MUCH has been made of the need for bar work to be seen as a career and not a stop-gap but there are few better examples of how the on-trade can supplant so-called “proper jobs” than Andy Stewart.
A former bank manager, Stewart returned to the trade from his hiatus in the world of finance in August 2014, rejoining former colleague Adrian Gomes at his venue The Tippling House in Aberdeen.
Since then, Stewart has picked up more than his fair share of awards for his mixology skills and, in November, was named the SLTN Craft Spirits Enthusiast, in association with Eden Mill St Andrews.
It’s easy to see why.
Stewart seeps enthusiasm for spirits, still putting in the hours front of house at The Tippling House despite rapidly ascending from bartender through assistant manager to the GM job at the cocktail bar since his recent return.
I’m a complete and utter history nerd. The stories behind cocktails and brands really got to me.
What hooked Stewart to spirits was the stories behind the drinks.
“I think with myself it’s all to do with history,” said Stewart.
“What sparked everything with me was cocktail culture and spirits. I’m a complete and utter history nerd.
“Some of the stories behind different cocktails and brands really got me interested.”
Stories are central to the service at The Tippling House – wherever possible, Stewart and his team do what they can to ensure there’s plenty to talk about on the cocktail list.
“Every menu tends to have a story behind it. Well, not every one; winter menus tend to be a bit simpler because of the high volumes, but the rest tend to have a story,” said Stewart.
With drinks like Black Is The New Orange, a knowing nod to a Netflix original series, or Holden’s Virtue, which confirms a wink towards JD Salinger through the inclusion of Rittenhouse Rye, The Tippling House team isn’t shy about shoehorning in talking points across its cocktail menu.
And Stewart reckons that’s all part of the job, as it’s what customers have come to expect.
“If you promote yourself as a cocktail bar, the expectation is you can do X, Y and Z, and that’s part and parcel of it,” said Stewart.
“When you look at a cocktail bar, say here in Aberdeen, we each produce a different experience for our guests. What people expect from Tippling House is the knowledge and experience that comes with their drinks.”
The level of knowledge on display at The Tippling House doesn’t fall from the sky, and Stewart has been active in staff training, with a strong focus on individual spirit categories.
“For a three-week period in February, each Monday we took all staff through spirit categories,” he said, adding that while three Mondays on the bounce was ideal for the quieter months, the plan is to continue regular category training even when things pick up.
There’s more of an acceptance that being a bartender is a career.
“That category training is going to turn into a monthly thing. Once a month, a couple of hours on a different category.”
Of the categories covered so far – gin, whisky and rum – Stewart reckons it’s the juniper liquid that’s still spirit of the hour, and with legs to carry on.
“Gin is everywhere. There’s at least another two or three years in gin,” said Stewart, although he added that when some gin producers’ whiskies reach maturity “that will be interesting”.
Looking ahead, Stewart reckons the long-touted Tequila boom still has a hanging question mark, although he said bartenders have been doing good groundwork.
“I love Tequila, I love mezcal and all the different variants of agave-based spirits; they’re absolutely fantastic but the public isn’t there yet. It’s getting traction and it’s down to bartenders to help with that,” he said.
Stewart said he has been “slowly educating people” that an Old Fashioned is “a style of drink, and not a drink itself”, that can work well with Tequila.
This kind of knowledge is partly what’s driving the push for bartenders to be recognised as professionals – a movement which is progressing, in Stewart’s eyes.
“There’s more of an acceptance in the public mind that being a bartender is a career,” he said.
“Over the next ten to 15 years I’m expecting to see the first of the celebrity bartenders.”
In the meantime, it’s a busy time for Stewart.
Not content with duties across The Tippling House and sister venues Rye & Soda and Bos-n, he’s also working on two of his own liqueurs, which he hopes will “see the light of day” later this year or in early 2018.