Drinks sipping and spirits chattin’ – an encounter with Ireland’s Diageo Brand Ambassador Martin Duffy

I was up in Belfast at The Merchant Hotel in January to conduct some vodka trainings for Diageo’s World Class Cocktail Competition and just to see the city itself. What a great looking town!

Anyway, I got into a conversation with Hayden Lambert, the award winning bartender at The Merchant and mentioned that I was planning a visit to Rome at the end of February. I had never been before and was quite looking forward to it. He automatically recommeded that I drop in on a gentleman that he had met on Facebook. 

His name was Max La Rocca and he was supposed to be quite the man with the cocktails. He worked at the Hotel St. George on the Via Guilia, just across the river from The Vatican. I thought, why not?

I had made contact with Max on Facebook and he was ever so gracious about having me stop in.

I arrived in Rome on a Friday, armed with only my vast lack of the Italian language and absolutely no idea where I was in the city. After no time at all, I set off to visit The Hotel St. George and a guy named “Max”. The sun was out but the air was just a bit nippy, and myself with the lingering affects of a cold.

When I arrived at the hotel, the outside was a nice stone doorway, but very unassuming. Once you walked in though, you knew that you were in a hotel that I couldn’t possibly afford to stay in. As I rounded the corner to the bar area, the man himself came up to greet me.

Massimo (the same name, as he was to point out to me later, as the Russel Crowe character in the film “Gladiator”) “Max” La Rocca had a smile on his face and appeared much younger than what I expected. He brought me over to his bar and proceeded to make me feel right at home.

We started to discuss my trip so far, which at that point only consisted of a long cab ride, my surprise at the rather spooky hotel that I had booked myself into about a 1 1/2 miles away and a rather nice, inexpensive Italian dinner that I enjoyed around the corner from the “spooky hotel”. Then we got down to the matters at hand…drinks & drinking!

Max started me off with the cocktail that he was listing on his blog, the Tommy’s Camomile No. 10, made with Diageo’s Tanqueray No. Ten gin, agave syrup and fresh lime juice with a creamy camomile foam (with a touch of vanilla), a sprinkle of camomile on top and a side of his own lime jelly. The presentation was great, but it was nothing compared to how that cocktail tasted! I was blown away.

Another great experience was his Smoking Daiquiri, where before making the cocktail, he lit a chuck of a cigar and put it under the serving glass. When ready, he turns the glass rightside up and pours in the cocktail. What a trip! It was as it I was smoking and drinking at the very same time! I was still tasting this cocktail later the next afternoon.

I did recommend, however, that he consider using other flavours of smoke, possibly frankensence, considering he was working in the shadows of The Vatican, it only seemed appropriate. Perhaps it was just the Catholic tourist in me.

Over the next few evenings, Max would serve up his variations on some classic cocktails, such as the Manhattan & Negroni.

On my second night in Rome, after visiting the aforementioned Vatican, I bee-lined it over to The St. George to see what else Max had up his sleeve. He showed me all of these experiments that he had been working on: his clear ice that he painstakingly creates and nurtures for just the right look and his array of garnishes & spices that he keeps on hand. This lead us talking about infusions. I had mentioned how I had been infusing rich, chocolate coffee beens into Black Bush, which usually has a bit of a milk chocolate character in the finish. I had figured that since we already put Irish whiskey into coffe, why not put coffee into Irish whiskey.

This is where Max took things to the next level. You could see his mind racing at speeds I couldn’t keep up with, even if I tried. He gathers up some ingredients and tools, pours Black Bush into a brandy snifter and then lights it on fire. A dash of cinnamon, some coffee and star anise et voilà, a coffee-less Irish coffee!

To top off my stay in Rome, Max was kind enough to postpone his usual trip home on that Sunday and meet up for lunch at a wonderful Italian restaurant (I know, is there any other kind in Rome?). For an American, you always want to experince certain things in different countries: drinking scotch in Scotland, drinking Guinness in Dublin and eating Italian food in Rome. Some how you just feel like you have done it all once you accomplished these things.

Anyway, Max also took my around to some of the other spots around town where the small, but proud group of mixologists work their craft.

We stopped into the Grand Hotel de La Minerve, a sister hotel of the St. George, where Roberta, who was just ending her shift, was telling us how she & her husband are about to open up their own bar. Her replacement for the next shift was named Roberto! What are the chances of that? He presided over a very nice ornate bar with a good number of spirits.

Then, it was off to a bar that Max once worked at called the Hotel de Russie. There we met his friend, another Max, Massimo D’Addezio, a man full of great vigor. When I say Massimo free pours…I mean he free pours! We actually spent some time at this bar and chatted to Massimo and his staff. All of which had passion & pride in their work and for the art of bartending.

We went to one more bar at the Excelsior Hotel. Once again, a warm greeting from Max’s friends Luca di Francia behind the bar and another very nice cocktail.

Thinking back on my experince in Rome, I am struck by just how professional the bartenders are without losing their personalities & warmth.

Max, I think, is the epitome of this.

He puts so much imagination, creativity, personality and hard work into what he does and what he creates, the man needs a much bigger stage than what he has now. After watching Max work, I thought I was witnessing a man who had been behind the bar for 20 years or more, honing his craft and providing a level of serve not often seen these days.

When he informed me that he had been bartending for only 3 years, I nearly fell off my stool. He had done more in his 3 years than I had in my 12 years bartending back in Chicago, yet he is one of the most humble and giving people I have ever met. He should be the inspiration to any person looking to get into the service industry and the field of mixology.

To the Gladiator of Mixologists, I salute you!

Martin C. Duffy
Diageo Reserve Brand Ambassador