It's a Strange world: Part One

Words by: Ian Cameron
Pictures by: Dan Malpass

10:37 GMT // 26 Nov 2013

"Bartenders talk to other bartenders about bartending bollocks, and it's boring." Nick Strangeway might be one of the most well-regarded bartenders of his generation, but he has little time for modern-day colleagues who have their noses stuck in history books and care little for customers or conviviality.

"Bartenders today are obsessed with the Japanese hard shake and cutting ice from big blocks, they force history down people's throats and inflict their techniques on customers, putting foam on something for sake of it," he says. "They don't realise that if it takes 20 minutes to make, it's a shit drink. And they never sit the opposite side of the bar, they won't check the toilets."

We've come to meet Nick in the rooms he shares with business partner Cairbry Hill (their consultancy is called Strangehill). The wood-panelled surroundings in London Bridge are filled with a mixture of bartending paraphernalia, piles of old books, taxidermy and assorted curios. The April sun shines through open windows, from which the sounds of Borough Market can be heard, illuminating dust in the air and reflecting on hundreds of clear glass bottles, each filled with a mysterious liquid and boasting a label written in a spidery scrawl. In the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, it's like something out of Dickens. The eccentric and organised chaos is also kind of like Nick himself.

With 20 years in the trade under his belt, Nick, now 44, boasts the authority of having lived through its fledgling days under the tutelage of Dick Bradsell; he has seen the industry blossom under the swell of a slew of new products; he's seen it move upscale under the label of premiumisation; and he's watched it become the insular geek-fest love-in that it is today. So when he says he feels customer service and a general sense of hospitality have become a casualty of 'professional' bartending, it sounds like it's time to return to some fundamental, traditional values. He's not the first pre-eminent barman to say as much, but he's got an unusually blunt way of saying it.

Huge misconception


"Having knowledge beyond the bar, collecting and reinterpreting ideas that you've learned outside the bar world, is just as important as knowing about rare bitters and history. The ability to talk to people is still hugely lacking. You need to have a life, go to a cinema, go to restaurants and galleries, so you can talk about more than the weather.

"And where are the social graces? It's common sense to offer seats, to hold the door open. I will stand front-of-house, make it my business to know the customers, to look at them, ask them if they need taxis."

Underlying the psyche of this blinkered bartender, permanently in search of lost and forgotten cocktails, is a huge misconception, says Nick, that its protagonists are happy to perpetuate: that bartending skills take decades to hone and can be known to only a few. Actually, says Nick, it's dead easy, and continuing to pretend otherwise is neither helping spread awareness nor appreciation of mixed drinks.

"The insecurity of bartenders is that they willingly perpetuate the mystery of a good drink. It shouldn't be a mystery. Of course, when you see really good bartenders work they have a skill, they have sleight of hand - I'm talking panache, not flair bartending - because they are constantly practising it.

"But I enjoy taking customers behind the bar with me and showing them how easy it is to make a drink. The skill-set is fairly simple, so they'll quickly find out how easy it is to use a shaker after two or three drinks."

It's not that Nick wants young bartenders to abandon the history books and the rare bitters - hey, looking around his rooms he's got enough of these of his own. But they shouldn't practise that side of the craft to the oblivion of hospitality. "It's a downside to the professionalization of bartenders that they've become blinkered: the fun element has been taken out of it. Dick never had the best technical skills but he makes good drinks and understood good service. The bar is a safety blanket and I understand that - I used to feel invincible behind it - but in reality we are suffering from being behind it all the time."

You sense a frustration that bar culture is on the cusp of attaining proper Golden Age status, if only it wasn't for the fact customer service is coming a distinct second. "I think the bar industry is where chefs were 15-20 years ago - I remember quite a few became obsessive boring wankers. Their food was shit but it was their ego talking. We're in that phase [in bars] and there's not enough self-expression. Everyone has a similar mindset - take all the 'speakeasies', there's too much conformity.

"I think that we have the makings of a new golden era. I don't want to say the talent pool is better, but it is certainly larger, the number of quality bars is unprecedented, the knowledge and history is phenomenal, and so are the technical skills. When I did competitions there was no precision and no repetition, so it's great that there's a pride and longevity about it. Those are all good things - and it makes me realise if I tried to enter the industry now, and acted the way I did when I became a bartender, I would be sacked."

Life at 100mph


Nick is notoriously hard to get hold of and pin down. Even as we're preparing to take his picture and do the interview, he darts in and out of the room, like a frantic butterfly that you just can't quite get snare. But after months of attempts to get some face time, we finally got the go-ahead yesterday and suddenly we're here. Is he really that busy or just disorganised?

"I've just been in New York for two days, then went to Sweden for three, Denmark, then Moscow, and back to London. We've just done the second Mark's Bar in Chelsea, and we've got a big new place opening in Shoreditch. And the Bulgari Hotel's coming to Knightsbridge."

"I would," he adds, "like to be less frenetic."

OK, it's life at 100mph, articulated by the fact that though he recently took a house in the countryside, near to Lyme Regis where his now long-term collaborator Mark Hix has a place. Only Nick has spent precisely three nights there in four months. Apart from his east London flat, if there's anywhere he would call home, perhaps it's these rooms in this old fruit and veg warehouse office shared with Save the Rhino. "We came here before Borough Market got really commercial. I used to come here at 7am to see fruit suppliers, to see what they had, what was arriving next. I wouldn't attempt to buy anything now, it's too damn busy, but it's still probably the best market in London."

So what's in all the bottles that surround us? "I can't say what it is quite yet. It's for a big company, as big a company as you can think of - a 40% spirit - and I decided I wanted to play around with 300 samples, and we've got four stills in the other room - normal stills. It will be the first time any bartender has ever had their name on a product like this.

"We started by distilling things I liked and blending them, we presented 12, whittled them down to six, and the intention is we release three different types now but it might just be two or one - despite this big company I still have final veto."

Consider us intrigued.

The Dick and Nick Show


Nick is famed for having learned his trade from his mentor Dick Bradsell - they worked together for years, from bar-to-bar. But at Fred's Bar, the first of Dick's bars that Nick worked at, as a glass washer, did they gel from day one? "We probably didn't get on that well, no. Dick can be an awkward, prickly character. He went there to work, the rest of us went there to have fun. The whole team would threaten to walk out if he changed the music, there were four or five of us and we could be really badly behaved. Nobody really wanted to work there, lots were failed actors. Bartending was not something you were proud of back then - it was just something you did.

"I don't think Dick really had much reputation then, based on Zanzibar and the Soho Brasserie. There are more bottles in here - ," he gestures around the bottle-filled room, "than you could even buy in those days.

"I don't think I know loads about Dick even after all these years, and we still have a slightly awkward relationship, but he had a professionalism and a pride about what he delivered. Of course, there was professionalism in the way of The Savoy, of the Peter Dorelli school, but Dick was not part of that scene and the idea of going to The Savoy aged 25 was my idea of hell. Dick was quirky, his venues had cool people but delivered a product as good as the Savoy. You should work in places that suit you that reflect yourself, but aim high with standards."

Next week: Nick on why all cocktails should be pre-prepared; on his dictatorial style at Hawksmoor; and the mainstream media's failure to appreciate cocktail culture.

Click here to read part two.


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