The magic of mixology: when booze and business meet

Posted: December 27, 2009 in Investigative articles
Tags: , , ,

 The serious business of bartending.

First published in The Event December ’09

Gone are the days of barman Larry leaning his elbows across a greasy bar to serve you a murky cocktail in a thick lipped glass decorated with pink sugar and a flimsy turquoise umbrella.  Bartenders now have sexy names like; mixologists and flairtenders, and not unlike top chefs, they come with their own arsenal of mixing, slicing and pouring tools.   Mixology is best described as the art of combining various ingredients to create cocktails, whereas flairtending is all about entertaining guests with tricks such as juggling, and even a bit of fire and magic, whilst mixing drinks.  

Ryan in Berlin 1

Master of mixology, Ryan Duvenage, has recently scooped 7th place at the annual International Bartenders Association conference and World Cocktail Competition (IBA), in Berlin.  It is the highest ever ranking for a South African cocktail bartender.

Ryan has always preferred stylistic minimalism to extravagance. His winning cocktail, in the Classic Category, was a simple twist on a classic sour; which had one judge comment that his cocktail was, ‘one of the few to achieve an impression of balance’.  The cocktails were judged on aroma, taste, appearance and overall impression. The bartenders were also judged on their technical skill in the preparation of the drinks. “Berlin 2009 was the experience of a lifetime,” says the 25-year old Ryan, “To get the opportunity, not only to represent South Africa, but also to be treated like a VIP for doing something I love is a dream come true.”

Ryan’s journey to IBA started in 2008 when he won the Classic Category in the South African National Cocktail Competition.  This earned him the right to represent South Africa in Berlin.  In August, along with fellow worker at Barcode and flair representative – Travis Kuhn, and South African Bartenders Association (SABA) representatives; Etienne Schlechter and Marius Basson, Ryan hopped the plane to Germany.  At the airport he nervously awaited the arrival of his arsenal of tools.  “I do have a very extensive personal equipment collection that I travel with,” Explains Ryan, “The equipment I pack will vary according to what I’m doing.  But it generally includes a set of high quality knives with cutting board, mixing glasses, measuring spoons, strainers, peelers, graters, and several different bar spoons.  My favourite is a solid silver Italian spoon that is twisted and weighted.”

The guys then went through a week of conferencing at the Maritim Hotel, and various Liquor company sponsors used the opportunity to introduce and promote their new products.  “The flair competitors practised constantly throughout the week leading up to the main event,” says Ryan, “And to be in the practice room with a dozen of the world’s best flairtenders, all trying to out-do each other, is definitely a sight to remember!”

The competition was divided into Flair and Classic Categories, and took place over the final two days of the conference.   “I was lucky enough to be selected as a world finalist in the Classic Category and joined competitors from as far afield as Malta, Brazil and Slovakia for the final round of the competition,” says Ryan, “During the finals we had to mix 9 drinks in 15 minutes.  This is pretty fast when you are under the watchful eyes of all those judges.”  The Classic Category may not have all the thrills of flairtending- for which Travis Kuhn was rewarded 12th place.  “Its success lies in the careful use of quality ingredients and attention to technique,” Explains Ryan.

Ryan started working as a bartender at Joe Kools Bar in Durban. “I have a natural inclination to become fairly obsessive about things that interest me,” He smiles, “I’ve been bartending since about 2003, but only really began to look at it seriously around four years ago when I began to realise the extent to which bartenders overseas were taking their profession.”

In 2006 as head bartender of Society in Durban, he won his first cocktail competition; the regional round of the Bombay Sapphire National Cocktail competition.  In 2007 Ryan travelled to Mexico as part of an all expenses paid Tequila education program with Pernod Ricard and Olmeca Tequila.  After this he joined Barcode as full-time mixologist and events manager. 

The Barcode Bar Academy launched in Durban in 2008 as part of the Barcode family.  The Academy offers a range of services which include training of bartenders, developing cocktail menus tailored to specific events, and acting as a consultancy to the hospitality industry.  When he is not mixing it up in Europe, Ryan, as one of the chief facilitators at the Academy, oversees the development and implementation of training courses for aspiring bartenders, as well as the consultancy services.   

We noticed a lack of quality training in the industry,” Says Ryan, “Our students are a mix of individuals wanting to either learn, or improve on, their existing bartending skills, and companies or Restaurants that send their staff in for training.  Our approach at the Academy is on getting measureable results.  We do pre-and post- assessments, and are fully NQF (National Qualifications Framework) aligned.”  Ryan explains that the Barcode’s mobile units make it possible for them to do training all across the country, “The units are fully equipped.  This means we can even do training in remote areas where there are minimum facilities.

The development of the drinks industry in recent years, as well as what we refer to as the, ‘cocktail renaissance’, have allowed bartenders to move into consultancy and training roles, “He explains, “This  gives us the opportunity to develop a solid career while staying involved in the industry that we love.” 

Just two weeks ago Ryan scooped his second win at the SA National Championships, which means he will be representing South Africa in at the IBA in Singapore in 2010.  “I cannot wait,” says Ryan, “To see bartending elevated to this level is fantastic, and for the IBA to have grown from a tiny meeting of seven countries over fifty years ago to a spectacle of this scale is a testament to the dedication and commitment of the members, bartenders, sponsors and friends of the International Bartenders Association.”

Astrid Stark

The End


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