Bartending Series – Days of My Life!

I have been infatuated with this industry for the better part of my life. I fell for the people, the lifestyle and the aura that surrounds working in a bar. From the drudgery of working the bar during the day, prepping, cutting and stocking. To the intense rush, you get when you step into that bar on a Friday night, wood full and people hanging on your every word and movement. An infatuation has lead me throughout my home country of Australia and now across the world to Canada.

My journey started 10 years ago in Brisbane, Australia as a very green, unknowing 17-year-old boy. I had worked the most part of high school as a landscaper with my family’s business, but when I graduated decided it was time to leave the nest and spread my wings into different territory. I left home and moved from my very small country town to the big city looking for fame and fortune; actually, I was just looking for a roof and a job. I scoured the newspapers and found a junior handy man position in a 4 ½ star hotel. The job didn’t pay much, but seemed like a much needed change from the dirt, heavy lifting & long hours in the hot Australian sun.

That hotel changed my life forever. It was here that I discovered the vixen that we call the hospitality industry. It felt as though she was calling, flirting and enticing me to follow her. I worked as the handy man for about three months, cleaning and doing all the nasty jobs that no one else would want or ask for. One night there was a tension in the Food & Beverage department that I had not experienced before, and I was curious to explore this tension more in-depth. It turns out that a few of the serving staff for the wedding that night had called in sick and they were short. I was asked if I wanted to work and I gleefully accepted.

Before we get into what happened that night let me remind you of a few things. I was a small town country boy; I went to bed usually around 9pm at night ready to put in a hard days work the next. Now I was going to be serving a wedding party that would lead into the wee hours of the morning. It was intimidating yet a rush of adrenaline I had never experienced. I look back to that first late night working and realise that I love nighttime. It is when all the worlds’ imperfections seem to be shadowed by the dark and gentle glow of neon and fluorescent lights.

I had never considered this job before that night; it had never crossed my mind. As I walked into the conference hall that night, my white shirt crisp and pressed, hair styled and eyes gleaming, I witnessed the other side of the hotel. The side where food, drink and service are paramount to the success and survival of the business. I would be lying if I said that night went off without a hitch. I spilt a drink on a guest, broke three plates and ended up dancing with the bride and three bridesmaids. However, the experience made me want more.

I stayed at the hotel for about a year, juggling my handyman duties early in the morning and the responsibilities as assistant functions manager at night. It was here that I stepped behind the bar for the first time and got my feet wet. I thought I was the greatest, pouring beers and shots like a pro, and then I was asked for a dry martini with a twist. My heart stopped, what was I supposed to do? I handed the order to the manager and bailed out of the bar as fast as I could. It scared me and intimidated but above all challenged me. Cocktails are not hard; once you know the basics, the simplicity of them becomes second nature.

After a year, I left the hotel for greener pastures. I had the bartending bug and the hotel had taught me as much as I could learn. The next three years were a blur of late nights, drinking, drugs and bartending. I was a bit of a bar whore at that time. I would work at a bar, soaking up as much knowledge as possible, and then move on. I would learn new techniques, products and history, and then apply them in the next establishment to advance my career. It made me learn quickly and in the hardest way; on my own. I never settled in a job too long. That is until I worked at a seafood restaurant called Ryan’s right on the Brisbane River.

It is in this establishment in which I truly learned to spread my wings and hold my own. It was a small bar with about 150 seats; the great thing is that I worked alone. The bar was about 2 – 1/2 feet wide, and when it got busy and I began to prowl up and down the wood grabbing top shelf scotches and washing glasses. I was glad I was alone. I really began to learn about the true craft of bartending, the way things taste and work together. It was here that I created my first cocktail list, bringing in my cocktail books from home and scouring the pages looking for interesting concoctions to use. Since my confidence was still a little shaky, I only added a few of my own concoctions to that list and left the others swarming in my head. When customers would sit at my bar waiting for a table, I would wow them with my latest creation, never fully understanding what I had embarked upon. One night when I was cleaning the bar, I found the key to my whole careers success: a Club Suntory membership form.

Club Suntory is a bartending club that was created by Suntory, a major alcohol importer and distributor in Australia. They represent Midori, Chartreuse, Frangelico and Chambord to name a few. They hold more cocktail competitions than any other alcohol distributor, and have the support of over 2000 bartenders around Australia. To sum it up, they really know how to throw a party. I joined, and within the first two weeks, I had my first entry to the Chartreuse Cup. Chartreuse is not one of the easiest spirits to work with, but can be an interesting and spicy addition to your drink. Close to 250 bartenders statewide enter the Chartreuse Cup, and then are culled down to the top ten best recipes for the final.

I worked on my cocktail for about a month; it was called “Thor’s Hammer”. Looking back, it was a god-awful blend of Chartreuse, Jagermeister & pink grapefruit juice. However, it was my first competition and I was trying my best to stand out among the countless other entries. I waited in anticipation for the invitation to the finals, or the letter telling me to try again next year. With much relief I made it to the finals at the GPO, a swanky yuppie bar that was housed in the old post office in the Valley. I was going to my first big show and it scared the living shit out of me.

Shawn Soole
May 19, 2007

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