Alastair Burgess, Marcis Dzelzainis and Monica Berg are three of the most creative and influential people working in the cocktail community today. This week they’re bringing their considerable experience to the Chivas Masters as judges at its global final. We caught up with them ahead of the climax in London to talk about what makes the London cocktail community so special, the bars they’ve opened in the UK’s capital and what they’re looking for at the Chivas Masters 

Alastair Burgess

Three words to describe London…
“Exciting, dynamic, independent.” 

On London
“Between them, London and New York are the capitals of cocktail culture, they’re the global hubs of entertainment. But the biggest reason that I think London is at that top is that there are so many different people from different cultures and backgrounds living in the city, so the melting pot of knowledge is huge. And although we make drinks, our primary job is to look after people and and this leads to an amazing camaraderie between the bartenders in the community. I think we all feel like that we’re in this together. There’s competition, which is healthy, but I believe this pushes us to be better and we all end up inspiring each other as a result.”

On Happiness Forgets, Original Sin and Petis Pois
“I was working in New York and staring turning 30-years-old in the face. London was an easy choice, as I had previously worked there for four-or-so years before going to New York, so I had a good understanding of the city. Also at that time the cocktail culture hadn’t really spread that much so the chance of being successful was much greater in a big city like London. It’s also home.

Happiness Forgets opened in 2010 and has gone from strength to strength, although it wasn’t all plain sailing from the beginning. The plan was to open a bar that I wanted to drink in as a grown-up. That meant inexpensive drinks, great quality and friendly efficient service.

Original Sin followed and was built on the same principles but on a larger scale – it’s twice the size of Happiness Forgets in fact. It has a larger beer list, is a little bit cheaper, has a free pool table and is more accessible.

Petit Pois is our small restaurant inspired by the bistros of France with dishes influenced by the French classics. It has amazing quality, reasonable prices and friendly attentive service.”

On other great London bars
“People should 100% experience one of the great hotel bars like the Savoy or Dukes. There’s just something timeless about those bars and there’s a reason they’ve been around so long. My other favourite haunts would be Satan’s Whiskers, Fare, the Sun Tavern, and the Vault at Milroy’s. Also it may not be a cocktail bar but I love a glass of wine at Sager + Wilde.” 

On the Chivas Masters
“I’m looking for people with personality and the ability to engage because that’s the job of being a bartender. Then a delicious drink and very importantly, a drink that really makes the Chivas shine. As for the competitors, I’d advise them to practice their lines and rehearse their presentations. Over complicated drinks sometimes lead to mistakes being made so they should really practice and prepare too.”

Monica Berg

Three words to describe London…
“Diverse, experimental, ever-changing.”

On London
“For me London is the centre of the bar industry. There are other places in the world that have great bars but London has a kind of magic. It’s rare that you have such a close supportive community but at the same time a competitive environment. I feel that if you can make a bar work in London you can probably make it work anywhere else.

I like London’s individuality, it’s a true melting pot. When you look at our team, there are people from multiple countries and they all have different opinions and experiences to share. When so many people come together with different experiences magical things happen.
When you look at other cities they may have a lot of diversity but, and I don’t want to offend anyone, if you look at New York for example, there are a lot of different people and different cultures but they still tend to mainly come from one country with the same experiences and same flavour profiles. Whereas in London you have people coming from every culture and they see things so differently. They all bring something, so it’s less about competition between bars and more about competing together against the world. Everyone is fighting for the same goals, which means we can all support each other. 

I think London has the most support. A lot of people come to London for experience and knowledge so they automatically seek out other people with the same intentions and unless you find your tribe or family you are going to be on your own. For example, when I’m in Oslo there’s a good community there but I have the safety of my family and friends. Here in London you have to find new friends and build new bridges, you have to engage more in the community. London is also a city that loves going out so there is space for multiple bars.”

On Tayer + Elementary
“For Alex and I it’s our dream bar. It’s all the things we’ve always wanted, in the sense that we have a space that is very creative and very focused. It’s very experimental in Tayer, while Elementary is very easy and accessible. It can do volume and is more of a place to hang out. And we have amazing food dishes, too. We also try to have fun and collaborate with other people that do great things. In the future people will realise you don’t have to be great at everything. Instead you can be great at one thing and find other great people to work with. Within our team we allow people to grow up and shine. If they become successful that’s the best testament.”

On other great London bars
“One of the things London does better than anyone else is a great hotel bar. I love a martini so you have to go to the Connaught or Dukes. But I also like experimental stuff, so Three Sheets or any of Marcis’s bars such as Fare – his drinks are some of the best in the world. Then there’s the Hide Bar in Bermondsey where most of their offering is from London. Lyaness is great too. People should go further and explore.”

On the Chivas Masters
“We want to see the personality of the bartenders and how they behave generally. Also I like to see people who take joy in what they do and are humble enough to still want to learn. And I’d simply advise them to enjoy themselves.

Marcis Dzelzainis

Three words to describe London…
Eclectic, ever-changing, complex.

On London…
“You can never rest on your laurels, one of the many things built into London’s DNA is its ability to change and evolve. Around 2004 people like Dick Bradsell and Nick Strangeway had put London on the cocktail map and New York responded to that. The mantel of cocktail capital of the world has gone back and forth between London and New York ever since. Now there are places in Asia and Latin America that are good too but London is good at defending its crown in all sorts of things like fashion and music as well as cocktails – we know in London that we have to innovate.

A lot of people know each other here and it can be an exciting city or lonely city. The community amongst younger bartenders comes from visiting each other’s bars. For older ones like me we’ve grown to have a community outside of our work.”

On Sager + Wilde and Fare
“London is my home, I’ve been here for ten years. It’s important to know your market and to have your network. London is part of me.

Sager + Wilde grew out of a brief to create cocktails in a wine bar and I was given a lot freedom. I also wanted people to go there because they knew what they would be getting and they’d also feel comfortable. I want it to be there in ten years, for it to become an institution. 

Fare is more of a new concept. I’d always be fascinated by the Clerkenwell area of London – its architecture, history and writers. I wanted a place there that was about great pizza, coffee and cocktails. It’s a big project and we didn’t want it to be a flash in the pan. Everything has to be just right, whether it’s our pizza or our tap cocktails.”

On other great London bars
“Tayer + Elementary is just great. Matt Whiley and Rich Woods have just taken over at Zetter Townhouse which is really exciting, then you’ve got Marian Beke at the Gibson – all of these places are on a nice little strip, with Happiness Forgets just 15 minutes away. And then there’s Three Sheets, too.”

On the Chivas Masters
“I look for a real sense of connection between the bartender and their audience. I ask myself if I would want to be served by this person in their own bar. And can they roll with things if they don’t go according to plan? I’d also tell them to get as many people as people to try their drinks and be prepared for brutal feedback.”

Get a taste of the Chivas Masters for yourself

The Chivas Masters culminates in a very special evening at London’s Oval Space and you can witness the fun and excitement not to mention sample the amazing drinks. The Cocktail Clash takes place 7pm to midnight (Chivas Masters winner announced 9.30pm), 29th August 2019, at Oval Space, 29–32 The Oval, London, E2 9DT. Strictly over 18s only. 
Full details and tickets available here.

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