We knock back three unlabelled shooters with Angostura Cocktail Competition Judge, Kurt Schlechter and chat to him about the state of the South African bartending industry.
Shot # 1 – Monis Pale Dry Sherry
I would not be sipping this or serving it to somebody unless it’s in a cocktail. We’re gonna use quite a bit of Sherry here (referring to his new bar Cause & Effect ). The reason why I’m so biased about this, I was just tasting Pedro Ximénez the other day. Even the dry Spanish sherries knock it out the park. My favourite local light thing, if I gonna drink something like this, is Pierre Jourdan Ratafia. That’s amazing, especially in a cocktail.
You went to high school in Villiersdorp. Do you still have a connection with the place?
I went to the 10 year reunion, but I haven’t seen a lot of people there. I went to school in Villiersdorp, but I featured in a few other high schools. I was in one school for about 6 months and then another one for about 2 years and then I end up in Villiersdorp. When I was young, I was very naughty and my parents thought this guy is just crazy. I grew up in Durbanville and while the wine farms weren’t that great then, I remember we were always playing around in that area on some BMX tracks.
When and what was the first alcoholic drink you ever had?
The first time I actually drank a bottle, or try to drink a bottle with someone, it was brandy and coke.
Where are you based?
I stayed in Joburg for about 12 years and I’m back in Cape Town for the past 2 years. The reason why I moved back to Cape Town is just to be closer to the grapes. At the moment it seems that all the better bartenders come from one or two bars in Joburg, but we must change that. There’s so much access to great brandy and great wine here in Cape Town. I came back to Cape Town with a purpose to really embrace the people, the mountains and nature in my business.
What’s your favourite Cape Town cocktail bar?
House of Machines. Always been serving quality drinks. The best quality drinks that I wanna drink. I like short strong bitter drinks. Once you get into this bitters thing it’s difficult to get out of it. I have a partner from Ireland, but he doesn’t drink much. I took him to House of Machines for a cocktail and he was like: “What the fuuk is this?!”
Your award winning ama-lekkerlicious cocktail is garnished with a sherbet rim. What would you say your personal cocktail taste profile lean more towards. Sweet, bitter, savour, sour?
Let’s put it in perspective. When you’re in a competition you have to realise who is judging you. When I won the World Olmeca Margarita Contest in Mexico, the drink I made there was very different from the drink I made for the South African judges. I knew that we actually don’t like that strong tequila cocktails, but in Mexico all the judges were Mexican and love strong tequila – at least three shots not two. When I created the ama-lekkerlicious I knew the judges were from the media and they would find it completely appealing and identifiable. It’s actually a type of brandy Cosmopolitan with a peach flavour. But back to your question: strong and bitter.
When can you call yourself a mixologist?
Firstly, I’m not walking around calling myself a mixologist. If I’m not mistaken that word appeared in the first cocktail book written by Jerry Thomas in 1862. These days every guy that’s bartending for more than 2 months call himself a mixologist. A cocktail bartender is a guy that can make cocktails according to a recipe with consistency, quality and speed every time. A mixologist is the guy that writes all the cocktail menus and also knows every single flavour of every single spirit. You have an opinion on it and can discuss it at length.
Shot #2 – Eden Vodka from Mongolia
Amazing, it’s really good. It’s got a great gingerbread nose, not ginger, gingerbread. There’s no burning sensation when it goes down. With the Sherry you want a long finish with this you want short finish. This is something I can drink. Lovely depth. I just attended a Beluga Vodka seminar and they told us they actually age their vodka in stainless steel tanks to improve flavour. It’s like resting and it was amazing to taste the difference between the 30, 60 and, 90 days.
How do you feel about the local tequilas?
Well as a tequila fanatic, I’ve got no problem with South African tequila. La Leona is not made badly at all. I think the pricing is maybe wrong. We know what goes into producing these products, but it’s not tequila in any shape or form. If you put tequila on the bottle it’s wrong. The only thing that holds our whole spirits world together is appellation laws. With that being said, there’s some great distilleries in South Africa. Guys that are really doing good stuff. That’s one reason why I’m also back in Cape Town, I’m tired of whiskeys and tequila, I wanna talk about brandy.
But first rum. Do you think craft rum has a place in South Africa?
Rum definitely has place in the South African cocktail world. If you think about it, the biggest selling drink in summer is still a mojito. Guys are trying to resurrect the craft rum market, but the big boys set the rules. You have to compete against the big boys like Havana Club and Bacardi. As a bar owner, I’ll be shooting myself in the foot if I ignore big brands. If a smaller brand tastes good and inspire us, we will have it in the bar.
I just wanna say one more thing about rum. Is not that easy to make an aged rum yes. Remember a gin is basically a vodka with flavouring. With rum, when it comes to ageing, there’s a whole other expert level that comes into play. I don’t wanna say it’s easy to make gin, but I’m gonna say that.
What is your cocktail philosophy?
It’s an interesting question. It changed a lot over the years. Challenge the status quo. Cocktails are not a serious thing, you should not take yourself too seriously. The moment you do that you’ve made a mistake. People go to bars not to be bored to death, but to have fun. There’s mischief involve. There’s play involved. There’s serious research involved. There’s conceptualisation, guest expectation, there’s a lot of things on a wheel. Are people delighted with it, is it value for money and will they come back to drink another. I think that’s my cocktail philosophy at the moment. Are the customer delighted with what I made them.
You work with a lot of high profile corporations like Pernod Ricard. Does it impact your cocktail philosophy’s integrity?
