Words by: Ian Cameron
Adam Freeth spent his college summers serving less-than-glamorous drinks to unsuspecting tourists, but he was hatching a plan. As he taught himself about cocktails he realised there was a gap in the market for bartending training that the industry would respect. The school he founded upon graduating, Shaker, has since trained more than 12,000 bartenders, including big names such as Erik Lorincz, Marian Beke and Stanislav Vardna.
It's a memory many professional bartenders will recognise: their first foray behind the bar during a summer of sun, sea, sand, sex and sangria. Adam Freeth spent six seasons working bars across the Mediterranean including Ibiza, Rhodes and Crete, no doubt peddling goldfish bowls 'cocktails', pushing shots of cheap tequila and basically creating drinks in as lurid a colour as he could invent. He quickly realised holidaymakers lapped up whatever he served them.
"I remember one place that had one of those optics carousels. I'd be making partly my own inventions - classy things like Adam's Orgasm - as well as the usual suspects: Blue Lagoons, Sex on the Beach, Woo Woos. If a blue or a red or a green drink went out, within 20 minutes I'd have 15 people asking for one too."
In Ibiza, he ended up running a tequila bar. Or rather, a plank of wood on top of two barrels that were assembled in the corner of bar. "I plied my trade at selling shots, we called them Tequila Stuntmen, where you'd snort salt up one nostril, tequila in the other, squirt lemon in your eye. Or we'd give them a crash helmet to wear, pour tequila down a funnel into their mouths and hit them around the head. I couldn't believe people were paying me to do that. And they'd tip me too."
They might sound like tangential plotlines from The Inbetweeners or Benidorm, but while he had lots of fun, Adam had bigger aspirations. "I wanted to be trained, to get out there and learn from the best, but all I'd come across was TGI Friday's and this school where I think they taught you with coloured water, rather than real alcohol. In any case, there was nowhere near where I lived in Worcestershire."
In between selling Blue Lagoons and Tequila Stuntmen, he'd read the newly launched CLASS magazine (this was the late 1990s), and then Dale DeGroff brought out Craft of the Cocktail. "The only person doing anything was Dale DeGroff and Dick Bradsell. There was really no one else." On the back of this, he learned enough to convince bars back in glamorous Luton, where he was studying, to let him draw up a cocktail list for them on the back of what he'd read and found on the fledgling internet.
But while he had discovered there was a side to bartending outside the get-'em-in, sell-it-cheap, get-'em-drunk model, he recognised his methodology was completely unplanned, and that he could have learned far quicker if it had been at all structured. "I am self-taught but it took me a bloody long time to even understand what it was all about. It would have been so much quicker if it had been structured."
Those summer jobs came into their own as the inspiration for a chunk of study in his undergraduate business degree, using his experience to write a feasibility study for a training school. Then, during his masters degree, he wrote a fully fledged business plan. By the time he graduated, the idea for Shaker had been gestating for some time. The business started out from his flat in Birmingham, he built its website himself, and remembers the first time someone actually called up asking for a course. "A call for training came in from a guy in Bulgaria at 3am. It gave me a real buzz."
Whoever made that call from Bulgaria at what would have been 5am (they must have had a really bad shift) marked the start of a journey for Adam. The business grew and today he runs schools in Abu Dhabi, Sydney, Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados and South Africa in addition to London. "We focus on the fundamentals of training. Everything from why you shake, when you muddle, to the practicalities of the job, and what we call the five 'P's of world class service: pride, passion, preparation, professionalism and presentation.
"I have a seven-year plan: I want to have 20 franchised schools globally to set a global standard for training, one that's internationally recognised and allows bartenders to work all over the world. In the last couple of years I think we've matured as a training organisation - we're WSET-approved and official training provider for the UKBG."
Out of training Shaker has branched out into consultancy, building drinks concepts from the ground up, including helping launch award-winning bar Nightjar. "We did everything from recruitment to organising and conceptualising the drinks concept around playing cards and different eras, brand deals, the whole kit and caboodle, designing each of the cocktails initially. We actually recruited Marian Beke - he'd done some events for us, so we knew what he was capable of, and he put his twist on everything and created the garnishes which it has become famous for."
The Churchill Bar & Terrace at the five-star Hyatt Regency hotel on Portman Square, Birmingham bar Lost and Found and upcoming Shoreditch bar Beagle - all Shaker too. But Adam thinks the biggest market for cocktail consultancy is outside of the capital. So far outside any recognisable cocktail market, in fact, that he's focused on developing economies.
"If it's an emerging market for oil or trade, then the leisure market won't be far behind. I'm talking about places like Nigeria: it's gas and oil rich, a westernised culture and growing appreciation of hospitality. We're keeping a close eye on what hotels are doing and how the leisure economy is developing.
"The likes of Diageo and Bacardi know their futures are in South America, India, China and Africa. We're dealing with an upsurge in interest and hundreds of enquiries for potential franchisees."
Shaker's biggest development recently was opening its own bar. Having previously operated training courses out of a private bar in Old Street, the move to a site in Euston, London heralded a multi-faceted bar that could be used for training during the day, opened to the public at night and with a basement pop-up site for operational variety. The pub-style cocktail bar boasts a mural of his bartending heroes - Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, Trader Vic, Charles Schumann and Ada Coleman - though there's not an optic carousel in sight. While it's on the edges of Zone 1, the venue's in a sort of no-man's land commercially, but Adam says it's just right.
"Moving from an out-and-out bar school to a commercial offer just stacked up. We paid £39,000 a year just for the bar school, but the rent here is 60 per cent of that. And it means we can concentrate on making drinks rather than worrying about the rent. It might be no man's land, but it's more profitable per square foot than anything else I know."
In tandem to the 20 international schools he wants to open he'd like 10 bars to accompany them, including at least one other in the UK.
The final string to the Shaker bow sees the company's trainers do hundreds of events and corporate gigs every year, with FTSE-100 companies such as Tesco, ABN Amro and BP all recent clients.
Despite having his fingers in so many pies, you won't tend to see Adam, still young at 33, out on the scene. In fact, he deliberately shies away from the spotlight and it was all we could do to convince him to have his picture taken. "I work 9-5, rarely go to events, and avoid press. I don't want it to be the Adam Freeth show, for me it's all about Shaker. I'm just here to steer the ship."
While there have been attempts to formalise an academic approach to bartending in the past, offering City & Guilds and GNVQs, it's arguably Shaker's more commercial approach to training that seems to have had more impact, so while Adam might not like the attention, we think he's worth a little bit of hero worship.
Photography by Alys Tomlinson