Words by: Ian Cameron
"Bartenders talk to other bartenders about bartending bollocks, and it's boring." Nick Strangeway might be one of the most well-regarded bartenders of his generation, but he has little time for modern-day colleagues who have their noses stuck in history books and care little for customers or conviviality.
"Bartenders today are obsessed with the Japanese hard shake and cutting ice from big blocks, they force history down people's throats and inflict their techniques on customers, putting foam on something for sake of it," he says. "They don't realise that if it takes 20 minutes to make, it's a shit drink. And they never sit the opposite side of the bar, they won't check the toilets."
We've come to meet Nick in the rooms he shares with business partner Cairbry Hill (their consultancy is called Strangehill). The wood-panelled surroundings in London Bridge are filled with a mixture of bartending paraphernalia, piles of old books, taxidermy and assorted curios. The April sun shines through open windows, from which the sounds of Borough Market can be heard, illuminating dust in the air and reflecting on hundreds of clear glass bottles, each filled with a mysterious liquid and boasting a label written in a spidery scrawl. In the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, it's like something out of Dickens. The eccentric and organised chaos is also kind of like Nick himself.
With 20 years in the trade under his belt, Nick, now 44, boasts the authority of having lived through its fledgling days under the tutelage of Dick Bradsell; he has seen the industry blossom under the swell of a slew of new products; he's seen it move upscale under the label of premiumisation; and he's watched it become the insular geek-fest love-in that it is today. So when he says he feels customer service and a general sense of hospitality have become a casualty of 'professional' bartending, it sounds like it's time to return to some fundamental, traditional values. He's not the first pre-eminent barman to say as much, but he's got an unusually blunt way of saying it.
"Having knowledge beyond the bar, collecting and reinterpreting ideas that you've learned outside the bar world, is just as important as knowing about rare bitters and history. The ability to talk to people is still hugely lacking. You need to have a life, go to a cinema, go to restaurants and galleries, so you can talk about more than the weather.
"And where are the social graces? It's common sense to offer seats, to hold the door open. I will stand front-of-house, make it my business to know the customers, to look at them, ask them if they need taxis."
Underlying the psyche of this blinkered bartender, permanently in search of lost and forgotten cocktails, is a huge misconception, says Nick, that its protagonists are happy to perpetuate: that bartending skills take decades to hone and can be known to only a few. Actually, says Nick, it's dead easy, and continuing to pretend otherwise is neither helping spread awareness nor appreciation of mixed drinks.
"The insecurity of bartenders is that they willingly perpetuate the mystery of a good drink. It shouldn't be a mystery. Of course, when you see really good bartenders work they have a skill, they have sleight of hand - I'm talking panache, not flair bartending - because they are constantly practising it.
"But I enjoy taking customers behind the bar with me and showing them how easy it is to make a drink. The skill-set is fairly simple, so they'll quickly find out how easy it is to use a shaker after two or three drinks."
It's not that Nick wants young bartenders to abandon the history books and the rare bitters - hey, looking around his rooms he's got enough of these of his own. But they shouldn't practise that side of the craft to the oblivion of hospitality. "It's a downside to the professionalization of bartenders that they've become blinkered: the fun element has been taken out of it. Dick never had the best technical skills but he makes good drinks and understood good service. The bar is a safety blanket and I understand that - I used to feel invincible behind it - but in reality we are suffering from being behind it all the time."
You sense a frustration that bar culture is on the cusp of attaining proper Golden Age status, if only it wasn't for the fact customer service is coming a distinct second. "I think the bar industry is where chefs were 15-20 years ago - I remember quite a few became obsessive boring wankers. Their food was shit but it was their ego talking. We're in that phase [in bars] and there's not enough self-expression. Everyone has a similar mindset - take all the 'speakeasies', there's too much conformity.
"I think that we have the makings of a new golden era. I don't want to say the talent pool is better, but it is certainly larger, the number of quality bars is unprecedented, the knowledge and history is phenomenal, and so are the technical skills. When I did competitions there was no precision and no repetition, so it's great that there's a pride and longevity about it. Those are all good things - and it makes me realise if I tried to enter the industry now, and acted the way I did when I became a bartender, I would be sacked."
Nick is notoriously hard to get hold of and pin down. Even as we're preparing to take his picture and do the interview, he darts in and out of the room, like a frantic butterfly that you just can't quite get snare. But after months of attempts to get some face time, we finally got the go-ahead yesterday and suddenly we're here. Is he really that busy or just disorganised?
