Mauro Mahjoub, collectible shakers and the popularization of bartending
A chat with the King of Negroni, during which we talked about his extensive collection of shakers, bar tools and books, and which also provided a chance to discuss the history of cocktails and bartending.
Interviews often start with a classic, if a bit trivial, question: tell us about yourself. However, if this is normally a difficult question for people, for someone like Mauro Mahjoub it's almost impossible.
“How many days do I have to answer?” he asks with a laugh. He has a very long career punctuated by successes and spent between bars that would eventually become iconic and the teaching of the basics of bartending. With the unbelievable figure of about one million Negroni prepared over thirty years behind the counter and over one hundred Negroni Twists invented, Mauro has won many a national and international competition, authored books and developed a new gin.
Mauro's career began a little by chance and a little out of the need to earn his first money by taking small summer jobs. After starting out as a waiter in hotels and handyman in bars and pizzerias, in 1981 things began to take a more serious turn.
“I was fourteen when I began working as commis de bar at the Bristol Hotel in Beirut, a historic five-star hotel founded in 1885. As you can guess from my last name, my father is originally from Lebanon while my mother is from Giulianova. At the time, my brother was working at that hotel as a cook, so I also went to work a season there. It was humiliating for me to work the bar, because I wanted to become a dentist. I didn't even dare tell my friends, though I ended up earning more than my brother.”
Back in Italy, Mauro continued to work in hotels and pizzerias, quickly rising to the rank of headwaiter. Then, on returning from military service, destiny knocked on his door. His brother received a job offer but decided to reject it, turning it over to his brother instead. The job was at Harry's Bar in Bologna, and from then on nothing would ever be the same. Mauro accepted the job as a waiter, then signed up for his first bartending course.
Two years later he returned to Giulianova and together with his brother took over two four-star hotel bars. A year later, he stopped taking seasonal jobs and started working full-time in hotels and American bars along the Adriatic coast. His last season was in 1994 at Hotel Cristallo in Giulianova where he helped open the bar, which the hotel didn't have at the time.
“I already spoke English and French as well as Italian and Arabic, and I didn't care about going to London or Paris and have an experience that would bring me nothing new. I wanted to learn a new language, that's what I wanted to do. I'd already met some Germans in several of the places where I worked. Some of them spoke neither English nor French, so I made up my mind. I wanted to go to Germany, not for the money, but to learn a new language.”
So, Mauro left for Munich intending to work there for six months, but as soon as he started, he was offered a contract for at least two years. “They didn't care if I never learned German,” he recalls. “We don’t care if you speak Chinese, they said, as long as you keep doing what you're doing.”
Mauro stayed in Germany for three years, then in 1998 he opened his first bar – the world's first Negroni bar and, unsurprisingly, he named it Negroni.
“It was quite a small place in the French Quarter of downtown Munich. In the seven years we were there we won an award as best cocktail bar in the city as well as many others, and were often mentioned in newspapers and magazines. Then we moved to a new location five hundred meters away and opened a place with seating for 100 people, which was also a huge success. Every night we welcomed actors, public figures, Bayern players.”
Five years later Mauro moved again, this time to the street parallel to where the Negroni was originally located, and opened Mauro's Negroni Club by himself – an American bar that after about a decade would be renamed Boulevardier, but would retain the same professionalism and approach to hospitality.
Meanwhile, Mauro got a new offer, this time from Campari. He became the brand's first Ambassador in 2006, then two years later created the first Campari Academy with a format that would eventually be exported to Milan, Barcelona, New York and all over the world. Another achievement Mauro is particularly proud of is the creation of the first ‘Liquid Art’ Campari Competition, also in Germany.
“I really wanted the competition’s world debut to have 'Twist of Negroni' as a theme,” he recalls, “and I was worried sick that someone else might do it before us. After two years of preparation, we finally kicked it off with just the theme I wanted. That's where the Negroni mania really exploded.”
On account of his success as a lecturer for Campari Academy, Mauro was also asked to teach courses for IBA and AIBES. The subjects started expanding along with his knowledge, as in the meantime Mauro had developed another huge passion – collecting.
