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Lock Down Day 10 - Nick Koumbarakis

Perhaps I didn’t fully understand the concept of being a geek when I was growing up. In my school, the concept of being a geek was generally a negative one. Being smart was allowed, but sitting around in a group at break time arguing about the Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t.


I’m not sure how I mistakenly connected the notion of having intellect with the notion of being a geek? Maybe it was because all of the book smart kids in my standard seemed to be the same kids who would be voted most likely to camp outside Incredible Connection all night, eagerly wanting to be the first people ever to own a Pentium 1 processor as soon as it was released.


In reality, my ‘non-geek’ friends at school and I would obsess about stuff too, and a lot of us were ‘A’ students to boot. For instance, we knew everything there was to know about football. While walking back to class after tearing holes in our shoes playing football on the tennis courts at break time, we would debate about famous players incessantly. Either one of us could easily be caught camping outside Computicket overnight, in order to catch front row tickets to watch a football game, so which of us reluctant wannabees wore the geek shirt better?


Only after school, did I realise that being a geek at something was actually a good thing. That the nature of our self-pertaining ‘Geek-ery’ is really only separated by the subjects upon which we geek. What tackle is for the Fisherman is what knives are for the Chef, and what stories are for the Historian are what numbers are for the analyst.


When we were in school we were just like undetermined kernels of corn in a pot, but once the heat of adulthood was applied we all used it to become different things. Some used the heat to become wort; some used the heat to become popcorn. However, the wort could spoil or it could become Whiskey, the popcorn could become a salty snack, or it could be burnt to a cinder. To become the best at what you do, you have to apply yourself obsessively to your craft and submerge yourself in every aspect of your trade, majoring over the minors you will debate over everything pertaining to your skill; in essence you need to become the next level of geek that you ever knew, in fact not even a geek, but a fanatic!


That’s what being a fanatic means, to be an ultimate fan. In the song Stan, Eminem outlines the crazy lengths his fans go through for him. He writes ‘they know all their favourite rappers and know all their lines, have all their pin up posters and know all their songs’. What rappers do with pen and paper, a bartender does with spirits and mixers. Either way the process of designing something fresh and ground breaking flows from post it note to production, and in both cases the perfect recipe only presents itself after a fanatical pursuit to discover it.


In 2012, at the newly refreshed Fez club in Cape Town, I was competing in a flair competition organised by the NFS (Northern Flair Society) which was run by Piet the Sock. In the immediate moments following the conclusion of my set, there appeared a man in front of the bar with a fancy camera taking photos of the drink I had just made; he couldn’t get closer to the drink even if he tried.

Perplexed I said nothing. Sometime later that night the man with the fancy camera came to show me the amazingly composed picture he had taken. He divulged to me his interest in drinks and he went on to tell me that he was on a period of discovery in which he was researching different drink techniques, and that the reason he was so close to my drink while he was shooting it earlier, was to take a picture of the garnish I had made for reference in the future.


The man behind the camera was Nick Koumabarkis. Only one year later, from out of the primordial soup of amazing bartenders impatiently brewing at the newly found institution of Orphanage, Nick would complete a dominating year in competition.


In 2013 Nick won the 1st Bacardi Legacia Competition here in SA, after which he went on to compete in the global final and finished an unprecedented 3rd in the world. In the same year he would also compete in the 2nd SA World Class Competition, and after leading the charge in the opening rounds he would surrender the top qualifying spot to Johan Blaauw, in the Cape Town Regionals, as the two of them took two of the six national qualifying spots to be held in Durban later that year.


He would exact revenge in the final. From a full year of research, he only needed a weekend of challenges to present what was a brilliant portfolio of drinks which undoubtedly had taken him a year to draw up, and he would ultimately win the SA World Class title as well. He remains the only bartender in SA to have held both the Bacardi Legacia and Diageo World Class titles at the same time.


Nick is one of the bartenders I have met in my life who I felt always demonstrated a fanatical pursuit of the drink. The impressively groomed bartending wonder is always just as perfectly presented himself, as are any of his drinks.


He is a debonair striding Martini of a man, who in a world dominated by speed and volume refused to compromise the quality of any drink at any time, no matter what the drink was. I would sooner have a bottle of beer served by Nick, than an Old Fashioned served by most other bartenders. Both of which would probably take the same amount of time to land on the counter, but the beer would just taste better than any other for some reason, reasons not currently known to anyone else, other than him.


As far as geeks go, they don’t come any bigger. Not just in drinks, but we could just as easily geek out over football matters as we could bartending matters. He has a grounding in life which makes him the ultimate gentleman. This kind of grounding does not come over night, but is rather developed by a forgery of respect and love laid down all around him. If you couple that with a fanatical pursuit of personal discovery, what you would get is a person primed for life who, when the heat of adulthood hit, turned his Kernel into a distinguished, fine sipping Whiskey.



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