Rookie Programme 2015 Kicks Off

The 2015 Rookie Programme kicked off this week in London with the 12 Rookies treated to a day with some of the bar industries biggest names.

3 years after BarLifeUK first had the idea to host a training programme aimed at young, up and coming bartenders and a year since Mixxit’s Amanda Humphrey helped make it a reality we found ourself in NOLA bar with 12 excited and eager faces ready for action.

Top tip - the liquid is nearly always IN the glass
Top tip – the liquid is nearly always IN the glass

Just getting to that stage had been an achievement for them, with over 130 bartenders from across the country applying to be part of the programme picking the final 12 had been an exceptionally tough exercise.

For those not familiar with the Rookie Programme it is, simply put, the biggest and most complete year long training programme ever put together in the UK for a group of young bartenders. To apply the candidates needed to have been working behind a cocktail bar for less than 18 months and see bartending as their chosen career path.

In return the chosen 12 will be brought together once a month for a whole year to learn from the very best in the industry (further on you’ll see just what we mean with this first session). Each month will see them learn about a spirit category with the Mixxit team working with chosen experts in their field.

They will also study a specific area or skill set bartenders need to become the best in our industry using bartenders from around the world who specialise in that field. The evenings will see trips to top bars and restaurants to glean inspiration from the countries finest.

You will be able to follow the journey of the 12 Rookies on BarLifeUK each month to read about their adventures and get some snippets from the training they will receive. Without further ado let me introduce you to the class of 2015:

  • Adam Day, The Lawn Club, Manchester
  • Alexandra ‘Alex’ Fenlon, Aloha, Liverpool
  • Ben Ghosn, Central & Co, London
  • Benjamin Gavard, Montgomery Place, London
  • Callum Shankland, Brown’s, Bristol
  • Calum McKay, The Coco Lounge, Nottingham
  • India Blanch, Call Me Mr Lucky, London
  • Jack Banks, Jake’s Bar, Leeds
  • Laura Volkaite, Beagle, London
  • Luke Riley, Poppolo, Newcastle
  • Michal Wojtowicz, Las Iguanas, London
  • Zoe van der Grinten, White Lyan, London

Time To Taste

After some dodgy pastry’s and some strong coffee’s the Rookie’s (and speakers for that matter) were ready for action. During the course of the year there will be the opportunity to try some superb products from across the world so it seemed only right that we kicked off with a session on how to taste spirits, what to look for and how to express the tastes they would encounter (also a couple of sips would help relax the room).

To lead them on the basics of tasting Dan Priseman from the Bartender Best Awards (more info on that programme here). Having guided around 100 bartenders through the tasting process of hundreds of spirits Dan was the natural choice for the job.

Dan had worked with the WSET during the BBA’s using their ‘Systematic Approach to Tasting’. Each spirit or liqueur was marked using a system that makes the process of approaching a group of similar spirits a lot less intimidating with each area broken down into sub-categories:

Other observations (e.g. louching)

Aroma characteristics

Flavour intensity
Flavour characteristics


Dan delved deeper into each of these areas and answered questions from the room such as the myth surrounding opening your mouth whilst tasting to get more flavours (the conclusion being it is up to the individual however there is science behind it ensuring the air circulates around the mouth aiding the aroma intake which makes up a large percentage of our taste experience).

By the end of the hour and a half the Rookies were looking at tasting in a new way and getting a lot more from the process. It was just as well as John Clay would be really testing them next.

John tested the groups tongue action his own way
John tested the groups tongue action his own way

For those of you who have not seen John Clay (Brand Ambassador for Bols) in action with his Understanding Flavour talk we strongly suggest you find out when his next session is and get involved. It was a fascinating and entertaining presentation that anyone out there would learn something from.

After being very strict with some raspberries, John’s first mission was to dispel the recurring myth that is the ‘tongue map’, explaining that the 5 main tastes Sweet, Salt, Bitter, Sour & Umami can be picked up all over the tongue and not in set areas. In fact, John explained, it is saliva that is key to us being able to taste as it allows the tongues receptors to pick up the flavours.

