Interview: Barrie Wilson
Diageo World Class co-founder tells us what makes a good bartender
One of the founders of the Diageo World Class competition, Barrie Wilson, sits down with Devina Divecha and talks about why the need for the contest was important to drive credibility to the bartending profession
Originally from Scotland, Barrie Wilson is one of the people behind Diageo’s World Class competition, and the global ambassador for Tanqueray gin. He recently co-founded the Scotch & Limon drinks consultancy business based in London.
During his time with Tanqueray, Wilson was at the forefront of the gin revolution globally, while working with Tanqueray and the world’s best and trend-leading bartenders.
He was the technical mastermind behind Tanqueray’s and Cirocvodka’s cocktail platforms for the global audience.
His creation, the Diageo World Class competition, is now recognised as the drinks industry’s Olympics, finding the world’s best bartenders. Wilson says he wanted to be a bartender even in his growing years, partly fuelled by his father owning a pub. However, Wilson reveals that bartending wasn’t seen as a credible profession at the time.
“Bartending was for failed actors or people struggling, a stopgap at university. It was 2007 [when] celebrity chefs were getting fame and credibility. In my opinion and experience, the bartender is the host, and they’ve got cracking personalities. I set the competition up to raise the profile of bartending, and put bartenders on the pedestal they rightly should be on as well.”
Wilson points out that in certain countries, bartending is already seen as being a profession worth pursuing.
He says: “In certain countries, like Japan for example, people have been bartenders for all their lives, and in the US, it’s getting a bit like that as well. Certainly not in Europe.”
He is quick to refute stereotypes of bartenders not being able to do anything else. Wilson says: “I went to university, I got a business degree as well. But this industry is my passion and my love. My dad didn’t have a cocktail bar, it was a pub. But every day you meet some fascinating characters, and each day is completely different. You get out of bed in the morning — or in the afternoon if you’re a bartender! — and you always look forward to going to work.
“It is a lifestyle as well, and for me, the greatest thing is when someone comes into the bar and they leave happy after a night of interacting and engaging with the bartender.”
So what does a person need to be a good bartender? Wilson lists a few attributes that help create a memorable experience: “Passion is definitely one. Personality is the second. They should also be memorable.
It’s about engaging and interacting with the customer. And it’s also to be flexible, whether it’s speaking to people about football or politics — you need to be up to speed on everything so you can actually change your chat. And obviously making great drinks. And you’ve got to be creative as well, to be a great bartender.”
Wilson then reveals his favourite bar in the world is in Dubai — Zuma in DIFC. He smiles and says: “It’s a bit controversial... the Zuma in London is good but the Zuma in Dubai is incredible. When you walk in, it’s just the lighting, the atmosphere, the music, the people, the drinks in there are spectacular.
“There are a lot of bars where you go in and the drinks look better than they taste, but here the drinks taste better than they look. And that’s saying a lot. Every time I go there, I’m just completely blown away.
“And Jimmy Barratt is just incredible. The way he set that bar up and trained the guys is credit to him. He’s one of the best in the world.”
He adds: “I went to Qbara and it’s the most beautiful bar, and all the little touches are stunning in there as well.”
With competitions like World Class, and new bars popping up all over the world, all striving to stand out, the importance of being trendy is very high in this industry. Wilson says the latest trend to hit the market is savoury cocktails.
“A lot of bars right now are investing in cold press juicers, as part of the mise en place during the day, so for celery juice, beetroot juice. And then twisting them up so it’s not just a regular Bloody Mary, but actually more refreshing martini-style drinks. Like La Petite Maison here with the tomatini — it’s just an incredible drink. And the Artesian Bar in London, they use one with carrot purée which is a top-selling drink.”
Another trend slowly emerging is draught cocktails, which involves pre-batching cocktails and shooting them through a beer pump. “It takes away some of the showmanship of the bartender, but for a bar that’s busy and for great consistency, it’s very efficient,” he says.
And what’s next for Wilson? He recently set up his own business, Scotch & Limon, with Fabrice Limon and says: “It’s a small brand consultancy — if there are small brands we will help them get into the hands of the right bartenders, the right bars. I’ve been doing a lot of drinks photography for billboards and advertisements, and really enjoying that.”