Q&A: TONY CONIGLIARO
The man behind the innovative menu at Seymour’s Parlour at The Zetter Townhouse on wicked uncle Seymour, the importance of aesthetics, and why he rejects the term ‘molecular mixology’
Words: Ellie Costigan
Images: Benny Robinson, Andreas von Einsiedel, Addie Chinn
You’ve been on board as drinks consultant for The Zetter Townhouse since its inception in Clerkenwell. How did your involvement come about?
Mark and Michael [Sainsbury and Benyan, respectively—co-founders of The Zetter Group] used to drink in 69 Colebrook Row, my first cocktail bar in Islington—that’s how I met them. At first, they were looking at opening a restaurant, but they realised they couldn’t have another restaurant opposite Bistrot Bruno [Bruno Loubet’s eponymous restaurant, which closed in 2015], so they decided to open a bar instead. That’s where I came in. We started talking about the concept and, along with designer Russell Sage, we came up with the idea of Aunt Wilhelmina. We built up her character and curated the bar around it: from the furniture, to the drinks, and how the space should be presented. She was our muse, if you like. It’s her townhouse—it’s like the home of an eccentric aunt.
Then came The Zetter Townhouse Marylebone and with it, Seymour’s Parlour, owned by the fictional ‘Wicked Uncle Seymour’. How would you define his personality?
Wilhelmina is uncle Seymour’s niece, so we took that idea and put it onto a slightly different track. Uncle Seymour spent his life travelling around Europe, under the guise of visiting universities, museums and sites of interest, while drinking his way through the major cities and their brothels. Seymour was a generous man, but not without fault—he was prone to arrogance and envy. He enjoyed the finer things in life alongside the most pleasurable, between which he did not distinguish. Both bars have a very 19th century feel, but Seymour’s Parlour is slightly more masculine.
How is his character reflected in the drinks menu?
The drinks are inspired by Uncle Seymour’s life: his Grand Tour and the debauchery that ensued, but also his life in London. We use this as a reference point when creating the menu and new drinks—both in terms of the flavours, and the ingredients we used. It has some European influences, but it’s not necessarily a European cocktail menu. The bar and its menu have evolved over the years to reflect the addition of new stories, revolving around this character we’ve created.
How often does the menu change? Talk us through some of your latest creations
Around every six months—though we don’t always completely change the menu. The almond sour is a recent addition, comprising saffron gin and a toasted almond syrup. We have a carob old fashioned, which is cocoa butter rum with carob and dandelion bitters, then the turf club, which is Old Tom gin, dubonnet, a grape reduction, Peruvian bitters and grass. So, you can see we use the structure of classic drinks, but twist them to make use of ingredients Uncle Seymour would’ve come across on his Grand Tour.
Does each drink have its own ‘story’?
Totally, yeah—we start with an idea, and then build the flavours around it. For example, the rake cocktail is inspired by the famous painting by William Hogarth, which is currently in the Sir John Soane’s Museum. There are references to the painting and the story that surrounds it, which we did a lot of research about.
You make everything for your own bars in the Drink Factory, your research centre and creative space—is that the case for Zetter, too?
Not for every drink. They make the more basic stuff at Seymour’s Parlour itself, but we do make and come up with the more complex components at the Drink Factory, our HQ. It’s the centre point, where everything gets made and where everything is figured out—the puzzle-solving centre. We’ve got all sorts of kit: everything from centrifuges, vacuums, distillation units and freeze dryers, to run-of-the-mill pots and pans.
Is there a theatrical element to cocktail-making? How important are aesthetics?
I think it’s less about theatrics and more about service—well-executed drinks that taste great. Certainly at Seymour’s Parlour, the setting is quite thematic, so that takes care of all the drama. In terms of the individual drink, aesthetics are very, very important. We look at how everything fits together: how the drink works with the glass and the garnish, if there is one. These things are endlessly discussed, tried out and worked on. It’s certainly not served on a whim. For example, the turf club is served in one of our martini glasses, so it’s very elegant, and it has one big strand of grass that comes off it. It’s minimalist; the grass gives it a reference point, without being over the top.
You’ve been cited as the Heston Blumenthal of cocktails for your ‘molecular’ approach to mixology—would you agree with that?
I disagree with the term ‘molecular mixology’—it doesn’t really describe much. It’s a term that was put on what was perceived as a particular way of doing things, but I think what a lot of people do is far more romantic than just looking at things through a scientific lens. There are certainly bits of science and technology that we use—information that we get through science and working with food scientists—but it’s far more creative than that. It’s more like a craft or an artistic endeavour, in so far as it says something about the person that’s creating it. It’s a point of communication, I think. If you were to look at a great painting, yes you’d look at how it was painted and the technical aspect of it, but that’s not what the painting is; it’s just the means to get the painting made.
You’ve recently opened another bar on the outskirts of Marylebone, Bar Termini Centrale. Tell us about that.
It’s got a very similar feel to the original Bar Termini in Soho, but there’s more food—we’ve got a kitchen now, which is great. Some of the drinks are specific to this location, too, so for example we have a bergamot negroni on the menu, which is new. We’ve done a lot of research into really old school Italian drinks—we found a drink called il pinguino, a non-alcoholic digestif from an old bar in Palermo Sicily, which we have on the menu. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on over there.
With four of your own bars, the Drink Factory and of course your consultancy role at The Zetter Townhouse, do you ever miss just being behind the bar, where your career began?
I’m mostly at the Drink Factory, but I do visit all the sites as often as possible. I don’t think it’s a question of preferring either or, it’s just the reality of owning a business and a creative space, as well as training staff and all the rest of it. At a certain point you can’t be behind the bar all the time. Though I’m still completely hands-on in the creative process, I love hosting events and being down there seeing the customer—I enjoy all of it. The aim now is really just to focus on the bars I’ve got. Will I open another? Only time will tell.