This article was written for Toovia Magazine and previously published on Toovia.com (site currently down).
All pictures for this post were taken by Dimitris Drisas for Toovia Magazine.
It would be easy to pass right by the new cocktail bar on the block. Barreldier blends in almost completely with the rows of shiny storefronts on one of the busy streets surrounding Syntagma square. The otherwise-black façade features glass walls on two sides, and the soft lighting inside makes it difficult to look in, but the perfect place for watching passers-by.
Times are rough for bar owners in Athens. The city that was once as loud at night as it is by day has run low on pocket money. Some restaurateurs, however, seem to be thriving in the much more competitive market. I met with Mario Basso, the bartender and one of Barreldier’s four co-founders, on a sunny spring afternoon. We sat down at one of the cafe-style sidewalk tables along the glass wall, and he explained the choice of location and style: ”We like the competition.”
With twenty years of bartending experience under his vest, he found the perfect opportunity to do something different late last year. Along with Erika Polychroniou, Manos Efstathiadis, and Panagiotis Kouros – all previous co-workers at an establishment in Kolonaki – he got to work on planning Barreldier. Their goal and motto: quality and accessibility.
And in this case, “accessibility” has nothing to do with being mainstream. Despite the building’s ability to blend in, Barreldier has been anything but invisible since opening in late 2014. The all-day bar has a retro interior that is cool and soothing. Open from early in the morning until late at night, they serve breakfast, snack foods, and coffee, but it’s their excellent list of classic and specialty barrel-aged cocktails that have already been praised by numerous critics.
Congratulations on the opening. How did Barreldier come about, and what was it like starting out?
Thank you! The four of us were working together at the same place and it was great, but we all wanted something else. We wanted a place that was ours because it makes it so much more rewarding to work hard. Plus we knew that it was the only way to be in full control of getting the quality we wanted.
The beginning was tough, of course, with many long hours and hard work. It still is.
You get a lot of attention for your barrel-aged cocktails. How many aged cocktails are on your menu, and how much work goes into making them?
Right now there are seven barrel-aged cocktails on our menu. I want to add a few more, but it’s a process.
Barrel-aging cocktails, like barrel-aging booze in general, is a way to bring out different notes of flavor and to soften the punch. It makes flavors blend in a different and deeper way.
I prepare the recipes and then we serve them months later. I started working with barrel-aging cocktails nine years ago. It was a long and expensive process. Everytime something went wrong, I had to throw a barrel out. I learned a lot though, and our customers love the results. We can only just keep up with the demand. I don’t have a second barrel ready to go if we run out.
After tasting three different barrel aged cocktails at Barreldier, I’m in love. The time in the barrel has made spirits I normally can’t handle so soft I want to constantly declare to have found my drink. James Bond rarely had a Vesper this smooth.
There’s no arguing the fact that Barreldier has an impressive cocktail menu. Organized by base spirits, there is a page for each, with a generous list of classics – and classics with a twist – for every taste. For the gin and tonic fan, there is a separate list of choices, featuring various gins, tonics, and interesting flavorings. I’ve never seen a gin and tonic prepared so carefully, and that preparation pays off.
Another drink that is given special attention, and a menu of its own, is the Negroni. The classic, featuring gin, Campari, and vermouth, is Basso’s favorite. I am served a Boulevardier; its wintery barrel-aged cousin, with bourbon standing in for the gin. It has deep and mysterious notes, lightened only by the sheer happiness that comes from enjoying the garnish: three little cherries – marinated to perfection in Campari and cardamom – sitting on a pick (one flew in my mouth; only two left on the stick).
You are famous for your classic cocktails, but you’re also inspired by the Mediterranean. Would you categorize your style as Mediterranean bartending?
Maybe. Mediterranean bartending is partly about using local ingredients, which we also do. But the most important thing about the style is in the meeting with the customer. To me, creating a friendly atmosphere is essential. Our simple and clean style is undemanding, I believe, and we make time to talk with the guests. I see them as guests more than customers. They’re guests here just like they would be guests in my home. I want people to come in here and know me by name, and I want to know them. It’s just as much the reason I do what I do as the mixing drinks part.
Why was central Athens the perfect place for Barreldier?
