Bartender Profile: Smooth Operator

Hamish Smith charts the career of one of the young guns of modern bartending

THEY SAY A cat has nine lives but bartenders seem to be afforded more than the normal allowance too. At the ripe age of 28, Joe Schofield has notched up what seems already a few careers of experience. He moves quickly, adapts adroitly and lands softly.

This year was the year of the Schofield. He was named International Bartender of the Year at Tales’ Spirited Awards and Bartender’s Bartender at The World’s 50 Best Bars – the big two individual awards in the industry and a sure sign of a stellar reputation.

Schofield is also liked. His smart, bespectacled appearance, hushed tones and soft Lancashire lilt don’t fully disguise an impish wit. Indeed, few grow up in places such as Rossendale, on the outskirts of Manchester, without a self-effacing quality and a lively sense of humour.

Schofield had set out on a career path in art and design – a creative in advertising, he suggests, though hesitantly, as if plans were never fully formed let alone realised. “I told my lecturers I wanted to work in bars and they were extremely unsupportive, as you could imagine. But I saw a career in bars that satisfied my need to be creative.”

As this profile page has borne witness on many occasions, the bar industry can be a persuasive force. For Schofield the moment came at Jake’s Bar in Leeds, owned by Jake Burger, but working under Ricardo Dynan. Jake’s was Schofield’s first love… he was only 19 and had wanted to work there from the moment he saw it. It wasn’t long before his brother had joined him behind the stick.

From there he pulled on his tiki shirt and opened The Liars Club in Manchester with the city’s own tiki god Lyndon Higginson. “I had to adapt,” says Schofield. Again and again. Next was tiki to speakeasy – a stint in Australia for the one-time World’s 50 Best Bars member Palmer & Co in Sydney, then the Rockpool restaurant group in Melbourne. On his return, it was a lane shift to quirky hotel bar Zetter Townhouse (top 50 in 2012 and 2013), where he honed the latest culinary and mixology techniques.

A broad church of experience, but the hallowed lounge of the American Bar under Declan McGurk and Erik Lorincz required more reinvention. “There was no way I was going to pass up that opportunity – it’s a special place,” he says, though it had come at a cost. Schofield was due to move to Buenos Aires for a tour of Latin America. “The day before I flew, I got the call. My life was going in a different direction. I’d have been in Latin America for a couple of years – but I’ve never been afraid to take a risk for a career opportunity.”

In 2016, on the eve of moving to Japan for an eastern adventure, Schofield’s partner was denied a working visa. Plans were adapted and Singapore was to be their new destination. “The only place I’ve ever wanted to work there was Tippling Club. There was an element of luck that Kamil Foltan was leaving and his role became available.”

Here, under the futurist, cocktail-appreciating British chef Ryan Cliff, Schofield flourished. Their Sensorium menu that linked scents to memories was groundbreaking work for the industry. Their Dreams & Desires menu, from which guests choose their cocktails by deciding which homemade gummy bear they like best, was clever and playful.

“None of this would have been possible without Ryan. Working within a larger group and looking after its five bars has opened up my thinking. I’ve not just worked with bartenders but chefs and CEOs.”

Two-and-a-half years in Singapore and it was time for a change. He continues to work with Cliff through a shared consultancy and a new gin brand – both named Sensorium – but the time had come to head home. Like a returning explorer, Schofield has pitched up where it all started – in Manchester to open his first bar, Schofield’s, with younger brother Daniel. If that has a sense of planned, perfect symmetry, everything in between has been more fluid – opportunity has always been Schofield’s compass, adaptation his auto setting.