Pour yourself a cocktail and get some insight into the world of competitive bartending – the highs, the lows, the inspiration and some advice – as Julian Short shares his story in conversation with Leah van Deventer, exclusively for Food24.

Pour yourself a cocktail and get some insight into the world of competitive bartending – the highs, the lows, the inspiration and some advice.

Tell me about your first bartending gig.

My first bartending gig … my first bartending gig, actually, was on holiday in the Free State. My mom has this little house in the middle of nowhere, a town called Rosendal. It’s tiny. And – back when I had a whole December holiday – we used to go there. It had this one little communal meeting place, which was a restaurant where you could have breakfast and lunch and dinner. And then they built a little bar there. It was very cute and quaint and very Afrikaans, and they needed help one December. So I found myself putting my hand up. It was the December of 2012, when it was the whole ‘end of the world’ thing, and we made Armageddon shots, all night, every night. 

My first actualbartending gig was when I started working at Social on Main, in April 2014. I was slinging beers and pouring whiskies … and I was making cocktails too, but I was just following a recipe sheet. I was 22.

And from there, did you go to The Landmark?

Yes, I met Gareth Wainwright there. He came to the bar, and he sat there on his own, looking around. Then he looked at me and he asked me to make him a Negroni. And I had no idea what that was. So I phoned the head bartender, and he told me the ingredients, and I made the drink and served it to Gareth. I thought I’d done a pretty good job, but Gareth was like, ‘You’ve never made this drink before, have you? You looked alright until you started shaking it.’ And shortly after that I started working for him at The Landmark. That was December 2014.

Gareth, of course, is an industry expert. What was it like, working with him?

It was everything. Gareth taught me that recipes aren’t just things you follow off a page. There was so much more intuition. Like, whyyou add sugar, lime and rum to a Daiquiri. Instead of having me just follow a recipe, he explained how it worked. I started to realise I had a knack for flavour and an understanding of taste, and I had a decent palate on me. He showed me how to work it, and everything changed from there. The whole cocktail world opened up, and it was all because of him.

Talking about your palate: you grew up in a foodie family, with your dad being in wine and your mom being a chef. Would you say that helped refine your palate, from a young age? 

It’s a bunch of funny things. I never thought this industry is where I’d end up, but the moment I started [in it], it felt so natural. I think that background had a big influence on me. And also, subconsciously – with my parents being as hardworking as they are – how to be in hospitality was imprinted on my brain. The hours, and how to speak to people. But my palate, I definitely got that from my mama.

So if you weren’t planning on being a bartender, what did you have in mind?

I wanted to be a musician, for a long time. I was in bands, and I studied to be a sound engineer. But it just wasn’t me. That was another reason Gareth and I clicked so well [with his own musical background], he got me, completely.

Aside from Gareth, what other mentors helped steer you towards bartending?

It it weren’t for Gareth, I wouldn’t have had half the successes that I’ve had; I attribute that to his guidance and patience. Chris Rule was my first mentor though; he was just cool. He made cool drinks, and he could flair, and he had tattoos. Everyone knew him and respected him. He was my head bartender at Social, and then later he came to work with me at The Landmark too. 

And what other bartenders have shaped your bartending style?

Definitely George Hunter. He was so disciplined, and so good, and so motivated. It was small things but they had a big influence. Like that he was always at work on time [at The Landmark], and the best dressed. And his technique has always been flawless. 

And then the guys from Molecular Bars. The line-up has changed, but back then it was Alicia Bulter, Dom de Lorenzo, Dino Batista and Dom Walsh. They were the cool cats, winning all the competitions and going everywhere. And I was blown away. But out of all of those I’d say Dom Walsh, as a bartender, had the biggest influence on me, just because he was so good, he IS so good. And he’s such a nice guy, and so genuine. And he’s very calculated – he knows exactly what he’s doing. He always has something up his sleeve, and I love that.

So tell me about the first competition you won. That was the Tahona Society Cocktail Competition, in 2015, right?

Ja. I’d entered World Class about two weeks before, but I just did one round. And then Tahona came along and I still had no idea what I was doing but it was so much fun. I think that presentation was one of the best ones I’ve ever done, because I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone. 

You’ve won six national competitions since then and one global, right? Let’s list them, for the full effect: 

  1. Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix(2016)
  2. Absolut Invite(2016)
  3. Botanist Forager(2016)
  4. Diageo World Class(2017)
  5. Rémy Martin Bartenders Talent Academy (2017, nationals and globals) and
  6. Opihr World Adventure(2018). 

