Trend watching - fun times ahead
In the last five to 10 years, we have been lucky enough as bartenders to see our profession become recognised again. It is no longer something that we do for a while before getting a ‘proper’ job - we study its history, master the classics, learn about techniques from around the world and buy expensive equipment to aid us in mastering our craft.
But in the last few years, we have perhaps become guilty of taking ourselves a little too seriously in our quest to be acknowledged. We direct customers towards the drinks we want to make them (the ones we like), chastise them for their lack of imagination (not another mojito), and regale them with the history of our favourite recipes, spirits and bartenders (Ada Coleman’s ‘Hanky Panky’ with a small batch gin, extra Fernet and a dash of home-made kumquat bitters anyone?).
Perhaps now we need to relax and enjoy our new-found recognition. When internet memes like this [Mr Mixologist] start appearing, it’s probably a good time to take a step back and look at ourselves from the customer’s perspective. I’m not suggesting we ditch the speakeasy and all visit our local flair bar, but just combine quality drinks with fun and great customer service.
Bartending is about providing a customer experience as well as a good drink; yes our Manhattans should be perfect and our Daquiris divine, but increasingly I think we’ll see a trend towards making service fun again. Take the Diageo Reserve World Class winning bartender Tim Philips as an example. He won with not only technique and knowledge, but also with his humour and entertaining presentations. His bar, Bulletin Place in Sydney, has the same unpretentious approach to making exceptional drinks, with creations such as the "Fresh Quince of Bel Air", mixing Cognac, dry vermouth and poached, spiced quince, and the “Wingless Butterfly”, a fresh berry drink that the bartenders claim to be derived from an old classic cocktail, the “Caterpillar”.
The ‘World’s Best Bar’ (at least according to Drinks International’s World’s 50 Best Bars 2012, also Best Hotel Bar at Tales of the Cocktail 2012 and previously World’s Best Cocktail Menu) - Artesian at the Langham hotel in London is outwardly serious, but has fun playing with its drinks, serving them with an entertaining flourish - for example their take on Korean cuisine called “Spontaneity”, made with Tanqueray, velvet falernum, lime, perilla leaf, bitters and roasted sesame oil, or the “Twisted Disco” section of the drinks list, containing tongue-in-cheek versions of 1980s classics like the “Sex on the Beach No.2” - apricot brandy, fresh passion fruit, pear, vanilla and liquorice-infused Ketel One. These drinks and bartenders are recognised as some of the world’s best, but manage to keep their feet on the ground and retain their good humour.
It’s not just about serious cocktail bars being fun, it’s also about fun venues making good cocktails as well. Muse on the Bund in Shanghai is a club. Bottle service is big, the music is loud, the crowds are there to enjoy themselves - and the mixed drinks are excellent. Well executed classics (you can’t take a Last Word too seriously with Gagnam Style in the background) and competition-winning signature drinks show that classic cocktails don’t have to mean ‘speakeasy’ style, while top bartenders don’t have to have an attitude to go with their bow-ties and sleeve garters.
Paul Mathew is a bar owner, drinks consultant and writer. He is based in Cambodia, owns a bar in London, and regularly travels in-between looking at bartending styles and trends.