Without question our favourite bar we ever graced here at The Holborn is the Hix Group’s Mark’s Bar in Soho. Often we have been found diving between it and the pub opposite vainly attempting to get in to a bar which is nearly always full. Normally at the third attempt either out of pity or in reward for our efforts the staff on reception upstairs at the Hix restaurant allow us to descend the stairs to the splendid mixture of delights that lay below.
So we sought out the man responsible for many of our wonderful, memorable nights with our friends (and inevitably empty wallets) to talk cocktails, the world of bars and the wonder of Mark’s.
That man is Lee Potter Cavanagh, an Australian who has worked in bars since the summer of 2001. Having spent his early days in nightclubs and beachfront bars he discovered a passion for working the bar when at Hugo’s Bar Pizza of Sydney fame in 2005. He has been working with HIX for almost two years since relocating to the UK . Previously Lee worked and managed some of Australia’s most awarded cocktail bars, including The Victoria Room, Lotus, Hemmesphere & The Rum Diaries. Lee is a highly decorated barman including amongst many 1st in the UK Bulldog gin competition 2012, top 4 UK Gin Mare competition 2012, 3rd in the Appleton Bartender Challenge UK 2012.
Where did your love of drink come from? When did it start?
Like most people in the industry you kind of just fall in to it, not a lot of people, especially of my vintage, choose it as a career. I was at University, it was a nice job that fitted around my schedule, I liked the idea as an 18year old of meeting girls, drinking for free and being allowed to bars that I wouldn’t normally be allowed to. It was about four years in before I worked at a really good cocktail bar in Sydney, meet some great guys, one of whom was from London. They taught me a lot and through them I learnt how much more there was to booze and cocktails, the history and so much more going on.
So those guys opened my eyes, before that I wasn’t a particularly sophisticated drinker, I didn’t really know much about alcohol, my family had never really been very educated drinkers. So I didn’t really grow up with much of a culture around drinking. I was then shown the world of sophisticated drinking and learnt the history of how we have drunk as human beings and from there I was hooked.
What was it like working in the Australian bar scene?
It has come a long way over the time I have been working there. I started around the time of the Olympics in Sydney. In Sydney people talk often about pre- and post-Olympics. Before the Olympics there really weren’t many sophisticated bars in Sydney and there also wasn’t the market for it, people just wanted a casual beer after work. Then after the Olympics style bars started opening, like the early vodka bars, then it grew with the internet as Australians had more access to knowledge and examples from London and New York. There was a really big boom, with lots of opportunities, to the extent that I’d say that now the bar scene is just as good as anywhere else in the world. I’d even say that in some ways Sydney’s bar scene is superior to London, though the design and fit outs of London’s bar is still world-leading, London does destination bars. Though in terms of quality of bar staff and drinks Sydney has it.
What inspired your move to London then?
Well I had this image and idea of London as this bar capital of the world, filled with the best bartenders and the best cocktails. Though it wasn’t when I got here, though still one of the best bar cities in the world. The real reason was to see the world, especially being from Australia, we hear so much about London and New York, these Meccas of our culture and I wanted to be part of it.
Also London being a centre of world trade you have access to some of best ingredients, it’s the little things like the quality of glassware or even of ice. In London even an average bar has great ice, where in Australia even the best bars have poor ice.
What makes a good drink?
What makes most of a good drink is the delivery by the person making it for you. Too often, and especially in London, the bartender focuses far too much on the drink, thinking of the history and tradition of this drink or this alcohol, on mixing in this particular way or how high they pour it. All these things and what they are forgetting about is the most important aspect and has always been the way, whether it’s a pint of larger or an exquisite cocktail, is customer service. It’s all about the person, making them feel comfortable rather than trying to intimidate them. A good bartender should sensibly ascertain your knowledge and tastes and make the drink fit around you.
And what makes a great bar?
Again hospitality and service is the most important thing. Then atmosphere, music, lighting, design, these things are really important. In the end the drink is only like 5% of what makes a great bar, its the icing on the cake. I’d much prefer to go to a amazing bar and just have a beer, than go to a really fancy bar and get treated like dirt and pay through the nose for a cocktail with crazy garnishes that I don’t even want.
What is your (and Hix’s) approach to sourcing ingredients for your drinks?
There are two aspects. Firstly, which is led by the restaurant, is picking British, regional and seasonal. We as much as we can try to match our drinks to the season and we also promote the best of British produce. We recently overhauled our beer selection and nearly all our beers come from London, mixing the history of brewing in the capital and the exciting new brewing scene. We do the same with spirits too, we have Black Cow Vodka now, a Dorset vodka made entirely from milk. It’s great having such supportive owners, who encourage us not to go chasing after the bigger brands for that extra few grand, and instead get us to pursue those products we know are great and which we think are cool. Its rare to be this size a company and still have that freedom.
The second aspect which I have pushed is to be quite scientific about what we consider the best. In the bar world in particular there is a culture of cool around certain products. Certain brands are pushed heavily and well and all of a sudden you see them everywhere. So what we do is to blind taste everything and try not to be swayed by marketing campaigns. We try to push people out of their comfort zones, so we don’t stock Jack Daniels, but if someone comes in and asks for one we’ve got another great Tennessee bourbon.
What do you look for in your Bar staff?
Definitely personality. I mean we need some seniors who have a good level of knowledge. We look for personality first, before experience. Alot of people do it the other way round and make lots of mistakes. You can train nearly anyone to make drinks, being a bartender is about much more than making drinks.
How does Hix stay competitive in a city awash with great bars?
By always focusing on service. That will never change with this industry, but it is the hardest thing to do and get right. If you stay on top of that, then irrespective of the quality of your drinks you’ll always have a fun full bar. We will still also keep pushing forward with our drinks, being creative and fun with a great team and having great ingredients. But service is always the focus, it’s something which seems like it should be natural but is far from that. We have a phrase for it, we aim for ‘Casual Excellence’.
MHG & LPC