A bright Sunday afternoon in mid-April I find myself driving around Gastown frantically looking for a parking spot. It’s 11:58am. Around the block one more time, surprised that so many people are already out and about. 12:03pm I get a text: “You have 57 minutes.” I park and speed walk up to the corner of Carroll and Hastings and walk into the dimly lit bar at 12:06- just in time to find H setting up bowls of aromatics for his second to last Sunday School set to start in exactly 54 minutes (and you can count on it starting promptly at 1pm. H is just that kind of guy).
The niceties are minimal as he reminds me of the time and suggests I get to work. I pull out my recorder and my notebook and we quickly get down to business. This is the award winning bartender that Vancouver said goodbye to this past week as the long-time fixture behind the bar at Notturno picked up and moved east (Toronto won’t know what hit ‘em).
H’s resume is long, his character- unforgettable. Whether you appreciate his unabashed, brazen personality, there are two things you can’t deny- his tremendous skill behind the bar and his commitment to giving back to the cocktail and spirits community, especially aspiring bartenders. Barmen and women I’ve had the good fortunate to interview have shared fond memories of their first shift working with H and have cited him as an exceptional mentor, a formidable talent, meticulous and particular in his approach (to say the least). I could go on about my numerous encounters with H- evenings spent sitting at his bar listening to him wax poetic about leather and heals, but why don’t we let him tell you for himself. A memorable character, a barman like no other, H may be moving on to new bars, new cities, new adventures, but he will not be soon forgotten.
What did you think you were going to be when you were a kid?
I thought I was going to be a corrupt lobbyist for the military industrial complex. I came from money, honey. I wasn’t going to be a surgeon. I wasn’t going to be a lawyer like the rest of my family. But I was being groomed to be a politician and I realized if I was going to make a lot of money I had to go and work in a field where there would be guaranteed income and I was going to be corrupt as fuck. I came from that kind of world.
So when you were younger was making money the priority?
When did that change?
I suppose when I was 18. I travelled on my own around the United States. I met people. I started to realize things were different when I was 14. But what I came to realize when I was 18 was that I was a very lucky person because I had everything from birth and other people didn’t. I realized that that was wrong. And I began to want everyone to have the same as what I had regardless of where they were born, race, creed. I didn’t care. I realized that I was fortunate and I wanted to give back to people. That’s why I don’t like people that hold back. You must give as much as you can otherwise I die today and everything stops? No! Keep it going, share what you can, give up your secrets. That’s the beauty of the human race.
When did you land your first bartending gig?
I was 17. It was 1992 at the St. John’s Swallow Hotel in Birmingham which is where my mother was living at the time. So I could live at my mother’s and work just down the road. The cocktails we were doing back then were very very different. It was still 1980’s style.
Did you ever leave the bartending industry after that?
No. Even during my days in rehab and in university, I went down to part time but I never completely left. I found a way to keep at it.
Why were you in rehab?
I had a severe drug problem. In terms of my addiction it was 21 years ago. I was in and out of rehab but after I overdosed I was very lucky. They told me I was an idiot and that under British law they should have phoned the police. But they phoned my shrink instead. After that I had to report every 2-3 days. I was so lucky. I should have been arrested. If I had been arrested, I wouldn’t have been allowed here because it would have been a drug conviction. I was a lucky son of a bitch.
When was the first time you realized you wanted to make a career of bartending?
I realized that I found it interesting and I loved it. I loved the people I was working with, the people I was meeting and the fact that it was hands-on. It was hard because I was working at luxury hotels at the time so it wasn’t easy. I was meeting interesting people. I knew that my upbringing had taught me a lot and gave me an advantage.
I ended up going to university in the north of England and I managed to get a pass in my degree….I was fucked up, honey. I don’t even remember going to a lecture. The fact that I passed was a miracle. And I was holding down a management position while doing it. I was very lucky though. My boss was very supportive. I was working in pubs and was 19 at the time. It was strippers, cheep beer and sports. I really wanted to hone my skills as a manager so I took as many management jobs as I could. I moved around the country, mainly in the north first. I wanted to be a full GM of a flagship bar in London cause that’s where you’ll make your money. But the north of England is good for your training because the income is shit but the cost of living is cheaper.
Then I started making my way back down and ended up in London. I used to take over sites that no one wanted either because there were financial problems or health and safety issues. I knew if I built them up I’d get a good bonus. Unfortunately I ended up with a cocaine habit. It’s one of the reasons why I left. I was about 28 or 29 and I started to get really overweight and had a cocaine habit to the tune of a gram a day (the stuff I had been using before was opiates). I asked myself what the hell I was doing. I was miserable. I was unhappy. And around that time cocktail bars were starting up in London. I was in Central London and was able to check out some nice places. I started to realize that this is what I wanted to do. I love using my hands to make something and I felt better. I knew I wasn’t going to make much money. I left my job and went from a GM making 65,000 pounds a year to being a bar back and making less than 10,000 pounds a year. When this was all starting at that time in London, I was lucky enough to be working with people that you now know as world’s best bartender or global brand ambassadors or one of the best bartenders in London. But at the time they were just bartenders and I was their bar bitch. I learned and they taught me. I studied everyday, practicing, reading.
