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.”

Molecular gastronomy

From foragers to Diageo – not a seamless segue, but Stephenson too was plucked from the countryside. By now it was 2006 and he had met Thomas Aske, who would later become one of his partners in bar ventures and the wider consulting business Fluid Movement. 

At the time molecular gastronomy was well under way and Stephenson was starting to spot the embryos of molecular mixology – something he would later become known for. “People were doing it but it didn’t have a home. I condemned it when it first stared. It was gimmicky.

“But Thomas and I looked into it and saw there was a lot of science behind it. What on the surface appears to be gimmicky, naff and crude has some fascinating principles applied to it. You realise there is a lot more to it than creating little blue balls that taste of orange Curaçao. It’s deeper than that. This is not stuff you do for the hell of it, it’s stuff you do to make a drink better – otherwise what’s the point?” 

Purl, Fluid Movement’s first bar, was a showcase for this brand of cocktail sorcery and Stephenson’s first book, The Curious Bartender: The Artistry & Alchemy of the Perfect Cocktail, debunks the myths of molecular mixology and puts to paper the science behind the movement’s techniques.   

The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Whiskies is being researched this year via a line-up of 70 worldwide distilleries. It is being written in Stephenson’s evenings as a side project to Fluid Movement and the running of Worship Street Whistling Shop. The speakeasy is now Stephenson’s only bar, since the four-man team behind Fluid Movement split and Purl in Marylebone left the fold.

Learning curve

There was a third child too. Dach & Sons in Hampstead, to the industry’s surprise, closed last year after just nine months in business. It wasn’t for the lack of trying. Stephenson even stepped up as head chef – a mistake you might think, but the food had good reviews. 

“The Times’ Giles Coren gave us 7.3 out of 10. You can’t argue with that. But he also predicted we would close down, which we did. So if I believe anyone’s reviews it will be his. He got it bang on. Coren is from that part of town and labelled the site as doomed. But my industry friends tell me Dach & Sons was the best thing we’ve done. We were busy on the weekends but just a little too far out of town to be busy during the week. We have learned a lot more from Dach & Sons than we have from our successes.”

Stephenson’s portfolio of bars may have receded but it will expand again. Next up is a new site “outside of London but still in the UK” and he has plans for “another central London bar” too, once a site becomes available. 

But is the UK’s cocktail culture big enough for all the bars that are opening? “I think there is a section of people who are always looking to go to the next new bar and restaurant and that’s what is fuelling growth. And I think that group of people is growing – so I don’t think the cocktail trend is a bubble.”

Except for his travelling to guest bartend, train and consult around the world, Stephenson is not going anywhere. The bar industry is where it’s at for him. 

“In alcohol there’s so much to be done – there’s no need to stray off into other things.” Except maybe into coffee, the subject of a third book which comes out in Spring 2015. 

Explain, please: “As a bartender in restaurant bars you come to realise that a third of your time is spent making drinks, a third cleaning up and a third making coffee. You have to decide whether to embrace coffee or detest it and suffer accordingly.” 

Of course, Stephenson took his usual route – the one of a very curious bartender.