Breaking the mould: How everyone can be a creative bartender

Jane Ryan

25 April 2018

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the world’s top bartenders are inherently creative people, and that those who don’t go on to win awards, open their own venues or make headlines are simply not. But, attested Joseph Schofield from Singapore’s Tippling Club, Vasilis Krystis of The Clumsies in Athens, Max Venning of Three Sheets and Bar Three in London and Mimi Lorandova from Proof & Company in Singapore, this simply isn’t the case.

Presenting their seminar Breaking The Mould at Tales of the Cocktail On Tour 2018 in Edinburgh they argued we are all creative, we just need to learn to access it, and what’s more they had the tools to allow us all to do just that.

Are you a creative person or not?

‘Ultimately I believe everyone is creative,’ said Schofield, kicking off the talk to a room packed with bartenders and brand professionals.

To realise it though, he said, people have to have self-realisation and be able to nurture their creativity – with a focus on self-progression. Otherwise we put ourselves in boxes of either creative or not creative.

However, despite working in an industry where there is a lot of conversation around being creative, the panel made the point that it’s also a very conservative industry – after all a lot of drinks are still based on the very first bartender’s book in the 19th century by Jerry Thomas.

We need to relearn the way we teach bartenders

– Max Venning

‘We’re still, as young bartenders, taught by that manual and the first thing you learn is how to make a Manhattan or a Martini to his spec and I honestly think if he was in the room right now he’d tell us we were mental. He was an innovator because he made drinks that hadn’t been made before and yet we are still making those drinks the same way.

‘Alex Kratena has made the point that we need to relearn the way we teach bartenders – to look to a wider world and to different sources of inspiration instead of just saying ok that’s the way things are done. And I think that’s where people allow themselves to become more creative. And not just drinks-wise,’ said Venning.

To demonstrate the different types of creativity and how important the theory behind it is, Venning referenced Arne Dietrich’s four examples of creativity.

Arne Dietrich’s four types of creativity

Cognitive deliberate: This is a type of creativity you learn, or rather creativity through repetition. Just as Thomas Edison created over 1,000 trials before he created the carbon filaments, sometimes we try over and over again until we create something new.

Emotional deliberate: This creativity comes when we’re put under pressure, where you have to find a solution. Venning gave the excellent example of this creativity telling the story of opening his first bar with his brother Noel on a tight budget. In the first few weeks and months they were under enormous pressure to make it work, yet it was at this time that some of the best work the brothers had ever done took place, from drink creation to bar lay out.

Cognitive spontaneous: This occurs when we are focused on a problem, going over it repetitively without success and decide to stop and do another task or take a break. We speak of pushing things to the back of our mind in this state until suddenly the solution presents itself.

Emotional spontaneous: This is the least common type of creativity and is reserved for the talented geniuses and artists – such as John Lennon writing Imagine in 10 minutes.













What tools do you need to be creative?

In an industry that pits big budget openings against small local venues, the panellists turned to address the machinery often used to create incredible cocktails such as rotavaps and centrifuges.

‘People often come to me and say we can’t afford these kind of resources for our bar because they’re really expensive and I always answer with this: if you research more you will see everything that is made in bars with a rotavap or centrifuge was made first in a simple way. Try to find the simple way. Everything we do in our bar or lab works as well in a simple way,’ said Krystis.

Both Scofield and Venning were in agreement, noting that despite access to high-end laboratory equipment, they didn’t want to use it for the sake of using it.

‘It can actually limit what you do, so to actually have to think outside the box and think of new techniques because you don’t have access to it is a really great way to push yourself and push your boundaries,’ said Venning, speaking about becoming too reliant on equipment.

High-end equipment can actually limit what you do

– Max Venning

Making sure drinks are innovative but approachable is a constant battle for bar owners, attested Krystis. ‘Sometimes people make drinks with the most amazing ingredients that simply don’t work for the customers,’ he said. And he wasn’t alone in this thought process around drink creation.

