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The Ritz’s Bartender Thinks Your Cosmopolitan Is Basic

Rivoli Bar Lounge Manager, Marco Ercolano shares a few pearls of wisdom (and not the plastic kind) from years behind London’s most expensive hotel bars.

Josh Barrie

Photo via Flickr user iwishmynamewasmarsha

You probably know The Ritz London as the hotel that forms the decadent backdrop to Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts' equally outlandish love affair in Notting Hill, or the place you went to once for afternoon tea on your aunt's fiftieth. It's a high society institution capitalising on bolero-wearing tourists; a place with disproportionately tiny sandwiches and toilets big enough to fit a sofa in.

But behind the intimidating history and Tea for Two at The Ritz deals are highly skilled bartenders. The Rivoli Bar's Vintage Menu is made up of just seven cocktails, including the so-classic-you-don't-mess-with-it Negroni, Rob Roys and, of course, Old Fashioneds. Basically, the kind of drinks you only commit to when you really know what you're mixing.

The man at the helm of The Ritz's alcoholic offerings is Marco Ercolano, a long-time bartender from Italy's Amalfi Coast and current lounge manager of The Rivoli. Now 30, Marco started out in the drinks industry at age 14. He moved to the UK ten years ago and has held senior bartending positions at the Hilton, Kensington's five-star Milestone Hotel, and The Bulgari Hotel, which probably costs as much as your yearly heating bill for a night's stay. This is a man who knows his way around the top shelf.

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During his time behind some of London's most lavishly stocked bars, Marco has met former cabinet ministers, footballers, high end cosmetics professionals, and witnessed, as he describes, "a very, very wealthy gentleman" buy the entire room a glass of Dom Perignon.

I visited Marco at The Rivoli on a Friday night to find out more about what it takes to sling martinis in the original #RichKids bar. He told me about the regulars who like to sit in the exact same place on each visit, and those who only drink a very particular brand of Champagne.

MUNCHIES: Hi Marco, The Ritz must be quite a place to be a bartender? Marco Ercolano: Yes, although we're keeping up with trends, always inventing, it's important to maintain tradition here. We have that style and a long history, so of course there's that side. You just have to look around, see the glassware and décor.

And how did you get here. Was it a long road? I've always worked in the bar industry. Well, since I was 14. I started off cleaning, helping out in local bars in my town in Italy, so it's been a very long time; more than half my life has been about this. I love every part of it. It's about making people happy.

I've now been at The Ritz for about ten months. I came to London about ten years ago and have always been at hotels. They've been wonderful places to learn and gain knowledge of drinks and cocktails, also good places to meet people.

How did you refine your trade? The learning process takes time. I used to enter competitions and shows. It was great to be a part of the industry and to watch it grow. Just ten years ago the scene was so different, it was all about Cosmopolitans and quite basic.

I suppose modern classics were, really, the main thing. There wasn't such a huge creative side to it. Now, it's different—it's about homemade syrups, bitters; there are so many more techniques.

The shows were always very intense, a really high pressure environment. You had to know so much, be very quick, and create new things and play with flavours. But it was always a big buzz and a lot of fun. It was glamorous, but it's also a lot of work. I've finished that time now but I wouldn't be where I am now without those years.

What does it take to become a bartender here? You need to be very knowledgeable, committed. There has to be a real passion and a true understanding of cocktails and what works. We use a lot of top-shelf spirits here, and very fine ingredients so there's not a big space for error.

I'd say experience is crucial. It's hard to put an exact time-frame on it because everyone's different and situations are different. But you'd need some time behind you working in a four or five star establishment. Also, it's not just about drinks, but the service too. You need to know your customer.

Ritz-Bar-Martini

Marco Ercolano's "Martini with a twist". Photo by Josh Barrie.

What does a bartender at The Ritz need to be prepared for? One thing about working here is you get to know so many high-profile people. We're always serving football players, actresses, and so on. There are people here who are very special customers (we keep a list of the regulars behind the bar so that new staff members know who they are). There are people who have been coming in for many, many years. It's nice to get to know them getting to know these people can be exciting. New bartenders here have to get an idea quickly.

I can't name names, but there are food and drinks professionals, people from cosmetics; one person I know is from the perfume industry; one lady who started her own line of fragrances.

There are the politicians too, some people who've been close to the prime minister. And another who used to work for Margaret Thatcher. He comes in quite a lot, sits in exactly the same place, and drinks Dom Perignon Champagne, always the same. A lot of these people love to drink Champagne. You need to be tuned in to how to cater for these scenarios. Sometimes I exchange emails or speak to them on the phone. You can get close. But you've got to remain professional. It's a balance.

Any stand-out situations? There are lots of stories from my time behind the bar. I remember once, in another hotel in London, it was very late and I was serving a regular customer. He was drinking Champagne; expensive Champagne. He was a rich man. He bought every person in the bar a glass. Everyone was pretty surprised. I'm not sure now how much he spent, but it was a big amount of money.

The cocktails you create must be more about cash, though? Part of these establishments is the cocktail culture, some of the pillars of mixology. If we didn't have that history, we wouldn't have cocktails today. None of it would be here. If we didn't have the 1920s era and the Prohibition times, we wouldn't be drinking half of the drinks we do now. We wouldn't be creating in the same way. They're the reason we look back to classics for inspiration.

But alongside that, you're keeping up with new cocktail trends? It's very important to keep up with the trends of the day. My team and I make our own infusions, syrups, and bitters. We buy local spirits from London—I love Sipsmith, Portobello Gin. But we also have vintages as well, which we can go to. For our Manhattans, we buy a big batch of cherries when they're in season and soak them in whisky: macerated cherries. We keep enough for the whole year so we've got them in stock.

Hit me with something new you've got We have a Martini with a twist. It's made with vodka, so the base is classic, but it's mixed with homemade caviar bitters, Himalayan pink sea salt, and our own vermouth.

Sounds lethal. Thanks for talking with us, Marco.