Plain and Fancy is inviting. The first time I visited, I was greeted with a guitarist serenading the bar. It was certainly different to Whetherspoon’s “manufactured” surroundings. Different shaped, coloured bottles commandeered the bar top, making me think of an exotic apothecary. One of the barmen made me think of a young John Legend. Another had been making a gas chamber. I was drawn to his t-shirt logo, “Back to the Booze” and his distinctive beard style with a shaven chin (I wondered whether someone had shaved it as a joke.) I had watched as he poured alcohol, on fire and with a vivid blue flame, from a wine glass to a whiskey glass and then, using the wine glass, trapped the fumes. Wow. I would probably set fire to the customer’s face. The nearest bar experience I’d had was working at my local pub. Washing up dishes.
Tonight, I was going behind the bar, to learn how to make cocktails. The previous night I had met Dutch (shaven chin man) and discussed bartending. I remember arriving to find him clearing up from the night before- obviously it had been a goodnight. He was wearing a bright orange hoody. If anyone’s personality reflects bright orange, it’s certainly him, the man who has the formula for being drunk tattooed just below his chest. Picking up rubbish that littered the bar, I asked him how he had become a barman. He told me he didn’t finish University, blaming his “ADH span and nocturnal personality”. Before being headhunted by Plain and Fancy, he had worked at Whetherspoons. “I was serving students who didn’t want proper cocktails. Their taste buds haven’t evolved. They don’t care how a “woo-woo’s” made, they just want a quick drink. A “shit mix”.” I asked about different whiskeys, bourbons and ales. He talked of something called “Monkey Shoulder”, a triple malt whisky, which gained its name after malt men who turned the barley developed a temporary strain on the shoulder.
Writing this detail down, I realized what a novice I was at alcohol. Dutch, asking me if I wanted a drink, went to the bar, describing as he went how seven fathoms rum was distilled by dropping it in the sea. This reminded me of something concerning throwing barrels of Guinness down hills. Talking about Dublin factory, he came back to the seat and enthusiastically told me about a rum festival he’d been to in London. With lots of hand gestures, he told me how he drank through bamboo shoots out of a long coffin filled with alcohol and at the Habana street party he ended up having a lock in at someone’s pub, eating lasagne. Telling his stories with such nostalgia, he encouraged me to share some of my own. I mentioned that the boys back home loved Newcastle Brown. “You do know that was actually designed for girls with its sweet taste and served in half pints?” Dutch said with a grin.
I asked about the gas chamber. He explained how it was “Absinthe, Wrey & Nephew's, Framboise and a “dash” of Grenadine, which burns down quicker protecting the alcohol. Inhaling the vapours, it hits your lungs, your brain, and your liver and finally the shot hits the stomach. An alcoholic blitzkrieg if you will.” It sounded like something my friend Luke would have. Dutch took me to the bar and poured out some maraschino liquor. “Try it.” It smelt strongly of violets and tasted like a liquid flower. I noticed all the bottles had long thin pourers on their tip. “They’re called speed pourers. They allow you to count regular amounts of liquid.” He took a plain bottle and glass from under the bar. “Imagine how you measure in cooking, its kind of the same. For example, “bubble one” is 1/4 oz, “bubble two” 1/2 oz. A great way to measure 25ml is “you're Mum's a dirty slag”. Sorry? “Watch.” Spinning the bottle from one hand and into the other, he poured out water in an artistic flourish, saying the phrase. “Of course” he said “it can cause some good banter said out loud”. I bet. What was that spinning? Was that the juggling thing that bartenders do? “It’s called “working flare, where you incorporate it into the making of a cocktail. None of this fancy rubbish. It has a purpose. When people come for a drink they want entertainment and skill as part of the service.”
