No one in the Beijing bar scene has mixed professionalism and patience – an attention to the tricks of the trade and a tolerance of the typical consumer – like Paul Mathew over the past four years. (And I say that as someone who on very rare occasions might be described as a high-maintenance imbiber.) From his time at Flamme to his involvement in the Diageo World Class bartender championships, Mathew has left quite a mark on the scene. As he bid cheerio to our fair city, I posed a few questions about his time here.
You’ve been in Beijing for four years. What’s the biggest difference between the bar scene then and now?
As a bartender, we have a lot more to play with now. The number of new products that has arrived in Beijing in that time is astonishing. There has also been an increase in respect for bartending as a profession –- decent bartenders are really in demand now, and many of the guys I meet these days are in it for the long-term, wanting to develop their skills and careers. Customers are more informed and expect more too.
And what’s the biggest difference between the scenes in Beijing and London?
Londoners really like a drink! Beijing bars tend to be a little more relaxed and laid back.
Expatriates love to make fun of baijiu as an alternative to gasoline but there are well-made ones out there. What are you favorites?
Erguotou is great for mixing –- it has flavours you can easily draw out and accentuate, but nothing too overpowering. I’ve been working with Shuijingfang quite a bit recently (through work at Diageo) and have grown to like that, but it’s a bit pricy for mixed drinks. I just like trying new ones really -– there’s a huge variety out there, all with very different characters.
Remember when you placed a frozen apple juice ball on a ship-shaped garnish, drowned it in tequila and thus created Titanic II? Where in your top five list of all-time life experiences does that rank? First? Second?
Definitely one of the more memorable drinks (mainly because you keep reminding me about it). That’s what a drink ought to be though – when you’re at a bar you’re paying for an experience, not just a drink. Hopefully you got a drink you liked as well as one that was memorable!
What local ingredients have you found in China, or in Beijing even, that you have been able to use in cocktails? If you had to pick one as a favorite, what would it be?
I love using yangmei, particularly with gin, but unfortunately the season is really short. I love pomelo too, and it has also been fascinating to use Sichuan pepper and teas as well — one of the most fun has been kudingcha — incredibly bitter tea that I always add a few twists of to my bitters recipes now.
You’re involved in the Diageo World Class bartender championships. It seems the candidate pool grows exponentially every year. What drives this interest in cocktails?
Bartending is becoming quite a respected profession in China now. There is a lot of demand from all the bars and restaurants that are opening, so pay is decent and the opportunities for international travel and career development are growing as the brands promote themselves.
What’s the most creative cocktail you have seen in the World Class competition?
We had a few people creating ‘multi-sensory’ experiences –- using blindfolds on the judges, then playing music, spraying aromas and asking them to taste the drink before looking at the presentation, but one of my favourites was in Shanghai where a bartender dressed in full-on Jack Sparrow and created a rum-punch worthy of a pirate! It was served on a galleon with accompanying lobster garnish. Awesome.
How about the most disturbing?
There was one in an array of medical glassware that made me hope it wasn’t secondhand.
Remember the Buffalo Wing Martini? Do you think it would have worked better if the wings had been infused in Ketel One vodka?
I’m not sure it could work better, and I’d rather not try.
You compete in triathlons. What is your favorite post-race drink?
I always think I want a martini while I’m racing, but get to the end and can only face a lager-shandy.
If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring bartender in Beijing, what would it be?
Enjoy your work –- a drink made with passion and enthusiasm always tastes better than one mixed with boredom and apathy –- and you’ll have more fun.
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