Behind the bar: Angus Winchester

Angus Winchester, the former global ambassador of Tanqueray Gin, is a champion of classic cocktails. Winchester first started as a bartender 29 years ago before it turned into a lifelong career that has taken him from behind the bar to management and consultancy. Describing a good cocktail as having a “transforming effect”, Winchester compares his first serious gin & tonic drank at Captain’s Bar of having the power to make him, “sit up straighter”. This year, Winchester is opening up a bar called The Embassy in Brooklyn, New York to showcase a library of cocktails around the world. Winchester met up with dbHK at Quinary bar, where he is staging a pop up of The Embassy from 15 to 17 May, to chat about his love for spirits, lime and the art of Japanese bar-tending.

What led you to be behind the bar?

Initially it was just to earn some money. I never expect to have bar-tending as full-time career but then I figured it is an easy job to do badly and it’s a very difficult job to do well. I was doing it at Oxford University. I was shocked at how people who I went to school with would come into the bar and wouldn’t even notice it was me behind the bar and treated me badly. They thought it was a career of the damned, socially uncertain and things like that. I was determined to show them that it could be done very well and I just fell into it. I moved from bar-tending to management to consultancy that allowed me to travel the world.

Which spirit ignited your passion?

I love gin because it’s the most sophisticated spirit of all. It’s rarely drunk neat, and it’s always about mixing and a great cocktail base. It’s also incredibly difficult to make. You take all the flavours and natural ingredients and bring them consistently into one product. And it’s not just made by local ingredients, and you have to be connected with the global network. I have a soft spot for gin, but the first proper bar I worked was at a Mexican restaurant and we had 17 different Tequilas and this was back in 1998. That was a rarity and my bar manager was an ex-London guy and he said Tequila is not something you throw down your neck on a Saturday night and throw up on a Sunday morning. This is someone’s lifework, these are all different. As a bartender, you represent the distillery that couldn’t be there. Tequila has such a bad reputation, but it is such a great spirit.

What are the best and worst things about the industry?

The best part is that you get to travel. The worst thing is that it’s still not taken seriously. This applies to the hospitality industry in general, chefs, sommeliers and bartenders. Bar-tending is still treated as something you do when you are trying to figure out what you wanna do with your life. A lot of people treat it as a lifestyle, not a career. It is a serious profession if you take it seriously.

If you had to be a particular cocktail or spirit, which one would you be?

I believe a Dry Martini is the king of all cocktails because there are so many variables to it. How it looks, the ingredients, the gin, the proportion, how dry it is, shake or stir, the garnish, there are so many variations. I get Martinis from so many places and I never had the same one twice. Plus, Martini is about the ritual, it’s not just about making the drink. It’s about the preparation, the conversation you have with the guest, things like that.

Lime or lemon?

There’s a lot of debate about lime and lemon with Margaritas. One of the things about our industry is that they can be really geeky about something. It’s just a drink and you start to geek out about using Persian lime or Mexican lime – which does make a difference – but your average customer is not going to tell the difference. I was brought up on lemon but I love lime through Margarita and the Mexican restaurant. I have a soft spot for lime. If I am forced to choose between lemon and lime, I will probably choose lime.

Complete this sentence: the last time I drank, I….

Had a great conversation afterwards.

What are your favourite seasonal cocktails?

I am a very promiscuous drinker, and people always say what do you drink? I will drink according to the time of the day, the bar I am in, the skill of the bartender, how much my budget is etc. In America, now, gin is a summer drink. I think the best seasonal drinks are the ones that truly use seasonal ingredients. So I love the classic Bellini using white Venetian peaches and was only made when they were in season so you are only drinking it three months of the year.

Where is your favourite place in Asia for cocktails?

Everyone in the world who is serious about drinking should hang out at bars in Ginza, Japan. I remember going to one bar that only sits seven people. The woman who is running it lives above it and has been running it and taken only one day off, one per month, for the past 38 years. There’s a customer in the corner who has been coming there every day. Ginza is the home of classical Japanese bar-tending. If you compare bar-tending to dancing, Japanese bartending is Argentine tango. It’s classic ballet. It’s unbelievable to watch. The attention to detail, the ease, the style, the elegance. Singapore is doing some ambitious things as well. There’s also a reason why I always come back to Hong Kong, which is the culture, the people. What Quinary is doing was sort of the first for Asia.

Name one cocktail trend which is hot in Asia right now?

Now with social media, it has made trends spread so much faster. I try to stay away from trends or even talk about trends because it will shine too much light on it before it becomes solid. But for Asia, definitely Western culture and eastern ingredients, the use of things like pandan, tea within cocktails. Asian food culture is very bold and diverse, so it’s not a surprise they came into play in cocktails as well. You also start to see more Western bartenders coming to Asia. For a long time, America did not export bartenders. What they also brought to Asia is their hospitality, which involves more talking and more interaction. American bartenders are very good at that.

Please share one of your favourite recipes?

I collected recipes around the world and with my new bar The Embassy, finally I have a place to showcase them all – theoretically. I like a drink called ‘three-rum daiquiri’, a classic daiquiri but instead of using 50ml of one rum, I get the bartender to choose three different rums so they can always make a blend of their own. And of course, there’s no right answer to it. Whatever they choose is going to make a tasty drink. It’s a classic cocktail but they gotta tell me why they chose it which allows them to be geeky if they want to. The other drink I like is ‘copper illusion’. It has gin, Campari and Cointreau. I can’t remember the preparation, the portion of it but if you can just make a drink with these three, I am going to be happy.

Best advice? 

You never learn less.

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