The Mandrake, the Myth, the Legend: an Interview with Walter Pintus
When Walter Pintus took up the position as bar manager at the newly-opened Mandrake Hotel's Waeska Bar, he had his work cut out for him in designing a cocktail menu that could tastefully incorporate the Mandrake Hotel's core qualities of hedonism, mysticism, and surrealism. Pintus rose to the challenge, taking inspiration from the hotel's name to develop a menu that revolves around rare and medicinal ingredients from all over the world. From the Japanese spirit Yuzushu to the Australian wattleseed, Waeska's cocktails are filled with ingredients you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Here, Pintus discusses the processes that went into designing this esoteric menu.
The Mandrake Hotel has a very unique and mystical aesthetic; what methods did you use to design a menu that reflected that?
We wanted to create a concept that would stand out, and the legendary mandrake plant - from which the eclectic hotel takes its name - seemed an inspiring starting point. A lot of the work that we've done to reflect the mystical aesthetic of the venue into the menu revolves around ingredients. An effective way to bring this to life has been the use of rare herbs and roots that in the past were utilized as antidotes, associated with legends and magical rituals, or spices that still used today as natural remedies. Most of the team, myself included, have traveled a lot around Asia and South America, so there is a certain knowledge - and above all, curiosity - for those ancient traditions and mythical practices behind the end result of our menu. Continuous research and experimentation on these ingredients have resulted in the current menu (and mostly in the forthcoming one), where we have tried to come up with a selection of distinctive yet balanced flavours to cater for everyone's palate.
To give you an idea, for the Geisha we cook Cocchi Rosa with pickled cherry blossom before mixing it with champagne, Peychaud's bitters, and Umeshu plum. For those who love a smoky sip, the Hive is the result of a marriage between Laphroaig, bee pollen, galangal, salted orange blossom and en rama fino.
How does Waeska's focus on small batch distillers and rarer spirits drive the direction of the menu?
We pride ourselves on working with some very rare gems from all over the globe. Again, it's all down to the effort to create that mysticism that our guests breathe when they walk in and then taste when they sip their drink. Working with small batch distilleries gives us an incredible amount of freedom and stimulates the creativity that is needed to foster an interesting cocktail collection such as ours. Probably the wide selection of small producers doesn't influence the cocktail menu, but it's rather the idea of mixology that we've put behind Waeska that leads us to source these rare products. For example, we're currently working with a herbologist to produce a bespoke gin distilled from mandragora that he grows in his own nursery herb garden, something we’re really excited about.
When using ingredients that have sacred or medicinal roots, what sort of process do you go through to design cocktails that reflect those ingredients' origins?
We never go through the same process; each cocktail has a different background, and consequently a different research, in the build up. There is a lot of experimentation though, and that is the constant element for us. It's the most challenging, yet stimulating, part of the job. Flavour is the key, so we start from there to build taste and find the right balance with a predominant hint of the drink's theme and origin. Garnish, glassware and of course the name (Geisha, described above, is an obvious reference to the Japanese Umeshu Plum) serve the same purpose.
All of Waeska's syrups, garnishes, and bitters are made on-site; what benefits do you feel this lends to your menu? Are there any particular challenges that come with making everything on-site?
The process is of course time consuming, but like any craft, mixology too requires the same attention to detail as, say, cooking: it often involves balancing a variety of complex and often obscure ingredients to elevate the drink further. We’re lucky to have a dedicated and professional team who are each committed to preparing our syrups, bitters and garnishes each day to be enjoyed by guests. It’s also a great way to compliment our cocktails; they enhance our flavours and make the process of enjoying a drink at Waeska bar far more experiential.
In regards to your collaboration with the chef: In what ways does having a chef's perspective on certain ingredients influence the development of your cocktails?
As I mentioned previously, I believe that bartending is closely linked to cooking. At the end of day, it's a matter of flavour from both perspectives! In addition, over the past few years we have witnessed an incredible evolution in the bar industry, with innovation and research being the key drivers. Today, bartenders are looked at as artisans and masters of flavour in the same way chefs are, and mixology has become a true gourmet discipline. It goes without saying that collaborating with the head chef of Serge et Le Phoque (the resident restaurant at The Mandrake), Frédéric Peneau, is a honour. He is of massive help and really helps me to improve my ability in understanding flavours and combinations. I go to the kitchen whenever I can, simply to look and admire the way the team treat and respect their ingredients. I tend to ask millions of questions because I am amazed at the sight of their work. They must roll their eyes each time I walk in... but that's for the sake of learning!
About Walter Pintus
From a hospitality career that began working for his family business in Sardinia through to positions at some of London’s finest bars, Walter is widely regarded as one of the capital’s most respected bartenders and mixologists.
It was after cutting his teeth in some of his home country’s most prestigious establishments, the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este on Lake Como among them, that Walter decided to make the move to London in 2008. After a short stay at The Sheraton, he joined the award-winning Lobby Bar at One Aldwych where he was quickly promoted to head bartender.
Two years later he assumed control of the legendary Rivoli Bar at The Ritz, spending three years entertaining global A listers and collecting a string of awards, including Best UK Bartender 2013. His cocktail recipes were showcased in everything from Vogue to GQ and he even made a guest appearance on the BBC Two programme, James Martin: Home Comforts.
In March 2015 Walter became head mixologist at the world-famous Connaught Bar where his career really took off. Here he was the recipient of such accolades as GQ’s Bar of the Year 2015, World’s Best Bar at the 10th annual Spirited Awards and a top five placing in The World's 50 Best Bars.
The past year has seen Walter become global ambassador for Beluga vodka, travelling the world to share the brand’s fascinating heritage and premium taste, and showcasing a dazzling array of innovative cocktails.
In the summer of 2017 he joined the opening team at The Mandrake’s stunning Waeska Bar where he head-hunted, and now presides over, a team of 18.