Tell us about the back-story of the Athens and Greece bar scene?
The first contemporary-style bar opened in Athens in 1958. Designed by the Greek modernist architect Provelegios, Au Revoir is in Patission Street and was the place to be in those days. The bar exists and still has the same owners, but the area is now shabby.
The mid-90s changed the way Athenians entertained, with new era bars, such as the famous Bar Guru Bar, a Thai restaurant-cocktail bar with a lively jazz scene. I worked there with Michael Menegos, who later became the global brand ambassador of Havana Club.
Baba Au Rum, which opened in 2009, was the bar that brought the new cocktail era to Greece and changed the bar scene. Other fine bars followed.
What are the most popular drinks in Greece?
Now there is a huge cocktail bar scene in Athens. Gin is the most popular spirit with G&Ts and cocktails, and rum has many fans. Traditional spirits such as ouzo or tsipouro (both grape distillates) have always been popular, particularly among older people. It’s difficult to find them at contemporary cocktail bars, but easy at university student bars and cafes. There are Greek aged brandies and other liqueurs such as mastiha that you can find in cocktail bars.
How has recession affected Athens’ bar scene?
It really affected our business especially in 2012 and 2013 – business went down 20%-30%. Things are now going a little better, with business up in the past three months. Even though unemployment is 27%, lots of new bars have opened in our area of Athens.
We are less busy from Monday to Wednesday and people are choosing to drink good drinks and cocktails but less than before. There is not really a lot of money around. We decided to try to keep quality high and have less profit. We believe Athens deserves to have a couple of really good bars.
What is most positive about the Athens bar scene?
There is a big bar scene right now. There is a beautiful bar called CV with a huge spirit back bar. There you can try vintage spirits and Porto wines that are 80 years old. A for Athens is the bar with probably one of the most beautiful views in the world, just in front of the Acropolis Parthenon. There are many other fine bars.
Athens bars are happy places and it’s easy to do bar crawls. Bars all have DJs and at the moment drinks (about 60-70ml) are cheap at about €6-€7, while cocktails are around €9.
Are there any new ingredients?
We do use Skinos mastiha spirit (a local tree by-product with a unique taste) and other aged Greek brandies from top wine makers. We also use pastry techniques to decorate our cocktails, although I personally love minimal decors.
There is a revolution also in traditional high quality herb and fruit liqueurs, where old companies have been rejuvenated and have new packaging and promotions.
Because of the recession young, unemployed people with good qualifications but no hope of finding a proper job have started small boutique drinks brands.
Who are the well-known Greek bartenders?
Giannis Petris is a famous old bartender, although in his early 30s. He is a pioneer and ‘father’ of many new top bartenders. He works at Pere Ubu bar, at the seaside suburb of Glyfada – a really fine bar/restaurant. He has come second at the Havana Club Grand Prix.
Thodoris Pirillos also is a star – a modest guy and always a gentleman. He was winner of the last Greek World Class competition.
George Bagos works at the beautiful tequila bar Dos Agaves in downtown Athens, very close to Baba Au Rum. He is a pioneer who loves challenges. People love him as an entertainer. He was also winner of the global Amaretto di Saronno cocktail challenge.
Where does Athens’ bar scene get its influence?
The London scene is an influence. Greek bartenders are very well educated and trained and there is a strong bartending community which follows international events such as European and US bar shows and competitions and they travel a lot. The Bar Show in Athens, now in its fifth year, takes place in November and attracts many foreign guests.
Thanos Prunarus at DI's World's 50 Best Bars event in London