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Photo: Pontus Höök
Photo: Pontus Höök

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Meet Madeleine Rapp - award-winning bartender

Madeleine Rapp, a bartender at one of New York’s most talked-about speakeasies, wants to mix you up the best cocktail that you have ever had.

While the term speakeasy conjures up romantic ideas of secret cocktail bars serving great drinks, Madeleine Rapp, a former winner of Sweden’s Bartender’s Choice Awards, is not so convinced.

“You know that’s when the term ‘bathtub gin’ was born?” she says. “Cocktails probably never tasted so bad as during that time. And you had no idea where the liquor came from.”

The speakeasies’ heyday was in the 1920s during the American prohibition era, when they sprung up illegally all over the country to serve banned booze. When the prohibition era ended in 1933, speakeasies disappeared.Photo: Pontus Höök

But speakeasies are springing up once again, especially in New York. Today, they are legal establishments, serving legal drinks. The speakeasy tag refers more to the dimly-lit retro vibe and use of unmarked entrances, although they mostly have a website and social media presence advertising the addresses.  

Another aspect of the new speakeasy era is the quality of the cocktails, which are based less on the three parts soda, one part alcohol of yesteryear, but more on the craftsmanship that is coming to define what many call the new art of mixology. 

This cocktail revolution has spread across the world, and Rapp, today a distinguished bartender at one of New York’s trendiest new speakeasies – Dead Rabbit, grew up in the central Swedish town of Örebro, which also witnessed the transition.

The owners of Dead Rabbit insisted on sponsoring Rapp’s American visa. They wanted her and nobody else.

“I found something I was really good at,” she says. “I played football and I played the oboe, but I didn’t like them and was not any good at them.”

She took a job at the Strömpis nightclub in Örebro. She nearly quit on her first day though after having opened 200 bottles of wine by force-pulling the corks as she didn’t dare ask how the corkscrew was supposed to be used (she is now a trained sommelier).

This was back in 2005, and just a year later she had a job at a hotel in Stockholm. From there she worked her way through a number of Swedish hotspots, such as Svartengrens, Kåken, Nytorget 6 and East.

“It’s a profession where you need to challenge yourself all the time,” she says, explaining why she has worked in numerous places. “It’s a creative process too, and also involves a lot of teamwork.”

Her move to Dead Rabbit however looks to be one that could last a while. Rapp is confident. The bar is her turf and she knows what she’s doing. But the confidence never turns into a high-and-mighty attitude. She won’t tell you what you should drink if she doesn’t like your order. She’s also serious about hospitality.

I get so pissed off at waitresses and bartenders who judge the customers by their orders,” she says. “Who am I to tell you what to drink? Sure, if you come in here and ask for a gin and tonic, I might suggest something from our menu, which we are really proud of. But I’ll make sure you get the best gin and tonic you’ve ever had, if that’s what you really want.”

Dead Rabbit is a tiny bar on the second floor of an Irish establishment, oddly misplaced among the high-rises of Manhattan’s financial district. Rapp says she just wants visitors to leave happy and tell all their friends about it.

She makes me a “Kerb crawler.” It’s very pink, but since I’m old enough not to care, I enjoy it immensely.

“This is a permission-era cocktail,” Rapp says laughing. To get a New York employer to sponsor your visa and make that investment in you is impressive. Ask anyone who’s ever made it to the US, especially in the restaurant business, where domestic talent is in excess. But Madeleine Rapp has traveled the world. She has visited so many bars and befriended so many bartenders and bar owners that her network has become worldwide. She is a name in the business.

“I worked for this chance for six years,” she says. “And I came here to challenge myself and to learn to become a better bartender.”

But despite being part of the mixology generation, Rapp isn’t impressed with the term.

“I guess someone wanted recognition for his or her hard work,” she says. “They said ‘we’re not bartenders, we’re mixologists.’ But I don’t buy it. I am just tending the bar. Just like bartenders always have. This used to be a really prominent profession back in the 1800s. And mixing and making great cocktails is just part of the job. Tending the bar – the hospitality and caring for the customer – gets missed in that label. That is why I, and many others, would rather be proud bartenders than mixologists.”

Text: Henrik Ek 

Last edited: July 31, 2017

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