Attila Iskifoglu, the Turkish bartender who travels the world reinventing the cocktail and serving it with style
Ironically, I meet Attila Iskifoglu with a hangover. He’s a world champion flair bartender. I never want to see alcohol again. Not exactly a match made in heaven. I wait for him at the Blend bar at Taj Mount road, holding my head between my hands and groaning softly. As a worried looking resident bartender tiptoes over and kindly hands me a glass of water, Attila prances in, looking nauseatingly healthy. “We were up till 2 am last night,” he beams. I glare at him blearily.
I must hasten to tell you I’m not a complete louche. It’s just that drinking even a couple of cocktails tends to make me feel like I’ve been in an argument with Mike Tyson. Not that I’ll ever learn. They’re so pretty. And often, so deliciously pink. Unfortunately, the traditional cocktail is a wicked calorie bomb, practically designed to make you queasy. Too much cheap alcohol, too much sugar syrup and too much cream. Atilla shudders delicately. “I tell the bartenders I train, no adding cream. No adding ice cream.” He rolls his eyes in exasperation. “Come on! What is that? A smoothie?”
The Turkish bartender has become a celebrity and made ‘flair bartending’ (extreme bartending that got popular in the mid-1990s, which includes juggling, flipping and manipulating bar tools) a rage in London and abroad, with a combination of live shows, television appearances and YouTube videos. He even participated in Britain’s Got Talent, under the scathing gaze of Simon Cowell. “I put my career on the line — but it was important to participate. Flair Bartending blew up in a year after that show.” As for Cowell? “Oh. He said ‘No.’ Of course,” chuckles Attila.
In Classic Tom Cruise Cocktail style, Attila started bartending on the beach when he was 18, in 1995. “It was such simple basic stuff back then. I though, ‘Ya. I can do that.’ I started practising with plastic bottles. For six – eight hours a day. I was 18 then. Not old enough to drink even! I started drinking way after I started bar tending.” He adds, “Flair is all about originality, style and creativity… I’ve been doing it for 14 years now. And I’m 33. They call us living legends now. Because we’re the first of the wave.”
Along the way, he’s reinvented the cocktail. New age mixology is changing the way people look at cocktails. “The classic cocktails are dying,” says Attila. “They can’t survive. Because the ingredients modern mixologists use are different. Creative, lighter, healthy.”
Still nostalgic about the past? Think of how boozy the Long Island Ice Tea is, bustling with vodka, gin, tequila, and rum, in addition to a clutch of other ingredients. “Never mix two spirits,” says Attila, listing the rules of making a clean, contemporary cocktail. “Ten ingredients in one cocktail? That’s ridiculous.”
The modern bar is all about fresh ingredients. Fruit and vegetable juices, toasty spices and exotica from all over the world. “Instead of sugar, I use Manuka honey, for example,” says Attila. Produced in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the native Manuka bush, this honey is famous for its anti-bacterial properties. “I also use walnuts and lots of ginger.”
The cocktails are still indulgent, making up in flavour for what they lack in cream. “It’s all about combining flavours.” His ‘Cinnamon Candy’ for instance combines vodka with pomegranate, lime juice, cinnamon and honey. His ‘Chocolate Monkey’ brings together ground walnuts, fresh coffee and vanilla vodka. Then there’s ‘Lost in Time’ with dark rum, cashew powder, green tea, cucumber, lemon and black pepper
“All you need to make your own cocktails is a shaker, a muddle and lots of spices,” says Attila. “Mix flavours you like. Then strain it through a double filter. I use a triple filter because I like my cocktails clear.” He adds, “But when you taste it there is a lot of flavour. It should be powerful, but not thick. Smooth but not a smoothie.”
As for hangovers? “Try my hangover cure,” he says. “1 free-range egg yolk, a pinch of ground chilli, walnut powder, one teaspoon fresh lemon juice, 150 ml cucumber juice and 100 ml tomato juice.