Globetrotting bartender Nico de Soto of famed bars Mace in New York and Danico in Paris has landed in London. Hamish Smith is at Wacky Wombat to hear about his new digs under Daroco in Soho.
It must feel like a long time since you helped launch Experimental Cocktail Club in London in 2010. What brought you back and how do you see London now?
It’s funny to be back in Soho after being part of the launch team at ECC. I hadn’t planned to open a bar here but when my partners at Danico – Julien Ross and Alexandre Giesbert – asked if I wanted to open a bar in London, I said ‘fuck yes’! I love London, it’s the best bar scene. It’s not easy, particularly with Brexit and recruiting staff, but I love the challenge. In London I know that I won’t create anything that hasn’t been seen before – there are so many good bars, so much creativity, but the good thing is people are used to cocktails, they’re not scared to try things. So, Wacky Wombat – what’s the elevator pitch? There’s no concept beyond it’s a cocktail bar. It’s cosy, with a good atmosphere, service and drinks. The music is a big part of it too. Kevin Price Houghton is the bar manager and Ellie Ireland the assistant bar manager. Domiziana Polo, Juan Casas and Alejandro Rodriguez are senior bartenders.
The drinks seem to be inspired by your journey as a bartender and your travels. Tell us about the first menu
I started working as a bartender in Australia, in Melbourne and Sydney, so the name of the bar is a personal link. The opening menu is based around dried native ingredients from Australia. I was in Australia early this year for R&D – Luke Whearty from Byrdi has helped me with suppliers. Wake Up (No More Fables) is named after the first hostel I stayed in when in Australia and mixes coffee milk-washed cognac, black mustard seed distillate, coffee liqueur, espresso and banana water. Der Raum is named after the bar that influenced me most in Australia. It fuses coconut oil & flesh gin, amaro, sweet vermouth, jackfruit, koshihikari, and lemon myrtle, while V on P (Vegemite on Pisco) is golden beet, lime juice, gooseberry vinegar, toasted corn husk albumin and Vegemite bitters.
Tell us about your approach to menus
I start with flavours rather than classics. When I travel and see flavour combinations in food and drinks, I note them in a file. My cocktails often come from these combinations. I like menus with 12 drinks – to me it’s the right number. I never repeat an ingredient and I like to have different styles of drinks: one flip – there is no menu without a flip – eggnog, milk punch, sour, one carbonated, bitter, two or three stirred depending on the season, one bitter etc. I don’t like menus to last for more than a year so the first menu at Wacky Wombat will stay for about nine months before we change it.
The plan is to focus in on different drinking cultures for each new menu. Given you make drinks in more countries than pretty much anyone else, how do tastes differ from scene to scene?
I have reduced the sugar in my cocktails for London. In terms of the dryness of the palates in my three markets: London is the driest, then Paris, then New York. Miami is even sweeter - to me undrinkable. But when I first came to London in 2010 I thought fuck, don’t you put sugar in your drinks? The Milk & Honey recipes differed from New York to London. The sugar, the acidity, the texture, the spiciness – it changes from market to market. You have to adjust recipes for different countries. In Thailand they love spice, in Lebanon they won’t drink cocktails with eggs but they love it super sour.
The bar has a DJ booth – might we see you take to it?
At Mace I cannot DJ, at Danico I cannot DJ so I wanted a place I could DJ! We’ll have a good electronic atmosphere, but down-tempo – the fastest we’ll have is organic deep house, but it’s not going to be dancing. So I’ll DJ from time to time. I’ll be here at the bar for two weeks, every three months.