Rico Wisner, the mixologist behind Ambar, traveled all the way to Serbia to open another location of the popular Balkan bar. We knew he would be drinking some interesting things along the way (to say the least), so we had him write a little drink diary. Get ready to learn more than you ever did before about Serbian liquor.
Upon arrival to Belgrade, I was greeted by Alex Janjic, the General Manager for Ambar Belgrade. Our first stop before going to my apartment was Mala Fabrika, the original inspiration for Ambar. Set in a beautiful Park in the city, I was treated to feast of a lunch. When asked what I’d like to drink, I went with Dunja (Pear Rakia).
I got to see the skeleton of a bar that I would get to see quickly become the focal point of the now open Ambar Restaurant. It gave me chills to see the space that I would help grow into fully functional restaurant.
I had a chance to get started working on the cocktail program. We started the day by going to one of the city’s open air markets to look for ingredients. Besides all the fresh local fruits, I found fresh elderflower and an array of herbs, spices, and teas. Due to language barrier, it was a little tough to figure out what things were but luckily all of them had their latin names listed as well. So to the intrawebs I went. After a quick lunch, we stopped at what I was told was the best coffee shop in Belgrade, Koffein. The coffee was amazing. Roasted on sight. They also had a small coffee museum with all kinds of old equipment. As the restaurant was still finishing the build out we couldn’t get into the space to start testing so we spent the first 2 weeks working and training out of our sister restaurant, Toro Latin Gastropub.
After a long night of tasting and testing cocktails, I did my normal walk to work and proceeded with what became my morning ritual. Started with a glass of water. Next fresh squeezed orange juice, followed by coffee. Now when they say coffee, it’s always espresso.
That evening we checked out the only cocktail bar in the city, Kultura Bar. A small bar that was luckily located not far from my apartment. I quickly spotted a couple of go to ingredients behind the bar, Montenegro Amaro, Carpano Antica Vermouth, in addition to all the proper equipment, bar tools, and tiki mugs. I knew I found my new watering hole. After seeing all of this I knew I was going to be able to get myself a proper Boulevardier.
The first day of training with the new bar staff was rough. This was supposed to be a solid 4-5 hours of me just talking to the staff about hospitality, philosophy of the bar, and technique. Being surrounded by all the smoke in the bar took its toll. I lost my voice. I was able to power through but that day was all about hot tea.
Since it was Saturday, I took the opportunity to stick around after testing some more recipes and see and be a part of the dinner/late night at Toro. Due to the language barrier (with guests, the entire staff speaks English), I couldn’t tend bar but I spent the night observing the way guests approached the bar and the style of service that people tend to expect in Serbia by immersing myself as a barback. I washed glasses, changed out ash trays, and helped run food. As the evening went on service really ramped up. Toro starts as a dinner scene, then becomes the pre-party spot before people head to the Splavs (clubs that are located in the water on the Sava River). They have a DJ come in on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday so the energy level definitely is great and it gets packed and becomes difficult to move around the bar. But the guests and staff love it. At one point the manager brings a couple of VIPs through the bar since its open on both ends to get them back to their party and nobody even flinched it was a great show of hospitality and the vibe. Later on Ivan, one of the owners, asked me to help the same VIPs make shots behind bar and they ate it up. After service, the whole staff invited me to have some beers in the park not far from the restaurant. It was great to see that the staff was like one big happy family. After having a couple tall boys of Jelen, a local beer almost like Miller Lite, but a lot better, the people that were left decided to take me to one Splavs called Tijuana. It was crazy. An all out club scene with music going, drinks, dancing all going until 6-7 in the morning with a beautiful view of the sunrise on the river.
The following week and a half was all about training the staff in the morning at Toro. Followed by testing cocktails and then doing an occasional tasting of rakia. Rakia is a traditional fruit brandy from the Balkan region. And I tasted a lot. Some of the best were brought in a plastic water bottle that someone would just make at home for their own consumption and maybe some close friends. It’s a tough job but somebody had to do it. One of my favorite parts of my day were sunset. Being located right on the river it was a stunning view. Everyone knew that was my personal time. I’d grab a coffee or a cocktail, sit out by the river and take it all in, realizing how amazing every minute of the experience was.