At this point it became obvious this wasn’t going to be a normal presentation, John likes to be a bit more interactive. Before they knew it the 12 Rookies were wiping their stuck out tongues with a bev nap before applying random white powder. Whilst the tongues were dry and out of their mouths no-one could taste a thing it was only when the tongues retreated into their natural mouthy habitat and were covered in saliva that a series of yelps and pulled faces rounded the room as salt and sour flavours exploded.

Next up was an extension of Dan’s points on aroma with another experiment having the rookies trying to guess a flavour with their noses pinched, an impossibility as it turns out. Throughout the talk (which also included fancy ideas such as Thermo-ception) John brought everything back to drinks and cocktails explaining how he uses all the information he has learnt when coming up with cocktails and flavour matching.

The morning finished up with tasting of a wide range of liqueurs from the Bols range and beyond, including plenty of information about how different types are made using very different techniques. This all ensured everyone was on a nice big sugar rush heading into the afternoon.

Let’s Get Inspired

Since we launched the Rookie Programme the response, enthusiasm and support from all areas of the industry has been overwhelming and touching. Everyone we have spoken to has been exceptionally supportive and keen to get involved in anyway they can to give something back to the industry they love.

Work hard and you can look like us....
Work hard and you can look like us….

It seemed churlish not to take advantage of all this talent and so we decided to bring together four friends of BarLifeUK to talk about their careers, experiences, tough times and inspire the 12 in front of them as they started their journey.

The group we got together would make anyone in our industry sit up and take note and the look on the faces of our Rookies as Gareth ‘#bigdeal’ Evans from The Jason Atherton Group, Erik Lorincz from The American Bar, Jake Burger from Portobello Everything and James Hopkins from LCC walked into the room was one to savour.

John Clay gave a quick talk on his journey to Brand Ambassador before having to head off, leaving the 4 remaining guys to tell their stories aided by some questions from Mixxit’s Amanda before the Rookies nerves abated and they found their voices.

All four were fascinating from Gareth’s journey from young bartender in Leeds to UK World Class winner and showing how bartending can open up the whole world to you, Erik explained how he moved to London with no English and worked his way up to Head Bartender at The American Bar extolling the virtues of working hard at all your jobs and the importance of cocktail comps.

Jake took everyone back to the distant world he started in explaining how lucky bartenders are now with the resources they have compared to a monthly article by Dick Bradsell he had to inspire him and James explained how great customer service and surrounding yourself with talented people can give you a hugely successful bar group.

They also all mentioned the importance of getting out to new bars, seeing new bartenders, trying new cocktails and spirits. Something we were also keen to show them that evening.

Later on a couple of the Rookies came to us to confess they had spent many hours watching videos of and reading interviews with members of the group and to be able to speak to them directly was a real honour. This is what the Rookie Programme is all about and it was that moment we knew we had nailed it.

Fun & Games

So much fun to be had at the Rookie Programme

The speakers hung around for a few drinks, courtesy of James, Ian and the other lovely folk at NOLA, continuing to tell stories of yore and give the Rookies a chance to chat in a less formal environment. Dean Callan, who had very kindly donated a projector, was also on hand to fill the room with his enthusiasm and knowledge.

Then we were off to Callooh Callay where the group worked their way through the cocktail menu before Simon Toohey continued the generosity of the day by giving them a guided tour of the venue. From the handing round of drinks and excited murmurings I think it’s fair to say they enjoyed what came out.

Our final stop before dinner was Portside Parlour for rum and fun before heading off to MEATmission for some much needed sustenance. After dinner BarLifeUK left the Rookies with a list of bars to explore around Shoreditch at their own pace and by the Facebook status updates they seem to do a grand job.

It was an amazing start to the journey that is the 2015 Rookie Programme, we have managed to pick a superb group of young bartenders to take this adventure with us and watching them progress as individuals and a group over the next year is going to be a real privilege. We will of course continue to bring you all of their adventures on BarLifeUK.

A massive thank you to all the speakers that gave up their time to join us, it shows what a great industry we work in. Also thanks to NOLA for hosting us and the others bars we invaded for putting up with us. Finally a thank you to Amanda and the Mixxit team for all their hard work getting this grand project off the ground.