Katharine Gemmell will be following our DRAM Mixxit Bar Apprentice of the Year 2016 each week as a quasi-contestant to experience the competition and let us know what they have been up to.
Day one of the DRAM Mixxit Bar Apprentice course begins nice and early, and I get the impression that this doesn’t mix well with our contestants’ late night bar schedules. A few coffees later and we are introduced to our first master mixologist – David Miles. You can tell that cocktails are in David’s blood: he tells us that he started out on the back bar and worked his way up to his current position as a key member of the Mixxit team. David stresses that working in the drinks business is the best job in the world as it’s always interactive and fun. He jokes that there are people who sell cat food for a living and enjoy it – so just think what selling premium alcohol liquids for a living must feel like! Inevitably my first thoughts are – ‘How do I get his job?!’. A few of the other contestants are obviously thinking the same thing as David laughs that someone always asks this question and it just serves to show how starting off as a bartender can take you to may different places in life.
We then move on to the first question of the day: ‘What makes a good bartender?’. Answers pour out ranging from patience and confidence to interest and attention. David agrees with all the answers and gives us all key advice that should drive us – to make sure that people leave our bar a wee bit happier than when they came in (of course not accounting for the alcohol in their system!). A grounding in the basics is next on the agenda as we learn the essential build of making a drink; the 7 mixed drinks families; and are given a history lesson on some key drinks facts. David grinds into us that cocktail making is an art and jokes that you can teach anybody to pour a pint – I beg to differ as I think of my atrocious pouring skills – but his emphasis on creativity is very much being ingrained into us.
After our morning of theory, David gets us to put all that we have learned into practice. This signals our first cocktail making session of the competition – focusing on the sour family. But first, we are asked the most important question of cocktail making (one I’ve always wondered about): shaken or stirred? The answer: shake it if it has fruit or dairy and stir it if there is just alcohol (and sugar).
First up to get their hands dirty is Chris with an attempt at making a Whiskey Sour. He admits that he’s only ever used pasteurised egg whites from a carton and learns a messy lesson in getting the white separated from the yolk. He tastes the cocktail and, modestly, gives a humble reaction; however, David says this is no good. He teaches us that when we taste cocktails in front of customers, we have to give a reaction that they will fully believe in.
Loren is next up making a classic Daiquiri. I shamefully realise that I don’t actually know what a classic Daiquiri looks like as I’m only familiar with the radioactive, frozen variety. We taste it and although it is delicious, David advises that Loren needs to make sure to shake it for 10-12 seconds to ensure it is cold enough – as this massively improves the flavour. Marc then gets up and does the Daiquiri again so that he can shake it for longer. Of course, David is quite right.
Gavin is then chosen to make a Sidecar, a cocktail made with cognac. Cognac isn’t an ingredient that I imagined would be popular on modern cocktail menus, but it turns out to be a really tasty and versatile ingredient. This gets us thinking about ingredients we may not have previously used and to think outside the box when thinking about new flavours. Joseph is then asked to create a Between The Sheets – it is the same as the Sidecar but with the addition of rum. This makes me realise that if you know the fundamental families you can make anything. As Joseph shakes his heart out, the jokes around cheeky or awkward (whatever way you see it) customer comments on ‘you’ve done that before’ arise and all the bartenders nod in common consensus at this universal embarrassing joke.
Throughout the day, I notice that a few of the contestants make comments about the brands stocked on the Mixxit bar, and the bottle of Midori is the subject of a few raised eyebrows. David notices this too and gets Drew, who is up next, to make a Midori Sour. The tasting of it dispels any apprehension – it’s delicious! The lesson here? Always be open to trying new things and do not be so quick to judge.
The day then comes to an end with a bit of a chemistry lesson as we learn all about the process of making alcohol. This is like giving sweeties to a baby as our keen contenders soak up all of the knowledge and absolutely ace David’s pop quiz. As a reward we all get to freestyle make a drink with all the tips we have learned. After everybody putting in such a stellar effort on their first day, it is truly well deserved.