Name: Michael Stephenson
Years behind the bar: 9
Notable Competition results/Awards: Can't really remember them all...every comp is usually followed by a big party and memory loss! But there was that time I went to Vegas, I think I came 2nd at the last KOA and many top 3 finishes in the Nationals & Menlyn Flair comps.
Short Bio: I started out as a young and naive bartender, behind the bar at Monkey Bar, in Durban and progressed through a few bars and clubs before moving to Jozi. A 18 month stint for Fournews Developments (News Cafe head office) eventually lead me to brandhouse where I've been for the last 3 and a half years.
Beer? Heineken, but I recently tried Old Speckled Hen in London which was quite memorable.
Wine? Red...preferably Merlot or Shiraz.
Spirit? How can I choose only one! Just acquired a bottle of Zacapa 23 rum which is rather special but I have also grown very fond of Whisky, I have a special place for Gin, a great respect for Tequila and lots of memorable nights from Vodka.
Cocktail? A Don Julio Old Fashioned but I also struggle to turn down a good Negroni or a well made G&T.
Bar? De Dokter in Amsterdam was quite special.
Restaurant? Central Grill in Johannesburg, they do the most awesome hand-cut chips and onion rings!
City? Amsterdam is really cool but SA is still an awesome place to be.
Film? Garden State
Book? I'm a Bond fan so I have to put Casino Royale in but The Big Fat Duck cookbook is just amazing!
Singer/band? Arctic Monkeys
Q & A
How did you get started in bartending? I originally started as a means to put my new found hobby of flairing into practice but I suppose I also needed to make some money. I just went for and applied at the bar where my mate Luke was working.
You work for Brandhouse now as a commercial mixologist/brand representative. What are some of the good/bad points of this vs regular bartending?
The pros are that there is loads of networking to be done and it's great to be a part of the change in the way this industry works and the way it's perceived. I also get to work with some of the best brands in the world and help influence the trends in our drinking culture. There are some really cool perks that come with working for the brands as well as some sort of financial security and opportunity for growth within the companies but at the end of the day you really have to enjoy what you're doing otherwise it's just as boring as anything else. The cons are that I don't really get to spend any time behind the bar making drinks! There is always so much work to do, that I very rarely get to mix some drinks and try out ideas.
The Bols Bartending Academy
What are some trends you're noticing in the cocktail world?
Globally, "Craft Cocktails" are making a name for themselves at the moment. Basically, bartenders are putting in more effort to do the simple things properly, whether it's making your own bitters for the perfect Old Fashioned or making ice spheres in order to control the dilution in your Single Malt. Homemade ingredients on concise cocktail menus with a good balance of drinks and attention to detail is definately the way it's going at the moment.
Locally, it's still a bit bleak. The majority of the public haven't really gotten over the disco drink phase yet and for those who have it's incredibly difficult for them to find somewhere reliable and consistent enough to give them what they need. Hopefully the World Cup will show bars and locals how far behind they are, because we really should be up there with the best of them.
Any pet peeves about bartenders you’d like to share?
A lack of interest and enthusiasm always gets under my skin. Cleanliness and efficiency are also vital and are normally the most noticable when they are lacking.
Have you ever taken any courses/been on any formal drinks related training? Is this a worthwhile path for bartenders to follow?
I've done a couple, from the basic bar course (run by the woman who learnt how to bartend from the wrong side of the bar, whilst polishing off 6 G&T's a night as a regular at the local Keg) to some sessions with the likes of The Bartenders Workshop, Spike Marchant, Charles Vexenat, Phillip Duff, The College of Whisky, Barry Wilson, Phil Keane etc. I suppose that it's essential to get the basics down as they are what you're always going to fall back on when your night starts to get a bit crazy. As for the rest, product knowledge sessions are always interesting, but I would recommend having a solid grasp of the spirit category being presented as sometimes what brands say can be taken with a pinch of salt! Any time you can spend with international bartenders is always worthwhile.
If you could offer a couple of short pieces of advice to the average bartender, what would they be?
Having a passion for what you do will only make everything so much more enjoyable, so take the time to make an effort and set some standards that you can aspire to so you know you're on the right track. Research and a thorough understanding of everything in your bar is a great way to set yourself apart so don't ever stop learning.
What inspires you / goes into creating a cocktail for you?
I have a love for flavour and sometimes it just takes a new tasting that note I come across, a new product, fresh fruit from the change in season or just something I read to set me off. From there it's normally all about getting a feel for the spirit and what kind of drink it would suit and then onto what will compliment that spirit and really make it shine. I like to taste the base spirit in my drinks so they generally tend to be a bit stonger but sometimes a refreshing drink is just what the situation calls for so fresh fruit and a splash of soda are needed.
The Bols Tasting Labs
What is your favourite mixology resource?
I have always been able to turn to the Diffordsguide in times of need as there is bound to be something in there that sets the imagination off. The internet is also an incredible tool for those in need of inspiration or even just to see what everyone else around the world is up to. I quite like www.liqurious.com as they update on many different drinks blogs.
If you weren't in the drinks industry, what do you think you would be doing now?
Working in the world of IT...or maybe a music journalist?
Over the years you’ve built up a name for yourself as one of SA’s top flair bartenders but you’re one of the few that is consistently successful in both flair and classic/mixology.
Any preferences between the two?
Flair is always fun and it give me the opportunity (and the privilege) to get up in front of a crowd and put the many hours of practice into effect. I will eventually stop competing but I will always love making great drinks! The mixology side just enables me to express a completely different style of creativity.
Ok, on to your Amsterdam experience. Tell us a bit about the competition?
Bols have an annual competition that they run called the Bols Around the World Competition which requires competitors from each continent to enter a recipe for a drink onto a website with a photo of the drink and some other information which is then used to by the judge for that specific continent to determine the finalist that will go to the Global Shake-Off in Amsterdam. This year the theme was "Shaking Twenties" and was based around the 1920's with Prohibition and Jazz playing a central role. For the finals 6 competitors (one from each continent) had a shake-off for the opportunity to go into the Bols development lab and make their own liqueur! Bols would then send the winner a case of that liqueur every month for a year!
How was the standard of the other competitors?
I was very impressed by the other competitors' level of skill as well as their knowledge. They were all a great bunch of guys who just helped make it such an awesome competition. Well done to Timo Jaanse who was crowned the winner!
Timo Jaanse being crowned winner of the Bols Around the World 2010 competition
I know they had some top notch international judges like Stanislav Vadrna, Hidetsugu Ueno and Dave Wondrich. What was it like hanging out and drinking with those guys?
Meeting people like them and getting to have a couple drinks and some great conversations (and some even better laughs) was so much more amazing than I had imagined it could be. It was an honour and a privilege to spend time with such awesome people and one that will not be soon forgotten.
Mike with some of the Bartenders and Judges in the Bols Lab
What is the perception of South African bartenders overseas? Do they even know we make cocktails down here?
I didn't find anyone that was surprised that we can make a decent drink, which is nice to know! I think that the bartending community is quite down to earth, so they don't really judge what they don't know. I did meet a couple South Africans over there, so I think they've helped spread the word.
Can you give us the recipe for your cocktail?
The Satchmo Standard
37.5ml Tanqueray Gin
20ml Bols Raspberry Liqueur
1 Barspoon Bols Apricot Brandy Liqueur
1/4 Barspoon Apricot Jam
5 Drops Orange Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and fine strain into a chilled coupette glass.
Garnish with a orange zest and two raspberries on a toothpick.
Cool thanks Mike...appreciate you taking the time to do this.
Any parting words?
Thanks for asking me to do this interview....and for being my Guinea-pig tasting my recipe!