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There’s a bedrock of tradition at the heart of bartending

Alex the Barman

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I was born in Moltrasio, I grew up here, then I travelled the world for work, going wherever a barman was needed and I could learn. I never thought that work would bring me back to Moltrasio one day – but then Passalacqua opened, and here I am! One thing I have realized is that I need to live near water. When I was young, I opened my window every morning and saw the lake. Later, when I went to work in London, I couldn’t stand being so pent up – so I ran away to Brighton, to be by the sea. Then I spent a couple of years on cruise ships, with the ocean all around me.

Water isn’t just a scenic backdrop in Moltrasio. It’s also been historically important for the town’s economy. There were once 13 flour mills here, all powered by streams and torrents that descended from the mountains above town to the lake. There were also five or six quarries, where the famous ‘Sasso di Moltrasio’ building stone was extracted by hand. It’s an indestructible, light-gray, white-veined stone that becomes beautifully dark in the rain. You don’t have to go far to see it. The whole of Passalacqua is made from Sasso di Moltrasio – including the secret underground passageway that leads from the villa down to the lake. If you get a chance to walk through it, look carefully at the walls and ceiling. Every block is so beautifully squared, you wonder how on earth they did it two hundred years ago. It’s not an easy stone to work, it takes a lot of chiseling.

Moltrasio has a very special civic spirit, even in a country like Italy that’s full of proud local communities. You only have to visit the Cooperativa Moltrasina to realise this. It’s a kind of cross between shop, bar, social club and mutual aid society, it’s been going for a hundred and twenty years, and it’s still thriving today. They renovated it a few years back without betraying the vintage look. They do concerts and cultural events there, and you eat very well at their restaurant, the Trattoria La Moltrasina.

"A good barista needs to know all about spirits and mixers. But he or she also needs to be an expert psychologist.“

The bar and cocktail scene evolves so fast. Foams are the big thing right now. But to be honest with you, there’s a bedrock of tradition at the heart of bartending that nobody will ever change. Take the Negroni, for example. The official story is that it was invented by Count Camillo Negroni in Florence in 1919. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s an evolution of the Americano, which in turn is an evolution of the ‘Milano-Torino’, a cocktail that goes back to the 1860s. All Count Camillo did was ask a barman to replace the club soda in his Americano with gin. So you could say that the Negroni was in gestation for sixty years. Another fifty passed before a barman in Milan created the ‘Negroni Sbagliato’, in 1972, by replacing the gin with Spumante Brut. Since then, nobody has dreamed up a ‘Milano-Torino’ variation that has caught on. There are new fashions every season, but only a few classic cocktails are born each century.

A good barista needs to know all about spirits and mixers. But he or she also needs to be an expert psychologist. I love the challenge of finding out what moves a guest, what they really live for. You have to go in gently, to try different routes to open someone up, to untie that knot they have in their head. I’ve had clients who hardly say a word, but when you find their passion, they can’t stop talking. This happened to me recently with a gentleman who was incredibly shy. But when I found the magic topic of conversation, that was it, whoosh! His wife came to look for him hours later and he said: “Can’t you see I’m talking to Alex?”.

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