- Having started with only a handful of professionals in Kenya a few years ago, World Class is now popular among bartenders in Kenya.
- While bartenders make tens of cocktails, each has a favourite that they enjoy crafting.
Whenever Patrick Mutua makes cocktails for his international clients in the Norwegian Cruise Line during global tours, he endeavours to serve two things: a finely crafted drink and authentic Kenyan charm.
For someone who became a bartender by happenstance, Patrick is in charge of 21 bars within the cruise line.
“Most of my clients are surprised when they learn I am Kenyan. My job is proof that Kenya can export talent of global standards.”
“Being a bartender is not about uncorking bottles and pouring drinks for patrons. You need to think as an artiste to create a memorable experience for your customers,” says the man who has served presidents and celebrities around the world, and has also worked at Villa Rosa Kempinski.
“As a bartender in a five-star hotel, you are entrusted with an inventory of alcohol and equipment worth millions of shilling. Some of the alcohol brands are very expensive, and the bartender is expected to account for each of the bottles, and to ensure that each tot served brings value.”
He notes that a bar in a high-end hotel can have stock worth up to Sh10 million.
“You must know all these products. Excellent customer care skills is a must-have. You must also be a good manager who can make sound decisions in the absence of their supervisor,” he says.
If Kelvin Thairu, the head bartender at Trademark Hotel, could do only one thing for the rest of his life, it would be to make cocktails.
After winning the World Class competition last year, Thairu had the opportunity to work in some of the best hotels or bars around the world. He, however, chose to remain in the country.
“I was fortunate to be allowed to learn and transform my career. Not many bartenders get such a chance. As such, I felt duty-bound to train others as well to elevate them to where I am. I can only do that if I worked in Kenya,” says the man who represented Kenya during the Dubai Expo earlier this year.
While Thairu’s industry may have propelled him to victory at World Class last year, it is resilience that has kept him in the drinks space for nine years now.
He has worked at Artcaffé, Radisson Blu, dusitD2 and Ibis Styles having started as a barback —washing and polishing glasses for bartenders and other mise en place work.
“I learnt to make coffee, tea, and mocktails (mixed fruit juices) during my first job at Artcaffé. Two months later, I got a job as a barista at another restaurant. I would make hundreds of cappuccinos every day, but my heart was elsewhere.”
Even so, his career had taken off.
“I got to learn a lot about professional bartending by participating in different competitions by backing up bartenders. Bartending is much more than mixing and balancing drinks.”
What does it entail then? “It is more about your personality, the way you conduct yourself and how you talk to people. It takes time to master all this.”
Patrick and Thairu became shining stars at the World Class competition organised by Diageo for bartenders and creatives. World Class is held globally to train, educate and inspire drink professionals to push their boundaries.
“I had just finished my training in hotel management in 2014 when I heard that Diageo was running a competition for bartenders. I joined the programme just to see what was happening there.”
Having started with only a handful of professionals in Kenya a few years ago, World Class is now popular among bartenders in Kenya, with the current edition of the competition attracting hundreds of participants nationally.
Sharon Mwangi, the programme’s lead at Diageo says when they started, they would invite bartenders to participate.
“Now many of them are eager to take part and to learn about professional bartending,” she says.
“Training bartenders is the way of giving back to the hospitality industry. Bartenders have limitless career options beyond crafting drinks. Some of the trainees have gone ahead to start their businesses as consultants,” she adds.
Thairu notes that the industry is awash with “commercial bartenders” people who make drinks, earn their money and leave go on with their lives. But he saw bartending in a different light.
“I saw it as a long-term career.” Creativity, he says, is part of the DNA of being a mixologist, and that having a supervisor who understands this is as important as having the skills to mix drinks.
“It helps to have a manager who was once a bartender. Such a manager will understand your capabilities as a mixologist and give you the leeway to try out recipes for different beverage experiences. This has been my biggest advantage in the industry so far.”
While bartenders make tens of cocktails, each has a favourite that they enjoy crafting. For Patrick, none floats his boat quite like old-fashioned cocktails.
“I like to make and serve simple, straightforward but classy drinks. A gin and a tonic, for example, is easy, and allows the drinker to enjoy it while either reading or having a conversation.”
Does he drink? Sparingly, Patrick says. “I like to maintain a virgin palate to be able to do the tasting for clients. It’s very tempting to drink in this type of job. We are permitted to drink to a certain level while working, a limit that we cannot exceed. You learn to restrain yourself.”
Like Patrick, Thairu likes to craft classic cocktails, but with the fewest ingredients possible.
“I go for three or four ingredients. When you mix up so many elements, it becomes difficult to perceive the flavours. It is also difficult to be consistent with so many ingredients. Some spirits are also meant to be enjoyed neat.”
If he could choose the ingredients to use in every drink, Thairu says he would settle for passion fruit, basil, cinnamon and baobab powder. His beverage is a negroni, which he calls a bartender’s drink.
“You can never go wrong with a negroni. I know cocktails and I tend to find most of them underwhelming. To avoid disappointment, I go for a negroni. The ingredients (gin, vermouth, and Campari) are universal.”
The cocktail culture is catching on among Kenyans, Thairu observes, saying he is excited to be part of this transformation.
“Cocktails are some of the first moving drinks in most top bars in Kenya today. They also generate a decent income for bars. On busy days such as weekends and holidays, we sell up to 1,000 cocktails.”
Prices range between Sh700 and Sh1,000, depending on the base spirit.
Patrick says he would like to come back to work in Kenya “to elevate the industry” by training others.
“There is a need to educate the market on drinks as a brand ambassador. Many Kenyans still do not understand what drinks suit their types of palates. They end up drinking whisky, for instance, while their palate is made for gin. This way, they will never get to fully enjoy a drink.”
“Beverage companies are pushing volumes at the expense of experience. This explains why many new brands record big sales on introduction in this market before trailing off a few months later. An educated market is a sustainable and reliable market.”
On qualities that make a bartender tick, Patrick and Thairu agree on consistency and authenticity.
“Palates of most international clients are delicate. You must deliver whatever you promise. If you get a drink right one day, you must always get it right for that client. It is the only way they will trust you,” says Thairu.
“We are fortunate to have in Kenya most of the ingredients such as herbs, berries, coffee, and tea. Making drinks with these elements comes naturally to me.”
For this duo, the opportunity to train as bartenders was like receiving a blank cheque on which they have written memorable experiences.
Patrick’s proudest experience has been travelling the world and interacting with different personalities.
From heads of state to footballers, musicians, basketballers and other celebrities, this type of job comes with the privilege of meeting notable personalities. He served Barack Obama when he came to Kenya in 2015.
How does he calm his nerves while serving them?
“Some of these personalities are very calm. Others are very chatty. It’s the people around them who are stiff. They will even ask you to recommend a drink to them. You become so close that they will ask for you whenever they visit.”
“Most importantly, I have been able to challenge myself on what can do. Kenyan bartenders tend to look down upon themselves. Yet it is this job that has allowed me to meet and interact with bartenders, master brewers, and distillers from around the world, which is a career highlight for me.”
For Thairu, the acceptance of bartending as a worthy career is his biggest pride. “My ex-girlfriend laughed it off when I told her I wanted to become a professional bartender. With the recent developments, Kenyans now appreciate our job. Many young people want to become bartenders. The future is bright for the Kenyan bartender.”
Does this job pay well? “The better you are it, the better the pay. The secret is to work on refining your craft as a bartender,” says Thairu.