A PATÉMAR MINI-SERIES : TASTEMAKER #03 : MR. DENNY BAKIEV
Words by : Lens of Passion
Q: I appreciate you saying yes to this interview that aims to dive into your passion, personal story with Bali, and sustainability. How did your flair bartending journey begin and unfold?
I grew up in a small town in Ukraine. When I turned 18, I left my town and went to study hospitality, hotel and restaurant management in a bigger city called Dnipro. Right from the first course, I wanted to work on the side to make some pocket money so that was when I started working at the bar in a small Italian restaurant, in 2006. I realized I could manage study and work while I was getting actual F&B knowledge from the field. One day, a waiter at my job who was a former bartender invited me to an event where I saw a flair bartending competition for the first time and I got drawn to it. I felt the passion to learn some of these tricks with shakers, bottles, cocktails, and everything. I wanted to become that flair bartender, entertainer and performer. After this night, I took a flair course and started to put my intention into creating my own routine and performance.
My first competition was in my city and my seventh competition in Kiev was one of the biggest ones in Eastern Europe, for which I won second place. This exposure led me to more international competitions in Latvia, Romania and Poland, and I made it to Top-10 in the final rounds. After almost six years of competing and traveling, I’ve been to around 45 countries. I’ve competed on many stages, taught flair, participated in expos and collaborated with big spirits companies.
Q: What is your biggest achievement in the world of flair?
At the Titan’s World Flair Championship in Moscow in 2012, I took third place. In the same year, I ranked third place as well by the World Flair Association after winning points at different events and competitions.
Q: You’ve joined more than 100 bartender and mixology competitions. Which two are the most memorable?
Coming from a small town in Ukraine, most of the people around me didn’t go abroad that much so it was always a pronounced need for me to expose myself to different cultures. This competition in Monte Carlo organized by Barcardi was incredible. I was dreaming to go there because they would only invite top 10 in the world to participate. One summer day, I woke up to an invitation and it was really special to be on the stage with 9 superstars. At the after-party, Pharrell Williams was there.
Q: What brought you to Bali?
I came to Bali for the first time to compete in the Asia Open in 2012 and I really enjoyed the vibe and culture here. I came back for a vacation, and in 2014, I decided to move here for a year to learn surfing, slow down and avoid the winter back home. I had a flair school in Moscow at that time with my friend, Alexander Shtifanov, a multiple flair world champion right now. But yeah, eight years later, I’m still here. And I’m working for a big group of restaurants managing the bar and exploring different areas of development.
Q: What differentiates a bartender, a mixologist and the one Denny Bakiev?
I started working in the field since 2006 and back in those days we didn’t have the term mixologist. Everyone in my role was considered a bartender, which is a position that gives you the practice of classics and professional habits behind a bar. Then flair bartending started happening more and it became a cool trend because people in flair would hang out at exclusive places like certain nightclubs. Compared to bartending, flair is more performance-driven and festive. Certain artistic and musical flair moves don’t even belong to a regular bar but on competition stages. Some tricks can be extremely dangerous and require the right environment for them. And even when you practice 10 hours a day, you can still make mistakes.
Cocktail bars didn’t really exist the way they do now, they weren’t as trendy so there was definitely a transition period when flair and mixology became more prevalent so people in the field started focusing on knowing the classics well, tweaking, mixing, and presenting balanced drinks. I personally experienced the transition from flair to mixology to more. The creativity element in both flair and mixology comes to me naturally as I created my moves and approach from competing internationally. Mixing to me feels like cooking and I have fun with that since childhood when my grandma taught me how to cook.
What differentiates me is that I’ve become an organizer of the entire process now being the Beverage Director at Mexicola Group. I stepped into the operational side managing 50 bartenders making 1000 cocktails per night before the pandemic. I come from the world of flair and mixing and now I try to put together the right mechanisms for good results to happen.
Q: Do you have a different persona behind the bar counter versus not?
Yes. By nature, I like to spend a lot of time by myself in nature and not socializing that much but when I’m in the work environment I try to put my attention to serve people and make sure they have a good time. I’m lucky to have this balance of being social and antisocial because this mix fulfills me.
In Bali, it can be quite easy to get lost in the loud and buzzy social scene, and working in hospitality, you could easily lose touch with your own nature. I’m very aware of how I feel on the spectrum and do something about it urgently if I feel drained by interaction or introversion.
Q: If you can describe your life as a drink, what would it be?
Hmmm…interesting. It will be something tropical but classy at the same time, let’s say it would be a Jungle Bird – a mix of rum, Campari, pineapple juice, lime, and a bit of sugar, basically a tropical aperitif. It has something from Europe and something from the Tropics.
Q: I listened to one of your podcast and you mentioned the movie “Cocktail” by Tom Cruise from 1988. How has the movie impacted you?
The movie was definitely the extension of my fascination for flair after I went to see the competition in my college town. The movie was such a big inspiration and push for our industry.
It’s funny how I look back and my life was sort of moving forward in a similar direction as Brian’s, Tom Cruise’s character. He moved to Jamaica to work at a bar and I do that now on a tropical island. Subconsciously, I may have reflected, compensated and redirected my destiny after watching different movies.
Q: We should never underestimate the power of art. Now, can you walk us through the concept of natural wine and zero waste cocktail bar, two initiatives you’re steering?
