Ali Reynolds talks World Class, celeb bartenders and birdwatching

Gaëlle Laforest

11 September 2015

Ali Reynolds, winner of this year's Diageo Reserve World Class GB competition, is the man of the moment. He's just back from South Africa, where he competed in the global finals and made it to the final six. He ultimately took a very honourable fourth spot, while Japan's Michito Kaneko won the global title. Reynolds can usually be found at Hawksmoor's Spitalfields branch, where he runs the upstairs and downstairs bars.

'My World Class experience was incredible from start to finish,' he starts. 'Everything was really well set out and organised. It was intense, but it wouldn't be a competition if it wasn't.' It's not so much the challenges in themselves he found tough, but rather the logistics of it all – getting organised, with 54 bartenders each with their many suitcases, ingredients and prep to do. 'Trying to focus on what you had to do each day, without thinking of the next, was tough. But I was happy being tested to the max.'

While he didn't spend much time with Kaneko, he's happy with the result. 'I achieved what I wanted, which was to finish in the top six. Michito is a deserving winner. We spent some time as the final six, went for lunch and to Table Mountain, and while he couldn't speak much English, he was one of the nicest guys, always smiling. The competition's set out really fairly on points, so he must've been the most consistent.'

Reynolds isn't new to competitions. He's entered plenty – notably winning Malt Mastermind last year. 'I encourage everyone at Hawksmoor to enter competitions, and meet new people, learn new things, and mostly see a different style of bartending. I watched some amazing people from all corners of the world doing fantastic stuff.'

It's also a confidence boost, he says; in the case of World Class, both from his performance and from the support he received throughout. 'The amount of support from the UK was overwhelming, especially from the other GB finalists who probably sent the nicest messages. Gareth [Evans, of The Social Company], who's been in World Class before, also gave me a lot of advice.'

He's not the only Reynolds who's into comps – or the only one who wins them, for that matter. His brother Josh, who also works at Hawksmoor Spitalfields, won the global Chivas Masters competition this year. 'Mum's super proud – she loves it and puts it all over Facebook,' Reynolds says. 'Dad was always a bit cautious of us going into hospitality, but he's starting to realise how big it can be.'

So big, actually, that he's getting a spread in GQ, very much a national magazine that reaches beyond the East London bar crowd. Are we about to see the rise of the celebrity bartender to follow into chefs' footprints? 'It's getting to that point. People care very much about what they eat, where they eat, and sustainability – things like the carbon footprint of a restaurant. If chefs can help push that, it's only fair they're that well regarded. I think World Class is that Michelin star level for drinks. It's the best bartenders of the world, so winners definitely deserve that celebrity status. But while within the drinks industry everyone knows who everyone is, it's not the case outside – my dad's got no idea who Peter Dorelli is, but he knows Jason Atherton.'

Next year, it'll be his turn to help coach World Class competitors, and he's got plenty of advice in mind already. Consistency is a key word that comes back over and over again, as is doing what you know how to do. 'You were chosen for a reason. Don't try to do anything you wouldn't normally do. Don't think about making mistakes and you won't make them. And then do one big thing, take one big risk.'

For him, that risk was the Around the World challenge, where he made a drink representing home using lavender bitters as a nod to his parents' garden, a syrup made from his dad's homebrewed beer and champagne – then asked the judge to pick what spirit they'd like. 'He's in my house, so he can pick what he wants to drink. That's another key thing: put your personal touch on it.'

The next few months are still looking quite World Class heavy, with the World Class hub at London Cocktail Week, and plenty of travelling to do to hopefully visit other World Class finalists and hopefuls in their various cities and countries. Then he'd like to open a bar with his brother, first as a pop-up and 'soon', under the Yellow Hammer name that he used during the Cape Town Shakedown. 'It's great, it's already the fourth best bar in the world!' he jokes. The name comes from the brothers doing a lot of birdwatching while growing up in the countryside. 'We had this deck of cards with birds and ticked them off as we went. The yellow hammer was the one bird we never saw. Now we've found what we want to do, and we never found the bird that we were looking for, so we thought we'd name the bar after the bird.'

If it's anything like the Yellow Hammer he debuted at World Class, it'll be the atmosphere of an East London pub, homely and welcoming. 'The drinks are secondary to what we really do,' he finishes. 'Providing a special night for someone is a lot more important.'

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