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A Drink With… Marian Beke, Nightjar

Marian Beke of Nightjar in London is best known for his extravagant garnishes and unbounded knowledge of cocktails, but it’s never all smooth sailing. He tells Becky Paskin about trouble finding a new bar, unsatisfied customers and that Moby Dick cocktail.

Marian Beke Nightjar
Marian Beke, head bartender of Nightjar in London

Nightjar is obviously well known for its cocktails, but music plays a big role too doesn’t it?
It was only after we opened that we realised music should be a big element of the business. It’s a big draw for people who come here; it gives them something more than just drinks. Good music is something that is very rare these days. Nightjars owners Ed and Rosie Weil love New Orleans, and this is their style, 1920s New Orleans.

The bar has also become famous for your elaborate garnishes like orange blossom-smoked candy floss. Why did you decide to progress that element of the cocktail in particular?
When we first opened our menu was very classic so we decided to play a bit more with the garnish to make sure that when people leave Nightjar they are left with an impression. We started out using vintage glasses, then progressed onto different vessels that featured the nightjar bird. We then looked at the recipe and how the garnish is an extension of the cocktail – not just a decoration but to add flavour.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
We travel a lot but most of the inspiration isn’t from other bars but different industries, like chocolatiers, perfumiers and patisseries. We learn a lot from pastry like how to shape caramel and make edible straws. We get more ideas from those kind of businesses because bars are all a bit similar these days.

You’ve just launched your new cocktail menu – the third since Nightjar opened. How do you ensure it keeps attracting back customers?
We tried to use a lot of ingredients that people may not know, like different spices or purple carrot juice, to create an experience. We want people to feel like they couldn’t have made the drink themselves at home. Like the previous two, the takeaway menu is printed on playing cards with a picture of the cocktail and recipe.

You seem to put a lot of effort into creating an experience for your guests. How do you react when customers complain about your drinks?
We have people who don’t really complain but say the flavours aren’t there. Sometimes when they can’t imagine the flavour of the drink when they’re ordering, they don’t like it when they finally taste it.  We have to do more training with floor staff tasting, so they know what it will taste like and can make better recommendations.

One of your drinks in particular caused a stir recently when it was discovered to contain whisky flavoured with whale skin. How did you react to the incident?
I bought the whale skin in Japan because we are always looking for new ingredients. Normally in Scotland they eat seafood with their whisky so it was a nice connection. The skin was small and macerated for just a week in the whisky, and if I’d bought it in the EU it wouldn’t have been illegal. Someone tipped off the police and they took a sample for testing. It was very emotional for us. We kept expecting Greenpeace to come through the door protesting. We got a few emails where people just blamed us personally, which hurt us each personally. We ended up donating all the revenue from the cocktail to charity, and in the end we never heard back from the police again.

The incident must have rocked the way you source your ingredients?
Now we will be more careful. There is a coffee bitters that uses the Kopi Luyyak, the most expensive coffee in the world that’s digested by the Luyyak before being ground. After the incident we researched all our products and found some stories that the Luyyak is suffering by being kept in small cages in Java and Bali. We stopped using it immediately because we didn’t want to go there and risk any more bad publicity.

You’re from Slovakia originally. How would you describe the bar scene there?
It’s developed a lot since I left Bratislava around 12 years ago. Back then there were two or three bars but now there are about 15. It’s a small scene because the city is very small, but there is still every kind of restaurant you can think of.

There can’t have been many Slovaks in London when you first arrived. Did you struggle with your English?
Everybody told me I needed to learn English to be a bartender, so I started in a club just helping as a bar back and studied English at school in my spare time. The club was too loud to have a conversation, so it wasn’t that difficult. It would have been more so if I worked in a five-star hotel when I first arrived.

What plans do you have for the future?
We are looking for second bar now but it’s taken a year already to find a property. The second will be similar to what we have now – live jazz music, a bit like a club but not a club. We were picky at the beginning of our search but now we are looking everywhere. It’s hard to find the right location for our business model. We would ultimately like two or three bars in the future, no more than that because the company becomes franchised. Maybe two in London and one in Paris because the French are used to our style.

Wouldn’t you like your own bar someday?
I would but this company is good. Ed and Rosie are great guys. I never worked for a musician before but you can see they are different. Rosie sings and Edmund is familiar with music. They understand creativity and are very supportive and passionate. I believe that you cannot sing unless you really feel the song, and the same is true of making cocktails. You must have that passion.

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