Celebrating World Bartender’s Day, February 24th

With World Bartender’s Day on February 24th, it is a good time to raise a glass to appreciate all those bartenders who make serving an after-dinner drink an art form.

To celebrate their creativity and passion, we caught up with Oliver James, Head Bartender at Matfen Hall, to talk about what’s trending in the world of cocktail creation.

Oliver James, Head Bartender, Matfen Hall

Firstly, thank you for talking to us to commemorate World Bartenders Day, Oliver. For many, bartending may seem like a dream job. Can you provide a glimpse into what a day-in-the-life of a bartender entails?

Well, here at Matfen Hall, my working day starts between 2 and 4 pm. Unlike city hotels where shifts can continue until 3 or 4 am, at Matfen, we start earlier and typically finish earlier, depending on what is happening within the hotel. As the role of any bartender is crucial to the guest’s experience of the hotel, we have a lot of things to prepare in the afternoon before welcoming guests in the evening. And there are not only the day-to-day tasks, but the ongoing training of the team, critical to delivering the best possible guest experience. All bar staff need to know how to create cocktails and to serve them properly, which is all part of the theatre of the cocktail experience. In addition, our team needs to know about our wine and spirit selection and talk comfortably and confidently to guests, answer their questions, and provide recommendations when asked. 

What qualities make a great bartender?

The role of the bartender is very much driven by the guests and their needs. A private dinner may finish and suddenly, 20 people arrive in the bar, all in search of an after-dinner drink. So the ability to multi-task is essential to ensure all guests feel acknowledged and looked after even though you may have a number all placing their order at the bar at the same time. A good bartender also needs to bring their own flair when making cocktails – they need to be creative and ambitious with their pairings and have a passion for what they are producing.

How do you approach creating new and innovative cocktails?

We love to experiment here at Matfen, trialling different combinations and blends. I encourage my team to experiment with spirits, mixers and fresh ingredients and base cocktails on what is currently in season. Chamomile is a favourite and plays a huge role in the creation of cocktails, Chamomile infused sugar syrup works really well when added to a whiskey-based cocktail as it’s a great combination of sweet and savoury. We also use Cherry Oak from our estate to smoke which adds an element of theatre to the making of the cocktail.

Bar 1832 at Matfen Hall
Bar 1832 at Matfen Hall

What trends are you currently seeing in the world of cocktails and bartending?

Sherry and port are enjoying a resurgence and beginning to be used more in cocktails. A classic port cocktail is a White Port and Tonic, which is an alternative to an Aperol Spritz. One of my personal favourites is using Pedro Ximenez sweet sherry in a traditional Negroni. We call this a Bittersweet Symphony because of the combination of bitter Campari and sweet sherry.

In addition, as we strive as an industry to become more sustainable, there is a lot more emphasis on using locally sourced ingredients.

Are there any trends you predict will become more popular in the near future?

The wellness trend doesn’t stop at cocktails! We are seeing an increase in the demand for cocktails that also bring health benefits. Kombucha is popular as a mixer with alcohol. It may be a fermented tea beverage commonly associated with promoting health benefits, but it’s increasingly becoming a preferred alternative to sugary mixers. In addition, we are also seeing an increase in using ingredients such as honey, ginger and turmeric.

Are there any ingredients or spirits that you particularly enjoy working with?

I really enjoy working with Pisco from Peru, as it is still relatively rare. It is a colourless or slightly yellow-coloured spirit that is produced in Peru and Chile. It is made by distilling fermented grape juice into a high-proof spirit and tastes like grapes with citrus or vanilla notes. It originated in Chile and Peru by 16th-century Spanish settlers as an alternative to Orujo, which is a pomace brandy that was imported from Spain.

Can you share a unique or lesser-known ingredient that you think deserves more attention?

The herb thyme, which we grow onsite. Not only is it an excellent garnish, but its woody, peppery tones work very well with Antiguan Rum.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the creativity of the role – how I have the opportunity to play around with new ideas for cocktails, and explore how they interact with wine and food to ultimately create something really special and memorable for guests.

What is your all-time favourite cocktail to make and why?

I have always loved a Bloody Mary. It’s a classic, yet no Bloody Mary is ever the same. So many fresh ingredients can be used as well as the choice of many different varieties of vodka. My personal favourite is Polish Vodka for the clean, pure and delicate taste.

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Matfen Hall Country Hotel, Spa and Golf Estate

Newcastle upon Tyne, uk