Joshua has been bartending in Malaysia since his move to KL 3 years ago. Having worked in several world class bars in the UK and with 12 years bartending experience up his sleeve, Joshua has injected his style into several popular bars in KL with the culture he brought along with him from home. After going behind the scene for a year, we spotted the easy-going bartender again at the latest opening in town – Circus. Kim Choong talked to Joshua to see what he’s been up to and what shaped him into his role today in his bartending career.
Where are you originally from?
I grew up in St Austell, Cornwall, England.
When did you start your bartending career and what got you into it?
I started in year 2000 working at a cheesy holiday park in Cornwall. Basically pouring pints and making vodka-and-cokes-with-3-cubes-of-ice. Gotta start somewhere right?
What made you continue it as a career?
I started just as a part time job to earn some cash when I was 16 and as time went on it got more fun and more interesting. It’s a job that lets you meet an absurd amount of people every day, and through this you create relationships and opportunities which are always presented to you.
Where did you learn your bartending skills from?
Every bar I worked behind I learned something but I’d have to say I learned most at Mahiki1 and Milk and Honey2. The head bartender from Mahiki was a guy called Richard Hunt, an absolute prodigy of a bartender. I learned so much from that guy. He used to push me so much, I hated it at the time but I wouldn’t have gained as much as I did without him pushing me. Rich is just dead meticulous when it comes to presentation and consistency. He would always expect a very high standard with everything that went over the bar and if it wasn’t up to the standard, he would be yelling. No one wants to be yelled at right? He was always encouraging me to enter competitions as well.
How about Milk and Honey, what did you learn there or what was the most memorable thing you have brought with you that you still remember now?
Milk and Honey is all about consistency and speed. You’re the only bartender making all the drinks for the bar so you have to be quick and the standard is high. Milk was voted Best Bar in the World in 2009, 2010 and 2011 so there’s no room for error or sloppy bartending. Best thing I got from Milk was working with Tim Philips, he just won Diageo world class. He’s incredibly creative and very organised. His knowledge of bar and product is insane and I earned a ton from him! Also ‘The Last Word’ – a cocktail I learned about at Milk and it’s amazing! It was gin, green chartreuse, lime and maraschino - equal parts, a banging drink! I just put it on the menu at Circus actually. (Woo, we’d like to try that, sounds deadly!)
What brought you to Malaysia?
I came on holiday to meet my girlfriend’s parents and fell in love with it, 6 weeks later we both moved here. Malaysia is great and surrounded by beautiful countries with so much to offer. The people are really chilled out and there is tons of different food I the city. It helps that there’s surf in Malaysia during monsoon and Indonesia has the best waves on the planet.
What are the major differences in terms of the bartending scene in the UK and Malaysia? Why do you think that is?
I think there’s generally more interest from a consumer point of view in the UK, certainly regarding cocktails anyway. Also, availability of products in Malaysia is a bit limited. I think that’s because the tax is high and importers are dubious to bring in anything they’re not certain will sell. It’s a shame because staple products like Lillet Blanc3, Antica Formula Carpano4 and Velvet Falernum5 just aren’t available. It took me 3 months to find Calvados6.
What do you think the industry can do to make the cocktail scene better in Malaysia?
The government could lower the tax a bit, that would help to get more products in. Maybe doing a small bar show would be a good idea too. The city needs more people like Ben Ng. He organised KL cocktail week last year that was a massive success and a huge boost for the cocktail culture in Malaysia. Also he’s just started his bartender training school. I really hope F&B managers are generous with their budgets and start sending their bartenders on this course. I’ve witnessed what he taught and they were fundamentals. All bartenders should know this kind of thing.
You have recently joined The Eatertainment Group, tell us about your role.
I’m the Operation Manager for the group, although I almost solely focus on Circus for the last 5 months putting it together. I’m running the place for now as I need/want to be here to make sure things are working the way we want them to. I hope to step back next year and focus on both Circus and our Al Amar outlets and hopefully spend some time learning about main course, our catering division. It’s a really exciting group to work for. I can see the way Joseph7 wants it to go and it’s a direction I’m very happy to be involved in. Joseph is creative, so anything he does is going to be a bit different. He hasn’t decided on anything in particular but I know that there will be more coming once Circus settles.
What are the difficulties you face most in running an establishment like Circus?
Staffing is always an issue in Malaysia. It seems there is a general lack of service staff in KL. I’m not sure where they’re all hiding! *Chuckles* It’s so early in the operation that we’re still working out what the stumbling blocks are. So far we haven’t really highlighted many at all. I’m hoping it stays that way. The way the restaurant is laid out and the design of the bar makes it operationally a walk in the park. I’d have loved to have a bar like ours to work behind when I was bartending.
How do you create a new recipe?
I usually start with the spirit and build around it, taking into consideration the flavour profile. If I’m creating on the spot for a certain guest, then it’s based around his/her requirements.
Have you incorporated any of those impromptu creations into your latest menu?
Most of the stuff on the menu (in Circus) is new. A couple of old ones like my ‘Mercenaries Black Tot Flip’, I used that in the Appleton competition, it’s a yummy drink with Pedro Ximenez8 and egg yolk.
Which is your most favourite tropical ingredient and why?
Hmm... Rum!!! *Chuckles* Because as a category, it’s so vast. For example, Appleton Estate9 and Wray and Nephew10 are made from the same sugar cane in the same distillery but totally different. It’s tropical because it’s only made in countries that grow sugar cane. These countries are usually in or close to the tropics.
What mixology competitions have you entered in the past and what were the results? Will you participate in any again in the future?
I’ve entered a bunch, mainly in London. Best results were 2008, 42below Cocktail World Cup. I was part of the London team with JJ Goodman (the owner of Covent Garden Cocktail Club) and Sean Ware Brand Ambassador for Bombay Spirits Company), we won that one in New Zealand. And in 2010, I won the Appleton Estate UK bartender of the year. They sent me to Jamaica for a week with 11 other winners from all over the globe. We drank a lot of rum and misbehaved a bunch. It was an amazing week. No plans to enter any more though. Maybe if we do a speed competition again like last years re-match but they’re not serious. You compete for fun.
Tell us about your creation for the recent Johnnie Walker Black Circuit Great Britain event.
The drink is called The Black Sorbet. I got the idea from a drink Rich Hunt made when he won ‘Theme Bartender of the Year’ in 2010. You blend dry ice and stir it in with any liquid and it forms a sorbet. I did this with coconut milk and some sugar and served it in a rock glass over Johnnie Walker Black Label. Kind of supposed to replicate the whole whisky with ice ball craze except the ball is sorbet. It was a super boozy drink!
What do you do when you are not working?
SLEEP!!! *Laughs* Na, I try to surf as much as possible during monsoon. Its 2 1/2hrs drive so super accessible and we have a great little group that head over together. Other than that I try and cook dinner with my girlfriend as often as I can and hang out at home really. Failing that, sit at the bar somewhere and drink beer.
1. Bar in London, UK.
2. An award winning private member’s bar in London and New York.
3. A brand of French aperitif wine.
4. A brand of Italian red vermouth under Specialty Brands Ltd.
5. An alcoholic sweet liqueur used in Caribbean and tropical drinks.
6. An apple brandy from the French region of Lower Normandy.
7. Joseph Sabeh Afaki, owner of Eatertainment Group.
8. Also known as PX, an intensely sweet dessert and dark dessert sherry made with white grapes grown in certain region of Spain.
9. A sugar estate and distillery in Jamaica that produce handcrafted rum since 1749.
10. A distiller, blender and bottler of rum in Jamaica. Production includes Appleton rum.