He started out with books, which he'd begun collecting for study early on in his career. “What I wanted to find was Jerry Thomas' book,” he recalls. “I participated in many competitions and won several of them, and one of the questions that was asked at the Grand Prix Martini was, who was the author of the first book about bartending. What I found was the 1928 edition of The Bon Vivant's Companion or How to mix drinks edited by and with notes from Herbert Asbury. It wasn't an original copy but I was so excited I couldn’t sleep for a week, I kept calling everyone and telling them I had found Jerry Thomas' book. When I found out that the original version was from 1862, I began to seriously look for it.”
It's no easy task to find antique books about bartending, but Mauro was helped by a New York bookseller, with whom he eventually became friends. He made a list of all the bartenders from the nineteenth century to get Mauro’s research started.
But Mauro, who started collecting stamps and matchboxes as a young kid, has more than just books in his heart.
“Next to my bar there was a silverware shop and the owner often came in for a drink. One day in 1998, he tells me he has this strange shaker from 1932. It's a family-size Brooklyn almost fifty centimeters tall with a handle that looks like the handle of a teapot. The owner says to me, I'll sell it to you for 900 marks - a huge sum for the time. But he also has a proposal: I'll pay him half the sum in money and the other half in cocktails. That's how it all started.”
At the time Mauro had an American girlfriend, so he was often traveling to the US. “The first thing I would do as soon as I got there was dive into bookstores. I was looking for both books and shakers and I was lucky enough to really find many, especially books, between San Francisco, New York and Portland, Oregon.”
To find shakers, Mauro often visits garage sales: “In the US – and other places as well – on Sunday people bring out the things they want to sell and put them in front of their garage, you can really find some great stuff there. I filled entire cardboard boxes and had my mother-in-law ship them to Munich. Then things started getting more serious and I began spending money on unique items. For example, I have a piece from April 1, 1919 that's the first electric shaker. It weighs almost ten kilos and looks like a shell casing with the whole base. That cost me almost five thousand marks, although sometimes I was lucky enough to buy rare shakers for very little money.”
Mauro's collection of books consists of almost three thousand volumes, and is one of the most important in the world. “I bought part of it from Brian Rea, who decided to sell it to me because he said I reminded him of himself as a young man. I often went to his house, near Sacramento,” he says, proud and happy to have the chance to talk about a legendary figure in the world of bartending.
With more than 55 years in the industry, Brian Rea can boast a glorious career. It began in 1947 at New York's 21 and The Little Club and developed between iconic bars, prestigious consulting work – including for UCLA, Cal Poly, leading restaurant chains, hotel groups, airlines, distilleries, etc. - and writing books. Founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, at the time of their meeting Brian owned what was then the largest collection of books on bartending.
Mauro already had about 700 books, but by buying Brian's collection he finally secured a copy of every nineteenth century volume on bartending. He now owned seven original Jerry Thomas editions. Half of his collection consists of classic recipe books; the other half is bartending literature. From an 18th century book about glasses in England to one that traces the history of saloons during the gold rush, his collection spans all things bartending.
Meanwhile, his quest for shakers continues. In New York Mauro meets Stephen Visakay, the world's greatest shaker collector and author of the first book on their history and evaluation. Through him, Mauro joins a group that includes Visakay and four more collectors. “We used to meet in New Orleans from time to time, always at Tales of the Cocktail, and talked shakers from dawn until dusk.”
Mauro's collection includes 400-500 shakers. Together with other bar ware, he owns a total of 1000 pieces. “I have a citrus juicer from 1850 and ice tongs from the nineteenth century. They represent years of work, hours spent looking for items. At first it was simple, then I started looking for rarities that took me two or three years to get.” His eyes light up when he talks about Cartier's original sketch of a shaker complete with all measurements, and of his satisfaction in owning both the sketch and the original shaker from 1927.
His passion for books and shakers goes hand in hand with the awareness that he doesn’t just possess objects, but something that allows us to retrace the history of cocktails and their evolution.
We have to remember that in the past people used to drink at home much more often than we do now, and that's why brands such as Tiffany, Napier and the most renowned American and European silverware producers all had a line of bar ware.
“In the early twentieth century, in the United States giving a shaker as a gift was like giving a trip to the Maldives,” explains Mauro. “They used to say that when an American designed their house, they would first build an altar for their shaker, and then build the house around it. Shakers were considered an important gift, and there was one in every house. It was also used as a trophy. In golf, horseback riding and tennis tournaments the first prize was very often a cup that also served as a shaker."
Over the course of its history, the shaker has seen different eras and a gradual evolution. In the 1930s wealthy people's shakers were made out of silver, while everyone else's out of aluminum or stainless steel. There have been shakers made of wood, even cork, then glass in the fifties and sixties.
“One thing I really like to see is how each era of the shaker tells us something about our past,” Mauro continues. “When you think about films from the 1930s, you can see the very beginning of the cocktail era. There isn't one that doesn't have a sequence set in a bar, maybe with a bartender shaking a drink. Just think of Humphrey Bogart filmed with an original Napier next to him.”
Shakers have a characteristic shape that originally resembled a teapot with an additional cover. This is because, to launch the product, the first manufacturers drew inspiration from the traditional English tea time, renaming it ‘cocktail time’. From the initial teapot-like shape, producers' imagination eventually started going wild, drawing inspiration from nature and the innovations of the time. They created shakers in the shape of bears, parrots and roosters, then gliders and Zeppelins. Whole sets were made, complete with glasses and olive tongs, some even with their travel case – at a time when it was common for the wealthy to go on Grand Tours, the shaker was an essential travel companion.
“I found this very heavy mahogany trunk, almost one meter tall and fifty centimeters wide,” says Mauro. “It dates back to 1893 and belonged to an English Navy officer, who used to take it with him on his missions. It contained a three-liter barrel, two bottles and several shakers, so he could mix himself a drink even on board a ship.”
After World War II there was inevitably a decline in the production of shakers, which manufacturers tried to respond to after 1945 with the creation of glass items. However, the shaker would never be a fashionable accessory in homes again, one of the reasons being the invention of the Hamilton Beach, an electric shaker.
It all seemed forgotten until, in the eighties, Stephen Visakay began to notice people selling the unused shakers from their houses in street markets. Stephen is not a bartender, but together with his wife he developed a passion for these objects with a vintage flavor and started buying them, often for ridiculously small sums.
“By the time I started collecting shakers, Stephen had got a 15-year head start between the Eighties and the Nineties,” says Mauro. “He had 1600 shakers, some now listed at $15,000 or $20,000, which he’d paid very little money for.”
Visakay's incredible collection went on TV and was exhibited several times, for example in airports. The same happened to Mauro when his collection went on display for two months at the Historical Museum of Cognac. Every year, some of the most relevant pieces are showcased at the Trophée du Bar in Paris, as well as in Berlin and Munich.
Over time, some of the pieces from Mauro’s collection were also used in his work: “I used a different shaker and a different mixing glass for each of the Martini cocktails I had on the menu in my bar. For example, I used a Napier for some of them, other times I would bring with me a crystal mixing glass from 1925. I've always used something from my collection at work.”
Mauro doesn't have a favorite piece in particular – it's another of those difficult questions, especially for a collector – but he does remember one above all others:
“One of the pieces I love best is a trombone shaker from the late 1920s I bought at an auction on eBay. I remember Visakay and the other guys in our group of collectors eventually agreed to leave it to me, though they wanted it for themselves. It’s very rare. I also like my shaker in the shape of a red shoe: a big glass boot with four glasses. The complete set with glasses is obviously worth much more. A shaker worth $3,500 alone, for example, can be worth up to $5,000 with glasses.”
The piece Mauro had the hardest time finding is a shaker in the shape of a Zeppelin. “I ended up finding three, but it was an exhausting search that took a lot of effort. I also wanted one that was in the shape of an airplane, but once they tried to trick me with a scam ad on eBay, and I haven't been up to taking the risk again since.”
As for his collection of books, Mauro particularly dotes on his copy of Harry Johnson's Bartender's Manual - a comprehensive handbook that also discusses bartenders' associations and unions, how to handle the cash register and how to deal with colleagues and customers. “It's also the first book to mention the jigger,” adds Mauro.
With his huge historical knowledge, Mauro hopes the new generations will be as passionate as he is about the evolution of bartending and appreciate being part of a long journey that is deeply rooted in the past.
“Bartending is not just a profession, it can and must also be a passion,” he concludes with compelling enthusiasm - the same enthusiasm that made us wish we will soon have the chance to see his amazing collection somewhere, telling its exciting story.