"I've just been in New York for two days, then went to Sweden for three, Denmark, then Moscow, and back to London. We've just done the second Mark's Bar in Chelsea, and we've got a big new place opening in Shoreditch. And the Bulgari Hotel's coming to Knightsbridge."
"I would," he adds, "like to be less frenetic."
OK, it's life at 100mph, articulated by the fact that though he recently took a house in the countryside, near to Lyme Regis where his now long-term collaborator Mark Hix has a place. Only Nick has spent precisely three nights there in four months. Apart from his east London flat, if there's anywhere he would call home, perhaps it's these rooms in this old fruit and veg warehouse office shared with Save the Rhino. "We came here before Borough Market got really commercial. I used to come here at 7am to see fruit suppliers, to see what they had, what was arriving next. I wouldn't attempt to buy anything now, it's too damn busy, but it's still probably the best market in London."
So what's in all the bottles that surround us? "I can't say what it is quite yet. It's for a big company, as big a company as you can think of - a 40% spirit - and I decided I wanted to play around with 300 samples, and we've got four stills in the other room - normal stills. It will be the first time any bartender has ever had their name on a product like this.
"We started by distilling things I liked and blending them, we presented 12, whittled them down to six, and the intention is we release three different types now but it might just be two or one - despite this big company I still have final veto."
Consider us intrigued.
Nick is famed for having learned his trade from his mentor Dick Bradsell - they worked together for years, from bar-to-bar. But at Fred's Bar, the first of Dick's bars that Nick worked at, as a glass washer, did they gel from day one? "We probably didn't get on that well, no. Dick can be an awkward, prickly character. He went there to work, the rest of us went there to have fun. The whole team would threaten to walk out if he changed the music, there were four or five of us and we could be really badly behaved. Nobody really wanted to work there, lots were failed actors. Bartending was not something you were proud of back then - it was just something you did.
"I don't think Dick really had much reputation then, based on Zanzibar and the Soho Brasserie. There are more bottles in here - ," he gestures around the bottle-filled room, "than you could even buy in those days.
"I don't think I know loads about Dick even after all these years, and we still have a slightly awkward relationship, but he had a professionalism and a pride about what he delivered. Of course, there was professionalism in the way of The Savoy, of the Peter Dorelli school, but Dick was not part of that scene and the idea of going to The Savoy aged 25 was my idea of hell. Dick was quirky, his venues had cool people but delivered a product as good as the Savoy. You should work in places that suit you that reflect yourself, but aim high with standards."
Despite his stellar reputation now, Nick's early years in bars were hardly the stuff of dedication and passion - and nor was the student life he was pursuing at the same time. A student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Nick preferred to hang out in late-night bars and meet his artistic heroes - Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud - face-to-face rather than listen to someone else taking about them. He paid friends to take notes rather than attend lectures himself.
After college, he combined assisting as a fashion photographer with working in bars. It was a world of stark contrasts. "I got rather jaded with the lifestyle after a while. I'd get to travel on private jets but only get paid £50; I went to Kate Moss's 21st but was living in a squat; I'd get to hang around with rock stars but they'd mix speed into their drinks then sleep for four days.
"There was a moment when I wondered why so many people want to be in the fashion business. I drifted and dangled along. But then no carrot came up."
All the while, he continued to work in bars: Dick would give him a job whenever he needed it, which saw Nick follow him to The Flamingo, Detroit and Dick's Bar at the Atlantic Bar & Grill. "Sometimes it would be for three months, or just two weeks, but I was quite good and fast and did things exactly how Dick wanted them to be done."
He finally gave up the fashion business when he was offered a job as manager - actually his first full-time job - at the Cobden Club in Notting Hill. What had begun as a cool way to make some money now became a fully fledged career as he then progressed through Che (which CLASS once described as the "Real Madrid of the bar world") and a series of high-profile consultancy jobs for Harvey Nichols, Boisdale, Loungelover and all manner of spirits brands.
How was his notorious appearance received by clients? His oft-dishevelled, sometime straggly bearded appearance is like some kind of anti-bartender as envisioned by someone that works at a traditional hotel. "It has been hard to train people sometimes. People expect a French accent and a suit and if you turn up with bleach blond hair and a black beard, but no suit, you then have to over-achieve."
Then came Hawksmoor, run by the now hugely experienced operators Huw Gott and Will Beckett. Nick remembers them when they were much greener. "I was quite a dictator to them. They were fairly naive as operators - they didn't used to even get tables in their own restaurant and I would put their furniture on the street. I am quite free with my language, I don't have a temper but I do tend to swear, and I would swear at them. I know I overstepped the mark but they would stand there right in the pass. There's an immediacy in reacting during service - when I tell you 'fuck off' it means 'move immediately out my way'."
