Bartending duo on creating Soho’s acclaimed Swift bar
With Swift, bartending couple Mia Johansson and Bobby Hiddleston have created one of London’s best-loved bars. And while they may have killer cocktails and the awards to boot, their real love is offering a warm welcome.
*This feature was originally published in the December 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
Bartending duo Mia Johansson and Bobby Hiddleston met when they were slinging drinks at London’s Milk & Honey in 2010. They went on to work at other acclaimed establishments: Swedish-born Johansson at Mark’s Bar at Hix Soho, while Hiddleston was the opening head bartender at New York’s Dead Rabbit and also served at Shoreditch’s Callooh Callay.
The pair, who married in 2016, returned to Soho to open the much-anticipated Swift, which has grown to become one of London’s most prestigious bars in just two years. When it launched in November 2016 at 12 Old Compton Street, the venue had big boots to fill, replacing renowned drinking den Lab – a former playground for some of the industry’s leading bartenders.
Johansson and Hiddleston seemed well placed to take over the site, and their style and skills were sought after by fellow couple and Nightjar and Oriole founders Rosie Stimpson and Edmund Weil.
“In mid-2016, we were approached by Ed and Rosie, who said they had a project for us. It was very strange in the sense that Nightjar and Oriole are not really our style,” Hiddleston recalls. “We love the bars but they’re very different; very theatrical.
“But this project, which turned into Swift, was what they were after. They wanted our style in terms of clean, concise, but friendly and quick service.”
With the financial backing of Stimpson and Weil, Johansson and Hiddleston set about opening the site, which boasts two different but complementary styles – a buzzy aperitivo ground-floor bar inspired by the standing vertical bars of continental Europe, and an inviting, speakeasy-style basement bar.
“It was fun because when we opened, it was such a huge thing – we could feel people breathing down our necks a bit,” says Johansson. “It was like the industry was watching so hard because we were taking over sacred ground. They were excited to see what we were going to get up to.”
The upstairs bar at Swift
After a weekend of closing parties, with Lab alumni and bartending greats tending the bar, Swift opened its doors. “The first year of Swift was hard; the highs were kind of parallel with the lows,” says Johansson. “We didn’t even see the lows because we just powered through. We did 120 hours in the first week because we were here constantly. Even the electricity stopped working.
“The second year we wanted to develop the brand, and also develop the team because they have been really loyal; most of them have been with us since day one. Our staff retention is fantastic – that’s been our number-one accomplishment.”
Despite Swift’s stylish setting, “there’s a lack of pretension”, Hiddleston says. “A lot of people are scared to go into cocktail bars. We love people coming in and having a gin and tonic; it’s a great thing. That element of warmth, that pub feel; it’s a very relaxed atmosphere. It’s a pub with Martinis.”
Johansson adds: “Our favourite thing is that we run a bar like the series Cheers. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the industry or not, you’re gonna get the same service and hospitality.”
The duo is also working on a new cocktail menu, which will be released next month. “We’re gonna use the idea of having the simplicity of a classic cocktail but with modern flavours that are accessible, understandable and approachable,” says Johansson.
Hiddleston is keen to keep the menu’s focus on classics. He says: “I love concept menus but they have a shelf life. There are so many great bars; you go back because of the classics that are available there. That’s our building block for the drinks. Will it stand the test of time or is it a fad? We try to keep it as classic as possible in terms of whether it is replicable. Will people keep coming back for it?”
This year also saw Johansson become the London chair of the United Kingdom Bartenders’ Guild (UKBG) as part of a revamp that includes a new team comprising bartending legend Peter Dorelli and Declan McGurk, bar manager of The Savoy’s American Bar.
“We need to make it current and modern, and we need to make it an educational platform of health and safety and for people to know what will happen after Brexit,” says Johansson. “We need to be the fallback for them, and be the place where everyone can come – and not be exclusive anymore. We are trying to make it something that people talk about again. It’s going to get bigger and better next year.”
James Bond-inspired cocktails from Shaken
The power couple also collaborated with the Ian Fleming Estate on a cocktail book inspired by James Bond, called Shaken – Drinking with James Bond & Ian Fleming. Edmund Weil, a distant relative of Fleming, produced the copy for the book, while Johansson and Hiddleston created 50 cocktail recipes. “We didn’t think it would get a huge amount of attention,” says Hiddleston.
“There are quite a few cocktail books around, and even though it’s James Bond, it is a themed cocktail book. We didn’t expect it to be received with the kind of gravitas it got, and we’re pleasantly surprised.”
Two years after opening, and having been named Best New International Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards last year, could expansion be on the cards?
“It was always designed to be a scaleable concept,” Hiddleston says of the ‘upstairs’ standing-style bar. “We’d love to have more but there’s no progress on that at the moment. We’re still looking at London. We have the rights to the brand in Europe so we have the possibility for expansion.”
THE RIGHT SITE
Johansson adds: “It’s more about finding the right site. We want it to be like a little or big sister of our upstairs bar. We want the whole standing, easy-drinking Swift experience, where you can come in and perch.”
Johansson and Hiddleston are quick to praise their staff for the bar’s success. “We’re really proud of the drinks we come up with and the style of them but what brings people back is the ambiance and hospitality,” says Hiddleston.
Johansson adds: “When we read our reviews, more than 80% of them mention the staff. We’re just one cog in a whole wheel that is Swift. All of the awards are theirs. We’re so lucky that they want to work in our bar – we thank our lucky stars every day.”