A handful of bars have been responsible for nurturing a disproportionately large share of the drinks trade’s top names. Clinton Cawood goes in search of these training hot spots to find out just what makes them so special
We’re not strapped for great bars in the UK, but the truly exceptional ones are those that are able to exert their influence beyond their four walls. One of the most tangible ways of doing that is to be a training ground for the next generation of industry greats – the bar equivalent of a top Pokémon gym, if you will.
If you ask a prominent member of the drinks trade where they cut their teeth, just a few bars and bar groups will be mentioned with far greater regularity than any others.
These are the venues that place a disproportionate emphasis on their staff, with a commitment to bartender development that borders on the obsessive.
Some prioritise bar skills, while others foster a deep understanding of the business itself. All have punched above their weight to make their mark on the industry.
They might even contain rare Pokémon too – the ones that are still open, that is.
You will have to swing by and visit to find out.
London Cocktail Club
Type: Party bars with cocktails
Location: All over London, and growing fast
Training characteristics: Career-focused approach
Big-name alumni: Andy Mil and Olly Brading (Cocktail Trading Co), Robyn Wilkie (Sosharu), Sarah Mitchell (Junkyard Golf Club)
Sensei say: ‘We teach bartenders to open their own businesses.’
A relative newcomer on this impressive list, London Cocktail Club had its start in life below the prestigious Arts Theatre in Soho in 2008, with what is now known as Covent Garden Cocktail Club.
Since then the group has grown rapidly, and with it an ever-growing list of accomplished bartenders who have put in their time here.
‘We are very committed to career bartending,’ explains founder JJ Goodman. ‘We had the luxury of attracting great talent in the early years, and we still do for the very simple reason that we can teach talented bartenders to open their own businesses.’
This isn’t just talk. LCC is involved with a long list of thoroughly well-intentioned programmes, including an NVQ apprenticeship scheme, a partnership with The Prince’s Trust and the British Institute of Innkeeping, as well as Diageo’s Learning for Life programme.
‘I want to encourage more bartenders into business,’ Goodman says. ‘You’ve got general managers who are 23 or 24 years old looking after million-pound turnover businesses – it just does not happen anywhere else. Training guys from a junior level to a senior level is important.’
‘Ultimately, you do two years with us at LCC and there’s not really a bar job on the planet you couldn’t get,’ he adds.
Type: London cocktail pioneer
Location: Various, but primarily London
Training characteristics: Comprehensive, with exams
Big-name alumni: Alastair Burgess (Happiness Forgets, Original Sin), Jack McGarry (Dead Rabbit, US), Michael Butt (Soulshakers), Giles Looker (Soulshakers), Kevin Armstrong (Satan’s Whiskers and more), Michael Sager (Sager + Wilde), Divyesh Chauhan (Junglebird, Kuala Lumpur) and industry legends Dick Bradsell and Angus Winchester, to name just a few.
Sensei say: ‘Training was tough. Knowledge was power.’
Set up in 1997 by Jonathan Downey, the group’s first bar was Match EC1 in London, but came to include Milk & Honey, The Player and more. While Match was single-handedly changing the London drinking scene with its distinctive style, it was also influencing a generation of bartenders.
‘The focus was on bartender training and making drinks was just one aspect of it. They wanted you to be a complete bartender,’ recalls Divyesh Chauhan, who spent five years with the group, including as head bartender of Harlem and Match W1. ‘The training was the best, and very tough,’ he says. ‘When I joined I was told, if you come in the bottom three of any exam three months in a row, you could be fired. Knowledge was power. But then so were the standards and methods.’
The list of prominent bar operators with Match Group on their CVs is a testament to the completeness of the training there. In addition to regular training and exams, there was an annual, comprehensive exam.
‘They knew we could make the drinks, but they wanted to know how good we were at selling them – no point making great drinks if you can’t deal with customers,’ adds Chauhan.
‘After your time at Match you could go on to do anything in our world. And many people did.’ Kuala Lumpur, anyone?
Type: High-volume cocktail bar group
Training characteristics: Regimented and customer-focused
Big-name alumni: JJ Goodman (London Cocktail Club), Leanne Ware (Halewood Wines & Spirits), Paul Newman (consultant, Black Circle Coffee), Chris Hoy (Mason’s Gin), among others.
Sensei say: ‘They changed the game for everybody…’
Tim Bacon and Jeremy Roberts created nothing short of a legacy when they set up Living Ventures in 1999 and established the Living Room brand in Manchester the same year.
