Alex Kratena on great bars and venue theatre

11 August, 2016 by Stefanie Collins

Alex Kratena is widely credited for reinventing the traditional five-star hotel bar experience, making it relevant for modern drinkers. Attention to detail, playful presentation and exceptional approach to service are all hallmarks of his unique approach to bartending.

Kratena is the former head bartender of the Langham’s award winning bar Artesian, and is renowned for creating drama, fun and theatre for customers in his bars – a skill he is determined to pass on to other bartenders.

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In October 2015 Artesian was recognized as Number 1, for the fourth consecutive year, in the World’s 50 Best Bar Awards by Drinks International, while Kratena has also collected several personal awards including “Best International Bartender” (2012), at Tales of the Cocktail and “Bar Personality of the Year 2013” from Imbibe Magazine.

De Kuyper, the world’s number one selling liqueur range, has brought Kratena to Australia for The Works program – currently making its way around the country – a series of exciting, inspirational and creative flavour workshops.

We had a chat with Kratena earlier this week, before his whirlwind tour got underway.

What are you hoping that bartenders will get out of The Works program?

The Works program basically brings my perspective on drinks and hospitality. Because, you know, everything on drinks and hospitality has already been said. But I think it’s really important to keep repeating it in new and interesting ways. It’s all about sharing, so it’s about bringing my point of view and sharing it with the bartenders here. And as much as they will be learning about what I do, I will be learning about what they do here. It’s a new informal way of sharing information. I’ll be running through my way of using different ingredients and building recipes and creating service theatre around those recipes and then tying all that up in stories in the way the brands work and their history too.

Why is creating theatre so important?

I think it’s always important to understand what kind of venue you’re running because different venues need to meet different needs. I think theatre is important to engage the guest and to provide and experience and create something memorable. We go out and we never remember what we ate or what we drank but what you will remember how we were with this person and that happened.

How should bartenders work on creating a personal style that people will remember?

I think it’s about realising who you are as a personality and the type of person that you are. For me, I like to smile a lot and I like to engage with people. If I tried to be serious it just wouldn’t work. So first of all, realise who you are and then take all the different influences and experiences you have and build your signature style. Sometimes it is very easy just to take something and use it but it is much more difficult to push through it and I think if you have the right approach – look around and take the best from different places – and then using it in your own presentation. That is the best way. It is not about being first to do something, but it is about conceptualising things and making your own perspective on that. I think it is a huge advantage to go somewhere with no cultural preconceptions – you take native ingredients, and you are much more free to do whatever you want with them. You can use things in new ways.

What are some of the small details that bartenders miss when creating an experience?

I’m not here to criticise, but generally, it’s about taking all the different elements and putting them into a context so that they make sense. So I think the most common mistake is when people take certain things out of context and put them together, and even though each thing is oh-so-cool they don’t make any sense. When it comes to drinks it’s the same – what role does this ingredient play in this flavour profile, does it make sense, or did you just put it there to be cool?

What makes a great hotel bar?

I think we have seen a huge shift in the hotel bar world, because back in the day, most hotels had a bar because that is what you have to have. And I think that has changed a lot over the last decade – it went from a necessity to a very important revenue centre, and on top of that it generates a lot of PR and can put the hotel on the map. So I believe it’s really about people. It’s about hiring the right people, which can be difficult within a big corporate company because bartenders are mostly creative people who enjoy a lot of freedom. So it can be challenging.

So how do you design a great bar, for a hotel or otherwise?

But I think the most important thing to think about is this: when you’re designing a table, you don’t think about designing a table because you’ll just design a table. And it’s the same thing when it comes to hotel bar. Our success came hugely from the fact that we have done something completely different from what other hotel bars have been doing. A hotel bar is always going to be about the looks – no matter what – and it will be about the staff, and it will be about providing a unique experience. So I think what the trap is, is that many hotel companies just want to make a hotel bar for everyone. But that is impossible. You cannot create a brand that everyone will like, and that is the same with a hotel bar, so realise what you are, choose your style, and stick with it. Sometimes we see extreme things but they work because that’s the philosophy and the staff have a relationship with that and it works. So if you’re doing a crazy Tiki bar in a hotel, stick with it. It doesn’t matter that you will have some people who will come and will expect you to behave a certain way and expect a typical hotel menu of a club sandwich. It is fine to do things differently.