocktails inspired by Finnish nature, and ‘Gin & Tonic Lab’ which plays with the search for the perfect G&T.
What are your top tips for a home bartender?Learn how to execute basic cocktail making methods well and don’t over-complicate things. Keep it simple – because simple can be beautiful!
What part do quality mixers play in cocktails of today?Mixers play a very important role in cocktails, since they give us possibilities to create longer drinks while adding an extra dimension to the mix. High quality mixers are made by using natural ingredients so they can be used as extra flavour bringers in craft cocktails. Fresh ingredients are the way to go in high-quality cocktails, and so the mixers used should echo the same premium standard.
What’s your favourite or go-to cocktail right now?Personally, I like simple yet complex flavours when it comes to cocktails. One of my all-time favourites is a classic dry Martini, made with Beefeater gin, stirred to perfection and garnished with lemon peel. This cocktail is timeless and suits every occasion. Another of my favourites is Tommy’s Margarita – a tastier version of a classic Margarita made with 100% blue agave tequila, fresh lime and agave nectar served on the rocks and finished with a salt rim.
If you could order just one drink, at one bar anywhere in the world, what would it be and why?This is a tricky question since I travel quite a bit and have drunk in many awesome bars around the world. But if I have to pick just one, it would be Bar Hemingway at The Ritz Paris and I would order a Gin Martini. When I first visited this bar many years ago it felt like traveling back in time to the late 1900s, and the surroundings are perfect to sip on a Gin Martini without having to rush.
What would you say is the spirit of the moment?I would say two: gin and distilled agave-based spirits. I like my gin to be strong and acidic with a touch of earthiness. My favourite brand at the moment is Helsinki Dry Gin. This gin uses one of my favourite berries as one of its distinctive botanicals, lingonberry. There are so many different great agave spirits around at the moment, but my favourites are tequilas from the Los Altos region. Tapatio by Destileria la Alteña. Tapatio is still produced using authentic methods, and has a wonderful flavour of the agave plant.
What current cocktail trend would you like to see disappear?I think that overly bitter drinks have had their time i.e. the excessive use of bitters in cocktails for the sake of it. Nobody really wants to drink an overly bitter cocktail! Fresh ingredients and flavours are the future.
When you’re travelling what do you have to drink onboard a plane?My go to drink on a plane is definitely gin and tonic. It is a refreshing cooler and every flight generally has the necessary ingredients on board!
What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to alcoholic beverages?!I am a little stingy when it comes to spending money on rare spirits, but I do have a weak spot for aged rum!
What’s next for Timo Siitonen?To work even more closely with Nordic ingredients, raise awareness of Nordic flavours in the liquid culinary scene on a global scale, and promote the modern, flavour driven cocktail culture.