Time at the Bar: Tristan Stephenson

Ahead of the Global Finals we caught up with challenge judge Tristan Stephenson, a man who needs no introduction in the drinks industry (but we will anyway). Originally hailing from Cornwall, Tristan came to prominence at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, going on to found his own set of bars and restaurants including whisky bar Blackrock with sites in London and Bristol.

Where did it all start?

Like many of my colleagues I came in to the industry by accident. Twenty years ago there were very few people (outside of chefs) who planned to go into hospitality. I’m from Cornwall where there’s plenty of demand for bartenders and waiters, so when you have nothing else to do, that’s what you end up doing.

Where did you cut your teeth?

The most important bar job was at the Blue Tomato Cafe in Polzeath. It closed down ten years ago, but the restaurant I now own is only a five minute walk from there. It was an important stage in my career because the owners fully entrusted me with producing cocktails, despite me having no experience at all. I learned on my feet and the feedback I got from both the managers and the customers was good. That gave me the confidence to improve and to look at bartending as a serious career.

What’s your strongest bar memory?

Creating my first original cocktail. It was called a "Frozen Minger” — mint, ginger, apple juice and citrus vodka, blended together. More like a smoothie, it tasted great but looked like a mess.

Your biggest influence when you were starting out?

All of the managers I had from 2001 to 2006 placed enormous amounts of trust in my expertise despite my lack of experience running bars. Their blind (though, as it turns out, not misplaced) faith was a big influence.

The drink you hated people ordering?

Mojitos. Although it was a cool drink to be serving back then, they were a nuisance to make and a round of six of them could take up 15 minutes of your time to make a delivery to a table. We crushed ice by hand back then too, so that added to the time it took. I remember once crushing ice by hand to make 120 caipirinhas for a wedding reception.

How has the scene in London changed?

When we opened Purl in 2010 there were maybe 10 bars where you could get a great cocktail. Now there are dozens, so the scene has certainly improved in that sense.

What are today’s bartenders missing?

There are a bunch of people and places that seem to have lost sight of the hospitality side as they try and compete with this bar or that bar. London has become a little bloated and flabby in that sense.

Who is killing it in the scene today?

The Vennings at Three Sheets are doing a fantastic job; Ago at the Connaught continues to be a force for London; Remy Savage at the Artesian had big boots to fill and has filled them and then some in my opinion.

If you could only make one more cocktail?

A Manhattan. It’s a fantastic drink and always my go-to if I’m undecided on what to drink next