Matheus Dela Rune is the head bartender at Barnum Cafe in Rome. Just off of Campo de’ Fiori, it’s my go-to aperitivo spot whenever I’m in the city. I got to know Matheus gradually over a few years of stopping in at Barnum, and the more I got to know him the more I learned that his youth belies his wisdom. In our conversation we talk about how he got interested in cocktails, why he isn’t crazy about the term “mixologist”, and why it’s important to mix a drink with love.
Justin Naylor: Thanks, Matheus, for making the time to chat. I know a lot people who love wine but not cocktails, or maybe they’re just intimidated by cocktails and cocktail culture. What would you say to such a person about why cocktails are worthy of getting to know? What do they offer that other drinks don’t?
Matheus Dela Rune: It’s a totally different world and it is big, so I understand why people might get intimidated. Let’s put it this way: the thing that cocktails offer that I love the most is the blend of cultures. Wine comes from regional grapes, one small part of the world. The flavor and heritage comes from the same ground. What we have in cocktails is a blend of history and cultures. Cocktails are a marriage of ingredients that could be worlds apart. Take for example a classic cocktail such as The Last Word. You are blending a London dry gin that originated in England, with green Chartreuse that was created in France by monks hundreds of years ago, a Maraschino Italian liqueur made from Croatian cherries, and Persian limes that grow in Persia (now Iran).
Now, for a person that might not know or care, it is just a green-hued drink in a glass. But what you really have is a whole world telling a story. That’s what I love about cocktails. You’re taking the heritage and flavors and literally the “spirit” of the country and blending it together to create a new experience. It’s really beautiful that way.
JN: That’s great. I know I got interested in cocktails when I realized just how precise a good cocktail is. It’s not like cooking, where a little more of this or a little more of that might not make a huge difference. In cocktails an extra drop of this or that can elevate a cocktail to a different level. That’s what excites me. Does that make sense to you?
MR: Yes. The more you improve as a bartender, you start developing a feeling for mixing. It’s like how Italians cook, right? It’s not about having the perfect ratio of ingredients, you have to feel it when you cook. Same with cocktails. You can’t just follow a recipe from a book or blog like an IKEA instruction. Not all citrus squeezed is the same acidity, not all syrups have the same sweetness. Most important is to taste as you’re working.
JN: Given the same quality ingredients, what distinguishes a successful cocktail from a less successful one?
MR: The love and thought you put into it. If a person makes a dish or cocktail with bad energy or lack of care, you’re going to taste it, even if subconsciously. Whereas if you put care and attention into it, it’s going to come out much better. When I make cocktails I like to go into the present. Meditation isn’t just sitting on the floor in silence. It’s simply being in the moment, the now. Whether it’s cooking, spending time with a loved one, looking at a painting, it’s about being aware. When I make a cocktail, everything disappears. All the details and gestures take precedence.
JN: What’s a good drink to start with if someone is apprehensive about the strength and intensity of cocktails?
MR: Maybe something like a whisky sour with egg white. There are some drinks where the alcohol doesn’t have such a strong impact on the palate, they are the dangerous ones. The drink that got me into the whole world of cocktails was the White Russian. In The Big Lebowski – still one of my favorite movies to this day – a character is drinking a White Russian, and I was curious to see what The Dude was drinking.
JN: How long ago was this, when you got interested?
MR: About seven years ago while I was living in London. I was 18.
JN: Barely legal!
MR: Barely legal. I was working in an Irish pub just so I could pay rent, studying photography in a University at the same time. I’ve always liked being creative.
JN: What other drinks interested you early on?
MR: Well, one time I really wanted to try a Martini. One of the most classic well known cocktails that I would see James Bond drinking in movies, but I didn’t know anything about cocktail culture. So I actually walked into the only cocktail place I knew, TGI Fridays in London, with my babyface, 18 years old…
JN: [Laughter] TGI Fridays? Really? That’s awesome!
