Next up in my series of interviews with Swedish bartenders is Björn Kjellberg, who is very active in the spirits industry. In addition to tending bar at Little Quarter here in Stockholm, he’s also involved in several other projects – no wonder he was recently awarded “industry improver of the year” at Bartenders’ Choice Awards. Keep up the good work, Björn!
What made you pursue a career in bartending?
Destiny! I didn’t choose this, it chose me. Kind of like tequila, you don’t choose, it finds you. Seriously I think it has always been there. When I look back to myself as a kid there have always been something magic about the whole bartender and bar world that felt exciting but I never really thought about it in a more serious way until I started by a coincident and got hooked. I was quite lost as a kid and didn’t really have a plan on what to do with my life and just went along whatever cards I got played and one day someone dealt me a full hand of bottles, pourers and shakers.
When and how did you get your first bartender job?
In the nice Swedish town of Växjö in Småland at a nightclub called Loft (today Terrassen) that is owned by the people behind the well acclaimed and awarded restaurant PM & Vänner. As said before this happened by a coincident and as a bad joke with a friend of mine who worked as a sommelier at PM & Vänner. I started out as nighclub bar back at Loft, doing the dishes and cleaning the restaurant and then worked my way to bartender at the nightclub, bartender and waiter at PM and even as barrista at the groups espresso bar Palladium (now Bröd & Sovel). This was around 2001 I think. I started quite late as cleaner, bar back and dishwasher.
Do you think bartenders get the recognition they deserve?
For sure! As people here before me has said: How much recognition and attention do we need? Sure the chefs’ gets more media time but at the same time everybody eats but not everybody drinks. And preparing food is just better TV than making a cocktail. At the same time I wouldn’t say that being a chef or sommelier has more status than being a bartender. A wise friend of mine from Karlstad once nailed it: In the society you have the common people in the bottom and rock stars at the top. Between those you have the bartenders!
I sure as hell want people to appreciate the job I do but I think they are by going to a bar and order a cocktail and paying for it. I honestly don’t want the cocktail scene to be as big as the wine scene. It would be horrendous to have hordes of people in the bar trying to master you about the “original recipe for the Manhattan” or “be or not” of the egg white and/or ice in a Gin Fizz. As you see with self proclaimed wine lovers, where you in a nice way have to explain the world order to guests who “knows” that Chardonnay gives them head ache but they could die for a glass of Chablis (true story).
Where have you worked prior to Little Quarter, and which place has been most important regarding your knowledge and skills?
In Stockholm it’s Kåken/1900 and F12 before they built Salongen. Before that I was in Malmö and worked at places like Hilton, the Savoy, Jeriko (now Babel) and Nesta. In Växjö I worked for PM & Vänner at their different outlets.
I think most places and people have been important in one way or another. But if I have to choose three I would say; PM & Vänner where I got my proper schooling of service, spirits, being a bartender and the industry; The Savoy in Malmö, where I really started to understand the classic old school mixology and how to get your customers and your bar where you want them; and Kåken/1900 because I made my comeback as bartender there. But as I said most places have been important and the bar where I’m at right now is always the most important so Little Quarter, where I most likely will retire at.
For people I would say that Rasmus Herder who was (and always will be) my mentor is the single most important person. And getting to know him and him showing me all the tricks of the trade is the single most important event of my life! Without him I wouldn’t be where I am today with all the stuff I have in m bag of tricks. Hell, I wouldn’t even met my wife Veronica or got our kick ass little son Lincoln if I hadn’t become a bartender just right then and there. Destiny my friend!
In more modern time I also want to give a huge shout out and all the love in the world to Martin and Lars at Renbjer & Magnusson for being true to the game and for letting me have my play time with their products and during our quite extensive series of never ending workshops all over Sweden.
You’re also involved in several other alcohol related projects like TequilaSpirit, Bartenders’ Choice Awards and Grythyttans Bartenderskola, please let me know all about it!
Well as I see it, to make an impact you need quantity as much as quality. I am a quite restless person and by doing a lot of different stuff I can’t get bored. I love this game and it has given be so much so I just want to give something back to get even more back myself. Everything is done with me being a bartender as the foundation.
Grythyttans Bartenderskola is my way of showing new people the way in to the industry and to provide them with as good and many tools possible to be able to be able to make their own career. Bartenders’ Choice is for the already known and good bars and bartenders so we have a forum to meet and something to fight for. TequilaSpirit is all about love!
Another reason for all my different involvements is my desire to become immortal I think. For the same reason I did the whole graffiti thing earlier in life: to leave a mark for the world to come. I want to make a difference and push the bar scene of Sweden forward.
What’s your favorite and least favorite drink to make and why?
It’s all a matter of season and timing. I have difficulties seeing why people want to drink Manhattans in a sun drenched beach bar or Bloody Marys in a night club or Caipirinhas in the winter. But if that what they want I guess it’s ok. Other than that I think that people should order what they feel like and as a bartender I should prepare it as good as I possibly can and with a smile. That is kind of my job…
Right now I’m really into brown spirits due to working at Little Quarter. I’m a huge fan of keeping stuff simple and letting the booze speak and flavor booze with booze. Rum and whiskey or gin and cognac are combinations for gods, heroes and me!
