Words by: Ian Cameron
He's the East End market trader who has become Cockney cocktail royalty. Wayne Collins is one of the most enduring figures in modern mixology: the baby-faced Londoner has trained more bartenders internationally than you could shake a stick at; he's probably had more on-screen hours than any other bartender; and he's been nominated as best bar mentor at Tales of the Cocktail four times in a row.
When he started helping out on the local market aged 14, the world of cocktails - hell, its very existence - must have seemed a long way away for the young Wayne Collins. With his 4am starts and cups of tea from polystyrene cups, he can little have known his life would soon transform into 4am finishes and cocktails served in the most delicate glassware imaginable.
Yet, in many ways, working on a market stall selling fruit and veg (on Queens Crescent, where he still lives), gave him the very fundamentals he needed for a career as a bartender.
"We used to be up early to get to the wholeseller, still live on. We'd have bacon rolls and a cup of tea, pick all the goods, then it was on the stall all day, sometimes until 6pm. Even then I realised people are willing to pay a good price for something that's quality. If we tried to sell shit at a low price we knew we would get complaints or it would get sent back. Of course, today people buy into that philosophy.
"Back then I was known for my displays. My old boss Mickey Benson, he had a saying, 'no flash, no cash': it wasn't just a question of putting the best quality produce in front of people's eyes, you had to make it look good too, light it right, because as soon as you start putting stuff out you are open.
"I've taken all that to bars: Mickey taught me if you looked after others they would look after you. Great customer service has stuck with me from those market days."
Those early starts began to become more difficult, however, as cheeky chappy Wayne started socialising and staying out late. He started pulling pints on weekends for extra cash at The Victory pub in Hoxton in 1989, and realised he could combine his social life with work. ("The guy who taught me how to pull a pint is now one of the biggest porn stars in California, called Marcus London.") Then his big break came in 1991 when he moved to a 'cool urban cocktail bar', Bar Royale, in Camden High Street (now the Blues Kitchen).
"I started as a bar-back, was really keen to learn and one night they were short on the bar and asked me if I could help out," he recalls. "My manager told me they'd never seen anyone catch on to cocktails so quick. Within a couple of weeks I was full time, head bartender in a few months, then manager and trainer within a year."
He was aided and abetted by his ability to tell a good story. Anyone who has met Wayne will know he has a fantastic memory for facts and places, dates and names, and the ability to link up different facets and interweave anecdotes and experiences so they appear as one seamless story. It's when Wayne looks his most animated, and it was in his new role as trainer of rookie bartenders that his story-telling ability came into its own.
"Telling stories makes people happier to listen and I also get fulfilment from it. I think it's about bringing the best out of people and inspiring them: I learn things from other people, and I can't wait to pass it on. That's always driven me on training - as soon as someone came in I wanted to show them nothing was a drag, whether it was how to pour wine, set the bar up, make a Long Island Iced Tea. You boost morale if you do things correctly."
The job as manager and trainer also established a pattern in his working life. Everywhere he went, he says, he fell into a training role. After a summer tending bar in Cyprus he helped launched Southside Bar in Covent Garden (beginning a pattern where he'd help launch a venue, get it established then move on to the next) before getting spotted by Eamonn Mulholland, who now runs Movida but was then managing flairtending bar Roadhouse in 1992. Wayne stayed for a year.
Next, he got a rare opportunity to work in California and decamped to Newport Beach in southern LA - going as a bartender, but becoming supervisor and trainer and staying for three years, continuing that pattern. "It must have been a trait they saw in me."
It certainly was. He had concluded early that personality counted in the bar business - both his own as a trainer and what he looked for in others in terms of their potential as bartenders. "I've always been told I had a very big personality, bubbly, funny, the life and soul, never down, always jovial. My philosophy is life's too short. And I do think you take people for their personality. This job takes big personalities. If they're outgoing and bubbly you'd hire and teach them. Everything else - all the technical stuff - you can teach."
Back in London in 1995, London accent still intact (as it is today - he peppers his conversation with Cockney rhyming slang) Wayne found many of his friends working at the newly opened Atlantic Bar & Grill. Instead, he chose to continue in a training vein, working across different venues within the Maxwells Restaurant Group (Maxwells, Navajo Joe's, PJs) and then a variety of bars in west London (Toad Hall, Mwah Mwah - "the Boujis of its day"), then on to Soho to work with Dick Bradsell on Six Degrees. "I was being continually headhunted, a bar would get on its feet then I'd get approached with a new package for another new bar."
In the early 1990s Wayne was a frequent visitor to the Savoy and its American Bar, in what must have seemed like the ultimate contrast with his earlier career as a barrow boy. "Why did I go there? Because it was classic and I thought to myself 'I wouldn't mind working in something like this.' There I was, still a kid essentially, perched at the bar ordering Manhattans on the rocks. Peter Dorelli says he has a vague memory of me back then."
Whatever level he was working at, Wayne just loved being a bartender. "I enjoyed all aspects of the job, even cleaning up. All work can be hard but you need to make it enjoyable. One thing about the bar industry, there's no real bad times, always laughter and banter."
In 2000 came High Holborn. "It was the talk of the town, the PDT of its day, years before its time. More than any other bar I worked on High Holborn set the standards for how cocktails should be served. This was before Milk & Honey and The Player, and only Lab or Match were the real credible independents. It had been nominated by every mag in each of their awards."
But Wayne was once again headhunted, this time to work for Absolut as a UK brand ambassador alongside Simon Ford. The job would only last a year but when owner Seagrams ceased to exist, it would be absorbed by Maxxium and that heralded arguably the most significant turning point in his career. It was 2002.
