Tell us about the drinking tradition of Belfast.
For a city of culture located on the island of Ireland the core drinking traditions are going through a period of renaissance, where mixed drink and award-winning bars have reignited the general offering. The passions only normally seen in production are now associated with the delivery of service. The staple Irish pub is now also a peddler of fancy cocktails, wines and hipster food stuffs.
Have cocktails started to make inroads?
Cocktails are now a huge part of the culture with some places even having a subculture of cult drinks, certain styles and alcohol bases. Having produced some of the best talent of the past decade there has been an insurgence of the mixed drink and it has infiltrated the offerings in most, if not all, drinking emporiums.
Who and what are the key bartenders and bars?
The key bartenders at the moment are thin on the ground, with most having left. But Andrew Dickey at the Merchant and our guys of course at APOC L&D being the pioneers of all things new, weird and wonderful. The other boozers are all beautifully juxtaposed for offerings, from the traditional to the style-based, though for me the Duke of York, Laverys (back bar) and the Merchant hotel are all still great. But no matter how many times I’m out I’m always back behind one of our own, especially Love & Death Inc.
What does Belfast’s bar scene do well?
Hospitality and that omnipotent friendly feeling. Sure everything is ‘for the craic’ here. Though having already had its core steeped in traditions and alcohol production and having endured its political troubles I guess what we do best is make the best of a bad situation and see hope in everything, even when there is none. I believe it gives us a great base to work from. It’s one of the most adaptable places I’ve had the pleasure to work in and it’s served so many here well – the road less travelled, as they say.
What needs to change to inspire a generation of career bartenders?
Three simple things. ‘Brands’ – their investments in competitions, talks etc have fallen a long way, from short to non-existent. Everything is online, impersonal and, most importantly, volume-driven. This means incentives, competition winners and activity are now rewarded based only on the highest-volume accounts vs the establishments that are pushing hardest to stand out. Second, the establishments need to have a serious look at training and what their USP should be vs what is working in other cities. Just because it works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will play to our strengths here. Finally, the bartenders themselves. I’m not going to be popular saying this, but they are like spoilt brats who want too much too soon – to work in a cocktail bar for a year then open one with an absolute disregard for experience. I believe the city evolved too quickly and now is paying the price on the ground level talent base. Bartenders are forced into middle management either through their own ego or monetary enticement. Younger, hungrier people are needed who want to hone their attributes, as opposed to copying a You Tube video.
What cities or countries do you look to for inspiration?
Barcelona has been my mecca for almost two decades. With news of the passing of María Dolores Boadas I can’t help but acknowledge how much it shaped the person I am today, even outside of the drinks world. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the ‘throw’ and gasped in wonder at such a simple act of grace. It inspired me to train some top class guys who I believe are shaping this city and are now inspiring others as well.