Bartending is on the rise in South Africa. Where once punters needed to shell out a small fortune in a hotel bar for a decent cocktail, more and more trendy bars are offering more affordable signature drinks craftsmanship as a selling point.
Last week some of the country’s best drinks mixers descended on the trendy bar in Maboneng Precinct, The Living Room, to show off their skills as part of a promotion for the Tahona Society’s Collective Spirit Project competition.
The Tahona Society by Altos Tequila is more than just a mix and spin by SA’s top bartenders. It’s an initiative inviting bartenders to present plans that will not only boost customer bases, but will benefit bar staff, customers, the community and the environment.
This is one of the draws that brought Cassandra Eichoff to The Living Room. A bartender and general manager with eight years of experience in the business, she was drawn to the competition as she’s the manager of the European Bartending School in Cape Town, one of the premier mixing schools in the world. Her rise through the mixologist ranks has been nothing short of impressive.
“I moved to Stellenbosch in 2010 to study event management. I interned with quite a few companies to try out different roles. A company called Thirst Bar in Cape Town offered me a job as a staff manager,” she says.
“As a staff manager I realised really quickly that I wouldn’t be able to tell bartenders what to do unless I understood what they did – unless I became a bartender. That’s where it started – I put myself in their shoes.”
“That took around five years during which time I went from senior event manager to general manager, but then the offer from the European Bartending School as manager came through and I just couldn’t say no to that.”
The European Bartending School is a global company with branches in cities that boast the world’s hottest nightlife – New York, Miami, London, Rome, Paris and yes, Cape Town. The school’s curriculum is very widespread, with students being taught everything from the different spirit, wine and beer varietals, to tastings and mixing classes, to flare – flare being the practice plied by those bartenders who juggle bottles behind the bar like Tom Cruise did in the film ‘Cocktail’.
“It’s all about building towards a trade and building towards a craft,” Eichoff says. “But the guys do also get to learn a couple of cool tricks if they want to show off their showmanship. It’s about becoming the type of bartender you want to be.”
To that end, students – who incidentally come from all over the world to train at EBS – are put through their paces in an intensive four week course, which involves not only the aforementioned bar craft, but also soaking up Cape Town’s culture to get a grounding in the local drinking tastes.
“The course teaches the basic skills but we also incorporate a lot of cultural experiences, whether it’s a township tour, whether it’s a wine tours, whether it’s a visit to SAB, it can be literally everything and anything,” she says. “There’s a lot of spirit education, but there’s a big factor.”
“The course is very intense but I want students to experience what Cape Town is. Some of them fail, but they all walk away with a great knowledge of where they’ve been. A lot of them come back even if they fail.”
Even the students who flunk walk away with a fantastic CV. Eichoff says that due to the intensive nature of the course and EBS’s reputation, she’s heard stories of non-graduates getting jobs at Club Med. But she’s keen to stress that one of the things that makes South Africa’s bartender scene so strong is the fact that it’s a very strong community.
“Events like this,” she says gesturing to bartenders imbibing at the Living Room, “keep us grounded. We all know each other. We all love each other. We all support one another whenever we can.”
“I’m a fence-hopper. I jumped over here from Namibia and I wanted to be a part of something,” she says. “I’m willing to put the work in. I want to show other women it’s possible. At the end of the day we’re all striving to the same goal. It doesn’t matter what sex you are. Are you ready to start from the bottom? Go for it! You can do anything the guys can do.”
If Cassandra Eichoff isn’t running her own bartending empire within five years, I’ll be amazed.