Next week the ELIT Masters Global Final takes place in glorious Athens. Representing the UK is Klára Kopcíková from Atelier Coupette who beat off nine amazingly talented competitors in the ELIT UK final at Scarfes Bar in September. Before she heads off to Greece for the first time, we caught up with her to find out how she got into bartending, what makes her tick and the inspiration behind her winning cocktail.
First things first, who is Klára Kopciková?
I’m a bartender. I’m from the Czech Republic. I moved to the UK five years ago today. It just so happens that today [day of our interview] is my fifth anniversary of being in the UK.
What brought you to the UK?
Back in the Czech Republic I went to osmileté gymnázium (grammar school equivalent), the only purpose was to go to university. But when I graduated, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, so I worked in my parents’ restaurant as a chef for five or six months then, as I liked hospitality and wanted to get better at it, I thought I could work as a bartender or in hospitality in the UK, gain some experience and bring it back.
I originally moved to Birmingham as an au pair – which was a strategic move because you get somewhere to live, you get paid, all you need to do is head over! However, it didn’t quite work out and after three weeks I left and got a bartending job in a gastropub. Matt Arnold (World Class GB 2023 winner) was my first ever trainer and he taught me everything, including how to hold the shaker. I’ve always loved hospitality – I’m from a hospitality family. My grandparents have a farm, my parents have a restaurant and two of my three sisters also work in hospitality,
So it wasn’t a surprise to your parents that you became a bartender?
To be honest, at first, they were hoping that I would go to university because I’d spent eight years of my life preparing for it. They wanted me to reap the rewards of all of that time I’d put into studying.
But my dad always says that I’m living his dreams – working in a good bar, living in the UK, entering competitions – he’s very proud. Both of my parents are.
When and why did you make the move to London?
I was always going to move to London but I eventually did it eight months ago (at the time of our interview). Prior to moving I was bar manager at the Pineapple Club in Birmingham and after it closed unexpectedly, I finally made the move to London. I got a job at Coupette where I worked until about two months ago, now I’m at recently opened Atelier Coupette, the sister branch which opened a few weeks ago.
Describe your bartending style?
I’m a very hard-skilled, very focused bartender, I think it’s more important to be able to work a bar quickly and efficiently rather than being overly creative. As much as I love competing and as much as I love creativity, I don’t think that makes me good bartender. What makes me a good bartender is the fact that I’m quick, I don’t mess about, I just get on with the job.
Who inspires you?
I’m very inspired by the people around me at the moment. So Georgia Balson, head bartender at Atelier Coupette and Andrei Marcu, our Group Bar Manager both inspire me massively. They’re both very dedicated, both want the best for the venue and they always have the best intentions – I find that very motivating because I have worked with people who only saw numbers. Now I’m part of a team where every single person cares very deeply about the venue and that is really uplifting.
I’m also inspired by my room mate Mia Kumari, who works at Satan’s Whiskers, she’s an absolutely amazing bartender; also Emmy Pip Knight from the Savoy – we have a really strong female power house going on!
What’s the best thing about being a bartender?
For me, personally, it’s such a great fit. Bartending is a craft and I’m a very fidgety human being! I’m hyperactive, I’m always on my feet – I never sit still. So the fact I get to move and work is really important. I’m also very sociable, so being able to interact with guests is super important to me. As a self-confessed nerd, the fact that there’s always something new to learn is another bonus. Plus, there’s the creativity element as well, which is something that I’ve always loved. I did quite a bit of art and music at school and the fact that I can pour that creativity into my job is incredible. Bartending always felt like the most perfect fit for who I am.
When did you realise that you were good at it?
I entered my first cocktail competition about three months after I started working behind the bar and I knew absolutely nothing! I was fresh out of Czech Republic, I didn’t know that 25ml was a single shot, I didn’t know there was another type of beer other than lager – I was completely green and I was terrible to start with but I did my first competition and I did pretty well. Surprisingly! Even though on the day of the competition, I didn’t realise you had to have a speech! But I got a good score and that made me think ‘Hmmm, maybe I’m good at this!’
What made you enter?
Matt Arnold made me enter, I didn’t want to but he told me that I would be fine. So I did and I was. After that, the company where I worked used to run a ‘100 classics’ test which, if you took, you’d get a bit of a pay rise. So I did that. I loved the process of reading about the classics and memorising them. I also loved reading up on the history of spirits – I just fell in love with it. So I bought my first couple of books on bartending. I think I was fully committed to bartending about five months after starting – I just knew that it was what I wanted to do.
