Irish-born and London-trained, Shane Mulvany represented Canada in two international competitions last year. Not bad for someone who said he had retired from competing, and a far cry from his inauspicious start in the industry as a student, mixing “terrible drinks” such as the Sex on the Beach. At the 2016 Havana Club Grand Prix, he reached the final, which was quite fitting: a Cuban cocktail changed everything for him.
Indeed, it’s a visit to Tony Conigliaro’s 69 Colebrooke Row that cemented his desire to make great cocktails. “I had the vintage Presidente and I can honestly say it changed my life: I knew how to make cocktails but I realised that I wanted to make cocktails of that calibre”. As Shane ended up working at 69 and at The Zetter Townhouse, he got to learn from the master himself – and from 2010 Grand Prix winner Marcis Dzelzainis.
It would however be wrong to assume Shane went straight from the bad days of studying and bartending to this moment of revelation thanks to one of the cocktail’s renaissance most prominent luminaries. It was a longer process, and it actually started in New York. “I was 21 and I had a student visa. I worked as a bar back and, inevitably, one day a bartender didn’t show up. I lied and said I could make cocktails”. He then got the opportunity to work at Stanton Social, a hip spot at the time. Back in Europe, he headed for London and started to take cocktails seriously – “It’s a great place for bars, it shaped me as a bartender”, he says.
London is great, but it’s also extremely expensive. This explains in part what led Shane and his Canadian wife to leave the UK and settle in Toronto, a booming cocktail destination. He now works at Alo, one of the finest restaurants in town, with a very strong bar program. “We take three months to come up with a concept for the year and we’re fully dedicated to it”. It’s a very creative a process at which Shane excels – a shock, maybe, for someone who confesses creativity had always been alien to him: “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t draw. I thought I was the least creative person, until I discovered what I could do with cocktails”. Luckily for Shane, bartenders don’t end up at the Havana Club Grand Prix thanks to their dancing skills…
In Cuba, Shane did something few other finalists did: he didn’t use his semi-final cocktail in the final. Some think it’s risky (“stick to what works”), some think it gives you an edge (“show you’ve got more than one trick”). For Shane, though, it was more a case of “No man ever steps in the same river twice”: “I was happy with my semi-final cocktail, but you never reproduce the moment you first taste a great drink”. This harks back to Shane’s experience with Conigliaro’s Presidente. “That drink was an epiphany. It was magic. The second time I had it, it was great but I didn’t experience what I felt the first time.” To offer a brand new experience to the judges, he came up with a twist of the Canchánchara (“such a cool name, it dances on the lips”) based on the well-known Irish love for the Hot Toddy. “I broke it in parts and put them back together. I love the drink but I have to say I didn’t execute it the way I wanted – it didn’t go as planned”, he confided shortly before the results were announced.
Shane was right: he didn’t win. Still, we think he enjoyed the week. Havana’s great that way. Even for people who can’t dance.