The next night was my shadow shift. I met Tim when I arrived. An ex-barman of Plain and Fancy, he now works at a Michelin star hotel. In a humble voice he explained how to harmonize the flavours between base spirits, liquors, juices and syrups, to find the balance and quality of a cocktail. I admired his attentiveness to detail. Had he considered working abroad? Canada appealed to him and he mentioned his fondness of the European etiquette. Just then, Dutch offered me a taste of Frangelica, a hazelnut liquor. It was like swallowing a spoonful of nutella. As Tim explained how the phrase “Benedictine liquor” originates from monks developing a revitalizing tonic, Dutch passed me a book on the history of alcohol.
Halfway through the evening saw the arrival of the DJs- Jasper, Saxon, Jo Jo. I eagerly listened to them telling me about their experiences. Soon Max (John Legend) arrived. He commented on how being a drama student helped him with the “performance and social element of bartending.” Could he do the whole “flare” thing? He grinned and picked up a dummy bottle. Just as Max was getting confident, the dummy bottle slipped and fell to the floor. He told me he had made a “Chilli Hendrix” and his favourite drink is Pina Colada. As we were talking we saw Dutch leaning over the bar receiving kisses of a group of girls.
Learning how to speed pour, I was handed something very similar to a chemistry set. I had failed chemistry. Dutch told me to practice pouring water to the different measurements into each glass dial. I had to laugh. I’d gone over the margin for most of them by another ½ oz. Realizing I wasn’t gifted at this, I helped wash up some glasses. I soon met a bubbly woman called Cara, who told me stories of times at the bar. Across the bar I saw Dutch leading a Mexican wave of Sambuka shots to a group of students. As they threw back their glasses of bright blue liquid, I cringed- to me, Sambuka tastes like liquid Bonjela.
The bar felt as though it was a trench and the other side was a battlefield of drunken, euphoric soldiers. Watching Dutch make a Mojito for a customer, I noticed the smell of mint and lime merging together. Then it was my turn. Using the speed pourer I muttered “you’re mums a dirty slag” to pour out the rum. I muddled down limes with gomme. I slapped mint between my hands and turned, shredding the leaves. I went to scoop the ice. No Meg. No? Scoop ice like this, Dutch said. Confidently scooping ice up he furiously crushed it into the glass with a tapping motion, turning to me with a cocky smile. He discarded the silver instrument he’d been using, took three straws and placed them into the glass. I watched as he covered the end of the straw with the tip of his finger and then taking it out, sucked from the other end. I did the same. It was nice. “Ok” Dutch said, “Now go and find someone to give it to.” I picked out a guy sitting opposite and introduced myself, assuring him the drink was free.
Back at the bar, Dutch made me a cocktail. After speed pouring, energetic shaking in the Boston tumbler and meticulous dashings of raspberry liquor and cranberry juice, I was presented with a tasty cocktail. “Sex on the beach, but with a twist!” He asked me if I wanted to make one for a customer. As I went to use the tumbler and shook it over my shoulder, Dutch turned to look at my face. “People say you make your sex face when doing this”. Laughing but also aware of my pale face flaming up, I placed the tumbler back down and served the man a weird looking cocktail. He took it, before saying “Can I ask you one thing?” Oh god. “Are you married, single, or other” I looked up at him. How old do you think I am Granddad! Laughing in shock and bemusement, I swiftly made an excuse and went to collect glasses.
Clearing up, I realised how empty the space felt without people. Jasper and Saxon had left, and Max was heading off to film a course project, wearing a very cool hat. Dutch was thriving, his talkative nature amplified by how busy it had been. Listening to him speak, I couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. Jo Jo was talking to me about music, life and the universe. I could feel quiet tiredness creep over me. I tried to refuse a taxi offered by Dutch. On the way home, I thought of something I had read in the book behind the bar. A “bartender is not only an ambassador for the establishment they work for, but a sales person, an entertainer, a reference point, for anything drink related, a chef, an advisor, a friendly ear and safe council to boot.” I thought of Max and Dutch behind the bar. Yep, that made sense. Once at my flat, I couldn’t decide whether I felt alert or absolutely shattered. Pathetically, the latter won me over and I woke up half an hour later. On the loo.