The world’s best bartenders on what makes a great bar and how to prepare for the next decade

Giulia Sgarbi - 19/02/2019

The 10th Anniversary of The World’s 50 Best Bars, presented by elit™ Vodka, was celebrated last week in New York with a special edition of #50BestTalks, which saw the bartenders from the six bars that have topped the list over its history come together to debate how the drinks industry has changed and how to prepare for the next 10 years.

Find out what we learnt from the luminaries of the cocktail craft and watch the videos of their presentations.

Jim Meehan – World’s Favourite Bar?

The influential cocktail master behind New York bar Please Don’t Tell – known around the globe as PDT – discussed how a bar becomes one of the best in the world. “Cocktail bars in 2007 felt somewhere in between an omakase sushi bar and a Boardwalk Empire reunion, and I wanted to change this by making them more approachable and hospitable,” said Jim Meehan.

“PDT was the first bar that didn’t play jazz music on a loop. We opened wearing butcher aprons and t-shirts, with A Tribe Called Quest, tater tots and taxidermy. Our entrance sent such a shockwave throughout the industry that it paved the way for the more casual bar service today,” said Meehan.

Discussing how PDT achieved the title of The World’s Best Bar in 2011, Meehan said it was due to a winning combination of food and drinks. “The high-low combination of hot dogs and tater tots with craft cocktails and local beers and wines turned out to be the perfect offering during the recession for guests who wanted a memorable experience that didn't break the bank,” he said. “Success isn't just the by-product of hard work and ingenuity; it's also a by-product of timing and luck.”

Meehan displayed a positive outlook towards the next decade. “I hope we’ll continue to epitomise the values of our industry that I’m most proud of: hospitality, generosity, hard work, ingenuity, comradery and some new ones I’m excited to see more of: social progress, environmental consciousness and political action,” he said.

Alex Kratena – Back to School

The bartender who led London’s Artesian to win the title of The World’s Best Bar a record four years in a row, from 2012 to 2015, offered his reflections on leadership and education in the bar industry. “Being a good leader is essentially about being responsible, reliable and fair. Anyone in a leadership role should continue to study, read and learn to become a better leader, because anyone can be a leader as long as they're willing to learn,” said Alex Kratena.

Kratena highlighted areas of education that the drinks industry should focus on more, including health and safety, sexual harassment, financial management and balancing flavours. “Sexual harassment is deeply rooted in this industry, but it doesn't mean that we cannot change it. Many amazing organisations provide interesting training for bar staff. Sometimes it's just about reaching out,” he said.

Arguing that bartenders should receive a more structured education, similar to that offered to chefs in culinary school, Kratena said: “I suggest that we steer away from memorising recipes by heart, or memorising measurements, and instead focus on teaching how to balance flavours.

“I suggest we give bartenders the information that will make them start to think. We need to tell the young bartenders the ‘why’. We’ve been telling them for a very long time the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, but we need to show them the inner workings and why we do what we do.”

Declan McGurk – Storytelling + Engagement

The Bar Director of London’s iconic cocktail venue, the American Bar at The Savoy, discussed the importance of storytelling as part of a bar programme. According to Declan McGurk, storytelling creates "press, word of mouth and enjoyment – things that should not be overlooked".

“We have to think about the important aspect for the guest,” said McGurk. “Working in the drinks business, I believe that you are not selling drinks, you are selling service.” From this point of view, storytelling becomes an important part of the bar experience as it provides an extra dimension of service.

“Storytelling is ingrained in your origins,” said McGurk. “It is a part of your start and it's one of the most important things you are taught to enjoy. Thus, relating it to what we sell is an essential part of working in a bar.”

McGurk told the story of former American Bar Head Bartender Joe Gilmore, who was inspired by the landing on the moon to create the cocktail Moonwalk. When he tried the cocktail upon returning to Earth, astronaut Neil Armstrong sent a hand-written letter to the bar, which is still on display today.

The maestro of American Bar, The World’s Best Bar 2017, also explained that engagement is achieved through menus. Working with former Head Bartender Erik Lorincz, he created a menu that "took all the little stories that London has as a city and converted them to cocktails", as well as the Every Moment Tells a Story menu, which took inspiration from the photographs that hang on the American Bar’s walls.

