On Thursday, October 5th, in London, the 2017 World’s 50 Best Bars* list will be announced. Nico de Soto will be in attendance. He has visited 49 out of the 50 bars on the 2016 list. De Soto has scheduled a guest bartending shift at the final bar on the 2016 list, Speak Low in Shanghai, for November 2nd. Additionally, if his predictions about this year’s list are correct, after a visit to Taipei in late November he’ll have covered the 2017 list as well.
There’s likely only one other person to get this close to visiting all fifty bars—Bacardi’s Jacob Briars, who made it to 47 bars on last year’s list and 48 on a previous list. He says, “I’ve never consciously tried to ‘collect’ the 50 Best, but I’m lucky that my wide travels take me to some great cities and the bars I end up drinking in tend to be the best ones in town!”
Paris-born de Soto is the co-owner of Mace in New York and the owner of Danico in Paris, and was a finalist for 2017 International Bartender of the Year at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Mace came in at 38 on the 2015 World’s 50 Best Bars list and 28 on the 2016 list. De Soto worked at the Experimental Cocktail Club (ECC) and Curio Parlor in Paris before moving to New York to join the teams at Painkiller and Dram, then opened ECC New York and ECC London. He has also worked at 69 Colebrooke Row and Happiness Forgets in London. Many of these venues have appeared on regional or world’s best bars lists.
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Here, SevenFifty Daily asks de Soto about his quest to visit all of the World’s 50 Best Bars—and what he’s learned from the experience so far.
SevenFifty Daily: What made you decide to visit all the bars on the list?
De Soto: Well, over the years I had already [visited] a good [number of the bars on the] list. Then I decided to do a tour in Australia and Southeast Asia, where I visited 118 bars in forty-five days. After that I had like 15 left, and I made a bet with José Luis León [of Licorería Limantour in Mexico City] that I would finish the list before the new ranking.
What bar on the list do you think offers the best service?
It’s always hard to say the best because so many of them are so good. Manhattan Bar in Singapore would take that one. The staff is amazing, always smiling and paying attention to details. I was treated like a king, but I could also see that it was the same for all the customers. [Bar manager] Philip Bischoff is amazing.
Which is the most fun?
Limantour in Mexico City. Those guys know how to party. Too many shots! People dance on the bar. I did a guest shift there once, but I don’t remember everything. Their fault.
What is the most beautiful?
What was the most memorable cocktail served to you in one of these bars?
Hard to pick one, but anything served at Oriole [in London] is visually memorable. Garnish porn. They also have amazing glassware. But I love what Dandelyan [also in London] and The Clumsies [in Athens, Greece] do. Those two are in my top-top list.
What was the best-tasting cocktail?
I don’t remember one in particular, but the menu at Operation Dagger [in Singapore] is very strong. That banana wine is killer.
If someone would make a dream trip to visit one bar in the world, which bar should they visit and why?
I’ll go with Operation Dagger. The design of the place, the menu, the concept. There is no other bar like that. But also because it’s in Singapore: great city, amazing bar and food scene, and hub to many doors in southeast Asia.
Where did you personally have the most fun?
I did a guest shift at La Factoria in San Juan [Puerto Rico] with José Luis from Limantour. They have four rooms. We did it in the last one, the darkest. I shook drinks for an hour and a half, then DJed until 3 a.m., playing pretty strong techno. People were drinking and dancing and it was amazing.
What is the strangest bar on the list, or the most unlike the rest of them?
I’m not gonna say again Operation Dagger so I’ll go for The Aviary [in Chicago]. It’s unlike any other bar. It’s more like a restaurant—drinks are made in an open kitchen-like area, bartenders work like chefs, everyone has a specific task, they have a strong ice program, and the drinks are visually out of this world, going very molecular. I can’t wait to visit their newly opened space in New York City.
What bar should be on this list but isn’t?
