Raising the Bar

Written by
Time Out Israel Editors

Bar Shira, co-founder of the Imperial Cocktail Group, tells us all about their new Tel Aviv hot spot: Fontana

Forty-year-old Bar Shira, one of the co-founders of Israel’s devilishly creative and ultra-famous Imperial Cocktail Group, is well known as one of the ambassadors of Israel’s drinking culture around the world. He lets us in on how he swapped law for the nightlife scene, the latest aperitivo hotspot in Tel Aviv, and what your next favorite drink will be.

Since 2001, when Bar Shira decided to embark on bartending as a freshly-minted law student, his aim has been to turn Israel into one of the cornerstones of the burgeoning world-wide cocktail craze. He’s the co-founder of the Imperial cocktail group, and in charge of marketing and business development. The group recently opened Fontana, in partnership with Atlas boutique hotels, a new aperitivo garden smack in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard

What made you forgo law for the cocktail scene? 

All throughout my law studies and internship, I was working as a bartender at Tapeo. Once I finished, I had to make a choice between my passion for hospitality and pleasing my mother, who is a judge. I chose to follow my heart. 

What’s your take on the transformation of the reputation of bartenders turned ‘mixologists’ in recent years, winning prestigious awards and gaining popularity as a distinguished profession? 

To me a trend is just that, a trend! Trends have revolutionized the sector but I don’t become a slave to them, to me they’re in the background. I think the bar industry is ready for a post-revolution where bartenders focus only on positive vibes and excellent drinks that are far removed from that exaggerated need to impress at every cost. I now frown upon the use of the word “mixologist” because nowadays it relates to drink makers and not bartenders whose main purpose is to give guests a good experience. On the other hand, I am very happy and proud of my role in the transformation of bar tending into a distinguished profession. Winning awards and global recognition is part of the revolution that turned this profession into being more acceptable. 

Fontana © Ben Yuster

Imperial was on the top 50 bars list in the world. How do you think it reached this kind of status?

First of all, the bar has to be really good, to create a unique experience for guests, and it is also as important to create global awareness through collaborations with well-known bartenders from around the world even if you do this as an affirmative action. Imperial’s vision was to bring the world to Tel Aviv and to bring Tel Aviv to the world. One of our aims was always to raise the bar, pun intended, and to educate the local bar scene. We did that by inviting prominent figures from the bar world to do guest shifts and master classes for Israeli bar tenders. That is how they got to experience Imperial as a bar and the amazing vibes Tel Aviv has to offer. We also created a special menu, inspired by our love for the city, where each drink is inspired by a different neighborhood. For example, the old-fashioned hipster is inspired by Kerem Hateimanim and is actually a deconstructed Malabi. 

What’s similar and what differentiates each of your locations?

The DNA of our group comprises three main aspects:  1-Our knowledge in liquids- cocktails, spirits, and coffee. 2- Our connection with hotels which I will elaborate on later, and 3- Our approach to hospitality and dedication to give our guests a full experience at the highest level. Our customers are guests and we love to host. We direct our staff to approach every guest as if they are entering their own living room.

All your businesses are in hotels. Is that on purpose? If so, why? 

It wasn’t something that happened on purpose but it was a natural development of the path we chose. The Imperial was opened in a hotel that belongs to the family of both of my partners. The fact that such a successful bar is located in a hotel drew the attention of other hoteliers. With the rise of boutique hotels and their emphasis on experience, they wanted in on some of the action. First, was the Isrotel group in Cramim Spa Hotel, where we opened Imperial Red- a kosher franchise of our business- but the real leap happened when we teamed up with the Atlas hotel group and opened Bushwick and recently Fontana, Thus establishing our dominance as the main hospitality group in the hotel business. Working with hotels requires special skills and flexibility which is rare for the regular restaurant and bar business. In exchange, we get in-house guests, services that otherwise we would need to outsource, and great locations. The hotel, on its part, gets great F&B professionals, increased PR, and a vibrant experience for the guests - a great mix of locals and temporary locals. 

Bushwick © Afik Gabay

What to expect now in cocktails?

The no-lo cocktails are now the hottest buzz, referring to cocktails with either low or no alcohol. This is due to the rise of health trends, and the notion that hospitality is about having a great night out and not necessarily getting drunk when drinking or full to the brim when eating. 

Tell us about Fontana - your new hot spot.

Fontana is an aperitivo garden inspired by the no-lo trend and the Italian drinking culture. It is a lush garden in the heart of Rothschild Boulevard, serving our interpretations of classic drinks such as gin and tonic, vermouth and tonic and negroni. 

What is your favorite drink to make for customers? What about for yourself?

My favorite approach for guests is to understand what they are looking for most at the exact moment they are in my bar. It can be a classic like a Martini, Daiquiri, Margarita or a Negroni, or one of our special signature cocktails. My favorite drink to make at home is the cup of coffee I make every morning for my girlfriend. 

Where do you like to drink off-duty? In Israel and abroad

I can get my dose of Guinness at either - Minzar, Foster, or Bushwick, and I get my Negroni fix at Cicchetti. One of my favorite bars in the world is Odori in Athens - their head bartender, Manolis, is one of the finest drink makers I know. 

Fontana - Aperitivo Garden, 65 Rothschild, Blvd. Tel Aviv, 03-7677699

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