Following his coronation as the inaugural winner of the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship, Drew Fleming travelled the globe to train at the esteemed Connaught Bar in London and Katana Kitten in New York City. Read the diaries of the Isle of Man native and discover what he learned as he encountered advanced cocktail-making techniques, and his first-ever long-haul flight along the way
Drew Fleming has just returned from his month-long internship at two of The World’s 50 Best Bars. Ahead of the Scholarship’s return for its second year and the opening of the 2023 application period, 50 Best extracts from the fledgling bartender’s diaries of his transatlantic experience, which include what he learned, who he met and his emotional first-person snapshot of the cities he experienced.
Applications for this year's 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship are now open until 15th May 2023. To find out everything you need to know about this year's life-changing opportunity, click here.
Week One, Connaught Bar: And so it begins…
Fleming took to the bright lights of Soho before his first shift at Connaught Bar
After an early start on the first flight out of the Isle of Man, I touched down at London City Airport. I can’t say the feelings truly hit me until the wheels of the aircraft were no longer touching Manx soil. This is it… Today marks the start of an immeasurable adventure.
After settling into the fortnight’s digs, I headed into Mayfair, ready for my first briefing as the latest inductee at a location that’s not only a two-time winner of The World’s Best Bar title, but also a veritable London institution.
Was I apprehensive? You bet. Nervous? Of course. Though in hindsight, it needn’t have been the case. I was greeted with a welcome that carried such warmth and candour, it was impossible not to feel at ease.
Once all forms and formalities of my upcoming time were ticked off, Connaught Bar was just opening its doors for the night. It would have been rude not to stay for a cocktail, naturally. A recommendation from a bartender landed me at the Faraway Collins, a seemingly effortless blend of sarsaparilla, yuzu and eucalyptus. If this drink made me feel anything, it was far away from my quaint seaside home.
Checking in to day one at Mayfair's premier cocktail bar
My first day arrived, and I was at The Connaught’s door for 7.15am sharp, ready for an 8am start. By the time I had arrived, team members were already at full steam, straining milk punches and batching pre-mixes, alongside preparing the bar’s wide array of delicate garnishes.
My first task? Painting – preparing glassware decorated with a light stroke of coloured cacao butter; a simple but effective way of elevating a vessel, I quickly realised. The rest of the morning was spent creating the evening's welcome drink: a Connaught staple that gives guests their first taste of the bar’s indomitable hospitality the minute they sit down.
It's all in the preparation... Fleming completes the back-of-house essentials
Time flew by quickly across my first week as I continued to learn and familiarise myself with the advanced techniques used by the bar, such as creating fruit leather, making water cakes and ultrasonic mixing. These new processes came alongside methods I was already familiar with, such as foam creation – in this case used in the bar’s take on a Bloody Mary.
By chance, I was with the team while they were finalising the concept for their recently launched menu, Synergia. It was so inspiring to see how one of the world’s finest cocktail teams executes its fully collaborative creative process, with each team member suggesting tweaks and touches to refine its delicate and quietly complex menu. I was treated equally within this process and even contributed to naming one of the drinks: the Kindred Happiness, which now sits proudly on the menu.
Downtime took Fleming to east London to sample the 50 Best-listed Satan's Whiskers (No.23) and A Bar with Shapes for a Name (No.37)
As I was on the morning shifts, I spent my evenings exploring the wealth of lauded bars in London, such as Dukes, for its famed martini, and the luxurious Donovan Bar, as well as some of the city’s newer venues, such as Seed Library, Satan’s Whiskers and A Bar with Shapes for a Name. Each of these places blew me away with exceptional service and inventive cocktails. While I wasn’t working at them, it was impossible not to pick up tips on improving my own offering at each venue.
Week Two, Connaught Bar: Into the fray
Breaking the ice pre-service behind Connaught's David Collins-designed bar
After an intense first week on the prep shift, I moved onto the evening service. My new programme entailed a blanket overview shadowing each role. Up first? Bar backing – an operation here that is refined to such a level that it felt like a role I had never fulfilled before, despite having done it many times in my career.
Greeting guests is the most important part of any hospitality experience
After a few days of picking up protocols in the back room, I was moved to door and floor service, where I was introduced to the finer details of hospitality I hadn’t previously considered. It was quite overwhelming at the start, but the team embody such a strong collective spirit that I found my feet in no time.
During quieter spells, I would spend time at the bar with the team, asking a multitude of questions, shadowing techniques and preparing drinks.
Fleming worked alongside Director of Mixology Agostino Perrone to help serve the bar's signature Martini
On my last shift, I bid farewell to the team I’d forged a great bond with over the past fortnight. They gifted me a signed bottle of Connaught Bar gin (which makes a stellar Martini), that everyone had signed as a memento of my time there. It’s a gift I will always hold dearly.
My whole experience at Connaught Bar was fantastic. Beyond the bar itself, there’s such a strong culture of quality and comradery between departments. Everyone is in the same pursuit of excellence and it’s truly infectious to be around.
But there was no time to waste, as in a few hours I’d be ready to embark on my next chapter on the other side of the Atlantic.
