The curious bartender

Hamish Smith talks to Tristan Stephenson about Tanqueray fame, the food renaissance in Cornwall and the Worship Street Whistling Shop

At the tender age of 31, Tristan Stephenson’s CV reads like the obituary of an industry veteran. In 12 years, he has scaled the UK cocktail business and is now a globally recognised star of the bar. Stephenson has worked for Jamie Oliver and Diageo, opened three London bars – including a member of the 2012 World’s 50 Best Bars – and won Class’s Bartender of the Year. He has been a head chef – with some success – and become the best-selling author of The Curious Bartender, a hardback that will soon be one of a series.

According to The Evening Standard newspaper he is also among the top 1,000 influential Londoners, of which there are 8 million. Most of them won’t know Stephenson, but a good few will have seen him staring back at them while they wait for a tube, thanks to the recent Tanqueray billboard campaign of which he became the face. 

Stephenson’s short but brisk march through life started in Cornwall, the western limb of England that stretches into the Celtic Sea like it’s trying to get away. For all its isolation – it is closer to France than London – Cornwall attracts hoards of British holidaymakers seduced by its white beaches, seafood and rural idyll, if not its changeable weather and cheesy chips.  

“Everyone of my generation either left, went into hospitality or building,” says Stephenson, sitting in his Shoreditch bar, Worship Street Whistling Shop. “Now there’s such a food revolution in Cornwall they call it Brand Cornwall. You’ll never hear that outside of Cornwall – they think you do – but I was part of it when I started out in hospitality. 

“I wanted to be in the kitchen at first because I wasn’t particularly good at interacting with people. But the Blue Tomato [in Polzeath] needed a bartender. I worked there for two years and every single night we did a new cocktail using my first edition of Simon Difford’s Sauce Guide as my manual. I’ve told Difford on many occasions that his book was responsible for my career. Not that he needs his ego massaged. But it was a really good range of drinks that even now you’d say were the classics: White Lady, Singapore Sling, Cosmopolitan, Blood & Sand (actually I hated Blood & Sand at the time – my palate just wasn’t ready for that).” 

When 15 opened in Cornwall – the third of Jamie Oliver’s charity restaurants for disadvantaged young people – Stephenson knew it was a big opportunity.  “It was on my doorstep and I knew it would be the best bar manager’s job in Cornwall.”

Stephenson has encyclopaedic tendencies. Even early on in his career he had amassed a deep knowledge of his craft and a library of reference books. At Jamie Oliver’s 15 there was an opportunity to do something different – to peddle his own path – and, inspired by the kitchen, Stephenson became one of the first bartenders around to create a seasonal cocktail menu. “There are lots of organic and biodynamic farms around Cornwall and we would have a forager come in with massive bag-loads of stuff with bugs crawling over it. That led me into macerations, preservation and infusions – I had to start looking into the best ways of getting flavour out of ingredients such as elderflowers, which are in season for two-to-three weeks, and preserve them for a few months.”