Yes it does. Why would I lie to you, cause it’s true. Let’s for example take vodka. If I know the vodka very well, where it’s made, what it taste like, I’m gonna choose that vodka first cause my knowledge on it is better. When I write cocktail menus for clients I asked them what brands do they wanna use. I make sure it’s my job to know what all the brands taste like. It boils down again to what is the best drink that you can serve someone with what you have.
With the Hawaiian Tiki bar revival in full swing in the US and consumers focusing more on authenticity, do you think Tiki culture has a place in South Africa?
Definitely. I definitely think it does. I think it’s right up South Africa’s alley. Tiki Culture is fun, quirky, entertaining and it’s new. It’s something different. Like 15 years ago Cantina Tequila was popular. I will go as far as to say you can have a Tiki Bar franchise in South Africa and you will do well. I was lucky enough to have dinner with one of the most famous living Tikki guys in the world, Beachbum Berry, at his bar in New Orleans called Latitude 29. While having dinner with them I was watching the people in the bar and they were delighted!
How would you rate the South African cocktail scene? Do we have our own thing going or do we just refurbish global trends?
It’s getting much better, but we can do much better. At the moment we’ve been doing mostly international trends, but I think it’s going to change. Guys are starting to looking at localise stuff. You don’t wanna fly half around the world to come and have a mojito in Africa. That’s just not right. You want locally-made stuff. I don’t think people have pushed it far enough.
What pisses you off most when ordering a cocktail at the bar?
Unorganised bars. There is no excuse. What kills me is weak managers, there’s no such thing as a bad bartender just bad managers. Don’t hire old bartenders. They’re the best con artist. I try not to “work” too much when I walk into a bar. If I go to a crappy bar and order a mojio and it’s crap, I should have known better. What’s important to me is value for money. I don’t like being ripped off when you know it’s not that expensive. Cleanliness. Why can bar owners buy expensive bar equipment and pay the bartender good salaries, but they have to use that old rag that’s been around for 40 days? You know what I mean? They always have that smelly rag, while cutting lemons, trying to preserve it for the next day with clean wrap. Rather juice it, but please don’t give it back to me the next day. I’m big for sustainability, but not stupidity.
With health and well-being on everyone’s mind these days, how do you feel about the mocktail, the word mocktail and if it should even be considered as a real drink?
I want to say it has its place in other people’s bars. Now look, a lot of menus I do – 90% of them – got a non-alcoholic option on there, but I don’t believe in non-alcoholic beers.
You’ve travelled extensively, what’s your favourite cocktail city?
It goes without saying New York for sure. New York is the scene. London is amazing as well. It’s absolutely crazy the type of drinks you can find there. Also the drinking culture in both cities are totally different to our drinking culture here. We still like flashy elaborate cocktails – and I do like to make those.
How do you feel about the “Say no to the Straw” movement, and what do you feel the cocktail industry’s responsibility should be regarding this?
I think it’s a great idea, but why don’t we just recycle. I understand where it comes from, but you can recycle them as well, I’m just saying. My wife actually got some quotes for steel straws today, but try use it in a high volume bar and you’re going to suffer.
What’s one cocktail that people should drink now that’s not cherry flavoured, and why?
What I really like drinking at the moment is vermouth base cocktails. I’m talking about a nice dirty Martini with a bit of sparkling water in it. Something with a lot of flavour, but light so I can manage it. I think what you should be doing is drinking more Caperitif cocktails.
Sazerac – whiskey or brandy?
Martini – vodka or gin?
Old Fashioned – whiskey or bourbon?
I always say bourbon, but lately I’ve been drinking it with whiskey. A lot of single malt actually. So whiskey.
Shot #3 – Gentlemans Spirits – Melbec Grappa
There is an acidic nature to these things. Perfect with dinner. Two espresso please.
With bitters options exploding overseas, from barbecue, fig, Sriracha and what more, what type of bitters do you personally lean more towards: Aromatic, Fruity or Citrus?
All of it! From aromatic to barbecue bitters. The thing that you need to know about bitters is the way we react to it is years of evolution. Your tongue is telling you that this is poisonous, so the more you have it the better you get with it.
But if you ask me if I’m stranded on a island with a bottle of rum and bitters, I’ll say aromatic please. It works just about with everything, it is so flexible. The reason Angostura does so well is it fills that complete gap. It will add dimension to the flavour, it will have something that you never tasted before and will probably hide some of the bad stuff you don’t want either. A previous contestant in the Angostura Cocktail Competitions described bitters as the bartenders “salt” and I love that. It’s the perfect saying, because it’s true.
You’ve done well in previous Angostura Cocktail Competitions. What’s the one thing that gave you the edge over your competitors?
I came second in the world. That’s my claim to fame. As far as I know I’m the only South Africa that came second in that competition. I just got beaten by this one guy from New Zealand. He deserved it. He was better than me. I thought I had it in a bag and this guy came on and I was like: “holyshit!” My creativity and drink making are linked together permanently. I’m always preparing to make a drink that will blow my own mind.
As a Angostura Cocktail Competition judge this year, what do you feel makes a winning cocktail. Creativity, Flair or Flavour?
Creativity first, Flavour second and last is Flair. But each competition looks for something else. First thing you need to know about any competition is the terms and conditions. For the Angostura Cocktail Competition contestants should know that they are not only gonna win $10 000 over there, they’ll also become the world ambassador for Angostura. You should be able to walk into any bar in the world and you should be able to tell everybody, the bartender behind the bar, the owner, everybody, about bitters and the subject of bitters. This is not a competition only about cocktails.