In today’s interview we will get to know Saša Lovrenščak, a famous Croatian barman, lecturer and manager of the Nekić Barology Cocktail Studio in Zagreb, who will tell us a little about the world of cocktails.
Saša Lovrenščak, Photo by Saša Jurić
ZIYP: Saša, over the last few years we have noticed that in Zagreb, indeed all over Croatia, more and more ambitious bars are opening up. Can we say that there’s some sort of bar revival going on?
Saša: We could say that. In fact the whole sector of food, drink and desserts seems to be on the up through marketing and TV. Restaurant and bar owners are educating themselves more and more, seeking information,either through social networks or through training in which people who work in the business, who are ultimately the ambassadors of these services,educate themselves. In Zagreb a change has been taking place over the past two to three years, which has been incarnated in the opening of new restaurants and bars. They are driving a “new culture”, or rather they are bringing back the culture of enjoying a drink on the right foundations. They are returning value to the sector primarily by educating staff and keeping up with the latest trends since new drinks, spices, liqueurs, syrups, powders, glasses, shakers and equipment are appearing on the market every day.
ZIYP: As guests are ever more demanding and better informed, they want excellent service, and they also want new experiences. To enable that bar staff and bar owners need to be increasingly well educated. Since you have been involved in training and education for years could you tell us about the Nekić Barology Cocktail Studio and your work?
Saša: People, or rather staff, are the most important element. You can have great foundations; beautiful lamps, the loveliest tables, chairs, cutlery and what have you, but in the end it’s the staff that make that space. I definitely do not go somewhere for the interior design. Even though it is an important element and is part of the whole impression, excellent staff can overcome certain shortcomings of a space. I am a teacher in the Nekić Barology Cocktail Studio, and with my partner Marin Nekić over more than 20 years we have turned something which is our passion into a business, or rather a profession which is simply our way of life. We educate bar staff, we work for several hotel chains, we train staff, we create new menus, I am an associate lecturer at the catering school and I work in a bar on Hvar island. A great many people have undergone training at the Cocktail Studio and with me over the years, and I am glad that some of them are today my respected colleagues and friends, and I am also exceptionally happy to see that more and more women are becoming interested in this job, including my “right hand man”, my sister, who helps me a great deal in the studio and in the bar on Hvar. We offer individual training as well group trainings and workshops. For more information anyone can contact us by email or telephone.
ZIYP: How do you keep up with international trends, do you travel?
Saša: I personally keep up with trends through the internet and social networks, you can see and learn a great deal but it is different when you personally try and experience things. So although I keep up with everything that is going on through digital media, today I learn most through travelling, and that enriches me and every time brings me something new, first and foremost new friends, new cocktails, ingredients, experiences…
ZIYP: We have noticed that recently people more and more are ordering gin when they go out. How did it happen that it suddenly became “in”?
Saša: Gin has been drunk for years, and its popularity is thanks to the marketing activities of manufacturers and distributors. Maybe it sounds coarse to say so, but it has grown into big business. Thanks to my fellow barmen who have packaged it into a fantastic story, combining several more important segments such as botanical plants, spices, several kinds of tonic, ways of serving, shape of the glass, and quality, shape and dimension of ice. The entire category has simply taken on such a form that I am sure there are people who drink gin and tonic just because it is a trend, and not because they know what gin is, what it is made from, what kinds of gin there are etc. It is now a trend and it’s just a matter of time when that trend will be replaced by new trends which have already been highlighted at a couple of exhibitions.
ZIYP: Which flavours are most popular with customers, and do they change with the seasons?
Saša: I would add to the story of gin here, which is a unique alcoholic spirit, that at the moment new age gins with various flavourings which lend a sweeter taste which is acceptable to a larger number of people are very current. Since gin by its nature is the driest drink in the bar it is ideal for preparing dry or bitter aperitif cocktails, and in order to conceal that dryness you have to add some essences. That is why gin and tonic with various flavourings is popular: rose, grapefruit, elderflower etc.
ZIYP: Which cocktails are most popular?
Saša: I am very happy to see that drinking cocktails is coming back into fashion so that people are drinking cocktails throughout the year and not just in summer. That is the most popular trend, adapting to the season through ingredients and drinks. That is why the “craft” and “signature” stories are so current today, creating authentic cocktails based on seasonal ingredients. And as far as popularity is concerned the Mojito is as popular as gin and tonic.
ZIYP: What is your favourite cocktail or drink?
Saša: Definitely these: Mosco muel, a simple mixed drink made of high quality vodka and ginger beer; Negroni, a classic which is coming back in Croatia too; Martini, Espresso Martini and Americano. They are all classics which have been made for years, but through applying creativity and art these cocktails are coming back and this is a case of serious mixology.
ZIYP: Where are your favourite places to go out for a drink in Zagreb during your free time?
Saša: I very rarely have free time, but since the Cocktail Studio is in the city centre during my break I sometimes visit coffee shops and bars which are very popular today, a closely related industry. I go everywhere, but for bars, to drink a good cocktail or whisky or enjoy a cigar there’s definitely Dežman bar; for a more relaxed alternative vibe I would single out Swanky Monkey Garden, and the new Aperitivo bar which is a great step forward for Zagreb. I am also gladdened to see that the restaurants have started to develop the culture of the aperitif, the digestif and the cocktail, marrying them with food, and I would definitely highlight Noel, Barbieri’s, Dubravkin put, Hotel Esplanade and Time Bar & Restaurant.
ZIYP: Is there anything new on the Adriatic coast that you would recommend?
Saša: I would give full marks to Split, where they’ve invested a great deal of effort in the restaurant and bar scene, Dubrovnik too, and the islands of Pag and Krk. I am glad that vineyards have started to open mini or boutique hotels with their own bars or mini bars, an excellent offering of wines and other alcoholic drinks.
Teja i Saša Lovrenščak
ZIYP: What inspires you when creating new drinks?
Saša: Actually life itself inspires me: sleeping, reading, watching TV, various programmes, walking through the city, through the market, a shop, people, travel… ideas fall on me from the heavens. You have to love what you do, to live it, and ideas actually come to you from nowhere. Looking at nature, a flower, a tree… I love nature and I love flowers. That is a pretty important aspect and a synonym in the Ka’Lavanda bar on Hvar where I work. Flowers, decoration, the visual appeal of a cocktail connect me quite a lot with that.
ZIYP: What about the story of the first Croatian national cocktail, the Crocktail?
Saša: The Crocktail is an excellent story, mainly thanks to my friend Marin Nekić. The idea was to get recognised and in a way break into the global scene with our cocktail culture, but also with Croatian commerce, small family agricultural businesses and people who work on the land. Through Zadar’s famous Maraschino liqueur, which has a long history and is famous around the world, we wanted to introduce bar staff and people who are entering the world of cocktails to our story. With that story we have inspired Croatian winemakers to start producing their own liqueurs, gins and so on.
ZIYP: What are your plans for this year?
Saša: In February there are a few excellent exhibitions coming up; two gastro fairs, the Nautical fair, wine exhibitions, the Masterclasses and at the Whisky Fair will be exciting; Croatian Cocktail Week in the spring, preparation for the coming tourist season which is the peak of our business year, new journeys, new ideas and new friends. Step by step…