In a Food24 exclusive, Julian Short shares his story in conversation with Leah van Deventer.
Tell me about your first bartending gig
My first bartending gig, actually, was on holiday in the Free State. My mom has this little house in the middle of nowhere, a town called Rosendal. It had this one little communal meeting place, which was a restaurant where you could have breakfast and lunch and dinner. And then they built a little bar there. It was very cute and quaint and very Afrikaans, and they needed help one December. So I found myself putting my hand up. It was the December of 2012, when it was the whole ‘end of the world’ thing, and we made Armageddon shots, all night, every night.
My first actual bartending gig was when I started working at Social on Main, in April 2014. I was slinging beers and pouring whiskies … and I was making cocktails too, but I was just following a recipe sheet. I was 22.
And from there, did you go to The Landmark?
Yes, I met Gareth Wainwright there. He came to the bar, and he sat there on his own, looking around. Then he looked at me and he asked me to make him a Negroni. And I had no idea what that was. So I phoned the head bartender, and he told me the ingredients, and I made the drink and served it to Gareth. I thought I’d done a pretty good job, but Gareth was like, ‘You’ve never made this drink before, have you? You looked alright until you started shaking it.’ And shortly after that I started working for him at The Landmark. That was December 2014.
Gareth, of course, is an industry expert. What was it like, working with him?
It was everything. Gareth taught me that recipes aren’t just things you follow off a page. There was so much more intuition. Like, why you add sugar, lime and rum to a Daiquiri. Instead of having me just follow a recipe, he explained how it worked. I started to realise I had a knack for flavour and an understanding of taste, and I had a decent palate on me. He showed me how to work it, and everything changed from there. The whole cocktail world opened up, and it was all because of him.
Talking about your palate: you grew up in a foodie family, with your dad being in wine and your mom being a chef. Would you say that helped refine your palate, from a young age?
It’s a bunch of funny things. I never thought this industry is where I’d end up, but the moment I started [in it], it felt so natural. I think that background had a big influence on me. And also, subconsciously – with my parents being as hardworking as they are – how to be in hospitality was imprinted on my brain. The hours, and how to speak to people. But my palate, I definitely got that from my mama.
So if you weren’t planning on being a bartender, what did you have in mind?
I wanted to be a musician, for a long time. I was in bands, and I studied to be a sound engineer. But it just wasn’t me. That was another reason Gareth and I clicked so well [with his own musical background], he got me, completely.
So tell me about the first competition you won. That was the Tahona Society Cocktail Competition, in 2015, right?
Ja. I’d entered World Class about two weeks before, but I just did one round. And then Tahona came along and I still had no idea what I was doing but it was so much fun. I think that presentation was one of the best ones I’ve ever done, because I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone.
You’ve won six national competitions since then and one global, right? Let’s list them, for the full effect:
1. Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix (2016)
2. Absolut Invite (2016)
3. Botanist Forager (2016)
4. Diageo World Class (2017)
5. Rémy Martin Bartenders Talent Academy (2017, nationals and globals)
6. Opihr World Adventure (2018).
What advice do you have for bartenders wanting to compete professionally?
Start with the end in mind. You’ve got to enter round one knowing you can win the globals. If you’re working for somebody, ask for time off to get ready. You’re not just representing yourself; you’re representing your bar and potentially your whole country. And pick your battles wisely, and give them everything you have.
You mentioned Sin+Tax, the bar you co-own in Jozi. How does running your own business compare to working in someone else’s bar?
Initially I had a competition bartender’s mentality towards our cocktails, and I was putting all kinds of weird and wonderful things into my drinks … making them Instagrammable, you know? What I realised very quickly was that if you’re not costing things properly, your business won’t work. You have to look at things as a business first, then as a creative outlet second.
Would you say your drinks are getting simpler, then?
Yes, I feel that simplicity is very important, but it’s about staying relevant and adapting that to the 2019 mentality, through technique and execution. That must be thought through. So instead of a Daiquiri with sugar, rum and lime, you get your acidity from, say, a Sauvignon Blanc, or a Chardonnay, or maybe a Semillon, which has a nice buttery mouthfeel as well as a bit of acidity. The drinks themselves are relatively simple though, in the sense that there are only three or four ingredients per drink.
When you go to a bar, what do you look for in a drink? Or what impresses you?
I like something that’s clever, but that, in it’s final phase, is quite simple. And something that has great texture and mouthfeel. What would make me smile is just a drink that’s made well.
Mostly, I love it when a bartender is a bartender, first and foremost. My philosophy at the moment is to lead from the front, and be in the bar, making the drinks. If you come to Sin+Tax, I will make you a drink, and I will be upset if I don’t – especially if that’s why you came there. If you came there to get a drink from me I want to make a drink for you. I want to make a few drinks for you. I want to have one with you. You know what I mean?
Apart from the trophies you’ve won, what would you say has been your proudest personal achievement as a bartender?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was my team at Sin+Tax. Having a bar that’s three years on and watching how hard those guys work. It’s numbing, actually. The hours and dedication they’ve put in to make this dream come true is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
It’s true, Sin+Tax is doing really well. Remind me which awards you won at last year’s BAR awards.
We won best bar and best bar team. [Plus Julian won bartender of the year.]