Somewhere in the weather-worn hills of the Scottish inner islands, watching the clouds roll over glen and fell, is our Scotland Chair, Adam McLellan. While his station on the Isle of Islay sounds like a lonely one, the most northerly representative of the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild is keeping himself busy – and helping further our organisation! Find out more about Adam in our blog!
Originally from Glasgow, raised in Paisley, Adam McLellan by his own admission does not come from a family of legendary industry folk. Nor does he have a deep relationship with local bars or distillers. “I’m just a normal guy from a normal place.” Humble words from a chap with over twenty years experience behind the stick, his own gin brand – Jukebox Gin – and accompanying tasting masterclass which has now become the training standard aboard Cunard’s cruise fleet.
What attracted you to bar work, and what path did your career take?
I wouldn’t say I was particularly drawn to bar work, I kinda fell into it just by chance. But once I was there, there was no getting me out. At 18, I was taught how to juggle from a friend. When I started work at a TGI Fridays kitchen, from time to time I used to entertain my colleagues by juggling knives! Even though I started as a chef at this point, I had a growing ‘cocktail curiosity’ and had my eye on the bar.
TGI’s Bar Manager caught sight of me throwing knives about the kitchen – “like an idiot,” as he said, and swiftly arranged for me to move over to the bar. I was in heaven. I had never seen anything like it! The drinks, the atmosphere and the flair was incredible. I had found my happy place. The struggle to memorise all the recipes and learning to free pour was real! The first few years behind a bar was nothing but hard work, lots of laughs and very late nights.
Like a lot of us in this sector, we tend to bounce around from bar to bar and maybe city to city honing our skills while looking for the next big step in our journey. I had no idea what that next big step would be until I found it. Over the course of 15 years I tended bar in Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow in various positions before taking a job on a luxury cruise ship where I met some wonderful people, had world class training and had the best life experiences a guy could ever wish for.
I’ve self-trained along the way, reading book after book while doing the usual WSET courses in wine, spirits & sake. In the early days I did some flair competitions but soon learned I was better at mixology. In 2010 I managed to win the Bartender of the Year award in Liverpool and took ownership of the Fastest Mojito in the City award – 19 seconds! I’m not dripping in awards but hugely proud of what I have got.
Right now, I’m pouring whisky at a little place on Islay while growing my own gin brand. It’s funny how things work out when you don’t have a plan to follow!
What’s been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
It’s hard especially when your young and your work is a party. The off switch doesn’t seem to exist. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of good people who let the party get on top of them and end up burning out. nAlso climbing the corporate ladder is way harder than it needs to be. Maybe I was working for the wrong companies, but the level of support offered to young people looking to rise up was almost non-existent. I won’t name and shame, but I do believe things have gotten better since my day.
What advice do you have – maybe a lesson from your own life – for young people looking to start and maintain a serious career in the bar sector?
Never give up! Work hard! Don’t let those above you take the p***! The bar game’s not for the delicate. It’s tough out there – a high pressure environment where late nights and alcohol are involved. Sometimes you’ll have supervisors or managers who’ll take a dislike to you even though you’re nice as pie and you’ll feel like it’s just completely pointless to keep going on. Stick at it with a smile and move on to better pastures as soon as you can but don’t quit without a better job to go to.
Prior to the pandemic, what do you think have been the problems facing the sector that have persisted and may continue to persist after the pandemic is over?
As always the never ending problem is low pay. Bartending isn’t classed as a skilled job – disgustingly – and that is reflected in the minimum wage. The hours that some employers expect for labour and minimum breaks is brutal. But to be honest I think there are bigger problems for the bar industry than the pandemic – Brexit. Also Scottish independence, no matter your view on it, if it happens I’m sure that’ll bring a whole new set of challenges.
Tell us a bit about your gin!
We’re called Jukebox Gin. It’s a London dry gin distilled on the Isle of Islay. Our name Jukebox is a reference to options, if you think of a music jukebox having all sorts of music for all sorts of tastes, we’ve made a gin that mixes well with a multitude of different mixers & cocktails. With Jukebox gin, you decide what the perfect serve is for you. We are aiming to be thought of as a ‘normal’ gin, a traditional quality clean tasting gin. Nothing too fancy.
I think we have a beautiful bottle with an incredibly versatile liquid inside so that’s good enough for me.
Of course, setting up a brand during a pandemic presented many challenges – waiting weeks for email replies was the most frustrating. Dealing with local council and HMRC – I don’t think I’d need to explain how difficult that can be! But a challenge very specific to us is our location. The logistics of setting up a distillery on a small island are significantly harder than they would be on the mainland!
Our whole ethos is putting the power back into the consumers hands. It’s not that I don’t believe in the “perfect serve” – its that I know that everyone’s idea of ‘perfect’ is different. We want to encourage people to create their own idea of the “perfect serve” and share it with our community.
What are the unique challenges with running hospitality in Scotland?
We all have the same supplier issues, same licence issues, same staffing issues. The Scottish hospitality sector has taken a hard beating in the last two years. While the recovery is slow, the Scottish Government have been quite supportive by launching a recruitment campaign and creating apprenticeships for those looking to join the sector.
The trouble in my opinion is that all the best, highly acclaimed (and well paid) bar positions are down in London. We have lots of top venues up here but if you want to make a name for yourself on the world stage, then you need to be in London. It’s like in football, if you want to get anywhere as a player you have to play for a big club. I think that the UKBG needs to be doing more national events IN Scotland and bringing the London crowd up here frequently to compete. I believe that over time this will generate a stronger training and development programme in Scottish venues.
This is something that I’m working on at the moment and will continue to do going forward.
What do you see as the key role that UKBG needs to play in the lives and businesses of British bartenders?
I think the Guild needs to be the go-to platform for bartenders in the UK when they need to find a specific contact, business, training programme or a competition. We have a lot of bridges to build on our journey to that place, but we are moving in the right direction. Our National Cocktail Competition is ongoing and with that, connections are growing all around the country.
Thanks to our partners we can offer a whole range of discounts on trainings, tastings, tours and seminars with much more on the horizon. There’s never been a better time to join the UKBG and take advantage of this fast-growing community. Our main focus it the betterment of the UK bartenders talent pool as a whole and we are working very hard to ensure that everyone who works with us also enjoys great success and growth as a result.
Why do you think being a UKBG member is important?
We live in a world of connections now, social media has given us more access to strangers than we ever needed. However, being a member of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious guild has much more to offer than just connections. We are a network of industry leaders from all walks of life who can and will support every single other member of the guild. There’s so much to be gained from using our lifelong members knowledge & experience to your benefit and as we continue to grow our already sparkling list of industry legends, you will see even more benefits to take advantage of. Not only in the UK but all across the world.