Max Karsbrink grew up in Stockholm, but the last couple of years he has spent bartending abroad. Just over a year ago he came back to Sweden and started getting involved in the Stockholm bar scene. I first met him when I was part of the jury in last year’s Nordic finals of Beefeater MIXLDN – which he didn’t win – but instead he recently won the Aperitivo Violento competition and was awarded a trip to the Fratelli Branca distillery in Milan – congratulations! Now he’s the bar manager at the beautiful small café, cocktail bar and vintage shop Erlands Kafé.
What made you pursue a career in bartending and how did you get your first bartender job?
The reason why I ended up in this career is just a coincident. I wanted to take a break from my studies and moved down to Spain where I got thrown in behind the bar because I had no prior hospitality experience. I was that bartender who didn’t know what a guest wanted when they asked for a G&T. I had no clue whatsoever what all the different bottles in the back bar held within them. But that was also my motivation to become great. I started reading all books I could find about bars and spirits. And I loved it. Cooking has always been a huge interest when I was young. And now I could do the same, but with spirits as ingredients.
Where are you originally from, and how did you end up at Erlands Kafé?
I have lived most of my life in Stockholm, Sweden. But for the past years I have had the privilege to travel the world with the job that I had. The job offered me the chance to meet amazing people with different backgrounds and watch different styles of this profession from all around the world. I got back to Stockholm December 2013 and started working in some different venues. Not really finding the right place for me. Then I got a tip from a friend that Erlands was looking for new staff. Met the owner and saw the place last autumn and fell in love with the place instantly.
Can you describe the current cocktail concept at Erlands Kafé and the story behind it?
Erlands is a bar inspired by the 1930s – 1960s. The back bar consists mainly of hard liquor with a small range of liqueurs and a wider range of vermouths and their brother amaro. So I would say that we mostly do stiffer old school cocktails.
Which place/places has/have been most important regarding your knowledge and skills?
Very hard question to answer. Wherever I have been I have learnt different things. Good things and Bad things! But one person that I will always look up to is one of my first bar managers. An old Spanish man. He was a man shaped in the very old fashioned way of work standards. A man that would send you home with no pay if your shirt was not ironed well enough, a man that taught me that it is not what you do that will make people like your efforts in the bar. It is how you treat your guest and that the service should always be your number one priority. He used to say:
– You could probably teach a monkey to make the best drinks in the world. But that monkey will never deliver drinks with good service. So never be remembered. It is your service that will make your guests remember you!
I think that is my favorite quote and lesson.
Which is your favourite and least favourite drink to make and why?
My favorite cocktail to make is when I have had the chance to have a 30 second talk with my guest and I know what he/she is looking for in a cocktail. Whatever that might be is my favorite to make. Because I know I will deliver what he/she is looking for in their cocktail.
The least favorite drink to make is the opposite. When you make cocktails that are just written down on a piece of paper or received from a printer. When you don’t get that personal connection with your guest.
How would you describe the perfect customer?
The perfect guest in my eyes is a person who is open to new things. A person who have an interest in my view of this crazy world of spirits!
What do you like most about your job?
The encounters that you have every single day, of new interesting people who all have their stories to tell.
Do you have any special bartending skills you’re extra proud of?
When I started this career I got a huge interest in flair, so I spent a lot of my time training. Maybe I am not as good as I was 6 years ago but I am still very happy that I did it, because that has given me a way of working and moving behind the bar that I am proud of.
How do you spend your spare time?
Off duty I mostly spend my time with family and friends. Weirdly enough, away from the bar scene. You give a lot of yourself whilst working. So spare time for me is being in relaxed environments with my closest.
What do you drink when off duty?
That really depends on the day, time and the mood you’re in. I think that I like almost everything. But nothing beats a straight up rye with a splash of water on the balcony.
What do you have in your private liquor cabinet?
Rye, bourbon, gin, rum, amaro, vermouth, amaretto, pisco, Scotch, single malt.. But it gets broader every day. The goal is to have some of everything
What upcoming cocktail trends do you think we can expect in the near future?
So our guests are looking for higher and higher quality of products and service from us. We have come a huge way. But I think that we need to take it even further. Environmentally friendly. In other world very locally produced ingredients. Using what Sweden has to offer.
Which are your favourite bars/bartenders around the world and why?
Also a hard question to answer.. There is so many! But a bar where the bartenders are humble and not prestigious is my kind of bar.
In your opinon, how do bars in Stockholm/Sweden compare internationally?
We have come a long way and there are many very talented bartenders in this country. But one thing we should never forget is that we are all good in different areas of this profession and we are all students and teachers in different aspects. We can all learn from each other. So instead of being prestigious we need to be humble in how we are portraying ourselves and this profession.
You just won the Aperitivo Violento cocktail competition, what are your thoughts on this experience?
Absolutely amazing!! Really fun competition! Talented bartenders, good feeling and atmosphere! Then being flown down to visit Fernet Branca was not a bad prize! Thank you Renbjer & Magnusson!
What’s your opinion on cocktail competitions in general?
I think that all competitions are good. It ignites that creative spark that makes you think outside the box and try things you might not do otherwise. In other words developing as a bartender. Then perfect meeting ground for the industry.
How do you come up with new cocktail recipes and what inspires you?
If I need to come up with a lot, I think sitting down with the earplugs at max and “mind-mapping” is my way to go. Then other times if I taste something that interests me or reminds me of something. My head almost always starts spinning away with ideas. For example: when I was thinking of a recipe for the Aperitivo comp. My boss handed me “Spuma”, an Italian Chinotto. Never tried it before. After the first sip I knew that I had to use it for my vermouth cocktail. Because the taste was going to go so well with the Carpano! After my head stopped spinning I wrote all of it down and then I started experimenting.
Which of your signature drinks, if any, and what else in your career are you most proud of so far?
I do like my Grandma’s Addiction! A sweet rum cocktail with a smoky whiskey touch. Then I am proud of my years working as a bar teacher where you guide people into this amazing profession.
Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
I will run my own bar! Maybe not necessarily in Stockholm, but somewhere! Then I would like to work with F&B management as well. 😀
Would you like to share one of your own recipes?
Lets go with the winning cocktail from the Aperitivo Violento:
Pour into glass:
4cl Carpano Classico
1cl Hallands Fläder
1cl Gunroom Navy Gin
1cl Lime juice
Top it off with Spuma (traditional Italian chinotto). Serve with ice.
Perfect after work, before dinner or just for a hot day.