Jake O'Brien Murphy

25 Jul. 2018
The Liverpool bartender on why drinks should be fun

We like to think of the Grand Prix’s bar team — the ladies and gents who make sure competitors have all they need and guests keep hydrated — as the best bar backs in the industry. The things we’re asking ourselves, though, is why bartenders with big careers of their own come all the way to Cuba to perform this thankless, exhausting task. Everyone’s got his own story. For Jake O’Brien Murphy, reasons range from the pragmatic (« The opportunity to come back to Cuba to juice some lime and carry some boxes is a pretty good deal ») to the irrational — if love is indeed irrational.
 
Jake has no qualms about it: he fell in love with Cuba. That happened two years ago, when he competed in the 2016 Grand Prix — he acquitted himself competently, and was one of the Finalists. « I was really excited to see Cuba as everyone sees it, you know, as a time capsule », he told us. « I quickly realized that there was a lot more to the country. There’s this weird divergence, this evolution of culture, with Western influences, but so vibrant and quintessentially Cuban… I think I fell in love with Cuban cocktail culture and its history ». When you fall in love, it changes everything. And so it did for Jake: « You know how tiny, baby bartenders are like », he quips (Jake doesn’t talk, he quips. All the time.) « They want to visit fancy bars, use fancy equipment, sport handlebar moustaches… » In Havana, the cantineros showed him a completely different way. « People talk about Japanese bartenders and how they fetishize every movement, how quietly professional they are… Cubans do that, they just don’t want to talk about it because it’s just too much effort », he quips again.
 
When he first visited Cuba, Jake had just recently made the move from his native Liverpool to London. There, he discovered a city that he calls a monster. « Every other week someone tells you about a new restaurant or a new bar and I think that keeping relevant is pretty difficult ». At Callooh Callay, where he spent two and half years, he got to work at a place that’s become an institution. « There, the thing that I most learned about was how to host people. In London, there’s a tacit agreement that drinks are good. 11 pounds is an hour of someone’s life. » In that context, with so much choice throughout the city, it becomes a question of offering a genuinely outstanding experience to the clients. « Why are you sat here when you could be at the American Bar? It’s all about validating people’s choice to be here. Callooh taught me how to do that. Our clients’ night out matters ».
 
Having recently left Callooh Callay, Jake is now ready to embark on a project of his own, back home in Liverpool. A lot of London-based bartenders are actually from the north of England, he told us. And with Callooh’s General Manager Simon Thompson, they wondered if some of that talent couldn’t be better used somewhere else. « Simon is from Newcastle, I’m obviously from Liverpool. We love London. We love the bars in London…. But we asked ourselves why the Northern contingent is coming to London when it’s so expensive. The footfall is there, people are always going to visit but we wanted to do something closer to home, showcasing northern hospitality and what northern cities can do ».
 
The bar has no name yet. Last time we talked, Jake and Simon didn’t even have a location. But their concept is quite clear — they have after all tested the waters in London with their short-lived (but very well thought of) Horatio Street Social Club. It builds on what Jake learned both at Callooh and, dare we say, in Havana. « It just revolves around one question: How do we improve people’s night? Making people happy is much better that going on about citric acid and amaro. When you look at some menu, you need a lexicon of bartender jargon to get it. At Horatio Street, we just used descriptors. We want it to be accessible to the neophyte ».
 
A sensible approach in a city with a cocktail scene that’s still in its infancy — although it is growing. But why Liverppol, beyond the fact that it’s Jake’s hometown? « I genuinely love where I’m from, » he explains. « People are kind and friendly here. The most exciting thing about Liverpool is how locals get excited to show people things in town. If you haven’t seen something they’re proud about, they’ll show you. That pride bleeds into hospitality. We just want to make a really, really good cocktail bar in a nice city ». With great drinks but most of all great hospitality, right? « Drinks should be fun, man », Jake concludes. And for once he doesn’t quip: fun is something our favourite Scouse is deadly serious about.

François Monti