‘The benefits of social media are obvious,’ said Venning, ‘but the flip side of that is this world on social media where you see a drink that is created a million miles away that’s got a list of 10 really random ingredients and young bartenders think this is what we should aspire to. But they’ve never tasted the drink, the drink might not even exist – it might just be liquid in a glass. But it means we’re pushing people to do stuff that might not be relevant to them or to their consumer which is the most important aspect of a drink.

‘Because of social media we’re all aspiring to these things but we should be going back to simplicity – creativity-wise – and getting that right before moving on.’

Where do you start?

With everyone in the small team across Venning’s venues bringing an individual approach to drink making, he said the way they approach things is from an ingredient perspective – whether it’s a product or fresh produce. ‘We’ll build the drink from there, but accessibility and simplicity is so important to us, so we always have to remind ourselves that the drinks and the ferments are for us as bartenders, but what you need to present to the customer is something they can drink and go "That’s great", but actually just carry on with the conversation they’re having,’ he said.

From ingredients to nationality, The Clumsies like to start their drink creation around the style and background of the customers. ‘This is the main point we make when talking to our team,’ said Krystis, ‘Eighty-five per cent of our customers are Greek and you must always adapt to your customers. They are more important than our ego. We always try to work as much as we can with ingredients from our country.’

Lorandova takes a similar approach in Singapore, constantly aware that her palate is shaped by her work in the industry. ‘If someone local tells me I can’t drink that, it’s too strong, then I go back to the drawing board,’ she said.

‘You have to check what kind of bar you are working in,’ agreed Krystis. ‘My place is a really high-volume bar, with up to 300 people asking for drinks at the same time. If a bartender has to spend five to 10 minutes making a drink, pouring from many bottles, the last customer is going to be waiting at least half an hour and this is a problem for us. If you’re in a high-volume place you need to be fast and keep the consistency and make your customers happy. If you are in a place that serves 10 people you can be more theatrical.’

What’s important to remember is you shouldn’t be starting out alone. No bartender is an island. And in every success story in this industry it’s never one person and their shaker. Across the panel the verdict was unanimous – two heads are always better than one.

‘For us at Proof & Co it’s team work that is the main source of creativity or ideas. I never say I do this or I do that – it’s always we,’ said Lorandova.

Where do you find inspiration?

Looking away from other bars and drinks is the first step when seeking inspiration for new drinks. But you don’t have to go far – even the world of chefs can be rich with new techniques and flavour combinations.

‘People are my biggest inspiration, everyone you meet and what they do is really important,’ said Venning. ‘But bars and restaurants are often grouped together because they’re physically in the same space and they’re seen as in the same industry. For me I think they’re very different industries. If you look at the science in food and the money that’s gone into that, the research into food science, it’s a lot more than what we have so I would say in terms of technique, in terms of getting things to where we want to be, we should look at kitchens and food science to how to get there. That’s more on the technical side of creativity.’

Just like Venning, both Krystis and Lorandova also find their inspiration in people. For Krystis, poring through biographies of fascinating, successful and ultimately creative-orientated people is a strong motivation. Meanwhile Lorandova has the benefit of being surrounded by other talented individuals from other industries at Proof & Co, from teachers, engineers and stainless steel workers. ‘For us, collaboration is everything,’ she said.

We need to see the value in mistakes

– Joe Schofield

But, said the panel, allowing your mistakes to inspire you is just as important as the talent in others.

'We’re raised in a society where we’re praised for giving correct answers but no one sees the values in mistakes. But if we did it would encourage more exploratory thinking – you’re trained not to analyse and learn from mistakes but it can open different thought processes,’ said Schofield.

At Three Sheets evolution in drinks is key to the bars success.

‘One thing we never do is create a drink and then leave it there and never ever change it. Palates change, ingredients change – we always talk about consistency but it’s very hard to do that because off-the-shelf products change, as does seasonal fruit. Allowing evolution and being honest with yourself and trusting yourself to know it’ll be different but still good or better than the previous edition is vital,’ said Venning.

The discussion was wrapped up by reminding us all never to box ourselves in as ‘not a creative’ but to find the combination of creativity, whether it’s repetition, pressure or searching for your own inspiration.

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