The lowdown on Stephen
Of all the gin joints in all the world you’ll find Stephen at Rick’s Bar in Edinburgh. Within the city he’s worked in various Montpeliers’ venues beginning with Indigo Yard then moving on to Opal Lounge and Tigerlily, before eventually heading the bar team at Rick’s. This was either side of a year running funky jazz lounge Tony Starr’s Kitten Club in Melbourne and a two-year stint in Ireland. “I was also part of the all star bar team that opened Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh in 2009.”
“As well as a few local titles to my name the biggest and proudest competition win I’ve ever had was undoubtedly winning the Scottish World Class White Spirits heat in 2010. Not only for the publicity the competition creates but the billboard was mindblowing! Coming second to the formidable Erik Lorincz in the UK Final was a sore one to take but a massive achievement all the same.” Stephen goes through to the final this year with a tequila-based drink, Pasado de Moda
What led you to become a bartender?
I was inspired to become a bartender for a number of reasons. Initially as a young teenager I lived for many years with The Raconteur’s Jamie Mac. When I should’ve been out drinking whatever I could get my hands on I was mesmerised by his arsenal of weird and wonderful spirits and liquors and soon developed a passion and interest for alcohol and its amazing diversity. When I began life behind the bar I quickly realised that with good self discipline and organisation, illustrious careers can be had by any bartender.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The best thing about life behind the stick for me is the simple lessons you learn that mould and shape your life. It’s true that the way in which a bartender conducts him or herself behind the bar speaks volumes about how they tackle day-to-day life. It’s crucial to have discipline, to be humble, to be outgoing and warm. These skills are priceless and stepping into the daunting life of a bartender teaches you these skills from a young age. For that I’m truly grateful. However, the thrill of experimenting with new ingredients, techniques, even equipment is second to none! I just love mixing drinks!
Who do you admire in the industry and why?
Within the industry we have some wonderful personalities in Scotland. Ironically one of my rivals in World Class, Jamie Mac has always been an inspiration from an early age and he’s doing great things now. I also love what Stu McClusky’s done with The Bon Vivant and admire him for doing things in his own unique way. Two of Scotland’s most humble yet talented bartenders, Joey Medrington and Mal Spence from Blytheswood, are masters of their craft. However, the writings of David Wondrich and meeting the man himself was an honour. I also think, like any young bartender, I learnt my trade from a early age flicking through Difford’s Guides looking at the pictures and recreating drinks I still make to this day.
If you could mix a drink for anyone alive or dead, who would it be and why?
The obvious choices are of course Mr Hemingway and Winston Churchill. That would be truly special! Personalities like theirs would be welcome propping up any bar and getting approval from two of the most hardened palates in history would be an honour. I could definitely entertain Sir Alex Ferguson for an evening and listen to any anecdote or tale he cared to share. Maybe he’d loosen up after a few Rob Roys. I hear he likes Scotch!
What’s your favourite classic cocktail?
My favourite classic cocktail……that’s a tough one. I suppose it’s like ‘What’s your favourite song?’… It depends on your mood, the season, the time of day etc. I’ve always loved Negronis and feel it’s one the best aperitivos around. Corpse Reviver #2’s are a true expression of alchemy from the past. I am really partial to a well made Ward 8 just now. Toby Ceccini introduced me to it in his book Cosmopolitan, a must-read for any bartender.
What’s the most unusual request you’ve ever had at the bar?
A recent request for a Malibu Negroni was pretty unusual. Part of me felt “surely this won’t work”, I had my reservations because the customer seemed so sure but I think I was right. Payment by means of narcotics was also unusual to me but maybe I’m just old fashioned.
What’s your proudest moment as a bartender?
My proudest moment had to be starting my own events company ‘Shake That Training and Events’ and receiving our first pay cheque. There’s something liberating about doing it your own way and the feeling that it’s paid off is priceless. Having a fifteen foot billboard of myself last year was pretty cool it has to be said!
Describe the inspiration for the drink/s that got you through to the final.
The drinks that got me through, unlike my usual creations, were not inspired by any set recipe or formulas. I just stuck to what I know and always believed in what I was putting together. If you believe in what you’re doing, your skill and experience will count for everything.
Any funny/embarrassing anecdotes in the rounds leading up to the final?
My winning cocktail ‘Mushroom for Improvement’ was actually created around midnight, the night before the competition. I was at work sipping Don Julio Anejo for inspiration while eating a very lovely mushroom risotto. I couldn’t ignore how well the flavours combined although I think Mr. Pearson may disagree… I decided to match the two in a cocktail and I think it just about worked. Much room for improvement though (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Have you picked up any good tips from the competition?
The learning curve from a competition like this is phenomenal. It teaches you confidence, coherence and presentation skills that are difficult to otherwise learn. Also the idea that competing at this stage tells you that something you are doing is getting noticed and you’re progressing and developing as a bartender and as a person.
What does winning your regional heat of World Class mean to you?
Winning the regional final is always a confidence boost and the trip to Mexico is a massive bonus. I won the trip a few years back in the same competition but had to sacrifice it as I was headed for Australia which was great nonetheless. Visiting these places is something I wouldn’t always do and the hospitality Diageo provide is always great.
What would winning the finals of World Class UK mean to you?
Winning the UK Final would be undoubtedly my biggest achievement to date. It’s a prestigious competition and UK winners always go on to marvellous things. You can be assured I will be doing everything to win.
Who would you thank in your World Class acceptance speech?
I would definitely thank my girlfriend Amy because she’s my biggest fan as well as my biggest critic. She’s a cocktail anorak herself and she’s never afraid to tell me if something I’ve put together doesn’t work. I love the look on her face when she really loves something I’ve created. That’s when I know I’ve nailed it! Also my mother Helen, for never approving of my career choice but supporting me all the same. She likes to see me reaping the rewards now. And of course all the managers, owners and head bartenders that took a chance on me when I was a rookie teenager wanting to learn the ropes.
If you were a cocktail what would you be and why?
A badly made French Martini because I am prone to lose my head. (apologies for my sense of humour).
The drink that got him through
My Mexican answer to the Martini, the Manhattan, the Rob Roy and the Palmetto. A simple old fashioned style of drink. My Mexican vermouth is based on a dry Spanish Albarino. I’ve fortified this with a reposado tequila and used 23 ingredients including chilli (tiny, tiny amounts), tomatoes, basil, onion and pomegranates as well as the usual wine aromatisers (wormwood, liquorice, lemon peel, clove, cinnamon). I’ve added a touch of sugar but still wanted the wine to remain dry. I’ve then simmered it briefly before straining, clarifying and resting in the fridge.
40 ml Jose Cuervo Tradicional
10ml homemade vermouth
7ml homemade syrup ((pink grapefruit))
1 dash tomato bitters
Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into chilled coupette glass. Garnish with a vine tomato and lemon peel on a skewer.