What was your first book and why did it appeal to you?
The Curious Bartender by Tristan Stephenson. I thought it was quite suitable for my level because I already knew a couple of classics and I knew about spirits but this took that knowledge a little further. Tristan explained the science, history and culture behind the classics but he also did his own twists on the classics, so it opened the doors to creativity as well.
We’ve talked about the best thing about being a bartender, what’s the hardest part of it for you?
The irregular schedules. Not having the same days every week and working days and nights. When I was a younger, I didn’t really mind because my social life centred around work but now, I find the irregular hours are more difficult. But I make it work.
Talking about that, what do you do to separate work and keep your mind healthy?
One thing that does it for me is Muay Thai – I completely switch off from everything else when I’m in the gym, which I aim to get to four or five times a week. The other thing is I’m really trying not to talk about work with my friends or boyfriend who work in hospitality.
What attracted you to ELIT Martini Masters?
It’s a vodka competition and I love vodka! I’m from Eastern Europe, I’m Slavic and vodka is very much connected to my heritage. And of course, I absolutely love Martinis!
Coincidentally, a few months before the competition, I’d been reading about Ginta Muižniece, Master Blender at ELIT, so I already knew that it was an Eastern European, female-led brand which is super important to me. The drinks industry is still very much male-dominated and it makes me happy when I hear about women who are making their way in the drinks industry. I find it really inspiring.
How did you approach creating your drink?
I was sitting in the kitchen at the original Coupette, which is where me and Georgia Balson were training the starting team for Atelier Coupette. My colleague Edu was juicing some strawberries and was about to throw the pulp away and that has always bothered me because the pulp is still full of flavour. I’ve done so much with leftovers at Coupette before. In fact, I based an entire menu on just our waste.
Anyway, as he was about to throw the pulp in the bin, I was inspired to use it in my ELIT drink. So I asked Chef for ingredients from the kitchen that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of the shift or the next day and he gave me some tomatoes, some sad looking coriander and an opened tub of yogurt – all of which would have spoiled, and those ingredients formed the basis of my drink.
As I was making it, I realised that this is what we do in Eastern European households. Here, in the UK and most of Western society, people tend to shop several times a week – they buy what they need for that one meal. We don’t do that. We go on a big shop once a week and at the end of that week, we use up whatever is left over. Sometimes you make something delicious, sometimes not but the important thing is not wasting anything. We take a lot of pride in cooking and hosting our families. As I was making the drink, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what we do at home’. So I called it What House Gives.
Did you think you would win the competition?
I really liked my drink. Like I said, I’m a big Martini fan, so I thought it still tasted like a nice Martini, but it also had enough flavour coming from of my ingredients to make it a little lighter and brighter.
I think it’s a well-balanced drink but I was worried that it didn’t have enough inspiration behind it because all I did was run into the kitchen and play around.
But that’s really inspiring as well isn’t it?
Looking at it that way, yes, I think it is. I think there’s definitely a beauty in making drinks on the spot and just rolling with what you feel at the moment. That’s what I do most of the time. I don’t have an idea for weeks or months, and then I just see something and it clicks. That’s what happened with my ELIT drink, but I was a little bit like, ‘does this have enough of a backbone or story to win?’ But that said, I do feel that my connection to ELIT is unique.
Who would you like to see drinking your What House Gives cocktail?
If I ever got to visit the ELIT distillery I’d like Gita to try it – that would be amazing. If I got to meet her, and I really hope I do at some point, I’d love to tell her that I think that she’s really inspiring and doing an absolutely amazing job. Other than Gita, I’d ask my friends, my colleagues and people who are close to me to try it and enjoy it.
And now you’re getting ready for the ELIT Masters Global Final. What happens? Is it a different format?
There are two drinks this time. The first will be my What House Gives Martini, the second is a luxury summer serve. The brief is to make something fun that would be served to an audience in Greece.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m really looking forward to going to the Athens Bar Show, as well as being in Athens generally – I’ve never been before and I’ve heard so much about the bar scene there. I’m also really excited to meet the other competitors and seeing their bartending styles.
What would you say to people thinking about entering ELIT Masters next year? Or what should they think about before entering?
What this competition made me realise is finding a personal bond with the brand and the spirit is the most important part of the entire process. The judges and audience will be able to tell if you just don’t care as much and that’s fine, you can’t care about every single brand. But I think that choosing competitions that you really feel a connection to is what gets you further and in the end translates as your possible performance and the best possible drink. I’m so looking forward to getting the opportunity to present my What House Gives Martini again.