Meet Nikos Bakoulis, who, after starting out in the industry at just 14, has risen to the top. And when we say the top, we really mean it…
Nikos is the co-founder and co-owner of The Clumsies in Athens, which was recently voted the third best bar IN THE WORLD by 50 Best Bars 😮👏
Only when we sat down to speak to Nikos did this crazy level of success start to make sense. He has that very rare combination of creative flair and a business brain. Mix that in with a remarkably strong work ethic and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for success.
For the second edition of our 'Welcome Back Serve' series we asked Nikos to develop his own special cocktail to welcome patrons back to the bar, as normality slowly starts to return. There was only one rule – the serve had to include Naked Malt. The rest was up to him…
As well as discussing his inspired creation, we chatted to Nikos about his incredible career, life during lockdown, and why he thinks the pandemic has changed the drinking culture in Athens…
So Nikos, tell us how you created one of the world’s best bars?
I dropped out of University and opened my first bar at 23, on the coast near Thessaloniki. I worked there for three years, then decided to move to Athens to share my ideas with bigger crowds.
I had met Vasilios in 2011, and we decided to work together in 2013 in a beautiful gin bar called The Gin Joint. For a year and a half we really pushed our creativity and our ideas on how to handle cocktail ingredients started to change.
It was during this time that we started to plan The Clumsies, and we opened our doors in 2014 (pictured below).
Have you been appearing in The World’s 50 Best Bars list since you opened?
In our very first year we found out we were number 22, which was amazing. Within 5 years, we made it into the top 10. Then 9th, 7th, 6th and now 3rd.
It’s not easy. We have to be realistic about the volume of visitors. It’s completely different here to the likes of London and New York. We know it’s a small country, away from the big brands and hotels, so we feel super proud and happy to be so high on the list.
Do you ever wonder what you’d be doing right now if you had finished University?
My mother always said Nikos, you must finish University. Even when we started winning awards at The Clumsies, she would say it. I think she has now finally realised I’m doing something important here and that I made the right decision.
I am glad I went though. I studied economics and everything I learned has helped me get to where I am. It helped me develop a way of thinking about business that’s been very important.
Did you always think you’d end up going down a creative route like you have?
I’ve never wanted to sit behind a desk for 8 hours a day. It was important to me to have a career that wasn’t just about the money. One that would challenge me, allow me to be creative and where no two days would be the same.
I think I found the right industry for that!
When did you start discovering a love of cocktails?
When I was about 20. At that time, the cocktail culture of today didn’t really exist. A mojito was seen as a super high-tech drink!
I started to realise how little changes could make cocktails taste completely different. This wasn’t really the done thing back then. People tended to stick to the classic recipes, so if you did something a bit different it was seen as really innovative.
When I was developing my own recipes, I realised how great it was to watch someone taste something they’d never tasted before. If you go by the book and recreate a recipe invented 200 years ago, you’ll have a beautiful drink. But you cannot replicate the smile on someone’s face when they try something completely new.
That’s what a great cocktail is all about for me. Putting smiles on faces.
So the last 18 months have hit everyone hard, particularly the hospitality industry. How has it been in Greece, and are things getting back to some sort of normality?
We still have some restrictions, we can’t have people standing in bars for example. But things are slowly getting back to normal, and last month we had the best month since we opened.
I feel like there seems to be a slight change in the way customers are drinking post-pandemic. People are still thirsty, but differently to before. I think they’re taking more time to choose wisely, they’re choosing a better quality drink. They’re going for nice cocktails, nice wines, putting more value on quality over quantity.
I worked a rare shift behind the bar recently and only served one gin and tonic – everything else was cocktails!
What did you miss most during lockdown?
I missed the vibe and the energy, but lockdown gave me a little break from my crazy life. When you run a bar or a business, you always have to be available. It can be exhausting.
All of a sudden I had no schedule, no programme. I had the chance to slow down and spend time with my friends. It helped me come up with new, fresh ideas. I was able to recharge.
It also gave me time to launch something new. It’s not official yet, but all will be revealed soon. It’s going to be beautiful though, I can say that much…
Do you use Naked Malt at The Clumsies? Why do you think bartenders like using it?
We’ve had Naked on our spirit list since we opened and have served Naked cocktails at lots of events over the years. We’re also currently developing a few recipes using Naked Malt which will be available on our menu very soon.
I like using it because I love the flavour profile. It’s a beautiful, mixable spirit that perfectly expresses what Scotch whisky is all about. It’s not like other single malts that have a specific flavour profile – smoky or whatever – it’s super flexible and you can do a lot with it.
As a creative person, that’s exactly what you want from a spirit.
With that in mind, tell us about your Welcome Back Serve.
I call it ‘Tea Ceremony’. It’s made with Naked Malt, shitake ginger honey, mango kombucha and lemon juice. It’s served in a Japanese tea cup and garnished with a cocoa butter tuile.
Sounds amazing, what’s the inspiration behind it?
It’s inspired by the beautiful Tea Ceremonies of Japan. It’s a refreshing sour-style cocktail with tropical acidity from the mango kombucha, earthiness from the shitake ginger honey and, of course, the complexity and gentle smokiness of the Naked Malt complements the drink perfectly.
One sip and I promise, you’ll have one of those smiles I talked about…
If you’d like to try the Tea Ceremony, it’s now on the menu at The Clumsies in Athens (pictured above).
You can also follow Nikos on Instagram (@nikosbakoulis👈) and check out the full list from The World’s 50 Best Bars (of which we’re the proud official Scotch Whisky partners).
If you enjoyed the second Welcome Back Serve, go back and discover the first one with Dom Horsley.
And look out for more, coming soon…
The Naked Team