MR: Yeah. I had researched the drink and asked for a gin martini, dry, with an olive. And the bartender just looked at me as like, What? I guess I looked like the kind of guest who’d order one of these frozen cocktails in a hurricane glass with creme de menthe and Oreo cookies.
He said, “You don’t look like the kind of guy who’d order a martini.”
I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover! I didn’t have drinking experience back in the day and because it was TGI’s, the drink I got served was in one of those oversized martini glasses popular in the 90’s. Let’s just say by the time I got to the olive, I zig-zagged out of the bar!
JN: That’s a great story. Let’s shift and talk about ingredients a little bit. Obviously you have these big international brands but you also have the rise of small, boutique-scale producers. Tell me a little about your approach to ingredients.
MR: The golden rule that I was taught is that your cocktail will only be as good as the lowest quality ingredient you use. It’s true. I get inspired by Italian cuisine, which is few ingredients but of high quality. Same with cocktails. I think what defines a modern classic is a cocktail that can be made with not many things, but well made with quality products.
JN: How do you deal with these big, international brands like Campari that you can’t really avoid? There’s no micro producer, so all you have is this big, international brand. I love Campari, as you know, but I don’t like the fact that it’s made with fake red color, instead of the cochineal insect. Is that just the reality, or do you try to find alternatives?
MR: To an extent. Let’s just say, the problem is this: when you have a bar, you also have to think of making a profit. When you make deals with Campari Brand they give you competitive prices for products in their catalog, and Campari is a good liqueur at the end of the day. If I were to use a different type of apertivo amaro, they’re maybe better in flavor but they cost much more, so the price of the cocktail goes up. The problem with all these big brands is that they eat everything up. They buy people out, they crush competition (like they used to crush cochineal insects). They have a lot of money behind them.
JN: Are you familiar with any of the American micro-distilleries? Gin, small-batch vodkas – are those available in Italy?
MR: American micro-distilled spirits are hard to come by in Europe and when we do have them they cost quite a bit. I usually learn about them through reading blogs and when I do travel they are the first thing I want to get my hands on. There is a rise in micro distilleries here in Italy. As an example we have now a micro distillery in Amalfi which makes gin made from Amalfi lemons, known as the best lemons in the world. Small batch gin brands in general are an interesting subject. What’s interesting about it is the use of local ingredients – of course you get the juniper berries, which are the usual suspect. But then if you’re going to Australia they’re using botanicals found in the Australian landscape. Same with American products (Death’s Door Gin, for example, from Wisconsin). That’s how every gin shows off the flavor and feeling of a place of origin.
JN: I know the Italian craft beer movement is exploding. Is there a parallel with spirits?
MR: Yes, there is, although I would say at the moment that craft beer is much more larger. You also have to consider that we are the capital of wine, at the end of the day. Italy is known for wine production. We are not a country that produces many distillates. Grappa is the closest you’re going to get to a distillate. We do however have a huge range of vermouths, amaros and liqueurs, like for example the bergamot Italicus which gained much international popularity recently.
JN: Describe Barnum, the bar where you work now. What is its character, its vibe?
MR: Barnum is a fantastic place with so much positive energy. It is a spot where you feel at right home the second you step in. The thing I love about it the most is that it creates a sense of community for many people. It is a hub for locals from the neighbourhood, as well as a place for travellers from all across the world. It’s unlike any bar I’ve ever worked in, any bar I’ve ever been to. A place where you can have a breakfast like a croissant and a cappuccino, take out your laptop and work on something, have lunch and then come back at night to enjoy craft cocktails and have a fantastic dinner is rare. That’s something that’s not really that common in Rome, I would say. We’re one of the few places that does this type of business. We are the jack of all trades, and I think we do it well.
JN: I’m turned off by the fact that some bars can be pretentious places, and so people who aren’t very familiar with the culture of those places can feel intimidated or just not very welcome. Barnum is able to avoid that. How and why? And do you agree that some bars have that pretentious vibe?
