By Sasha Haines-Stiles
With Storm Stella descending on New York City, Pointy Snout took shelter in the best place we could think of: Mace Bar, a cozy spot in the far East Village where our friend and collaborator Nico de Soto is shaking up cocktails as well as cocktail culture. There, hunkered down over a tin of Caviar Avant-Garde and an expertly prepared Pandan — de Soto’s signature drink, and Mace’s bestseller — we daydreamed about escaping the impending snow (perhaps to Miami, where he might have a new project brewing), and reminisced about that time he flew over from Europe to create three drinks for our launch party in Soho.
Those custom cocktails — The Grainy Evening, Northern Light and The Caspian Sea – were brilliant inventions in the eclectic, complex yet impeccably balanced style for which de Soto has become famous. What’s more, he composed each one specifically to suit the taste and texture of Pointy Snout caviar — truly bespoke beverages created by the master. (Sample ingredients from that evening’s beverage menu include Genever, Kirschwasser, Boston Bittahs, Absinthe and Laphroaig Mist.) We were honored to have the then-GM of Experimental Cocktail Club London join us for our debut event, particularly since Pointy Snout’s favorite way to enjoy caviar is straight up, by the spoonful, served with a tasty and unexpected drink.
On the occasion of our more recent get-together, de Soto, an inveterate globetrotter, has just returned from a month and a half on the road on a Mace pop-up tour, stopping in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. “I chose this job for the travel,” he says. “Some people open a bar and are there every day and take excellent care of their customers and that’s their life. For me, that’s not the point. When a bar has a name, you can promote it, and travel and have fun.”
Indeed, after just two years, the name Mace is on the lips of beverage connoisseurs worldwide, thanks to its exceptional drinks and de Soto’s well-earned reputation as one of the finest mixologists around. The spice-driven concept, named after the skin that surrounds the nutmeg, first opened its doors in March 2015. Just a few months later, it landed on the list of the World’s Top 50 Bars. In 2016, it jumped to Number 28.
For de Soto, taking Mace on tour was a chance to bring its flavors and ideas to far-flung reaches of the globe as well as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to explore the contemporary bar scene and join forces with top bartenders. In addition to pop-up nights at PS40 in Sydney, Black Pearl in Melbourne, Omakase + Appreciate in Kuala Lumpur, Nautilus Bar in Jakarta, Manhattan Bar in Singapore, Charles H in Seoul, Stockton in Hong Kong and PR Bar in Tokyo – all sponsored by the likes of Pierre Ferrand cognac, Plantation Rum, Grey Goose, Suze, Citadelle Gin and Pernod Absinthe – de Soto made it a point to conduct some serious market research. “In 45 days I visited 116 bars. I’m still recovering.”
It was, in fact, de Soto’s love of travel that first propelled him into the industry. He began bartending in Australia simply to make a buck while having some fun and seeing the world. Back then, he says, he didn’t know much about the business or much else having to do with cocktails. “Especially in France it’s something we don’t really learn. At the time, we had really bad quality ingredients in cocktails then, so I had no idea.” Over time, he began to fall in love with the art of cocktails and dedicated himself to learning the classics and the craft from such luminaries as Sasha Petraske and Tony Conigliaro. Putting in that work, he believes, is all-important – so important that he didn’t create his first serious cocktail menu until after four years of bartending.
“Young bartenders want to create a cocktail, but they don’t know the classics,” he says, adding that learning how to make iconic drinks perfectly, appreciating the balance of components in recipes that have stood the test of time, and training for consistent execution are all keys to a bar’s success. “Creating a drink is not the most important part of bartending. Being here, replicating the drink perfectly, knowing the classics and receiving people perfectly – that’s what is.”
Of course, the evolution of classic ideas is in many ways de Soto’s raison d'être. His innovative tendencies have influenced everything from his involvement in developing the aptly named Experimental Cocktail Club to the launch of Mace with co-owner Greg Boehm (of Cocktail Kingdom) to the more recent opening of Danico in Paris. There, de Soto has what is in many ways the bar kitchen of his dreams, complete with a centrifuge, sous vide and other cutting-edge gadgets one would be less surprised to find behind the scenes at a Michelin-starred restaurant than in a cocktail den. The aim, de Soto says, is “to use modern techniques to achieve perfection with flavors. You can control acidity, sweetness, the pH, and really play with cocktails like with food.”
That creative streak coupled with inspiration from on the road has yielded some of de Soto’s greatest hits. Which brings us back to the cocktail we’re currently enjoying, the Pandan – a transporting concoction of Trinidad and Jamaican rum, Batavia arrack infused with pandan leaves, clarified milk, pineapple, lime and ginger juices, black tea, coconut water and a dash of various spices. (It is mixed and served to us by the masterful bartender Arnaud Dissais, who presents it with affable insistence: “When you come to Mace, you have a Pandan.”) Of course, de Soto is a well-documented pandan-lover, who attributes his affection for this ingredient to the way its tropical flavors remind him of traveling in Southeast Asia years ago. He even received a letter from the Embassy of the Philippines in Paris thanking him for introducing pandan into cocktail culture, and declares that he will never open a bar in a city where there is no pandan. (In New York, by the way, he sources his leaves from Chinatown.)
Speaking of unusual ingredients, de Soto believes there is massive opportunity to bring up the level of cocktails in serious restaurants, as Eleven Madison Park has done. “Especially being French, I wouldn’t say stop drinking wine and start drinking cocktails during a meal. But there’s big, big stuff to do when you mix a very good mixologist and a very good chef.” (Very good chefs, it would seem, agree – Dan Barber and his brother David are fans of Mace.) Too few great restaurants have a great cocktail program, de Soto says, adding that he’s still mourning the loss of Betony, which used to be his go-to.
So where, besides Mace, do the most discerning palates love to grab a drink these days? The NoMad is strong, de Soto says; for ambiance, music, a great team and a creative cocktail list, Loosie Rouge in Williamsburg is also a favorite; and Bar Goto, the Japanese-inspired cocktail bar on the LES opened by Kenta Goto, formerly of Pegu Club, is one of the few recent local openings that truly got him excited. The pending arrival of Chicago’s Aviary is also very much on the radar. But London is currently the cocktail capital of the world, according to de Soto, who swears by Dandelyan and can’t wait to take a trip across the pond to check out Tony Conigliaro’s new project in Hackney, Untitled.
For now, though, de Soto seems wholly content here in his own place, prepping for 5pm opening alongside Dissais and head bartender Christian Dominguez, all three taking turns tucking into the ossetra. (Dominguez mentions garnishing a flip with dried fish, and de Soto muses about the possibilities of a cocktail that uses caviar. “Everything is possible,” Dissais says.)
No doubt de Soto will be back on the road again before long, fueled by a sense of adventure, not the restlessness that propelled him in his younger years. “When I was in Jakarta, a journalist asked me what’s my dream. And I was like, I have already made it. Because my dream years ago was to live between New York and Paris. Now I have a bar in both places that are very well recognized. I’m very happy with what I have right now.” He pauses to take another bite of caviar, and smiles. “I have exactly what I want.”