After a 42-hour trip from Australia to Cuba, all you want is to bask in the glorious Havana sun and dive head first in the culture of a country you’ve the impression you have only « scratched the surface » of. So when someone brandishes a microphone under your nose, you might be forgiven for keeping it short and sweet, focusing on what you know best — yourself. And yet Paul Mant, Group Beverage Manager for Merivale in Australia, graciously gave us a lot of time and spent most of it talking about other people… It is, we found, a trait shared by many of the brightest minds of this industry: they often are quite forward in admitting that, on top of hard work, they owe a lot of their career to the mentoring of their seniors and, sometimes, sheer luck.
The hard work was undoubtedly where it all begun. At 17 (he lied about his age), he got a job at a local golf course in Ascot, England. « It was very quiet, there was no stock control in place and I found a cocktail book in one of the cupboards. I started experimenting with cocktails and drunk them myself or just gave them away », he told us. Initially, it was meant to be a part-time job. But after dropping out of college, his father gave him the talk: son, you either find a place to work or a place to live. « It was cheaper to find a place to work… », he now quips. When he left the golf club, Paul went to work at a nightclub, a totally different experience: « It was very busy and that’s how I really learned how to bartend. I just realized that all we had to do was give people what they wanted very quickly and that I was good at it. »
Then came the mentors. « My boss sent me to Lab, where people like John Gakuru, Dre Masso and Jamie Terrell taught me how to make drinks properly ». The London drink scene was still in its infancy back then — we’re talking late 90’s early 00’s. « Dick Bradsell’s Atlantico had changed everything for everybody, outside hotel bars it was the first place where cocktails were taken seriously. On top of Lab, we also had Che, a pioneering bar opened by Nick Strangeway and Cairbry Hill. I was very fortunate to fall under their influence. For a young bartender in London, it was a pretty illustrious company to keep ».
Paul was part of the next generation, building on the work of their elders to help create the London scene as we know it today. « I think the turning point for London was Jonathan Downey’s Match Bar Group. It changed everything. There was a structure to the trainings, you had to be very good at what you were doing and they turned it into an aspirational career: you could progress from junior bartender to head bartender to bar manager. We wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for them ». His personal turning point, he says, was his gig on the opening team of Mahiki, a Tiki-styled club. « It was one of the busiest bars in town and lots famous people were drinking there » (the younger royals loved it).
He left Mahiki to reopen Quo Vadis, with the Soulshakers consultancy (« Giles Looker and Michael Butt are probably the unsung heroes of the global cocktail scene »). Quo Vadis, as we know, was a resounding success, collecting numerous awards. « One of the things I’m most proud of is that everyone on the team went on to bigger things. Zdenek Kastanek went to Singapore although I told him he shouldn’t do it, and he literally started the local bar scene, Marcis Dzelzainis is making some of the best drinks in London, Ali Burgess has Happiness Forgets… It’s maybe the timing more than the venue, but it’s just a great feeling to see all of them succeed ».
So we’ve covered the hard work bit and the part about listening to mentors and becoming one yourself, but what about sheer luck, then? Maybe it’s getting an offer you don’t expect: « After leaving Quo Vadis, I started my own business and, out of nowhere, this job came up in Australia. When you have the opportunity to get a proper grown up job, you’d be a fool not to take it… » Since the grown up thing entails running 31 bars across 18 venues and managing hundreds of bar staff, you’re not likely to find Paul behind the stick anymore. « I do 45 minutes now and again, just to show the kids I can still do it, and then my back starts to hurt… » He might not be likely to win Rematch Beeyatch, the non-brand affiliated cocktail competition he helped launch a few years ago (make ten drinks in under 3 minutes), but Paul Mant will undoubtedly keep doing what his mentors did before him: work hard and show the « kids » how it’s done.