This month, David van Zyl is heading off to Mexico to compete in the Global Finals for the Patrón Perfectionists tequila cocktail competition. I got to chat to this man of many talents, and find out how he went from mixing brandy and coke in a Weskus dorp to representing his country on the world’s stage.
Tell us about your first bartending gig.
After school, in 2008, I started bartending at Elandsbaai Hotel. I first had to work in the bottle store, to understand the logistics, because we pulled our stock from there. From then I always worked in bars at night, but just brandewyn en coke gooi. Sokkiejols, festivals and stuff like that.
But cocktail bartending … when I really got serious was at Buena Vista, on the R44, and then when I went over to Casa del Sol, in 2013.
Were you at Buena Vista the same time as Marson Strydom?
Yes! Actually, I was a salsa instructor, and one night after the gig, when I’d been training people to dance, he was like, ‘Dude, come and start bartending.’
So wait hang on, you went from slinging brandy and coke to teaching salsa…?
[Laughing] I jumped around a lot. When I finished school – I was in an agricultural school – I started working as a farm manager. And from there I started working as a parshulp at the wine cellars. That’s when it’s harvest season, and they get a bunch of boys to come help. You stay there, in a house behind the cellar, and you learn how to make yeasts and all that … assisting the winemaker.
Because my mom was in the wine industry, I started taking winemaking seriously. I did my introduction wine course. Thought of doing the sommelier [course] – never got that far.
From there I started foraging in Franschhoek, for chefs. And then I started working in a brewery. You do whatever you need to do, you know? People would just say, ‘Listen here, can you do this?’ And I’m like … Google it. Yes – let’s do it. And in between, I was doing carpentry and masonry. Using the arts my family brought back from Belgium.
Phew, okay. So what brought you to Cause Effect, with all that going on?
Well, at Casa del Sol I competed in World Class, with Justin [Shaw]. I did well, I was always in the top 10, which was really cool. Then Justin left to go open Cause, and I was going to go with him, but I really wanted to go help build the brewery, and learn how to brew.
Then one day, I went to Cause, to go see what was happening there, and Bradley Jacobs [from World Class] was standing outside with AJ [Snetler]. And I could see that they were busy inside, so I just said hi and carried on walking past, but Brad said, ‘Hey, where are you going? Come and join.’ So I went in; they were doing the introduction to World Class for 2018.
The brewery bar didn’t even have the brands, but Brad came out there and let me enter. And then he called me after and said I had the highest points for the first leg. Two days later, Kurt Schlechter called me, and said I must come to Cause.
I’d actually met him at my first flair comp. He was one of the judges and when I was flairing I sprayed him with Rosso Vermouth. A red line on his new tiki shirt – he was not impressed! But only later he realised I was that guy.
For someone who’s done so many things, what fascinates you about the cocktail world?
Look, I’ve done 28 different occupations. Bartending was just always my night job, but it’s the most amazing bunch of people to work with. Not just that, it’s the possibilities that you have. If you really put your head down and take it seriously, the world’s your oyster. The possibilities are endless.
I think a lot of people would take bartending on if they knew how it could evolve, but a lot of people don’t want to do the bar scrubbing for five years. They just want to get in there at the best places, from the first day.
How would you describe your bartending style?
Unexpected. Like using stuff that people usually don’t think of at all.
And who are your mentors?
Definitely Tyrone Rothwell, my boss as Casa del Sol, who pushed me to compete. And now Kurt – he blows my mind with his ideas, and his know how. Then someone who motivated me a lot was Chantelle Horn, from back when she was at Diageo. She always told me I had what it takes.
And a guy I must take my hat off to is Marson Strydom – he opened doors. Whenever I have an idea and I go to him, he always guides me to make it the best. Knowledge wise, style wise, he’s just one of the best bartenders in this country.
David’s Patrón Perfectionists cocktail
Dove Tail Cocktail
Angostura Orange Bitters
Dovyalis caffra juice
Lemon pelargomium spray
Muddle, stir and strain