Do you have a favorite kind of customer?
I think one of my newer local heroes Andrea Patelli said it, “Act as a guest and Ill act as a host”. There you have it. Then of course you need to be a bit more tolerant since you have to do with drunken people and most of us aren’t really as pro as we think when we’re under the influence…
If you behave in some kind of way and respect the venue you’re at I like you. If you scream, cry, acts up or throw things I will make your night a nightmare. But all is a matter of timing and place. At a night club or party bar should be able to fuck around some more than at, say, the Savoy in London and so on.
What do you like most about your job?
The whole concept, it just feels cool to be a bartender. I get paid for doing things I love to do. Making cocktails, inspiring and teaching people stuff I know, drink stuff other people only can dream of and having loads of fun while doing. It feels like we are a bunch of grown up kids in a huge candy store with ponies, motorbikes and cash. Sometimes I get the feeling of having access to something sacred that most people don’t even know exists. As with most stuff people put their heart and soul to I think you get more from life by knowledge and passion. If you know a lot about, say, art it’s a huge experience being at a museum but for someone who couldn’t care less about some old Venetian painter it’s just dull and boring. The difference here is that most people want to drink drinks and have fun, get in to all cool places and know people who can hook them up all over the world. Bartenders can!
Do you have any special strengths or weaknesses as a bartender?
I think my greatest strength also is my weakness, I myself. There are so many things I want to do and so many projects I want to take part in but there’s just not enough time. At least not now, give me a few more years and I’m all over this place… Just like Weezy!
How do you spend your spare time?
Family first! Then scheming for the next phase of the great cocktail take over and third friends and drinking, and course during season it’s football night every Sunday at casa de Cofré-Kjellberg.
What do you like to drink when off duty?
Tequila, beer, old red Burgundy wines and messed up bourbon and rye cocktails, just slightly off balanced so it kind of hurts when you take the first sip.
What do you have in your private liquor cabinet?
Tequila, some more tequila and really weird spirits from weird countries like Transylvanian plum distillates and something I’m still not sure what it is but it’s from Costa Rica in a plastic bottle and has a dancing couple on the label.
What upcoming cocktail trends do you think we can expect in the near future?
I think bars and bartenders more and more will start to find their own expression and let the cocktail menu and back bar more reflect what they want to convey to their guests. Not just a collection of tasty cocktails and nice bottles of booze. I think all these different phases Swedish bars has gone through since it all started for real in the late 90’s early 00’ has been necessary but now it’s time to get more diversity and personalities.
Which are your favorite bars/bartenders around the world and why?
My favorite bars would probably be Calloh Callay and Casitas in London, la Capilla in Tequila, Mexico and the Barking Dog in Copenhagen as soon as they are up and running. Salon 39 in Copenhagen, The kind of place that you walk in to and time stops. You walk out feeling happy and not sure if it’s gone an hour or a year! Favorite bartenders ought to be Bergman from Nattens Riddare in Stockholm, Emil Åreng at Rex in Umeå and your choice of the NYC mafia (Richie Boccato, Sam Ross, Sasha Petraske, Phillips Ward and so on…). Also the Nilsson brothers and Terkel from Copenhagen Denmark. You feel as a guest, best friend and collegue at the same time. Gotta love that feeling.
In your opinion, how do bars in Stockholm/Sweden compare internationally?
Just great! We have slowly founding our style and quality and service wise we are as good as any of the so called top cities.
You recently won the prestigious “industry improver of the year” at Bartenders’ Choice Awards, what do you have to say about this?
Proud as a father! In one way it’s even greater than if I would have won the Bartender of the Year, even if my ego would feel better with the bartender award. Being a bartender is, always has been and always will be the foundation of everything I do business wise but at the same time actual bartending is only a piece of my great puzzle of leaving a mark.
What inspires you regarding spirits and cocktails?
Most stuff I experience really. To me inspiration is an always ongoing process that is the result of repetition. I don’t believe that inspiration comes to you just like that. If you look at the great writers, painters and artists they see their art as work which needs to be maintained everyday to keep it alive.
Which of your signature drinks and what else in your career are you most proud of so far?
A lot of things but the fact that people from within the industry gives my job recognition like the nominations at Bartenders’’ Choice and mentioning me as an inspiration is an achievement to be proud of to me.
Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
Hustling and keeping the cause alive, just as today. I do have a huge box of ideas, plans and schemes for the future and I always make sure to get to where I’m aiming. But I rather keep them to myself until it’s time to reveal it bit by bit. Not that I think someone would steal my “great plans” more that I like to keep them to me until they can fly, as another local hero of mine said: “It’s my baby but you can’t hold it”.
Would you like to share one of your own recipes?
The Virgen de Guadalupe Cocktail
40 ml Arette tequila blanco
20 ml Carpano Classico vermouth
10 ml St. Germain elderflower liqueur
5 ml absinth
dash holy water
Stir, serve up with an orange twist.