In 2016, I discovered the cocktail scene in St. Petersburg and it has made a major leap forward and is now in the midst of all the big cities around the world with some excellent cocktail bars and new exciting projects in the pipeline. There is still room to grow. One concept which was brand new a year ago and which I only discovered through a Russian friend is Kabinet, a fabulous speakeasy concept and one of the best I have ever seen. Let’s meet Sam Konjakhin – one of the owners’ of Kabinet.
Sam is 32 years old and he grew up in the north block of St. Petersburg. At the age of 13 he was crazy about music and he started to play guitar in a band. Music always played an important part in his life. He was totally obsessed with hard rock and at one point rap as well. Now he still plays in an electronic band called D-Pulse and they just released their 2nd album.
But let’s rewind the tape a bit. Many of his school friends were bartenders. They started selling beer in front of museums to make some money. He joined them and when he started working in an actual bar at 21 years of age, it was all about beer and vodka. It was also around this time that he left home after an argument with his mum. Besides his studies of technical cybernetics, which he found very dull, he also worked at a car wash to get by financially. Eventually he changed his studies to audio visual, which suited him much better. During his car washing job, he started rapping with a friend of his who was a waiter in an Italian restaurant. He didn’t know back then that this would influence his life quite a bit. This was at the end of the 90’s and he remembers that there was 10 years of anarchy back then. Rich people were animals. There was vodka everywhere and people had no manners. The owner of the Italian restaurant was very true to his concept though. He had nice glasses and excellent wine. If a guest asked for a vodka, he could certainly have one, but he charged the guest a premium of x10. The owner was trying to teach people to appreciate the finer things in life. Sam was very impressed by this concept and he wanted to work there. He eventually got a job in the second restaurant the owner opened. He quit studying, as he concentrated on his first rap album which was released in 2004. As practice, he would rap with his friends at the staff parties of the two restaurants and at one point the owner saw it and loved what they were doing. He asked them if they wanted to record an album. Sam calculated how much money they needed. Rich people back then were easy to convince to spend some money for a project like this. Sam remembers that until 2008 everything was possible. While recording, he stopped all his other work and concentrated only on his music for a whole year.
Close to where Sam was living, a DJ who was part of the renaissance of electronic music opened a speakeasy club. He was a famous art director too – a very talented guy. The place was famous for music and so Sam could often be found drinking at this place. One day, the owner asked him, seeing as he was almost part of the family, if Sam didn’t want to work behind the bar, rather than spending all his money in front of the bar. That was 2008 and Sam said yes which made this his first real bartending job. The place was only 100m2, but it was packed with the rich party folk. From famous artists, to drugs, to beautiful women – it was rock n’ roll. The owner’s girlfriend’s father owned almost all of the real estate in the area and this was why the place could exist. It never really made money and it could only exist in Russia, Sam tells me. The owner was a music fan and invited all big DJ’s from around the world to play in this small venue and his girlfriend’s father paid for it all. It was legendary. Sam was getting creative and started mixing cocktails. It is also where he met the people from D-Pulse. His first cocktail invention was a mix of 5 Bols including melon, strawberry, cream and sprite. He remembers that it was total crap but the girls loved it and it became the bestseller of the place. Though it was an exciting place to work, Sam did not stay very long and soon went back to focusing on his music. His friend who would rap with, was still working in the Italian place and the owner opened a bar for his sons and asked Sam and his friend if they want to take it over and rap and mix at this place. Sam was offered a very decent pay and could not resist taking this chance. His cocktail skills took shape there. They were all very colourful cocktails at first, like his porn star martini and they never used fresh juices or herbs. A while later an experienced bartender from Moscow joined the team this turned out to be a revelation for the other bartenders. For the first time Sam tried fresh strawberry, passion fruit, lemon and lime juice. It was mind-blowing. The people were suddenly going nuts over the cocktails. This bar was a very privileged place as it was made for rich people. The door policy was rigorous and not even friends or reporters got in and as a consequence, the reviews were very destructive. A year after opening, the bar was almost bankrupt. The owner realised that his sons were drinking too much and took too many drugs so he offered Sam to take over the bar. Unfortunately, the guests did not return, as nobody knew the change of ownership and nobody wanted anything to do with the place. It took almost a year for the people to realise that the place had changed. It was a tough time. Eventually, Sam sold the place in 2012. In later years he did music again and consulted for bars on menus, staffing and training. In 2015 a friend of his opened Grill Brothers and told Sam that he has a basement and did he want to use it. Sam, who always wanted a real speakeasy with a simple concept, did not need convincing – thus, the idea of Kabinet was born.
The place is fabulous. It used to be the cheese room from the old department store next door. Low and arched ceiling and brick walls makes it perfect for a speakeasy. The entrance is through the burger store. The music comes from a piano being played on certain evenings and all of the tables are poker tables. The concept is simple and the cocktails are focused on classics with a twist. You are given a few poker cards and the four suits each represent various styles of cocktails. This is a playful element for selecting the drink of your choice. The cocktails are perfectly executed and the clear ice, which is hand-made, helps to underline the perfection the place holds high. A big focus s also on the Amari, which Sam loves to incorporate into classic cocktails.
Sam is not obsessed with new recipes or new development. He doesn’t even drink that much anymore. He is a perfectionist and is never happy with a creation. He works very closely with his team to develop new creations and his Amaro is never far away. Sam reads and travels a lot, which is when he looks for new products. He loves old classic books and says this is why he likes to play around with twists on classic cocktails and I must say; he does it extremely well. His recipes never disappoint.
A Vieux Carré! He was in Williamsburg in a neighbourhood bar and ordered a drink with rye whisky and he got a Vieux Carré. It was a revelation for him: the complexity, the richness and the balance. It was love at first taste.
As an Amaro fan, the bar of choice does not come as a surprise – Amor y Amargo in New York. He is not a particular fan of the bar itself, but loves the concept of the place. It is simple and true to itself. There is nothing too fancy or pretentious about it. It does not use any citrus and they only have one soda. The owners run the place with the perfect attitude: Take it or leave it!
The future of the bar world
People are getting obsessed with cocktails. Bartenders are always on the hunt to surprise their guests, but they forget to be true to their underlying concept. He hopes that bartenders in the future stay more true to their own concept and stop always trying to chase the next trend. A bartender does not have to follow every new idea that is out there.
Advice for opening a bar
He will tell the person to ask themselves why they want to open a bar and if they really understand what they want to do with it. In the end, you have to love what you do.
Craziest customer experience
At the time when he was working in the 100m2 bar with electronic music – a wild time. At one point he remembered that he had something with four girls at the same time and none pf them knew about the others. One evening all four were in the bar at the same time and one was leaning over the bar top to kiss him. The others saw this and the whole drama started. Eventually, he was forced to hide for the rest of the evening evening as it was so embarrassing for him as the situation got out of hand.
It is a village – such a small world. It is home for him but he does not feel too good living here, as the weather is really bad. He often feels depressed. It is hard to live that way. The music helps him to lift his spirits.
Target in life
To make a good record and do a world tour. At the same time when touring he wants to help people open bars with his knowledge. Eventually, he would like to move away – to New York for example. He loves speaking English too.
Best decision in life
Staying true to one thing: Music.
Images: ©Stas Medvedev