Nick Koumbarakis at work

Nick Koumbarakis at work. picture by Tracey Adams

I interviewed Nick the other day and he schooled me on bartending. He says there is more to being a bartender than just mixing drinks as fast as you can. Nick Koumbarakis aka ‘The Alchemist’, is South Africa’s recently crowned Bartender of the Year.

“Bartending is a noble and honourable craft that has allowed me to express my creative side. In Africa we are still in the foetal stages when it comes to bartending. We are still trying to elevate the craft to the level of countries such as America, Japan and London, where bartending is well respected and valued,” says the 30- year-old, who is representing the country at the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year competition in France this month.

Nick Koumbarakis picture by Tracey Adams

Nick Koumbarakis picture by Tracey Adams

Koumbarakis, of Orphanage Cocktail Emporium in Bree Street, has been honing his skills for the past 13 years. “Professional bartending has been perceived as an undervalued profession. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, career bartending was a well-established, highly respected job… the competition will help to elevate the craft to that level in this country,” says Koumbarakis.

The search for South Africa’s top mixologist took eight months, with
six bartenders vying for the crown. Each month the contestants were tasked with creating a drink to match a certain theme. They were judged on speed, creativity, the drink’s taste and aroma, and theatrical performance.

picture by Tracey Adams

picture by Tracey Adams

Watching Koumbarakis create a drink is hypnotic. He mixes with
slow, show-style flicks of the wrist. Every movement is deliberate and
practised as he carefully pours his creation into a shaker,
gives it a calculated hard shake, before pouring it into a glass.
“There is a thought process behind each drink I create. I literally
take a classic, mix it up with my personality in a way that connects with my customer. I have to make sure that a customer walks away happy and satisfied.”

To perfect his style, Koumbarakis spends hours practising in front of
the mirror, to make sure every movement is graceful and measured,
he says.

Born and raised in Port Elizabeth, Koumbarakis’s journey started at the bottom of the ladder, as a bar-back, collecting and
washing glasses, while studying to become a quantity surveyor.
“I needed money to supplement my varsity tuition. I slowly progressed
up the ranks and everything kind of fell into place, and I realised
that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says.

His conservative Greek family expected him to join the family business. “It was difficult at first. Everyone expected me to do thenormal nine to five, but my passion took over.” Perseverance and determination have been key ingredients in his success. “Patience and a good personality make a first-rate bartender. Everything else can be mastered or learnt,” he says.

A Classic Daiquiri – a mixture of rum, lime and sugar syrup – was the
first cocktail Koumbarakis made. “The Classic Daiquiri is an ultimate test for emerging bartenders as it has to be balanced.
Cocktails have existed for over 200 years, they are much more than
pink drinks and umbrellas. Their ingredients are complex combinations of flavour profiles and techniques,” he says.

Other classics, such as gin and tonic, are a favourite with the Cape
Town crowd, he says. “Cocktails are constantly inspired by art and fashion’s luxurious and glamorous trends. We are seeing a lot of art
incorporated into drinks and it’s constantly evolving.”

Nick's Negroni classic gin cocktail recipe

Nick’s Negroni classic gin
cocktail recipe

25ml Tanqueray Gin
25ml Campari Aperitif (for a
sweeter option try Aperol
25ml Sweet red vermouth
Place all the ingredients in a tumbler glass. Add ice and stir to perfection. Bartenders joke about the perfect stir being seven stirs to the left and then seven to the right. Garnish with an orange
twist. To make the garnish: slice off a section of orange peel with a knife or potato peeler.

Rub the outside of the skin on the rim of the tumbler to add aromatic notes of orange to the drink. Squeeze the skin over the drink to release even more of the oils. When you are done, place the
whole skin in the drink.

This story was first published in the Cape Argus newspaper on June 20 2013.

One thought on “Cheers!

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