Community at Heart of Russian Bar

 Copitas in St. Petersburg, Russia, has a Mexican theme and a communal table in the middle where everyone sits.
El Copitas in St. Petersburg, Russia, has a Mexican theme and a communal table in the middle where everyone sits. (Photo: El Copitas)

In the days leading up to the opening of El Copitas Bar in St. Petersburg, Russia, Artem Peruk and his team didn’t have a single chair to offer guests — and they weren’t too worried about it. “We were asking all of our friends who owned bars if they could each lend us one chair, so by the time we needed to open doors we ended up with about 30 seats in the room,” he says.

There was another perk to that strategy. “It was also a good way of getting all of the bartenders and bar managers through the door to check us out — everyone was like, ‘What the heck is going on with these guys who need all these chairs?’” says Peruk.

It wasn’t entirely a marketing ploy. When the team opened the bar on Jan. 1, 2015, during the height of the EU-US sanctions on Russia, the ruble’s value was down by two-thirds. Big box stores like Ikea had shuttered (hence the lack of chairs). And forget about acquiring booze as easily as before — vendors and distributors didn’t want to take the risk of selling goods when prices were changing as quickly and as drastically as they were. Uncertainty prevailed as an economic crisis unfolded day by day. Yet Peruk and his team couldn’t think of a better time to open shop.

“Everyone was saying it was impossible, but we decided that if there is a crisis — and there was a huge crisis and there still is — that only the strongest would survive,” he says. “It was the best environment in which we could show our skills — we had no choice but to do our very best.”

That’s exactly what they’ve been doing since with El Copitas Bar, a Mexican-inspired hangout in St. Petersburg that prides itself on the hospitality each of the owners experienced during visits to Mexico. For Nikolay Kiselev, it was the food he tasted there. For Igor Zernov, it was the agave-based spirits. For Peruk, an English and German teacher, it was the way he saw the country educating their youth.

Artem Peruk Artem Peruk (Photo: El Copitas)
“I was mesmerized by the way they tried to teach their children. It was so intense and heartfelt,” he remembers. It was during a dinner brainstorming session between the three friends that they settled on the idea, feeling it was a bar philosophy that would unite them.

They gave themselves just one month to open shop — a unicorn of plans in the hospitality industry, but one they stuck to nonetheless thanks to financial obligations, a liquor license purchase, and, perhaps most importantly, a vision. “I prefer to fix the problems as they happen than to think about everything being absolutely perfect and not doing anything for months,” says Peruk.

And they had their problems. The first being that their mezcaleria was missing one key offering: agave spirits. “In the first few months we had no money to buy tequila or mezcal,” says Peruk. And even if they could have afforded it, availability was another question entirely. The agave spirit category in Russia was nearly nonexistent — especially mezcal — making its consistent acquisition particularly challenging. “Tequila and mezcal weren’t popular spirits here, and distributors didn’t want to spend the money to bring a category to a country that wasn’t interested in it,” says Peruk. So the three did what they do best — they asked for a little help from their friends.

“We started asking our European friends and friends who were traveling to bring us bottles of mezcal so we could maintain our identity as a mezcal-focused bar,” notes Peruk. “And that’s how we got by for the first few months — we made drinks from the bottles we were receiving from our community.”

A portion of the bar at El Copitas. A portion of the bar at El Copitas. (Photo: El Copitas)
Those drinks took the form of Latin-inspired favorites and classics alike, from palomas and margaritas to old-fashioneds and cobblers — each complete with a Russian twist. Case in point with the Arandas Sour, a melding of tequila, agave syrup and lemon juice, complete with the local flair of a black Russian salt-smoked egg white and chokeberry juice. Then there’s the SunFlower Margo, a coupette of fermented Russian honey, Suze and tequila-infused sunflower seeds and oil — two ingredients native to the region.

It’s his patrons’ ability to recognize those classics that reminds Peruk just how thankful he is to be planted in a city like St. Petersburg, one that he finds much more educated when it comes to food and drink than other parts of the country. “The people in St. Petersburg know what a cobbler and old-fashioned are, so when you put a twist on one of these, they already know what to expect,” he says. “It’s not like Moscow, where everyone just wants really trendy, really molecular cocktails that they’re going to forget about within a day.” The other bonus to bar culture in his city, he notes, is proximity. “In Moscow you can forget about barhopping because everything is so far apart, but here, we’re all situated near each other, so you can bring your glasses from one bar to another,” he notes. “After the weekend, all of the barbacks go out to gather the glasses to bring back to their respective bars — it’s great.”

When those glasses make their way in front of guests at El Copitas Bar, it’s on one long table with one bartender standing at its head, shaking and stirring for guests all night long. “Whether they want to or not, guests are forced to look at each other and communicate,” says Peruk. That dinner party-esque environment is just one way Peruk and his team are trying to channel the hospitality they experienced in Mexico. It’s what, far beyond any drink ingredients, Peruk hopes patrons will remember most after a visit to their bar.

“Anyone can make a drink, but not everyone can inspire their guests,” he says. “It’s not just about how we host people, but how we inspire them to want to be better in every way — just like how we try to be.”

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