Words by: Jane Ryan
From a men's tailor, to an artist and bartender, Imogen Elliot has had an expected career. With an impressive list of bars on her CV she's now heading the team, and cheating on her first love of tequila, at The Rum Kitchen in Notting Hill.
I never saw myself ending up as a bartender, but then I suppose it's not something little kids dream of being. But it's working with my hands that I love. That and learning, so I always imagined I'd do an apprenticeship with a great tailor. It turns out that in men's fashion everything is already prescribed and decided for you, there's no creativity in tailoring any more.
The world of bartending has merged with men's tailoring though, so perhaps I didn't escape that profession. It's all about waistcoats, a cult of sleeve garters and moustaches. I don't think we should have to be a prescribed look but I know in areas like Shoreditch the bar industry grew so quickly that there is a strong identity, whereas it's slower in west London and there are people drinking here that have drunk in the same bars and pubs for the last 30 years.
I grew up with Henry Besant and his family as close friends so they introduced me to London bars, and I was blown away. I started working as a cocktail waitress at Crazy Homies and fell in love with Bourbon until Henry made me try some tequila and I was sold. For me it's the ultimate spirit and a constant drinking companion. I do love mezcal, in fact the chefs at El Camion banned me from drinking any more when I worked there, it's a beautiful spirit that's both overwhelming in flavour and strength.
Meeting Thomas Estes was like meeting the Big Lebowski, only he had a proper job. I learnt so much about tequila from him and if I'm not drinking tequila and beer then I'll order a Tommy's or a natural Daiquiri. So long as it's tequila and it's balanced. That said working at The Rum Kitchen has thrown me into the world and flavours of great rum.
There is always something to learn about rum. It's a sharing spirit, like tequila, they're to have with friends and family. No one keeps a prized bottle on the shelf, they drink it in a group and that's why I love these two spirits, they're communicative. When we first opened The Rum Kitchen we had a prescribed menu but now we've been able to do our own list and if the rum isn't neat I think a plain Daiquiri is as far as I'd go, nothing fruity. I want to show that different rums completely change a drink, so I'm not about to mask their flavour. But you have to remember not every customer wants to drink like a bartender, they want to feel comfortable.
This team is rather like the Avengers Assemble. At one time or another we've all worked at Portobello Star but not at the same time, and we're all the best of friends. In between everyone has worked all across London, from Hawksmoor to Trailer Happiness, so coming together feels like a family reunion and that's when you work the best. And while it's true that the industry is male dominated I've never found that to be a hindrance. Perhaps it's harder for girls to get into bartending but not harder to stay in it. What's more important to me is seeing bartending as a legitimate profession, it certainly took my mum a while to be convinced but now she looks at things I'm doing and appreciates my work.
Eventually I want to stand behind my own bar, and serve bartenders on a Sunday in a dark and dingy basement which I built myself. I want an empty room which I could build, slowly and surely turning into something, sanding back floors, constructing furniture and creating a unique space. I've had the taste for it now with The Rum Kitchen, we completely stripped it out and the land lords allowed us to create the bar we wanted.
I'm still just as creative as when I wanted to become a tailor. I still draw a lot, and make sculptures. I'm really into anthropology and tribal stories which tends to come out in my work. And I make jam with my Grandma, as long as its constructive and I'm learning then I'm happy.