When we met Ali Burgess earlier this month at Tales on Tour Edinburgh, he told us about his project to launch a quality cocktail chain nationwide. That we believe he’d be able to pull it off is a testament what he has already achieved with his main bar, Happiness Forgets, 10th in the world according to Drinks International, and a long-standing favourite for discerning drinkers.
And yet, if his phone had rung a few days later back in October 2010, Ali might now be in New York, with a completely different story to tell… “I wanted to go there, get a job in a good bar but two or three days before payday, when I was meant to buy my plane ticket, a friend of mine called and said ‘hey, do you want to buy a bar?’”. His mind set on the US, he still went along with his friend. Who knows, right?
“I remember walking down the stairs and within five seconds I had seen enough and said I was in”. A few weeks later, with partner Andy Bird, he opened an unnamed bar on a ridiculously low budget – £25000. “We had to open quickly, as all our money went into it. At first, we went through our Facebook friends list, checking the upcoming birthdays and we offered them a space to celebrate”. This allowed them to gather the funds necessary to finish up the place and officially launch, three months later, a bar that had finally been christened: Happiness Forgets.
Ali was maybe ideally placed to work with such a tiny amount in a city as expensive as London. “I learned to run and manage a business, a bar and a team well before I ever made a cocktail”, he told us. Indeed, for years, he had first worked and then run “high-street chain bars” in hometown Guildford. “I didn’t get the grades to go to university, and my parents were disappointed. My mum told me to get a job, I found one in a bar and they were even more disappointed”, he quips. He fell in love with the industry immediately.
It’s six years later, in 2002, when he moved to London, that he first got acquainted with drinks mixing. “I worked at a venue in Notting Hill, it was not a cocktail place, but it was in London so we had to offer them”. As the interest for cocktails was growing around town, Ali started to pay more attention and decided to offer better quality.
It wasn’t until he moved to New York in 2006, however, that he took it really seriously. “I was working in other types of venues, but I would go to Little Branch and one day I ran into Sasha Petraske and told him I really wanted to learn more about cocktails and work for him”. Petraske said he couldn’t offer anything but… Pegu Club was looking. “The next day, I went to knock on the door. Audrey Saunders had just lost three bartenders who were going to open Death & Co, and she urgently needed staff”. So the eager Englishman was in, working alongside Naren Young and Shingo Gokan. “Audrey was my mentor, it was a real education. One day, David Wondrich, Robert Hess and Gary Regan walked through the doors and here I was, making drinks for them when I had only been making proper cocktails for three months”.
After roughly a year at Pegu, headed back to London. Although he was on the reopening team of Qvo Vadis with the likes of Marcis Dzelzainis, Charles Vexenat or Gianfranco Spada, Ali was hoping for more, which is why, after a couple of years heading different venues, he was about to return to NY when that phone call came…
Seven years later, Happiness Forgets is still going strong and garnering awards in the UK and beyond. Strange one, maybe, when most of them go to big project with lots of money. For Ali, there’s a bit of chance involved: “We were there at the right time, the competition is much stiffer now”. But this doesn’t explain everything: you don’t remain at the top if you’re not always pushing yourself. “I opened a bar I wanted to drink in. I want to sit down, have a conversation with friends. It’s easy to forget that to have a great bar, you need to have a really, really great… bar. It’s not just about the drinks. It’s the music, the environment, the setting…”
With an updated formula but the same ethos, Ali opened Original Sin in Stoke Newington, a London neighbourhood, and it was selected by Time Out as last year’s best new bar. The recently launched bistro, Petit Pois, has also been warmly received and a second one will soon follow. But don’t expect Ali and his team to stop any time soon: “I want to take Original Sin and build a national brand – open 5 or 6 in London and more all over the country. Same philosophy and quality: places where people are excited to come to have fresh cocktails. It doesn’t exist and there’s no reason why not”. We bet his parents are not disappointed anymore!