Words by: Jane Ryan
He's plied his trade all over the UK, made a daring venture across the Atlantic and is now part of an all-star cast behind the bar at Callooh Callay. Like a lot of bartenders Sam Kershaw may have fallen into his career by accident, but he worked hard to land on his feet. Now, aged 35, he's made it to London, a place he says he is finally ready for.
I don't think there is anything wrong with being 35 and working behind the bar. This is my career, and I'm good at it. I've opened venues, managed them, created menus and even done some brand ambassadorship, but I've always stayed a bartender.
It's taken a while for me to finally move to London, I worked in Edinburgh, Bristol and even New York before taking the plunge into London. I was always in and out of the capital, for competitions, trainings, but it was seeing the city without experiencing its way of life. If I'd come here earlier it would have been chaos, a little maturity goes a long way.
I was quite late getting into bartending. Most bartenders around today will tell you they were there from their 18th birthday onwards, I was 24. After knocking around in hotels near my home city of Bristol I headed north for Edinburgh but wound up working in the worst job of my life. Between the 124-hour weeks and a terrible General Manager my love of the job was completely destroyed.
Luckily I moved on to Opal Lounge and cut my teeth under all the big names in Edinburgh at the time. In 2004 it was very much a burgeoning scene in the UK and many would train there before heading south. Each night the bar team of about 20 guys would churn out the Daiquiris, Martinis and Moscow Mules to the 500 capacity nightclub. You had to learn how to move fast, clean as you go, use both hands and take multiple orders. That was a wicked time for me but eventually you realise you've learnt as much as possible, short of managing a place, and I wasn't ready. Moving on to Tonic, under Andy Gemmel in his flare days, we had a lot of cheesy fun and I had a crack at writing my first menu before leaving to open the bar at Harvey Nichols.
Scotland's version of MATCH was definitely Tiger Lily. The training there was great, we rarely free-poured but had to nail tests all the time and we needed to have a sound product knowledge. I started working as a brand ambassador for Miller's Gin when I was there, doing event work for them and I experienced my first time as a trainer which was really quite nervy.
New York eventually came calling, as I'm sure it does for many bartenders. I got in touch with Sasha Petraske when I arrived and he took me round a few bars. We started with a Negroni at Milk & Honey before it opened and then headed out, Sasha on his bike with his trousers tucked into his socks and me in a taxi, and we'd meet up at each place. Instead of working for one bar you have shifts or specific slots at several places and generate your own following which was awesome.
Working there my technique had to be pretty flawless and they weren't afraid to tell me when I was wrong; I had to doctor my shake and my stir. I ended up with shifts in dive bars, restaurants and some great cocktail venues including Death & Co and East Side Company. I went out and drank a lot, survived on tips only, sublet in this awful place with a friend, had a bottle of rum for Christmas and overall had an amazing experience. I would have stayed apart from visa issues, it was the first time I'd been there and it blew my mind. The way the bartenders are in New York is great, they're so normal and down-to-earth even if they work in the best bar in the world.
I was already working back in Bristol when Mark Scott took over Hyde & Co - I didn't know Bristol was ready for a bar like that. Slowly the talent came in: Milk Thistle brought in Matt Fairhurst for Harvey Nichols there and its success was down to him. Now I'm working for him in London, having already worked a few bars in the city before Callooh Callay. Honestly, I can't see myself doing this forever, but I don't want to jump into anything like a brand ambassadorship that I'm not passionate about.
I've tried my hand at a few cocktail competitions and am currently in the UK final of Bacardi Legacy. My parents had a West Highland Terrier and we had to have him put down right before the competition. His pedigree name was Favourite Frost which I always thought would be a great name for a drink, and that's what I call my twisted pineapple Daiquiri. Realistically I know I'll end up in London although I'd love to say Bristol. I want to own a pub, a homely tavern, the sort of place I'd like to go with a pint of Guinness and the newspaper. That's where I'd be happy.