Meet South Africa’s bartender of the year

© Loop Films

Travis Kuhn has just been crowned Bartender of the Year at the BAR Awards – the Oscars of the bar industry – as well as winning trophies for International Footprint and Best Pop-up Bar. We caught up with him to learn how he got there, and where he’s going next. 

Congratulations! Why do you think you won?

I was hopeful about Bartender of the Year because of winning World Class, and for International Footprint I thought I had a good chance because of my Haven Mary video, which touched 10,000 people. For Best Pop-up Bar, wow, we were not expecting that at all because the Pearl was done by June. But people did have a lot of fun there…

Watch: Find out about Travis’s Haven Mary concept here.

There are lots of bartending competitions, like World Class. How are the BAR Awards different?

A competition recognises your efforts over a very short period of time, whereas here you’re being recognised over a long period. It’s bit like winning the league over winning the cup. And it’s a chance for 150 industry peers to give their opinions on the people they respect the most.

You and your wife Leigh actually started the BAR Awards in 2016. What inspired you?

We went to Tales of the Cocktail in 2014, to the Spirited Awards – the biggest [liquor industry] awards programme in the world – and we were amazed by how they move in the global scene. There were people doing incredible things back home, but we didn’t have any way of recognising them. And what greater way than with an awards programme?

When, and why, did you choose to become a bartender?

I didn’t choose it, actually. My older brother was a bartender, and when I finished school [in 1997] he got me a shift. Then I moved to Long Street Café, and one day this invitation came from the Cape Town Underground Cocktail Circuit, inviting me to a flair competition. It was sighed by Kurt Schlechter [current owner of Cause|Effect]; I had never met the man, but I went, and I won. Then Kurt became my mentor, and that was it … Once you understand the love and the pride within the bartending community, you want to stay. It’s like when you come as a guest, but you stay because you became part of the family.

You now own your own mobile-bar company, with Leigh. How did you get from there to here?

I spent a couple of years working for Kurt at his mobile-bar company, and he not only taught me about bartending, he taught me the business of bartending. He supported me all the way, and I’ve virtually followed him. He was a bartender, I was a bartender. He was a mobile-bar operator, I’m a mobile-bar operator. He owns a bar, and I’m about to open my first bar…

Which brings me to my last question: what’s next?

What’s next is the Vicious Virgin. Our pop-up, the Pearl, was named after a classic tiki drink, The Polynesian Pearl Diver, which is a very magoo way of thinking tiki, with sunny skies, blue water, beach and palm trees. The Vicious Virgin, also the name of a classic tiki drink, will be the darker, edgier sister. It will be open in two months time – a permanent bar at 53 Wale Street.

Read more about the BAR Awards – including what they recognise and who won – here.

This post first appeared on Food24 on 12 April 2019.