MR: I think we hit the sweet spot because we offer craft cocktails made as well as you would find in a pretentious speakeasy without the whole hassle. The concept is to make these experiences accessible to everybody. As much as I do enjoy a speak easy style bar once in a while, I do feel like they are a bit of a novelty. You can’t go to one on a daily basis. Some of these bars are meant to feel exclusive and tickle your ego. Like you are the cool kid going to a place many people don’t know about, and drinking pre prohibition cocktails that others probably haven’t heard about… you know, the whole hipster vibe.
Barnum has an open door policy and there is no password needed or dress code to get in. Another reason why I think we stand out is the genuine approach to running a business. I think at the end of the day profit should be the effect of doing good business for the good of the people, rather than it being the main goal. If a place opens business focusing solely on money you can tell its insincerity straight away and that place does not feel warm. I think Barnum glows.
JN: What do you think about the trend in some places of the mystique of the mixologist: the curled moustache, the suspenders, these sorts of things. Is that just kind of fun, or is it a little silly?
MR: In a way, it is silly, because people jump on the bandwagon. I myself have always spoken out about being authentic and being yourself, not trying to be someone you’re not, just to fit in. The problem I have with bartenders these days is that they don’t create their own character. That’s a problem in society in general. People look for what’s hip, what’s cool right now. Same with bartending. A lot of bartenders, yes, the second they get into the bar world and they brand themselves as a mixologists, they get sleeves of pointless tattoos that they’re probably going to regret in a couple of years, grow a beard and wax their moustache. I think it also has to do with sex appeal. They want to be cool for the ladies and focus more on how they look when they shake a drink, instead of focusing on how and what they shake.
JN: Image instead of identity.
JN: Give us a little sense of your background and where you’re from. You’ve lived many places in your 25 years.
MR: I was born in Krakow, Poland, in June 1993. I lived there for 10 years. My parents split up when I was about seven years old. I went to visit my father when I was ten years old, in London, and he asked me if I wanted to stay. It was difficult for my mother to let go of me, because I was a ten- year-old-boy, but she thought it was best for me. She said, “OK, you can stay in London, because I know you’re going to learn English, and with English you have a lot of possibilities in the world.” And I’m in Rome now!
JN: Maybe it wouldn’t have been possible if you hadn’t moved to London.
MR: I don’t think it would have, but who knows. I would definitely be more limited and perhaps lack inspiration to get out of my comfort bubble and explore. I think traveling is the best teacher in the world. University studies, they can teach you a specific subject, but when you travel you really learn about life. Knowledge is a great thing to have, but wisdom, well that comes from life lived.
So, I moved to London when I was ten years old. I lived with my dad and his partner until I was eighteen. I gave up university out of a thirst for adventure. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, that’s the thing. I decided I didn’t want to pay a lot of money and go into debt as an eighteen- year-old boy, not knowing what I want to do. I know too many people who go to university, get into debt, and when they finish the degree they don’t want to do what they studied, and they change directions completely. I just wanted to explore the world and figure myself out first before I commit.
JN: What did you start studying?
MR: Photography and art. I didn’t like the pressure of having deadlines in a creative flowing subject. I wanted to be creative on my own terms, and do what I wanted to do. I thought to myself that the subjects I study are not that intense of requiring a paper in the future. If I wanted to be a heart surgeon, a degree would be quite useful. But I’m a creative type, and I think with years of work and passion, talent most importantly, I would be recognised regardless.
JN: Was London a good place to grow up as an adolescent?
MR: Yes and no, it can be a little bit rough. I feel much more safe in Rome. There’s a lot of muggings in London. I guess it made me tough. The good thing was being brought up in a multi international city, full of different cultures. A city that never sleeps and there is always something to do. There is a saying in London, that if you are ever bored of it, well, you are bored of life.
JN: As someone who has lived in Rome now for four years but didn’t grow up here, how do you characterize Rome? What have you learned from Rome? What do you like and dislike about Rome?
