When he picks up the phone, Elias Stergiopoulos tells us that his recent schedule’s been hectic. The bar he works at – Baba au Rum, in Athens – is always very busy, and there’s the Athens Rum & Whisky Festival this weekend. Organized by Baba and Difford’s Guide, it brings to town international luminaries such as Tristan Stephenson for seminars and bars such as Imperial Cocktail Bar for guests shifts. And he has a six months old baby. But, yes, he is available for a short conversation – after all, it’s the multi-faceted, time-consuming aspect of the work in the industry that he seems to like.
As many great barkeeps, he started in the industry in his student days. He could have worked in electronics, but the hustle and bustle of life behind the counter has something few other careers have. He’s been at it for almost fifteen years now, over five of which he has spent at Baba au Rum, widely recognized as one of the world’s best bars. When we ask him how he ended up in such a respected bar, Elias makes it sound very natural. “My last place before Baba was a small, all day coffee place. It was in the same neighbourhood. It was good for me: I started to create original cocktails and develop as a bartender. And two or three times a week, I would go to Baba as a client, chat with the staff, try the drinks, the rums, the whisky… At one point, the owner, Thanos Prunarus, asked me to join the team”.
It was a crucial time for Baba au Rum and the Athens cocktail scene: Elias joined mere months before the bar was named for the first time on the 50 World’s Best Bars list. “Baba au Rum is the place where it all began,” says Elias, “it helped introduce rum and cocktail culture in Greece. That’s why it’s an exceptional bar.” At the same time, other cities not considered as traditional cocktail bastions also saw quality bars opening – in that sense, Baba au Rum belongs, with Jerry Thomas in Rome or Ruby in Copenhagen, to a generation that helped shift the gravity centre of the cocktail scene.
Since then, Athens has grown from strength to strength and the scene is very different now. Maybe because he is bang in the centre of it, Elias is not quite sure how to explain this insane development. It’s clear, though, that they are standing on the shoulders of giants: “Athens was very good at following the boom in the cocktail industry. Thanos started something with Baba au Rum, but there was also Michael Menegos, the godfather of our cocktail scene. He took bartenders like Thanos to London, where they visited bars and had seminars with people like Ben Reed and when they came back, they started doing different things…”
So it’s good news for the Greek scene that the younger generation is being mentored and challenged to learn by people with such wide experience. And Elias loves to learn, as he makes it clear when we ask him if he wants to open his own bar one day: “It’s not a priority. Three years ago, I visited Peru and I started to research pisco production, culture, etc. Since then, I went even deeper and returned to visit small distilleries. I want to pursue this project and start researching the distillates of Latin America”. An understandable passion for a bartender at a rum bar…
We don’t know if he intends to research rum even more than he has at this point, but he got a unique opportunity to look at it from a different perspective when he judged the 2018 Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix last May in Havana. “I think it’s somewhat unique. It’s a competition with a lot of heart and it takes place in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Judging a competition was something I wanted to do but I didn’t expect it to happen so early. It was a huge honour for me but also for the Greek cocktail scene”. It was an honour for the Grand Prix too, we’re sure, to count on a bartender from such a vibrant city, and one with so much heart.