Austrian-born Betty Kupsa is seen as innovative, courageous and unique. In 2015, she founded the first tequila bar in Hamburg. We spoke with Betty about the “Host of the year 2018” award, her successful bartending concept, the secrets behind being the perfect host, and her love affair with cognac.
Betty, you are not only the owner of the “Bar of the year”, you were also nominated as “Host of the year” in the Mixology bar awards. What is the formula to your success?
We are simply a little different. As an example, take our special concept for a drinks menu. The idea behind that was imparting upon guests the idea, “I will decide for you”. And this developed into an absolute top seller. Our menu is made up of five small drinks that are served one after the other – like courses in a dinner menu. This means the guest can sample quite a few drinks without too much risk. This innovative approach – especially when combined with the fact that everybody who works here is truly passionate about hospitality – seems to have hit the spot.
What do you think is the hallmark of a perfect host?
Being attentive, open, and naturally empathetic. My job as a host is to respond to the people I am dealing with. You need to be able to keep yourself in the background and to enjoy what you’re doing. The setting also has to be suitable. Attuning everything perfectly is my great passion. Atmosphere plays a large role, usually starting with the lighting. Music is also very important. As I like to talk to people, I make sure that it’s never too loud. And what is absolutely essential: excellent service. I would rather do without a good drink than without an attentive host.
Let’s say we are having guests: What do we offer them to drink?
Champagne. I would strongly recommend having at least three good bottles of champagne in the house! Cocktails have the drawback that if you’re busy the whole time mixing extravagant drinks for your guests then you have no time to chat with them, to be there for them or to get them talking to each other. So make sure you focus on a really good drink. Preparation is everything.
How do we find out what cocktails our guests like best?
By listening and asking. This lets you quickly find out what drinks your guest might like. The easiest way is via another drink. Just ask what they usually like to drink and transfer that preference to other drinks. In the case of many classic cocktails there is a broad palette which can be adjusted in many small ways. Here, as with all things, it important to set up a basic stock: the more you understand compositions and combine harmonious products, the faster you will be able to create really good drinks.
For the “Hennessy Mixtalks”, you designed three very different cocktail recipes for three very different people. How did you do that?
In our bar concept we say, “Try this out, I chose it for you”. During the “Hennessey Mixtalks”, it was the other way around. I spent the day with interesting people and then designed three cognac-based cocktails that suited them exactly.
So how exactly did you proceed to create drinks for your Mixtalk dates?
It was very different in each case. The hip-hop chef Christoph Brand has a strong affinity to music as well as to food compositions. We cooked a meal together and this gave me the idea for the cocktail. We created a chestnut purée which became the main component of his drink, the “Fliegende Marone” (Flying chestnut). I didn’t have to ask for the preferences of the bartender and consultant Jörg Meyer because we have known each other for quite some time. For the meeting in The Paris Club in Düsseldorf, I drew on French products. In addition to cognac, the cocktail “Meyer on Fire” is composed of Pineau de Charentes Rouge and Orange Colombo Apéritif. This suits him perfectly and the day we spent together. Stefan Eckert, the fashion designer, loves minimalism and does not like acidity very much. I took this into account when creating the drink “Leather Fashioned”. This is a new interpretation of the classic “Old-fashioned”, suitable for the season with winter aromas and red wine. We bartenders have challenges like this every evening; we meet new people and create wonderful cocktails for them.
What would a new interpretation of another classic by Betty Kupsa look like?
Let’s take the “Sidecar” as an example. It is composed, for instance, of Hennessey cognac, orange liqueur and an acid element, lemon. This can be played with in a number of ways. Even if you just change the sugar content or the measures you can get quite different effects. In a former Mixologist Mixtalks episode, I brought in a nice twist by using orange foam. Substituting aromas is always an interesting idea. I personally like to work with tea, I make tea infusions and allow myself to be inspired by all sorts of things, such as the Hennessy Mixtalks. I do always remain true to my style, and this is reflected in my drinks.
A painter can create any colour from the three primary colours: What are your three primary ingredients?
From a spirit; a source of sugar, for instance a liqueur, a syrup or just simply sugar; and some form of acidity, you can create infinite types of cocktails. Although I keep a bar that specializes in agave spirits, I also love all the other drinks. Particularly with cognac, I have a special relationship which arose quite naturally. It has accompanied all my bartender life and is a constant pleasure. The season also plays a large role when choosing ingredients. During the Mixtalks, we cooked this wonderful chestnut purée, for example, that we integrated into the drink. But also coffee, tea or cardamom go wonderfully well with cognac. We play around with aromas and try to work with the seasons so there is always room for new variations.
What inspired you to your cocktail creations?
I draw a lot of inspiration from food. When I eat a great dessert, it gives me ideas. Personal taste can’t be evaluated of course, but it is important to pay attention to it. It is fun to walk across a market, to touch and to absorb everything. Tasting is my profession – finding pleasure in trying things out is what makes for finding good flavours.
And what in your opinion constitutes a really good cognac?
That depends, but of course the quite special, fruity aroma. It must have a certain depth. What is important for me as a bartender is the mixability of the product. Something can taste wonderful when drunk just straight but is not convincing when mixed in combination with other flavours. This means that cognac needs a certain oomph, needs to be forceful enough. This is absolutely the case, for example, with Hennessey V.S. which is why we use it in the bar. This product is wonderful for mixing but also for drinking straight.