A lot. My favorite would be 69 Colebrooke Row or Mabel [in Paris]. Their drinks are always on point. Tony Conigliaro [of 69 Colebrooke Row] influences many, many people in this industry; his bar should be on the list.
What are some things you look at as a professional when you visit the bars?
I love to look at menu designs [and] organization behind the bars. Also service. I love the spirit of the team at Lost + Found Drinkery in Cyprus, the way they divide everything at the bar and act as a family, it’s truly inspiring. You would never see that in America, where everyone works for tips.
You’ve worked guest shifts at a lot of these bars. Did you get any ideas about bar design for ergonomics or efficiency?
I more wondered a lot [about] how do they do work in these [bad] conditions in many bars! To be honest, I’m pretty happy with my stations in my bars. There are always little details but nothing that would change my life.
What was the best-designed bar from a bartender and ergonomics viewpoint?
Oriole has the best-designed stations, but it’s not for everyone or every budget.
Have you made any changes at Danico or Mace based on these yet?
How do you feel Mace compares to other bars on the list? Where are its strengths and weaknesses based on what you know now?
We are a very small bar, opened with a very small budget, in a very big city with a lot of competition, in an area that is not easily accessible. But I think we play strong on the menu, and the bar has a good atmosphere. I get texts every day complimenting the drinks on the menu and it makes me very proud.
Do you need to have a big budget to be a great cocktail bar of this caliber?
No, we are the proof that you can do it on a small budget. Focus on the drinks and design, but most of all service. People tend to forget about service. Who gives a fuck about your nut-washed Old Fashioned if you don’t serve it with a smile? And that is free.
What do you think is the most exciting region of the world for bars or cocktails now, and why?
Asia is growing, big big big. Singapore has the best variety of bars per square meter. London still is at the top, but Asia impressed me. Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong—and I’m looking forward to going to Shanghai, Taipei, and Bangkok. Also the whole of China is developing very fast. A lot of money over there; it’s crazy.
There is starting to be some small backlash against lists like this, while at the same time they’re becoming more known and important. What is your opinion of the value of World’s Best lists like this?
Ask 20 people [and] you will get 20 different lists. Last year when Mace was ranked 28, sales increased the day after by 30 percent. How could I say no to that? I think the list is not bad at all, whatever order you want to give it. People will always talk, be jealous. Don’t spend too much energy on that. Enjoy the good sides of being on the list, don’t worry too much if you are not; your bar is still great if you’re doing everything fine. To be frank, bartenders hang out in the top hundred [bars] on the list. They also hang out in many bars [that are] not on the list. The day I will worry is when there are bars on the list where no one from our industry goes.
Do you think doing guest shifts in bars is a good way to get to know what those bars are like for a patron? Or, is it fair to say you’ve properly experienced a bar if you’ve worked a guest shift?
Of course. So much to see, organization, rosters, ideas, team spirit, service. You learn that there are so many ways to run a bar, but none is necessarily the best one. Also customers are different, different palates, different expectations. You learn that many bars are sometimes judged for doing some mainstream stuff, but it’s only to respect the patrons, their taste. It’s very different to open a bar in New York City, where cocktail culture is strong, than in Beirut, where the scene is new. Jad Ballout is doing a great work at Central Station [in Beirut] because he observes his customers and designs everything for them. Drinks, music, events. He is very clever.
Do you have any predictions for what bars will be added to the 2017 list on October 5th?
Would you give us your personal top five (or 10 or 20) bars from this list, as someone—probably the only person alive—who has visited all 50 (well, 49 so far)?
A top five without any order: Manhattan Bar, Mabel, Operation Dagger, Dandelyan, 69 Colebrooke Row.
* Editor’s note: For the past several years, Camper English has been the U.S. and Canada voting coordinator for the World’s 50 Best Bars, choosing the judges for the voting panel.
Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer, speaker, and consultant, with a focus on the science of booze and big clear ice. His work has appeared in Popular Science, Cook’s Science, Whisky Advocate, Saveur, Details, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.