Isle of Man international – how Drew Fleming became the first winner of the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship

Josh Ong - 21/10/2022

50 Best scoured the globe on the hunt for the most talented fledgling bartender in the world as part of the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship. The Isle of Man’s Drew Fleming was named champion at The World’s 50 Best Bars ceremony in Barcelona after an intense four-month interview process with expert judges and The Blend by Beam Suntory team. 50 Best explores his journey into hospitality, vision for the future of bartending and the lessons already learned from his swift and meteoric rise in the global bar scene

It’s 8.30pm on a balmy Barcelona evening in early October. An incandescent sun has just plotted its smoky path behind a scaffolding-ensconced Sagrada Família as the world’s bar community hums with anticipation, waiting to hear who will be named The World’s Best Bar 2022. The countdown ticks. It reaches No.25. The presenter breaks to announce the winner of the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship. The noise from the venue reaches fever pitch as the three finalists stand in a huddle, knuckles white, eyes wide.

They each know it will be a moment that could potentially change their lives. Internships and life-changing experiences at Connaught Bar in London and Katana Kitten in New York await. Prospects and job opportunities abound.

Silence falls. The eyes of the arena drop to the small group of nascent bartenders grasped in an embrace. Drew Fleming is announced as winner.

Raucous cheers throng out in the room. The 21-year-old Isle of Man bartender retracts, his face a picture of pure disbelief.

For Fleming, this is a dream come true – a golden ticket to supercharge his journey into the world of bartending. Just a few years prior, the thought of this achievement was a dream. A bartender in a tiny tropical bar tucked away on an oft-overlooked archipelago in the British Isles, he wonders how it could have happened to him.

Island beginnings

The Isle of Man is an island like no other. A Crown dependency between Britain and Ireland, its existence is both autonomous and simultaneously isolated. With just 85,000 residents, its population could fit into Barcelona 19 times over. Its people are a close-knit community, for whom preservation of the island is a top priority and prioritisation of its local ingredients is sacrosanct.W50BB22-drew-fleming-scholarship-incopy (2)

Spirits were high among the three scholarship finalists. (L to R) Kyoka Matsunaga,
Seraphine Afladey, Drew Fleming

A man who grew up on the island, Fleming entered into hospitality just two years ago, where he immediately fell in love with the craft. Where many peers of his age see hospitality as a stopgap career – to make ends meet or fill time while they searched for ‘real jobs’ – Fleming firmly planted his feet in the industry, swiftly rising through the ranks to become a bar manager with a mindset to improve the bars sector.

Working at one of the few cocktail establishments on the island, Fleming wasted no time in making his mark on the venue. Aiming to refine the bar experience for both customers and those working behind it, what started as small incremental changes – swapping out single-use plastic for sustainable alternatives, for example – quickly snowballed into an overhaul of the ethos at the very foundation of the bar.

Taking on tiki

Examining the identity of the bar head-on, Fleming found himself researching the background of the culture his bar was representing. Advertising itself as a tropical getaway, his venue was a textbook tiki bar, adorned with floral leis, wooden panelling and drinks served from novelty objects and exotic fruit.

Created in the wake of prohibition in the USA in the 1930s, tiki culture has been met with growing opposition in recent years. Described by John Birdsall in the LA Times as being “built on cultural appropriation and colonial nostalgia”, the image that has inspired many bars across the globe has been questioned on its portrayal of Pacific island culture.

The majority of criticism has come from its history and foundation, or lack thereof. Created as an amalgamation of the rich and varied histories and traditions of peoples from across different island cultures in the Pacific, tiki has been considered a fabrication of many years’ US expansionism and colonialism, according to the LA Times.W50BB22-drew-fleming-scholarship-incopy (3)

While the bar’s appearance may not have changed much, Fleming overhauled the values at its heart

After concluding his research and speaking to academics on the matter, Fleming says he found his research quite disturbing. Particularly, the lack of widespread knowledge about the dark history of tiki culture played greatly on his mind. He knew changes to the branding and approach of the bar were a necessity.

His first port of call was to move away from the tiki label and the unsavoury baggage it carried. Rebranding as the Kiki Lounge, his bar would remain mostly familiar to its guests. It housed similar decorations and drinks as before, in the same high-energy and engaging format.

For those on the island who questioned his impetus to change, Fleming made it his mission to educate those in his bar on the dark history of tiki culture. “Only by teaching the mistakes of the past can we move forward in a more inclusive and responsible direction,” Fleming says.

Since, Kiki Lounge has become a celebration of the island cultures that tiki has been seen to misrepresent, with staff at the bar willing to reveal the maligned history of tiki culture and why the label is damaging to many across the world.

Golden opportunity

After making these changes and consistently improving the day-to-day operations of the bar, when he saw 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship online, he knew it was an opportunity too good to miss. Yet, he suspected his chances from the start were slim.

“I had no expectation when I applied and I thought that was it when I made it into the final 25. I had made my peace with that,” Fleming admits. However, as the 756 applications were whittled down to just 25, his dream was alive. It went from 25 to five. Then it was three. And then there was one.

“It still hasn't sunk in and I think it's going to take some time for it to sink in,” Fleming says. Even after arriving in Barcelona and spending two days leading up to the ceremony surrounded by some of the world’s leading cocktailians, his apprehension remained: “I feel like I shouldn’t be here. I’ve had a lot of imposter syndrome,” Fleming explains.

“Everybody I‘ve met, no matter their achievements, status, who they are or what they do, have all been so humble and open to collaboration and to pass on their knowledge. I don't think there's another industry that would be so open like that,” Fleming says.

Eyes on the prize

When questioned on his future, Fleming explains that he would love to travel beyond the Isle of Man. “It’s a tough one,” he says, adding that while he wishes to grow and legitimise the cocktail scene on the Isle of Man, the appetite for drinks there will always remain limited. Despite having grown his life – and career – on the island, it’s likely he will move after the scholarship concludes.W50BB22-drew-fleming-scholarship-incopy (4)
Fleming's signature cocktail, The Webb of Skies, uses ingredients all local to the Isle of Man

However, his heart will remain at home. He wishes to utilise the lessons and challenges he faced on his island home and bring them to bartending on a global scale. “Being part of an island community, foraging is in our nature. But this practice needs to be applied everywhere. Every country has its own unique biosphere which should be celebrated and utilised to create cocktail menus with an identity that resonates with local customs,” Fleming says.

Looking to combine his upcoming experience from the 50 Best Bars The Blend Scholarship, as well as his unique island spirit and values, Fleming has been given the platform to manifest his prospects for the future of bars. As for the two other finalists, who Fleming says became “friends for life” during their time in Barcelona, talks of takeovers and further collaboration were already afoot before boarding the plane home.

From his impassioned vision of the future of bars, its people, its practices and its potential power, it’s clear that Fleming is just at the start of a long and successful journey – one that was arguably laid out for him long before he ever got behind the stick.

Catch up on The World's 50 Best Bars 2022 awards ceremony:

The list of The World’s 50 Best Bars 2022, sponsored by Perrier, was announced on Tuesday, 4th October at a live awards ceremony in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. To stay up to date with all news and announcements, browse the website and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube