'Rum is playful and serious at the same time'
Meet the rum-loving chemical engineer shaking up the world of non-alcoholic cocktails.
Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.
“How nerdy should I be?” Richard Man asks as we sit down together on his terrace-cum-vegetable-garden in a suburb just south of central Stockholm. It’s not an easy question to answer because Richard, or ‘Chille’ as he’s commonly known, isn’t your run-of-the-mill mixologist. The Bacardi ambassador - and published author - is also a trained sommelier equipped with a master’s degree in chemical engineering. In short, he knows his stuff.
“The degree made me more aware of different techniques and I gained a deeper understanding of the ingredients. For example, to some people, a bottle of Boca Rum is a bottle of Boca Rum. But if you understand the production and the biological process behind how the fermentation works, it gives you a bigger picture of what you are doing."
But for Richard, who virtually grew up working in his family’s Chinese restaurant in central Sweden, pursuing a career in the beverage industry was never a conscious choice. It’s simply in his DNA, he says. Had he become a chemical engineer, he believes he’d still be experimenting with cocktails in the kitchen or brewing kombucha when he got home after a day in the lab.
“I have never really thought ‘Oh, I can earn a lot of money out of this’. It’s just something I want to do,” he says. “I’m not sure I ever had a career goal or strategy. What I do has come naturally, and over time I’ve become better and I get recognised for it.”
The ‘creativity toolbox’
Underpinning Richard’s success is a seemingly insatiable thirst for seeking out new experiences. He worked in London for a year in the 1990s, learning the craft of cocktail making in a city widely regarded as having one of the world’s best bar scenes. Later, he used his master’s studies as an opportunity to travel the world, researching in New York and living in Spain and Buenos Aires. Somehow he always found the time to work full-time behind the bar and he continued to hone his craft while he toured Central and South America before hopping over to the Caribbean. It was a seminal time that allowed him to indulge in two more of his life’s great passions: dancing and rum.
“I went to many distilleries to learn about the culture. There was a lot of drinking and food and a lot of dancing because back then I used to do street dance. I actually hurt myself in Buenos Aires so had to stop but took up tango instead.”
"If it’s not in season, it won’t taste good, so why should I use it?”
This readiness to embrace new things has shaped Richard into something of a world citizen. As the child of Hong Kong immigrants living in Sweden, he admits he never felt as though he fully belonged to either culture. He’s a nomad, he says, but it’s this nomadic spirit that makes him so receptive to new cultures, tastes and techniques. He files each experience away in his ‘creativity toolbox’, an ever-growing source of inspiration he frequently draws on.
“When I create something, I open the toolbox. Like if I want to do something with tamarind, something in my mind goes back to Cuba when the old ladies taught me how to make agua fresca with tamarind. Then I ask: What is tamarind? When is it in season? Knowing that is also part of creativity. If it’s not in season, it won’t taste good, so why should I use it?”
Swedish design is famous for its emphasis on functionality, and it’s in his commitment to functionality that Richard shows his inner Swede. His aim, above all, is to create something drinkable. If people don’t ‘get the drink’, he says, it’s not worth making. But this pragmatism doesn’t stop him from innovating with new ingredients and techniques. Sometimes he innovates for fun and sometimes it’s unavoidable - it’s not always easy to find certain ingredients he’s worked with in more exotic locales while on home soil in Sweden.
“We do have a lot of great ingredients here and of course I use imported stuff as well because if I want grapefruit or lime, for example, we don’t grow it in Sweden,” he explains. “I do try to use less imported ingredients and use sour alternatives which are local, like Swedish vinegar or kombucha. Sometimes it works and if it doesn’t, I’ll use a dash of lime. At the end of the day, I want the drink to be tasty.”
Bacardi and Japanese bartending
Richard’s lifelong love affair with rum has somewhat steered his career. In the early ’00s he managed a rum bar before opening his own bar in Kungsholmen, an island in central Stockholm. It was 2007 and one of the first bars in the city where the spotlight shone as much on the cocktails as the food (in Sweden, alcohol can only be served in bars if they are defined as restaurants which means they are required to offer warm food on location). By this point, rum had become Richard’s signature spirit - in part, he believes, because he’s always felt an affinity with it.
“Rum is playful and serious at the same time. It’s very diverse which also makes it exciting.”
Photo: Richard's Coco Floreale cocktail, a refreshing, spicy spritz-style drink made with non-alcoholic vermouth.
So when Bacardi began searching for a brand ambassador some 10 years ago, Richard was a natural choice. In the decade since he’s travelled the world with the brand, training cocktail bartenders across the globe. He’s built an impressive network and added a world of experiences to his now-overflowing creativity toolbox. He’s been particularly says, he adds, by the techniques of Japanese bartenders and their singular dedication to their craft. Their showmanship especially appeals to the dancer in him.
“Part of being a bartender is also how it looks. Being behind the bar is like being on stage. I think the Japanese people are really good at it. Everything they do has a reason behind it. Like the details of how you work. How do you take your glass? How do you use a spoon? How do you move your body? Those kinds of things inspire me a lot.”
A book deal with Bonnier
In an interesting twist of fate, alcohol aficionado Richard has, in recent years, become as renowned for his non-alcoholic cocktails as his more spirituous beverages. He’s the man behind the acclaimed alcohol-free cocktail menu in the award-winning restaurant at Fotografiska, a contemporary photography museum in Stockholm’s trendy Södermalm district.
“That was probably the first bar in the world which was focusing on non-alcoholic drinks and sustainability. When I was doing some research on the internet, there was nothing. Nothing interesting or new when it came to non-alcoholic drinks. It was a totally blank page, which was great; it felt super creative and interesting.”
Photo: A selection of the drinks that Richard created for Fotografiska in Stockholm: Non-alcoholic pickled Saint Olof Apple and the conference pear. Photographer: Johan Ståhlberg / Fotografiska
Richard rose to the challenge and as a result has become a renowned pioneer of alcohol-free cocktails. He explains that the key to making zero-proof beverages that rival their boozy counterparts is to give them a resistance, something that stops people from knocking them back in a single gulp.
“Non-alcoholic drinks need something that makes them more difficult to drink, like a bitterness, for example, or the resistance could be that it’s dryer. It makes it more interesting. You should think ‘this is good, but I can’t drink it too fast.'"
His successful foray into the world of non-alcoholic beverages led to a book deal with Bonnier and, in 2018, the publication of his first book 'Alkoholfritt till maten' ('Alcohol-free with food'). Becoming a published author was a bucket list moment for Richard, he says, even if summoning book-worthy creativity whilst on paternity leave and caring for a young child was challenging.
“It was tough but I’m happy I did it. And it’s thanks to my wife, she helped me a lot with editing. I get an idea and write, but then she helps me to make sure it reads well.”
“Who knows, maybe for a while I’ll do something totally different because if you do something for too long, you lose some of the creativity."
With a second child born since and a third on the way, Richard doesn’t spend much time behind the bar these days. Instead, he’s shifted his attention to product development, a process he’s become familiar with through his work with Bacardi. When he’s not working with the brand, he spends his spare time dreaming up new drinks which one day he hopes to see on the shelf. It’s evident that he’s a natural creative who couldn’t stop even if he tried - although he does wonder whether a timeout to cleanse his creative palate could hold the key to his next move.
“Who knows, maybe for a while I’ll do something totally different because if you do something for too long, you lose some of the creativity. And then, I’ll give it a go with another angle - maybe I’ll look at the coaster or garnish differently. Ultimately, it all helps the creative process.”
Photo: Richard's Coco Floreale cocktail (left) and his fruity collins-style 'Foggy Day' (right)