When a 21-year-old Erik Lorincz announced to his mother that he wanted to be a bartender, her response was less than enthusiastic. At the time, there wasn’t a single cocktail bar in Lorincz’s home country of Slovakia, and his dream was based on nothing more than a photo he’d seen of someone pouring a cocktail in Rolling Stone magazine.
More than a decade later, Lorincz has made his dream come true in spectacular fashion. He holds one of the industry’s most respected positions – head bartender at The Savoy’s legendary American Bar – and is the 2010 winner of Diageo’s World Class contest, where he beat off competition from 9,000 bartenders from around the world. He’s been asked to create a cocktail to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, has acted as a consultant on the latest Bond movie and has worked with Cartier to create a signature cocktail for the launch of its new perfume. Not bad for someone who came to the UK 10 years ago not speaking a word of English, and paid his way through language school by collecting glasses in a nightclub.
“I had a vision, and I’m a person who loves a challenge,” he says. “Until it’s done, I’m not satisfied.”
I meet Lorincz in the American Bar at The Savoy in London, where’s he’s working. He certainly looks the part, with his immaculate cream suit, black tie and slicked back hair. He greets me and asks what flavours I like, before making me a Restoration Celebration – a delicious cherry-based drink that he invented for the reopening of The Savoy in 2010 following its three year, £220m refurbishment.
The Savoy is well known for inventing cocktails for important events – some of its most famous include the Moonwalk for Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing and Wedding Bells for Queen Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip. In 2012 Lorincz was asked to create a suitable cocktail for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and, as an added challenge, to find an innovative way of serving it.
After much thought, Lorincz came up with the Diamond Jubilee Punch (Lorincz had to send the name to the Palace for approval). It contains Bombay Sapphire gin, pink grapefruit and orange shrub (a mixture of the zest and juice of the fruit and sugar), earl grey tea, almond syrup – “and, of course, champagne.”
Lorincz took the challenge of coming up with an unusual way to serve the drink very seriously, agonising about it for weeks. “I wasn’t sleeping, I was thinking about it non stop,” he says. “I was on the way to Paris, brainstorming ideas, when suddenly it came to me.”
When he returned from Paris, Lorincz asked The Savoy’s managing director Kiaran MacDonald to meet him in the hotel’s lobby. Perplexed, MacDonald agreed, and became even more confused when he was led out to the hotel’s forecourt.
“I pointed at the fountain outside of the hotel’s front entrance and said, ‘that’s where we’re going to serve the cocktail from. He thought I was crazy, but that’s what we did.”
On 3 June 2012, the Savoy Court was closed and the hotel threw a street party for 120 of its regular guests. “I worked all night to make 360 litres of the cocktail,” says Lorincz. “I finished at 8am, then went to my room for a shower, before coming back downstairs for the start of the party at 9am.” The party finished at 5pm, and Lorincz immediately started his evening shift at the bar.
So was it worth all the hard work? “The guests enjoyed themselves, had great food, and every time they wanted a cocktail, they just scooped one out of the fountain. It was incredible.”
After graduating from hospitality school in Slovakia in 1998, Lorincz spotted an advert for a cocktail competition being held in Prague. He attended the competition, realised he’d found his calling, and enrolled on a three month intensive bartending course in Prague to learn the trade. From there, he got a job in Slovakia’s first cocktail bar (in Bratislava), where he stayed for three years, before deciding that if he wanted to really progress in his career, he needed to learn English.
“I came to London and had to start from zero again,” he says. “I went to the TTI language school to learn English in the day, and worked in a club collecting glasses at night.” From here, he got a job as a bartender in Attica club in Soho, then the Japanese restaurant Nozomi in Knightsbridge, before joining the Connaught in 2008.
It was when he won the title of Bartender of the Year at Diageo’s World Class competition in 2010 that doors really started opening for Lorincz.
The competition took place in Athens and comprised eight different challenges. These included the market challenge, in which the bartenders were given 40 euros and 50 minutes to go to the local market, choose their ingredients, and make two cocktails of their own invention from a portfolio of alcohols. “The challenge took place in the morning, so I made a Greek Bloody Mary, using local herbs and spices, and a Cherry Cobbler, using fresh cherries, dry sherry and Tanqueray No 10 gin,” says Lorincz.
Other tasks included a mastery challenge, in which contestants had to choose a spirit, make a classic cocktail using it, identify different varieties of the spirit in a blind tasting, and answer questions on its history.
“The competition is a bit like Masterchef, for bartenders,” he says. “In many ways bartenders are similar to chefs, except that where they use fire to combine flavours, we use ice.
“Winning that competition was life-changing. After that I was offered so many opportunities.”
The biggest of these opportunities was the offer of the role of head bartender at The Savoy. “I didn’t have to think about it for very long,” he laughs. “It’s a very special role; there have only been 10 head bartenders since the role was created. The Savoy has such a long-lasting legacy – it’s an institution.”
The first head bartender was the legendary Harry Craddock, who left America during prohibition and made his name at the American Bar. He collected numerous cocktail recipes, which were first published in The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. As we talk, Lorincz produces the original version of the book from behind the bar, and lets me leaf (very carefully) through it.
It’s this sense of history that makes the American Bar at The Savoy unique, as well as the service and a willingness on the part of the bartenders to share their extensive knowledge. Going for cocktails there is an experience, and as the bartenders mix, pour and shake the drinks, they also answer questions, give history lessons and tell anecdotes. At one point I ask Lorincz what the difference is between the various gins. With a flourish, he produces glasses from behind each different brand of gin filled with the botanicals in the drink. He asks me to smell them, and explains how the gins are made.
The opportunities for Lorincz keep on coming. Last year, he was asked to train the Skyfall actresses on how to act as bartenders for the film. He also created the Skyfall, a martini-inspired drink made from gin, vodka, aperitivo wine, Chinese plum wine, yuzu (a Japanese citrus juice) and a home-made Turkish syrup: an ingredient from each location in the film. The cocktail was served during the Royal World Premiere of Skyfall at the Tate Modern in London where the after-party was held. “My cocktail shakers also ended up in the movie,” Lorincz says proudly. “The golden shaker in the film is from my own personal collection.”
So what’s next for Lorincz? When I ask what his next dream is, he goes all coy. “Some dreams you like to keep to yourself,” he says.
Whatever his dream is, it’s a safe bet that Lorincz is not going to rest until it comes true.