It's in his role as roving brands (plural) ambassador that Wayne has really cemented his bartending credentials as a trainer, creating the Mixxit bartender training programme through which literally thousands of bartenders have learned the fundamentals of everything from the most basic technical intricacies of making a drink to the most sophisticated and subtle customer service tricks of the trade.
"Joining Maxxium was a big decision. But by now I had two daughters, and was keen to have some security and to work office hours, and Maxxium was the right move. Running my own bar wasn't and still isn't tenable. But at the time Maxxium didn't actually have a role for me. I interviewed for a sales role, but spoke to Jim Grierson and he asked what do you want to do? I said training, and he said 'what's the benefit of us doing training?'"
Today, every drinks brand, distributor and bar group has its own in-house training team, but before Mixxit was developed, the very notion of a brand owner/distributor conducting training not just in its products but wider bartending and customer service skills was unheard of. The striking thing now is that the programme, thoroughly entrenched, is at the core of Maxxium's business plan. "It was a Eureka moment for the company. What we spoke of even in those early stages is what Mixxit has become. It's become so important that it's now one of the pillars within the business. That was something I bought into the company and I'm very proud of that."
Mixxit would be the forum where Wayne met the man who would become the other half of one of the industry's most famous double acts: Andy Gemmell joined in 2005. "We got on straight away - as colleagues and on a personal level. Our personalities just matched - he had a similar working class background formed on the back-streets of Glasgow, cleaning ashtrays in a tough neighbourhood pub.
"We built Mixxit together and I think we've shown there's more to a bartender than making drinks: you're part of a customer service team, interacting and working in teams as well as on your own. Mixxit is really the trade leader in education and training."
At Maxxium Wayne, now 42, is now at another turning point. Andy Gemmell recently left to work at Dewars and Patsy Christie, who had joined as the third wheel in the Mixxit training triangle in 2009, left to take up a job in Dubai with Macallan. Was he hurt by Andy's decision, in particular, to leave? "I felt I lost my wing man."
You can't replace a partner just like that. Wayne's been undertaking a mammoth recruitment exercise to find someone with feet big enough to fill Andy's shoes. When we meet he's only just finished the first round, having received 240 CVs and interviewed 40 people. The final eight were whittled down in the last few weeks to two 'new' faces: David Miles, a former bar manager from 57 Jermyn Street who now has seven years' sales experience at Maxxium, latterly working on Brugal, and Amanda Humphrey, formerly of Shoreditch House and Paramount. "There was a stage where we had to sit down with the directors and separate out who we wanted as their scores were so close. It was a bit like X-Factor."
With Mixxit operating under in the U.S. and in Australia, it's practically impossible to estimate how many bartenders have been trained indirectly by Wayne and Andy - and next year Mixxit extends to three or four European countries too.
But if there's one bone of contention that gets Wayne going, it's that this impact has gone somewhat under-recognised. He's been nominated as best bar mentor at Tales of the Cocktail for the last four years, but been left waiting in the wings as his name is not read out.
"I'd love to win that," he says. "I'm quite confident that a lot of the other big-name industry figures - Dick Bradsell, Jim Meehan, Simon Ford - would all say I am one of the most influential bartenders in the world.
"I wouldn't say I am resentful at not having won but sometimes I've questioned if I will get the recognition people say I am due. There's so much going on that I've had a direct influence on, in a number of countries and I know people say about me, 'if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing'."
All this he says without a trace of arrogance. That's not Wayne's style. But perhaps he would be more highly regarded, rightly or wrongly, if he hadn't gone 'in-house'? "I do feel I should be regarded in same vein as Henry Besant, Nick Strangeway and Dre Masso. I'm very proud of them but I think there have been times when I've done better than them, and sometimes in the background is the feeling that because I work with a corporate brand you don't get the true recognition you deserve."
In some obvious ways Wayne has perfect grounds to feel aggrieved. He's arguably more prodigious than some of his counterparts in drinks creation, notching up 32 cocktails that have made it on to diffordsguide.com
Perhaps more significantly, he's probably the consistently most-watched bartender on TV, for one, having clocked up nine years of TV in the UK and thrusting bartenders into some of the limelight shared by celebrity chefs. First there was four years of Great Food Live on UK TV Food and five years as cocktail expert on the BBC's Something for the Weekend. The latter was, however, unceremoniously cancelled in 2012, leaving not a single cooking show on British TV with a resident cocktail guru - something Wayne's still smarting over.
"I do feel gutted as what I've done on TV is groundbreaking. I've opened doors and made TV sit up and listen to our craft and our industry. Before that, no one noticed us. There are other bartenders on TV, like Andy Pearson, sure, but I started earlier. And for the first time it wasn't just about wine and food. People loved the history, they loved that there's a science behind it, they realised there's a skill to making drinks and appreciating what we as bartenders do. It was always so much more interesting than wine, people loved it so why some producer thinks..." he tails off, reins the anger in.
But his TV ambitions are not thwarted quite yet. He wants to make a film on the history of drink, a mix of story-telling and drinks-making on location. "I think I have a documentary in me: how the British introduced the world to mixed drinks, told on location from London to America."
This - London's pre-eminence in the development of mixed drinks - is a subject he is fond of, and rightly so. Although it was America that firmly established cocktail culture during the golden ages of Prohibition and the mid-19th century, it was preceded by the punch houses and coffee houses of 17th and 18th-century London - and the first use of the word 'cocktail' was printed in a London newspaper. "The Victorian gin palaces were the style bars of the age, and before them the punch and coffee houses all made mixed drinks. And today the most advanced cocktail scene globally is now once again in London.
"I think I've benefited from being in the right place at the right time, as the boom of the early '90s London cocktail scene helped spread influence around world. It's good to have played my own part in this story, as a true Londoner."
Photography by Alys Tomlinson