McGurk concluded by encouraging his peers to engage their customers. “You don’t get a lot of time with the guest, so maybe try and turn the guest into the storyteller,” he said.

Jonathan Downey – Congratulations, you’re all awesome

When the first list of The World’s 50 Best Bars was published in 2009, Jonathan Downey was the man at the helm of the London bar that was voted as the inaugural No.1: Milk & Honey. The entrepreneur discussed how the drinks industry has changed over the last decade, highlighting areas where he sees room for improvement.

“Great drinks plus a great time equals a great bar. In too many new bars that I visit there is too much emphasis on the drinks and the bartenders and not enough on the guests,” he said.

Another pillar that makes a great bar, according to Downey, is the human element. “The two most important things for a great bar are the people who work there and the people who go there. We should be doing everything we can to attract and retain really great people to work with and to drink with,” he said.

Downey also discussed innovation in the cocktail craft and stressed the importance of nailing traditional cocktails, before moving onto more forward-thinking tipples. “Too many bars and bartenders are neglecting the classics in favour of serving only their own creations,” he said.

“I think it’s self-absorbed and the opposite of hospitality. There needs to be more balance in what bartenders are doing. Let’s spend more time working on how to serve a spectacular classic every time, as well as all the new stuff.”

Jillian Vose – Culture, Balance and Inclusivity

The Beverage Director at The World’s Best Bar 2016, The Dead Rabbit in New York, discussed how to create a fair and positive bar culture. Drawing on examples from The Dead Rabbit’s own journey of improvement, Jillian Vose put the focus back on the staff.

“The biggest thing is being honest with yourself and your expectations, and being honest to them [the staff] and holding true to it. Give your staff an incentive to stay, create a sense of loyalty on both sides and listen to your staff,” she said.

While the cocktail offer is an important part of the bar experience, Vose said it’s essential to focus on other aspects too. “The balance in the bar makes or breaks the guest experience as a whole,” she said.

“The music, the lighting, the volume in the room, the cleanliness of the bathrooms and the bartenders’ uniforms, how friendly they are, how people are welcomed… Everything makes that balance. You can make great drinks, but the drinks won’t taste as good as the experience.”

Stressing the topic of creating a bar culture that is inclusive as well as supportive, she thanked her team at The Dead Rabbit and brought to light how different members of the team have progressed to senior positions over the years.

“It's really about the personality, the drive and giving the team the right tools to succeed. Everything else happens naturally as long as they trust you and you give them the right tools,” she said.

Ryan Chetiyawardana – Creative Sustainability

The cocktail personality behind Dandelyan, The World’s Best Bar 2018, discussed how sustainability provided inspiration and challenges for his teams – not only the award-winning Dandelyan, but also White Lyan and restaurant Cub, all of which are based in London.

Stressing the importance of change and progress in the industry, Ryan Chetiyawardana said: “Innovation is crucial and it is not about losing tradition. It should come in different forms and challenge the foundations of our industry and those systems that we put in that generate waste.”

Chetiyawardana also discussed how to equip young bartenders with a problem-solving attitude. At his bars, he challenges the teams to come up with many different ways of extracting an ingredient’s flavour, before deciding how it’s going to be used in a cocktail. “We come up with really amazing new endeavours that reprogram our team to think outside the box,” he said.  

“Our industry is about making people happy,” said Chetiyawardana. “It’s about bringing people together and the wonderful ways food and drinks help people have a great time. But that doesn’t mean it can’t coexist with the idea of us doing things in a way that is conscientious. Trying to shake up these definitions is the way that we’re going to build a more balanced future.”

The speakers’ presentations were followed by a panel discussion moderated by renowned cocktail writer David Wondrich. Watch the video of the debate:

Now watch the full livestream of the 10th Anniversary edition of #50BestTalks:

Discover the most recent edition of The World’s 50 Best Bars on the website and follow us on InstagramFacebookTwitter and YouTube for the latest news from the world’s top cocktail spots.