‘When I started out, everyone who was anyone had worked at TGI Fridays,’ says Living Ventures’ Chris Hoy, alumnus and now senior brand ambassador for Mason’s Gin. ‘Tim Bacon was ex-Fridays, and the training manual at Living Room was reworked from theirs. Fridays never taught me to chill a Martini glass,’ he adds.
The almost military training at Living Ventures was entirely geared towards customer service, and inspired some serious camaraderie and loyalty in those who worked there, says Hoy. ‘You ask any ex-Living Ventures bartender about the company ethos, and boom, it will just spill out of their mouths,’ he explains.
‘When you’ve got so many people who are that passionate about the industry all together, it’s difficult to not succeed,’ says Hoy. ‘I owe pretty much everything to that time. I’d be selling phones if it wasn’t for that.’
London Cocktail Club founder JJ Goodman agrees, recalling his time with both Living Ventures and Be at One: ‘I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for the experiences I had there,’ he adds. ‘They completely changed the game for everybody.’
Living Ventures lives on, with brands such as The Alchemist, Red Door, The Botanist and Gusto around the country.
Type: Edinburgh hip-hop cocktail bar
Location: Queen Street, Edinburgh
Training characteristics: Creator of industry pioneers
Big-name alumni: A long list, including Ryan Chetiyawardana (Mr Lyan, White Lyan, Super Lyan, Dandelyan), David Cordoba (Proof & Company, former Bacardi global brand ambassador), Meimi Sanchez (Havana Club global brand ambassador), Megs Miller (Pernod Ricard House of Tequila ambassador) – and many more.
Sensei say: ‘If they are hungry and full of desire, they will succeed…’
Hidden in a basement on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, Bramble is a small cocktail bar with global reach. In its 10 years (the bar celebrated its first decade late last year), it has amassed one of the most impressive lists of alumni in the UK, being responsible for top-class bar owners and global brand ambassadors (for the biggest brands).
Asked what Bramble has that so many other bars don’t, co-owner Mike Aikman is humble. ‘I’m honestly not 100% sure,’ he says, suggesting it’s probably more than one thing. ‘Firstly, we hire career bartenders – people who love hospitality, and intend to do it as a career, whether as a brand rep, to bring out their own product, open their own bar or move to another part of the world. Secondly, the network here is really supportive and has a community quite unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else.’
The third factor is also related to its home town of Edinburgh. ‘Coming from outside of London, people generally have to work that bit harder to get noticed, so those who are willing to go the extra mile have succeeded in getting those sought-after positions,’ he explains.
Training at Bramble encourages independence, allowing bartenders to forge their own path in the industry. ‘Our training is loosely structured, as with everything at our bars. The staff are given responsibility for all aspects of the business and that includes their own training,’ says Aikman. ‘We give them as much help as we can with this, but ultimately their education should be led by them, in what they are most interested in and the amount of effort they are willing to put in.’
You can expect that collection of A-list Bramble alumni to grow, as past successes draw a high calibre of ambitious bartender. As Aikman puts it: ‘If they are as hungry and full of desire as their predecessors then they are just as likely to succeed.’
Type: Soho institution
Location: Old Compton Street, London
Training characteristics: Spirits knowledge and speed
Big-name alumni: Esther Medina-Cuesta (self-described hospitality maven), Tim Stones (Manly Spirits Co, Australia), John Gakuru (Sweet & Chilli, US), Dré Masso (Potato Head, Indonesia), Andrea Montague (Forgotten Hospitality), Drew Mallins (Hakkasan, Middle East)
The name – London Academy of Bartenders – says it all. The recently closed LAB, set up by Douglas Ankrah and Richard Hargroves, began its days as a bartender training school.
LAB was perpetually filled with the industry’s greatest names, both in front of and behind the bar – and the development of its entire team was always one of its highest priorities.
Former assistant general manager Drew Mallins, now Hakkasan bars manager for the Middle East, confirms: ‘What made LAB so special over its 16-years was that at its very core it was a venue that always nurtured talent, printed ridiculously long menus and it was somewhere you could get a tasty disco drink and a very well-balanced Sazerac at 11pm on a Friday night without pretence.’
‘Training was a mix of core skills and knowledge,’ adds Mallins. ‘The training programme at LAB involved mostly speed and spirits training. During my time as AGM we frequently booked in ambassadors for training and pushed for staff to attend as many external sessions as possible.’
The result is a fondly remembered bar that continues to make its mark globally, thanks to the scores of bartenders it influenced.