Callooh Callay opened its doors back in 2008. An unassuming little bar (from the outside) down a side street in Shoreditch, Callooh Callay is known for its modern interpretations of traditional cocktails so it’s no surprise that the word soon spread that what was happening inside was really quite good. Not to mention that wardrobe that leads to a second bar. Fast forward a few years and it is a regular in ‘Best Bars in London’ (and beyond) lists and has just won “Best Cocktail Menu in the World” at the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail awards – pretty much the Oscars of the drinks world. We caught up with mixologist Nathan Shearer ahead of London Cocktail Week to find out what it takes to work at an award-winning cocktail bar and which bars he visits on his nights off.
What was the drink that first got you interested in cocktails?
I’m pretty sure I wanted to learn more about cocktails the first time I saw a bartender make a Mojito. My parents used to have friends over for “cocktail parties” and I was always the one trying to bartend and make the drinks.
You used to be a chef, how has that influence your style of bartending?
Using my old culinary background, I think I approach flavour in a more simple way. As a chef you use tried and tested flavour combinations a lot of the time that have been around for hundreds of years. It is then very easy to find alcohol which resembles these flavours. It does also encourage you to think outside the box a little bit, for example at Callooh Callay, there was a drink on the menu called the Popeye and Olive Oil. This was loosely based on a style of sweet pie that they make in Tuscany using almonds, spinach and pine nuts – not necessarily something that translates to a drink but we liked the flavours, so came up with a way to make it work in a drink using a spinach and pine nut orgeat, egg white and olive oil for texture.
If you were a drink what would you be and why?
I think if I was a drink I would be the humble daiquiri – it’s easy, approachable and accessible at all times of the day.
Where do you go on your nights off? It must be hard standing the other side of the bar or is it nice handing the cocktail shaker over once in a while?
On my nights off I like exploring new openings or visiting areas of london that I haven’t been to in a while. There is always so much going on in this city that you’re never stuck for something to do. But I do have my favourite places that I go to all of the time: Happiness Forgets, Satan’s Whiskers, Dandelyan and, if you’re feeling really fancy, The Savoy is always a good bet. In terms of handing the shaker over, I really don’t mind. I like being on the other side of the bar as well because you can watch others and learn from everything that they do, whether that be a different style, a new technique or just watching how they host people. It can be hard to switch off but I find that a few drinks always help.
Callooh Callay has won loads of awards – what do you think makes it stand out from the crowd?
To us, the awards are lovely and we’re very proud of them, but we do the same thing that every bar does; we put liquid in a glass and make sure the person in front of us is having the best time they possibly can. We have a very tight-knit and solid team which always helps bring atmosphere to the bar. We’re always having fun which then allows people to relax and enjoy themselves a bit more.
Is there such a thing as a ‘standard day’ at work for you? How much revolves around experimenting and prep for the night ahead?
There is a set pattern at Callooh with regards to setup and breakdown, I think that goes for any bar or restaurant though. Mise en Place [prep] is a very repetitive task but it is very necessary and sets you up for the shift ahead (which is anything but standard). When the doors open everything changes; no two nights are the same. It keeps things interesting and fresh and helps break up the routine of setup and breakdown. It is the best job on the planet as you get to meet loads of new people every single night and interact with them on a personal level. It’s fun – I wouldn’t do it otherwise. In terms of experimentation we are always trying to come up with new ideas for drinks or trying new techniques out, we have a lot of freedom of expression at Callooh Callay which allows us to be more creative. Nothing is off limits, we can pretty much go as out-there and experimental as we want (just so long as it doesn’t detract from the service).
You recently got to go to Mexico with Patrón, did you learn anything cool?
Going to Mexico was something I have wanted to do for a very long time and having the opportunity to be hosted by the amazing people at Patrón made the experience all the more enjoyable. The entire trip was brilliant and we saw a lot of cool stuff every day, but I think my favourite or most eye-opening moment was when we were taken to the enormous greenhouse where all of the spent fibre is composted and reused. It is so amazing to see a brand as big as Patrón care so much about the environment and give back to the local community.
Do you have a signature drink?
I don’t think there is one drink that I could say I have created and am known for. We all have a lot of drinks on various Callooh Callay menus and I have done a lot of events where the drink has been a signature serve but I don’t think any of them have become my signature.
Most frustrating request you receive?
This is always quite a loaded question as essentially we want the person paying for that drink to be as happy as possible and if they want to have a Margarita with soy sauce, raspberry and black pepper then I will do my best to make that happen. However, one thing that gets me every time is when someone asks to switch the style of glassware because “it isn’t manly enough” or “it’s too small”. If James Bond can enjoy his martinis out of a “small, girly” glass then the rest of us mere mortals surely can too.
Are there any big trends in the bar world at the moment and how does the London bar scene compare to the rest of the world?
Tea is really on trend right now, and rightly so. It is a versatile ingredient that can be used to infuse a spirit, make syrups or just add as an extra flavour component. I think London is the most exciting city in the world – it is so multicultural and there are influences from across the world. You can see it in the food and now you’re starting to see it in the drinks as well. I don’t mean to disparage other cities either, New York, Paris, Singapore, San Francisco are all at the top of their game as well, but London is my home so I feel slightly biased!
What makes a bartender great?
Being hospitable. Just be friendly and don’t take yourself too seriously. We’re not saving lives here, just have some fun.
We’re in Callooh Callay but only have time for one drink, what should we order?
Tricky one, depends on the time of day and season I guess. You can’t go wrong with New World Spritz; long, refreshing and lets you cling on to those old days of summer.
Top tip for making cocktails at home? Or should we just stick to a foolproof glass of wine?
Keep it simple and always remember that the experience of the cocktail that you loved so much in that bar is more than just a drink. It is the experience, the atmosphere, the music, the people and also the fact that someone else made it for you. Cocktails at home are great, but I always tell people to keep it as basic as possible to save on washing up and stress, especially if you’re entertaining. A big bowl of punch that you prep beforehand would be my go-to, and that way it frees you up to actually host the party.
Where in London do you go if you have a day off?
What’s a day off…! Depends on the day, there are so many markets around London that there is always something to do. I go and visit friends and also often end up at a lot of events. My schedule is always pretty full!
Any late night venues you go to on your way home from work?
We’re a late closing bar for Shoreditch so when we’re done there aren’t that many places still open for us to get a drink. On the weekends we have NOLA across the road from us which we will all run to if they’re still serving.
Nathan is doing a guest-shift at the Patrón Cocktail Lab in Spitalfields Markets Cocktail Village for London Cocktail Week, serving his cocktail Patrón City Lights. Catch other award-winning bartenders from Miami, Paris and beyond at the Patrón Cocktail Lab as they host various masterclasses, guest shifts and serve their specially created cocktails for one week only. See the London Cocktail Week website for more details.