Week Three, Katana Kitten: The concrete jungle
Sightseeing was on the agenda for Fleming's first time in the US
After a 6am start, I arrived at Heathrow for my first-ever long-haul flight. I landed at JFK International, New York City, and hailed an iconic yellow cab, immediately ticking an item off the bucket list and beginning the magical journey into the heart of Manhattan.
After a quick nap, I headed across to Greenwich Village to meet my new host for the next two weeks, the legendary Katana Kitten. Experiencing the bar first as a guest, I grabbed a seat and started to familiarise myself with its offering by working my way through both the food and drinks menu. This was all for research purposes, of course…
The neo-Japanese interior of Katana Kitten is a world away from Connaught Bar's classic decor
After my first taste of New York hospitality, I headed homeward via Lucky Jack’s Irish Bar to catch the end of an NFL game. Following a busy next day of sightseeing, I met up with Masa Urushido, the leading man behind Katana Kitten, and other team members for a welcome dinner at a Korean BBQ joint, where we bonded over the family-style meal. It felt fantastic to be met with open arms by the team.
The following day began with some special classic cocktail training with esteemed drinks historian Greg Boehm, whose breadth of knowledge and love for industry literature is truly inspiring.
Alongside Milady's, Fleming also visited Maison Premiere in Brooklyn for its highly-commended cocktails
After training, the team headed out for some exquisite ramen, before some of us continued onto Dante for the fluffiest of Garibaldis and a fiery rendition of an El Diablo, after which we headed over to SoHo to check out Julie Reiner’s new hangout, Milady’s. The team here were fantastic, and a special mention must go to the Pomegranate Paloma Jello Shots, served on seashells. Delicious.
Wednesday marked the beginning of my work in the bar with the Kittens of Katana, as the bar’s team are known. I was told I was going to get to experience every role within the team, starting as a host. Akin to many places, the host is integral to the guests' first impression, something I knew I had to nail.
I spent the first few days fulfilling this role, shadowing at first, before managing the door solo. The team really helped me refine my skills and illustrated its importance within the bigger picture of the hospitality package they aim to deliver. When discussing it with Masa, he explained that no matter the wait time or dilemma, a complete willingness to serve must be expressed and authentically felt, which really resonated with me.
Fleming visited The Dead Rabbit, formerly named The World's Best Bar, for a taste of home
Heading into the weekend, I moved into my next role – serving guests tableside. I learned the procedures for opening to closing and everything in between, picking up tips, tricks and efficiencies from their slick and refined system along the way.
In my off-time, I continued to explore the city, seeking refuge at The Dead Rabbit for a pint of Guinness and some fish and chips for a welcome taste of home.
Week Four, Katana Kitten: Behind the bar
The Isle of Man native relished the wealth of opportunities to network and connect with other industry workers in New York
Monday night of week two brought a new adventure: attending an industry event with the director of marketing for Cocktail Kingdom, the brand behind Katana Kitten, Shawn Kelley. We engaged in spirit masterclasses and tasted drinks from the famed Atlas bar in Singapore. For someone from a small island, where the hospitality network is limited (but growing!), the chance to meet and imbibe with industry titans was a unique and welcome experience.
When the time for my shift arrived once more, I was ready and eager as ever, especially as later this week presented the opportunity to get behind the bar. Up first, however, was equally vital work on the prep shift, where ingredients for Katana’s legendary highballs are prepared, such as its shiso-quinine concoction. This helped open my eyes to the true beauty of the Katana Kitten menu: how its complexity belies its simplicity in delivery and execution.
For my first evening behind the bar, I worked the dispensing well, making drinks from printed tickets. Upon reflection, this was a wise move, as the added complication of trying to converse with customers while taking in a bounty of new information would have proved challenging.
Fleming was given a signed hard hat as a leaving gift, as well as his own personalised dollar bill to add to those that line Katana Kitten's ceiling
Working alongside the seasoned bartenders here, I was relishing the opportunity to pick the brains of such passionate and interesting hospitality individuals, all of whom were only too happy to satisfy my curiosity. The ability to spend time with the team and watch their methods of operation has helped me improve my skills and mindset tenfold.
My last evening in New York was spent joyously behind the bar, cranking out Hinoki Martinis, Panda Fizzes and Shiso Gin and Tonics. With the stellar team and I on the frontline, it was a fantastic final dance.
As I woke up on my final Sunday, I packed, said goodbye to my home over the last two weeks and headed down to catch a ride to the airport. As a fitting conclusion to my American experience, I watched the Super Bowl in a sports bar before embarking on the flight home.
The experience gained at both unique venues was invaluable to Fleming's growth as a bartender
Looking back at the last month – the great people I met and the knowledge gained – I’ve returned to the Isle of Man with some life-long memories and unforgettable lessons. I’m certainly still digesting everything and I’m sure this will be the case for a little while yet. If I cast my mind back to this time last year, I never would have thought I’d have had the opportunity to spend time learning from two of the finest bars on the planet.
Applications for this year’s 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship will open soon. Any bartender with fewer than five years of experience in hospitality is eligible to apply for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Find out more about last year’s scholarship here.