How I Became World Class
Ahead of the WORLD CLASS final this year we caught up with one of the finalists from last year, Jack Sotti, to find out how he progressed in the industry, his advice for anyone starting their career and the inspiration behind his famous levitating cocktail.
You won the WORLD CLASS Australia Grand Final and participated in the WORLD CLASS Global Final in 2015, but can you tell us where you started your career?
My career started as a host for a series of venues in Leeds, UK. My role was to make sure guests were having a fantastic evening—the guests were my sole focus.
After a year of looking after guests front of house, I wanted to learn the craft of bartending to stretch my creative legs and also be in control of every element of the guests’ experience.
So you started your career in the UK—how did you end up in Australia and become one of the top bartenders in the country?
After a while my passion for the finer style of service led me to the Gaucho restaurant group, where I gained a lot of experience in all areas of the hospitality industry.
Then the itch for international travel hit me so I headed for New Zealand as it looked beautiful (and I loved Lord of the Rings!). There, I got a job on my first night at 1885. I turned up in my finest bartender attire and made out that I had a trial shift and within a year I was the Assistant Venue Manager. 1885 was a high-volume night club upstairs and a fancy members cocktail bar downstairs. It was here I met Alan Raythorn, who polished my skills and pushed me to take part in competitions.
Many competitions and two years later I was leaving New Zealand bound for Australia. I got a job after six weeks in Eau de Vie Melbourne utilizing my restaurant experience—serving theatrical cocktails tableside. I was at Eau de Vie for two years working my way up to Assistant Venue Manager, helping with menu development, staff training and entering every competition I could. My first big break was with Ketel One® Family-Made Vodka’s Best Bloody Mary competition in Australia and I managed to win a trip to the Nolet distillery!
Eau de Vie taught me so much and really pushed me to be more creative in cocktail creation, thinking more about the garnish, vessel, theater and interaction. I also honed my food-matching capabilities, working closely with some very talented chefs, creating courses for our five-course cocktail degustation.
I left Eau de Vie with a heavy heart, but I had been offered the fantastic opportunity of General Manager at their new venue, Boilermaker House. Boilermaker House is a craft Beer and Whisky bar with a cocktail list broken down by the flavor profiles commonly associated with Whisky.
Finally, the icing on the cake for me was winning the WORLD CLASS Australia Grand Final and being placed third at the WORLD CLASS Global Final 2015 in Cape Town—it really was the most incredible experience of my life.
Why did you decide to enter the WORLD CLASS competition?
WORLD CLASS is the biggest bartending competition out there and I decided to enter to really push myself creatively and I find that the specific challenge briefs are an incredible opportunity to do so. I find myself researching and reacting to the briefs even when not competing as a source of inspiration.
What did you enjoy about the WORLD CLASS competition?
It was the single greatest week in my career. The competition itself was executed immaculately—the whole team was so helpful. You had to pinch yourself from time to time, realizing in one day, you’ve just served some of the most respected professionals in our industry (the judges), people that have inspired you as a young bartender over the years and now they’re all in one room and you’re making them some drinks!
You came in third in the WORLD CLASS Global Final in 2015. What opportunities has the WORLD CLASS competition brought you?
Internally, I feel more confident. It certainly puts you on the map within the industry and helps generate a lot more fun projects, cool consultancy gigs and attracts more talented staff to your venue. But most of all it has given me the opportunity to travel, which is priceless.
You are famous for creating a levitating cocktail that hovers above the table. Tell us more—where did this idea come from? How did you go about creating it?
The idea came as a reaction to the brief I was given for the Retro, Disco, Future round of WORLD CLASS. It just so happened to be 2015—the same year Marty traveled to in the film, Back to the Future. So I was really loving the hover board concept at the time and it was all over the internet. Once the idea of making a cocktail float was in my head, I had to achieve it no matter what it took. I searched “How to make stuff levitate” on the internet and the rest is history.
You are obviously very creative. Where do you get your inspiration from for your cocktails?
Really from everywhere. When I was a younger bartender I thought that you had to read old cocktail books for inspiration and I think it’s a journey most bartenders take. However, once you have a good understanding of the evolution of the mixed drink it really goes to the back of your mind to be called upon if necessary. Most of my inspiration comes from non-drink related things like pop culture, traveling and my fiancée. She is a typical consumer a.k.a. “Make me something yummy!” So that’s what I try to do, I try to make something yummy and approachable that the general public will love, with little flourishes of the unusual or challenging.
Is there anything else you always keep in mind when creating a cocktail?
For me, I always start with a story. Everything else comes after. I don’t get hung up on having to use any one ingredient—that way there is always purpose, and an approach to the development. In my art class at school, before we started a project, my teacher made me put together a mood board, a place to put all the ideas down and it is something I continually refer back to. I guess I take this approach in all my creative projects.
Many people look up to you in the drinks industry, but whom do you admire?
People who don’t let fear or nerves guide them, who take risks and carve their own path. My bosses Greg Sanderson and Sven Almenning are both great friends, formidable businessmen and talented bartenders. I also really look up to Tim Phillips for his dedication to his craft and his determination to be the best. He owns two bars but you’ll always find him behind the stick.
You have achieved a lot in your career so far, but where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
In 5 years’ time I’d love to win the WORLD CLASS Global title and be the owner of my own series of venues internationally.
For anyone just starting off in the industry, what advice would you give to them?
At the beginning, open your mind, question everything but also learn the term “yes, chef” when asked to do something by your superiors. There is a reason for everything and an infinite amount to learn. Bartending is one of those unique professions where you can come away from a long day of work with a profound sense of pride and passion. So keep your head up, work hard, network and build your skills.
What do you think are the most important skills that a top bartender should have?
For me, in this age of fancy and elaborate cocktails, the one singular focus a bartender should have is their guests and their individual experience. Try to develop the skill set required and really exceed your customer’s expectations. In my opinion, empathy is number one.
For anyone aspiring to be a top bartender like yourself what tips would you give them?
Get a partner, work hard, focus, network like there’s no tomorrow and don’t forget about the guest sitting in front of you—without them you don’t have a job.
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