Before bartenders became mixologists and every dive made their own bitters, there was Colin Field. Darrell Hartman pulls up a stool with the legendary Ritz Paris bartender to talk cocktails, craft and why negronis are like Rice Krispies.
Few people feel as comfortable behind a bar as Colin Field. Not just his home bar—at the Ritz, in Paris—but any bar. Since the Ritz closed for three years of renovations in 2012, its legendary head barman has been serving short stints at some of the planet’s most upscale watering holes. Think of him as a traveling maestro, one who doubles as an ambassador for the world’s original luxury hotel.
Field’s latest shift is at The Mark, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s a Tuesday evening there, and Field—as he often does—alternates between native English and fluent French as he chats with customers. Asked for an autograph, he puts down his bar spoon and picks up a pen. “Be right back,” he announces, coming out from behind the bar to greet a friend who’s a concierge at the Pierre. Clearly, it’s a juggling act the 53-year-old Englishman has performed before.
Field comes back to serve up a wonderfully dry French 75—gin, lemon juice, sugar, Champagne—with an accompanying plate of beef carpaccio. (He’ll be doing pairings like this when his Ritz bar, the Hemingway, reopens next fall.) The fizzy drink that follows complements the appetizer just as nicely. He calls it the Sorrento; it’s a product of his summer stint at southern Italy’s Vittoria Excelsior. There he was, Field relates, in the birthplace of limoncello, and yet no one he met had thought of mixing the citrus liqueur with Prosecco. Voilà. A Colin Field cocktail was born.
In his 22 years with the Ritz, Field has often traveled. He’s done speaking engagements abroad, and handled drinks for his friend Kate Moss’s wedding. But his life lately has been truly nomadic. It’s brought him a renewed appreciation of places like Tuscany’s Il Pellicano, where the waiters “might apologize when you order a crôque monsieur and a Bellini, saying they should have known that was what you wanted.” He continues to admire the “respect and the execution” of Tokyo bartenders, not to mention the “perfectly clear cubes of ice, something only the Japanese can do at this point.”
Field realized he was a traditionalist early on. “As a child, I was fascinated by silver service,” he recalls. Trends both stimulate and amuse him—take America’s current obsession with the Negroni, for example. “In Europe, a Negroni is like Rice Krispies,” he says. “We’ve been doing it forever.” And why, he wonders, do the most innovative bartenders in London all seem to be Italian? (There’s Ago Perrone, at the Connaught; Salvatore Calabrese, now installed at the Playboy Club; Walter Pintus, at the Rivoli Bar.) Meanwhile, he notes, “the Italian bartenders in Italy are making extremely classic Tom Collinses and gin fizzes.”
Field’s ideal bar isn’t old or new, sleek or shabby—it’s intelligently designed. “What will make great bars,” he stresses, “is when architects get off their stools and start talking to bartenders.” That’s what’s happening at the Ritz, where Field is asking for a disposal system for broken glass and an “inverted microwave” that can chill a bottle in two minutes.
He serves up the next drink. It’s a twist on Bloody Mary, made with tequila and yuzu juice and crowned with a thin froth of celery and radish. Taking cocktails to the next level, Field concludes, is a question of fusing the best of all worlds. Take the “marvelously imaginative” approach of Americans like Audrey Saunders and Jim Meehan. Add the stringent education requirements of France or Switzerland. Pour the resulting mix over those beautifully transparent ice cubes from Japan. Enjoy.
Field will be mixing drinks at Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento again at the end of December and The Ritz London in February.