One thing I have always said about bartending in any seminar or training session I have ever done, is that bartending in its most basic form, is not really a difficult thing to do. Like most things in life the difficulty in understanding anything, is directly related to the amount of information you have at your disposal to draw on your understanding.
For example, if I gave someone who had never made a drink before in their lives a cocktail test to write they would more than likely get zero or close to zero. It would seem like the most difficult thing in the world to pass. However, once that same person is shown how to mix those cocktails, the chances of them passing the test improves greatly. If they study the drinks they can very easily get 100% for the test and suddenly, something that seemed difficult at one point can become something so easy just based on the amount of information they had acquired before taking the test.
Think of how difficult the undertaking of the ‘Great Trek’ was to the Dutch settlers in the early 1800. With their understanding of how to travel, it took the most hardened of wagon wielding travelers over eight grueling months to traverse a distance it would now take any casual flyer only two hours to do in the greatest of comfort. One faced the prospect of death; the other faced the prospect of sharing an arm rest.
For people looking in, the world of spirits can seem as daunting as ploughing a wooden wagon through a 1000km of the most unforgiving bushveld. For bartenders, the world of spirits occupies their every thoughts, their understanding is drawn from lifelong studies and they have all the information they need.
So difficulty is more of a point of view than it is a definitive diagnosis. I mean, simply speaking whisky is just distilled beer in as much as brandy is distilled wine, and vodka is just unaged whisky. There you go, lesson done. From here on out I’ll bet you that after reading this you will always remember that. One can therefore say that bartending as a learned subject is not difficult at all; there are just simply some who are more informed than others.
The difficulty in bartending is not contained in the information. While recently interviewing for bartender positions at the Vicious Virgin, we interviewed a person who confidently stated that they didn’t really like human contact all that much, and that they preferred to keep to themselves. Well okay then, interview over really. Not that being an introvert is a bad thing, it’s just not the most sought after quality we look for when hiring people to fill bartending positions.
Just like not every soldier in the army can serve on the front line, storming a beach in Normandy during D-Day, bartending is not for everyone. It takes a special person to tick all the boxes. In most other jobs around the world if there are any gaps in the skill of the person for filling the job they can largely go unnoticed, but the bartender needs to form a front with no apparent gaps in his arsenal.
You may have noticed me referring to bartenders as ‘Daywalkers’ once or twice in these memoires. I reference bartenders in such a way, both because of the strange hours that we keep denoted by our profession, but mainly as a reference to the movie trilogy ‘Blade’ starring Wesley Snipes. A film about a half human half vampire creature, he is a special hybrid with unique gifts and qualities which allow him to have Vampire-like strength, but at the same time his human qualities also allow him to be able to go into direct sunlight, he has it all – he is a Daywalker!
Bartenders are the same in this regard; they have to have it all. They must work hours on end on their feet, mixing up a storm of drinks for other people, delicately balancing theatre and quality and keeping them both sacred. They must at all times lay their own feelings by the wayside in order to be the face of an operation which depends on them to be the social bubble gum that keeps the good times coming, regardless of what fragile state they may be in themselves.
Folding under the responsibility of it all, a lot of wannabee bartenders will get weighed and measured and then, with almost ‘street-like’ justice, get spat out of the system like a geyser of boiling hot tea projecting from the mouth as soon as it hits the tender lips.
Others will thrive in such an environment, and then still others will be outstanding. To be outstanding a bartender must demonstrate gifts which are not derived through the acquisition of knowledge only. As the art of drink making is largely centered on human contact, one could say that every human sense can be engaged in order to deliver a more memorable drinking experience, and therefore a bartender must have a heightened acclaim to them all.
But when a bartender is able to attach the senses to an emotion, that’s where the real magic happens, and one of the greatest magicians I have ever known, is Dominic Walsh.
Dominic has too much talent for one person. If it were possible for Salvador Dali, Albert Einstein and Keith Richards to have a love child, the result from that ‘totally impossible scenario’ (which has no doubt etched an image in your mind you’d rather forget) would be a never before seen ‘Daywalker’ with a trio of hybrid skills.
He is a quintessentially creative, hyper intelligent rock star who lives in the ‘upside down’. He sees things which are not, does things which are unthinkable and even more scary he does the things which are thinkable such is his mind that if he can conceive it, then he can achieve it. He has starred in folklore fables which we wouldn’t believe to be real had we not actually been there to witness them for ourselves.
One very memorable moment for me was during the Absolut Invite competition in 2015 held at the Landmark in Joburg. He performed a punch serve inspired by local Sangomas. He created a ritualistic scene for the judges breaking the 4th wall and gathering them all in a circle on the floor in front of the bar. He threw bones, he threw liquids and somewhere in between made a brilliant punch inspired by South African flavours.
During a time when engagement with judges like that was unheard of, it was a serve I will always remember as something truly ground breaking. He finished as runner up in that competition, as he was narrowly edged out by Brent Perremore who performed his own memorable serve he called ‘The lady of the lake’.
Dom announced himself with a whisper by winning the inaugural House of Angostura Global Cocktail Competition in SA as a relative unknown. There he performed his first ‘magic trick’, which made everyone stand up and say ‘‘show me that again’’. In time he duly did, this time at the South African World Class Competition in 2016, a competition which he led the way from the first challenge to the last, winning the title in one of the most dominant displays of bartending ever seen, over one of the most fiercely talented fields ever assembled, exacting revenge on Brent who came second and Julian Short who came third.
As a business bar owner, he was one of the driving cogs behind the successes of a couple of Joburg bars namely the March Hare, and more recently Mootee Bar both of which are gone but never forgotten. Gone too soon perhaps, Mootee still achieved a reach to a greater global audience not since seen by other South African Bars and the impact it had on our local bar industry creatively, is still felt today even after being closed down for over a year.
He now lives in Spain working at Two Schmucks in Barcelona, but if ever you feel like a little slice of Walshy magic, you can head on down to Smoking Kills bar in Melville where you’ll find it in the creativity of their drinks, along with a mashup image of his face superimposed on the body of Sylvester Stallone on a VHS tape cover cocktail menu.
If, after this lockdown, the aliens invade our planet and ask us to present one person as a reference to represent everything we know to be pure and true about each profession in the world, to teach them about all that we do. We will need a representative who is the best rendition above all others, an arbiter of all things which a bartender must be. We will consider Jerry Thomas, we will consider Harry Craddock, but in the end we will send them Dom Walsh.
Dom Walsh, Competing at Absolut Invite at the Landmark in JHB in 2015.