Words by: Ian Cameron
Jamie MacDonald started his career at a Glasgow karaoke bar aged 18. Despite developing a pitch-perfect rendition of Elton John's Rocket Man, he saw the nascent cocktail scene was burgeoning and never looked back, honing his skills with stints at Gaucho Grill, Booly Mardy's, Oloroso, Opal Lounge and Rick's. He also spent time out in Australia and the US where he brushed up on customer service, and has consulted on everything from drinks to bar design along the way. At 33, he became the UK winner of Diageo's World Class 2011 search for the best bartender and went on to compete for the global crown in India.
"The idea of working in bars always intrigued me, even before I was 18 - the way you can never quite see inside, they might have stained glass windows or might be underground. I'd also seen Dick's Bar on TV, about Dick Bradsell, and although I could not get Dick to train me personally, a guy I worked with at Gaucho had been trained by him. It was really serious - he would say 'Shut up, don't talk', and would make us rub spirits in our hands and smell them. We weren't even allowed to taste them at first.
"I studied industrial design and ran an interior design store for a year but I'm happier being a bartender. I never wanted to do the 9-5 thing. I wanted that displaced lifestyle, where you don't have to get up at a certain time.
"I think all bartenders have a split personality. We're actors and I think we all act up when we're behind the bar. It just gives you more confidence, as bartending can be a hard business. It can be very stressful - my doctor says bartenders are just as stressed as the banking community.
"The key to being a good bartender is personality and using it to deliver a certain standard of service. I don't think it's just about having the skills to make drinks. The younger generation of bartenders coming through are great but are perhaps losing that art of hosting a customer. I actually just employed someone who is not the best bartender - at least yet. They asked me why I'd employed them and I said it's because they're such a nice person.
"I first got the idea of owning my own place about four years ago. I wondered if we could pull off a New York speakeasy-type venue without actually being one - it's more the ethos where the customer comes first, where you get to know them, where customers are interested in the product. I knew it was a bit of a gamble too, opening a bar in the back streets.
"I'm a cocktail geek, no doubt about it. I've got a load of cocktail books, equipment, shakers. I'm even geeky about the height that tables should be. If there is one cocktail I wish I'd invented it would have to be the Negroni. For me it's the most adult drink there is - strong, smooth, elegant, for grown-up tastebuds.
"I'd say the best thing about the job is when you make someone smile. Working in the US was great, I was in Martha's Vineyard, where it's huge Martini culture, but more so it's about the service ethic. For me it's not just about getting a tip but having that interaction with someone - even if I'm just pouring them a glass of water."