Nick brought punches back to bars - partly because all the prep could be mise en place and he could spend more time talking to customers. It was also at Hawksmoor that the experimental side of things came out in him: being seasonal before it became fashionable by foraging for interesting ingredients, before Noma was even a twinkle in Rene Redzepi's eye (incidentally, Nick has visited Noma twice in the last month). "There's something that's human nature, like hunter-gathering, about getting your own food. I'd go picking nettles round the east end, pick from wild cherry trees, I found damsons and hops, other bits and pieces. There was something really natural about it."
Nick's latest mentor is Mark Hix, one of the few chefs Nick says that really appreciates the art of the mixed drink. They met in Cuba, working the same event, Nick making drinks, Mark cooking, and bonded over the fact the Cuban staff wouldn't really let them do anything. They started talking about bars and how they work, and it was the start of a crucial friendship and partnership - a symbiotic one where they'd learn from each other in equal measure, and one which all bartenders and chefs should take note of.
"There's unfortunately a big divide between the way bartenders and chefs work today. Bartenders are scared of adopting more commercial processes to get standards correct and the consistency that chefs demand. Making a drink from scratch isn't the best way, though I did think that ten years ago. Bartenders still go in and chop fresh limes, sacrificing customer service in the bargain. Chefs have worked out the happy medium, they focus on the mise-en-place so they can get 100 plates of food out.
"A lot of time chefs don't understand front-of-house and they don't understand how bars are laid out, so restaurant bars always tend to be afterthoughts even though bars in restaurants make the difference between making a profit or not. You have to get chefs to be on your side."
Nick's insistence on mise-en-place has reared its head once again in the shape of bottled cocktails - a trend that's otherwise rooted in aging for its own sake rather than consistency - and of course allowing time for that crucial interaction between customer and bartender. First, Martinis came served with a precise measure of dilution (a test tube of water) at the Booking Office at the St. Pancras Marriot. And bottled cocktails are now a key feature at the new Mark's Bar at Belgraves Hotel in Chelsea, where they are used for room service as well as behind the bar. Whatever hour of the day you order your drink, it means the serve is consistent. All the drinks at the Hix Tramshed, launching in May 2012, will be bottled: two gins, two vodkas, one punch.
"We trialled the concept over four months and in the end there was only a tiny margin between made-to-order and pre-bottled cocktails. That consistency is more important than being able to perform a hard shake. With a Martini, some people make them well and some make them badly. No one should be able to tell whether their cocktail has been made in a prep kitchen if it has been cleverly made in advance with great accuracy."
With his business partner, Cairbry Hill, Nick shares a fascination for the undiscovered. The ex-Stolichnaya brand ambassador actually has his roots as a biochemist. "He introduced rotavaps to me and Tony [Conigliaro]. He had the idea of putting them into Harvey Nichols and all this," Nick indicates their rooms near Borough Market, "leads on from the fascination he showed me that I can do things myself better than I can buy them off the shelf. We stay in here til late every evening.
"To be honest I didn't think we would be where we are today. We set up during a recession, but now there are 9 or 10 of us working full time. I thought it would be hard, but we've a fantastic set of clients, and are in the lucky position to be able to turn away a lot of work. We'll probably have to expand again."
Nick is one of a few bartenders who, from time to time, manage to pop their head over the parapet and become embraced by the mainstream media. Tony Conigliaro's another. But in contrast to the foodie revolution, the popular conception of cocktail culture, outside the bubble, is that it's all a bit of 'novelty', certainly not a 'craft'. For someone that's glimpsed the other side, does he think that it can ever be truly breached?
"There's a reluctance of the national press to write about spirits and cocktails, they almost censor it. It's fine to drink a bottle of wine but not three G&Ts, and when they do get excited about a cocktail, it's still the Bramble and the Mojito. There's no in-depth knowledge. The only way it can change is for broadsheet media and TV to be able to talk about it, but they've put it in the same corner as smoking and won't let it happen. The bar world needs a Gordon Ramsay, and without that there's always going to be binge drinking on the street."
If Nick's not the Gordon Ramsay, then few others are qualified, but Nick is reluctant for his legacy to be anything approaching that of the fiery, wrinkly one. "I don't think I should have a legacy: there's too much award-giving and back-slapping as it is already.
"If anything, I would like it if they said 'he opened good bars and restaurant that I wanted to go to', that service and product are recognised as being equally important, that one does not excuse the other being awful."