Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe and Paloma Alos
“Working at the Savoy carries so much gravity and responsibility it can be a weight on your shoulders,” says Dominic Whisson, bartender at one of the world's most iconic bars. “But I am very proud to say I work at the American Bar and wear my white jacket.”
Whisson grew up in hospitality – his parents owned a restaurant in Whitby, Yorkshire – and was scampering around carrying plates by the age of six. He started working in bars in his teens, when his parents had a small hotel on a golf course. “I'd always get the regulars' drinks ready for when they got there,” he recalls.
And his career has been driven by a combination of serendipity and perseverance. He got his start in cocktail bartending after chatting to a bar owner while drinking under-age in her bar: rather than kick him out, she offered him a job when he turned eighteen. A teacher at school saw him studying cocktail recipes and explained the stories behind them, imbuing him with a sense for the history and passion of drinks.
And his arrival in London proved serendipitous as well, as a trip out to get food in Covent Garden during a family visit turned into a job offer. “I'm walking past, Google 'cocktail' and right next to me was a stairwell running down, so it was meant to be,” he says. “It said 'Members Only' but I carried on walking in to a dark, busy, energetic bar with loud music. I ordered a martini and the guy behind the bar said, 'Are you a bartender?' I laughed and told him I worked in a bar, and he said, 'Do you want a job? I am looking for someone.'”
Some persuasion, several martinis and one day later he returned for a formal chat with the bar manager, and was sent off with a list of cocktails and products to learn. “I'm a great believer in fate,” he says. “I had always wanted to move to London, this was what I was doing at home – any big believer in fate would take the job.”
The bar was the London Cocktail Club in Covent Garden, and the learning curve was steep. Although he'd learned the recipes and scored 95% on his test, he had no idea how to make half the drinks: the GM had to teach him to free pour at a slammed event bar on his first night.
But perseverance supported fate. “I got my head down and really pushed,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to go back to Whitby as a failure after a week or a month so I put everything into it. I was going into work at 2pm and working till 3am, going home, sleeping on a sofa in Brixton and then going back the next day. I tried really hard and then it started going really well.”
His next move was to Match Bar, Jonathan Downey's now-defunct group of cocktail bars that had helped shape cocktail culture in turn-of-the-century London. Again, the move was organic. “Andy Mil came and said he was going to move to Match, and I said 'If there was a chance I could go there with you...'”,” he recalls. “He said, 'I wouldn't want to take any staff from here because that's not nice but if you chat to JJ [Goodman] and the bar manager and tell them how you feel then I would love to give you a job.'”
The training programme, he says, was second to none, and the tests there were phenomenal. While past its glory days, Match remained a great place to make connections in the industry, not to mention getting involved in competitions, which Whisson, who's super-competitive, loves. (He was one of 2016's UK World Class finalists.)
“It was a place where those old school people would come in and have a drink and I got to learn and meet people who were in that scene at that time,” he says. “For a lot of people, Match bar was THE place - that amount of bartenders you could list off - Dick Bradsell, Dale DeGroff...”
The move to the American Bar was also organic. “Back at the time, the current bar manager, Declan McGurk, was working for Speciality Drinks and came into Match Bar quite a lot ,” he says. “Me and him got along well – we did some training sessions together. He did a Diplomatico competition which I entered and spoke to him about. I listened to him a lot. He was very knowledgeable about competitions and the industry and engaged my curiosities.”
In May 2013, McGurk came in again, this time to do the handover to the person taking over from him at Speciality Drinks. “I asked him where he was going and he said The American Bar,” he says. “I was in awe of that because I'd seen the job advertised on Difford's Guide and I thought that was an amazing chance for someone.”
Whisson had been to the American Bar twice, first when he initially moved to London, then again on his birthday. “Every time I came in I was blown away by the service I was given and the quality of the drinks, and the room,” he says. “There aren't many bars you can walk into and feel the romance and the energy coming off the walls and the warmth from the staff and guests.”
Naturally, he told McGurk that he'd “give anything to work in a bar like that” - two weeks later, a message came through that he was hiring, and Whisson “couldn't jump any quicker”. Several rounds of interviews later, including a meeting with the MD of the entire hotel, he was wearing that celebrated white jacket.
Despite the in-built block to career progression – the American Bar has famously had only ten Head Bartenders since opening in 1893 – Whisson loves his job. “When I come into work every day, I walk down the front steps into the bar, the music's playing, and there’s an energy and I think I smile every time I walk down the steps,” he says. “There's so many regulars, and about ten tables waving, smiling, how are you... There are guests who have been coming in 30 years and then regular guests: there's nothing more satisfying than a regular guest that comes back.”
Would he ever leave? “Opening my own bar could be an option, but I'm not yet ready to think about it,” he says. “I'm very happy here and approaching the point where I can see clearly. Peter Dorelli was here 34 years, Erik has been here six years, and for me it was three years in July, and every year I'm really proud that I've had another year.”
GET A MENTOR (AND NOT JUST ONE)
I have several people in my life that I look to for many different things and without a doubt I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.
WORK AS A BAR BACK
I was so under-qualified when I started and got the job at LCC, although luckily I'd learned a few classics.
KNOW YOUR STUFF
My understanding is that next year there'll be a Bartending NVQ that's going to teach a lot of people about drinks. Read online about drinks – not just recipes, the history of the drinks – and build a passion for it.
UNDERSTAND THE STORY BEHIND THE DRINK
We can tell a story with every one of our drinks and, if I do learn a new drink, I learn the story behind it, at least where it originated, to add to the credibility behind it.
AIM HIGH AND FOLLOW FATE
Aim high and don’t have regrets - look for the next big thing. Every time I have been offered a job, I have said yes and gone for that – I believe in fate and things happening for a reason. If it's meant to be…