The last week of May was the week before opening. We were just waiting to get into the space to finally start setting up and using the space. Finally on Thursday we were allowed in and we’re able to setup everything up.
On Friday things started getting real. Our glassware and liquor order arrived. There was a lot of activity going on as glassware was washed and stocked, the liquor bottles all placed and organized, final syrups and juices prepped, garnishes cut. We wouldn’t be open to the public until Monday but Friday was acting as if we were already open. By this point all the bartenders were ready to make drinks. So we had them going four at a time making drinks and being timed for practice but also quality. It was great to see the bar in action. It was also great to be able to sit down and observe and try the cocktails to make sure they were consistent. I got to try it all, our Old Fashioned made with Rakia, boozy lemonades, loza rakia sour, paloma with smoked grapefruit. It was tough but I made it through.
Saturday was our Friends and Family night, which went off pretty well. At the end of service the kitchen staff came out and stood on the gallery over looking the restaurant. The restaurant broke out into applause from guests and coworkers alike since we realized we had made it through all the chaos and served outside guests. Being bartenders of course we toasted ourselves with Rakia. Afterwards, we met up with our counterparts from Toro for a couple beers in the park.
On Monday June 1st we quietly opened our doors and welcomed people into our house to experience everything we had been training for. We raised many glasses of rakia that week to new guests enjoying our experience and rediscovering Balkan Cuisine.
The training and prep were done so I was able to enjoy the beautiful city a bit more. On Wednesday I was able to check out a Splav called Syndicat for live music. I was told Serbian music so I had no idea what to expect. When we got there the place was packed. And for good reason, the music was great. Kind of a funk pop mix. It got a little too packed at some points with people just pushing you out of the way. But nobody got upset. In a D.C. club there would have been a crazy amount of fights. When it comes to drinks at the Splavs, it very similar to clubs here. They have bottle service, red bull, and your standards shots. I decided to just go with what I know, a beer (Niksicko, a local favorite) and a shot of whiskey.
Thursday after work, we went one of the hottest Splavs in Belgrade, Freestyler. Now I had been once earlier on my trip on a rainy day and wasn’t really wow’ed. It felt just like any other good club. This night was a whole other story. It was amazing. Since the weather was nice, they had the side panels completely open (I don’t know how people weren’t just falling in to the river). The DJ was killing and with a great light show. And the view was great with the sunrise starting to show early around 4am. I went with my standard Gin and soda, they even served it with a sparkler traditionally used for bottle service. On the way home I stop at a little stand around the corner from my apartment for a late night snack of cevapi served on bread with all the fixing of Urnebes and kajmak (this is basically the equivalent to jumbo slice in D.C., but cheaper and you don’t hate yourself in the morning).
Then the weekend came and we got to see Ambar full and busy. It was great to see all this work come through with drinks flowing out of the bar. After work the usual beers in the park were just what the doctors ordered.
The following week involved a lot of follow up and a chance to help consult a bit on the bar programs for Toro and Mala Fabrika. But everyday I finished up my day by grabbing a cocktail at Ambar to see how everything was going.
Finally, Sunday night came and it was time for me to say my goodbyes. I stopped for a last meal at Ambar accompanied by a couple Zajercarsko beers and a shot or two of dunja. After goodbyes with the staff, they cheered me out the door. Next I stopped at Toro, which was a 2 doors down on the water. There I had another toast of dunja with the staff and said my goodbyes. They too cheer me out and continued from the patio as I walked up the river. They even threw a bucket of water after me, which is supposed to be for good luck.
It was an amazing trip and I’m so happy to have been able share what we do at Ambar D.C. with our new member of the family, Ambar Belgrade. It’s an experience of a life and I can’t wait to go back to see all the wonderful people I had the pleasure of meeting and working with and now call my friends.