Pleasure / October 2016

The Silva Standard: Brian Silva

Balthazar’s revered bartender tells The Rake how to make four of America’s finest cocktails.

Master bartender Brian Silva came up the old fashioned way. “I did basically every restaurant job you could do,” says Silva of his early days working in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. “I started in the kitchens, washing dishes. Graduated to pots, then chopping salads; worked my way up the line through the kitchen. But the most fun was always being had out behind the bar.”

Now 60, and a resident of the UK for the past 27 years (The Rake meets him in his adopted neighbourhood of Kensington) Silva has had plenty of fun behind plenty of bars. He began mixing drinks at Boston’s Colonnade Hotel (“They were big into vermouth, which I’m glad to see is coming back,”), then the Swissotel group, before moving to the UK where he swiftly rose to the forefront of the industry.

Working first at the members bar at the Institute of Directors, Silva has subsequently run acclaimed bars at Home House, Scott’s, The Connaught (where he was headhunted by Angela Hartnett), drinks giant Diageo (for whom he was Groups Bar Manager), revered game-restaurant Rules, and a brief stop-over launching members club 5 Hertford Street before reaching his current domicile; Balthazar in Covent Garden, the London counterpart to British restaurateur Keith McNally’s wildly popular New York institution. “These days I feel like I work in New York but I live in London,” says Silva. “It’s got that kind of buzz.”

Silva’s success can be attributed to a number of things. There’s his technical, no-bullshit approach to mixing drinks, which eschews the notion of bartender-as-chef. “I’m more like a pastry chef,” says Silva, ”It’s about precision, balance, things like that. All my recipes are based on strict measuring – there’s no room for any playing around.” Then there’s Silva’s deep-rooted commitment to his profession. “I want to see bartending get more respect,” says Silva, “and I think we’re getting there. At Balthazar it’s a real job, a good job. My guys get good rotas, holidays, opportunities to go on trips; there’s room for advancement and to learn the business. Anybody that leaves me, I don’t mind if they go, but I want them to go that way [Silva points up]. If they go that way, [forward] I don’t want to speak to them again.”

Silva’s accumulated knowledge has now been distilled into a book, Mixing In the Right Circles, an indispensible tome for discerning drinkers, laden with recipes (including no less than eleven negroni variants). It’s also packed with practical tips on bartending specifics - measures, muddling, bitters, sprays, garnishes, peels, and the difference between shaken and stirred; “People have a tendency to over-stir,” says Silva, “especially with Old Fashioneds. So I get my guys to do it in three tranches. As for shaking, that’s to chill - and to get the froth.” Although he notes with a wry smile, “These days, if a drink needs vigorous shaking I get one of the young guys to do it.”

And so Silva continues. Enjoying his work, putting in the hours behind the bar, and training young bartenders in his old-school, American philosophy; an alchemic combination of precisely-mixed drinks and the ability to connect with customers on a personal level. “If you can look at someone and they can look you in the eye and have a conversation, you can teach them to tend bar,” says Silva. “I believe that.”

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Contributor

Max Olesker

Contributing Editor at Esquire, and Associate Editor of Esquire’s Big Black Book, Max has also written features for The Times, The Observer, and Harper’s Bazaar. He also performs across the world one as half of comedy double-act Max & Ivan (BBC Radio 4’s Casebook of Max & Ivan, BBC 2’s W1A).