Madam Geneva's Martim Ake Smith-Mattsson Talks Mocktails, Artful Cocktails, and the Drink He Named After His Girlfriend
At the back of Double Crown is a secret door. If you go through it, you're in black-walled bar called Madam Geneva. Martim Ake Smith-Mattsson can usually found behind the bar, waxing poetic about flavors and feelings, the art of the cocktail. He even rigged up the old soda gun to dispense his own house-made sodas. He says he's an artist and his medium just happens to be potable.
Tell me about the house-made sodas.
I wanted to present a mojito, but it's the kind of thing that people are like, "Oh, it's so played out." With the soda program, I was able to rejuvenate this cocktail by bringing in the lavender-lemon soda. We're seeding it with lemongrass syrup, which has it's own very distinct citrusy herbaceousness that lemongrass has. Besides that, it's fresh mint, and I put in some purple basil. You end up with a very refreshing light summer drink that has beautiful color with purple and green. People seem to really dig it.
And you use the soda gun for that? I thought bartenders considered those things to be the tool of the devil.
Yeah, everything is piped through. We have three flavors: There's Black Tar, a Thai basil ginger brew, and the lavender-lemon soda. It's something we'll just give to people waiting for a table [in the restaurant] actually on hot brunch days. It's a nice, special welcoming gift and also something people order as a soft drink. A lot of bartenders make fun of mocktails, but I only condone making them when it's an interesting challenge.
How did you get started behind the bar?
I was born and raised in Portugal; I left in '99. I got a scholarship to study in Boston, but my parents didn't make very much money. That meant I had to work, so I started working at a nightclub right across from Fenway Park. Eventually, I got a grant to move to New York. I started working at Lucien on First and 1st. It's a super-charming bar, and that's the place where I really started developing my own style. Then, I helped open Monkey Town in Williamsburg, which was such an interesting space. Performance while you're eating, multichannel videos. It was about pushing the envelope.
Madam Geneva has the speakeasy theme going with the secret entrance. Do you think that whole scene is played out?
Right now, we're in a post-Prohibition classic cocktail period where people are really interested in doing all the correct research to figure out the origins of drinks and how to make them. I think now we're moving into a phase where people's tastes have changed. I want to make something that is its own thing, that has its own identity. I see myself as a maker, a creator of something and not this technician, this manipulator of ingredients. It's more like making art. I think a lot of bartenders are like trying to be like chefs. Cooking in the kitchen and all the Food Network stuff. Good bartenders make good drinks, but it's also about making good spaces and having good people in their spaces.
What do you like to drink at home?
I make something called the RBT. It's named after my girlfriend. It's her initials. It's basically a Cynar drink, carbonated. It's very simple. It's Cynar with grapefruit, lemon, soda water, and then it has a little celery-salt rim.
Are you going to Tales of the Cocktail next week?
I'll be down there, but I've never gone before. I'm actually very new to the larger business. I like to think that one day my drinks will take on a legacy, which is this obsession of where to go from now. There's an audience for bubble-gum martinis, and smoking things has become like a normal practice for bars. For me, I like to think of cocktails as landscapes ... works of art.
Do you ever get intimidated by the mustachioed bartenders who are classic-cocktail driven?
I'm not intimidated at all. I think it's all part of bartending. It's part of the culture. I bartend in my style and they bartend in their styles. Both styles are good. The whole armband-and-mustaches is one persona. It's important to have a style because that's identity. Bartenders are special and it's important to know that. They're good at what they do and it's not just about mixing a drink. They've got to micromanage a whole space and environment where people can have a good time.
Is there anything else you're working on?
I'm making bitters in Portugal with my family. I'm obsessed with bitters. Increasingly, you see sherries in cocktails. I think it's nice that people are bringing in this authentic Iberian Peninsula flavor. Hopefully that works out and you can taste my bitters one day.
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