I realized after being in London for a while that I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was getting restless and I was like “Fuck it, let’s do it.” Bought a plane ticket, took the last of my money out of my bank account, managed to convince the immigration officer at YVR that I was coming to Vancouver for a 6 month vacation and that was 7 years ago.
One of my servers back in London told me I’d prefer Vancouver to Toronto. And now I’m moving to Toronto! This is the longest I’ve ever been in one place. Seven years….my average was five.
Why do you think you stayed?
Partly the kids. I realized that people weren’t doing this kind of thing [referring to Sunday School]. I was getting phone calls and messages from people asking me if Bar School was still going. So I kept on with it for five years. It was a bizarre experience but it’s time for someone else to start doing it.
So tell me how Sunday School started.
I was hearing all these rumblings from all the other originals of bartending in Vancouver complaining that there wasn’t a talent pool here. I asked why they didn’t train them and it was always a question of time. So I got in contact with a friend of mine and he sent me all the information he used to set up his own little bar school. He gave me an idea of what you do for training and how you teach. I just thought ok, let’s do this. I was scared shitless because I knew people were going to ask me questions and I was going to need to know the answers to the best of my ability.
There are a lot of factions in the Vancouver bartending scene and I was lucky enough to be able to get everyone to participate and teach. Ben de Champlain taught sherry and punch. Ron Oliver taught an American whiskey class five times. Shaun Layton did a class on aperitifs and digestifs and it helped! And the kids started coming and learning. I was a bit brash but I was like a boss and a teacher so I lay down the law. Show up on time or I’m going to give you shit. Eat really well. Don’t come in fucked up. But I also told them they could call me anytime. These kids are the future. When you get older, at the end of the day, you must give back to them and support them. Yes, they’re going to fuck up. But our duty is to pick them up and help them get going again.
Why Toronto and why now?
It’s time. A lot of things started getting to me and there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go in Vancouver because at the end of the day, no matter what people say about me, most people know I’m a pain in the ass. Not many of the old guard and I see eye-to-eye. I found the job at Notturno on Craigslist. People knew I was available but there was no job offer.
Do you have a thought about why?
‘Cause I’m an asshole. I care more about the people. I won’t allow the people I work with to become slaves to their customers. I won’t let my staff be treated like shit. I’m very protective. I’m very particular. A drink should be made a certain way and it should be done right. That’s how I was taught.
Do you think that your hard or easy to work with?
A bit of column A, a bit of column B. I’m very good at making money. This is the first restaurant I’ve ever been in in my 25 year career where it’s closing after I leave. I’ve never experienced that in my life. Everywhere else I’ve ever been has carried on. I just feel like it’s time to experience something new.
If you could only have a 5 bottle bar, what would your 5 bottles be?
Beefeater Crown Jewel Gin, Wyborowa Exquisite Vodka, Havana Club Maximo Rum, Willett Bourbon, Thomas H Handy Rye.
What would be your death row drink?
It would probably be a Crown Jewel wet gin martini- roughly 2 oz gin, ¾ oz of dry vermouth, 2 dashes of vintage orange or grapefruit bitters, stirred until super chilled with a large grapefruit twist.
One cocktail bar that should be behind every bar?
For me it would be The Gentleman’s Companion by Charles Baker
One non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
I suppose for me it would be The Encyclopedia of British History from around the 18th century up until 1950. It’s very good at giving you an understanding of the history of politics and economics in the past, present and future.
If you could make a cocktail for anybody dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make them?
Ghandi but it would have to be a non-alcoholic cocktail. I’d go with fresh cucumber juice with non-alcoholic cardamom bitters, a little bit of egg white, a hint of pineapple and fresh apple, lime juice, a bit of water, a pinch of salt, dry shake, throw, add ice, shake really hard, fine strain, serve with a little edible flower garnish.
If your best shift behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?
I suppose it would have to be Dancing Queen.
If you could only be known for one drink you’ve ever made, what would it be?
The Duesenberg. It’s named after a car made in the 1920’s. It’s where we get the expression “That’s a doozy.” It’s really simple, really easy. 45ml of bourbon, 15 ml of Rosso vermouth, 15 ml dry vermouth, two large dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, two large dashes of Boker’s Bitters, one barspoon of Benedictine, one barspoon of green chartreuse. Stirred until suitably diluted to your taste, served in a coupe, orange oil over the top.
What’s your least favourite word?
What turns you on?
What turns you off?
What’s your favourite curse word?
Fucking mother fucker.
What sound or noise do you love?
The sound of water.
What sound or noise do you hate?
A profession other than your own that you’d like to attempt?
Teaching in third world countries.
What profession would you hate to do?
If god exists what would you like him to say when you arrive?
What talent would you most like to have?
I’ve got it. I’m doing it now.
Who’s your favourite fictional hero?
Which historical figure to you most identify with?
The Marquis De Sade.
What is your most treasured possession?
My most treasured possession in the entire world fits into a tiny box and it’s little pieces of paper or napkins with notes on them that have been given to me over the years.
At my boarding school you were called by your surname and a number. I was eight years old. I was H-87.