MR: Honestly, I love pretty much everything about Rome. The only dislike I have is a bit of the bureaucracy. I avoid being sick, and getting in trouble – let’s say, having an incident with my motorcycle – mainly because if you’re going to get into the bureaucratic side of things, it’s a living nightmare. You go to an office, it takes hours to get things done, and you probably don’t get things done. My golden rule is, on my day off I have ten things that I want to get done, and I know for a fact that I’m probably going to get two out of ten done because things are closed or things don’t work. Coming from London, where things function and you get things done, being in a country where things don’t function that well can be very frustrating.
But then, you learn to have the Roman mentality towards this, which is if you get upset about it, you’re going to live being upset, so you just let it be, take it easy, don’t stress, because you’re wasting a lot of your day running around and not getting anything done. Now let’s talk about the positives!
JN: What do you like best about Rome?
MR: I think it’s just a living theatre, a living museum, the city with the biggest amount of history. Roman people are very flamboyant. They’re very loud. Like I said, if you live in a country where everything is well organised and functions, when it comes to your business and the things you want in your career it can be great, but it can get boring because everything just works. When you live in Rome, you get to see the chaos of it all, theres always some drama. You’re always on the edge of your seat when it comes to this city; you feel alive.
JN: Obviously, cocktails have been around for a long time. Can you give us a brief overview of the history of cocktails? I’m especially interested in when the modern renaissance started.
MR: If you’re talking about mixing drinks in general, you can even go back to Ancient Roman times, when they were mixing Mulsum, a mead like wine macerated with herbs and blended with honey and water – that would be the first kind of mixology. But Jerry Thomas is the founding father of the bartending scene. That’s in the US, in the 19th century. He traveled around America, traveling all over the place. When prohibition hit in the 1920s, although it was bad for America, it benefitted the world quite a bit. The bartenders dispersed, and the best bartenders moved to South America, to Europe. People like Harry Craddock – he moved to London from New York, and ended up running the American bar in the Savoy Hotel in the Strand. He published a book, The Savoy Cocktail Book, which is regarded as one of the most important cocktail books in history.
JN: But at some point cocktails began to be neglected.
MR: Yes. The “dark age” of cocktails was from the ’70s to the ’90s. The times of appletinis, blue lagoons, neon cocktail cherries and sour mixes.
JN: What brought that to an end?
MR: Mr. Dale De Groff at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan changed the game. His manager gave him a book, it was the book of Jerry Thomas actually. He really got inspired by the history of cocktails and he was the first to move us out of the dark ages. He made a pre-prohibition cocktail menu for the first time, using fresh ingredients. He said, Why are we using sour mix? We can get fresh limes and lemons. We can make sugar syrup.
JN: This was in the late ’90s?
MR: Yes, but the renaissance really picked up steam a few years later in the early 2000s. It was places like The Pegu Club, Milk and Honey. Bartenders like Audrey Saunders (Dales pupil) and Sasha Petraske.
JN: I imagine that in addition to relearning old drinks and old techniques, this new breed of bartender also created new drinks?
MR: Yes, definitely.
JN: I mean, it’s sort of a different thing, isn’t it? Making a good negroni seems like a different thing to me than creating an entirely new drink. Does a mixologist have to be a creator to be good?
MR: Well, let me first say something about the terms mixologist and bartender. Some people think of a bartender as someone who just pours pints but doesn’t know what he’s doing while a mixologists makes craft cocktails. It makes sense in a way, but it isn’t right. I mean a guy who makes you a rum and Coke shouldn’t be in the same class as someone who’s picking wild herbs for a drink he’s created based on the study of a hundred years of history.
MR: So I understand that divide. But the genuine, authentic way to look at it is that a mixologist is creating new drinks and experimenting with new syrups, and so on. But as soon as that person steps behind the bar and begins to make drinks for people, he or she is a bartender. Although I am a mixologist – it’s definitely part of my work – first and foremost I’m a bartender.
JN: Is that distinction commonly held, or is it just a personal understanding?
MR: Personal, but I genuinely think that’s the authentic way of looking at it.
JN: Would some people resent the term bartender?