It was an obvious choice. Everything is here. Opening Barreldier somewhere else would be like playing soccer or chess by yourself. The competition here is hard, but I only see that as a good thing. We’re on our toes behind the bar, and it makes us want to constantly create new and better things.
How does Barreldier differ from your competitors like, say, the Gin Joint?
I don’t really think about it like that. We don’t have a gimmick; we just really focus on quality. I think that if you prepare and serve drinks and food in the way you should, with real attention to detail, people will notice. That’s why we use only fresh ingredients. All of the syrups and fruit purees we use are made daily with fresh ingredients. Nothing is canned or frozen. The same goes for the food.
How do you go about introducing a new cocktail to your menu?
A cocktail should be a reflection of the world and the season around you. Smells and temperature vary with the season, as do ingredients, and that inspires me. Even in the center of Athens, the fruit trees smell good. I pick that up. I wouldn’t serve a strawberry Daiquiri in the winter, for example, because I can’t get the best strawberries and it would be out of place.
Our go-to for inspiration is always the classics, and, mainly, Prohibition. Then, if we can make a cocktail ten times better in the barrel, we do that.
Aside from that, of course there is a lot of experimenting going on, but we often go off-menu to create something unique for our customers anyway.
What about the kitchen menu? What was the concept you had in mind for the food you serve?
Again, we focus on what we think the customer wants. We serve food that we believe people will want to eat in this environment, but then we also adapt the same philosophy as we do with drinks; we pay attention to the seasons and the ingredients. Everything is fresh.
And you can tell that it is. The burger, served on a black slate with some unbelievably crispy fries, is tender and perfectly-seasoned. The smoked salmon salad is crisp and juicy, and I’m encouraged to eat it quickly, because it would be a shame to let something so fresh wilt from the weight of the citrus dressing. I marvel at the fact that the chef has been able to find fresh asparagus. It’s so fresh, in fact, that they’re probably the very first spears of the year.
How do you go about introducing a new dish to your kitchen menu? How much involvement do you have in that process?
We all pitch in. Our roles aren’t fixed, because they don’t need to be. We’re very similarly-minded people here, and when someone has an idea, we’ll support it. We’re creating a new menu right now, and it’s all about using seasonal produce and keeping it simple, like we’ve done from the beginning. If we can’t find an ingredient that is great for a dish, then we won’t make it, so obviously, the menu has to change often.
What is your personal favorite on the menu at the moment?
I like my drinks bitter. The Negroni has always been my favorite cocktail. Any Negroni. Okay, maybe the Negroni No. 3.
Who is the typical Barreldier guest?
Our regulars are mostly people with some knowledge or interest in flavors or booze in some way. Not a lot of very young people; more experienced people who notice when a cocktail is mixed correctly.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in marketing Barreldier?
Honestly, we’ve been very lucky so far, as customers followed us and recommended us from the start. I don’t want to jinx it, but we haven’t really had to deal with a lot of marketing issues yet.
What advice would you give to someone hoping or planning to open a bar in Athens within the next few years?
Just to be prepared to work really hard. Also, to never get cocky. You might think you know the job and the market, but you never know it all. We learn new things here every day. Of course, that’s part of the fun.
As I leave Barreldier, Basso rushes off to get ready. Though he’s been here since noon, his actual shift starts in a couple of hours. And that’s the thing that sticks about Barreldier: everyone is totally invested. Though it’s a work in constant progress, the idea of the bar that serves classic cocktails as good as they could possibly get in a retro-yet-understated and accessible environment is an idea they’ve found that’s worth fighting for.
Mario Basso: Has worked as a bartender at places all over Greece for 20 years. Most recently, with Erika Polychroniou, Manos Efstathiadis, and Panagiotis Kouros at Pa | Plou in Kolonaki.
Adress: Voulis 7, Stoa Bolani
Phone number: 210 325 4711
Credit cards: Yes
Open: 8:00 am – 2.30 am on weekdays. Later on weekends.
Sunday brunch hours: 12 noon – 8:00pm
Reservation needed?: For a company larger than 6 people
Price range: Cocktails: €8-11 (barrel-aged: €10). Straight drinks:€7. Breakfast: €3.50-8. Antipasti/finger food plates:€5 for two people. Mains and salads: €6-9.