A: Everyone knows about organic wines and biodynamic wines but natural wines are beyond those. When grapes are grown organically, businesses just market the wine as organic when in reality, sulfites can still be inserted during the bottling process. Natural wine doesn’t do that. Natural wines is almost like babysitting the grapes or grape juice, letting it ferment, let it do its work and often we don’t even filter the wine and that’s why it’s also called low-intervention wine. The less you do the better the outcome as preserving the authenticity of each grape is a priority. Usually, natural wines need to travel in refrigerated containers, or it can risk getting spoiled. The benefit of these wines is they give you less hangover because there are none of those chemicals you find in conventional wines. In a way, it’s a better way of drinking. It’s cleaner, more organic, more authentic, and more original. That’s why we decided to open this natural wine bar, Mosto, the first one in Indonesia and we already have a lot of loyal customers who come back consistently trying a big selection we carry for different budgets and palates.
As for zero waste coastal bar, the Mexicola group of bars try to minimize waste as much as possible with a reasonable and functional mindset. We put our intention to reuse, preserve, and ferment materials in our processes. In the last couple of years, there’s been this zero waste trend but I still believe that people come to a bar to drink and socialize; they don’t come here to recycle, you know. For sure, we as a business try to be conscientious and kind to use less plastic and carbonate things in-house instead of buying cans of soda water, for example. We 100% prioritize developing practices that make sense to both the business and the environment simultaneously.
Q: What’s one example of wastage at a regular bar on a Friday night? How are your bars handling it differently?
Let’s say when bartenders build the classic Negroni, they would pour the liquor and ingredients into the mixing glass, with ice, and stir it for a few seconds to dilute the drink and chill it down at the same time. And then they would pour it over fresh ice, strain it over fresh ice in a new glass with the new ice. In the end, the rest of the ice used in the previous steps would go to the sink or bin. To avoid this, we pre-batch our Negroni in advance in a big batch, and then per portion, we would add around 10 to 15 milliliters of water instead of ice when we do the dilution process. Then, we would keep the portions refrigerated at the appropriate temperature so the drink is ready to go once we get the order we just pour it in a glass with fresh ice. This alone already reduces the amount of ice we usually would buy for Negronis.
Another thing we do is to prepare the bars efficiently by estimating sales and reducing garnish waste, knowing the estimates what we’d sell on Friday for example. When I understand how my bars perform, our team can make the right decisions to prevent waste because essentially wastage of materials is also a wastage of money, right?
Q: We all love having a bit of a good time and partying. Can you share a tip on how to lessen our waste during our nights out?
We don’t need to use straws as much. In past years, people started using paper and non-plastic straws but for a lot of drinks, straws aren’t even necessary. Drinks with crushed ice like Mojito, maybe, but that’s also questionable. In our bars, we don’t serve cocktails with straws. Customers can request one and we accommodate. Start with this small change. Little things count.
Q: What are the keys to the process of transforming into a more sustainable operation?
First of all, you have to make it clear to yourself that sustainability is important to you as a leader. You can’t fake it and don’t just follow the trend. I think we all need to start there. Once you have a real understanding of why some things matter, you can redesign your operation, bring together the team and train them to understand the importance of the new way. It’s common to meet confrontation when you introduce a new or unfamiliar idea because we can perceive life and job and everything differently. But as a leader at work, I have to bring certain organizational beliefs to people’s awareness.
I go surfing daily and see all the plastic in the ocean and that makes me sad, but that also motivates me to come back to work and find more ways to make improvements. I make sure to find words in my own way to explain to the staff and together we obtain the mindset of doing better than yesterday. Day by day, we can improve the situation.
Another thing is to be willing to invest upfront for long-term payoffs. We invested in ice machines, so our bars produce ice in-house instead of buying ice produced somewhere else, bagged in plastic and transported in refrigerated trucks to our locations’ freezers. This requires time and doing some math but when business owners understand the projection and benefits of the investment, often it makes sense for both the business and the environment.
Q: What does living sustainably mean to Denny?
Caring. It starts with caring about yourself. If you don’t care about yourself, why would you care about everything else? People speak about the world crisis, economic crisis, the war…actually one crisis that we really deal with is the lack of self-consciousness and awareness. Once we fix that, I think a lot of problems will resolve themselves. Look after ourselves, our minds, our bodies – and better things can grow from there.
I am a big believer in expanding our awareness, feeding it, and treating it better. For example, instead of spending time with digital things and being distracted all the time, we can pay more attention to things we can see for real, such as the trees that generate oxygen for us to breathe. When you focus on that, you probably wouldn’t want to use so much paper and have more trees cut.
Deep learning is important to long-term sustainable change. Once your awareness relates to logic and appreciation, you don’t have to force it.
Q: What’s your routine when you’re not working?
I would wake up in the morning, go surf, and have breakfast with my girlfriend. I would spend some time reading or meditating. That’s something I’m fond of living in Bali, being surrounded by so many spiritual practices. We would go for dinner somewhere on the beach, have some seafood, and enjoy the sunset. Basically, I’d spend as much time with nature as possible on my day off.
Q: A book you read recently and liked?
Robin Sharma’s “The Everyday Hero Manifesto”. It’s about life optimization, very easy reading, and down to earth with actual advice in terms of achieving the best results in your life that can benefit people around you as well.
Fill in the blank
Bali is magical.
Flair bartending is entertaining and fun!
If passion were an alcoholic drink, it would be Mezcal. It is a distilled spirit that is made in Mexico from the different types of agaves. People who make it have so much passion from the moment the agave grows to the moment they distil it. The whole process is very passionate, interesting, and authentic.
Editors Note: The Patémar Mini-Series Tastemakers will be published on the first week of each months of the season. Stay tuned and follow our instagram @patemarshorts and @lensofpassionofficial to receive the latest update on our interviewees. #PATEMARTastemakers #LensOfPassionOfficial
See more Mr. Bakiev’s work at @dennybakiev