People

Andrew Nicholls

| By François Monti

A man with a drive.

Cuban bars are like Andrew Nicholls' Dvars: you're coming for the drink, you'll come back for the smile.

Our story might start in The Hague, administrative centre of The Netherlands, seat of the International Crime Court, and more crucially, if not for mankind at least for cantineros, home to a renown hotel management school, where today's guest realized that he preferred bartending to managing palaces. But since Andrew Nicholls is a man with a drive, it may be better to go back to the Isle of Man, in the year 2000, when an 18-year-old high school graduate from South Africa took up a job (one needs money) in a hotel bar. “One thing led to another”, he informs us.

The interesting bit, of course, is precisely how the one thing led to that other thing. Especially when it all started on an 80,000 inhabitants island, lost at sea between England and Ireland. So what got the ball rolling was that Andrew is a guest-pleaser. And one day, a whole group of them came in and asked if he was making cocktails. The answer, obviously, was ‘no'. Characteristically, our man on Man, said ‘yes'. Realizing what he had just done probably was akin to going for a swim in the sea of Ireland on a dark and stormy winter afternoon, our budding bartender went into damage control mode and said: “Come back on Friday and I'll have a little menu for you”. The next day, with the little cash he had, he bought a £5 volume on tropical cocktails (“terrible book”, he now realizes), compared recipes with the bottles on his bar and came up with the menu. On Friday, the guests came back. They loved it. Now a canny operator, Andrew told them to come back the following Friday: “I'll have a new drink for you”. You guessed it: one thing led to another and he found himself researching drinks.

Back then though, you couldn't look things up in Google and find your answer in a couple of clicks. The Isle of Man had its limits. Here comes The Hague. Andrew's parents had moved from South Africa to Netherlands and their son joined them to study. The bartending scene was in its infancy but things were moving, in large parts thanks to Ricardo Sporkslede and The Fabulous Shaker Boys, the catering / events / consultancy company he launched in 2002. “He is largely responsible for the education of the early Amsterdam bartenders”, says Andrew. “From there, we took it in our own hands and built and built and built.”

Another very important step in Andrew's education was attending his first barshows. “I met guys like Nick Strangeway, Jared Brown, Anistatia Miller, Philip Duff, Henry Besant. It was a massive turning point for me, that's when I realised there was so much to do. I had been making drinks for a while without realising how wrong I had been making them”. Meeting these guys with ‘the knowledge' is one thing, but you also have to put the hours in. “A lot of young bartenders, these days”, sighs Andrew, “they just say ‘oh, no one told me this' but the info is out there. If you're really passionate about this industry, you'll find it.” And he certainly is passionate: “I remember meeting up with a group of bartenders and they were talking about a bunch of drinks I didn't know. I went back home and said to myself: ‘I'll make sure ‘I'm never in that situation again'. Every night after my shift, I'd go home and learn ten new drinks.”

Which is precisely when you start to realise one thing actually never leads to another. Or rather that it only does if you put in the hours to improve your technique, your drinks, your understanding of spirits… Initially doing events with The Fabulous Shaker Boys and working at restaurant bars across Amsterdam, Andrew moved to Door 74, then and now one of the best bars on the planet, and then to Vesper. But bartending wasn't his only activity. Having studied his art with such intensity, he found himself in the position of being able to inspire younger bartenders – the move to training and consultancy was only logical.

A rum freak, it was no surprise that Andrew's work led him to Cuba. That's where we met him for the first time, in 2012, at the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix, where he was one of the judges. “Cuba is adventure”, he says. “It was a place where people could escape during prohibition. They found the cantineros, who were true magicians behind the bar. It had such a massive influence on the way Americans were drinking and therefore on the world. Rum ties in so perfectly with life in Cuba. It's impossible to imagine one without the other. You walk around the streets of Cuba; it's so bloody hot. You don't want a beer. You want an ice-cold daiquiri. It's super soft and light, it's like drinking a snowflake. It's exactly what you want. You wake up and think: ‘lunchtime, I'm gonna have a daiquiri'. The only reason you don't have it for breakfast is because people are going to think you're crazy.”

In august 2012, Andrew Nicholls took a big step when he opened Dvars, his own bar, in Amsterdam. It's a huge space that aims to cater not only to cocktail lovers but also wine drinkers, spirits sippers and cigar smokers. Its three (!) bars offer impeccable service. It is doing brisk business and you could be forgiven to think the man has his hands full (and maybe he has but he doesn't let it show). So while his business is, as he describes it, making sure you leave Dvars with a bigger smile than when you entered, Andrew is still doing a lot of things besides running his place. “I want to make a difference, I'm focusing on things that are going to benefit the bartender community. Educating the new generation. Supporting the people behind the brands…”

Without having to spur him in that direction, the conversation moves back to Cuba. “It's so important to help preserve Cuban bartending, the manner in which they go about their work. In the rest of the world, bartenders are annoyed when they have to make Mojito number 50. These guys, at Bodeguita del Medio for example, they can make between 600 and 900 a day. You can't expect bartenders from any other country to make as many of the same cocktail and still smile when they serve it. There's a certain charm behind drinking in Cuba. The guys there, they get it, they understand that people come to have that drink and they're grateful for the fact”. Cuban drinks are not the only source of inspiration for international bartenders… Cuban bars are like Dvars: you're coming for the drink, you'll come back for the smile.

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