MR: Some people, like me, resent the term mixologist, because of the ego that often goes with it. The word mixologist has been around a very long time, so it’s not a new word. But the problem I have is the ego-trip of certain bartenders, who do it less out of genuine passion and more out of the cool aspect. It can be pretentious, but of course it always depends on the type of person you are. There are people out there who are barely bartenders and they say, Oh, I’m a mixologist. Come on.
JN: [Laughter] Yeah. To change the subject a little, what are some of the challenges you face in your work? Either you personally or bartenders generally?
MR: I’d say there are two: people and alcohol. Inside a bar you have people from all walks of life, not all of whom are perfectly mannered, let’s just say. You meet people who are self-indulgent and rude. But this is why I love my job, because I’m forced to interact with someone like that, who I might just avoid outside. You can go about it two ways. You can learn from it and learn to be understanding, and compassionate, and caring, and let hospitality teach you to be a good person. Or you can be frustrated and rude, which can occur in some bars. You can’t fight fire with fire!
JN: It seems to me you care as much about that hospitality aspect of your job as you do about the drinks.
MR: Absolutely. It’s an art form to create a drink, but it’s also an art form to create an atmosphere. A person goes into a bar and it’s not just about the drink they’re drinking. It’s about all the senses. It’s the music, the smell of the drink, the texture of the glass, the ambiance, the people who surround you. It’s everything. I see myself as a kind of conductor of the place. I’m there to create a great atmosphere for everybody. It’s hard because people come into a business and have different needs and expectations, and that’s why a great bartender or server can change character and cater to everyone in different ways. It’s a challenge, but it’s a fantastic challenge.
JN: And the other big problem you mentioned is alcohol.
MR: Bartenders, especially when they’re young and working in a great atmosphere end up drinking a lot. I currently have the freedom to drink whatever I want behind the bar because I have a relationship of trust with my boss. I’m not gonna get wasted because I have a love for my craft. I’m there for my customers, and I can’t take care of them properly if I’m drunk.
JN: But not everyone’s so responsible.
MR: Not everyone’s responsible. Alcohol is a big issue in our industry. So many people have problems with alcoholism. Maybe I have a problem with alcohol in some ways. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m drinking nearly every single day. Even having one drink every day raises some questions. Maybe I have an aperitivo at the beginning of my shift just to be on the same level as the guests, and later have a shot of mezcal with some friends who stop by the bar. Maybe I have a beer at the end of the shift because I’m exhausted and it relaxes me as I close down my station.
It is very difficult not drinking alcohol when you are surrounded by it and by people drinking. I remember before I started in the industry I’d have a drink once a week, take a beer with some friends on the weekend. Now it’s the opposite. It’s exciting not to drink. I have two days off a week and try not to drink. Alcohol can be a slippery slope at work. Let’s say the bar is slow and you’re bored. You make a drink with your bartender buddy. Let’s say it’s busy and you’re so stressed out. You make yourself a drink. You’re working on creating a new drink. You have to drink it. It’s a trap.
JN: As a young man in your twenties, you have a lot of life ahead of you. What’s next?
MR: I’m still very curious and super thirsty for adventure. I love Rome but I do love to travel, so I would like to live in another country someday. I’m a nomad just like my father. For sure my next step would be to work in one of the best cocktail bars in the world. I hope to be adopted so to speak! I love what I do, and because I want to keep improving I want to be surrounded by the best. So I think that’s my next step.
JN: You’re already at a pretty high level, though.
MR: The second you think you know everything is the moment you stop learning. The best bartenders in the world are the humblest people. They’re not like I’m a mixologist, check me out. None of that.
MR: Maybe bartending will fall out of fashion again. But I don’t mind. I’m sticking to it. Maybe I can’t do the late nights forever, but there are lots of possibilities. One of my dreams and a possibility would be to spend a few more years mastering the craft and then return to my home, Krakow, and opening one of the best cocktail bars in the country. I would love to go back and open an iconic, small, intimate cocktail bar in the historic centre of Krakow and just make it amazing. Krakow is such a beautiful city.
JN: Maybe on that beautiful note we ought to stop. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk today and for your excellent work at Barnum Cafe.
MR: My pleasure.