Last year I judged the Hong Kong final of the Diageo World Class cocktail championship. It sounds like an easy job, but tasting 140 cocktails in one afternoon is fairly gruelling work. Most of all, it makes you understand that making cocktails is gruelling work too – and that there is more to it than just long shakes, flair, a fancy pour and some flourishes.
Colin Field, in addition to being the man at the Ritz Paris’ Hemingway Bar, is a champion of the bartender profession. He has spent years lobbying in France to get the job proper recognition – by creating a professional bartender qualification. And he has finally succeeded. Bartenders are now included in the Meilleur Ouvrier and Meilleur Apprenti de France [Best Worker and Best Apprentice] exams – a degree-level qualification accredited by the Sorbonne. Successful candidates get to wear the coveted red, white and blue on their collar – a true honour. ‘It wasn’t easy’ says Field. ‘I went to various authorities and they were a little scathing: ‘You don’t need a degree to serve pastis’ said one person. ‘We aren’t going to give degrees to bistro workers’ said another. ‘There is a lot more to our job than that’, says Field.Field is absolutely right. Bartenders are scientists, artists, psychotherapists, bouncers and showmen. They also serve pastis. But to do their job properly they need an excellent palate, imagination, sensitivity, a good eye and a detailed understanding of the history of each ingredient they use. Good bartenders have a deep respect for the craft that goes into creating a fine spirit, before they take it, muddle, mix, shake and then produce something new and remarkable. They also like to develop new flavours of their own; infusing spirits with herbs, citrus and tea, creating syrups, discovering new ingredients -even scenting dry ice. There is a reasonable pressure on bartenders to keep innovating –but it seems to be driven as much by a collective enthusiasm coming from the people standing behind the bar, as a pressure from the customers in front. Tonight I am at The Connaught in Mayfair. I have come to watch Field working with Connaught Director of Mixology, Agostino Perrone. Field has come to London for one week, to help create a specialized drinks menu which blends both bartenders’ respective mixology styles. I spot two cocktail trolleys manned by barmen standing at opposite ends of the room. One bears small dropper bottles filled with strange dark-coloured liquids. ‘This is my Martini trolley’ says the barman behind the small bottles. ‘And these are a range of special bitters – so you can influence your martini with these different flavours’. Grapefruit, cardamom and coriander are three that I spy. My husband orders a cardamom scented gin Martini. I am imagining a sort of alcoholic version of a Danish pastry. The barman is fairly generous with the cardamom bitters. They cling to the side of the Martini glass with a viscosity and then taint the clear gin and vermouth with gently moving brown swirls which rise slowly through the liquor. Three different dry vermouths are blended to get the broadest spectrum of flavor into the drink. The cardamom scent combines with the distinctive juniper of the gin. It is delicious.I head to the back of the room, where Perrone is charming a crowd in front of the other drinks trolley. He has a bottle of champagne handy, which for me is a very welcome sight. A large pile of bright red roses lies to his left. Perrone combines Cognac with violet liquor, sugar, bitters and Laurent Perrier in a champagne coupe. The surface of the drink is covered with layers of fresh rose petals. As I raise the glass to my mouth a rich floral scent wafts from the glass. As I sip it, the distinct fragrance of the violet liquor cuts through the strength of the cognac, and the flavor of the drink is lifted by the light bubbles of champagne. This is Fleurissimo. A beautiful, and very dangerous mix. All the drinks on this special menu are classics. There are no complicated delivery systems, no peculiar or wacky ingredients. The glassware is classic: rock, flute, coupe, martini. The liquor is classic: vodka, gin, cognac. But there are touches that make these drinks unique, The Pink Poire – one of Field and Perrone’s joint creations features fresh rhubarb juice, adding astringency and beauty to a vodka champagne mix, which is then tempered by a sweet, home-made almond syrup. Aside from the flamboyantly romantic rose petals of the Fleurissimo – the garnishes are subtle. A twist of lemon, or an olive for the Martini. A sliver of dried pear in the Pink Poire. It is a fun evening, the venue is beautiful and the drinks fabulous. The barmen work with immense concentration yet chat freely, happily and knowledgeably with guests. Top bartenders are always true professionals . Thanks to Colin Field, they are now recognized for it.