Dre Masso

Dre Masso: Three decades steeped in cocktails

23 November, 2022

Sat in his newest bar, The Drinks Trolley, just moments from London’s King’s Cross Station, Dre Masso takes a look over his career as he approaches 30 years in the trade.

My mum was a single mother who migrated from Colombia in 1975 when she was pregnant with me. I was born in London, so I was the first-generation British-Colombian in the family. She was an au pair but also worked in restaurants and bars on the weekends and during that time she would often take me with her, so I grew up familiar with the industry.”

After working in members’ clubs washing glasses and changing ashtrays at the age of 15, Masso also worked in a cocktail bar in Richmond, which led to a move to central London and working in Soho at 18. That’s when he was introduced to the Atlantic Bar & Grill, where he spent four years alongside owner and restaurateur Oliver Peyton, helping to open Mash & Air in Manchester and Coast restaurant along the way. Masso says: “That was, I guess, the foundation for what led me to follow this career. It was pivotal and important because they had cocktail training, and I don’t think many other places had that at the time.

“It was quite a revolutionary movement in London, particularly the transition from using sweeter, prepared liqueurs and sugars to people dabbling and starting to use premium ingredients and fresh produce. You also had people like Dick Bradsell, who was the godfather of the London cocktail scene. So from the Atlantic and throughout my career it’s always been about who I can work with or where I can work and gain experience.”

Masso began his career when prebatched drinks weren’t as common, and everything was made to order, fresh, on the day. The industry has seen a shift over the past 30 years, as Masso says: “From the Atlantic I opened a place called the 10 Room, from there I went to work at the Lab Bar. This was a very important bar for London, it stood for the London Academy of Bartending, and had an extensive list of 150 cocktails at a time when we weren’t prebatching or preparing drinks before service, which is now a more common method so you can get drinks out faster and more consistently. We were doing everything fresh, all cocktails, not really selling anything else, so it was always busy and a lot of fun.”

Global inspiration

Moving into the world of tequila in 2003, Masso met Julio Bermejo, the ambassador of tequila for the US. After a tasting that involved 100% agave and good-quality tequila, he started to fall in love with the subject. Masso says: “I worked with him in San Francisco for a little bit at a place called Tommy’s, the home of the Tommy’s Margarita, a mecca for tequila and a family run business. This is the person who probably knows more than anyone else about tequila, so after some time with him in San Francisco and Mexico I was like, ‘cool, this has to be part of my life’.

“In 2004 I formed a company called The Worldwide Cocktail Club with Henry Besant, who has passed away now. In 2005 we opened a tequila venue called Green & Red and it was in many ways paying homage to what I had seen in San Francisco. It was tequila cocktails, a big agave list and food from the region where tequila is made and we also wrote a book called Margarita Rocks that year.”

The pair then opened conversations with Pernod Ricard about co-creating a new tequila, which launched in 2009. “We were fortunate that the team in Mexico, in particular master distiller Jesus Hernandez, was like ‘let’s get some bartenders involved’. So, everything to us was about the cocktails and creating a good-quality, affordable tequila that we could use in cocktails.” Olmeca Altos is currently the seventh biggest tequila according to Drinks International’s Millionaires’ Club.

Masso’s next big move was to work with Potato Head in 2010, relocating to Indonesia in 2013. “Possibly one of the most forward-thinking companies in hospitality, it was an incredible place to work and that’s all down to founder Ronald Akili. He was someone who wasn’t familiar with the hospitality business but had this entrepreneurial drive to do things in a different way and with great style.

“What also came out of that was this strong philosophy of sustainability. I know that’s a word people like to use and they’re talking about using fewer straws, but if you look at what they’re doing it really represents a better behaviour in their business, supporting the community and making a positive impact. I was very fortunate to be in that circle and learn from that.”

Masso adds: “I wrote another book in 2015 called Classic Cocktails at Home, which is all about making drinks in your kitchen. My time at the Atlantic was very important not just because of the premium product, but Class magazine had just started and there were hardly any cocktail books.”

By 2017, Masso had moved to Colombia to connect with his heritage. “I recognised that, although the Colombian bar scene was behind the rest of the world, it was progressing quite quickly and I wanted to see if I could help or be a part of that, as well as connecting with my motherland and family and understanding their indigenous ingredients.

“Throughout the past 20 years I’ve had a good relationship with Eric Yu, he’s got the Breakfast Group. I’ve always come back and helped him with various things. Eric I love – he’s been in the business for more than 30 years and a lot of his bars have been going for 15, 20 years and that kind of lifespan is unique in this industry.

Highs and lows

“Right now, opening Bell & Viv is a massive challenge. I think people are more conscious and drinking in a different way, the whole shape of the week seems to be different with people only working until Thursday, Friday doesn’t feel how it used to. I don’t want to sound negative, I’m remaining positive about it, what it does is it makes you look at a scenario in a different way.

“There have been other challenges. I’ve opened quite a few bars in Asia and there were cultural differences – having to learn how certain peoples, cultures and nationalities behave and how we behave with each other.”

Travel has been central to Masso’s career. “I have travelled the world with Altos and there are two passions there, the passion of tequila but also the passion of travel. It is without a doubt the most inspirational thing for me. In this amazing industry there’s this unique connection no matter where you go. I now live outside of London and have a 10-year-old daughter, so I try to spend as much time as I can with her. Another passion is anything on two wheels, so bikes, motorbikes – I’m never complaining about a motorbike ride.”

What’s next?

Masso’s newest bar, Bell & Viv, named after his two close friends’ children, features a light, aperitivo-style bar and cafe upstairs, and The Drinks Trolley downstairs, which will work as a more sophisticated cocktail parlour at night. Masso says of the bar’s inspiration: “I did all the décor here, it was all by accident. I have stupidly fallen romantically in love with these chairs, mid-century, British made and lower than the normal chair height. I was struggling with a table that would go with them and I sat at home with one of these drinks trolleys and figured out that it could work if I took off the wheels.

“I was born in the ’70s, particularly for me it feels quite nostalgic, with artwork from the house I was brought up in. Drinks trolleys were popular in the ’70s, so there are a few key items to nod in that direction and the cocktails we’re doing here are based on drinks from the ’70s, which is probably one of the worst eras for cocktails – but we’re remixing them to make them special, more delicious and less sweet and sticky.”

Masso is also revamping Classic Cocktails at Home. “I’m extending it and translating it into Spanish. I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America and I feel very connected to that part of the world and I feel like everything is in English. I would also love to do something that represents Gran Colombia. There’s so much beauty that people don’t know about and a lot of negative connotations with Colombia as a country, so I want to show it in a positive light. That, for me, is another dream.”





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