That’s crazy: eight trophies in just three years. Break down the highlights of each for me.

Tahona was amazing because it gave me a lot of faith in myself. And going to Mexico [for the globals] was the real deal. This world of cocktails was suddenly so much bigger than I anticipated. 

Havana Club came up next, and I couldn’t believe that I won that too – wow! Then Absolut Invite I did with Chris Rule; we work together really well. After that I actually did World Class again [in 2016] and I fell very, very short, which was good because it was extremely humbling. It’s as important to fail at these things, I think. It was the first time after I’d been doing really well that I flopped so hard, so it motivated me to push really hard for The Botanist.

And then World Class again the next year was a big focus. It was a good one this time; we’d just opened Sin+Tax and there was a lot of good energy floating around. Going to the globals overseas was BIG. I can honestly say now that I wasn’t ready … it was so defeating, probably the lowest point in my career … but I earned that lesson and came back more motivated than ever. 

Up until then I hadn’t even podiumed at any of the globals, and then I not only podiumed at Rémy Martin but I actually won the whole thing, which was just the coolest – especially after World Class. 

In 2018 I decided to focus more on running my business, so I only did Opihr. Istanbul was truly amazing. It was the first competition I’d ever been to where I truly felt I could win. And I was so close! I loved that the competition was so tight. 

What advice do you have for bartenders wanting to compete professionally?

Start with the end in mind. You’ve got to enter round one knowing you can win the globals. If you’re working for somebody, ask for time off to get ready. You’re not just representing yourself; you’re representing your bar and potentially your whole country. And pick your battles wisely, and give them everything you have.

And for newbie bartenders, who might want to emulate you? 

I think they should sit down and make a conscious decision within themselves if bartending is something they want to do. And then to figure out a little bit of a plan, set themselves a few goals. And then find a bar they really enjoy, or reach out to someone like me or Dom Walsh – someone who is actively involved in making a career out of this thing. And make sure you’re working with the right people. 

You mentioned Sin+Tax, the bar you co-own in Jozi. How does running your own business compare to working in someone else’s bar?

Running a business is hard. When you’re just working in a bar your life is carefree; you’re focused on making drinks, and not on how much money the business is actually making. Will your business be here tomorrow? Is it going to be here in five years? Ten? There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that. 

Initially I had a competition bartender’s mentality towards our cocktails, and I was putting all kinds of weird and wonderful things into my drinks … making them Instagrammable, you know? What I realised very quickly was that if you’re not costing things properly, your business won’t work. You have to look at things as a business first, then as a creative outlet second.

Would you say your drinks are getting simpler, then? 

Yes, I feel that simplicity is very important, but it’s about staying relevant and adapting that to the 2019 mentality, through technique and execution. That must be thought through. So instead of a Daiquiri with sugar, rum and lime, you get your acidity from, say, a Sauvignon Blanc, or a Chardonnay, or maybe a Semillon, which has a nice buttery mouthfeel as well as a bit of acidity. The drinks themselves are relatively simple though, in the sense that there are only three or four ingredients per drink.

Apart from simplicity, how has your drink-making style evolved?

I have a bigger focus on technique and produce – at the moment my menu is completely seasonal. It’s a lot more organic and natural now than it was before.

When you go to a bar, what do you look for in a drink? Or what impresses you?

I like something that’s clever, but that, in it’s final phase, is quite simple. And something that has great texture and mouthfeel. What would make me smile is just a drink that’s made well.

Mostly, I love it when a bartender is a bartender, first and foremost. My philosophy at the moment is to lead from the front, and be in the bar, making the drinks. If you come to Sin+Tax, I will make you a drink, and I will be upset if I don’t – especially if that’s why you came there. If you came there to get a drink from me I want to make a drink for you. I want to make a few drinks for you. I want to have one with you. You know what I mean?

Apart from the trophies you’ve won, what would you say has been your proudest personal achievement as a bartender? 

I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was my team at Sin+Tax. Having a bar that’s three years on and watching how hard those guys work. It’s numbing, actually. The hours and dedication they’ve put in to make this dream come true is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

It’s true, Sin+Tax is doing really well. Remind me which awards you won at last year’s BAR awards.

We won best bar and best bar team. [Plus Julian won bartender of the year.]

This post first appeared on Food24 on 4 February 2019.